Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, and he’ll show you what freedom is

This essay was first published on Huff Post India (30 Oct 2020). Temporarily posting it here until it finds a new home.

When we first moved to Basavanagudi in Bangalore, a relative told Appa he should chop the top half of the Tabebuia tree growing in front of our house. He said that a tree growing taller than your house was bad luck, it would stunt your prosperity. Of course, that same person also told Appa not to let daughters sleep under vaulted ceilings because it made them ambitious and they would never get married. Appa studied the ceiling and the tree with caution. Amma made a fuss, not on behalf of my ambitions but because she had put her life on hold to build this house. The vaulted ceiling was her final touch. I have now spent 13 years under it and for 13 years no matter where I was in life and how many ambitions I had and how often they cut me, the Tabebuia tree dropped pink flowers every February.

During the pandemic, I took to spending hours on the terrace under the shade of the Tabebuia tree, reading, watering plants, and listening to short stories by women. Over Jamaica Kincaid’s words (‘Figures in the Distance’) in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s voice one evening, I discovered rows of sugary dust left behind by ants on a pear leaf. I scraped some out, surprised when they made my fingers sticky. Kincaid’s narrator was saying that as a child, she was convinced that only people she didn’t know died. I think back to the time my grandfather died; how his body had grown smaller in death and was being bathed under the Tabebuia tree even as Brahmin neighbors retreated into their homes, repulsed by the sight of bare-chested, thread-less Dalit men walking around. I think back more recently to the time my oldest uncle died, looking just as his father had, his small body cradled by the man bathing him.

I was brought back to the story when Adichie whispered “We were afraid of the dead because we never could tell when they might show up again” Her dipping voice both covering and revealing the child narrator’s goosebumps. I tightened my grip on the water pipe to manage the urge to highlight that line, as if I was reading it off a kindle, off a mobile screen, copying those lines to later paste and post on twitter, an invitation for others to read, for me to remember weeks or months later when I’m senselessly scrolling down to see if there’s anything I’ve said in excess, anything that must be uncurated. There are 60 potted plants on the terrace although Appa says 58 because two are succulents and he doesn’t think of them as real plants. I stopped arguing with him after he began using them as weights for the plate of bird grain. Two weeks into the lockdown, Appa began coming up to the terrace only to feed the birds. For a while, he used to stop at the plants, considering them, cursing them when they weren’t growing, and then ignoring them entirely when he discovered birds because they showed him they remembered him.

At home, there were varying opinions about how often plants must be watered. Appa said weekly, my sister said once in three days. I saw logic
in both but selfishly continued watering them every day because in the 30 minutes that it took to water the plants, I could listen to stories without interruption, where even I couldn’t interrupt myself. And what is a short story if not an interruption, a sudden, smallish hole to free-fall into? My hands were tied, so were my ears. All I could do was shut up, water the plants, and listen to the story.  One morning, Appa played a YouTube tutorial video for the confused koel sitting on the Tabebuia tree. He was teaching it how to sing, not croak. “Listen to how the birds do it here, you are not doing it properly,” he was instructing it. We told him not to birdsplain but neither the koel nor he was interested in our opinion. Amma left him alone and took to watching the parrots that came in clouds, sat a while, and then fluttered away, early in the mornings. “I saw 50 parrots today,” she told anyone who called her on the phone.

Every year during Hiriyar Habba, we remember our dead elders. There’s mutton, egg, and chicken on a plantain leaf, a bundle of beedis sticking
out of a small glass, and bottles of cheap whiskey, all arranged neatly in front of stern, black and white pictures of Ajja and Doddappa. The meat
on the plantain leaf is then eaten by the oldest members of the family. This year though, instead of eating them, Appa stood on the terrace holding mutton pieces, waving them at the hawks that swooped down and grabbed what they could. One of the hawks lost its grip on a piece and it fell right into our neighbors’ compound. Appa’s eyes widened with delight, although a familiar, muted fear crept in between his eyebrows. Later that day, there was outrage in the neighbor’s house, and curses that fell on our caste while Appa snorted lazily and Amma glared at no one.

Three months ago, the neighbors were flying kites and one morning I saw blue threads hanging uselessly from the Tabebuia tree. Some days later,
Appa rescued a pigeon struggling to free itself from one of those threads. Streaked with blood, it was caught in the pigeon’s wings and 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 bite 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.

Our house and its Tabebuia tree are flanked by houses that wear threads of a different kind. In the 13 years that we’ve lived here, our neighbors have only remained neighbors, never becoming anything more, anything less. During the lockdown, I often see Appa standing by the window, watching the neighbors every time they gather near the katte in the morning to read newspapers, laugh, and talk. I wonder if he ever desired that kind of companionship but then I see him with his pigeons and his hawks and his crows and I have an answer. I think back to the time when our neighbor stopped stealing our milk packet after she discovered its Dalitness, and how since then, Appa stands defiantly by the door, publicly eavesdropping on every loud, private quarrel between her and her son. I think of the privacy he gives birds when they eat. How he stands behind the door discreetly, and watches them, smiling like a man who has just learnt how to fly. I am glad that the trees and birds here are more ours than Basavanagudi and its people. Give a Dalit man a pair of scissors, and he’ll show you what freedom is like no one else can, regardless of what colour the thread is or how long.

Dear Toni

Dear Toni

I broke down in class last week when I was reading out this piece by a student. I haven’t wept in class before. I have caught myself just short of breaking down (sometimes unsuccessfully) while saying goodbye to students in the last class. But never like this, never in the middle of reading a piece. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if the piece wasn’t written by a student. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if she had never sat in my classes, if I had never watched her write, if I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I did, and I do. I am making excuses after all. I have always cried after reading her, sometimes privately, and now I can say publicly as well. She wrote things that aren’t easy to write. I cried because she was walking around with everything she hadn’t written until she wrote that piece, I cried because I don’t know what else she is still carrying.

I could have stopped reading, told the students to read it on their own, switched my camera off and composed myself. But I kept going, I don’t know why. I think she made me keep going. And I pray she keeps me going.

I once cried at Meta when a girl student had yelled at me under the banyan tree in college. I didn’t know what to do. But I just kept thinking, if I were a man, or a tall & pretty Savarna teacher with perfect teeth, sharp nose, and bright wide eyes, I wouldn’t be crying under the banyan tree. Maybe I would, I don’t know – but it’s unfair – this desire to know what it would’ve been like if I was Savarna. After all, how often does a Savarna teacher spend time thinking about what it’s like to be a Dalit teacher?

And also – I don’t like feeling that way. Because I know that if I were Savarna, I wouldn’t have been able to read Beloved the way I did and let it live inside me like it now does. There is a reason you write the way you do and when I’d finished reading Beloved, I felt closer to you in a way I wouldn’t have been able to feel if I were Savarna.

I don’t know if I’d have not cried if it were a boy yelling at me, not a girl. Because boys and their words have a way of hiding behind my teeth and making me angry and sour, never sad. The girl returned after months with two roses and an apology. I smiled and accepted all three. Then I wondered if I shouldn’t have, then I was happy that I had. Will I ever reach a stage where I’ll be confident about the choices I’ve made? Will I ever know what to do immediately? Will I ever have it in me to not cry, not be angry? But why should I not cry? What will I do with all that strength it takes to not cry? Where in my body will I keep so much strength? So much self-respect? So much control? I don’t have that much space in my body for that kind of control.

***

I have been waking up early, not to write oh but how I wish I could. I have been waking up early to look at the sky and think of you. I had read that you woke at 4 to make coffee and watch the light come. It’s how you knew that you were ready to write each day. That you didn’t have to be in the light, you had to be there before the light with coffee to know you were ready to write. I loved the sound of that so much that I have been waking early to watch the sun come up, to look at the way it touches the tree outside my door, and to think of you. Thinking of you makes me want to get ready to write.

I don’t know how it’s possible but your belief in storytelling, in the stories your parents told you, about themselves, and the world is how I see mine. I think it’s not easy for Savarna people to understand this or to even take this seriously. And I am learning to live with that. Because their inability to see love and stories makes me never want to give up on myself.

Today, I woke at 4:30 from a dream I wanted to urgently return to so I went back to finish it (Possessed teddy bear-owl with flapping, beating wings is going nuts in my room. Doesn’t leave me alone so I dump it in the trash outside. It becomes a baby and sits on the windowsill cackling at me before jumping to its death and returning again to my bedroom to haunt me. Basically this is Clifford Geertz + Mixer Week + Google Meet+ Online classes)

And when I woke up again, it was 5:59 and I felt like the day was already over, that I was too late. Then I really woke up, told myself to fuck off and begin the day (take trash out, bring milk, put it to boil, put bread in the oven, boil water, make coffee)

After that crying episode, I was afraid the students wouldn’t take my classes seriously anymore. That because of this ’emotional’ outburst, I have shown them that my intellectual relationship with the subject at hand (Resisting caste) has been compromised.

But then I thought, wtf – a teacher moved to tears because of something her student has written is nothing to be ashamed of. If there are teachers who have cried teaching Shakespeare, then A. Suresh is no less than Shakespeare. But it will be used against me, I know that. Someday, when I am least expecting it, it is going to come back and bite me.

So yes, bite me.

“I am not interested in happiness. Not yours, nor mine nor anybody’s. I don’t think we can afford it anymore. I don’t think it delivers the goods. Most important, it gets in the way of everything worth doing. Happiness has become a bankrupt idea, the vocabulary of which is frightening: money, things, protection, control, speed, and more. I’d like to substitute something else for its search. Something urgent, something neither the world nor you can continue without. I assume you have been trained to think- to have an intelligent encounter with problem-solving. It’s certainly what you will be expected to do. But I want to talk about the step before that. The preamble to problem-solving. I want to talk about the activity you were always warned against as being wasteful, impractical, hopeless. I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one. Not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision. Entrance into another’s space, someone else’s situation, sphere. By dreaming, the self permits intimacy with the Other without the risk of being the Other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action. We are in a mess, you know; we have to get out, and only the archaic definition of the word “dreaming” will save us: “to envision; a series of images of unusual vividness, clarity, order, and significance.”

~Toni Morrison~

When I read this from your Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address, I had a warm desire to hear you and Babasaheb talk to each other. I grew hungry to have you both in my belly, walk into a classroom and roar, walk to my table and write my heart out.

Someday, it will happen. I can feel it gathering in my fingertips.

Image credits: Speakola

Featured image credits: nytimes.com

Raat Akeli Hai

I like the songs of frogs and whisper of crickets, especially in films. Raat Akeli Hai is full of these sounds. My ears were sharper than the poke of a single stray hair hanging by the shoulder.

In DC, where we stayed at Georgetown University, the cicadas kept me smiling. I walked around the campus, fighting a mild slew of loneliness but the crickets kept me independent and helped me gaze outside instead of inside. It’s why I like watching films too.

It’s a delight to watch Nawaz on screen. He brings the sort of sharp deliberation to every pause so that you are forced to never leave his face. His face is a moment.

Here are some scenes that made me giggle:

  1. (Nawaz and friend at a restaurant ordering food) Nawaz says no to chowmein and orders fried rice because chowmein reminds him of worms. This offends his friend and they have a tiff. Despite his refusal, chowmein has somehow landed on their table which Nawaz, like the grumpy husband that he is, refuses to eat. I seem to not just tolerate but also like men on screen only when they perform such coupledom.
  2. Nawaz has an even funnier relationship with his mother who is looking for a wife for him. She doesn’t seem to mind the women he minds because he is a man baby she mostly ignores.
  3. My favourite anecdote was Nawaz complaining about his name (Jatil Yadav) which was apparently the result of a spelling mistake his mother made when she was trying to spell Jatin.
  4. How he hides flattened tubes of fair & lovely behind the mirror.

There are ample Uttar Pradesh shots in the film. Lots of Kanpur and Jajmau. And this is more reason to watch any film – roads, gallis, rain, and sky.

My one serious grouse with the film is its glaring absence of the notorious police-boots sounds. The only good thing about the Bollywood-cop films were the sexy kitchkitch sounds those boots made. It’s also why I still enjoy watching 90’s Kannada kalla-police films.

But that was forgiven and forgotten when I had a Jhilmil moment with a scene showing Babasaheb’s portrait in the police station. It was strategically and predictably placed next to Gandhi’s (barf) and Modi’s (double barf) portraits.

There were various references to caste, some flung around carelessly – others making an attempt to go somewhere but holding back noticeably. I will come back to it when I know what to do with it. For now, all I wanted to say is this is how a film gathered around my evening yesterday.

Not going to stop

The distress about Dalits being able to access reservation and social capital is somewhat similar in that it upholds the argument that Dalits have unfairly and insincerely used something in their favour to promote themselves. You are saying that their achievements (however little or nonexistent) are always the result of somebody else’s hard work, friendship, and favour; that they have had to do no work to access the privileges they appear to be enjoying; that their work had nothing to do with their “capital” – social or otherwise. The erasure of work and merit from a Dalit person’s journey is violent.

***

Detour: While I still haven’t learnt how to take a moment to pause when my work is attacked, I am only now coming to the idea that I need to recognize it for what it truly is – a distraction. Meaning, it doesn’t merit more than one nod, two sighs, three teas and then – back to work.

But I feel compelled to protect my work because I don’t know who else is going to do it for me. I don’t see why people should take the effort to slip out of their day into mine only to vent bitterness. What instinct can cause people to lose themselves so uncontrollably to hate? And why am I expected to rise above and not make it about myself when my work is being questioned? I’m sure people will stop saying ‘You are not your work’ if they had any idea about how caste functions.

I spent the last three days responding to hate with anger. I was distracted. I couldn’t read or write without looking back, without feeling that someone was attacking something valuable and that I had to be there to protect it, not here – reading. I longed to go back to the week before where I’d settled into a routine of reading, listening to podcasts, and watering plants. Thankfully, after days of restlessness and the inability to read, I arrived at Toni Morrison’s words and now feel purged.

Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

I’m partly charmed by how easily this is also about caste. An attack on your work is a summon. It keeps you from working. That is its purpose – to stop you from doing what you really want to do. That is also the function of caste. It demands your full attention. It’s a trap. The more distracted you are, the longer they can keep you from working. Reading these words was like rubbing salt into the wounds of time wasted.

In an interview about writing Beloved, Toni Morrison was asked if she became as angry writing it as the reader was when they were reading it. “Is it possible for you to have written Beloved dispassionately?”

She says – “I couldn’t write it in anger. It is a paralyzing emotion. You can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, igniting feeling. I don’t think it’s any of that. It’s helpless. It is absence of control. And I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers, and clarity in order to write. Anger doesn’t provide any of that. I have no use for it whatsoever. I could be melancholy and I could be full of regret. But anger is useful to the people who watch it. It’s not useful to me”

When the interviewer misinterprets it to mean aloofness, she is quick yet patient to correct him – “Not aloofness. I am not aloof and unfeeling. I am an artist. It’s about putting those things in a different cauldron. My compassion could be just as harmful, my love, my fervor too. But to write a book, I must be penetrating and roving. After all, art is but the restoration of order”

I feel saved by these words today and I wish I remember to be saved by them every other day.

In memory of those who stood for a long time holding cow dung in their hands, and those who earnestly and diligently continue to do so – I am celebrating my blog. It is my version of the ‘extra saree’. This is my capital. I learnt how to write here. Keep throwing. I’ll keep writing. Not going to stop even if you stop throwing ❤️

It might also do me some good to remember that summer of 2018 when I was reading whatever I could find by Elif Batuman, and bothering those around me with questions on freedom, work, & love. Something about how women manage to find & keep joy in life.

A writer I really admire had told me this:

“I never ever feel the whole world is attacking me. I have no engagement with the whole world. I am very very interested in the opinions and judgements of a small group of people and even there much much much less than I did in my 20s. I don’t believe the whole world is interested in me either”

I was reminded of this today and want to print it out and keep it on me at all times. It makes me zoom out of myself for a bit and look at everything from a distance, always a relief since it’s so difficult to zoom out when anger takes over.

You can listen to Morrison’s interview here.

Is it THAT hard to leave us alone?

Journalism is no one’s father’s property.

I’ve seen a gate keeping mentality practiced by some journalists in upholding a Brahmanical distinction between what is pure journalism & what isn’t, what is serious hard-core journalism & what is chotabheem journalism.

One of them says ‘writing opinion pieces doesn’t make anybody a journalist.’ This was said in response to a tweet where I’d listed out the Dalit & Bahujan writers, journalists, & activists I’d invited to talk to students (since he was asking for percentages, I gave him names)

Dalit women activists talking about their experiences with upper caste men who threatened them when they were trying to put together a fact finding report about the rape and murders of Dalit women in Haryana and Jharkhand is not journalism?

A Dalit writer talking about Savarna gatekeeping in film writing/criticism is not journalism? A Dalit Transwoman, talking about her struggles with identity & writing her autobiography is not journalism?

A 92-year-old Dalit man talking about his experiences with caste is not journalism? There were Dalit students & teachers who were listening to him that day, hanging on to every word he was saying. He talked fiercely about caste & his school days on a panel with two Dalit students who had read his book, who had never before talked in front of an audience but inspired by the 92 year old man who called himself 29, they talked just as fiercely. This is not journalism?

A Bahujan writer talking about how he began writing, & how he now deals with criticism of his writing is not journalism? It may mean very little to you but having such writers come & talk about their experiences to Dalit students unlocks things that aren’t easy to understand. To begin with, it gives us hope to write & keep writing, even amidst Savarna gate keeping.

As a teacher, I’ve also come across Dalit & Bahujan students who deny caste, become aware of it later & figure out their own ways of negotiating with it. And it is their freedom to do that, as much as it is their freedom to not want anything from me or my work.

Now coming to the actual keeda of the matter, if your question is why wasn’t ‘I’ – self appointed god of journalism- invited – I can perhaps address that differently. But don’t mansplain Dalit women about what journalism is. Some of us have survived without your mentorship all these years, & will perhaps continue to survive. The goal of most writing courses is not as ambitious as producing Pulitzer Prize winners or even hard core journalists.

My goal is to keep students interested in life, in writing, and in wanting to become independent. And again this is subject to what they want to do. If that doesn’t allow me to be a godmother, I am ok with that.

I teach a paper on resisting caste. Students come to the classroom with set ideas about what to expect & find it hard to deal with a paper that isn’t taught like how other Indian literatures are. It has taken time to get to a position where I have the liberty to set a syllabus where I can only put Dalit, Bahujan & Adivasi writers but teaching it hasn’t been easy either. I can only teach that paper emotionally. And students aren’t used to that.

They demand intellectual rigour where I can only offer my own vulnerability. But a paper like this helps Dalit students find themselves & embrace their identities. And this is a big deal for me, even if it means that they don’t go to ACJ after & change the world. Not all uplifted people go to ACJ. Read this piece for some insight – http://www.opendosa.in/shoes-to-fill-a-journey-of-discovery-and-acceptance/

As for the claims that the Dalits who have social capital aren’t doing anything to uplift those who don’t. Best to begin practice at home. And even better if we stop imposing our ideas of upliftment on others. Even Ambedkar didn’t impose. Who are you?

Someday I want to see Dalit writers writing fiction for The New Yorker, I want to see them writing food essays for Gourmet, I want to see them screen their films at every international film festival. Is that wrong? Is it wrong to want those things for myself?

If there weren’t such persistent & dramatic Savarna gatekeeping here, we wouldn’t have to dream internationally. Sometimes our survival doesn’t seek other people’s permission or mentorship. I’ve learnt that the more visible you are, the more irritated they get.

It pisses them off to see that we are writing, teaching, surviving. But Ambedkar taught me to keep working despite who says what & it’s what I’m going to do. If that screws with your plans, Jai Bhim to you.

Some of us are not interested in being champions of revolution nor do we need your awards or rewards. We just want to work. Is it that hard to leave us alone?

Chimmi & Zadie

In love with this stunning partnership, the grace to compliment one another on stage so willfully and mean it, the curiosity about each other’s writing that doesn’t seem scripted for stage and the readiness with which they embrace each other’s work.

And most of all, absolutely delighted that Adichie says this about Zadie:

“How happy I am to share the stage with Zadie. I have admired and followed Zadie’s work from the very beginning, from The White Teeth. And I’ve also really admired that she is this brilliant woman who is also a hot babe. I think it’s really important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes”

They discuss Americanah, race, racism, the importance of talking about hair, love, romance, writing, and sex. Adichie says that she based Americanah on the many Mills & Boon she read as a child. Such a slap on the faces of people who continue to propagate bullshit about high and low literature.

I like how happy they look. I like how they laugh and make the audience laugh. I like how they aren’t devoting any energy towards private and less private angers. Things white people, publishers, editors may have said but on this stage, they only have eyes and heart for writing.

A for Always

2

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.⁣