Annalise Keating

Annalise Keating is a lesson in how not to apologize for wanting power and definitely not for having it. It’s easy to want to tear people down like her, especially when they’ve built their lives from scratch and must keep doing it over and over not because they fall so many times but because they are made to. History has shown no dearth of weak people who can’t stand watching someone of not the right color, caste, or face standing up there. And this is why Keating is such a reward to watch no matter how many times she falls, lies, fails, weeps, and picks herself up. In the end, she still stands.

There are many things about binge-watching a TV show that I am wary about. To begin with, I am uneasy with who I become: who knowingly puts her days on hold and acts as if she’s been given an extra life from watching an ad on candy crush. It doesn’t help that when I’m on a Netflix spree, I am also imagining how great my life is going to be after I finish the damn show. How I will make time at the end of every day, no matter how unwilling I am, how sleepy, to sit in front of the mirror and braid my hair, lotion my hands, put the phone away and read a book. It’s amusing no? That the people we spend days and weeks watching, listening, and soaking in aren’t on their phones and computers all the time?

While I continue to thrive on borrowed life and act as if I can return to the main one any minute I want, I don’t want to leave Annalise. So once the show is over, instead of moping around wondering what happened to her, I take her with me.

Why, I wonder, do I warrant such attention? What do I represent that is such a threat? ~Assata Shakur

I love Annalise Keating for many things. I like that she isn’t honest or likable. It’s reassuring to watch a black woman on screen who doesn’t take her suffering and turn it into kindness. She lets the suffering eat into her and remain in her body where it becomes anger, grows into bitterness, freezing her in despair. She spits fire when threatened, laughs thunder when she wants to, burns you with ice-cold logic when you attack her. She shows us parts of her she coerces into being liked by others, as well as parts she couldn’t and later wouldn’t. A term often used to describe the experience of watching women like her is ‘raw’ –but a better word would be surviving, I guess. The same word she uses to describe herself in the end.

I wonder what it’s like to have that kind of vision to imagine a life where you will not allow the color of your skin, the smell of your caste to determine how you will be seen by the world; and the grit to go and get it. She won’t be a hero. She isn’t interested in the medals of honor you want to garland her with for her victories, it’s perhaps why she doesn’t pine for people when she is in pain either. You like putting her on pedestals, your problem. She didn’t ask you to do that. She was just working. I’ve been thinking a lot about work and what it means to be disliked at the workplace. I’ve often been witness to watching the most hard working people be loathed by those who don’t work half as much. It’s not easy to love Annalise Keating, says Eve at her funeral. But it’s what made her the strong, stubborn, badass lawyer she worked hard to be.

In the entire series, the only time we see Annalise talking to herself is in the final episode, where she wonders what to wear for the last day of her trial, the day of the verdict. She must choose between wearing something that can make it easier for the jury to declare her not guilty or something that will say ‘if you need my clothes and hair to prove my innocence, then fuck you.’ It was a revelation to hear her speak to herself. As it was to watch her mother, Ophelia keep the Anna Mae Harkness in Annalise alive. Ophelia on her own is a whole other show.

In court, Annalise is often told not to use the ‘race card’ and I think about how there is a deliberate yet subtle inattention to the fact of her as a black woman lawyer in her imagination of herself. In the beginning, there is something supremely regular and ordinary about the way she goes about her life. She shows you what it’s like to not have race hovering over you at all times, even though there is no escape from it. How people can have the potential to blossom despite the threat of it always holding them back. Eventually the inattention is avenged- they hunt her down and make her pay for it. But still, she rises.

The one card that we should be using is the card we don’t often want to use even if we aren’t left with any other cards. I don’t know if it’s because we want you to see that the card is actually for you, not us. Or because we know we are still of value without race/caste unlike you who will fall like a sack of onions without yours. And that’s how Annalise wins her fight. She throws your card in your face and becomes Anna Mae Harkness.

UNSTILL

Mind is crisscrossing. It’s a web connecting too many things and I came here to slow down.

I woke at 4:30 am feeling very happy because it had been raining and the sounds from the open window made me smile first thing in the morning. I lay in bed for a few more minutes, prolonging joy, wondering if I was only teasing myself with the promise of an early morning or if I was actually going to wake up and get one.

4:45 – I got up, went outside. It was dark and the rain had washed the streets and trees. Smiled more. Came back to bed and started reading. I am still with Patchett. Last two essays in The Story of a Happy Marriage. I am loving it. Went to the kitchen, made hot water, sat in bed sipping it, reading. It was still raining.

5:30 – Day broke. Went outside properly and smiled. Came back, changed into my walking clothes (oversized blue sweats and black yoga pants), took phone, earphones, Patchett and went for a walk. I listened to the soundtrack from Vita and Virginia as I walked. The music was composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sister. Fuck them both. So talented.

Many fruits were fallen pachak on the road. 3 mangoes, 2 purple berries, 3 red berries, one half-eaten banana, and half a jackfruit. Took a few pictures. After 15 mins of being consumed by V&V, I walked to the park, went inside an enclosure, sat on a bench and read. An old man came to do various exercises. We left each other alone. I read for 30 mins and came back home.

I took coffee with Patchett again and spoke to the parents for a while. Came back to bed to chill and read a bunch of essays that made me think think think. Grateful for these mornings. Was distracted by Hamzy’s Korean food-eating videos again but only mildly.

  1. You Really Need to Quit Twitter
  2. Is Google Making Us Stupid?
  3. Habit by William James

Ignoring the doomsday headlines is not difficult because I recognize that we are already anyway doomed. The irony of being led to all these essays through twitter is somewhat charming.

Bookmarking these for later:

  • Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers, Janet Malcolm
  • The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm
  • Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf 

Must return to Vita and Virginia.

How to waste time and other lists

The Proust Questionnaire

Here are the thirty-five questions Proust originally answered in 1890. And this is me in 2021 because I have a ton of work to do but I’d rather be doing this. The last time I did this, I was the same. So nothing’s changed fml.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness? Waking up early to drink French Press
  2. What is your greatest fear? Having the same fear year after year
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? How easy it is to not write
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others? Putting energy to make others miserable
  5. Which living person do you most admire? Asha Kowtal
  6. What is your greatest extravagance? Making time to do things I love
  7. What is your current state of mind? Gas
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Punctuality
  9. On what occasion do you lie? All the time
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance? My tooth gap but after I read Wife of Bathe, I don’t mind it so much
  11. Which living person do you most despise? Tejaswi Surya
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man? Laughter
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman? Laughter
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “As the French say”
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life? Detective Inspector Sarah Lund
  16. When and where were you happiest? Morning after great nights
  17. Which talent would you most like to have? Waking up early
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I wish I wasn’t in a hurry to respond to people
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement? Moving on
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? The Banyan Tree at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore
  21. Where would you most like to live? Bombay
  22. What is your most treasured possession? Capacity for small joys
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Squashing other people’s joys
  24. What is your favourite occupation? Plants vs Zombies
  25. What is your most marked characteristic? Cracking knuckles in my sleep
  26. What do you most value in your friends? Desire to drink
  27. Who are your favourite writers? Students
  28. Who is your hero of fiction? Alice Munro
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with? Jackie Chan
  30. Who are your heroes in real life? Razia-Razzak
  31. What are your favourite names? Rumlolarum and Disco Shanti
  32. What is it that you most dislike? Having time but wasting it
  33. What is your greatest regret? That I didn’t put kai when I should have
  34. How would you like to die? In bed with a book on my chest
  35. What is your motto? Live quietly, drink tightly

This is Joan Didion answering the questionnaire when she was 69.

Growing Out

Today I learnt that none of my friends from college are happily married. Almost everyone I went to college with is married, and/or a parent. These were things that elders always said would solve all our problems. You don’t know what to do after an M.A? Get married. Trouble in marriage? Have a baby. Tired of baby? Have another one. Tired of them both? Get one married.

Elders lie a lot.

And I’m glad I didn’t fall for any of it. As it turns out, the most miserable people from my past are not only married but also seem to think that not being married is the worst kind of punishment, and that telling someone they are going to be alone for the rest of their lives is an insult (giggles). Being married or in love has given them neither a life nor an escape from it. I am grateful each day for having grown up with them and grown out of them because if they were still in my life, I’d probably be like them.

I wish I had gone to a different college for my undergrad though. In *Main* College, where the Savarna spoiled brats ruled, there was very little space to find oneself, especially when one is so busy hiding oneself. The friend from college I blocked yesterday sent me a message from her husband’s phone today. It’s perhaps the only reason to get married :/

She said that I’m going to regret being alone, that she has a life because she’s got work to do (clearly) and that not everyone is lucky to belong to a family that has come up in life by looting people and taking bribes from others. (“I can now see it’s in the genes – no wonder you are this way”)

She obviously doesn’t know that it’s a casteist thing to say. She was merely repeating something she’d heard being thrown around in college by Savarna bullies. But it got me thinking about a whole lot of people who graduate in life with the luxury of never having to unlearn caste, and the luxury of never having to learn how to get a life, keep it, and most importantly – how to just be (alone, without, with, inside, outside)

I used to think that the reason I am no longer friends with these people was because I fell out with them. But it’s also that to be accepted by them, I had to be like them, laugh at the jokes made at the expense of my parents who had no idea that the people they welcomed into their home as my friends, mocked them behind their backs. This was a strange set of friends I had – they pretended to like me, basically called my parents quota parents, and attacked reservation at every opportunity they got.

But because so many of the people I meet today are either students willing to learn or adamant not to, and also twitter people whose engagement with the world begins and ends with the word ‘discourse’, I’ve half-forgotten that there is a whole world out there that only engages with people like themselves. And it’s almost comical that as a result of this, they will only know people like themselves for the rest of their lives and continue to mock people who aren’t like them.

More than anything, what seemed to upset them was that I’d moved on, found the ability to fight back with no more than three words, and didn’t seem to want to remember them anymore. I don’t remember them because a) They were horrible b) I was worse c) Thinking of them reminds me of who I used to be, which is the most powerless I’ve ever been.

The only good reason to think about them now and then is that it shows me what I was able to escape. In the very brief time I spent using three words for her dukh bhari autobiographies on WhatsApp, I saw that she hadn’t changed at all. That she was still the same person with the same insecurities. A true testament to any kind of growth is not when you are perfectly secure but when you don’t have the same insecurities you once did, or at least not in the same way. I am still an extremely insecure person but not about things I was once governed by. I am insecure about things that oddly enough, also liberate me. Not being as good a writer as my students, not writing, being an incompetent teacher, dealing with savarna people are things that I am insecure about. They occupy me in ways that make me want to do better, write more, write my way out of who I used to be.

But if I had to get married and have children to solve these problems, where would I be today?

Adulting, comrades, is not listening to adults. It also means ignoring people who are best ignored, even when they message you from their husband’s phone (this will never stop being funny)

A word I haven’t used yet but would like to have used on this post by now is the word heteronormative, which I learnt fairly recently so it’s not like I am some fancy-shmancy person, squeezé moi. It’s easy not to be friends with Savarna cabbages from my past because I don’t have to explain what it means to live a life that isn’t bound by romance, men, love, marriage, children, and caste. It’s easier because I don’t have to explain what it means to live days that bloom and make me feel alive because in it are women, teaching, writing, reading, eating, drinking, and remaining perpetually indebted to rumlolarum. But the bestest of them all is that I don’t have to explain what Savarna means. 

*Main* college: In Bangalore. Totally unnecessary to take its name. But rhymes with Main.

Growing Up

At one point in my life, the only thing I wanted to learn was how to be. What do you do when you feel a certain way, when someone goes out of their way to show you their disapproval, when you are misunderstood and there’s nothing you can do to offer clarification? This ate my insides for years together. Every time I thought I had grown up, something would happen and the way I responded confirmed that I had, in fact, not grown up.

Over the last year, I picked some battles, ignored the rest, allowing only my instincts to inform me. And I must say, I am a lot more at peace than I’ve ever been. I used to survive confrontations and the need to defend myself by using too many words in the past. This, as I have come to learn, is unnecessary. I now use the mute option on Twitter generously, the block option on WhatsApp liberally.

Today, I blocked a friend I went to college with. She unleashed a barrage of accusations that were both untrue and painfully long to read. I said what I had to and refused to be dragged into a conversation I had no energy for. A year ago, I’d have fallen for it, explained, over-explained, analysed, taken screenshots, sent it to other people for clarification, sympathy. I did none of that today, and I am happy. Before blocking her, I said two lines. That I hadn’t thought of her since 2012, that it’s been close to a decade, and that she must please, please get a life.

I’m sort of joyful that after years of whining about not knowing what to do, I seem to have found a way to deal with things that no longer bring joy. I am drinking to that today.

Ann Patchett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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