‘I wrote greedily and joyfully’ Natalia Ginzburg

Wrote this sometime in November last year. Wanted to release it from my drafts-section, so here it is.

The department runs a certificate course in writing called Polemics for our Pandemics, where I teach a few sessions. Today, I took Natalia Ginzburg’s ‘My Vocation’ to class. I first read this woman in 2019 and thought no one had made writing seem so doable, so touchable, so lovable. Reading her was very freeing. It’s something I don’t feel very often and I was so thrilled and terrified of what I’d read and how she’d written that I didn’t go back to her for a long time.

At Moe’s Books in San Francisco that same year, my friend Simão picked up her novel, Family Lexicon in Italian, and I, only barely recognizing her name jumped. “Ginzburg”, he said, to my sheepish ‘OMG NATALIA GINSBERG’!!!. After that, I combed through every bookstore we were taken to, hunting for an English translation but I guess I searched badly. I am sure it was there and I didn’t look properly.

What I felt that morning in 2019, when I first read My Vocation was a throbbing freedom in my chest. No one had ever written about writing like that. And I know that tomorrow I will wake up and find another woman and say the same thing about her but it’s why we read no? To find more and more women who can teach us how to be and feel alive, despite love, and life, and other things.

I was looking forward to seeing this class because I haven’t taught in so long and it’s probably why I haven’t been myself since October. I feel like myself when I teach more than when I write. We wrapped up regular classes in October and since then, it’s like my days are full of me and I don’t like her at all. Most mornings since then, I have woken up feeling nervous about not knowing which version of myself I am going to get. It’s like living with a moody, ill-tempered husband. I can tell it’s a decent morning if I am able to fight the thing that I usually tend to think of as soon as I wake up. If I can’t, then I am fucked.

Reading about Ginzburg’s belief in her vocation returns me to mine. What a solid, spectacular writer. It’s her I was going to rely on when a former student who wrote and still writes like fire on ice was going to go do law. I almost took a print-out of My Vocation and handed it to her. Later when I sent her a copy of ‘The Little Virtues’, she loved it and that made me love Ginzburg even more.

Ginzburg unknotted a nagging worry I’d fed for a long time, often feeling caught between the desire to give everything away to one essay or one story and resisting it. Shouldn’t I save a really good detail for a book? For something bigger, brighter, better?

She says:

“I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings’. If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write’, that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it. When someone writes a story he should throw the best of everything into it, the best of whatever he possesses and has seen, all the best things that he has accumulated throughout his life.”

And I’m still learning how to give my writing everything I have. It hasn’t been possible to do this in the past couple of weeks. In these covid murders that the government has determinedly orchestrated, how does one find the will to accept that at this point, we don’t know if we are waiting for things to get better or worse…worse than this?

Featured Image Credits: Southwest Review

What I learnt about Writing from Jaisingh Nageswaran’s Photographs

In December last year, I spoke to photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran about his Mullai Periyar River photo-series. It was a humbling conversation. I was joined by Kiruba Devi who brought her watery giggles. He said some things that weren’t in the published piece but I want to remember them so I am putting them here.

  1. He said that the first time he held a camera, he felt strong. Like he’d finally learnt the language and will to live.
  2. When he visited Ambedkar’s house in Bombay with some friends, he said they ‘breathed deliberately to inhale the same air as Ambedkar’
  3. He becomes a child everytime he goes to the river.
  4. After spending years taking photographs around the country, he returned home to Vadipatti in 2020 and decided never to leave. The space in his Mumbai apartment was uninspiring and he grew bored of its neat Asian Paints-coloured walls. He longed to go back to the white-washed walls of his childhood home.
  5. First in the lockdown-series of photographs is a partially open door, a sliver of light escaping as if from a projector in a cinema hall (Caption: ‘Life in the times of Corona / Day 1/21’.) Then there’s a blue plastic bag with medium-sized tomatoes hanging on a wall next to bunched up black wires. Even in the everydayness of the images he chooses to photograph, his eye picks up details that are extraordinary because they neither come with the polish of manufactured- lockdown images that were all too regular on social media in the first few months of 2020 nor are they charged with the heaviness of mainstream aesthetics.
  6. In his hands, the camera is not a tool. It’s a scribe. We sense that his camera is not only recording the pictures but is actively plunging into people’s stories and writing them. The comments on his Instagram feed are full of appreciation. And it’s not hard to miss that he doesn’t reply to the people who leave praise for his work. ‘I am still learning to get better at English. When I do, I will reply to them’. Well-wishers alert him when his Instagram stories carry misspelt English words and he immediately deletes them. Writing in Tamizh is equally challenging because of dyslexia but what’s also true is that he has often been told that his pictures are so evocative, they need neither captions nor grammar.
  7. What I see in his photographs are the presentiment of a plunge and the plunge itself. And it’s how I have come to learn a lot about writing — by simply staring at Jaisingh Nageswaran’s pictures.

Leaky selves

Happy Ambedkar Jayanthi.

Today, my mother showed me how to close the leaky tap in our new house. She said, “I’ve told this to others but I don’t think they do it. It doesn’t take very long. When you close the tap fully, it starts leaking so what you must do is hold it gently and open it just a little bit, it will stop leaking.” I went to my room nodding but vaguely feeling like she was not talking about the leaky tap.

On some days, self-respect and leaky taps are the same. My self-respect leaks because I don’t know where to stop, when to not or how to summon it when I need it most. Today is as good a day as any other to remember that writing is my way to self-respect. Whether in English, Kannada or fucking Konkani.

Yesterday, Divya and I talked about the hate that is directed at Dalit Women for being visible. There’s a certain comedy to people carrying around a scale to measure Dalitness. Basically what has been decided by new-age woke Babas is that the only marker of Dalitness is invisibility. That if you are even a little visible, alive, dancing, eating, living – dude, are you even Dalit? The tragedy is that they don’t see this as comedy.

I thought of what has changed in five years and what hasn’t. I am a little more charmed by bullies than I used to be. My hair is longer. I have a sense of what a good day is like. I smile more. I love teaching more than I did back then. I can tolerate my non-writing days somewhat restlessly but I can. I am getting worse at respecting writing deadlines. My sense of self is still dangerously tied to things it shouldn’t be tied to. I learnt to cook some small things. I learnt to care for plants. I planted avocado pits over the lockdown last year and they are growing, fuck. I still make useless chai.

I am still writing.

Small gratitude

I dreamt that I was severely irritated with myself for repeatedly using the phrases ‘holding with eyes’ and ‘didn’t let go’ – when I write. I felt liquid shame in my mouth when I saw that a whole lot of people would also recognise that as something I would say. Bah. In my dream also I am irritated with my writing. What does this mean?

In other news, while brushing teeth this morning, I suddenly became very grateful for having read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen the way I did. That morning in Seattle, I had nothing but Citizen on my mind. It became a book that I could write too. How nice to have had mornings like that. How nice to know that all I have to do now to have more mornings like that is just get lost in a book.

THE PROF. BARBRA NAIDU PRIZE FOR THE PERSONAL ESSAY 2021 – BREAKING AWAY

Announcing the ninth edition of The Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay. The theme for this year is Breaking Away. Here is a little something on how I understand it.

I often dream that I’m running a relay race. The audience is a stadium full of people cheering for me, and a small yawn of people rolling eyes. That’s their only job — both in my dream, and in their life. In the beginning, I ran against boys who were annoying classmates, and when it no longer thrilled me, I ran against annoying boys I was teaching. A pataki female student and I are usually up against this boy and his friend. When pataki gives me the baton, I run with grit in my teeth, calves, and veins. The boy is far ahead of me and going to win. My mind speeds this part along because a) I am not a runner and b) within seconds, I am anyway already running next to him. At this point, the audience erupts in cheers. Their faces are indignant with vengeance on my behalf. I don’t know what the yawn of people look like because nobody cares about them. My own face is part grit- part replaying every humiliating account from my teaching life. I break away from the boy in the slowest way possible and when I cross the finish line, everything goes black and I am panting a lot but mostly dying.

I didn’t know this then but what I was imagining and getting thrills from is a moment called ‘breaking away’. Like breaking away from a group you no longer believe in — or from someone you used to be held captive to — or from a pack when you are racing and getting closer to the finish line. The moment is charged with the erotics of being free.

Sometimes it’s not easy to see the things that bind us to people. We believe we are free because we seem to walk just fine when the leash is long enough. Nothing is holding us back because whatever is holding us back is following us so closely, they don’t need to hold us back, and we don’t need to feel held back.

That’s why breaking away is so glorious. Suddenly there’s more of you for yourself.

What I like most about breaking away is that there is no time to self-congratulate or self-pity. It’s an extremely short-lived moment — there now, gone next. Perhaps it’s a good thing that these moments don’t come with pause buttons. What do we expect to find there anyway?

When I first heard of breaking away, I thought it was breaking up. The difference, as I understand it now was made clear by Kate Winslet’s face in ‘The Holiday’. After being in love with a jerk for over three years, she finds gumption one evening to break away.

In the moment that I am talking about, they’ve already broken up with each other multiple times but he keeps coming back to see if she’s still there and leaves when he is convinced that she is. It’s probably because breaking up with someone still means it’s with. Breaking away, on the other hand is always from someone or something. The only way to go after breaking away is forward. Kate Winslet’s face sees this, understands this, and we get to watch it dawn on her.

When I fantasise about breaking away these days, it’s not a race anymore, it’s a happy dance and no one is around to cheer, frown or roll eyes.

What is your breaking away story?

I open at the close

Something they don’t tell you when you first start writing is that when you keep doing it, you lose people. At first you won’t notice it because it’s absurd that this should happen. Then you see it and you can’t unsee it. Then there will be sleepless nights like these where you wonder if you will get people back if you stop writing. You feel smaller than ever when you realise that you’ve actually already stopped. It’s too late. Thankfully, the gates are only closed, never locked and you can open them whenever you want to.

Open,

write.

Against self-pity and hate

Such a boss Toni Morrison is. She’s my shield against woke twitter rage.

Here she talks about writing with so much honesty and intimacy that whatever little hate and rage there is, she pats gently. Listening to her and reading her are both lessons in humility. My quick fall to self-pity is helpless in front of her kindness, her hard and clear logic.