Dear Toni

Dear Toni

I broke down in class last week when I was reading out this piece by a student. I haven’t wept in class before. I have caught myself just short of breaking down (sometimes unsuccessfully) while saying goodbye to students in the last class. But never like this, never in the middle of reading a piece. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if the piece wasn’t written by a student. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if she had never sat in my classes, if I had never watched her write, if I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I did, and I do. I am making excuses after all. I have always cried after reading her, sometimes privately, and now I can say publicly as well. She wrote things that aren’t easy to write. I cried because she was walking around with everything she hadn’t written until she wrote that piece, I cried because I don’t know what else she is still carrying.

I could have stopped reading, told the students to read it on their own, switched my camera off and composed myself. But I kept going, I don’t know why. I think she made me keep going. And I pray she keeps me going.

I once cried at Meta when a girl student had yelled at me under the banyan tree in college. I didn’t know what to do. But I just kept thinking, if I were a man, or a tall & pretty Savarna teacher with perfect teeth, sharp nose, and bright wide eyes, I wouldn’t be crying under the banyan tree. Maybe I would, I don’t know – but it’s unfair – this desire to know what it would’ve been like if I was Savarna. After all, how often does a Savarna teacher spend time thinking about what it’s like to be a Dalit teacher?

And also – I don’t like feeling that way. Because I know that if I were Savarna, I wouldn’t have been able to read Beloved the way I did and let it live inside me like it now does. There is a reason you write the way you do and when I’d finished reading Beloved, I felt closer to you in a way I wouldn’t have been able to feel if I were Savarna.

I don’t know if I’d have not cried if it were a boy yelling at me, not a girl. Because boys and their words have a way of hiding behind my teeth and making me angry and sour, never sad. The girl returned after months with two roses and an apology. I smiled and accepted all three. Then I wondered if I shouldn’t have, then I was happy that I had. Will I ever reach a stage where I’ll be confident about the choices I’ve made? Will I ever know what to do immediately? Will I ever have it in me to not cry, not be angry? But why should I not cry? What will I do with all that strength it takes to not cry? Where in my body will I keep so much strength? So much self-respect? So much control? I don’t have that much space in my body for that kind of control.

***

I have been waking up early, not to write oh but how I wish I could. I have been waking up early to look at the sky and think of you. I had read that you woke at 4 to make coffee and watch the light come. It’s how you knew that you were ready to write each day. That you didn’t have to be in the light, you had to be there before the light with coffee to know you were ready to write. I loved the sound of that so much that I have been waking early to watch the sun come up, to look at the way it touches the tree outside my door, and to think of you. Thinking of you makes me want to get ready to write.

I don’t know how it’s possible but your belief in storytelling, in the stories your parents told you, about themselves, and the world is how I see mine. I think it’s not easy for Savarna people to understand this or to even take this seriously. And I am learning to live with that. Because their inability to see love and stories makes me never want to give up on myself.

Today, I woke at 4:30 from a dream I wanted to urgently return to so I went back to finish it (Possessed teddy bear-owl with flapping, beating wings is going nuts in my room. Doesn’t leave me alone so I dump it in the trash outside. It becomes a baby and sits on the windowsill cackling at me before jumping to its death and returning again to my bedroom to haunt me. Basically this is Clifford Geertz + Mixer Week + Google Meet+ Online classes)

And when I woke up again, it was 5:59 and I felt like the day was already over, that I was too late. Then I really woke up, told myself to fuck off and begin the day (take trash out, bring milk, put it to boil, put bread in the oven, boil water, make coffee)

After that crying episode, I was afraid the students wouldn’t take my classes seriously anymore. That because of this ’emotional’ outburst, I have shown them that my intellectual relationship with the subject at hand (Resisting caste) has been compromised.

But then I thought, wtf – a teacher moved to tears because of something her student has written is nothing to be ashamed of. If there are teachers who have cried teaching Shakespeare, then A. Suresh is no less than Shakespeare. But it will be used against me, I know that. Someday, when I am least expecting it, it is going to come back and bite me.

So yes, bite me.

“I am not interested in happiness. Not yours, nor mine nor anybody’s. I don’t think we can afford it anymore. I don’t think it delivers the goods. Most important, it gets in the way of everything worth doing. Happiness has become a bankrupt idea, the vocabulary of which is frightening: money, things, protection, control, speed, and more. I’d like to substitute something else for its search. Something urgent, something neither the world nor you can continue without. I assume you have been trained to think- to have an intelligent encounter with problem-solving. It’s certainly what you will be expected to do. But I want to talk about the step before that. The preamble to problem-solving. I want to talk about the activity you were always warned against as being wasteful, impractical, hopeless. I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one. Not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision. Entrance into another’s space, someone else’s situation, sphere. By dreaming, the self permits intimacy with the Other without the risk of being the Other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action. We are in a mess, you know; we have to get out, and only the archaic definition of the word “dreaming” will save us: “to envision; a series of images of unusual vividness, clarity, order, and significance.”

~Toni Morrison~

When I read this from your Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address, I had a warm desire to hear you and Babasaheb talk to each other. I grew hungry to have you both in my belly, walk into a classroom and roar, walk to my table and write my heart out.

Someday, it will happen. I can feel it gathering in my fingertips.

Image credits: Speakola

Featured image credits: nytimes.com

Q for Qualification

Art by EV Anil
   Art by EV Anil

I’m thinking about what you were doing now, at this moment, in 1918. When you were teaching at Sydenham College, and students liked your classes but you weren’t allowed to drink water from the same jug as your colleagues. What did you do, Baba? I am haunted by which of these scenes you carried back home everyday. I am haunted by what you thought of, how you worked, what you did in powerless situations, how you picked up the stone. I want to work like you did. I want to write like you did. You had fire in your words & people are still lighting pataki with them.

When you got ready for work the next day, were you comforted by the prospect of meeting students who liked your classes or demotivated by that jug of water? What did you do after a bad class? What did you do when you were asked to prove your worth again & again?

I find little respite from watching this scene in a film about you. Before you walked into the classroom, there were whispers about your qualification & unfitness to teach. You told them calmly – “If any of you feel like I am not qualified to teach you, and would like to leave, feel happy to do so now” – and I felt lit up from within.

I wish I’d said that one morning in 2016. I wish I knew you in 2015. I wish I’d put your picture up on the wall next to my table in 2014. How powerless & hopeless those times were when I didn’t know you & your words. I was once accused of not being qualified to teach. And I let myself down by believing it was true. My degrees didn’t come to my rescue then- your words did. And now I know that you are the only qualification I’ll ever need. You know what’s funny though? When I put your picture up, they all ran away, Baba. They left skid marks.

I keep hunting for books that can give me anecdotes about you but most of them only have text-book type information. If I wanted that, I’d go back to school. But I want to know other things about you – what were you like when you were in love, Baba? What letters did you write when you were in love? What was your first kiss like? What did you like playing on the violin? Why did you not like eating? What’s with the three fishes only deal? What made you laugh? Did you like dogs or cats or both? Where did you get your suits stitched from? How did you manage to keep your giggles inside when people yammered on about Savarna merit?

I’ll tell you something funny now. That story of you falling into an ash pit from a tree & how people called you Boodisaheba & you told them “Lol, screw you peeps, I’ll be Babasaheb someday” is my favourite. I tell it to people all the time.  Some of them have very seriously come to me & said “You know that didn’t happen no?” – and I laugh out loud. Siddalingaiah knows it happened, you know it happened, I know it happened. Who are these other people & why are they after our joys?

Baba, sometimes I feel very lost & I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I take forever to notice when I am being humiliated. And when I do, it’s too late – moment’s passed, they’ve gone & I feel like throwing stones at nothing. I can’t always think on my feet & this scares me. Sometimes I forget to remember you, especially in moments when it’s all I should do to feel powerful – I still forget, and then I sit & curse myself. It’s only now that I am learning to shut up & work & not worry about responding.

I like wearing suits now because of you. Appa still wears them all the time, like Ajja used to wear them all the time. I think Appa thinks they are like sweaters. He feels warm. I used to laugh at him but now that I also wear them, I know where the warmth comes from.

Image credits: Art by EV Anil

T for Teaching

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This one is hard but it’s about love so it’s also easy. I am here somewhere, with my students. Behind us, on a screen is a black & white photo of Joan Didion. It was my idea to have her there. Let’s take a picture & send it to her, I told them. And they indulged me, like they always have.

We read a lot of Didion this semester. We memorized words on Self-respect, hoping it would give us some. We watched her on screen as she moved from one beautiful shot to another, we watched as she called herself wife – never quite becoming one, we watched as she became a widow – never quite seeming like one. And as always, I came out learning more than I taught.

Something the English Department is always accused of is all play, no work. We apparently only screen films in our classes and do nothing else. How cute. If that accusation was worth dignifying with a response, I’d have done that long ago. But as Prof. AM always reminds me, ‘Our work is our defence’ & that seems enough of a response – for now, and forever.

But I’ll tell you why I like watching things with students – half the time I am not even watching the screen, I am watching their faces. I want to see the little things that delight them, I want to know what makes them smile, what makes them forget their phones, what makes them laugh like lizards coming out of nowhere suddenly. And it’s what I am also hungrily looking for when we read & write together. I’ve had my share of miseries with students, yes. But what I’ve also had is their friendship & their laughlets.

I wouldn’t know what teaching is without stories, without laughing, without rain. And in my mind, I am forever teaching in the way Machado’s The Husband Stitch is narrated. I’ve gotten royally burnt for being so ambitious but I will never stop.

And today, I am grateful for never having stopped – even on the darkest days, when there was no rain, even when I felt like quitting & running away, even when I was empty of stories, even when I was made to believe that I suck at this. And there are days when I really really do, but it’s never enough to make me want to give up. Ambedkar’s blood y’all. And for most other days, there’s chai.

V for Veil

Apart from Lihaaf, the other Ismat Chugtai story I often return to is ‘The Veil.’ It has the most memorable image of a man fleeing his bride because she is too shy to lift her Veil on the wedding night, and he is too afraid to do it himself. I’m fascinated by why I remember ‘The Veil.’ Sometimes, it’s the bride’s momentary courage to not lift her hands to please the groom. Sometimes it’s the groom’s voice as it moves (in the most humane way anything can) from a request to an order to eventually cries of pleas.

But what I’m most curious and delighted about is the window from which he jumps out twice. And what are veils if not windows? For the first time in a story written by a woman, I’m more smitten by a man who is so afraid, that he isn’t afraid of running away – twice. He’s the only man I know who has made the most accurate use of windows. Someday, I wish I have half the courage that Kale Mian did.

Tagging this under #DalitHistoryMonth because when my UC feminist teacher taught me this story, I had no language, no eye to look at the man in this story. It was not considered important. And I didn’t think to ask, to wonder, to keep looking. The luxury and tragedy of Savarna Feminism is that it has never been honest with itself. It doesn’t deal with male vulnerabilities derived by caste and religion because then its job would never be over. And my tragedy is that after discovering Ambedkar and Savitrimai, I find it increasingly difficult to trust an ethic that is afraid of hard work.

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Meta Diaries – 2020: Part one

Meta is 8-years-old❤️
Here are some thoughts after 2 days.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of energy and education it takes to recognize when you are being humiliated. I don’t have very many feelings about Kumbalangi Nights but a scene I find myself returning to over and over again is the hair salon one in the film. It’s an eerily familiar scene – it shows you how without your knowledge or consent, you become trapped in a conversation with people who smile and ‘know’ things about you – things like your ability, qualification, merit, and caste.

A verdict is passed – if you disagree with them, they will look at you like you’re crazy. But of course, it is done with so much poise and dignity that you are bound to ask yourself if you imagined their bad behavior, if it’s even possible that someone who was kind enough to give you time and smile at you can have evil thoughts. For those of you who haven’t watched the film, you just need to revisit a scene from your everyday life where you’ve had to confront the hollow of powerlessness you feel in your stomach when someone with little to no authority seems to derive another kind of ‘more important’ authority from elsewhere. And indeed – it’s why they know they can get away with anything – they are safe in that authority, protected by a sense of knowing what to say when, knowing when they are being humiliated so they are always ready to give it back to you. What is this authority and where do they get it from? Caste.

I am most curious about how it meanders through at places of work. When you don’t know you are being humiliated, how do you defend yourself? Not that knowing you are being humiliated is any kind of a blessing. But how is it possible to work if you are defending it all the time? Where must one get the energy to do this everyday? These are some questions I have been obsessed with year after year.

February is perhaps the only month when I temporarily suspend these questions. It’s because February is the only month in the year when I work most with students. And because these are students who come to February and its synonym – Meta with the same kind of madness that I do, there isn’t much room for humiliation of that kind.

This year, Meta began for me when Alung Inpuihrwan, our student from Manipur sang Raghu Dixit’s ‘Munjane Manjalli’ at the inauguration. He owned the song in a way that I haven’t seen anybody own anything in a long time. When I think of how those with power in the country and elsewhere are swallowing every little space that belongs to students, I want to think of Alung who stood under the banyan tree, and sang in a language that he made his by putting into it every bit of music he could gather from his stomach. Even if this moment was later hijacked by organisational hiccups, Alung’s song is stamped in my memory.

At the end of Day one, it struck me that Meta’s tragedy is that it is so big in our imaginations that it doesn’t register simple realities like spaces suddenly becoming unavailable. It’s also somewhat of its silly charm that despite this, it will continue to produce moments, and give us invitations to look at students differently – which is what we need now more than ever.

This was written on 6 Feb 2020. Part two will be up soon.

Happy birthday, Savitrimai!

Happy birthday, Savitrimai!

Happy Teachers’ Day to the woman who fought quietly, and knew that carrying an ‘extra’ saree in her bag was revolution enough. Celebrating this occasion on any other day is reinstating fixation with what my friend calls a ‘Savarna work ethic’ which is to give what’s needed and withhold the most important part of you for yourself – whether it’s time, energy or love – Savarna work ethic runs under the assumption that whatever you are giving to work is somehow ‘more than enough’, everything else is ‘extra’

Reminds me of the sweet, studious, Brahmin girls from school who would never share their notes, and who just had to leave school at exactly 3:00 PM even if there was drama practice, or extra curricular work to do. They ran back home to study and wouldn’t let anything get in the way. It’s powerful in its own right but establishes a sad limitation on how much you are allowed to give (in love and work) – nahi chahiye, beda.

Savitrimai went to work everyday and walked amidst literal name-calling and cow-dung-slinging. People waited outside her house armed with cow-dung to throw at her. She never stopped going, she never stopped working, didn’t even pause to defend herself, or even attack back. She carried an ‘extra’ saree and changed when she got to school. On her way back, she wore the morning saree because they were still standing with cow-dung, waiting for her return. I never get tired of telling this story because it has power and charm and endless lessons on revolution.

Savarna work ethic is sometimes just standing with cow-dung. The answer to that is to keep walking, to keep working and to keep an extra change of clothes in your bag. We need it now, we needed it yesterday, and we need it tomorrow.

Here’s an old piece I wrote on Maltirao Baudh who sang beautifully about Savitrimai.

Knowing and Unknowing

At some point in 2015, I became very comfortable with the idea that teaching is an autopilot thing. That it was enough if I had read a text/poem/short-story once – no matter how long ago it was – that it would be enough if I remembered it. Teaching was – more than anything else, remembering. And sometimes only that.

I woke up in 2018 accidentally, when for an Arts and Culture Journalism class, I had to read Pauline Kael again, but this time – I fell for her. I noticed a lot of things that I had barely paid attention to the first time. Her words made me hungry to write like that and I felt very alive. So I spent an hour before class that day drinking pleasure out of her Bonnie and Clyde essay and then making notes on the white board in the small media lab. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and it was a very unusual feeling. It’s sadly the only hour in seven years where I think I actually did well.

The preparation that went into that hour was eerily close to the preparation that went in for a class on Metonymy and Synecdoche three years ago. But that lecture was a disaster even if the pleasure was similar. I had just begun to understand the concepts but not enough to teach them. A lot of things had gone wrong but that hour taught me to measure my own learning before I did anything else with it.

And the Pauline Kael class taught me how to measure my learning. I learnt that in order to know what I was saying, I needed to perform a different kind of remembering – a more reliable kind – something that even students could take pleasure in seeing. This kind of remembering was easier because I only had to figure out what the element of pleasure was but it was also trickier and more difficult because this meant I also had to convince students that this kind of learning was valuable. And it’s only now that I can say – I cannot convince them without knowing enough.

I am paying attention to this because it is distressing to notice that students who are very aware of their learning, whose faces light up when I begin to talk about a poem lose interest because I am unable to go beyond a point. And I want very much to complete that circle of learning for them and that circle of teaching for me – simply because they are interested.

In Seattle, I was a student again- furiously taking notes because I was afraid I would forget something that had made too much sense to me, that if I don’t immediately write it down, it would be lost, and the world would be a distressing place to live in again.

That was how I learnt and now, it’s how I want to teach.

I am beginning to see the 50 mins that I spend in the classroom with students as time I’ll never get back, not even if it’s the same class the next day. I have to give this all I have, no matter how many times I return to it later.

***

Teaching Creative Writing is becoming more and more challenging. To begin with, I have to get over my own boredom with using old materials. I stick to Deepak Bhat’s Monsoon memories because its lessons are plenty and liberating. And I want to continue sticking to that. But I think I am becoming a little disillusioned with my own comfort with speaking about writing because writing has been the hardest this year, and so speaking about it has been hard too.

The Dalit and Bahujan literature classes were difficult to teach this semester. It kept me on my toes for several reasons. For once, it made me return to Ambedkar every week. And I learnt a lot but had no idea where to put it or how.

And then I also saw that this is a class where I’d have assumed the auto-pilot method to work very well but it’s the only class where an auto-pilot method will never work because it’s difficult to talk about Ambedkar first as a Dalit man, a leader, a political figure and then to make students see the other Ambedkar – the sexy writer. And I can never do this from memory. I can only do it from a place of reverence and playfulness both of which are difficult to produce week after week without having read Ambedkar every day.

This semester, I read Maggie Nelson, Ali Smith, Natalia Ginzburg, and Miranda July but I don’t know what it means if I haven’t felt the desire to take them to classes yet but have enjoyed reading them very much. Maybe this has a lot to do with my realisation that teaching and writing are not on auto-pilot anymore and this scares me but it also makes me feel like an adult with real problems.

I now realise that the only writer I have consistently read over this year is Ambedkar and I am looking forward to approaching him as a creative writing teacher next semester.