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.

P for Pleasure

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On the last day of school, before we closed for vacation, I ran after a girl I really liked, patted her on the shoulder & hugged her because I thought we hadn’t said bye properly. I don’t remember if I cried because I was going to miss her or because I wanted her to know I was already missing her. When I walked back home, my body fought to forget how weakly she’d hugged back. And when I imagined the hugs she gave her other friends, I wanted to take mine back.

In college one day, I got terribly sick. The fever had fangs & I was shivering. She gave me her brown sweater which I took home. I didn’t take it off when I lay down. I slept with it & dreamed of her smell. The smell left the day she told me that I was too conscious of marks. I wanted to say ‘so are you’ – but my stomach swallowed the words.

She & I went shopping for bras in Shivajinagar. When we tried them on later that evening, I told myself that this was the only kind of intimacy I ever wanted to know. She taught me how to make masala bhurji. She made milky sweet tea. When we ate KFC chicken, she pinched me for not sucking meat off the bones properly. She once stayed up all night because the boy she was in love with didn’t call. I wanted to go to his house & beat him to a pulp.

She dropped me home after college everyday. She smelled of Lakme peach body lotion & I always caught a whiff of it as I sat behind her on activa. She came home one day to wash her hair because they weren’t letting her wash her hair at home. She was seeing her boy the next day so it was urgent. We stood in my bathroom & as she held her hair down, I sprayed water on it. The droplets fell on her neck & then danced by our naked feet. 

She held me when I wept because I didn’t know how to break up with an old love. She taught me how to use tampons & smiled when I told her I was terrified of them. We once spent an entire day drinking & talking about love, sex, & writing. Later that night, in the lift, we came very close to falling into each other but something held us back.

She wore backless blouses that made my fingers ache. She laughed like 78 parrots fluttering away from tree tops. Her lipstick rarely licked her teeth so I had no excuse to hold her face, pull her towards me, say ‘lipstick’ & wipe it off. One cold evening in Delhi, we wore dresses that tickled our kneecaps & danced to Beedi Jalaile. 

I felt seized by a pleasure that forgot weak hugs, double games, gritted teeth, heteroness & other savarna games. Finally here was a she who wasn’t afraid to fall, more shameless than anyone & didn’t believe in holding back. Later that night, as our toes touched under someone’s blanket, I concluded that no revolution is brighter than Dalit women grabbing pleasure. It is now my own thithi that I was so arrested by the moment, I didn’t do more.

I love you, Katherine Hepburn

Day one of Kate/Duplikate: Summertime

To watch Katherine Hepburn in Summertime (1955)  is to have a dream-undream realised.  There is the simple pleasure of watching her arrive in Venice – alone (unless you count her camera-companion), in love with the idea of being on her own, and worrying that she won’t like the city.

Sitting next to a man on the train, she asks him, even if her attention at this point is really on the city unfurling outside the window –‘Do you think I will like Venice?’

She follows the porter carrying her luggage out of the railway station with the briskness of a free woman chasing her dreams, with the stubbornness of Rani in Queen who wouldn’t let go of her bag.

She is not going to let anybody ruin this for her, not even herself. Even so, despite the joy she brings to her face, and ours – when she swallows the city with her eyes, she is also sincerely vulnerable in the way we are when we find ourselves companion-less in strange cities. No matter how much we have longed to be there, how much we have fought to finally be on our own, sometimes the silence of empty chairs next to us is too loud.

When I was 25, I took myself to Goa – alone. It was better than I thought it’d be. I was happy: I ate, I drank, I read and wrote, I watched Magadheera in Hindi on Sony Max. Everything was great – except on the last day at lunch, when the only other occupied table next to mine, paid their bill and left – I felt so abandoned that I began to cry.

I couldn’t understand it. They were total strangers and I was perfectly alright the next moment and before it but I still blame them for leaving me alone when I was still only half- done with my prawns.

I should have known then that Katherine Hepburn had a solution. Hepburn’s Jane Hudson deals with the silence of an empty chair as if it were not an empty chair – but an ‘extra’ chair. She puts it to sleep by making it lean on the table uselessly. This may have been done out of desperation to not feel alone, yes. Still, what we see is a woman fiercely straddling between alone-ness and companionship – not knowing how to ask for either.

One particularly lonely afternoon, she finds the courage to ask a young married couple if she could join them for drinks – the man declines. She’s heartbroken but takes herself out to lunch where she sees this couple strolling with another couple. At this point, she puts the ‘extra’ chair next to her asleep.

When the man who has been waiting to woo her shows up, she is happy but he sees the sleeping chair, thinks maybe she wants to be left alone, and excuses himself. Hepburn’s hand reaches out to stop him but it’s too late. She can’t reach him and neither can her hand. When she breaks down, we are humiliated on her behalf. But we don’t know if she is.

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Two is good number, she says somewhere else in the film. But when she becomes two, she just wants to be one again.

Why? Because despite it all, and despite herself – she is the first to say ‘I love you’ to him, after resisting-letting go-resisting his kisses. She doesn’t know what she wants, which is perhaps the one thing that independent women are wholeheartedly compassionate about. We root for her when she’s in love, we root for her when she doesn’t want to be in love and we root/hoot for her when love pushes her into a canal.

It is charming to watch Hepburn resist love. She does it unwillingly and we watch it willingly. She tells the man a story from her past – the only story he and we know so far. And it takes us a while to realise that we actually know nothing about her – except that she’s from Ohio and that she’s a ‘fancy secretary’.

The only other story we are allowed is that she always wanted to wear gardenias. Later in the film, she gets a gardenia if only for a while before it falls into the canal, and when he rushes down to catch it – it is obviously out of reach, just like he was a few scenes ago. I was left wondering and then knowing that had she gone after the gardenia instead of he – she would have got it.

But that perhaps is the beauty of finding and not keeping the romance that one stumbles upon in strange cities. This idea of them being just as out-of-reach as you are. Jane Hudson never gets to keep the gardenias that men buy for her. Either they are too late or she loses them and they become unreachable. The only things that remain hers are the things that she buys – shoes, a dress, a glass, a somewhat sisterly affection for a small boy (not bought but given)

In the middle of a passionate kiss with the man, I worry that she will drop her shoe (which she is holding in her hand) The shoe is frighteningly close to the balcony and just when the kiss climaxes, it falls gently inside the balcony. I needn’t have worried. It was a shoe – not gardenia. She bought it with love while in love. It is hers to keep.

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She loves looking at birds that fly over the buildings in the city. She likes to see the bells ringing, she won’t just be having the sounds, no thank you. She will see them. She will carry cigarettes but won’t smoke them, she will down a glass of bourbon mixed with something else. She will cry when she wants to. She will ask for company when she wants to.

There is something spectacularly ordinary about Hudson when she tells the man why she’s leaving.

All my life I’ve stayed at parties too long because I don’t know when to go. Now with you, I’ve grown up, I think I know when to.

I know that in the years to come, I will come back to this moment again and again because it’s the most extraordinary lesson you can learn on your own. No one can teach you and we get to witness this as she learns to recognize it.

Twelve years later, Joan Didion will say something similar about New York in this essay. 

***

I was grateful that he comes to say bye to her (despite her request) — when she’s leaving – leaving forever – on the train. I was grateful if only because she was expecting him. I was even more grateful when their hands never meet.

And again, the final gardenia that he brings for her –  she cannot touch, because it is still, after all this time out of reach. But that’s alright – I write this bearing in mind that all the things she bought in Venice are neatly packed in her many blue suitcases.

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Part One – Meta Diaries: What does Fire in the Tongue mean?

Meta is seven-years-old. I will keep coming back to this again and again, but let’s move on for now. The theme this year is Fire in the Tongue. It can mean anything you want it to mean.

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At the inauguration however, it came to mean something else and I can’t see it any other way now. The threat that people with power are going to take away our history, our story from us is always there. It’s even more vicious these days. Speaking against such a power is necessary in whatever way and form we can. Here is the speech by Prof. Arul Mani that can tell you a little more about what Fire in the Tongue means —

“Across India, young men and women from communities excluded from education are beginning to find the fire with which to contest years of exclusion – that is the spirit that we pay tribute to when we say tongues of fire – Fire in the tongue.

This year we will be inaugurating the Rohith Vemula Archive of Dalit, Tribal, Bahujan, and Minority experience  – one of the small things we have been working towards. Jesuit institutions were among the first to make inclusion and social justice a part of their vision. Our Department has enjoyed this partnership that we have been working on for several years. And The Vemula Archive is one way of making visible the principle of inclusion, social justice, and the Jesuit Principle of preferential option for the poor.

When we say Fire in the tongue, if you want to look for another embodiment, another physical realisation of that principle, you don’t have to look much further than the man they are paying tribute to when they say Jai Bhim. The Constitution of India continues to speak words of fire to years of exclusion – look there and you will find words of fire every time you need it.

These principles are relevant. In a country where the government of the day in a circular, tried to declare the word ‘Dalit’ illegal as if declaring the word ‘Dalit’ illegal would somehow change history and allow us to continue to live happy, uninterrupted lives.

The idea of Fire in the tongue is also worth holding close to the heart when you remember that the septuagenarian politician in Karnataka who is trying hard to become chief minister before he dies will go down in history – not for how hard he tried – but for the fact that when he was in power, he passed a legislation which gave policemen the authority to open people’s tiffin boxes and check for whether they were carrying beef. That is the achievement that this politician will be remembered for.

In times like these, we all need to find fire in the tongue to speak for diversity, to speak for who we are, and to speak for the worlds we come from”

Let’s just say that fest and protest needn’t be the 2 horrifying opposites that we sometimes make them to be.

***

It has never been hard to locate a moment that signals the beginning of Meta for me.

Early in January, a young boy graduating this year came to the department feeling anxious. He was afraid of graduating. ‘I don’t know what will happen outside’ he said. It is normal for every graduating student to have this anxiety. But even though it was familiar, he was saying something else. I didn’t know what to say to him. His fear wasn’t very different from my own. One side of this fear is not knowing. The other side is knowing. In between, is a desperation to find kindness. He was afraid of leaving behind the kindness he had found inside, and terrified of not finding it outside.

And because I didn’t want to lie to him, we both sat outside the department looking at the sunset, crying.

Then we picked ourselves up, laughed because we were taking ourselves too seriously, and went in for chai.

How many people does it take to run Meta?

Later that evening, a colleague held up seven of his fingers at this boy and told him – “It takes seven people” The boy didn’t have to be told that he was among the seven. He only had to be reminded that he was capable of things he wasn’t giving himself credit for. When he was made to see that the kindness & humility he brings to his work were enough, he smiled. For me, this was when Meta began this year.

***

After the inauguration, the students of I MA English presented stage adaptations of Macbeth (At Midnight), Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet (Macha, where art thou), a shadow play on Hamlet (Ham-lit: The answers lie in the dark), exhibits of the Globe theatre and Queen Elizabeth herself, and a comic strip of Shakespeare.

The Found Books series is a great opportunity for teachers to explore their relationship with a book outside of classroom practices. Prof. Navya inaugurated the series yesterday with Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’

At the Shadow play – lights were turned off, phones were on silent, and we proceeded into the Globe theatre – took our seats (some on chairs, some on the floor – deliberately executed by the presenters to show us what watching a play really was like back then) All this happened even as speakers played background noises from the 16th Century.

 

***

Day One began with a lot a admin annoyances and the regular tech-giving-haath situations. Watching students deal with all this in their own quirky, mad ways has always been a dirty, almost voyeuristic pleasure of mine.

There’s the girl who becomes Rudhramadevi when there are money/stall issues. The boy who never tires of running. The boy who puts in all his energy and love into delightful little works of art. The girl who can put many a techie boy to shame by making printers submit to her will. The girl who does magic when she designs posters. The little boss girl who walks in and everyone shuts up. The boy who smiles like an angel and works like a maniac. The boy who eats clean egg biryanis but doesn’t mind dirtying himself with mad meta work. The girl who is part lioness, part stand-up comedian.

They are a Justice League of their own kind. They could be fighting god knows how many inner-demons of their own, and still – they come here and become warriors of a different kind, with fire in their tongues.

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***

 

Meta Diaries: Days Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Twelve

So we are saying bye-bye to Meta 2018.

Every year, I have valued the things learnt at the end of Meta. Most of the time, it has been learning to let go, moving on from blunders, prepping for next year and such. This year it was a lesson in patience, keeping kaam se calm, etc,.

Here is what happened over the last couple of days.

We had Poetry Slam on Day Nine with participation from 30 students (our highest so far). The theme was purple. And I am not sure if it’s a coincidence that most of the poems were about women.

Our judge Mr Timothy Paulson said he had a tough time picking the winners. In some classes that morning, students & I did a short poetry-writing exercise. The prompts given went from the first sip of coffee, to snake in the commode, to an ode to lendi (that stubborn piece of shit hanging by no man’s/woman’s land- refusing to let go – I now have a newfound respect for the proverb – Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka – na ghaat ka)

A thing that has blossomed this year, thanks to Meta, is my interest in Quizzes. The questions are intimidating and the answers are mind-boggling – not because you couldn’t have guessed but because you could have — giving rise to what is known as the AJM moment or the Akkan Just Missu moment.

At Magister this year which was conducted on the 18th Feb, I was amused to watch participants produce an assortment of sounds to celebrate both winning and losing. I am now a big fan of what I call the Quiz Boy Wolf Whistle – it’s when the answer is so stunning that you whistle to appreciate its beauty. It’s also partly a tribute to the question, even if the answer is way out of your league.

I also discovered what is called the slow clap or the clap of shame – of which Bhargav Bsr received plenty. It’s when the question-setter finds the question so interesting that he doesn’t care about the answer.

***

The Meta Valedictory was held in the newly inaugurated Atrium of the Arupe Block. The results for The Prof Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay were announced. We had 75 entries (our highest so far.) Archita Raghuof II EJP won the Overall category while Amulya B and Malavika Selvaraj won the Open and Schools category respectively.

You can read the Prize-winning essays on The Open Dosa soon.

When I look back, I wonder where February went. Sometimes even pictures, FB statuses,and tweets don’t do justice to preserving moments – there are bits that make themselves rebelliously un-preservable. But as always, no matter how tiring it is, I look forward to the next edition with a renewed spirit.

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Meta Diaries – Days One and Two

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Day One

Like every year, we wondered if we have the energy to run Meta. And like every year we decided we don’t have the energy – that we need to shrink Meta down to a manageable size, and like every year, we did it anyway.

Today was the inaugural of the sixth edition of Meta. We began with the Fan-fiction contest which saw 11 participants. Not too great, but some of the students were from other colleges so not too bad as well.

The inaugural was ceremoniously marked by the absentee lamp- happily replaced by letting 90 yellow balloons in the air.

JAM has always been a highlight and this year we had a solid participation by 20 students. Let’s just say that interesting things happen on stage when students from different states contest with one another.

The rains teased us for a bit and then decided to just break down and it poured and poured. Ever noticed how the Banyan tree silently rebels? Especially when it rains.

Volunteers were seen performing risky acrobatics to get the art back drop down safely. JAM was shifted to the Staff Seminar Hall which proved to be a better venue. The participants began objecting very intimately – as if they were pillow fighting with cousins. By the final round, they knew each other well enough to imitate each other.

And that’s how we know we had a good day. As someone famous once said, ‘Imitation breeds good feels’

 

***

Day Two

When I was in the 8th std, I stared at windows a little too much. One afternoon, simply gazing outside, I found the courage to take part in an essay contest. A girl I really admired had been winning debate competitions and I felt like I should do something too.

The topic of the essay was Swami Vivekananda and I had no idea what to write,how to write. So I spent one afternoon in the library looking for a book about him and mugged up a couple of things. I then proceeded with full gusto to repeat whatever I could remember. I assumed the more I could remember, the more my chances of winning were. The rest of the class was out on a field trip to planetarium. I told myself I was doing the right thing by not going.

By the fourth sentence in the essay contest, I had emptied whatever little I was able to gather about the damn man. I had nothing to say about him. I handed over my entry and walked out feeling disgusted with myself. There were some 15 people still writing ferociously.

I should have just gone to the planetarium – I continued to tell myself. But I’m glad I stayed back and tasted disgust that day because today it has taught me to appreciate imagination whenever and wherever I see it.

The Children’s fiction contest today saw ten participants. This was the starter –

“The short girl just stood there with her hair falling over her eyes. Her mother shifted from foot to foot as the teacher told story after story—late-coming, homework not done, and failed test papers. In the middle of all this thunder and lightning, she saw something that made her smile. She fought it valiantly, and because she fought it, it grew into a determined little cloud and it burst forth from her lips in little giggly bursts. Things went from bad to worse, but what could she do?”

When I see the possibility of what a student is able to do when you challenge her with the gift of her own imagination, I want to say screw Vivekananda.
***
The Spelling Bee had 30 participants today. I sat in for one round and felt victorious when I realized that I had spelled Mulligatawny correct. Out of 6 questions, this was the only word I was able to guess, so – bonus. Even if I was only able to guess because of the hint provided (you will get this in Koshy’s) – it’s still a win.

But what blew my mind away was learning that Kedgeree comes from Khichdi (!)
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Our homemade event BollyGood has always received maximum voyeurism. This is nice but also sorrowful. If everyone comes to watch, who will do?

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Naveen Tejaswi‘s Interactive Photo Essay session on the Rohingya refugee camps began with the usual tech-related glitches but he won it over with his stories. He brought us tales of chain-smoking men he was too afraid to say anything to. And of Bangladeshi people who were crazy about Malayalam films.
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The excellent Janet Orlene conducted a Poetry Slam workshop. Participants were taken through solid metaphor exercises and stage-fright relieving techniques.

I am producing here the poem of one Miss Aishwarya Bhaskar who returned from the workshop saying, ‘I didn’t know I could write poems’

I am a banana peel
I am yellow in color
I am not judging cows for eating me
I am liked by flies and other insects
I am friends with plastic covers
Because we go into the trash together.
***
When I see all this, I remember dabba Vivekananda and my heart sighs. Then I wonder if students today prefer Avivekananda and my heart sighs louder.

black eyes black chappals

He must have responded to the thinning black skin around my eyes, the pimples on my face and the gap between my teeth that shined when I laughed. I must have seemed to him- ugly, scrawny, small. He threw the book on my face and I sunk back within the folds of my own embarrassment. Leaning against the wall, I looked away and cried secretly – punishing my forearm for being weak.

I carried my journal everywhere I went. It was a spiral bound notebook that I hid from many and showed a few. But I liked being seen with it. This is the same journal that I will go ahead and set fire to, a couple of months later because mother had found it.

When he picked it up that day, I had been writing about my affair with his friend. The three of us were sitting in the shade of an enclosure on the terrace. He was a big guy, easily intimidating and frightening to those who didn’t know him and charming to those who did. He snatched my journal away three seconds after he sat down and started reading really loudly.

My own tragedy is that I become a child when I am around bigger people. More than their bigness, my own smallness in their presence fascinates me. I whined a little, thumped his knee caps lightly and tugged at his shirt. He brushed me off first, pushed me a little and continued reading. I said no and tried to pull my journal away.

At this point, his face stiffened and he looked dismayed and surprised that I had a right over my journal. He flung it on my face and it fell with a thud onto my lap where it remained for the rest of the afternoon.

It must have hit my nose really hard because my eyes were welling up and my chest felt hot and stomach felt hotter.  When I could no longer continue weeping quietly, I started sniffling. He said nothing. The other he said nothing either. When we stood up to leave, he put his arms around me and it feels brutal now because I’m ashamed that everything became ok after that.

***

The chappals that I liked wearing were black and opened around the corners of my foot. It covered only the middle part of my foot. When I lost these chappals, I went again to the store and asked for the same pair.

This time, four of us were sitting in the enclosure – both the hes and a she who was my best friend. She loved me a lot but she didn’t like the chappals I wore. One by one, they each took turns to say that it was ugly and hardly suited my height and that I am insulting my father’s richness by wearing cheap chappals.

-I like it.

-That’s not the point. You look like a slum girl.

-It’s ok.

-Vj, please ya. I will give you the money tomorrow. Let’s buy you something else.

***

In a friend’s house, I came to be known as Mochi because I got my chappals from a brand called Mochi. Behind their open laughs, I wonder now if there was more. Maybe Mochi was the unwashed rat’s tail that I tied into a pony. It was my plump nose that was made more awkward by the fat in my cheeks and the misery in my walk.

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