E for Egg

Egg

In the beginning of the Yugoslavian film Ko To Tamo Peva, a man in a bowler hat pokes an egg with a nail – making a tiny hole, & then sucks it all from the other end. There is no way to find out if the other end is poked too. It’s a technique that treats an egg like the secret it actually is. Pa would do this too – his choice of weapon was always the needle – a secret in itself. 

Sometimes secrets need to be cracked open on the sturdy edges of pans or broken open with knives, spoons, & forks. They need to fall with a plop leaving you no time to marvel at that sound because it’s already broken into whispers. Other times, secrets need to be nudged gently into revealing themselves. You knock on them gently at first. Consent, fucker. I know men who handle the egg delicately like it’s the only egg in the world. I know women who stand over hissing pans and throw in onions, tomatoes, coriander, chilies – leaving no room for conversation, much less secrets. 

What is a cod liver capsule if not the yolk turned inside out? 

An old love who was into bodybuilding used to eat 6 eggs every morning. He’d break them open on my head one by one & I’d fall about laughing. He ate the whites, I ate the yellows. It was perfect,  until he began throwing the yolks away because they weren’t healthy. 

Nothing else tastes like the yellow does – leaving its echo behind long after the song is over. 

In school one afternoon, I opened my dabba to find egg bhurji & chapati. I began gulping it down before anyone could find out. A girl I’d always admired for her lack of interest in boys wanted to taste the egg. I gave her some, she ate it & squinted at me. Giving me no hint as to whether the egg & I had passed or failed, she walked away with her head held high. Her friends regarded her with fear after that & stared at her wondrously through the day while I tried to understand why they never looked at me like that – the egg was in my dabba after all.

One morning in Basavanagudi, I saw a Brahmin nose walking around in utter disgust. It was sulking cutely. It didn’t approve of the egg smell in Bgudi. On some days it walked with agarbattis, flowers, & camphor. On most others – just gau mutra. The last time I saw it, it was running after a thread-wearing man who had recently married an egg-eating shudra. It was funny only because the man kept touching his nose, to make sure it wasn’t his own nose chasing him.

F for Flight. Friendship. Fight.

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After years of living in rented houses marked by fish fried stealthily, by the many agarbattis left alight on window sills, by the swollen rooms that held their breath every time an owner turned up for inspection, and by houses denied to us for not being Brahmin; Amma & Appa built this home from the memory of what their & our childhood eyes were thirsty for.

Appa’s govt job kept him moving & as a result, we lived in many houses from Chikodi, to Raichur to Bidar to Gulbarga to Mangalore to Shimoga to Belgaum to Bangalore. But those houses were never homes – there were enough reminders of that. 

As a child, I was preoccupied by the mystery of Duplex houses. Friends in school had these & while I was let into their verandas & halls – I never made it upstairs. ‘Wait here, she’ll come down’ – they always said & I waited to watch her come down. Often another friend, who was allowed upstairs would come down with her & I grew hungry for swirling stairs & the tight friendship that stood on top – arms linked, walking down together. Duplex houses came with duplex friendships.

When I passed by these houses, I looked only at the top half, longing to steal a glance. I imagined being invisible, walking up their stairs, & opening doors to their bedrooms. Handicapped by my own thrill of finally being able to see what lay behind, I never could open those doors. My curiosity for learning about women’s rooms persists. I want to see not just where they work, play & sleep but also how. 

The duplex is a permanent condition of a secret, of something hidden, of something that you have to work up to see. And more than wanting my own, I was desperate to be part of someone else’s secret.

Our duplex was finally built after years of saving & borrowing, but my friends from Jain college were convinced it wasn’t hard-earned. It came from what they called ‘our money stolen by your briber-father’ They talked with such self-assuredness & street-smart confidence that I couldn’t fight. This became a running joke & since I didn’t know how to defend my home, I joined them & laughed at myself. I learnt that if you gave someone permission to laugh at you, you could become their friend. But there were rules – and the first one was – you could never laugh at them.

My anger arrived one day when a rich boy whose father also had a government job became their friend & there was an unbearably loud & dignified silence about his duplex. Where did that silence come from? Why was he given the dignity of not being laughed at? I thought it was because he was a boy. I understood the games that caste & friends play much later. They were experts at diffusing codes – who came from where & therefore deserved respect – who didn’t – who can you laugh at – whose father you should be afraid of – whose father you can make fun of.

I’ve never wished for a backbone as much as I did then. But it seemed like every time I got one just enough to stand up & scream, tears came too. And who wants to stand fighting & crying when you can sit and join them laughing? Even so, their merit was so hard-earned that a day before every exam, they came to me for help. I stopped doing this in my final semester & they never spoke to me after that.

G for Gumption

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The first syllable of this word comes from nowhere in particular. Your tongue hangs about without really touching anything in the mouth, making room for its own stomach to gather the ‘guh’. Indeed, it’s a word that requires more than your mouth to say it. It needs the tightness of your fists & the firmness of your stomach. I first heard it in the film, ‘The Holiday’ & understood its meaning entirely from the way Kate Winslet had banged the door on a man- an asshole, turned around with infectious energy, punched the air with her fists & celebrated having fallen out of love with him. When he asks her what had gotten into her, she says ‘Gumption’

I don’t have gumption. My mother has it, my aunts have it, & mouma who passed it on to her daughters will always have it. It’s what caused amma to hold a broom over her head one day & chase away an old Brahmin man who had stopped at our gate to teach her manners. She was cleaning the front yard & he stopped to tell her that in America, people didn’t do things like that(!) She screamed, ‘saakappa hogu, naavu nodidive jagattu’ (enough man, keep walking, even we have seen the world) 

My aunt showed gumption by pushing an abusive brother-in-law into a chair, her foot firm on his chest, her eyes dancing with fire, while her index finger launched a threat at his face to never ever lay a finger on her sister. 

As a child, I believed that mouma’s gumption was hidden in her blouse and perhaps it is. It’s why she never wore a bra. She barged into temples, ate their food, prayed to their gods because she never believed that anybody should have the right to stop her, even if it’s all they did. She grabbed her paysa & ate it too. And ate it how – standing tall against all the poojaris united.

Savitrimai’s gumption was in the extra saree she carried in her bag because she didn’t have time to fight Savarna losers whose only job was to stand with cow dung to throw at her. She had work to do – her work was her gumption.

Sujatha Gidla’s mother had gumption when she ran after a train that was leaving the platform with all her belongings – marks cards, certificates. She ran with the speed of an athlete, still carrying the water bottle for which she had deboarded in the first place.

It’s the English-language’s poverty that even a word that needs you to thrust your fists in the air like a martyr, like a woman newly out of love, will never fully lend its energy to understanding Dalit survival in this country. And this is why, G for me, is Gumption & I am claiming that word to tell our stories.

 

H for hair

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The men in my mother’s family inherited a love for gossip. In my father’s, they inherited the more dignified baldness. Ajja had shiny white hair growing at the back of his head, leaving the top shinily exposed. He had a small, round face with the faintest trace of uneven white stubble, like an incomplete game of bingo.

Every Sunday morning, Ajja sat in the veranda with a towel on his lap, giving me a small hand-mirror to hold up to his face. Next to us, there’d be a red mug of hot water, shaving cream, brush, & a razor. I had to hold the hand mirror steady for him to begin shaving. I failed often because I’d keep bringing the mirror down to examine his face.

Every time I did this, he’d stare at me wordlessly & I’d say sorry & hold it back up. I couldn’t help it. I was fascinated by the procedure & wanted to take it all in. The smell of the shaving cream was always strongest when Ajja shaved. I could rarely smell it when Appa shaved boringly – standing by the wash basin. 

Ajja would squeeze a blob of shaving cream on the brush & I’d egg him on to take more. ‘Ashtu Saakagalla.’ First of all, he didn’t have much hair. There was some barely noticeable stubble, sandpapery in texture but watching Ajja shave was the single most joyous thing & I tried as much as I could to prolong the spectacle.

He’d smile, sprinkle some water on it & begin painting his face. If I opened my mouth, I could almost taste an acid-like something at this point. He made circular motions covering large parts of his cheeks, chin & throat, always saving the upper lip for last – it was the hardest & required the expertise of a beautician. He pursed his lips together & drew an efficient line, barely touching the nostril. 

Then in went the razor. Every time he cleaned a section & brought it down to dip into the red mug of water, I’d steal a glance expecting hair but there was only foam. Even so, when the blades hit the stubble, they made the most delicious, crispy, silvery sound. The sound of something sharp being cleared most gently. Hypnotized by the sound, I’d look for the expanse of naked skin on his face. There were always a few smears of shaving cream on his face – below his ears – sometimes inside, and under his neck. The foam happily floated in the red mug with occasional spikes of hair winking at us.

Post the shave, Ajja looked barren, emptier somehow. Like he had suddenly become strict, like he had no more stories. And week after week, I waited for the hair to grow so I could stand in front of him with the mirror & watch a story being told without words.

I for Inventory. Intimacy.

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One morning, I held a hot cup of tea in my hands after cutting 15 green chilies lengthwise. When the heat pulsating inwards began pouring outside, I couldn’t tell what was feeding what.

When someone who doesn’t want to laugh, laughs — I look for the line of anger on their face that suddenly hides. I worry the line will return when they are alone & I won’t be around to humiliate it into hiding again.

A friend once told me that it’s not possible to hold on to self-respect when one is in love. I felt  victorious & betrayed. Why though? It’s not like I am a mountain of self-respect when not in love.

When he drove, I liked looking at the folded sleeves of his red checkered shirt on the forearm. But I desired him most when he reversed the vehicle, and put his left arm around my seat to look back, his Adam’s apple teasing.

I get annoyed when I stand before the mirror at the end of a long day to find by bra strap peeping. Why didn’t my girls or aunties on the road tell me or better yet, put it back gently & tuck my hair behind the ear also? The only time I felt happy in convent schools was when girls would sing ‘Sunday is longer than Monday’ everytime a petticoat played hide & seek.

I don’t want feminism that takes away intimacy between women in bathrooms. Come, weep into my arms sister. I will hold you, you hold me.

When I was 6 & refused milk, Mouma pulled me to her lap & promised to show me one breast if I finished half the glass, and both if I finished the full glass, permanently ruining all possible hetero relationships for me. 

Even hickies are forgotten in hours. The warmth of chilies still hasn’t left.

J for Jabya

Jabya smiling, Jabya laughing, Jabya crying, Jabya studying, Jabya singing – is a boy in love. Jabya doing homework is Jabya writing Shalu’s name on the slate. Jabya, in uniform, is Jabya dreaming of wearing t-shirt & jeans some day. Jabya who makes his friend wait while he combs his hair, who rubs powder on his face, powder dropped carefully from a paper is a boy next to whom nobody sits with in school. Jabya who reminds me of a student who loves to dance, Jabya who reminds me of my brother who pushes his hair back when nervous, is a boy who has to hide himself so he can watch the girl he loves & smile.

Jabya climbing up trees with his friend to catch a black sparrow that will bring him luck & love, is young Ambedkar climbing up trees to read. Jabya’s friend who doesn’t know how to climb down trees is young Ambedkar jumping down trees. Jabya at Aashiqui cycle mart is Jabya in love. Jabya pulled away from Aashiqui cycle mart to remove a piglet from the ditch is Jabya not allowed to remain in love. Jabya who has nightmares of that piglet when he sleeps is Jabya who chases a black sparrow every morning so he can convince himself that he is not the pig that Shalu has to flee from. 

Jabya who cycles out of the village to sell ice lollies is Jabya standing outside a Van Heusen billboard in town, staring at the white man’s sharp nose & feeling his own flat nose. Jabya dancing on Chankya’s shoulders is Jabya closest to Shalu who is watching from above, even if momentarily. Jabya’s Chankya is a man who saves Jabya without even letting him know that he was in danger all this while. Chankya, who guides Jabya to remain alive, who sets him to chase a black sparrow, distracting him, even if momentarily, from the horror of this impossible love.

Jabya chasing pigs is Jabya hiding behind the walls, hiding from school, hiding from classmates, hiding from Shalu. Jabya still inches away from the black sparrow is Jabya never losing hope. Jabya, inches away from catching the pig, Jabya standing still for the national anthem is a slap on your face, my face, and this fucking country’s face.

Jabya pelting stones at the pig is Jabya learning how to pick up the stone differently. Jabya has picked up stones to catch the black sparrow before but he always did it out of love. Jabya carrying the pig in front of his school walls where Ambedkar, Savitrimai, & Jotiba look on grimly is the image we need to remember everyday. Jabya picking up the stone in the end, is Jabya finally picking it up for himself. Jabya throwing the stone at the camera is throwing the stone at you. Manjule’s slap for you, for me.

 

 

K for Konkani – K for Kannada

Children born of bilingual marriages occupy a strange position in schools, especially as subjects of raised-eyebrow discussions between teachers. But we are gifted in a way that the xeroxed products of Brahmanical endogamy can never understand. Our bodies are Ambedkar’s dream realised – it’s here that we have mixed & also carry a mixture of everything, language especially. I was born out of Konkani’s hip & Kannada’s belly. It is my tragicomedy that I am sitting here now with my mouth open like a piranha trying to capture English.

Years ago on a group tour, a family we were traveling with made an astounding observation about us that continues to make Amma & Appa howl with laughter. They’d taken one look at me, my sister & brother & declared very tragically ‘father’s nose & mother’s complexion not one of them has inherited’

Indeed. The tip of Appa’s nose glistens like the eye of the needle. My nose is a potato that no one wants to buy. For Amma’s people, Appa’s nose is his most remarkable feature, almost absolving him for being dark. Amma’s vanilla-drops complexion induced everlasting jealousy in Appa’s people. It is believed that it absolved her of dowry. I once heard the expression “My mother is milk & father, decoction” in a Tamizh film & felt beautifully represented. Appa said thoo nim ajji pinda & walked off.

When I was young, I woefully noticed that the only part of my body to match Amma’s complexion was the thigh so, naturally, it became the most Konkani part of my body. And only my elbow is as sharp as Appa’s nose so, naturally, I speak Kannada from my elbows. But in his own body, Appa made more than enough room to hug Konkani. He learnt it out of love for his wife & for us. But Amma says that even after 32 years of marriage, he hasn’t learnt to speak it well. 

When we travel to North India, which his body firmly cancels, we get unlimited entertainment from watching him attempt a cocktail of Hindi, Kannada, and konkani. In a restaurant where they served us sweet sambar(!), he hollered at the manager “Yey thoo, sambar main bella dala hai kya?” (Have you drowned jaggery in this sambar?)

He is as right wing as your next-door uncle, but Appa’s love for people has the capacity to translate into a tolerance for languages that he doesn’t speak. And this is also what saves him from being extravagantly right wing. In a way, being Dalit has saved him from being intolerant. His love for Vadivelu is an example. Somehow his anger with Tamizh has never interfered with his daily Vadivelu comedy time on YouTube. He doesn’t watch half as many films as he watches in Tamizh. As for me, Konkani is where I’m most naked & Kannada is where I’m most vulgar. I get my thoos from Appa, & I get my capacity for sex from Non-GSB Konkani.

 

L for Los Angeles

As young children having recently moved to Bangalore in 1999, my cousins & I were fascinated with the Bangalore sky. It seemed like it was full of possibilities in a way we hadn’t learned to look for in other cities that we’d lived in. It was here that we fully grasped the idea of an aeroplane. It was also the time when an uncle had moved to America for a job, the first one to go abroad in our family. And everytime we heard a plane going over, we’d run to the terrace to scream his name out loud & say byeeee, even months after his departure. We never got tired of believing that he could see us from up there.

Adichie observes in Americanah that the image of America as a country like any other, with states & borders never seems to solidify in our heads. If one is going to the US, they are going to America – not Boston or LA or New York. So when I was accepted for a one month internship program at Seattle University, I didn’t register the Seattle bit until I was physically there. What did I know – I’d only packed my suitcase to go to America. As part of the scholarship, we were taken to Los Angeles, San Francisco, & Washington D.C. It hits me only now as I am writing this, that it really was as great as it sounds.

In films, Los Angeles was where Jackie Chan & Chris Tucker drove each other mad in Rush Hour. They ate something called Camel’s Hump in China Town, fought about whose dad was a better policeman, & danced to Edwin Starr’s War. 

In The Holiday, Los Angeles became Iris’ escape. Before LA, she was weepy & unhappy. In LA, she finds what is called ‘gumption’ & falls beautifully out of love with an asshole. I wanted to find my gumption too. And even if Hollywood films had shown me Los Angeles as somehow less appealing than New York, I was most curious about why white women were always running away to Los Angeles when New York or wherever else became unbearable. I was convinced of this when Joan Didion did the same.

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None of this was playing in my mind when I landed in LA though. I was distracted by my inability to touch the city. It wasn’t simply a question of size – in how big LA was & how small I – or perhaps it was. Los Angeles was like a hippogriff that I was afraid of not being able to pet on my own & certainly not in any grand way. This left me feeling crippled in part by guilt because I wasn’t doing a good job of being by myself, & in part by a maddening desire for female friendship. After all, the light & sky in LA was perfect for a lifelong female friendship. I needed her badly – someone to go on long walks, drink wine, eat crabs, watch films, and laugh loudly with.

We were a team of 21 & had pretty much settled in. At lunch that day, stuffing my face with hot seafood egg rice & cold beer at Grand Central Market, I decided I’d make more of an effort to be less afraid of the city. It wasn’t going to be easy – we had come across stories of people being mugged, shot at, and worse.

Even so, our first night in LA, a few friends & I walked to Clifton’s Republic in downtown LA. The decor was bewildering. There were huge taxidermied animals staring at us from corners, sudden upsurges of trees & shrubs from floors & walls, a 3-storied redwood tree (which I later found out was fake) shot straight up from the ground floor, and oddly placed furniture which made it difficult to have conversation. The deafening music didn’t help.

My friend, Esra from Turkey ran up the stairs because she sensed a whole other kind of music coming from the floor above. We followed her to see the craziest ballroom dance floor where people were dancing wildly. It was like a scene from a Jazz film – although I don’t know what that is. A bunch of musicians led by a young singer were performing in one corner, & in another, a small bar was serving classic cocktails. My friend, Simão from Portugal & I had an old fashioned, & then another, & then another, until we lost count.

I’d never heard live music like this before. My body began humming & my legs wouldn’t stop moving. Esra & I walked slowly to the dance floor like cats, & looked around. We were surrounded by couples & the more I watched them dance in sync, the more conscious I became but Esra who always sings her own tune was saying fuck you to people so delightfully, I stopped caring too. I saw only one gay couple on the floor who moved boisterously. On the other side, a woman wearing a retro yellow dress danced with a man like in La La land.

When it was time to leave, we didn’t want to leave even if our bodies had shut down hours ago. The trouble was that none of us had any memory of how we’d gotten in. We couldn’t find the exit.The place had grown arms of floor after floor. It had swallowed us in & it looked like we were in 5 different shooting locations at the same time. 

One floor had a wilder party going on with rock music. Esra & I needed to use the loo & wandered into a Japanese Tea Room with zen music playing in the background, & people chit chatting calmly. We hurried out because we wanted to check if we were still in the same place. By the time we located the exit, we’d seen two more rooms with equally absurd things happening. 

It was 1 am. We stopped for some shawarma & trotted back to our hotel.

The next day, we went to see the Hollywood sign – perhaps the only touristy place we visited in LA, and I couldn’t stop smiling because the previous night, I’d stolen a lot from the city when it wasn’t looking. Big cities like LA can only be petted when it wasn’t looking directly at us.

That evening, we went to The Museum of Jurassic Technology – the strangest museum I’d ever been to. It curated memory & forgetting. And much like Clifton’s Republic – this was a cabinet of curiosities. One showcase featured a plate of Madeleines accompanied by Marcel Proust’s literature about the same. Another, a video explanation on the theory of forgetting, another – dead baby clothes, & diseased fingernails.

On the topmost floor, there was a tea room. A woman emerged from nowhere & asked if I wanted tea. I nodded furiously. She gave me black tea with lemon in a small vintage cup. I took it outside on the terrace, where there were doves, plants, & a small boy happily chasing the doves.

An old man sitting on the stone bench was playing the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish folk instrument) while a massive dog looked on. The water from the fountain continued rising & falling. Esra & I sat, listened, & wept silently. Something happens to people inside this museum. Something had happened to Esra & me. We promised each other that we’d never try to understand it. 

When we went back home, we told each other we’d try to recreate what we felt there. We called it The Museum Moment. During the last week of our stay in America, Esra & I returned to The Museum Moment over & over again – each time weeping our hearts out.

Later that night, they took us to a Karaoke bar & egged on by what had happened at the museum & how much of the city I had managed to pocket, I braved singing Rasputin- a song I’d first listened to back when our TV at home had a new music channel where people could phone them up to request songs.

That was the first & only time I’d actively listened to English songs and Rasputin was the only song my mother had recognized & I was surprised because she had never shown any interest in English songs before. She said it was a famous song in her college. I don’t know who requested Rasputin but it always came at the same time each day, & somehow that night in LA, in that dark room full of strangers who were quickly becoming more than that, I found the gumption to sing Rasputin badly & dance madly.

Next morning, when we discussed how crazy the night had been, someone made it a point to say that my song had been too long. I smiled. Normally, I’d have been bothered by how unnecessary the comment was but like Iris, I had recently acquired gumption so I didn’t have to care.

On the last day, I went to the LA Public Library where Octavia Butler wrote often. I had half a mind to go begging for directions from anyone I saw — ‘Kind person, please take me to the table where Octavia Butler wrote’

Walking aimlessly, I reached a long hall with bookshelves & writing tables. At the end of the hall to the left, where there was most light, I saw a bunch of small tables with lamps. I picked a random table, decided this must be where she wrote, plonked my ass in the chair, pulled out my journal & wrote in big, bold letters, ‘OCTAVIA BUTLER WAS HEREEE’

I’d just read Parable of the Sower so the whole thing was supremely real. It was a perfect day made even more perfect when at the library gift shop, I found a Joan Didion tote bag that was obviously made for me.

Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I would one day walk the streets of Los Angeles in motherfucking America & tell myself ‘Joan Didion must have walked here’

I’d always dreamed of beginning a conversation with the line, ‘So when I was in LA five years ago…’ & had no idea how the rest of that sentence would go because I only cared about the first part. I am now thrilled beyond measure that I can finally say ‘So when I was in LA…’ & feel assured that the second half of that sentence will be as crazy as the first. I just have to wait for five years now.

When you give hunger food, it will swallow it whole with everything it has. It’s what my people do when we are given an opportunity. It’s what my father does with mutton chops – he chews & sucks it inside-out until it’s bone dry.

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N for Nuance

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Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image credits: @VMSonara via Twitter.