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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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?
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.
He said that the first time he held a camera, he felt strong. Like he’d finally learnt the language and will to live.
When he visited Ambedkar’s house in Bombay with some friends, he said they ‘breathed deliberately to inhale the same air as Ambedkar’
He becomes a child everytime he goes to the river.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.