I don’t know why I write but I think it’s because I keep returning to it. I return to hear myself when there is too much noise. To relocate my self-respect that is still childishly tied to things that it shouldn’t be tied to, snatched when I’m not looking & sometimes even when I am.
Often, when I am speaking to someone, I try to make myself likable, to show them sides they expect to see, praying they are softened by the yellow light through which I hope they are seeing me, & not the harsh white of tube lights. And when they leave, I ask myself – Why did I do that? Why do I care? And a voice says, ‘OK next time, act cool. Be better’
But when next time comes, nothing changes. I don’t trust myself around people. I used to think I can’t trust people but it’s me I don’t trust. And so I turn to writing, so I can return me to myself.
When I am writing, I feel the least use of yellow or white light. Here I can be anyone, in any light, my self-respect firm in the palm of my hand. I write so I can become likable in person. I write so I can stop worrying about not being liked. So that at the end of the day, if I can lock myself up inside the folds of other writers’ words & my own & allow them to show me who I am, it won’t matter that I don’t belong in a world that is becoming increasingly Savarna.
I write because when I talk, I stutter, like Pa does. I am afraid my language is garbled when I try to speak, to fight. It leaves me when I need it most but comes back faithfully, like a dog returning with a ball, when I have calmed down. So what I can’t do face to face, I try to do face-to-paper.
I think of the women who came before me, women married to gods & villages, touchable enough to be raped and yet somehow, still ‘untouchable’
I write because I am because they were.
I write because I am hiding. I am hiding because I am slowly stealing time. Time to gather power to feel fire in my tongue. Fire like the fire Babasaheb left for us. He learnt to write because when people & systems fail you, words will hold you. Always.
Writing is, after all, picking up the stone & learning to throw.
(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.
I’m thinking about what you were doing now, at this moment, in 1918. When you were teaching at Sydenham College, and students liked your classes but you weren’t allowed to drink water from the same jug as your colleagues. What did you do, Baba? I am haunted by which of these scenes you carried back home everyday. I am haunted by what you thought of, how you worked, what you did in powerless situations, how you picked up the stone. I want to work like you did. I want to write like you did. You had fire in your words & people are still lighting pataki with them.
When you got ready for work the next day, were you comforted by the prospect of meeting students who liked your classes or demotivated by that jug of water? What did you do after a bad class? What did you do when you were asked to prove your worth again & again?
I find little respite from watching this scene in a film about you. Before you walked into the classroom, there were whispers about your qualification & unfitness to teach. You told them calmly – “If any of you feel like I am not qualified to teach you, and would like to leave, feel happy to do so now” – and I felt lit up from within.
I wish I’d said that one morning in 2016. I wish I knew you in 2015. I wish I’d put your picture up on the wall next to my table in 2014. How powerless & hopeless those times were when I didn’t know you & your words. I was once accused of not being qualified to teach. And I let myself down by believing it was true. My degrees didn’t come to my rescue then- your words did. And now I know that you are the only qualification I’ll ever need. You know what’s funny though? When I put your picture up, they all ran away, Baba. They left skid marks.
I keep hunting for books that can give me anecdotes about you but most of them only have text-book type information. If I wanted that, I’d go back to school. But I want to know other things about you – what were you like when you were in love, Baba? What letters did you write when you were in love? What was your first kiss like? What did you like playing on the violin? Why did you not like eating? What’s with the three fishes only deal? What made you laugh? Did you like dogs or cats or both? Where did you get your suits stitched from? How did you manage to keep your giggles inside when people yammered on about Savarna merit?
I’ll tell you something funny now. That story of you falling into an ash pit from a tree & how people called you Boodisaheba & you told them “Lol, screw you peeps, I’ll be Babasaheb someday” is my favourite. I tell it to people all the time. Some of them have very seriously come to me & said “You know that didn’t happen no?” – and I laugh out loud. Siddalingaiah knows it happened, you know it happened, I know it happened. Who are these other people & why are they after our joys?
Baba, sometimes I feel very lost & I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I take forever to notice when I am being humiliated. And when I do, it’s too late – moment’s passed, they’ve gone & I feel like throwing stones at nothing. I can’t always think on my feet & this scares me. Sometimes I forget to remember you, especially in moments when it’s all I should do to feel powerful – I still forget, and then I sit & curse myself. It’s only now that I am learning to shut up & work & not worry about responding.
I like wearing suits now because of you. Appa still wears them all the time, like Ajja used to wear them all the time. I think Appa thinks they are like sweaters. He feels warm. I used to laugh at him but now that I also wear them, I know where the warmth comes from.
At some point in 2015, I became very comfortable with the idea that teaching is an autopilot thing. That it was enough if I had read a text/poem/short-story once – no matter how long ago it was – that it would be enough if I remembered it. Teaching was – more than anything else, remembering. And sometimes only that.
I woke up in 2018 accidentally, when for an Arts and Culture Journalism class, I had to read Pauline Kael again, but this time – I fell for her. I noticed a lot of things that I had barely paid attention to the first time. Her words made me hungry to write like that and I felt very alive. So I spent an hour before class that day drinking pleasure out of her Bonnie and Clyde essay and then making notes on the white board in the small media lab. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and it was a very unusual feeling. It’s sadly the only hour in seven years where I think I actually did well.
The preparation that went into that hour was eerily close to the preparation that went in for a class on Metonymy and Synecdoche three years ago. But that lecture was a disaster even if the pleasure was similar. I had just begun to understand the concepts but not enough to teach them. A lot of things had gone wrong but that hour taught me to measure my own learning before I did anything else with it.
And the Pauline Kael class taught me how to measure my learning. I learnt that in order to know what I was saying, I needed to perform a different kind of remembering – a more reliable kind – something that even students could take pleasure in seeing. This kind of remembering was easier because I only had to figure out what the element of pleasure was but it was also trickier and more difficult because this meant I also had to convince students that this kind of learning was valuable. And it’s only now that I can say – I cannot convince them without knowing enough.
I am paying attention to this because it is distressing to notice that students who are very aware of their learning, whose faces light up when I begin to talk about a poem lose interest because I am unable to go beyond a point. And I want very much to complete that circle of learning for them and that circle of teaching for me – simply because they are interested.
In Seattle, I was a student again- furiously taking notes because I was afraid I would forget something that had made too much sense to me, that if I don’t immediately write it down, it would be lost, and the world would be a distressing place to live in again.
That was how I learnt and now, it’s how I want to teach.
I am beginning to see the 50 mins that I spend in the classroom with students as time I’ll never get back, not even if it’s the same class the next day. I have to give this all I have, no matter how many times I return to it later.
Teaching Creative Writing is becoming more and more challenging. To begin with, I have to get over my own boredom with using old materials. I stick to Deepak Bhat’s Monsoon memories because its lessons are plenty and liberating. And I want to continue sticking to that. But I think I am becoming a little disillusioned with my own comfort with speaking about writing because writing has been the hardest this year, and so speaking about it has been hard too.
The Dalit and Bahujan literature classes were difficult to teach this semester. It kept me on my toes for several reasons. For once, it made me return to Ambedkar every week. And I learnt a lot but had no idea where to put it or how.
And then I also saw that this is a class where I’d have assumed the auto-pilot method to work very well but it’s the only class where an auto-pilot method will never work because it’s difficult to talk about Ambedkar first as a Dalit man, a leader, a political figure and then to make students see the other Ambedkar – the sexy writer. And I can never do this from memory. I can only do it from a place of reverence and playfulness both of which are difficult to produce week after week without having read Ambedkar every day.
This semester, I read Maggie Nelson, Ali Smith, Natalia Ginzburg, and Miranda July but I don’t know what it means if I haven’t felt the desire to take them to classes yet but have enjoyed reading them very much. Maybe this has a lot to do with my realisation that teaching and writing are not on auto-pilot anymore and this scares me but it also makes me feel like an adult with real problems.
I now realise that the only writer I have consistently read over this year is Ambedkar and I am looking forward to approaching him as a creative writing teacher next semester.
After a student was told that Dalit women have a constitutionally protected act in workplaces and anybody choosing to attack such women teachers with an intention to malign them professionally would be reported to the cops; the light left his face, he touched his hair just so he could do something with his hands and his eyes grew small with fear.
He may have gulped twice before leaving the room, shaking with rage. But he never bothered me after that. Even the smug way in which he passed by me in the corridor vanished. The gossip and the malice continued of course but the glint of fear I saw in his eyes that day remained.
The Savarna woman sitting next to me shrank in size. But she remained big in my head until I discovered Ambedkar.
There was continued debate whether that speech, the interference, as they saw it, was necessary. It was necessary. It helped – because in that moment, in that room, something shifted – without harming anyone. And I continue to be curious about how a simple reminder about the constitution can produce fear in someone who is extremely confident in assessing other people’s abilities.
I am amazed that the man who built the constitution that long ago was able to see so deep into our futures and know why even the ‘right’ kind of money, marriage, color, place would still be insufficient to live with dignity.
But how much of what happened in that room that day was triggered by my caste? Did they know I am Dalit? Does them not knowing it before they attacked make them innocent? Are they innocent? Am I making a big deal? Am I being a fraud by invoking caste in this narrative ‘suddenly’ ? — were only some of the many questions I asked myself everyday. Until a much larger question arrived and my doubts were laid to rest. Why is it my burden to ask these questions and look for answers?
It is their burden.
Even so, I take that Ambedkar is warning us. We cannot live and die inside our castes, even if people will make sure we do. Just as there are ways in which we believe that everything is about caste, there are also ways to believe that not everything is about caste. And neither is wrong.
How do people live castelessly though? Is that possible?
I find it fascinating that some people can walk the earth as if they don’t need anybody. As if they’ve never needed anybody. It’s probably why I loved Piku, that 2015 film. I loved watching her. I loved that she was able to just walk away from conversations and men that she wasn’t interested in. She didn’t spend time impressing anyone. She didn’t wonder if anybody liked her, and even if she did – she definitely didn’t run around making compromises in her life to accommodate them.
Where does she get the strength from though? It wasn’t all because of her overbearing father no? I am not questioning it, I am celebrating it. And today I am still celebrating it while also being acutely, painfully aware of an answer to why she might be the way she is: Caste.
Caste teaches us not only how to walk but also what to walk away from. The strength that men and women perform onscreen and off, that I adore from the very core of my heart gains power from caste.
Balamma from Gogu Shyamala’s stories walks that way too. She has to. Because like her, there are many who don’t have access to the PoA act even though it was made for them. And the villains in their lives are real, unlike those in mine who, at the mere mention of Ambedkar and Constitution, vanish like the memory of a loose underwear.
The idea all along was to live castelessly. My father and mother did it well. The last time I saw them hassled was when we lived in an apartment in Basavanagudi and the man upstairs did jasoosi, found out we were Dalit and started making a fuss. First he had full respect for dad’s position in the government. Sir! Sir! He’d say every time he saw him. Then the ‘Sir’ went off. The first thing to go when people ‘find’ you out is respect. The second is conversation. He stopped talking to my dad and began talking to dad’s office car driver.
But Noorullah loved my dad. Dad still finds it very puzzling that Muslim men have the greatest love for him. Noorullah didn’t tolerate that man’s banter. Once he came to chat with Noorullah about dad’s income and if reservation was going to take care of his pension as well. I am told that Noorullah attacked the man with a newspaper and chased him up the stairs.
After a while, my parents thought it best to leave that house and go elsewhere. Amma was heartbroken. She had built it – brick by brick. Right from the colour of the walls to the spoon in the kitchen – amma had given the house more than two years of her life. It was our first ‘own’ house, our first ‘non-rented’ house and that too in Bangalore. Wherever we were before this, we had always lived in rented houses and amma had hated it. She was tired of the agarbattis and the dhoops that had to be lit every time she made fish or chicken. She was tired of being asked what caste we belonged to before we were even given a tour of the house.
Maybe they still experience caste in small shocks today but because they have seen so much worse, they just laugh it off and ignore it.
This should have been my first lesson.
Today dad keeps having WhatsApp fights with people who are anti-reservation. When Tina Dabi topped IAS, it bothered many people and they sent shit forwards to him. Dad would sit and compose long messages to shut them up. They all began the same way – Mr so and so. I think you are wrong because –
He does the same thing even when he posts his Islamophobia ridden and anti-Tamil forwards but that’s another story and another tragedy altogether. I think he has figured out that the country is so stupid and so beyond help that the only way to gain respect, especially if you are Dalit is by behaving like a Brahmin or at least by trying to become like one.
Very early in school, it became clear to me that there was something wrong with me. I stood before the mirror every day of my school life trying to figure out what it was. One day it was the gap between my teeth. Another day, it was the dullness under my eyes, the paleness of my skin, the thinness of my hair, the roundness of my nose. The day after that it was my weakness in math and science. And the next day it was a smell that followed me everywhere I went. I stopped eating egg.
But I couldn’t find out what it was and gave up. I did what I had seen my mother sometimes do. She’d make friends to learn the secrets of the trade, as it were – to be accepted, to be liked. So to forget my own discomfort with myself, I craved friendships that seemed to be in excess for other people everywhere. Girls and boys who lived next-door to each other, who would walk to school together, eat lunch together.
Years later when I will read Elena Ferrante, some bits of my caste ridden childhood will begin to make sense to me. I understood the violence in those books because that was caste in my world. This is probably why my students find it hard to relate to the book, to me – because I keep talking about experiences that were/are alien to them.
In Belgaum where I studied for a year, neighbour aunties would pull their daughters out of our house exactly at 5 to say ‘Abhyas maadbeku. Time aaytu’
I thought Abhyas was some karate class they went to. My mother and I realised much later that Abhyas meant practice, study. Everywhere we looked, parents were training their children to be competitive adults – to get them ready to take over the world.
It must have been daunting for my mother to prepare her children in a city where everyone was fast, everyone was modern, where Merit sat like a Brahmin God — that visible form that we could see but not touch. Like kaig sikkidru baig sigolla. The proverbial distance between the cup and the lips.
We were put in good schools but beyond that these other girls had something that my mother knew she couldn’t give us because she didn’t know what, she didn’t know how. But she did something. She did what other mothers were doing. She took us to music classes, dance classes and there she figured, we will learn something. But did we?
The music classes were amusing. The children there seemed to know everything there was to know already. So there was no learning happening. There was practice happening. And then one day the music master played some tune on his harmonium and asked us to recognise it. Yeh raga cha naav kai, he sang to us. My sister told him her name. He stared, gulped air and moved on. So did we.
We didn’t go back after that.
How was my mother to prepare us for this battle without right genes and pure blood? It must have been a lonely time and lonelier world. This was a battle she was not ready for. Dad kept getting transferred so for the longest time she fought this alone.
This is what some of you would call cultural capital. And some of you would call Merit.
What does this mean in our lives but? How to define this invisible code?
It was that neat handwriting in which studious Brahmin girls wrote in their hardbound books, which some of us could never touch. It went from their hands and into the hands of others deserving and then into their bags. It was like a secret document that only some had access to.
It was the look of utter disgust on the faces of these girls when I asked them on the morning of some exam – can you please explain this theorem? And then they explained the same with pleasing smiles when some of their own asked them the same question.
It was the neat partition of their oiled hair, the ability to sit in perfect padmasana during tuitions, the glow of their skin, and the aroma of their vegetarian lunch boxes.
Essentially, Merit is a tall building full of assembly lined, well-oiled Brahmin robots who receive all the training very early to take over the world – Engineering, MBA, IIT, IIM, and now because it’s cool – humanities.
Merit is definitely not just hard work then. It’s the license code to being allowed someplace because you are of the right kind.
And this became starkly obvious to me when I started working as a teacher. I was still blind to caste in many, many ways. And discovering Ambedkar wouldn’t happen for a couple more years. But again, there was that growing anonymous discomfort with myself. I think back to the time when a Brahmin colleague declared over lunch one day ‘I am proud to be a Brahmin.’ I think back to the time when there was clandestine discussion over my NET qualification and its validity because apparently there was no evidential ‘merit’ involved.
I can only cringe with disgust now. It is clear to me that caste networks operate invisibly but quite strongly everywhere, especially in schools and colleges, and even among students. Here of course it takes on various forms – talent, good English, knack etc.
In the classroom, I am quick to sense when a student doesn’t find me challenging enough. When I take books that I’ve liked into the classroom – it is with a faint hope that if I can open out the book for them — something might click, and they will want to read it. I have learnt to rely strongly on my own pleasure to be able to reach out to students.
But the students’ demands on my ability to offer challenge, puzzle is blurring into that dangerous line where they switch off pleasure completely. I am horrified by their indifference to pleasure. What is the point of literature if you only want to capitalize it into an app that offers challenge and devalues pleasure?
Isn’t pleasure political? Doesn’t that make it a challenge? A book that did this for me was Nabokov’s Lolita. I struggled because I couldn’t believe how much I was being seduced by the damn book. And that immediately became political.
One of the things I have learnt from reading Paromita Vohra and watching her interviews obsessively is the idea that no one can and no one must define what is pleasure or what is political for you. That choice is yours to make and yours alone.
I might be the lesser person here for putting pleasure over everything else. And I know I cannot escape it when it leads to situations I often find myself in. For instance, it hurts my eyes when I notice students dumb themselves down to talk to me. But at least it doesn’t hurt my heart, thank god. Just my eyes, but oh my eyes! My eyes!
But I’d rather have pleasure – you keep your merit OK? Tata bye bye.
What I have in abundance, that all Dalit people have, is the desire to learn, and the longing to feel alive.
This is the first thing I learnt from Ambedkar.
The next was that merit needn’t be something we cannot touch. Either by challenge or pleasure, if we can get to the point where learning becomes something we are invested in every day, then we have won.
When I saw this, it became tolerable, even desirable for me to look into the mirror every day.
A nagging question I have had of all big movements, whether it is feminism or the anti-caste movement – is what to do in situations that life throws at us?
Bratty cabbage girls who hate female teachers, Brahmin batata vadas who smirk when you talk about caste in classrooms. How to deal with them? I find that every now and then, I discover an answer because I’m always looking for one.
I went from anger to humour, from Ambedkar to Dhasal to Manjule, and found the answer with Gogu Shyamala.
The women in Gogu Shyamala’s stories (Father may be an elephant and mother only a small basket, but…) make me feel more empowered than #MeToo and #Losha.
In Jambava’s Lineage, Cina Ellamma is a young Bhagotam performer of the Nizamabad Chindu Ellavva Troupe. One day a bunch of upper caste men abuse her and she is outraged. She goes to the senior Ellamma for advice and this is what Ellamma tells her –
My child, we too have lived through many similar experiences … but we have somehow managed to keep the art of the Chindu Bhagotam alive. Those who resent or dislike us will speak harshly. We have to deal with them, persuade them maybe, but make sure that we continue with our own work. What you saw happening today is nothing compared to the high-handedness of the dora folk in the villages when I was a young girl. They would make us do all the work, and then say ‘keep your distance … you son of a madiga … chinduloda… dakkaloda’
As they listened to Ellamma, Cina Ellamma fell silent. Something touched her deep inside.
Ellamma continues –
‘The best way for us is to attract them with our performance, to make it so riveting that they sit and watch for hours. That is the most fitting reply to those who try to ride rough over us.
On stage I’d bring out all the anger and suffering hidden in my heart. I’d indirectly abuse some of the men sitting in the audience as if I was referring to someone else. Initially they were very angry, but gradually they changed, and grew more polite’
I am sorry if you don’t see the connection here but I do. Perhaps because Gogu Shyamala is writing about my women – not yours. My ancestors entertained and performed for a living. And this story is equally important to me as a teacher because what is teaching if not performance? When I am doing my job, there is room for a lot of Savarna noise to drown me out. When this happened in 2015, I was crippled. It took me years to move on. I wish I had it in me back then to make my performance so riveting that they sit and watch for hours.
Instead I whined and moped and did nothing except fume.
In Tataki Wins Again, Balamma walks like a ghost at the crack of dawn to go water her fields. If she is late, the upper caste landlord would empty all the water into his fields. And that’s why she’d wake up at 4 in the morning and get there before him, every single day. This offended him so decides to rape her.
He grabs hold of her one morning and drags her into the fields. When he begins to molest her, Tataki ‘takes aim and kicks him as hard as she could on the groin with both her legs.’
The landlord collapses.
In the village, the mala and madiga women giggled through their sari ends as they shared the news, “The landlord wanted to catch our balamani. She kicked him in the groin!”
When I read these stories I feel like I have more than just answers. I have a way to live.
At the Dalit Women’s Conference last year, Ruth Manorama said that our Dalit women must never respond to campaigns like #MeToo because we just end up becoming numbers for the benefit of Savarna Feminists.
It doesn’t happen to me very often but I heard my heart click into the right place when she said it.
My Mouma is a champion in life. She represents herself and she is not bound by anything. She is 82 and takes care of herself like a queen. If you mess with her, she will hit you on the head with a water bottle that she always carries around.
These are the women I want to read and write about. Sumitra, the woman in my short -story is vulgar in her laughter and dirty in demeanor.
I had just been looking in all the wrong place for answers but as it turns out – Dalit women have always had answers to these questions. Women with loud and vulgar laughter who, like their hair, are mad and untamable – always do.
*Featured Image Credits – Savarna Audience by Dr Sylvia Karpagam at drsylviakarpagam.wordpress.com
Sometime in the month of October, I wondered if my blog was developing a certain direction. It’s because I read and wrote more about caste than I have about anything else this year. A lot of my posts and essays this year were attempts at making sense of my life, work, and relationships and I could only have written them after I had seen caste. It’s not something you can unsee after seeing.
It took me a while to see caste in my life. What do I mean by that?
My parents have protected me for as long as they could. They still do. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I even know my caste. That’s how hard they’ve worked to ensure my safety in a world they grew up in. I wonder then – would I be craving to know more about my caste were I an engineer or a doctor today? I don’t know. But I’m glad I’m in a profession that demands writing and reading from me vigorously, tirelessly.
I’m glad that my job includes dialogues with students. Because it’s here in the classroom that I get to meet some fascinating, talented, also arrogant students. And it’s also here – in this space that my parents cannot protect me.
‘Why isn’t Vj political about her identity?’ was something someone once asked.
I was amused because it is a stupid question. What did they want me to do? Wear a board that said ‘I am Dalit’ and walk around?
I was writing then just as much as I am writing now. What can be more political than writing?
Maybe they wanted me to be politically active on Facebook. So if I had shared a couple of newspaper/magazine articles on the atrocities against Dalits, that would have made me political about my identity no? I have come to hate this word – political. At one point, I wanted to get a dog and name it poly – short for political. Because I don’t know – just.
It’s ridiculous to demand someone to be political. It’s just as bad as making Aadhar mandatory or making the entire theatre stand up for the national anthem. Because all these demands come from the same place. The demand to see your response. To check. To see if you meet expected standards.
As Christina Dhanraj once pointed out – ‘Is our personal your political?’
But what is the point of showing up to a protest in town hall if you are there only to mark attendance of those absent?
I have arrived at this point in my life at my own pace. That’s how it is with most people. There’s no need to be Meena Kumari if people decide to go watch Bahubali first day first show instead of attending your radical talk on ‘freedom of expression.’
Maybe there’s genuine freedom of expression happening when a bunch of 45 -year -old middle-class housewives look forward to something more important than the return of sons and husbands from office. So they wake up one morning knowing that by the end of the day, they’ll know why Katappa killed Bahubali – that is perhaps more political than finding out what great revolution is happening in the lives of a privileged few who have the mind-space to go to a protest.
It took me a while to reach and read Ambedkar and understand why he is so important to my history. But now that I have, he is permanent in my life.
Even so — within the boundaries of a classroom, I wonder how it is for the many other Dalit teachers out there. While classrooms can be a space for growth, knowledge blah blah… they are also spaces of violence. I have heard of stories where teachers have been prejudiced against Avarna students. But what happens when a Savarna student with a certain kind of education and a certain kind of English decides that a Dalit teacher has nothing to teach them? How is it visible?
From my experience, it is visible in the way they patronize you, in the way they treat the assignments you give them in class, in the way they decide that they can learn more and better without you, and the amount of time they spend in coaxing other students to lose respect for you.
Is there a way out of this? There is and I learnt more about it this year.
After Ambedkar, AM is an inspiring example. There was a point when I used to call him Grammar Nazi. But then he called me Grammar Jew and I resigned. I know now why he taught himself to be perfect in the things he does, and in the things he says and writes. It’s so that no Savarna idiot could point a finger at him.
When he writes, it’s impossible to not be overwhelmed by his power over language. As far as I can see – this is what pisses them (whoever) the most. That they cannot point out flaws with his argument because they can’t point out flaws in his language.
Writer Sujatha Gidla once told me – ‘English is a weapon in the hands of Indians. You can fend off casteism to a small extent by wielding it’
It’s what Ambedkar did. It’s what AM does. And it’s also what I am slowly learning to do.
An incredible event this year was the Dalit Women Speak Out conference. It was a turning-point of sorts because it’s the most powerful thing to have ever happened to me. It forced me out of loneliness in a world that is run by making people invisible. AM had once said – ‘If spaces matter to you, you must claim them to create them’
And that’s what we must do. In the classroom and outside. Claim spaces. Make noise. Sing songs. Dance loudly. And it’s what numerous Dalit women did that day on stage.
When I walked out of the auditorium, I was shaking. I saw Gee outside and something just went off. We both broke down and clung to each other. We didn’t have to say anything or explain anything.
Someone creepily took off one picture and I am not complaining because this is my favourite picture of the year 🙂
This semester’s biggest achievement was discovering that Ambedkar loved the violin and learnt to play it a couple of years before his death. Also that he loved gardening and woke up early in the morning so he could water plants and spend time with them.
Only he could have known why learning a new skill or just doing something one loves to do is so important. Coming as he did from a world where people thrived on keeping him away – companionship with oneself wasn’t just natural but also a rebellion.
Ambedkar became someone outside of a portrait in the stories that I rummaged through. Reading Annihilation of Caste was a revelation. A lot of the things that I simply hadn’t noticed in school assumed ugly shapes. I understand now why friendships have never come to me easily and why they never will. And this realisation has also led me to believe that I’m completely at ease being by myself most of the time, barring the occasional loud moments of loneliness.
Last year I discovered Ambedkar through Siddalingaiah, and I saw in both their stories the image of my college- going father eating lunch alone. I don’t mean to present a picture of victimhood here because this is an image that I derive a lot of strength from.
This year, I was also prompted to ask myself why I haven’t seen or read the stories of my mother and my grandmother anywhere. But I can’t complain about not having read their stories because I haven’t made the effort to write them. It falls upon me to write their stories. I saw this after reading Sujatha Gidla’s Ants among Elephants. There is a powerful, unabashed confession she makes at the beginning of her book – about how important it was for her to learn her ancestors’ stories before they died.
This is a dizzying worry for me too – that if I don’t learn and write my ancestors’ stories – the history of an entire community would be lost – or worse – botched and rewritten in some dabba textbook.
From the other authors that I discovered through Ambedkar – Gogu Shyamala, Namdeo Dhasal, Mallika Amar Shaikh, and Vaidehi – I learnt to smell forgotten bits of my childhood which, as I have come to understand is easy to recollect but hard figuring out. Sometimes my childhood is watching Mr. India again and again and sometimes it is a gnawing desperation to run after some girls from school – to become friends with them.
In Living to Tell the Tale – everytime Marquez mentions nostalgia– it is used with the word ‘attack’. As in – ‘One evening, my mother suffered an attack of severe nostalgia’
Like a bad fever, nostalgia must then be endured and overcome. For the Dalit community today, I am wondering if nostalgia is an attack too. One that can only be endured and never overcome because their stories must never be forgotten. They must be told and heard over and over again.
This semester was also a rude awakening to truths I’d have preferred not to have learnt. I see a pattern in both my teaching and my writing. It’s that the effort is all there but it is never complete. I leave arguments unfinished; I don’t complete a thought because it’s too much work. And this is making me very afraid.
Usually when I stumble across ugly truths about myself, I take refuge in students’ writing. Reading them always helps me in ways that reading published authors don’t. Students’ stories are sometimes told so simply and with so much energy that they puncture my powerlessness with language.
This is important because I still haven’t outgrown my ‘cheeks like Christmas mornings’ phase. This phase is what I began writing with – imitating English writers, and borrowing their metaphors. English handicaps writers like me because it isn’t the language I grew up with but it is the language I long to perfect and dream of conquering.
It’s clear though that I can never write in English the way so many others do because my relationship with it will always be fractured.
My stories and my parents’ stories and my grandparents’ stories all happened in Konkani and Kannada. It is strange to imagine them in English and stranger still to write them in English.
How to write then? It is very annoying to surrender writing to that kind of helplessness. A writer who rescued me from this fracture is Marquez. In his world, my powerlessness became less menacing. Stories are perhaps best told in the language that they happened in. And English needn’t be the monster I make it out to be. It can be the formless amoeba to my Konkani and Kannada. And when they all meet, formless becomes form.
I am cringing as I write this because as someone wise once suggested – it’s a sin to put Marquez and Magic realism so close to each other.
But maybe a community’s story needs the playfulness of Magic Realism to tell it. My Kottuncheri story found release because of this. Earlier this year, writing in Konkani opened many doors. Maybe it’s time to return to that project.
I like stories more than histories. Sometimes I can’t be too sure of the difference between the two but I imagine story as the wrinkled old face of a grandmother with a soothing afternoon voice narrating, gesturing, singing, touching, and laughing. And I imagine history in the sturdy shape of a wooden foot ruler in the hands of a tall man in an opaque white, full sleeved shirt.
14th April is branded in my memory because in school, we studied Ambedkar in Hindi, Kannada, Sanskrit and English, sometimes all in the same year. We were taught details, dates, amendments but today I remember Ambedkar only through the anecdotes. There was that recurring story of Ambedkar’s great love for books – how when he travelled, his bags had more books than clothes; how he studied under the streetlamps; how his father wouldn’t sleep until 3 in the morning so he could wake his son up in time. And then when I read Siddalingiah’s Ooru Keri, I found more such stories.
My favourite is the one where Ambedkar learnt to climb trees so he could have a decent place to read but the problem was that he didn’t know how to climb down and on more than one occasion, he’d fall tumbling down – all his books collapsing over him. Once there was an ash pit into which he fell. His friends teased him and called him Boodi (ash) Saheba. And Ambedkar is supposed to have told them, ‘I maybe Boodi Saheba now but I will be Baba Saheba in the future’. I smiled when I read this. I don’t know why this story cheered me up no end. I don’t care if it isn’t true, anymore than I care if he wasn’t really born on 14th April. But Ambedkar became someone outside a history textbook for me in these stories, and in these moments.
And then when I heard my father speak about Ambedkar and his past in much the same way that Siddalingiah did, I sat up and listened.
You should know that he did a lot for our people. We would have been nowhere without Ambedkar. The college which I’d joined was purely for merit students. I was only able to get a seat because I’m SC. When I joined, I found that everyone else had 80% and I only had 40%. I limped towards inferiority complex and after some days, I was engulfed in it. To come out of that complex, it took a lot of time and hard work but even then I was unable to reach their level and I finally came out as the last man in the race.
My father did his engineering in Davangere where, he tells us, he had some unforgettable experiences. He never had any money. And when he’d run out of toothpaste, he’d have to borrow some from his roommates. And so they bullied him into a deal. They gave him a blob of toothpaste every morning if he agreed to do their record work. So he sat up late every night doing record work for his friends along with his own. And then there were teachers who decidedly favoured the ‘merit’ students and were extremely hostile to him.
I couldn’t do anything. I just had to accept the situation. If I resisted, it’d hurt more. I myself didn’t want any unnecessary advantage on the pretext of discrimination. I felt if I wrote proper answers, certainly it should fetch more marks. So I worked harder.
When I joined the Department of English, I didn’t feel the need to be aware of my caste, in a way that I would have had to be if I were working elsewhere. My professors were here and I felt that I could continue my learning, now as a teacher.
I find it difficult to write what I want to, mainly because there are only so many words I can use to say that the Department is the place where I found myself and that I will always be grateful to it for showing me my own potential that years of schooling had destroyed.
My father has never come here, but I’m afraid that if he will, he’s not going to like what he sees – the desk at my workplace is my home. He’s going to know why I’m always dying here. But then maybe he will also be relieved. He has always made sure that his children don’t have to go through what he had to. And on some days, my biggest worry here is that I’m going to show up to work in pyjamas. So far it has almost happened only once. And that is only because I feel perfectly at home here. Really, what a fascist place this should be.
I have discovered that there are as many ways of living as there are of whining. And this liberal fascist department has taught me to always pick the former. And it has also taught me to not bother about those who pick the latter. ‘Let them be’, I have heard CA say very often. Not that I don’t whine now at all. For some of you this may very well be whining but I have also found joy in saying ‘evs’ to your miserable faces.
I have learnt to value conversation with students here. And the rotting Dalit students are the ones I enjoy talking to the most. Our convenor for ‘The Literary Society’ this year is one such rotting Dalit student that nobody cares about. He hangs out in the Department and we take great pleasure in watching him rot. So much so that we have taken considerable effort to move him to the hostel just so we can watch him rot a little more closely.
I find it interesting that attackers are now viewing the department as a place where people only preach, not practice. If that is true, then the legacy of the great liberal department would not have taken this long to ‘crumble’, if that’s what you think you are doing. People are not stupid and you cannot make them. Take a closer look at your lives. You stop talking to Dalit students because they disagree with you; you start campaigning against the department for not taking ‘your side’ after a tragic break up; you want only a certificate of ‘queerdom’ from the ‘right’ people so you pull out the many victim cards to supply sudden solidarity. Do yourself a favour and stop pretending that your concerns are political.
Let’s clear the air — there are people here and everywhere else who are convinced that I got my NET only because of reservation and have therefore decided that it is not valid. There are also people who believe that I shouldn’t be teaching certain classes because I am more qualified to polish shoes. But the four liberal fascists who, given their most absurd nature, should have been siding with them, chose instead to stand up for me and shut the wretched people up.
The twisted fascist who unofficially runs the department makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they are not used to seeing a non – Savarna with a little power. Who is preaching and not practicing now? Why fake so much concern for rotting Dalit students when you can’t handle a Shudra in power?
In a post that he wrote on his blog, Prof. Mani explains how Wingco Mulky gave him a life outside of himself and saved him from inner demons. Prof. Mani has been doing for other students what Mulky did for him. I don’t need to supply evidence for this but you need to know that this outweighs all your collective cowardice and your uninteresting complaints.
I am posting here an excerpt from Prof. Mani’s blog post –
There was so much that I needed to say to him. That over the years, it was he who had taught me how to live. That the lesson he taught all of us, never to be passive receivers of information, had been our salvation in the other paths we chose to tread. That when he asked me to join Appu and Och in taking over from him, six years ago, he gave me a focus outside myself-—freeing me thus from self-absorption, from a terrible downward spiral, from numerous personal demons.That his life confirmed for me the value of staying put, that they truly live who choose to stay, that life is to be found here, not elsewhere nor in dollars.My sturdiest human relationship was with this man, fifty years older and a far better human being than I can ever hope to be. It was not one built of too many words and that is passing strange—I am, after all, a word-child and nothing else.My debts to him will take the longest time to sort out. How do you best thank a man who gave you a world to be in, one who lifted you out of gawky, sharp-edged unloveliness into a sort of life, into community with other people? I never did, and those words are now an unresolved lump in the throat.
From building a syllabus that is more in favour of the student than the institution, to making sure that learning is never mechanical and the student participates actively in her own learning — the department under the leadership of the four liberal fascists and especially under the leadership of the twisted Prof. Mani has made possible what no noisemaker can ever hope to achieve.
Having tutored Dalit students for over three years now, I doubt a system like the ‘Tutorials’ will work very much with people who threaten to stop guiding students over petty disagreements. Prof. Mani designed tutorials to enable conversations with students who need it the most. And I am glad that these conversations will continue despite slanderous efforts by many to thwart them.
Do what you can, you cannot take away the fact that the Department has done more for me and people like me than your political, radical, intellectual, and liberal positions can ever do for anybody.
As Sigmund Freud would say, ‘the only rotten things in the state of Denmark either left or have been kicked out.’