Big joys for rumlolarum

This came out today and I am smiling. To think that someone sitting so far away (not that it matters) has read me and allowed rumlolarum.com to sit inside their body and mind is a gift I will cherish for a long, long time.

When I began this blog in 2014, I had no idea where it was going. I only knew I had to write. WordPress was on the syllabus of a new course and I had to learn it before I taught it. Odd that students seemed to outgrow it but I never managed to. AM was saying last week that I am the prototype of the first EJP graduate, I agree wholeheartedly.

I did become a graduate in that sense only after I began reading and writing, which through my undergraduate and postgraduate days, I hadn’t learnt how to. Like RP Amudhan once said, ‘It took me 20 years to realise that I could learn’

400

I can’t look back properly. I don’t know what I will find there. Some days, I’m afraid that I will be so ashamed of what I find there, I turn around quickly. But why must an unsure, timid version of you shame you? It’s still a girl – writing, scared, writing anyway, longing to run away, confused, angry, bitter, sad, but mostly in love. And I am not devastated that I am still all these things.

Dawn Powell says, ‘Better not to trust anybody much until you know them; then, not at all’

This helped me discover that if there’s anybody I don’t trust at all, it’s me. Never have and never will. It’s why I find myself in situations where I don’t like what I am saying or doing.

What I think and what I say are not always the same thing, except when I am teaching (and here too I have to try very hard). What I think and what I write are more sisterly even if they are not always twins. Sometimes the writing launches a thought. Often they happen together. But more often than not, the struggle, as always, is to retain the music of the thought in writing which is getting more and more difficult, especially after having noticed it.

I have always been afraid of people who can say what they are thinking clearly with very little reluctance and interruption from their own selves (Lila Lila Lila) With me, it seems as though I am so used to the interruption that even when I am close to a semi-solid articulation of a thought, I anticipate (sometimes even welcome) the interruption so I abandon the thought entirely.

***

I’ve been watching reruns of GG again & thinking how much I want to undo a piece written in 2016 . There’s so much more to say, so much better, so little I am now willing to be satisfied with. But it’s because of my blog that I am unable to feel shame about what I can’t undo now.

Last week, same day, I woke at dawn to write about Dawn Powell (gihaha) I don’t know when the piece will be out but that’s how it’s been with everything I have written over the last few months. I work at and push through pieces which I send off in a hurry, and then don’t see for a long time. I like this. It’s a new way of working and learning distance. All my editors in the past two months have been tough to please, I like this even more.

This is my 400th post and I am happy. (Reading Sheila Heti’s Motherhood has come at a perfect time)

rumlolarum.com is my baby; so much so that even after it became a website 2 years ago, I still won’t call it a website. I built my life here. Anniversaries are the only great thing about time. How else would we acknowledge who we were (are), keep them at eye range, and nod at them occasionally? (Didion)

Happy 400th to me.

In other good news, my Silk Smitha piece was translated to Kannada and you can read it here.

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

Not going to stop

The distress about Dalits being able to access reservation and social capital is somewhat similar in that it upholds the argument that Dalits have unfairly and insincerely used something in their favour to promote themselves. You are saying that their achievements (however little or nonexistent) are always the result of somebody else’s hard work, friendship, and favour; that they have had to do no work to access the privileges they appear to be enjoying; that their work had nothing to do with their “capital” – social or otherwise. The erasure of work and merit from a Dalit person’s journey is violent.

***

Detour: While I still haven’t learnt how to take a moment to pause when my work is attacked, I am only now coming to the idea that I need to recognize it for what it truly is – a distraction. Meaning, it doesn’t merit more than one nod, two sighs, three teas and then – back to work.

But I feel compelled to protect my work because I don’t know who else is going to do it for me. I don’t see why people should take the effort to slip out of their day into mine only to vent bitterness. What instinct can cause people to lose themselves so uncontrollably to hate? And why am I expected to rise above and not make it about myself when my work is being questioned? I’m sure people will stop saying ‘You are not your work’ if they had any idea about how caste functions.

I spent the last three days responding to hate with anger. I was distracted. I couldn’t read or write without looking back, without feeling that someone was attacking something valuable and that I had to be there to protect it, not here – reading. I longed to go back to the week before where I’d settled into a routine of reading, listening to podcasts, and watering plants. Thankfully, after days of restlessness and the inability to read, I arrived at Toni Morrison’s words and now feel purged.

Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

I’m partly charmed by how easily this is also about caste. An attack on your work is a summon. It keeps you from working. That is its purpose – to stop you from doing what you really want to do. That is also the function of caste. It demands your full attention. It’s a trap. The more distracted you are, the longer they can keep you from working. Reading these words was like rubbing salt into the wounds of time wasted.

In an interview about writing Beloved, Toni Morrison was asked if she became as angry writing it as the reader was when they were reading it. “Is it possible for you to have written Beloved dispassionately?”

She says – “I couldn’t write it in anger. It is a paralyzing emotion. You can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, igniting feeling. I don’t think it’s any of that. It’s helpless. It is absence of control. And I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers, and clarity in order to write. Anger doesn’t provide any of that. I have no use for it whatsoever. I could be melancholy and I could be full of regret. But anger is useful to the people who watch it. It’s not useful to me”

When the interviewer misinterprets it to mean aloofness, she is quick yet patient to correct him – “Not aloofness. I am not aloof and unfeeling. I am an artist. It’s about putting those things in a different cauldron. My compassion could be just as harmful, my love, my fervor too. But to write a book, I must be penetrating and roving. After all, art is but the restoration of order”

I feel saved by these words today and I wish I remember to be saved by them every other day.

In memory of those who stood for a long time holding cow dung in their hands, and those who earnestly and diligently continue to do so – I am celebrating my blog. It is my version of the ‘extra saree’. This is my capital. I learnt how to write here. Keep throwing. I’ll keep writing. Not going to stop even if you stop throwing ❤️

It might also do me some good to remember that summer of 2018 when I was reading whatever I could find by Elif Batuman, and bothering those around me with questions on freedom, work, & love. Something about how women manage to find & keep joy in life.

A writer I really admire had told me this:

“I never ever feel the whole world is attacking me. I have no engagement with the whole world. I am very very interested in the opinions and judgements of a small group of people and even there much much much less than I did in my 20s. I don’t believe the whole world is interested in me either”

I was reminded of this today and want to print it out and keep it on me at all times. It makes me zoom out of myself for a bit and look at everything from a distance, always a relief since it’s so difficult to zoom out when anger takes over.

You can listen to Morrison’s interview here.

It’s all I got: Keret & Janet

First of all, Etgar Keret’s voice is fun. His ‘eys’ are a delight. Second of all, I want to punch myself for not having read Janet Frame earlier. On a films on writing spree many years ago, I downloaded An Angel at my table but never got around to watching it. Somehow New Zealand seemed distant.

Last year, I found, grabbed, and bought a second hand copy of An Angel at my table at Moe’s books. And that was it. A few days ago, I listened to this New Yorker Fiction Podcast, and felt rescued by Janet Frame.

I am forever grateful to the NYFP series which has given me a range of writers and their worlds to swallow from my Basavanagudi terrace where I water plants & wonder why the color green on my curry leaves is unconvincing.

In this podcast, Keret reads ‘You are now entering the human heart‘ a short story by Janet Frame. It is about a woman watching a museum attendant demonstrating ‘snake handling’ to a class of young children, and their teacher. He invites the reluctant teacher to hold the snake, telling her that the children wouldn’t want to hold the snake if she looked afraid so she must smile and pet the snake. Nothing happens and many things happen.

I read it with Keret’s voice narrating it slowly. In conversation with Deborah Treisman, Keret says that Frame writes to survive. He rarely feels that with other writers. Competence is one thing. “With competence, you can be a con man too. But writing to survive, to finalise something for yourself is something else entirely”

He is open to her writing in a way very few men are to women’s writing.

“I love her short fiction. I think there is something freeing about the way she writes. She doesn’t write for a goal. She just kind of floats or levitates. There is this feeling of zero-gravity I feel when I read her. The reader wants to forget everything and just be. Even though she was less well known than other award winning writers, writing like her wins you peace of mind. When she writes, she wants to figure out what the world and she are all about. She writes to feel less stranger to herself. And that’s something that I feel when I write”

When Treisman asks if that “works” for him, Keret says “Take a leaking roof. If you put a tissue paper and someone asks ‘does it work’? all you can say is ‘it’s all I got”.

When I began reading Keret, I remembered one strange evening in 2014 when I went to Alliance Française to attend the Israeli Film Festival. Some Savarna colleague and her husband were very offended. ‘Don’t you know what’s happening in the world? Why are you not political, blah blah.’

AM had a sharp response. Something about how politically correct Savarnas who are quick to feel offended by what others do, should perhaps also feel offended about living in a country led by a fascist. I noted that when I had said something similar but cruder – said Savarna woman protested, refusing to hear me out. Hearing it from AM, she shut up.

Either way, left to Savarna virtues, I never would have discovered the joy of reading someone like Etgar Keret. VN gave me her copy of The girl on the fridge for my birthday and I haven’t been the same.

Janet Frame had to write in severely threatening circumstances. Here is a bit of trivia:

“Following years of psychiatric hospitalisation, Frame was scheduled for a lobotomy that was cancelled when, just days before the procedure, her début publication of short stories was unexpectedly awarded a national literary prize” (Wikipedia)

Keret’s parents survived the holocaust. A question people continue to ask him is why he chooses to write fiction when he can write about ‘so much more’ – his parents’ survival, the holocaust, and what Israel is doing to the world. I believe these people have never read his work at all.

His fiction is a reminder of what’s possible when we continue to write in zero-gravity through the crushing weight of memories that hold us back. People with opinions will continue to tell others how they should write, live, behave but as long as you keep writing, you don’t even have to raise your middle fingers to them.

Chimmi & Zadie

In love with this stunning partnership, the grace to compliment one another on stage so willfully and mean it, the curiosity about each other’s writing that doesn’t seem scripted for stage and the readiness with which they embrace each other’s work.

And most of all, absolutely delighted that Adichie says this about Zadie:

“How happy I am to share the stage with Zadie. I have admired and followed Zadie’s work from the very beginning, from The White Teeth. And I’ve also really admired that she is this brilliant woman who is also a hot babe. I think it’s really important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes”

They discuss Americanah, race, racism, the importance of talking about hair, love, romance, writing, and sex. Adichie says that she based Americanah on the many Mills & Boon she read as a child. Such a slap on the faces of people who continue to propagate bullshit about high and low literature.

I like how happy they look. I like how they laugh and make the audience laugh. I like how they aren’t devoting any energy towards private and less private angers. Things white people, publishers, editors may have said but on this stage, they only have eyes and heart for writing.

Franny & Toni

Spent all of last week scrounging through everything Fran Lebowitz wrote and spoke. Read Beloved and came to discover Toni Morrison as a lot closer to me than I’d anticipated. My body is filled with her words and I’m letting them sleep inside as long as I can hold them there. But the better discovery was the close friendship between Fran and Toni. I am feeling an envy that is both happy and relieved. I’m excited to learn the things they said about each other.

Watching Fran is one kind of thrill. Reading Toni and realizing that my best writing years are yet to happen is another kind. Fran arrived in New York, much like Didion did. To write. To learn to write. Fran was barely 17. I want to go too. Discovering these women has made my resolve to see New York stronger. And so much that I don’t give a fuck about wanting to be special. I want to be as hopeful and as plain and as ordinary as those women were before they became famous. I want to see the city and feel the echo of their words in my eyes.

Stitcher is a gift. Here are some fab interviews that I loved by Etgar Keret, Claudia Rankine and Fran Lebowitz.

Keret narrates a funny incident involving his mother who, proud that her son had become a famous writer, made sure to ‘split’ her vegetable shopping just so she could return to the green grocer and say ‘you know my son’s story was published in the New Yorker’ while buying carrots – and then again — ‘you know he teaches in this great American University’ while buying cucumbers.

He says some really interesting things about fiction, something that I am getting more and more terrified of writing.

Claudia Rankine takes me back to my time at Seattle, and that evening we watched ‘Citizen’ performed powerfully on stage. So powerful that for the rest of the evening, I saw nothing but guilt and fear in the eyes of that one severely racist colleague.

I’m itching to write about it even as I gaze lovingly at the other three writing deadlines. Even so, I read this Paris Review Interview of Fran last night and went to bed happy and songful. She’s making me return to reading furiously. She says in an interview “If you want to learn how to write, and your parents are willing to pay obnoxious money to put you through a writing school, take that money, buy lots of books and read. It’s the only way to learn how to write”

In this interview, she says “But really, I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life”

Gahhhhh.

A for Always

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I don’t know why I write but I think it’s because I keep returning to it. I return to hear myself when there is too much noise. To relocate my self-respect that is still childishly tied to things that it shouldn’t be tied to, snatched when I’m not looking & sometimes even when I am.

Often, when I am speaking to someone, I try to make myself likable, to show them sides they expect to see, praying they are softened by the yellow light through which I hope they are seeing me, & not the harsh white of tube lights. And when they leave, I ask myself – Why did I do that? Why do I care? And a voice says, ‘OK next time, act cool. Be better’⁣

But when next time comes, nothing changes. I don’t trust myself around people. I used to think I can’t trust people but it’s me I don’t trust. And so I turn to writing, so I can return me to myself.

When I am writing, I feel the least use of yellow or white light. Here I can be anyone, in any light, my self-respect firm in the palm of my hand. I write so I can become likable in person. I write so I can stop worrying about not being liked. So that at the end of the day, if I can lock myself up inside the folds of other writers’⁣ words & my own & allow them to show me who I am, it won’t matter that I don’t belong in a world that is becoming increasingly Savarna.⁣

I write because when I talk, I stutter, like Pa does. I am afraid my language is garbled when I try to speak, to fight. It leaves me when I need it most but comes back faithfully, like a dog returning with a ball, when I have calmed down. So what I can’t do face to face, I try to do face-to-paper.

I think of the women who came before me, women married to gods & villages, touchable enough to be raped and yet somehow, still ‘untouchable’

I write because I am because they were.

I write because I am hiding. I am hiding because I am slowly stealing time. Time to gather power to feel fire in my tongue. Fire like the fire Babasaheb left for us. He learnt to write because when people & systems fail you, words will hold you. Always.⁣

Writing is, after all, picking up the stone & learning to throw.⁣

C for Coming home

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This is my workplace. I learnt to read & write here. Over the years, I have tried & failed at finding the right words to say how grateful I am to be here. Futile as it may be, I never tire of trying again – and this time, in the spirit of #DalitHistoryMonth (er, still)

To discover oneself as Dalit – not of your own accord but by the way others treat you, is one of the crudest expressions of caste. If you grow up not realizing you are Dalit, then school will show you. If you make it to college, then college will confirm it for you. If you come out alive, then you can always count on the world outside to show you & shame you for it. And this department taught me to wrench out shame, and suck it bone-dry. 

If the only acceptable & desirable way to be anywhere in the world is by being Savarna- Brahmin, this place showed me the strength of laughing at it & reclaiming being Avarna as a better way to live & work. The HoD, an Avarna man himself, imagined & built it the way he envisioned Ambedkar’s work ethic. 

The idea of a classroom, of a good student is usually built on Savarna ideals of speed, quality, & good English. Our syllabus & practice say lol to this. Designed as it is for students who will not be left behind simply for not being born in families where good English does push-ups, our syllabus makes me believe in the work I get to do everyday. And the work I get to do everyday is humbling which is why it is also easy to lol at the baboons who keep attacking it. My only yardstick to measure the worth of these attacks is to see whether they are drenched in Savarna ego, which more often than not, they are – so, meh.

One of my most crucial learning here has been that I have failed as a teacher if I have, even for one day, stopped being a student. And that to be a student is to be a sponge – learning what thrills you & drinking it up fully. And it isn’t only by reading or writing that the students & I found a self here. It’s by learning how to have full-body conversations with people, & listening to their stories.

The boy who is a Vijay fan but dances only to Dhanush songs often returns, perhaps because he sees something here. The girls who had zero interest in reading or writing come back year after year to say thank you perhaps because they learnt something more valuable from the course. The little chili from Tirunelveli returns often to sit, breathe us all in with her eyes, eat books, & laugh her heart out. As for the others who may come here half or full Savarna, they always leave with Ambedkar. What they do with him later is really up to them.

And then there are those who sit inside, drink tea, laugh, or sit outside read, talk, play the guitar – never quiet leaving.

A remarkable thing about Hogwarts is its inclusivity & diversity.  There was a half-giant, a squib, a werewolf, those born to muggle parents, Severus Snape whom it used to be so tempting to distrust, and all kinds of people who would have been left behind for being misfits. The department is my Hogwarts. In more ways than one, it makes room for misfits like me.

The first night Harry spends at Hogwarts, he is shown sitting by the window with Hedwig – looking outside and sighing. He’s finally home.

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N for Nuance

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Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter

(Nuance defined as: noticing a very slight difference in meaning or someone’s feelings that is not usually very obvious)

Bole toh, if a Savarna journalist accuses you, a Dalit writer – of not having nuance, it means that you are not smart enough to look beyond caste. It means that caste is but a mere ‘accident’ in all our lives & it’s not their fault that they were born there, & you were born here. None of us chose it alva? Then why the drama, mama? And if you are not able to look beyond it, then what is the point of education? Of Ambedkar?

Nuance is a quintessential Savarna demand. But sadly, it is not challenging enough for a Dalit writer to do better. Because Savarna nuance is to make all the Dalit people they’ve ever known in their lives stand in an imaginary line & pick the one that appears most authentically Dalit  to them. The darker you are, the poorer you look, the weaker your English is – the better.

If you don’t have these qualities, then sorry – you might be Dalit but you have to unsee caste. In the Savarna scale of imagination, be assured that a dead Dalit is more Dalit than one alive. And if you are alive, well, & kicking – then you shouldn’t be talking caste, bro. You should be working quietly despite it & produce art that is more nuanced & less self-indulgent. 

But bro, if our art & literature is too self-indulgent, it’s not like yours isn’t no? Savarna journalists who win awards for writing about the suffering underprivileged deploy the highest form of self-indulgence. It’s your craft, your merit, your nuance, your sympathy, & your talent against someone who is barely trying to survive.

Jia Tolentino remarks in an essay that sometimes social media allows people to take more comfort in a sense of injury over a sense of freedom. When I read this, I heard the sound of a long, feverish worry being unlocked – the worry that being on social media was like gathering a certain kind of something – an assurance perhaps. That one needed to keep producing an injured self over & over again to maintain it.

Thankfully, Ambedkar had a solution for us long before anyone else did. Because he was a constant learner of things- his passion for violin, gardening, and tea is our freedom. It gives someone like me the backbone to fall in love with someone like Alice Munro. Sadly,  your nuance, and punishment for demanding it from others is Manu Joseph. 

Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter.