I have often agreed with the saying that teaching is a thankless job. This 2019 piece was written out of one such helplessness. Sometimes minor annoyances come in the form of vengeful attacks but because those that sponsor it continue to remain unwaveringly boring, it’s neither challenging nor damaging to sleep or life. It’s the same people, the same bitterness over and over. If I am ever an enemy, I wish I am not as sad as people whose bitterness and gratitude are the same in their dullness and both equally uninspiring. But now and then, sometimes more often than expected, there are students who make it all worthwhile. They suck out all the bitterness and leave you with an energy that heals, and does the same thing that writing does to me – fills me with hope.
Year after year, Anjana’s writing reminds me that teaching is anything but thankless. Kiruba’s fine quality parsanalty, and churmuri giggles remind me that teaching is laughter. Keerthana’s arrow- sharpness reminds me that it’s possible to find yourself after years of hiding. Philip’s work reminds me of the kindness that’s so easy to forget these days. And Eshwari’s madness reminds me that it’s a disservice to love to be distracted by hate.
Here’s an excerpt from Anjana’s reflections on her final portfolio of writing.
I would like to say that I am drained of words like the many rivers in Bangalore. On a note of confession, I enjoy writing creative imaginative pieces rather than pieces than involve research. When I write creative pieces, I try to get my facts straight and perform a certain amount of digging and eating though many layers of brain of family and internet. But that is not as tiring as the material you search for archiving. It has signs of imagination, but the facts have to be true. There were many incidents during writing this semester’s portfolio where I have felt I am horrible at writing and I have often ended up in the conclusion to never write again. But it was just a phase or more accurately I hope it is a phase that passes through. Also I recently noticed I have caught an annoying trait of shrinking my fingers or trying to produce a cracking sound with my hand when I don’t get a word I am looking for. This habit does not annoy anyone other than me personally. It could be because I didn’t notice the presence earlier and now I am not able to stop myself. My friend pointed it out to me and it has created a constant tone of irritation when I perform it in the middle of writing. A note on every piece, among the tasks, in a weird way I enjoyed working on Wikipedia. They did reject my piece and that felt bad, but then I wrote another article which are getting many contributions and it is fun to keep a check on it. Nowadays, when I am reading a topic on Wikipedia, I actually look into the references for a detailed work. I also end up adding few lines in articles that are related to me. Like the piece on Thrissur Pooram was kind of disappointing to someone born in Thrissur. I immediately put my knowledge into action and tried to find valid sources that I can give as references to support my statement.
The phrase “put my knowledge into action” is at the core of Dalit learning. And I am again grateful to get the annual opportunity to pay attention to this, and to learn from it and grow.
For everything else, there is Divya’s capacity for resolute love in the midst of hate and anger: a most life-giving reminder to keep working despite Savarna snowflakes.
Crushing on Adèle Haenel today. Read that she walked out of the César Film Awards in 2020 when Polanski was announced best director. She yelled “Bravo, pedophilia”
Watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire, again. It was my first time on Prime Party. Smiled more, bawled less this time. But everything was loaded with more meaning. The looking and being looked at and especially the looking back in return. Adèle Haenel and Director Céline Sciamma met while filming Water Lilies and were lovers till they filmed Portrait of a Lady. So I died a little and went and watched Water Lilies. Looked again at Adèle Haenel (Floriane) as she changed her top in the metro, put lipstick on while looking at her reflection in the window, and looked at her for Marie as well who was just as drawn as I was.
Became very fida after learning that Adèle Haenel came out and admitted full love for Céline at another award show. Gahhhh. There’s one lovely scene in the film where we are shown the under water side of synchronised swimming. I would never have been able to tell by the way their upper bodies danced that under water- their legs were constantly fighting.
Ultimate hearthrob is Anne who spits in loafer boy’s mouth just when she is about to kiss him.
Nice day. Downloaded a whole bunch of women only films to watch for the next couple of days. As I lie in bed typing this, I’m smiling and wondering if it’s possible to go to bed with a secret every night.
I read this glorious Lockwood essay sometime back and began macheting my way through this post which I was supposed to have finished on 31 Dec 2020.
“While writing this, I read another essay that made me self-conscious; it lamented the trend toward the autobiographical review. Oh no, I said to myself, like Lenù at university, like Lila at the party, I have been doing it wrong the whole time. I went through what I had written, carefully removing the I, I, I. Then I stopped. I was even angry. I thought, what else do you read a book with but your body, your history?”
These lines made me think of all the ways in which I read and ate books through the lockdown last year. I carried some to bed with me, woke up with others but read them all with my body through the day. Sometimes I worry that the things I read go and die in my body in some unreachable place where I have placed them so gently that they become quiet and never resurface. What is the point of reading if I don’t remember what I read? Is reading supposed to sustain me only momentarily? Or is it teaching me things I can’t see and feel yet. Maybe it will come at that prime moment, like Thor’s hammer to Captain America when I need it most. Was watching Endgame with my brother last week and that scene made him weep a little. He looked up with his pinched face and wide eyes, making sure his tears went back right where they came from.
Zadie Smith said this lovely thing about the desire for elbow room being vital and it made me think of how my desire to read and keep reading was the only thing that gave my mind elbow room.
Began reading this one evening when I was charmed by the memory of a student who would only write and read sitting down – her back easy against the wall. I read the first five pages of Americanah sitting under the tabebuia tree one evening, my back fitting surprisingly nicely into the flat of the wall. All of March was soaked in Ifemelu’s sturdy decisions. There were moments when I just wanted to watch the women in the book sit and talk to each other in the salon. Then I wanted to follow Ifemelu everywhere she went- her university days, her trip to America, her affair – and never wanted to go back to the salon. This hilarious twitter thread made me see the Lagos that I imagined in Adichie’s words.
2.Self-help, Lorrie Moore
I remember a woman who was trying to escape a boy she falls out of love with. And I remember a mother’s instructions to her daughter ‘Cold men destroy women’. Was sitting under the trumpet tree and underlining these lines when mother asked me why I underline. I didn’t know what to say, I was very close to saying they are nice lines but then that would have led to more explanation so I just said notes for lecture and went back to reading. I am to blame for why she and I don’t have more to talk about.
3. There are Jews in my house, Lara Vapnyar
I have been a Lara Vapnyar fan ever since I read Katania and Deaf and Blind but my madness for the short story, and particularly the Lara Vapnyar short story grew after Luda and Milena where two women fight with each other to feed a man, kill him accidentally and then become best friends. In this collection of stories, a teacher struggles with a class after being told to handle sex education for them. She fears questions from one super-articulate student, hoping this child doesn’t come to class on the day they were told to ask her anything they want to about sex. Then there’s a woman who hides a Jewish mother-daughter in her house; rats them out to the cops, and later doesn’t know what to do with her life anymore.
4. The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Mr. M suggested I read this dude instead of dying about Gabito. So I found this book, downloaded it and was soon absorbed in the narrator’s world (and how easy it is for me to do that when the writer is Columbian, even if male). ‘But in all Latin American cities there’s one place or sometimes several places that live outside of time, that seem immutable while the rest is transformed. That’s what La Candelaria is like.’ I was brought to pay attention to ‘the sounds bodies make when they flee’, the ‘solitude of a child’, and indeed ‘the sound of things falling’. The book is the story of a young Professor, Antonio who is intrigued by a prison returnee, Ricardo, and his mysterious past. He witnesses Ricardo’s unfortunate murder and sets to uncover the story of Ricardo’s life. The Latin America I have in my mouth is from the cutie tattooed on my arm. I know very little of it otherwise. It’s only because of Vasquez now that the chilling descriptions of Pablo Escobar’s abandoned estate, the humungous zoo, the starving animals in it, and also the pregnant hippopotamus that managed to escape are on my mind.
5. The First Bad Man, Miranda July
I read July’s collection of short stories ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ in the last few days of 2019. The story of a woman driving around pointlessly with all her belongings in the car, stopping at signals and worrying that the ones around her will know that she has nowhere to go remained with me, as did the story of a young woman unwilling to let the other tenants in the house think that they own the porch that also partly belongs to her. After that, I have been accumulating her slowly. Too much of her causes what I call the July Rush. I was compelled to read her first novel after her short story, Roy Spivey made me giddy with joy. Listened to it on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast while watering plants, and died a little bit over roses that have never made me gasp like she does. The First Bad Man made me desire a woman like I didn’t know how to before- despite parents, despite myself, despite everyone else. ‘The point was Kissing’, she says. Just like that. The story of Cheryl and her miserable 20-something bully, Clee seemed possible despite how vulnerable Cheryl lets herself be and how much we don’t trust Clee. It seemed possible because July makes it possible before taking it away.
6. Beloved, Toni Morrison
There’s little I can say about a book that gave me a way to reimagine anger and love. I am terrified of what her writing does to me. Of how much more there is to learn about the calm that is possible to bring in writing, the kind with a power to break open every story you have ever told yourself and a thousand others you don’t. I see the same calm in her interviews, and speeches. Reading Morrison’s work is very reassuring. In Seattle, I overheard two white men saying that stories were responsible for a lot of wrong in the world of politics and I giggled quietly in my head. Toni’s writing is story-telling. Her story-telling is writing. The language of Beloved is the language of sleep right before waking up, where sentences just seem to flutter out of your eyelids.
7. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Thirteen stories come together to draw you into a long one. They are each told by a different character. In the first one, there’s a woman prone to kleptomania. She is on a date with a man and when we see her house through his eyes, we are shown the bonsai-like story of each of the objects stolen. There’s a bathtub in the kitchen and I remembered this detail with smiling pleasure when Dawn Powell mentions bathtubs in kitchens in her New York diaries. In the second one, there’s a man who succumbs easily to what he calls shame memories and doesn’t recover from them very well. My shame memories are small, like yours. But his are big and they keep getting bigger (kissing a nun on the mouth only because she leaned in, and he was tempted). He adds gold to his coffee and drinks this several times through the day. His secretary is the kleptomaniac girl from the first story whom he has feelings for. Rhea narrates the third story – the story of a college band – the flaming dildos.
There are three other girls and more boys, and they all love someone who loves someone else. Rhea feels undesired. She has freckles and she is on the inside of most things. I love that she loves her friend Jocelyn. But Jocelyn loves Lou – an older man who gets Jocelyn and Rhea high one evening and makes Jocelyn give him a blowjob at a concert they go to. In the fourth one, a Safari tour, and two young children discuss their father’s new girlfriend they are not very thrilled about. Said girlfriend is a student of anthropology and through their time there, she develops feelings for the man driving them around. In another, a man and his friend walk through New York city drunk all night. In the morning one of them flings himself into the river and dies. An event unfolds in every story and you might resist it the way your eyes resist a new book, especially when you’re on the first few lines. Then you give in because Egan’s control over the narrative is such that each new story is always as good as the last.
8. The Maple Stories, John Updike
Reading Maple Stories made me feel a lot surer about my capacity to be alone and in love at the same time. I don’t know what white and Savarna feminists are rambling about. In Twin Bedsin Rome, Joan Maple tells her husband, Richard that she was once turned on when a boy at the gas station was wiping her windshields and rocking the car side by side. She almost came. Richard is wildly jealous of this and I, wildly amused. Joan Maple has the perfect answers to her perpetually grumpy husband. When he accuses her of having an affair after having had one himself, she denies. The phone rang and when I picked up, no one answered. So, it is your lover, he says. Could be yours, she says. Then why would they hang up, he asks. Maybe they don’t love you anymore, she says calmly. And I fell about laughing. At one point Updike asks, ‘Can love be defined, simply, as the refusal to sleep?’ – and I said yes yes yes. Back when I was a girl in puppy love with a boy, I treasured the idea of being driven around by him in the late hours of the night. I imagined we would stop on a hill to watch the sunrise, and go back home to get some sleep. But then I think how lovelier it is to wake up next to a woman smiling into my face.
9. The Discomfort of Evening, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
At one point in the story, the child-narrator tells us how when she was constipated, she was made to lie down on the sofa, bum in the air, her father hovering above, trying to push a soap down her anus. Mr. M confirms that this is practiced to irritate the bowels which helps ease constipation. I was zapped not so much because this is true but because of the chilling calm with which she narrates this scene, and several others. I learnt to let go of the distrust I usually have for child-narrators. I seem to only treasure Munro’s child narrators as if all the children in the world belong to her. They should, if they want to write. But it’s from Marieke Lucas that I learnt to have faith in Konkani when I feel lost. She says the most absurdly Konkani- sounding things about lendi. Here for instance, “My poo belonged to me, but once it was between the blades of grass, it belonged to the world” — or here about booger: “The tension makes me poke my little finger up my nose and hook a piece of snot. I glance at the yellowish ball and then put it in my mouth”
10. The short stories of Dawn Powell
Turns out that Dawn Powell is the writer I’d been waiting to read all my life. Last year’s best discovery, Fran Lebowitz led me to the very bestest Dawn Powell. She writes stories about women running away, about women living alone and working in a city, about women saving and hiding their money from men to spend on drinks with girlfriends. I don’t know if there’s a pioneer writer of women running-away stories. I am sure our mothers and grandmothers are all kinds of pioneers and it’s with the same regard that I read Powell’s women. I sent my first piece for LARB last September for a SUSI special issue. It’s not out yet but I had super fun writing it early one morning. Kept taking breaks to breathe the early morning Dawn Powell sky. I made a giant fool of myself loving her here.
11. Motherhood, Sheila Heti
I was in a bad space when I was trying to read this book. I was broken and angry that I’d let myself be broken again, like I was a fucking child, as if I’d never grown up, as if the last 32 years never happened. The book is largely about a woman’s quest to find out if she wants to have children or not (she doesn’t) but in the process, she learnt a lot more, and so did I. I read this very slowly and these lines gave me small hope to mend myself.
Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself-it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.
Yet making art makes me feel alive, and taking care of others doesn’t make me feel as alive.
A woman must have children because she must be occupied. When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing-not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want that woman to be doing the work of childrearing more than they want her to be doing anything else.
A child is not a combination of you and your partner, but a reality all its own.
Of course, a woman will always be made to feel like a criminal, whatever choice she makes, however hard she tries.
What do we need to know about a person in order to like them? Before she wrapped her leftover buttered toast inside a paper napkin, I didn’t know whether I liked her or not. Then, when she wrapped up her toast in the napkin, I suddenly loved her. She liked toast even more than she liked being admired.
I thought about how unfair it was that she and I had to think about having kids-that we had to sit here talking about it, feeling like if we didn’t have children, we would always regret it. It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties-when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience-from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility-a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all.
I had such a nice time the next day, pacing in the sunlight before my 4:30 lecture, realising how much writing has given me, and feeling so lucky that this passion was mine-right there, in the center of my life. And you are never lonely while writing, I thought, it’s impossible to be categorically impossible-because writing is a relationship. You’re in a relationship with some force that is more mysterious than yourself.
I am a blight on my own life. How can I stop being a blight on my life. It’s not right to always be sitting here, crying. Outrun your tears-that’s all you can do. Outrun your tears like an athlete every day. Outrun your tears like someone with faith. Okay, I will outrun my tears and win.
Only in failure. Only in our failures are we absolutely alone. Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free.
I don’t know why I don’t do the obvious thing-instead of fantasising about other lives, why not try to imagine what it’d be like to be me, and live the life that’s actually mine? The first time I ever had this thought, it gave me such a deep thrill, almost a sexual thrill, as if I was having sex with myself.
Getting my eggs frozen would have been like freezing my indecision. I couldn’t reveal my weakness to myself in such a tangible way.
But you know what you should be grateful for: following this tiniest thread of freedom, which is to write. That is all you ever truly wanted, so don’t vainly throw it away. Don’t throw it away chasing even more riches-more than what you’re owed.
The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us.
Slowing down is important. Repetition important. Be in the same place, differently. Change the self, not the place.
I will do anything to save this relationship except walk on eggshells around you.
Your life can only be what your insides are. Your life sits in your lap. I saw my life literally sitting there.
12. The Shame, Makenna Goodman
Second of the anti-baby book I read last year 🙂 The married, mother-of-two narrator stalks a woman online. The woman our lady stalks wears super clothes, has lovely crockery, shoes, walls, and posts her entire life online. Our lady could have been that woman, had she not fallen in love, married, and had children. Our lady loves watching her and feels acute dread when the woman isn’t online. On a whim, she replies to a nanny vacancy ad the woman posts and then leaves husband and children behind, takes the car out in the middle of the night and drives and drives well into the morning to see this woman in flesh and bone.
13. Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Maloy
The first story had me kidnap a deep breath which I may not have let out since. A man on a horse meets a young woman in an evening class that he randomly walks into. He likes her, she doesn’t. One evening, her car breaks down and he takes her for dinner on his horse. (“He wanted to say that he wasn’t hungry when he was around her, but he feared the look on her face if he said it, the way she would shy away”) When she stops coming to class, he takes his truck, travels all night to go see her in another state. (“I just knew that if I didn’t start driving, I wasn’t going to see you again, and I didn’t want that. That’s all”). Two brothers in Spy vs. Spy take an age-old childhood fight atop a mountain peak and come tumbling down, fight still unresolved. Maloy observes, “They were bound like to dogs with their tails tied together, unable to move without having some opposite effect on the other, unable to live a single restful minute”. In Liliana, a man opens the front door one day to find his dead grandmother refusing to remain dead. The line that made me snort with relief was ‘Since my father’s death, my mother had been living in an ashram outside New Delhi. She sent us postcards about how deeply at peace she was, in the land of the caste system and the dowry murder’. I read the last couple of stories sitting in a park full of tall trees, small birds, old people, and young lovers.
14. How should a person be?- Sheila Heti
It’s a question I ask everyday and the answers fill me just as easily as they leave me. Nothing is good enough to be the final answer. How do some people just be? How do they get themselves out of a situation without being majorly disliked? Caste answers my questions but I still want to learn. Heti asks, “So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do”. Two artist friends love each other, support each other’s work. Narrator, like me, obsessed with learning to be, says about her friend, Margaux: “I admired her courage, her heart, and her brain. I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become that same way too”
Heti has one lovely scene in a chapter called Two Spiders. Begins with the worry that “It always was too scary; a threat I had felt since childhood that at any moment a relationship might disappear with a poof because of something little I had done or said.” Margaux explains to Heti that boundaries are what keep friendships alive. Literally alive. She takes the example of a spider they found in the bathroom of a hotel in Miami. They decide to keep the spider. Margaux would have thrown it out but Heti insists that they keep him. Soon, Heti begins to like the spider, as a pet she could be affectionate with. On their last night in Miami, they forget to close the bathroom door and the spider was next to Heti’s legs. Unthinkingly, Heti smashes it under her hand. “Boundaries, Sheila. Barriers. We need them. They let you love someone. Otherwise you might kill them.”
Genius lines, Sheila Heti Round II
~Smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time. #BoreMatKarYaar
~Silence is a fence for wisdom.
15. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
This was supposed to be read after I drooled all over A.S. Byatt’s Possession. That they were both on our M.A Syllabus meant that I was not ready for either then. I began reading this book after I watched Tartt in this 1992 interview and was very intrigued by her style. Style maane her dressing style, suit and bob cut and all. Plus uber cool handling of goofy male interviewer whose questions are longer than her answers, and who doesn’t even let her finish a sentence. I enjoyed reading The Secret History because it made me believe that I can still read. I was coming to the book after a long drawn spell of down first and up then and too up later. A moment that gave me smiling ache was Tartt describing a character’s relief from a painkiller to calm his migraine attack. The pain leaving was like ‘forgiveness’ she said. I took it all my classes and said see see. They saw and said ok, calm down. I am slightly obsessed with her suit boot style. Want to steal it for my work look. When I tried it in 2015, I looked tight in places I shouldn’t have. I gave up on that after I saw a full sized picture of what I looked like. Sticking to loose clothes since. Loose suits then maybe. The Secret History is about a bunch of students who study greek in a university. They study greek and only greek and nothing else. There’s a murder and then one more murder to cover up the first murder which was partly inspired by something they discovered in the Greek classes 🙂 Where is my university-murder mystery life man?
16. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif
Bestest book I read this year. After The Secret History, I was looking around my room thinking what to eat next, saw this copy Namsies had given me long ago and jumped. After 3 pages, I felt settled and thought, where were you all my life man? Book said, fuck you, I was on that shelf you put me on 5 years ago. I said ok ok come now, let’s see where you take me. Hanif’s sentences are oranges that you want to eat more and more of not because they are sweet but because you spent all your life believing that in one orange, not all pieces are sweet. This one was and how! It is a funny funny funny book because it is told simply. It made me think that if to eat, I don’t have to dislocate shoulder. To write also, I don’t have to dislocate anything no? The story is set at a hospital in Karachi where Alice, a nurse, single-handedly castrates men when they walk around expecting blowjobs. Her father offers castration of a different kind, perhaps leaving an even acute burn. (‘When I walk the streets, the streets belong to me. Have you noticed that when I walk the streets with my bamboo, they cross over to avoid my shadow? What are they scared of? Getting contaminated by their own refuse?’)
17. A Life Misspent (Kulli Bhat) Nirala, translated by Satti Khanna
Nitin told me about one charming scene from the book which I thought I misheard. A tear of deep attraction between a Dalit man and a Savarna man. I didn’t mishear. He showed me this sentence which I later read again and again not for what it revealed but how. Said men are sitting in a carriage when this happens — “I sat in front with the driver of the trap. The master of the trap gazed at me for some time before taking his seat in the back. I did not recognise the gaze then; I do now. It is the sort of gaze bestowed upon an exceedingly beautiful woman at the height of her beauty” – the man looking is Kulli Bhat, the man looked at is Nirala. A little ahead, sharing paan, Kulli says to Nirala: ‘How wonderfully the paan juice traces your lips, turning them into daggers’. Nirala was desperate to write a biography of someone but didn’t find anyone worthy enough. “Our heroes compensate for their weaknesses with grand statements. The blaze of light around what they say hides how they live”. Then he meets Kulli Bhat and this is his biography.
Although I was left wanting to know more about Kulli, it all comes together beautifully in the end when Nirala conducts the rituals after Kulli’s death. No pandit agrees to do it fearing ostracisation and impurity. Nirala decides to do it but doesn’t know some of the mantras. He seeks help from a Brahmin a day before the ritual, by-hearts some mantras, makes up the rest, and on the evening of the ritual – recites them less like a Brahmin more like a poet. “My recitation of the mantras was unsteady; I couldn’t find the right Pandit voice. I tried to exercise my imagination. I imagined I was living in the sixteenth century at the time of Surdas and Tulsidas. I imagined myself reading their poetry out loud. My face grew calmer. My recitation improved. Then I launched into Sanskrit, singing the praises of Lord Ganesha and Gauri. The listeners settled down and became lost in thought as sometimes happens at poetry festivals.” The moment is both subtly and piercingly anti-caste for me. That you use poetry to puncture Brahmanism is both beautiful and obvious.
18. Karachi, you’re killing me! – Saba Imtiaz
Nisha suggested this book when I was wallowing in covid grief-part non-covid drama. I wanted to read a book about a woman on the verge of changing her life. Felt settled in 2 pages and finished in 3 days. Ayesha is a journalist in Karachi on the hunt for a story that will give her her first break. When we first meet him, her boss, Kamran is on the phone with his wife insisting that she wear the black Armani, not the red. There only I died off little. After that, I watched as Ayesha trusts easily, breaks down, and picks herself up just as easily. Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to pick yourself up, like making your mind up to want to wash the plate immediately after you eat, not the next morning. Do it now only. The thing to know and what she tells herself is -“I’ll be fine”. As I was reading this, I realised that this was my second set-in-Karachi novel and head was hung in shame for not reading more earlier.
19. Moustache, S.Hareesh (Translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil)
Currently reading. Insides are flourishing with words, fishes, kanji, trees, and birds. I am learning, like Vavachan to not lose ‘the sense of wonderment’ that others are more than happy to pee all over on. Know it, water it, hide it if you must — but above all, protect it when you have it. More on this when my insides are bursting with Hareesh’s worlds and words. Vavachan, a Dalit man plays the role of a policeman on stage. After the play, he keeps the moustache he was made to grow for the role. This causes terror in everyone. The Moustache grows and grows -birds build nests there, insects procreate, rivers flow, dams build themselves etc. The story follows this, what happens to him, his moustache, and the many rivers of Kuttanad.
Wrote this sometime in November last year. Wanted to release it from my drafts-section, so here it is.
The department runs a certificate course in writing called Polemics for our Pandemics, where I teach a few sessions. Today, I took Natalia Ginzburg’s ‘My Vocation’ to class. I first read this woman in 2019 and thought no one had made writing seem so doable, so touchable, so lovable. Reading her was very freeing. It’s something I don’t feel very often and I was so thrilled and terrified of what I’d read and how she’d written that I didn’t go back to her for a long time.
At Moe’s Books in San Francisco that same year, my friend Simão picked up her novel, Family Lexicon in Italian, and I, only barely recognizing her name jumped. “Ginzburg”, he said, to my sheepish ‘OMG NATALIA GINSBERG’!!!. After that, I combed through every bookstore we were taken to, hunting for an English translation but I guess I searched badly. I am sure it was there and I didn’t look properly.
What I felt that morning in 2019, when I first read My Vocation was a throbbing freedom in my chest. No one had ever written about writing like that. And I know that tomorrow I will wake up and find another woman and say the same thing about her but it’s why we read no? To find more and more women who can teach us how to be and feel alive, despite love, and life, and other things.
I was looking forward to seeing this class because I haven’t taught in so long and it’s probably why I haven’t been myself since October. I feel like myself when I teach more than when I write. We wrapped up regular classes in October and since then, it’s like my days are full of me and I don’t like her at all. Most mornings since then, I have woken up feeling nervous about not knowing which version of myself I am going to get. It’s like living with a moody, ill-tempered husband. I can tell it’s a decent morning if I am able to fight the thing that I usually tend to think of as soon as I wake up. If I can’t, then I am fucked.
Reading about Ginzburg’s belief in her vocation returns me to mine. What a solid, spectacular writer. It’s her I was going to rely on when a former student who wrote and still writes like fire on ice was going to go do law. I almost took a print-out of My Vocation and handed it to her. Later when I sent her a copy of ‘The Little Virtues’, she loved it and that made me love Ginzburg even more.
Ginzburg unknotted a nagging worry I’d fed for a long time, often feeling caught between the desire to give everything away to one essay or one story and resisting it. Shouldn’t I save a really good detail for a book? For something bigger, brighter, better?
“I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings’. If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write’, that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it. When someone writes a story he should throw the best of everything into it, the best of whatever he possesses and has seen, all the best things that he has accumulated throughout his life.”
And I’m still learning how to give my writing everything I have. It hasn’t been possible to do this in the past couple of weeks. In these covid murders that the government has determinedly orchestrated, how does one find the will to accept that at this point, we don’t know if we are waiting for things to get better or worse…worse than this?
In December last year, I spoke to photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran about his Mullai Periyar River photo-series. It was a humbling conversation. I was joined by Kiruba Devi who brought her watery giggles. He said some things that weren’t in the published piece but I want to remember them so I am putting them here.
He said that the first time he held a camera, he felt strong. Like he’d finally learnt the language and will to live.
When he visited Ambedkar’s house in Bombay with some friends, he said they ‘breathed deliberately to inhale the same air as Ambedkar’
He becomes a child everytime he goes to the river.
After spending years taking photographs around the country, he returned home to Vadipatti in 2020 and decided never to leave. The space in his Mumbai apartment was uninspiring and he grew bored of its neat Asian Paints-coloured walls. He longed to go back to the white-washed walls of his childhood home.
First in the lockdown-series of photographs is a partially open door, a sliver of light escaping as if from a projector in a cinema hall (Caption: ‘Life in the times of Corona / Day 1/21’.) Then there’s a blue plastic bag with medium-sized tomatoes hanging on a wall next to bunched up black wires. Even in the everydayness of the images he chooses to photograph, his eye picks up details that are extraordinary because they neither come with the polish of manufactured- lockdown images that were all too regular on social media in the first few months of 2020 nor are they charged with the heaviness of mainstream aesthetics.
In his hands, the camera is not a tool. It’s a scribe. We sense that his camera is not only recording the pictures but is actively plunging into people’s stories and writing them. The comments on his Instagram feed are full of appreciation. And it’s not hard to miss that he doesn’t reply to the people who leave praise for his work. ‘I am still learning to get better at English. When I do, I will reply to them’. Well-wishers alert him when his Instagram stories carry misspelt English words and he immediately deletes them. Writing in Tamizh is equally challenging because of dyslexia but what’s also true is that he has often been told that his pictures are so evocative, they need neither captions nor grammar.
What I see in his photographs are the presentiment of a plunge and the plunge itself. And it’s how I have come to learn a lot about writing — by simply staring at Jaisingh Nageswaran’s pictures.
Today, my mother showed me how to close the leaky tap in our new house. She said, “I’ve told this to others but I don’t think they do it. It doesn’t take very long. When you close the tap fully, it starts leaking so what you must do is hold it gently and open it just a little bit, it will stop leaking.” I went to my room nodding but vaguely feeling like she was not talking about the leaky tap.
On some days, self-respect and leaky taps are the same. My self-respect leaks because I don’t know where to stop, when to not or how to summon it when I need it most. Today is as good a day as any other to remember that writing is my way to self-respect. Whether in English, Kannada or fucking Konkani.
Yesterday, Divya and I talked about the hate that is directed at Dalit Women for being visible. There’s a certain comedy to people carrying around a scale to measure Dalitness. Basically what has been decided by new-age woke Babas is that the only marker of Dalitness is invisibility. That if you are even a little visible, alive, dancing, eating, living – dude, are you even Dalit? The tragedy is that they don’t see this as comedy.
I thought of what has changed in five years and what hasn’t. I am a little more charmed by bullies than I used to be. My hair is longer. I have a sense of what a good day is like. I smile more. I love teaching more than I did back then. I can tolerate my non-writing days somewhat restlessly but I can. I am getting worse at respecting writing deadlines. My sense of self is still dangerously tied to things it shouldn’t be tied to. I learnt to cook some small things. I learnt to care for plants. I planted avocado pits over the lockdown last year and they are growing, fuck. I still make useless chai.
The morning-afters are something else. Your body doesn’t return to you for days, it’s still with them, in the tightness of their arms, and in the blurring outline of your desire and theirs.
This morning, my face towards the sky, my back on the floor, I watched a hawk (eagle?) flying. It was high enough for me to want to imagine what it sees from up there — the triangle of terraces, the straightness of pipes, the black opaqueness of water tanks, the rough crookedness of roads, and low enough for me to notice the lazy flap of wings it brought every 30 seconds. Was one casual flap enough to sustain flying for 30 seconds? I watched until it reached the edge of my vision and then looked straight up again to find 3 more hawks (eagles?)
In my dream this morning, I saw an open tap next to my bed. If only it had drinking water, I thought – I’d never have to worry about going to the kitchen six times a day.
It’s January February March and already I have seen versions of myself that make me drop things with joy, bring aches to parts of my body that I can only reach when I am sitting a certain way, do nothing but sit on my purple sofa and read endlessly.