Merit and my middle finger

This is a cartoon of Dr. Ambedkar that I return to very frequently these days. In it, Dr. Ambedkar is making way for sweepers (I assume this is Eeran’s way of depicting Dalit people) to enter the parliament; and is holding a rolled up paper that says Constitution. We know he is Dr. Ambedkar because of these things, yes but also because we know those glasses, that endearing rotundness of the belly that in other more humane depictions – holds capacity for big, shattering laughter. What’s supposed to shock us is that he is wearing a janeu, carrying gomutra (?), and blessing a line of Brahmin men at his feet.

He is referred to as the modern manu in one place and ‘our new brahmin’ in another. 

Context – this illustration was published in Filmindia in 1950, a little after the Hindu Code Bill and twenty three years after the Mahad Satyagraha where Manusmriti was first publicly burnt. The depiction of Dr. Ambedkar as a brahmin here is to issue a threat. To brahmins, yes but they are threatened by everything so let’s not go there. 

The threat here is issued also to the other ‘real’ Dalits. The ones real enough to be naked, starving, and dead. Because obviously, if you are literate, dress in suits, speak english, and have expensive tastes, bro are you even Dalit? This is the picture that began it all. Some call it the Savarna gaze, I call it more impetus to keep working.

While reading Babasaheb for the first time can open doors, give one the freedom, and the permission to reimagine oneself differently, it also makes one aware of the other door that is closed. One that only he can open. It’s the door I’m most curious about because the urge to know him more intimately can only be dissolved there. To know what worries he took home from work and back to work, how he worked, where he sat, what he ate, and how he dealt with distasteful reactions to his work. I tell myself that it isn’t necessary to know him like that. That his work is the way to know him and that it’s enough and it’s all there is to know and learn from really. But on some days, when the noise from outside pours in and I can’t hear myself or bring myself to read his words, I feel an itch to feel with my finger, the exact line of crease on his forehead, that line of worry and what he did to smoothen it out. 

He worked his way out, yes. But in that moment of absolute disgust when he found himself amidst attacks like the one above, whether savarna or otherwise – how did he overcome the paralysis of finding oneself in a state of distrust, inaction, and aggression?

The chilling fact about the Ambedkar cartoons is that they are all ridiculous depictions of him while he is at work. That’s where it hits savarna ego the most – that while you are at work, you take space, that your body is full of work and work full of your body and when they walk in pinching their noses, the stench of your work nauseates them.

Just his presence in the parliament was enough to threaten the cabbages who were barely interested in what actually happened in the parliament. Most of the cartoons are wordless depictions of Ambedkar. Quite obviously so. Ambedkar’s language is so precise that no savarna worth his salt can imitate it. So they put in all their bitterness into making his belly bellier but didn’t know how to make him look dimwitted so they gave him little to no speech.

It’s perhaps in these cartoons that we learn most about Ambedkar’s work ethic simply because it’s here in these cartoons that we see the acidic hatred towards him and his work. What surrounds these cartoons is Ambedkar’s silence and the resolve to not be distracted by cow dung when there is so much work to be done. Another version of Savitiri Mai’s extra saree if you will.

The lesson to learn from this is if you are a Dalit who reads and writes in English, who may not be as willing to share her pornography of caste violence with the world, who chases joy deliberately, persistently, madly – then there is a line of people waiting to take away your SC certificate. It’s a funny, funny world. If you want to survive, you have to prove to one set of savarna cabbages that your merit is hard earned and real. And to the other set of cabbages that despite your merit- you are still suffering. Any evidence of joy, confidence, stability means you are brahmin.

Either way, you are more convincing as a Dalit if you are dead. Don’t be alive, that’s all they are asking. And by chance, if you are alive: don’t look happy, don’t read, don’t write, and definitely not in English. Then, when they are satisfied that your suffering is authentic, then they will give you a real Dalit certificate. 

I dreamt of Babasaheb last night. He was wearing a suit, smoking a very expensive cigar, drinking single malt whiskey from a polished glass. His glasses were there, so was his belly. We were in a room full of books. We talked about work, food, love, and old letters. He told me to tell you ‘Nimduke certificate namduke beda’ (I don’t need your certificate)

To know more about this cartoon and others like it, please read No Laughing Matter : The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932–1956 by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

Throwing Chalk!

I have a new column at The Third Eye called Throwing Chalk (courtesy thechasingiamb, saadanam kayil)

I wrote the first essay in April, right about the time when second wave hit Bangalore. The first draft came apart like the jockey underwear I got 7- years ago. Only I knew about the holes but my editors are so smart that they also saw it and said ey this is nice but show that other one. So I wrote the second one, much tighter but also with holes that were easily darnable. I enjoyed writing this very much.

It feels like everything I need to say is inside me and I just have to sit long enough to perform some inner digging to get them all out. Writing has become very bodily these days. And I am learning to pay attention to how literal it is, how much of the body is in it. Grateful for this.

The essay is illustrated by the supremely talented Priyanka Paul whose amazing hand I want to kiss and do long dances with. Here is her glorious work:

You can read my column here.

High on LSD tomorrow

Comrades and Comradies,

My lou for The Open Dosa, Paromita Vohra and Agents of Ishq is coming in full force tomorrow at the Love, Sex, and Data conference. Banni. In spirit of total khud-ki-lena/ self- love feels, dropping these cute posters here, please don’t mind.

You can register here

Rachel Cusk: how to proceed?

One morning last week.

Day had barely begun and I’d already surrendered to shame remixing in my head. Tried to get rid of it and took myself out for a walk and listened to this conversation between writers Rachel Cusk and Kjersti Skomsvold. Have been drinking Cusk’s sentences because they go in that smoothly. Kjersti Skomsvold herself is another bomb writer. Sample this delicious excerpt from her book ‘Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am’

‘Live life. Seize the day. I’m standing next to my bed, but I don’t know how to seize my day. Finally I decide to do what I always do: read obituaries. But first I head for the bathroom. Epsilon is a short man, so I don’t know why the bathroom mirror is hung so high. Epsilon says he is happy with it because he just needs to see where to part his hair.’

Three bits from the interview that I wanted to bring here – there’s apparently such a thing as writing without feeling like a writer and I am very curious to know why it made me smile. Towards the end of her trilogy, Cusk thanks ‘the people who treated me like a writer until I finally became one’. And I think that’s such a lovely thing to remember at a point when you are already writing and published. Gahhhhh. Skomsvold asks her about her reading life and Cusk very simply says that she uses reading to directly help herself. It sounded so light and easy when she said it. On some mornings I really do need to challenge the uselessness of my mind with honesty like that.

  1. ‘What compromises women,’ Cusk says, ‘babies, domesticity, mediocrity – compromises writing even more.’
  2. It’s ok if I can’t write 500 words every morning. If there’s something happening in my mind, I just want to bring it out. I want to perform the writing well enough.
  3. Arriving at truths while writing are more powerful than already knowing them beforehand.

***

Ann Patchett

I am drowning in Ann Patchett. When I read her latest essays now, I catch a fleeting hello, a nodding glimpse to something she has mentioned in her older essays which I am also reading. It’s like I am stitching. She is making me re-arrive at the personal essay as a form of journalism. Many gods of journalism, who cannot stand that other people read and write will die about this. But what else is new? They die about something or the other every day. But read Ann Patchett – she is remaking journalism, both the ‘serious’ one and the chota bheem one.

Whiny muffins like me who cry about too much work should read her essay ‘Nonfiction, an introduction’ where she outlines the beginning of her journey as a freelance writer. She says she learnt how to swallow pride as she watched some of her best sentences get chopped up by editors who worked with knives. She learnt, she says, how to write better by anything and everything that came her way. One day she’d be writing about ballroom dancing, another day about boutique farming, and some other day, about a lip balm. She soaked in everything she wrote and didn’t complain. In the end, it would all come together as she returned home to write what she really wanted to write – fiction.

“Somewhere along the line I learned to experience only the smallest, most private stabbing sensation when I watched my best sentences cut from an article because they did not advance the story. Ultimately, this skill came to benefit my fiction as well. The conversations I had had so often with magazine editors were now internalized. I could read both parts of the script. Did I think that was a beautiful sentence I had written? Yes, I did. Did it further the cause of the novel? No, not really. Could I then delete it? It was already gone”

AM had once said that to be a writer, one has to become small. There was so much to carry in that sentence that it made me afraid to think that I’d never be able to do it. But it’s true. Becoming small is the only mark of a writer thirsty to learn, a journalist hungry to see.

Wait for me in the corner and I’ll tell you how I ran away from home: On Reading Dawn Powell

I wrote this essay in September last year for the Los Angeles Review of Books’ new channel Literature Around the World. The edited version of the essay is here.

I was 11 when I first ran away from home. I ran because I wanted to see how far I could get. When it began to look like if I went any further, I’d forget my way back- I turned around but the idea that something exciting lived right around the corner, that my life wouldn’t truly begin until I turned around that corner stayed with me. What a delight it is then to discover a writer from the 1900s who not only ran away from home when she was 11 (she never returned) but also never forgot what it’s like to want to run away.

Dawn Powell wrote short stories, reviews, plays and novels through the 1920s and after. It is surprising that despite the body of brilliant work she produced (barely making any money out of it) she is still not as well known. I first heard of her last year, in this 2002 video where Fran Lebowitz talked about her as one of the greatest American writers. When I think of how many male writers I am able to name from the same time, I am amused. There are far too many. Somehow there is always room for one more boring male writer and yet Dorothy Parker is the only woman we are given when we want funny female writers. As if two women cannot be funny at the same time and so it is that the saying goes that Dorothy Parker got credit for all the jokes that Dawn Powell made. Let’s not bother setting up two men against each other. After all, no one wants to plagiarize boredom.

Dawn Powell ran away because her stepmother burnt all her short stories [“I burnt all that trash you were writing”] accidentally setting in motion Powell’s destiny to be a writer. There was very little for Powell to do after that. Where I come from, women run away from home to elope. Sadly, they all return with swollen eyes and a divorce. See? They all say – it’s what happens when you run away. As a child, I kept looking for stories of women who ran away alone and lived happily ever after, but they either didn’t exist or were hidden from me.

I wish I’d discovered Dawn Powell then whose writing is replete with women who ran, women who couldn’t, and women who didn’t. In one of her earliest short stories, The Rut, Anne and Marjorie are friends who grow up to want different things. Anne wants to leave town, Marjorie doesn’t. “I am going to get away and do something different and even if I don’t make a success, I’ll at least be out of the rut–this miserable, deadly rut!” Anne says. Years later, they meet again, and Anne envies that Marjorie, married with two children, looks content. Marjorie asks Anne if she’s happy. “No, I am not what you would call happy,” she admits. “I believe it is the people in the rut who are happiest after all. Once they get resigned, they make the most out of it and things are so much easier. Ambition seems to be the obstacle to overcome on the road to happiness”

As if this isn’t enough sting, Anne tells herself that happiness isn’t what she wants after all. “What I want is work” The image of a young girl determined to overcome her failure to prove to her friend that she has achieved what she left to achieve is startling. The clarity of knowing that what she wants is work, not happiness and the ability to recognize that happiness and ambition are two different things is even more startling.

It takes a supreme will to be like Anne. But what does it take to be a Marjorie? Especially since the Marjories of the world are just as important to Powell. In ‘Such a pretty day’, another short story, Powell gives us two Marjories – Sylvia and Barbs – friends and newly married mothers who go shopping one day to escape the boredom of domestic life. Standing in front of an affluent store with barely enough cents in their pockets, ”Barbs and Sylvia clutched each other’s hands to keep up their courage before the hostile clerks.” Inside, Barbs sees a dolphin rubber float, snitches it and stuffs it down her front. They escape quietly and quickly, hitch a ride and when they get out of the car, tragedy hits. Barbs discovers that she has forgotten to steal the stopper, without which the float is useless. She is devastated and begins to cry, noting between her sobs, “I would forget the stopper. I’d have to forget the most important thing”

Powell is not interested in saving her characters and this, Lebowitz points out, is why she was a commercially unsuccessful and at the same time a superb writer. What does it mean then for a girl sitting far away in Bangalore (dreaming of running away) to discover Dawn Powell one hundred years later? For anyone learning how to write, Dawn Powell is a gift. She was so accustomed to the silence that followed before and after writing that it is impossible to imagine now, even momentarily, a silence like that. It would be too deafening. Dawn Powell is teaching me how to write in silence, to ignore silence and to write despite the silence. I believe it is what will save me from becoming too spoiled, even if Dawn Powell never intended and doesn’t care about saving me. Remaining undiscovered is the default state of many women writers, but it must have meant something else to Powell entirely. An early childhood lesson for her was that in order to keep writing, she had to remain undiscovered. When Powell and her sister hid from their stepmother to paint and write, Powell said, “Since our creative labours made no noise, we were happily undiscovered for a fortnight”.

Happiness is double its shape when there are female friends to share it with, ambition too, but for those of us who grow up friendless, these women and their words become a blueprint for surviving both ambition and writing. Women’s writing from even a hundred years before us has the capacity to carry us when we run away from home, walk away from a relationship, or just plain set out to explore a city they’ve lived and died in. This is what friendship with the women I have only come to know through their words means to me. I borrow gumption from the firmness and sureness of their writing, how strong and irreplaceable they look in the shadow of my love for them. Their ghost-like presence and the strength of words they’ve left behind for us is the legacy of female companionship, greater and bigger than any other kind.

“Never forget geography. New York is heroine. Make the city live, so that the reader walking about thinks – here is fifth avenue hotel, where so and so came” Powell writes in her diary in 1951. When I was in Los Angeles last year on a scholarship program, it took me a while to remember that this was Joan Didion’s city. When I realised, it was too late, and I was mad at myself because her words had carried me across the city even if I was barely paying attention to it. The possibility that I had perhaps walked on the very street Didion might have, passed by the very same house in Hollywood where she lived and wrote The White Album left a painful smile in my jaw. As I was leaving Los Angeles, still smiling, Didion’s words echoed in my fingertips “It all comes back. Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point”.

But sometimes, it’s the opposite of remembering “what it is to be me” After reading Parable of the Sower, I went looking for the exact spot Octavia Butler sat and wrote the book in at The Los Angeles Public Library. I was hungry to sit in the same place, imagine her, see what she saw, feel what she felt. I walked to the third floor of the large library where there were huge windows and a few tables. I sat at one of them and decided it’s where Butler wrote from. It was remembering what it is to be someone else, even if that memory was never mine to begin with. But in that desperation to make the city mine, to see what these women saw, I become them, even if for a moment. Such is the pleasure and joy of discovering women writers so far away.

So now I know that if I ever come to New York, as so many others do, I will look for Dawn Powell in the streets of Greenwich, in the cafes, in the parks, and in the hotels of New York. I will look for her in the same way I learnt what writing is all about, which is pretty much the story of “Wait for me in the corner and I’ll tell you how I ran away from home” (What are you doing in my dreams?) After all, history has always hidden women who had gumption, who showed us it’s possible to run away and not look back, and stories always reveal them.

A word with you

Very few writers have the courage to laugh when they feel like laughing. Siddalingaiah was one among them. In Ooru Keri, I discovered a way to read and write, yes. But what I learnt more than anything was a way to laugh. Before that, I am not sure I knew how to laugh. Sometimes I stole laughter from my father who laughed with his stomach. And everytime he broke into his hiccupy laugh, the room held its breath for him to finish. I don’t know if Siddalingaiah laughs like this but I like to imagine he does. 

Siddalingaiah left me with many stories. 

I will leave you with four.

The first one I shamelessly find excuses to tell is the Boodisaheba story from Ooru Keri. The story of young Ambedkar falling into an ash pit from a tree, people teasing him and calling him Boodisaheba was something that might not have happened, need not have happened. But the image of a young Ambedkar saying that he might be Boodisaheba now but will be Babasaheb in future gave me goosebumps for how true it turned out to be.

I stood nervously in front of Townhall during the Anti CAA NRC protest one evening, my legs refusing to hold me. I clung to the mic with my heart but didn’t know what to say so I told them the Boodisaheba story. I could conjure only Siddalingaiah that day because no one wrote protest like he did and that’s because no one wrote poetry like he did. That Boodisaheba story is poetry, protest, and song.

The second one still puzzles me. When Bangalore Brahmins refused him a home for rent, he wasn’t bitter. That the home that was promised to him was taken away after the owners discovered that he was Dalit didn’t leave him angry. That when they made it worse by saying “we like you & would’ve given you this house if only you weren’t Dalit” didn’t make him want to scream. He put his hands together, said thank you and walked away.

That story continues to be a lesson that I still haven’t learnt.

The third is a story I am fascinated by: his love for graveyards, for the silences they offered him, for the muffled secrets they teased him with, for how magically poetry came to him when he sat in one and began to write. 

The fourth is a story I am stunned by: his capacity to hold multiple truths. He was being felicitated at a hostel in Bangalore and when he went on stage to receive it, he saw his mother standing on the first floor, a broom in hand, watching him. She was a sweeper there and he leaves us here at this point to take what we want from this truth. I don’t know what he took. I am scared to ask.

The fifth is a story for me. For all the laughter he taught me, the hardest to learn was laughing at myself. There is steel in my mouth when I think of the time someone called me a Brahmin for writing in English. The steel becomes grit when I think of how according to this beautiful logic, even Ambedkar must be a Brahmin. The grit shatters into 4 meters of giggles and 5 kilos of laughter when I think of Siddalingaiah. 

‘O world, I must get to know you

And so I must have a word with you’

P.S: He doesn’t say if a word should be in English or Kannada or Konkani or Urdu.