Teaching in Dangerlok

Couldn’t sleep one night so spent it all by reading Eunice De Souza. I wish I could have more reading nights like these even if they make me groggy and teary the next day.

Eunice De Souza’s Dangerlok is what I needed to combat fucking NEP. Rina Ferreira, the single, double-parrot-keeping teacher in Bombay has the life, the guts, the buddhi that I want for me. She teaches English at a college, smokes, talks to her parrots, writes letters to her lovers, chills with her friend Vera with whom she goes oor-suthooing, comes back home, smokes, drinks chai, reads, and sleeps.

Every now and then, I need to be gently whisked and battered into remembering that I am a teacher. I spent all my childhood wanting to grow up and make my own money and now that I am doing it – I am barely even acknowledging it. I act as if I’m so used to it. But I need to, now and then behave as if it still surprises me that I teach for a living, for thrills, for fun, for play. That I get paid to do what I love.

Some moments from last week that I want to remember:

  1. At an NEP meeting, someone said, “When you run into students years after you’ve taught them, they are not going to recognize you and thank you for teaching them passive voice. They will remember that you taught them Julius Caesar”
  2. I returned to a science class to teach them general english after very long and had more fun than I’ve had teaching anything else in years. I became again, the girl I was nine years ago who wasn’t sure of anything except knowing that some thank yous are more genuine than others. And that when a student stays back after class to say it, words that once echoed sharply in hollow classrooms now make me smile. With this gratitude, I move from one meeting to another on MS Teams.
  3. After I said bye to them last week, I was very nearly crying. We had been talking about English- its miseries and joys. And how it’s nothing to be afraid of, how there was once a man who sometimes wielded English like a weapon, sometimes like a suit, and sometimes as so much a part of him that it’s hard to imagine he once didn’t know English.
  4. I am not very easily moved to tears when I talk about English. But to talk about English amidst students much like me was reassuring, like finding your own people after a long day of being lost. The English here is the kind we learn to speak despite school, despite teachers in school, despite not speaking it at home, and despite education itself.
  5. Sometimes students can be so fiercely themselves, so delightfully hungry to learn that I wonder who is the teacher here. There is so much to learn from students about how to stand up against governments that are so anti-students and anti-learning. Those who come from such far away places to learn and make a stable future for themselves remind you of the anger you feel in your teeth for this fuckall government in whose imagination, the student is a young NRI- return Modi.
  6. Later that same day, I broke down in class, again. Turned camera off this time. And cried harder when they reached out to console me. I was telling them about what it was like to be a young teacher. Did students take young women teachers seriously back then? I was telling them about not being able to stand in front of a class to teach Romeo and Juliet after I’d allowed myself to be belittled by opinions and that if I could go back in time, I’d own Shakespeare’s ass the way I know I can, the way this department has taught me to.
  7. Any department that can teach its young Dalit women teachers to not be afraid of Shakespeare or of students who think they know Shakespeare just because they know English is an enemy of the Savarna state which makes the NEP – a beacon of Savarna rashtra and every teacher fighting it across the state, an Ambedkarite.
  8. After classes these days, I am watching young people take care of other young people. Metonym, our inter-class literary championship is an excuse for us to make fraandship with students. It’s the last thing we’ll be able to do before NEP hits us so all my enthu is going there and I’m hoping they remember us for this, if not anything else.
  9. I am exhausted from asking myself what would Ambedkar do if he was here so I’ve been watching Saarpatta every morning to begin the day.
  10. Yesterday, in a Theatre Studies class when a student was just getting ready to perform, his mother walked in, banged a kitten on his lap and went away. He grabbed it in both his hands and threw the paapa kitten somewhere. She’s called Mia it seems. I died laughing.

Eunice De Souza would write her way out of NEP. It’s what I think I should also do. Why aren’t there any biographies of Miss De Souza? If there are, please tell me. I want to read.

On Self-respect or how to unpark a car in Basavanagudi

This Insta series was originally published on the Scrolls & Leaves Podcast.

Ever since I first read Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect a couple of years ago, I have taken it to every class I teach. My wish, that it gives young girls whatever sense of self I didn’t have when I was growing up is only slightly overshadowed by something selfish. I take it to class every year because I need to read it every year.

My self-respect tank runs on reserve through the year & for that one week when we do the essay in class, I feel like I have my self-respect firm in my palm. I try to understand how and why a white woman sitting so far away can know and have anything useful to say to a not- white teacher. But I’ve given up trying to reason with it. Those better equipped to deal with the ‘problematics’ of the situation may deal with it. I am more interested in taking the gift and running away with it.

A very Basavanagudi thing happened in Basavanagudi last week. We recently moved into a rented house and our neighbors already hate us. One doesn’t like that we park our car in front of our gate because he wants to park his car there. His caste, kula, gotra I don’t want to get  into, we live in Basavanagudi; you figure. 

One afternoon, my father was rushing to the bank and requested him to move his vehicle because it was blocking ours. The neighbor shrugged and didn’t come out of his house. My father went walking. 

After that, my father made it a point to park our car right at the gate before the neighbor could. Even though he shouldn’t have to, let’s proceed.

The neighbor called the traffic police & complained bitterly to the confused young officer who responded. If the officer was entertained, he couldn’t hide it well:  ‘So you have a problem if they park their car in front of their gate?’ Still, the neighbor persisted. My father lost it and ran screaming at the neighbor. The anger in my father’s voice does the same thing to me today that it has always done: irritate me, get me to think about how unnecessary it is, and bring me to automatic tears. In the past, I’ve seen my father scream so loudly, the red in his eyes don’t leave until the next morning, his face is concretely unmoving, and his temples throb as if struggling to come out. But when he was shouting at the neighbor, I realized it was the only thing he could’ve done. I understood the source of all his anger.

By then, the neighbor had gathered supporters on the strength of his and their births. Some stood on balconies, threads visible, saying to my father: ‘Just because you have a big car doesn’t mean…’ And that’s when I saw it – the source of their anger. The problem may not have been the car after all, it was the size of the car, which was perhaps as big as their bruised pride.

This morning, returning from a walk I saw a couple of policemen pacifying someone very much like the neighbor. He kept pointing at a few discarded flowers on the footpath. An hour ago when I’d walked the same way, I’d seen flower vendors sitting on the footpath under the shade of a large tree. The flower vendors were nowhere to be seen now. A man came running to them and said, “Saar, look at all this dirt, that too in front of a Brahmin house.”

What I’ve learnt from this tragicomical angst towards outsiders/’polluters’ in Basavanagudi is that the centre is not holding.

I am thinking of Gogu Shyamala’s ‘But Why Shouldn’t the Baindla Woman Ask for Her Land?’, where Saayamma bangs her fists, makes a fuss, and pushes the village heads with an iron grit and won’t leave until she takes back what belongs to her. I am thinking how much indignity there is in asking for things that you shouldn’t have to ask for (because they are yours to begin with).

I am thinking how those who make you ask for these things not only get to keep their dignity but yours as well. I am thinking of how the consequence of not making a fuss is different for different people. I am thinking of how every other passerby who heard my father roaring on the street would’ve called him an uncouth wild man. I am thinking of a Bahujan writer on a zoom panel I once attended. She was accused of not having got the question right and wouldn’t let go until both the moderator and the other speaker had apologized.  These people who took back what was theirs, took it despite the consequences – they were not wild; they weren’t even angry; they were just holding on to their self-respect.

I am led back to the quietness of Didion’s words and wonder whether it is enough to sneak my self-respect out from wherever it is hiding, and- whether it’ll do. It will do. Didion says, “​​To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect” — which to me means that some of our routes to self-respect aren’t going to be dignified and are certainly not going to be quiet. The route is what often gets us called mad and difficult. But it’s what will eventually free us from the Savarna expectation that we will keep eating kadlepuri while they hack at our self-respect.

Rain: with apologies to Francis Ponge

⁣The rain, by the front door where I watch it fall, is only in its effects. Nothing like the way I imagine it from inside, where it falls on the house in sounds: splatters, drips, trips, pattars, thwacks, & pachaks. ⁣By the steps, it gushes in soundless patterns as if letting go after too much withholding.⁣

Outside the compound, it flows down the road, in a fierce, determined brown, the kind that means the tea is perfect. ⁣In a far away country, I once stepped out to find that it had been raining for a while, with no warning. Where is the rain if there’s nothing for it to fall on, alva? Without gudgud, without laughter?

Like it does here from pipes sticking out of pakkad manè, as the French say. Or freezes itself into white droplets on thick black wires, trickling into each other now, running away now.⁣

On mosaic, it falls with clarity. On granite, with purpose. On marble, with glory. On my palm, with giggles. But no one has quite learnt to catch it like the trees do. After all, only they seem to know what to do when it rains – stand themselves in utter, brilliant solitude, refusing to go anywhere, soaking it all in, shivering only when they want to.

Read Francis Ponge here.

Anything can happen at Knowhere

Monday, 14 December 2020, Knowhere, 10:20 PM

After half a bottle of wine, some excellent chilli beef on potato, Goan sausages, crispy prawn wafers, and beef biriyani, I was happily eating carrot halwa from a glass bowl when Mr M whispered to me, ‘Vj, your dildaar is here.’ D and K looked equally puzzled. I thought he was talking about some student so I turned around to see a bunch of grown men walking by and lost interest. But then I peeked properly and it was Saad Khan so I squealed. After partially damaging K’s arms I screamed ‘Razzak is hereeee’. I wanted to walk up to him, pat him on the shoulder and ask ‘mere koftein khaati?’

I badgered Mr M to use his utmost teacher power, walk to him and say ‘Ey basturrd, what man? I gave you attendance so now you give me autograph’ – but he just rolled his eyes. After thinking of many such scenes in my head, I gave up and booked Ola auto. It said 3 minutes so I began walking towards the exit. Saad Khan looked very posh under the yellow light and pushed back hair and nothing like my Razzak so I said chalo theek hai. Hands were sticky from biriyani and I was too lazy to go to washroom. So I stopped by the sanitiser at exit and wrestled with the damn thing. It wasn’t giving sanitiser so I kept kicking the pedal. Behind me, I could hear an obnoxiously loud man on the phone and I was thinking why only men are so loud on the phone in public places. Mr M walked calmly and told me that the sanitiser stand at the other end worked better. Obnoxious loud man was standing close to it and I could only see his periphery so didn’t want to go there. I looked at my hands and thought chalo, no saad no sanitiser in my fuckall janma and called lift.

D and K came running towards the lift. Something had happened. D was red in the face and looked flushed. She was screaming oh my god that was Danish Sait oh my god oh my god. I turned to see the fastly moving appearance of obnoxious loud man entering Knowhere. I glared at Mr M and asked ‘THAT WAS FUCKING DANISH SAIT???’

Mr M stroked his beard and said ‘ya’ with an angelic smile.

I screamed and kicked, wanting to rip that beard out. All the while I was fighting with the stupid fucking sanitiser, and when he was also telling me to use that one instead of this, he knew it was fucking Danish Sait and wouldn’t tell me? If I’d have told you, you would have screamed and embarrassed me, he said. Even if it was true, I still wanted to know he was right there when I was wrestling with fucking hand sanitiser.

Razia Razzak at Knowhere, I thought sadly and cheerily before the lift closed and my world was back to desole as the French say.

D and K kept giggling. Mr M and his beard were romancing. I cursed them all and walked to my auto.

PS – Razzak ko next time I won’t leave.

B for Basavanagudi

1

The neighbors have been flying kites & on some mornings I see silent blue threads hanging uselessly from the tabebuia tree outside our home. This morning, Appa rescued a pigeon struggling to free itself from one of those threads.

The thread, streaked with blood, was caught in the pigeon’s wings & lodged deep inside the skin, making several cuts every time it tried to get away. Appa held the bird in his left hand in that gentle way that might look rudely firm to an untrained eye. I kept wondering if he’d hurt the pigeon more in the process or if the pigeon would turn around and poke him but Appa was deft with the scissors, making one quick cut after another. When the last loop had been cut, he freed the bird and it flew away with a flutter, making Appa laugh.

Every morning Appa keeps a plate of pigeon peas & two troughs of water on the terrace for the birds. It doesn’t end here. He then stands behind the door discreetly, & watches them, smiling like a man who has just learnt how to fly. In the evenings, he identifies birds by the sound they make when they fly. 

***

Our house & its tree stand flanked between houses that wear thread of a different kind. This is perhaps why Amma was adamant about a house in Basavanagudi, in the heart of the city’s Baman-land. People have their own ways of annihilating caste. This was probably hers – as payback to all those times she & Appa had to swallow insults from Savarna neighbors.

In Basavanagudi where caste is rooted quite fiercely, its illness is visible, audible, & tangible. It began with our milk packets that were first stolen & then hurriedly left alone & untouched after their ‘Dalitness’ was discovered. Yes, milk has caste too.

The old woman & her son who live next-door are close to murdering each other. Their fights are loud, his cries after each fight – louder. He throws plates & glasses at her, she throws insults. He cries because he’s ill. They both are. Caste made them that way. We were unsettled when we first heard the man cry.

We’d never heard a grown man cry like that before. Over time, we got used to it. But Appa continues to listen intently from his bedroom window, not missing a single fight. We were convinced the son is violent but it took a while to make sense of her violence that is less heard than his but lurking just as strongly as the thread across his shoulder.

He tried to break free at one point. He married outside his caste, brought the bride home but something chased her away. The old woman was particular about what was kept where, what she could touch, what she couldn’t, what she could eat on what days, etc and soon the wife ran away. He breaks down more often after that.

One morning, after a particularly nasty fight, the old woman hollered at the neighbours to call the police. He’s trying to kill me, she screamed. Pa called the police but she chased them away when they came. Then the son hurled insults at Appa, swore at him, & in my mother’s words, ‘said a lot of dirty things about us that I could not bear to hear’ 

After that, Appa doesn’t hide his curiosity to know why they are fighting. He stands outside, his hands on his waist to show them that he is listening. When I try to haul him in, he says ‘they can fight openly, I can’t listen openly?’ 

I think of the privacy he gives birds when they eat & drink and love him more than I ever have.

***

In the house behind ours, a 3-year-old child is oiled & washed with hot water every morning. Their bathroom nearly touches our grills & on some days, I can see the steam coming out of there. The child screams his Kannada lungs out – saaakuuu, tumba bisiiii, bedaaaa, nilsuuuuu, ammmmmaaa saaakuuu. It is torture. For us. I don’t know enough to gather if the child has some phobia because that kind of screaming is not just coming from a kid that doesn’t want to bathe. What I do know is that the lady bathing him is not actually scrubbing just physical dirt. Between the mother-son duo & the woman who scrubs the child clean from all potential ‘untouchability’, Basavanagudi is evidence that caste, as Ambedkar pointed out – is a state of mind. 

Its disease is so accepted that sometimes it appears as if ours is the only home that is bothered by these violences that are granted as ok, as shastra, as culture, and cleanliness.

I am glad that the trees & birds here are more ours than Basavanagudi & its people. Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, & he’ll show you what freedom means like no one else can, regardless of what color the thread is or how long.

We are here only

There is a girl who lives 2 houses behind mine, and she never misses sunsets. We don’t know each other and this is ok because what would we do with the sudden, almost brutal knowledge of seeing each other one morning, sitting demurely on our two-wheelers, in our office clothes, going to office? It is far too naked.

I like that this is the only way we have come to know each other. Together, we watch the sunset in Basavanagudi. It might be setting everywhere else too, but from the way we both swallow the orange pink light, and eat the sun whole – from here and from there – it feels like it setting only for us.

It’s nice to know that there is always a moment when we walk the length of each of our terraces, that when we are walking away from the sun, we are both wondering what we are missing, so we keep looking back to find that nothing has changed and everything has.

There is also a boy, a few houses to the left, who stands at the edge of his terrace, (dangling from it, really) to take pictures. Occasionally we look at him but in our universe, he is a dot. He isn’t here for the long haul like we are – where, after the sun disappears into the papery thin sky, and there’s that moment of total silence (as if the only thing that should happen when the sky is drained of color, when the plunger plunges everything out from the sink – is silence) he is gone, but we are here – she and I.

That’s when the birds come. They fly in the same pace, towards the same direction, often noiselessly, like a still painting where only the birds look alive. It’s then that we leave, the both of us, feeling full and somewhat empty.