When it rained in Mangalore, amma made us wear raincoats and carry umbrellas but we’d still get wet. One afternoon after school we went looking for a new house in an auto. The broker was on his bike in front of us, his feet slanting upward on both footrests. We followed his yellow raincoat. The huge bungalow we first stopped at had two coconut trees growing out of it. The trees shot upwards from the roof, and looked uneasy like the swords I’d sometimes seen emerge out of Swamiji tongues in Kanyakumari.
I looked at Amma. She squinted at the trees and looked miserable. I looked at the broker. He sighed and started giving the auto driver new directions for a new house.
I wanted to tell him no. I had already imagined spending all my free time under the trees. Never before had life organised itself so beautifully as it did on those house- hunting days where the space of a new home offered dreams of being good girl – set up a solid routine, do homework on time, sleep at 9, wake at 6.
Amma and broker were damaging my creative juices.
The second house was inside a huge compound sharing space with another house. I stepped out of the auto and into a puddle, slowly, deliberately. The water seeped into my socks making it squishy. I walked around carefully listening to each squish.
A girl climbed out of a school van in front of the other house and watched us. I recognized her as a classmate but struggled to remember her name. Amma was quick to notice when we greeted each other shyly. I’d already started day dreaming a routine – this time my new best friend was in all of them.
When I was pulled away from the house, and from her, and thrust into the auto – I was beginning to bawl. Amma patted my back loudly and said that closeness is not ok. It will ruin your life.
Through the month spent binge-watching House MD, I worried that the irony of losing eyesight from watching a medical show would be too funny.
My eyes are tired now but the head is clearer. It scares me to think of the times when I’d look up from the screen to speak to someone and my eyes would begin watering.
I don’t know what to do with all the sunset that is suddenly falling on my desk now.
But I am glad it’s over. I didn’t know that a big part of binge-watching is also the bleeding hurry to get it over with and move on with life. I will miss listening to the words Tachycardia Lupus CT MRI Cardiomyopathy Cushing’s Vicodin Pithy Psychosis.
Goodbye, House. Thank you for believing that work really is everything. Even if proved otherwise.
It’s like watching tragicomedy. Not because Rishi Kapoor is an *Amul baby (cos who doesn’t know that?) but because it made me wonder about Neetu Singh in the way that I sometimes wonder about my mother and her mother and everyone’s mothers – wouldn’t they all have been better off without marriages and Amul-baby husbands?
Yes yes, their choice, and like Neetu Singh repeatedly says – she has always wanted the life she now has. When Simi Garewal asks her if she could do over her life, would she still marry Rishi Kapoor? Neetu Singh loudly says YES.
But it was still amusing to watch that throughout the show, even though the Amul baby is worse than his twitter self; Neetu Singh is pretty much telling the world ‘listen up peeps don’t take my husband or his tweets seriously cos even I don’t. Plus he’s drunk out of his mind when he’s tweeting’
My favourite part of the interview was when Neetu Singh and Simi Garewal exchange looks over Rishi Kapoor’s horrible parenting skills. Simi Garewal is like that really sweet well-wishing, tch-tch-tching moral science teacher. ‘Please go home and think about what being a father really means to you’, she says.
I remember Neetu Singh as the lovely Salma Ali from Amar Akbar Anthony – the only film after Mr. India which I watched as a child over and over again. Simply because those were the only two video cassettes we had. I liked Parveen Babi the most because she was Christian in the film and back then I was fascinated with everything Christian.
I watched it again today and was smitten by Salma Ali – the doctor who is given one fleeting moment in a hospital scene where she is absorbed in her work despite being wooed by Akbar (Amul Baby) in the same shot.
A nurse comes running to tell her that a patient needs blood urgently. Ali begins to worry, Akbar says he’s leaving and she just brushes him off saying haan haan bye and gets back to brooding. It is a three second shot but delightful.
It is the same energy she brings to Comedy Nights with Kapil where the host asks her what it is like to have married into a khandaan full of super star actors and she says ‘Main bhi toh thi award-winning actress’ (I too was an award-winning actress)
It almost erased some terrible flashbacks about watching her instructing Ranbir Kapoor on Simi Garewal’s show. ‘Women come with either scissors or needle. They either break or make families. Pick a girl with a needle’
Needless to say, no matter what instruments they bring, what can you mend Amul babies with?
I can recollect the last six years of my life only in semesters. No other measurement makes sense. The last time I did this, I was less obsessed with archiving. Even so, this still remains the only reliable way of dealing with the guilt of not writing about the books I read this semester.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – Simon Winchester
I was teaching a paper on linguistics this year and began my semester with this book. Kindle often gives one the impression that the reading is going a lot quicker than it usually does. Even so, the reading was slow – all the note-making definitely helped – as did the time I took to marvel at each history lesson learned. I loved the book because it told me fascinating stories about people who channeled all their energy into pursuits that are barely acknowledged today.
The book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The history of how a bunch of men spent 2 decades and more to produce the world’s first dictionary. Samuel Johnson had actually done it long before them, as did many other people who put together one form of a dictionary or the other. The earliest known was a dictionary of the most difficult words.
I discovered Samuel Johnson’s passion and wrote this little post to show him some love.
2. Are You My Mother – Alison Bechdel
I’d read Fun Home last year and still recall the line “If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust” with many giggles.
Bechdel is funny, mysterious, and obsessed with writing. Anyone who wants a little kick on their bums to get that push to start writing should read this. There are lovely panels featuring Bechdel at work – hands in her head, thinking, revising, editing, collecting material, typing even as she talks to her mother on the phone. Plus many many flashbacks. If there’s one thing I love about flashbacks, it’s watching them. If there’s one thing I love more – it’s reading them in graphic novels.
There is more Woolf in ‘Are You My Mother?’ than there is in ‘To the Lighthouse’. During my post-grad days, I tried reading To the Lighthouse and gave up because it went over my head. Not that I’ve suddenly become smart. But Bechdel took me to Woolf in a way that even the threat of failing M.A couldn’t. So easily, so kindly, so lovingly.
3. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
I’m convinced that Virginia Woolf wrote a better testimony to Feminism in ‘To the Lighthouse’ than in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. In TTL, Woolf warns us about all the Mr. Ramsays in the world. You and I know Mr. Ramsay very well. He is the man, who, when he walks into a room, any room – must have immediate attention. Otherwise he will throw tantrums. He has to know what you are doing, what you are thinking, otherwise he will die.
Reading this helped me deal with the Mr. Ramsays in my life.
4. The Murder Room – PD James
Took me several months to finish reading this one but perhaps that was a good thing. I will cherish Tally Clutton and her resolve to live alone. Wrote about this in March.
5. Poonachi – Perumal Murugan
I still worry that I didn’t say yes with my dignity intact when I was asked to be on a panel with Perumal Murugan and Kalyan Raman. My heart shrieked and made a fool of me.
I spent most of March being anxious. I worried because I didn’t know Tamil. I worried because English speaking worlds are all alike – they are always brutal to non-English speaking worlds. I worried because, in this equation, I was part of the English speaking world.
The panel was on Murugan’s Poonachi – a book that made me have feelings for goats.
A big part of the reading experience was compromised because of the panel. There was a sense of structure but for days I worried that I would just embarrass myself or worse, Murugan would hate me. I haven’t been able to write about the panel yet. When I can, I hope it can convey the pain and the love in my heart for Murugan.
6. The Goat Thief – Perumal Murugan
Devoured the stories slowly. Most stories have women doing fab things. My favorite had an angry housewife kicking the husband away from sitting in her favorite chair. She then carries the chair over to the kitchen with an enviable Jejamma style.
Another story had a woman who worries about a persistent smell in the house until eventually one day, she is swallowed by a commode.
But the most memorable story in the book is ‘shit’
Apparently, Murugan wanted to release a bunch of stories with the title Shit Stories but the publishers chickened out. Bastards.
‘Shit’ begins with a bunch of upper caste ‘progressive’ boys who go mad because of a stench in their house. Turns out the drainage pipe behind their house is broken so they call someone for help. The man who shows up, Dalit of course, goes down the septic tank and begins to unclog the shit. Murugan describes every step that the man does under the septic tank, while the reader is slowly taking in the boys’ disgust upon seeing this. After a while, like Manjule’s audience, you too begin to pat your cheek softly because Murugan has slapped it that loudly.
7. Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love – Lara Vapnyar
You only need to know that there are two old women named Luda and Milena in this book who made me laugh so much, that I cannot wait to be old and funny. I want to grow old with Namsies the way these two do.
Luda and Milena both compete for a man’s affections (boring, overdone, what else is new – ha, yes, but wait for it) They lure him with food even though they detest cooking. Every evening they break their heads over what to cook – all the while thinking sincerely about each other (not the man)
In the end, the man dies.
I’ll leave you with that.
8. Conversations With Friends – Sally Rooney
Here’s a book that made me wildly uncomfortable. It showed me the distance between me and how I’d like to write.
It showed me what to do with people who are meant to be characters in books that we always tell ourselves, we will write someday – one day.
In the book, I found the language for daily anxieties that friendships tend to bring, the pleasures that there are, in going over WhatsApp chats from years ago for no particular reason. How we devote entire afternoons lying on the bed, assessing relationships, friendships – looking for proof that really- they don’t love us. In fact, they never liked us, to begin with.
How phones play seesaw with our feelings. At one end, you have the deafening silence of laughing double blue ticks that have the quality of a burn. At the other end, you have that fleeting message tone which is sometimes a whistle, a bird song, a dot, a bite, an orgasm. Each having the capacity to make your heart euphoric and erase all self-doubt.
Obviously, we love the things that can show us our shame.
9. The Vegetarian – Han Kang
I loved Yeong-hye. I loved her miserable husband. I loved her resolve to become vegetarian. I loved her decision to sit in front of the refrigerator one morning and empty it slowly of all its meat. I loved that she made her husband eat tofu for days. I loved her calm. And like her husband, I felt destroyed by it too.
10. Joan Didion
Reading Why I writewas reassuring. Even though I am not there yet and perhaps never will be, it’s always gratifying to read a writer’s journey towards writing with a mad passion.
I discovered her madness in this article – How Joan Didion became Joan Didion. It’s a BuzzFeed thing which means it is pretty much buzzblah. But can’t complain: It took me to Didion. I don’t know many people who openly declare that they hate Pauline Kael. Even though I love Pauline Kael.
Here is her essay on New York. If you love places, the way they make you feel, how they tend to have more memories than your bodies, then you might like this essay. It’s never really a matter of liking or not liking a city. Didion shows us why.
11. The Idiot – Elif Batuman
Seline, Batuman’s writer-narrator is a freshman student moving into her dorm room at Harvard when we begin. Her roommate buys a refrigerator and tells her she can use it too but she must buy something for the room, like a poster. She suggests a ‘psychedelic’ poster. Seline can’t find one but finds the next option: A black and white picture of Albert Einstein. She is told to hang it above her desk and soon, several people express grave concern about this. Because you know? Opinions. Yawn.
He invented the atomic bomb, abused dogs, neglected his children. You worship him? Shame.
Don’t you know he abused his wife? How can you have his poster up on your wall? There are many greater geniuses who aren’t famous at all. Why is that?
After several days of torture, she sighs, and like all good girls, thinks of Nietzsche:
Maybe it’s because he’s really the best, and even jealous mudslingers can’t hide his star quality. Nietzsche would say that such a great genius is entitled to beat his wife.
That shut everyone up, I assume. But I was rolling on my bed howling with laughter.
Weeks later, when I was done, I could only satisfy the Batuman-shaped hole in my life by watching her YouTube interviews.
Obvi. What else could I read after having my heart raided by Batuman? I raided her back. Hacked into her New Yorker and LRB pieces.
In The Possessed, you see Batuman’s love for learning new languages. She learned Russian and Uzbek, applied for scholarships through her student life and got to live in Russia and Uzbekistan for two months.
In the essays, she tells us fascinating things she discovers. Take this for instance – In the Uzbek language, there are 100 words for ‘crying’ (!!!) There is a word for crying with a hoo-hoo sound, a word for crying after being dumped, for crying out of hunger, etc. I want to learn Uzbek now, especially since I cry 100 times for 100 things.
If you want a live example of how crazy she is – here is a videoof Batuman reading an excerpt from her essay The Murder of Leo Tolstoy. You can download it here.
13. Approaching Eye Level – Vivian Gornick
If I held onto what Feminism had made me see, I’d soon have myself.
– What Feminism means to me, Gornick.
I pored over essays on living alone, feminism, friendships, walking in the city and stopped for a long time after I read ‘Tribute’ – an obituary of a woman she calls Rhoda Munk. I have never heard of Rhoda Munk but the obituary, like all good obituaries, brings her alive. If you google Rhoda Munk, you will discover that even the internet has amnesia. There is not much that is known about her. Some say that Rhoda Munk is a pseudonym for someone else.
Even so, to write about someone that endearingly after they’ve died is to wish you’d known them well when they were alive. Gornick reminisces about the time she was invited to spend a weekend at Rhonda’s summer cottage. Over three days, the women talked, wrote, took long walks by the sea, had long conversations, cooked, read and took care of Rhonda’s many cats. This is what’s rarely possible even in most great marriages. She had that with Rhonda. A friendship with an older, accomplished woman, a writer, a possible mentor.
After that weekend though, Gornick tastes the bitter truth. She wasn’t special. The ‘honeymoon period’ of their friendship was over, she says.
Many many people begin to join them to live in the cottage. Turns out Rhonda had invited everyone she knew.
Gornick slips into the background and understands that nobody is ever really going to be enough for Rhonda and that’s what makes her Rhonda.
I don’t know Rhonda but I feel like I want to impress her.
14. The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan
Anne Fadiman introduces Marina Keegan as perhaps the only student to have boldly resisted Fadiman’s writing advice. Keegan was in Fadiman’s First-person writing class at Yale.
She resisted my suggestions because she didn’t want to sound like me; she wanted to sound like herself.
I was intrigued. Keegan was barely 20, and had the energy of a dead woman who’s come back alive to write. She had the guts to tell a published writer ki nehi boss, yeh mera style nehi hai. She wrote and rewrote until she was satisfied, which she never was. She was always convinced that she could write better.
In ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Keegan confesses that she doesn’t want to graduate. She wants to keep learning. She worries that it might stop if she goes out into the real world where one has to work to earn.
I wanted to shake her. The woman had already interned at the New Yorker’s fiction department and had received an offer to join them full time after graduation. She was barely 20. I feel like I must keep saying it. Feels like cuts on my wrist. Because what was I doing at 20?
The book is a collection of Keegan’s short-stories and essays. The characters in her stories will walk with you for a long time after you have finished reading. I remember the girl whose boyfriend died. She visits his parents to offer condolences and finds herself in the company of his beautiful ex-girlfriend whom they all love very much. Now she is grieving and jealous. Later, she finds his journal where he has written unflattering things about her.
I remember an old woman who reads to a blind young man twice a week. As soon as she enters his apartment, she takes off all her clothes and begins reading to him – stark naked. At one point her husband dies and she doesn’t go back to the blind man.
For someone who wrote astonishingly intimate stories about death and loss, it’s crazy that after 5 days of graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan died in an accident. She was barely 20.
Premalata is a 23- year-old MBA graduate from Telangana. I met her on Day Two of the Dalit Women Speak Out conference in Pune, 20 Dec 2017.
When I first saw her, she was angrily untangling the beads from her dupatta. She had just ended a very upsetting phone conversation. She snapped the phone shut and jammed it inside her bag. On the other end of the phone, I had heard a man who was persistently asking her where she was.
Poooonaaa, pooonaaa. Pooongaa alla pa, thooo. Poooonaaaa, she’d screamed. After she noticed me, she smiled apologetically and began straightening the creases on her orange Anarkali salwar-kameez.
– Appa? I asked, pointing to the phone now recovering in her bag. Father?
– Illa. Mera Maama – Morning se phone karta. No, my uncle. Has been calling since morning.
This girl was my heroine. She’d refused to give the annoying uncle any bhaav, and now she didn’t want to waste her time talking about him.
She saw my open notebook and asked if I was writing about the conference.
Yes, I tell her but I want to write about her. Is that ok?
She giggled and said, “Main itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” But I’m not a big man.
“Main bhi itna bada aadmi nahi hoon.” I’m also not a big man.
She smiled and I was distracted by the calm in her eyes. I didn’t know Telugu and she didn’t know English so in our garbled Hindis we continued to talk.
She said she was fighting with her family because they didn’t want her to work. And that she was seeking an NGO’s help to negotiate with her parents.
When she thought she’d said enough she began interviewing me.
– Tum kya karta? What do you do?
– Main English teacher. I teach English.
I thought back to what I knew about Telugu and grudgingly arrived at fair-skinned heroes against shiny backdrops of big temples; and bubbly heroines with flowing hair. But I’m wondering what her version of the language is.
So I asked her the most personal, most important question in my life.
Tum picture dekhta? Do you watch films?
She nodded wildly and her eyes looked like they were swallowing me along with the entire room.
– Tumko heros main kaun pasand? Who is your favourite hero?
– Ram, she blinked.
– Kaunsa Ram? Ram Charan Teja? Which Ram?
Cheeee! Her face tightened up with disgust and my eyes widened with surprise.
– Toh phir kaunsa Ram? Then which Ram?
– Ek hain Ram karke. Ready main bahut acha acting kiya woh. Ram has done super acting in the film Ready.
I felt slaughtered. I was desperate but equally dreading her answer to my next question.
– Mahesh Babu pasand? Do you like Mahesh Babu?
Cheeeee! She squirmed again.
– Kyuu? Sabko pasand hai na Mahesh Babu? Why? Everyone loves Mahesh Babu no?
– Agar sabhi log Mahesh Babu ko pasand karenge, toh Ram ka kya hoga? (I don’t want to translate this sentence. English doesn’t deserve it)
My shame shame -puppy shame evaporated because I had fallen in love with her. I was too unsettled to say anything but her eyes were calmer than ever as she stifled her guffaws behind the beady orange dupatta.
Even before I could ask her the next question, she had answered– “Genelia girls main pasand.” In girls, I like Genelia.
And then she blushed like red balloons.
– Tum idar kaisa aaya, she asked me. How did you come here?
– Akela? Alone?
– Tum bahut daaare, she said, giving the English word the lift of a plane taking off. And with a thumbs up in my direction, her eyes drank all of us in again.
Premalata gave me more moments to live in than all the waste Telugu friends from college who gave me nothing more than dabba fair heroes to remember them by.
I think of her occasionally and every time I do, I wonder why I didn’t ask to take her picture. Then I tell myself that it doesn’t matter. You can’t trust cameras for moments like these.
As I left the room after saying bye to her that day, I fished my phone out and began looking for Telugu actor Ram. Google showed me pictures of Ram Charan Teja. I rolled my eyes.
The Dalit Women’s Conference was liberating on many levels, mostly because I got to meet some fab women. This is a small account of the writing workshop I conducted in some very questionable Hindi on 19 Dec 2017.
The first thing I notice is that all my ten students are older than me. The little Hindi that I know gives haath and I begin stammering. In the second row, there are three middle-aged women who each have the sternness of my high-school history teacher.
The two oldest women in the group – Jamnadevi (62) and Asha (56) sit in the first row. Every time they smile, the liquid in their eyes glimmers in an alert way.
I fumble with words the first few minutes. I forget if Likhna and Lekhan mean the same thing. I’m not sure if I should rely on the same examples I use in the English-speaking classroom.
But what great sense does talking about writing make in an English-speaking classroom that I should worry about it not making sense in a Hindi classroom?
Some are unconvinced when I say that born-talent is bullshit, that writing is practice. I begin to worry that I’m making no sense at this point because a woman from the second row says – ‘Lekin humko technique malum nahi hain na? Toh kaise likhe?’ But we don’t know the technique. How do we write?
I wonder if should mention Marquez here and feel somewhat hopeful.
I tell them how he taught himself to write through the stories his grandmother told him. How she once told him that every Sunday an electrician would come home to fix things and when he left, the house would be filled with butterflies.
But Marquez knew that if he were to write about butterflies coming out of a room – nobody would believe it. So he borrowed his grandmother’s stone face to tell stories. He also added that they will believe him if he said yellow butterflies. His funda was simple – you want to write? Begin with the stories that you know. Regardless of how crazy they may seem.
The history teachers nod but are still suspicious. Jamnadevi and Asha are bowled over by the yellow butterflies and their smiles are the loudest.
Kisi ek kamre ke bare main likhiye jo aap kabhi bhool nahi payenge. Write about a room that you’ll never forget.
I wait quietly when they begin writing. I imagine what it must be like to touch the greying head tops of Jamnadevi and Asha. It could be hot, it could be cold.
When Asha begins to read, everybody looks at her– “Neele asmaan ke rang ki deeware thi us ghar main. Kone main ek bada kutiya rakha hua tha”
That house had sky-blue walls and in the corner of the house there was a big grinding stone.
When she says neele asmaan, the other women around her nod and she picks up.
When she is describing her mother’s hands and how she’d spend hours tracing them with her index finger, she breaks down.
– Aur nahi pada jata. I cannot read more.
She takes the ends of her white dupatta, removes her glasses and dabs hers eyes with them.
Jamnadevi who is sitting next to her doesn’t register any of this. She is almost smiling as she begins. She describes the only cot in her house on which, she says – her father taught her ganith (Math) and her mother combed her hair.
There was a small Ponds dabba near the window. We’d try as much as we could to make it last a year and then when it got over, granny would fill it with water so we could have Ponds scent. Even today the smell of Ponds reminds me of my grandmother very much.
I stood there beaming like a useless buffoon. All these women were better storytellers than I could ever hope to be. Every single person. I didn’t really have to do anything. Whether or not I did a good job, we had all agreed vehemently that we could not allow anybody else to tell our stories. Our stories are ours.
When Jamnadevi finished reading, she too breaks down.
The two girls sitting behind her tell me they don’t want to read their stories out because they don’t think it’s as good as Jamnadevi’s.
At this Jamnadevi giggles.
When I think about my experiences as a teacher in an English-speaking classroom, I think about how vulnerable knowing or not knowing a language can make one feel in relation to those that have language, power, and knowledge. I think about how I sometimes feel the need to hide my lack of good English. Then I think about all these women and wonder if I need to hide. They brought all their stories together to the classroom that day – Englishlessly. These were powerful stories rendered broken by unseen violence – the kind that is not easy to protest openly. And when they read out their stories, we didn’t know it then, but we were building our own histories with no help from anyone.
No one told me that a big part of being an adult is paperwork. I spent all of last week being a good adult. And must now die in the nostalgia of sweet childhood where being adult was a lot more fun.
I am still hungry for the romance that I assume will only arrive after running away from home. The romance of living alone with a cat which will come and go like in Eunice D Souza‘s poems. Of dealing with plumbing issues on my own. Of having the occasional dinner party where friends bring expensive wine, and after they have gone, of staying up late to wash vessels and finally, of gazing out into the window like Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the enemy.
I have friends who live on their own and as I write this, I can hear their bouncing laughs. It is nothing like this. And I believe them when they say it. Even so, this has been my ultimate love story – to live alone except for those long weekends where lovers drop in and go, but cats always come back.
The second thing I am beginning to understand about adulthood is that it’s mostly about being blind to it. A lot of growing up has happened over this year and I haven’t had the time to slow down, to see it, to either congratulate myself or curse it. Early last week, on Ambedkar Jayanthi, I wrote something that I had been trying to write for 2 years now. That post had been sitting in various angry drafts in various folders. It is a story I may have told very often, but for the first time, it didn’t feel like it was pointless. This time I had something to say.
Until a certain point, my life was overcrowded with people whose victories were quite strangely and rather strongly determined by how pointless they could make me feel about my writing. I have kicked them all out of my life and that is the third thing about adulthood – the gift of being able to say fuck off.
First Post carried my piece. They have some really cool design so it reads differently and better than it does on my blog. You can read it here.
I am grateful to Snegaa, who is famous for making Brahmin bedbugs weep. Snegaa who has always been there – ever since I started this blog. Over the years I have sent her pieces that I’ve enjoyed writing as also those I’ve struggled with. She has always taken time to read them carefully and offer solid advice. As of today, she is my dominatrix agent who sends me one- line reminders about sending writing pitches to publishers.
Namsiess, the love of my life is actually My Brilliant Friend. She is my Elena Ferrante, and my Lila-Lenu.
Very quickly, before this begins to sound like some lame I’d like to thank speech, I want to return to that Saturday evening of December 2012 when I was a newbie in the department. How I shyly took a piece I’d written to show it to AM and how I’d turned around with great speed and ran for my life immediately after.
Over the years, I learnt not to run, I learnt to be less afraid of my writing and what he was going to say about it. Right from calmly telling me for the 100th time, why something wasn’t working in my writing – to his comments in those balloon like things on Microsoft word that went – ‘Were you fucking sleeping when you wrote this sentence? WAKE UP’ – to ‘Vj, just keep writing like you don’t care’ — It won’t be an exaggeration to say that over six years, he’s the teacher I am still learning from. Not just how to read and write, but also to work, to be a friend, to ignore, and most importantly — to be kind.
It’s my first time getting paid for something I’ve written. I have been waiting to let that sink in. It still hasn’t. And I hope it never does. Letting that sink in would be to forget the various small pleasures that I can otherwise mindlessly engage in. Like thinking about how all my school and college friends are married, about how I am every day grateful for not having done science/MBA/IIT/marriage/babies, about how I used to fail science and math but still managed to adult well, about how small I’d feel on days they’d return test papers with 9/60 and 3/50 — underlining boldly – the big failure I was to become in life.
I wish someone else was writing this but because nobody is going to narrate my life in third-person Anu Agarwal style, I must do it myself. That is the fourth thing about adulting. That sometimes you have to be the narrator, the writer, the heroine, and the villainess of your own fucking life.
P.S – Today rumlolarum is four-years-old. This baby has helped me grow more than I could have managed on my own. I’m all smiles and love. See? Proof: I don’t have to be married to be a mother.
Today I celebrate rumlolarum and my PCOD- prone uterus. Cheers!
The idea all along was to live castelessly. My father and mother did it well. The last time I saw them hassled was when we lived in an apartment in Basavanagudi and the man upstairs did jasoosi, found out we were Dalit and started making a fuss. First he had full respect for dad’s position in the government. Sir! Sir! He’d say every time he saw him. Then the ‘Sir’ went off. The first thing to go when people ‘find’ you out is respect. The second is conversation. He stopped talking to my dad and began talking to dad’s office car driver.
But Noorullah loved my dad. Dad still finds it very puzzling that Muslim men have the greatest love for him. Noorullah didn’t tolerate that man’s banter. Once he came to chat with Noorullah about dad’s income and if reservation was going to take care of his pension as well. I am told that Noorullah attacked the man with a newspaper and chased him up the stairs.
After a while, my parents thought it best to leave that house and go elsewhere. Amma was heartbroken. She had built it – brick by brick. Right from the colour of the walls to the spoon in the kitchen – amma had given the house more than two years of her life. It was our first ‘own’ house, our first ‘non-rented’ house and that too in Bangalore. Wherever we were before this, we had always lived in rented houses and amma had hated it. She was tired of the agarbattis and the dhoops that had to be lit every time she made fish or chicken. She was tired of being asked what caste we belonged to before we were even given a tour of the house.
Maybe they still experience caste in small shocks today but because they have seen so much worse, they just laugh it off and ignore it.
This should have been my first lesson.
Today dad keeps having WhatsApp fights with people who are anti-reservation. When Tina Dabi topped IAS, it bothered many people and they sent shit forwards to him. Dad would sit and compose long messages to shut them up. They all began the same way – Mr so and so. I think you are wrong because –
He does the same thing even when he posts his Islamophobia ridden and anti-Tamil forwards but that’s another story and another tragedy altogether. I think he has figured out that the country is so stupid and so beyond help that the only way to gain respect, especially if you are Dalit is by behaving like a Brahmin or at least by trying to become like one.
Very early in school, it became clear to me that there was something wrong with me. I stood before the mirror every day of my school life trying to figure out what it was. One day it was the gap between my teeth. Another day, it was the dullness under my eyes, the paleness of my skin, the thinness of my hair, the roundness of my nose. The day after that it was my weakness in math and science. And the next day it was a smell that followed me everywhere I went. I stopped eating egg.
But I couldn’t find out what it was and gave up. I did what I had seen my mother sometimes do. She’d make friends to learn the secrets of the trade, as it were – to be accepted, to be liked. So to forget my own discomfort with myself, I craved friendships that seemed to be in excess for other people everywhere. Girls and boys who lived next-door to each other, who would walk to school together, eat lunch together.
Years later when I will read Elena Ferrante, some bits of my caste ridden childhood will begin to make sense to me. I understood the violence in those books because that was caste in my world. This is probably why my students find it hard to relate to the book, to me – because I keep talking about experiences that were/are alien to them.
In Belgaum where I studied for a year, neighbour aunties would pull their daughters out of our house exactly at 5 to say ‘Abhyas maadbeku. Time aaytu’
I thought Abhyas was some karate class they went to. My mother and I realised much later that Abhyas meant practice, study. Everywhere we looked, parents were training their children to be competitive adults – to get them ready to take over the world.
It must have been daunting for my mother to prepare her children in a city where everyone was fast, everyone was modern, where Merit sat like a Brahmin God — that visible form that we could see but not touch. Like kaig sikkidru baig sigolla. The proverbial distance between the cup and the lips.
We were put in good schools but beyond that these other girls had something that my mother knew she couldn’t give us because she didn’t know what, she didn’t know how. But she did something. She did what other mothers were doing. She took us to music classes, dance classes and there she figured, we will learn something. But did we?
The music classes were amusing. The children there seemed to know everything there was to know already. So there was no learning happening. There was practice happening. And then one day the music master played some tune on his harmonium and asked us to recognise it. Yeh raga cha naav kai, he sang to us. My sister told him her name. He stared, gulped air and moved on. So did we.
We didn’t go back after that.
How was my mother to prepare us for this battle without right genes and pure blood? It must have been a lonely time and lonelier world. This was a battle she was not ready for. Dad kept getting transferred so for the longest time she fought this alone.
This is what some of you would call cultural capital. And some of you would call Merit.
What does this mean in our lives but? How to define this invisible code?
It was that neat handwriting in which studious Brahmin girls wrote in their hardbound books, which some of us could never touch. It went from their hands and into the hands of others deserving and then into their bags. It was like a secret document that only some had access to.
It was the look of utter disgust on the faces of these girls when I asked them on the morning of some exam – can you please explain this theorem? And then they explained the same with pleasing smiles when some of their own asked them the same question.
It was the neat partition of their oiled hair, the ability to sit in perfect padmasana during tuitions, the glow of their skin, and the aroma of their vegetarian lunch boxes.
Essentially, Merit is a tall building full of assembly lined, well-oiled Brahmin robots who receive all the training very early to take over the world – Engineering, MBA, IIT, IIM, and now because it’s cool – humanities.
Merit is definitely not just hard work then. It’s the license code to being allowed someplace because you are of the right kind.
And this became starkly obvious to me when I started working as a teacher. I was still blind to caste in many, many ways. And discovering Ambedkar wouldn’t happen for a couple more years. But again, there was that growing anonymous discomfort with myself. I think back to the time when a Brahmin colleague declared over lunch one day ‘I am proud to be a Brahmin.’ I think back to the time when there was clandestine discussion over my NET qualification and its validity because apparently there was no evidential ‘merit’ involved.
I can only cringe with disgust now. It is clear to me that caste networks operate invisibly but quite strongly everywhere, especially in schools and colleges, and even among students. Here of course it takes on various forms – talent, good English, knack etc.
In the classroom, I am quick to sense when a student doesn’t find me challenging enough. When I take books that I’ve liked into the classroom – it is with a faint hope that if I can open out the book for them — something might click, and they will want to read it. I have learnt to rely strongly on my own pleasure to be able to reach out to students.
But the students’ demands on my ability to offer challenge, puzzle is blurring into that dangerous line where they switch off pleasure completely. I am horrified by their indifference to pleasure. What is the point of literature if you only want to capitalize it into an app that offers challenge and devalues pleasure?
Isn’t pleasure political? Doesn’t that make it a challenge? A book that did this for me was Nabokov’s Lolita. I struggled because I couldn’t believe how much I was being seduced by the damn book. And that immediately became political.
One of the things I have learnt from reading Paromita Vohra and watching her interviews obsessively is the idea that no one can and no one must define what is pleasure or what is political for you. That choice is yours to make and yours alone.
I might be the lesser person here for putting pleasure over everything else. And I know I cannot escape it when it leads to situations I often find myself in. For instance, it hurts my eyes when I notice students dumb themselves down to talk to me. But at least it doesn’t hurt my heart, thank god. Just my eyes, but oh my eyes! My eyes!
But I’d rather have pleasure – you keep your merit OK? Tata bye bye.
What I have in abundance, that all Dalit people have, is the desire to learn, and the longing to feel alive.
This is the first thing I learnt from Ambedkar.
The next was that merit needn’t be something we cannot touch. Either by challenge or pleasure, if we can get to the point where learning becomes something we are invested in every day, then we have won.
When I saw this, it became tolerable, even desirable for me to look into the mirror every day.
A nagging question I have had of all big movements, whether it is feminism or the anti-caste movement – is what to do in situations that life throws at us?
Bratty cabbage girls who hate female teachers, Brahmin batata vadas who smirk when you talk about caste in classrooms. How to deal with them? I find that every now and then, I discover an answer because I’m always looking for one.
I went from anger to humour, from Ambedkar to Dhasal to Manjule, and found the answer with Gogu Shyamala.
The women in Gogu Shyamala’s stories (Father may be an elephant and mother only a small basket, but…) make me feel more empowered than #MeToo and #Losha.
In Jambava’s Lineage, Cina Ellamma is a young Bhagotam performer of the Nizamabad Chindu Ellavva Troupe. One day a bunch of upper caste men abuse her and she is outraged. She goes to the senior Ellamma for advice and this is what Ellamma tells her –
My child, we too have lived through many similar experiences … but we have somehow managed to keep the art of the Chindu Bhagotam alive. Those who resent or dislike us will speak harshly. We have to deal with them, persuade them maybe, but make sure that we continue with our own work. What you saw happening today is nothing compared to the high-handedness of the dora folk in the villages when I was a young girl. They would make us do all the work, and then say ‘keep your distance … you son of a madiga … chinduloda… dakkaloda’
As they listened to Ellamma, Cina Ellamma fell silent. Something touched her deep inside.
Ellamma continues –
‘The best way for us is to attract them with our performance, to make it so riveting that they sit and watch for hours. That is the most fitting reply to those who try to ride rough over us.
On stage I’d bring out all the anger and suffering hidden in my heart. I’d indirectly abuse some of the men sitting in the audience as if I was referring to someone else. Initially they were very angry, but gradually they changed, and grew more polite’
I am sorry if you don’t see the connection here but I do. Perhaps because Gogu Shyamala is writing about my women – not yours. My ancestors entertained and performed for a living. And this story is equally important to me as a teacher because what is teaching if not performance? When I am doing my job, there is room for a lot of Savarna noise to drown me out. When this happened in 2015, I was crippled. It took me years to move on. I wish I had it in me back then to make my performance so riveting that they sit and watch for hours.
Instead I whined and moped and did nothing except fume.
In Tataki Wins Again, Balamma walks like a ghost at the crack of dawn to go water her fields. If she is late, the upper caste landlord would empty all the water into his fields. And that’s why she’d wake up at 4 in the morning and get there before him, every single day. This offended him so decides to rape her.
He grabs hold of her one morning and drags her into the fields. When he begins to molest her, Tataki ‘takes aim and kicks him as hard as she could on the groin with both her legs.’
The landlord collapses.
In the village, the mala and madiga women giggled through their sari ends as they shared the news, “The landlord wanted to catch our balamani. She kicked him in the groin!”
When I read these stories I feel like I have more than just answers. I have a way to live.
At the Dalit Women’s Conference last year, Ruth Manorama said that our Dalit women must never respond to campaigns like #MeToo because we just end up becoming numbers for the benefit of Savarna Feminists.
It doesn’t happen to me very often but I heard my heart click into the right place when she said it.
My Mouma is a champion in life. She represents herself and she is not bound by anything. She is 82 and takes care of herself like a queen. If you mess with her, she will hit you on the head with a water bottle that she always carries around.
These are the women I want to read and write about. Sumitra, the woman in my short -story is vulgar in her laughter and dirty in demeanor.
I had just been looking in all the wrong place for answers but as it turns out – Dalit women have always had answers to these questions. Women with loud and vulgar laughter who, like their hair, are mad and untamable – always do.
*Featured Image Credits – Savarna Audience by Dr Sylvia Karpagam at drsylviakarpagam.wordpress.com