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.
The first syllable of this word comes from nowhere in particular. Your tongue hangs about without really touching anything in the mouth, making room for its own stomach to gather the ‘guh’. Indeed, it’s a word that requires more than your mouth to say it. It needs the tightness of your fists & the firmness of your stomach. I first heard it in the film, ‘The Holiday’ & understood its meaning entirely from the way Kate Winslet had banged the door on a man- an asshole, turned around with infectious energy, punched the air with her fists & celebrated having fallen out of love with him. When he asks her what had gotten into her, she says ‘Gumption’
I don’t have gumption. My mother has it, my aunts have it, & mouma who passed it on to her daughters will always have it. It’s what caused amma to hold a broom over her head one day & chase away an old Brahmin man who had stopped at our gate to teach her manners. She was cleaning the front yard & he stopped to tell her that in America, people didn’t do things like that(!) She screamed, ‘saakappa hogu, naavu nodidive jagattu’ (enough man, keep walking, even we have seen the world)
My aunt showed gumption by pushing an abusive brother-in-law into a chair, her foot firm on his chest, her eyes dancing with fire, while her index finger launched a threat at his face to never ever lay a finger on her sister.
As a child, I believed that mouma’s gumption was hidden in her blouse and perhaps it is. It’s why she never wore a bra. She barged into temples, ate their food, prayed to their gods because she never believed that anybody should have the right to stop her, even if it’s all they did. She grabbed her paysa & ate it too. And ate it how – standing tall against all the poojaris united.
Savitrimai’s gumption was in the extra saree she carried in her bag because she didn’t have time to fight Savarna losers whose only job was to stand with cow dung to throw at her. She had work to do – her work was her gumption.
Sujatha Gidla’s mother had gumption when she ran after a train that was leaving the platform with all her belongings – marks cards, certificates. She ran with the speed of an athlete, still carrying the water bottle for which she had deboarded in the first place.
It’s the English-language’s poverty that even a word that needs you to thrust your fists in the air like a martyr, like a woman newly out of love, will never fully lend its energy to understanding Dalit survival in this country. And this is why, G for me, is Gumption & I am claiming that word to tell our stories.
In English, I always pause before pronouncing it (Anion or Onion?) I once bought a wooden chopping board because it’s how onions were chopped on cooking shows. Needless to say, the board broke in half & was last seen sitting mutely above the fridge. Ajji sliced the Kannada eerulli sitting on an ಈಳಿಗೆಮಣೆ (elige mane) as gleaming slices of onions fell wordlessly into the wet steel plate under it. Amma chopped the Konkani’s Piyav on a ಲಟ್ಟಣಿಗೆ (Chapati rolling pin) standing by the kitchen slab, the rim of her nightie always touching the floor.
It’s perhaps among the first few things we learn to cut. Growing up, if you were given onions to cut, it meant that you were inaugurated into a semi-adulthood of sorts. In Jain college, where I studied in 2005, this meant nothing. It was believed that items made of potato(even lays), garlic, & onion weren’t sold in the canteen. Even the man making samosa burgers outside the college sold what were called jain burgers (if they can sell air in chips packets, they can also eat samosas without alu it seems)
Couple-friends practiced a kind ‘no-onion no-garlic’ pact at lunch if the evening had been brimming with a possibility of kiss. Years ago, an old love had been angry with me for eating onions with my naan & mutton at lunch which caused the evening to no longer brim with anything & I grew wary of eating them outside home.
The Savarna idea that what you eat shouldn’t cause discomfort to others was punctured beautifully at a writing workshop organised by the Dalit Women Fight in Delhi. The buffet had the regular rice, roti, chicken, dal, salad. And I noticed that the only thing that kept getting over & that the waiters had to keep bringing in were onions. It’s the only time I’ve seen anyone eat onions freely in public, and not even as a side to the main but as if it were the only main. I felt immediately at home where Appa suspects anything that isn’t full of onions, and Amma can only eat Maggi with a side of raw onions.
There is as much joy in eating it raw as there is in listening to the sprinkled crunch of its cutting. I imagine it to be the sound of the sandpapery touch of salt. A student once broke into mad laughter even before he’d finished narrating the story of his Kannada speaking friend who was desperate for some onions in his chaat & had hurriedly said ‘bhaiya, thoda pyar dena’ instead of pyaz.
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 first saw Silk Smitha in Halli Meshtre and got impatient with the camera which took forever to show her face. Unfortunately, in all the songs that followed, that camera remained and so did the man behind it. Same man, same camera. They were interested in her face only when it was accompanied by the sounds of moaning. And in more ways than one, the Savarna feminist aka the saree-bindi feminist (I will forever love you for coining this, Darde-discourse) is no different from a man like that.
They both see what they want to see: a site to perform ‘perversions’ that won’t be performed on a ‘purer/fairer’ body or an opportunity to rescue a “poor, hypersexualized, lower-caste woman” who might not know better. (I don’t have to explain why I am more uncomfortable with the latter)
All I can say is that if you’re having sex, neither the man behind that camera nor the saree-bindi feminist will care about your pleasure. They will come and go.
Is there another way of looking at Silk Smitha then? She doesn’t make it easy to answer this and maybe she doesn’t have to. What she still brings on screen are possibilities that are not easy to confront. What do you do with a woman who has paid so much attention to a body alone in pleasure & its need to submit to shamelessness — that she is able to imitate the same tremor, bend, gesture, and moan when not alone and for a roomful of crew and cameras?
At the end of Love me allow me to love you, the ‘actual heroine’ of the film arrives to watch Shankarnag and Silk Smith rolling on the grass in some park, hugging and kissing. She tears them apart, calls Silk Smitha a ‘dirty bitch’, slaps her and throws her into a pond. Many have pointed out that this was the tragedy of Silk Smitha – that despite the power she held over men and women alike, she was, in the end, alone. They will say this but they won’t acknowledge caste in this. Silk Smitha’s loneliness is not very different from the loneliness of Dalit and Bahujan students who are murdered in institutions.
But I’d like to keep her alive in other ways too – by imagining & believing that she pissed people off because she taught savarnas how to have better sex. By acknowledging that no other actor was able to achieve what she was able to, that she single-handedly recognized the uselessness of savarna men. Whether it’s Ravi Chandran, Kamal Hasan, Rajinikanth or Shankarnag – all the men she acted with are so similarly boring that they are all easily interchangeable. Take all their songs, exchange the men – it won’t change a damn thing. What you’ll still see is one Silk Smitha, shining. Always.
I thought it was ok to use them in excess, it was what made W for Writing possible. Then I saw that those who did it well, didn’t use too many. They were precise with a surgeon’s purpose. Their images flourished with little to no words. And I was left behind with the hollowness of too many words that have stopped singing. I felt betrayed at first. Then I thought what the hell, if it comes in excess, I’ll take it like an angry Tamizh man swallowing insults and spit it out like a Konkani Devadasi spurned in love. Writing, after all, is Avarna in its form. That’s where shamelessness comes from. Suspicion is a Savarna birthright. Let them keep it.
For #DalitHistoryMonth, I’m curating an archive of short essays on nothing and everything. It’ll be done like an A to Z challenge. I’m petrified that I won’t be able to do it everyday but I want to try.
We’ll begin with Z.
Z is for Zingat. Zingat is more feeling than meaning. You can perhaps understand it better in the way the Dalit women here danced at a conference in 2017. I stood uselessly in front of them, clinging to my phone, (hiding, really) weeping. The parai didn’t stop playing and the women didn’t stop dancing. I’ve never seen something this powerful on stage before. They were/are beautiful, wild, free, thunderous – my Dalit women.
Chhapaak (2020) has an interesting moment that I want to remember.
Malti (Deepika Padukone) and her team are in the office, celebrating the new amendment in the IPC (326 A and 326 B – which ensures a separate section for acid attacks) There is a cake that says ‘Happy Birthday 326 A 326 B’ – there are chips, samosas, juice, and loud music (Radha from Student of the Year) At one point, the neighbours phone them up, and ask for the volume to be reduced. They scream noooo and keep the party going. There’s mauj in the air. The women (all acid attack survivors) look happy and continue dancing.
Amol (Vikrant Massey) – activist, and founder of the NGO walks in and turns off the music. He looks displeased. Malti tries to pacify him (“come, cut the cake”) and he patronizingly asks for an explanation of what 326 A and B mean. Malti answers him and he goes on to berate her and all of them. It has only been amended. That doesn’t mean acid attacks will stop. Even cold drinks are more expensive than acid. Acid hasn’t been banned. Your own petition to ban acid has gone nowhere in the last 7 years and you want to party?
I want to slap his face.
Everything I want to take away from the film rests unfairly on what Malti will say next. And as I inch closer towards Malti, she calmly says “Amol sir, you know what your problem is? You behave as if you’ve been attacked with acid. But the acid was thrown on me, not you. And I — want to party“
The people standing tensely around them loosen up a little, and begin laughing. Amol doesn’t know where to look. He has just been served so he retreats.
I was left amazed but more importantly, I was left with a stone to throw at every idiot who took my personal and made it their political. Every so often, I meet young people who want to change the world. I don’t have very many feelings about them but it’s beyond irritating when they begin to act like Amol. Everything is either black or white. They won’t notice love but they talk about change. Nothing is political if it isn’t spelled out or doesn’t come with the color of dissent. You can’t party or run fests in times of dissent. What kind of a Dalit are you if you are happily sitting and organizing fests when the country is crumbling around you?
They ask this so articulately and with so much passion that you will wonder if they are Dalit.
In the past, I have felt extremely inadequate next to these super articulate people, looking back at my childhood and parents with bitterness, accusing them of having taught me nothing. Growing up was bitterness, inadequate, insecure, always doubting if I was thinking correctly, and always on the lookout for approval from super articulate people.
I craved the clarity that the Amols of the world had – they knew when they were right and that was ok but they pakka for sure knew when you were wrong. How do you arrive at that confidence? The Amols of the world have convinced us that we need their stamp of approval even to confirm our victim hood, even if it means that we want to party, despite our victim hood.
It began changing when I discovered being Dalit and then I didn’t want to be that kind of articulate anymore. That kind of articulate is rooted in privilege, in the safe knowledge that there are enough people under you over whom you will always be above and therefore ‘better’ and ‘correct.’ That it’s somebody’s great fortune that you are forsaking this privilege to share their miseries. That you must be right because you have impeccable English and speak so fiercely and articulately.
When I became more and more watchful of my parents as Dalits, I went back to my childhood, and their early parenthood with a force that was still very new to me. There was guilt and I didn’t know where to put it in the middle of seeing them in a completely different light. I discovered them as heroes who did more revolution than anybody else and they did this without patronizing other people or knowing anything about activism. What can be more articulate than that?
The clarity with which super articulate people speak comes with its own share of arrogance and that made me thankful for everything I didn’t have as an adolescent. I still wish I had the courage to speak my mind when I thought I was right but I am glad I didn’t take that chance because as I have come to discover – constantly wondering if I am wrong is a better way to learn. It’s perhaps why in my adulthood now, I have very little to undo, to unsay, to apologize for. And like Malti, I can tell you to fuck off if I want to party or organise litfests.
“I was feeling cold and I thought Ambedkar would be feeling the same, and therefore I have covered him with a blanket and lit a bonfire near the statue”
This is the sort of story that Gabito would have loved – the sort that Manto showed us so often in his. But why that soulless headline? This is probably why Garcia Marquez said that journalists should read more fiction – someone who’d read Manto would never have written that headline.
In other news, my time is being vacuum- cleaned by god knows what. Suddenly, there is too much to do and suddenly I am only watching Sex and the City. It’s January already which means it’s not long before the Pink Tabebuias outside my house start blooming and falling – not long before Meta comes and goes, not long before I whine about Orion Mall and BIFFES – not long before BQFF – and definitely not long before I am 31.
My blog carries an extra saree more than I do because it gets attacked with more cow dung than I. It changes sarees like my mouma does – lazily, quickly, and effortlessly.
People who really want to engage don’t carry around cow dung. It’s a good thing that so much of Savarna opinion is unoriginal which means it’s the same old ghissapita flavor of cow dung which hasn’t changed since 2014.
But really – can’t you at least throw something of a challenge along with the cow dung?Even so, my blog likes wearing shimmering pink sarees with small mirrors on the border, and bright yellow bandhani sarees with backless blouses. In a small bag, it carries a plain cotton one – the color of cow dung.
Some nice things happened in November – I realised that what I have really wanted since 16 was to be independent. It has taken me 14 years but it is finally beginning to feel like it’s happening – I am 16 again. It’s like coming home and finding myself waiting all these years.
And then, more answers began falling – a mad writing energy took over, First Post asked me to write columns for them (!) and I found new love for podcasts and poetry.
Everything is moving too fast, like news on Twitter – and like always I must come back to my blog to breathe.
I can’t help but recollect that when I began writing for The Ladies Finger – I wrote about what I really only care about – films, TV shows, and books. I wish I could go back to doing that. It’s where I learnt everything I know today. They took me seriously as a writer and made me believe that I am more than my caste. This is something that other news websites and magazines should probably learn – you only notice us when some burning caste issue takes over and suddenly Dalit women are in demand to write. It’s not a nice thing to do.
That’s why I am thrilled about writing columns. I am waiting to write about Sara Ali Khan, Mrs. Maisel, food and gossip.
Much of last semester was spent at home with my damn foot in a plaster. Probably a valuable lesson – I now watch where I am walking. Something else that I began seeing only lately is the idea that sharing is anti-Brahmanical – whether it’s knowledge of what you are reading/writing or what Tejas Harad thoughtfully did here by sharing what he wrote last year and how much he was paid – sharing essentially breaks down a system that benefits from keeping knowledge and money a secret.
Here are a bunch of things I read/listened to/ wrote:
The Mill on the Floss (going back to it now) – George Eliot
I used to think that translation was effort, time, and energy. But it’s a whole other joy to get to know translation as an act of intimacy and love more than anything else. The Maltirao piece was translated to Hindi by Rahul Paswan and to Tamil by LJ Violet.
Paswan’s translation is much better than the faltu English original. Reading it in Hindi gives it another kind of energy altogether. If I could read Tamil, I am sure I would say the same about LJ Violet’s piece. Needless to say, the Maltirao piece is not mine anymore – it is theirs.
Here are a bunch of other things I am excited about –
Wearing sarees. I have always wanted to wear it the way Namsiess does.
Understanding quizzes as narrative
Wondering if there is more to math than numbers – understanding math as narrative too
One Sunday I talked about Pariyerum Perumal for The Lewd Cabal podcast run by a bunch of enthu tamil boys. I was nervous. I don’t think I made sense but I enjoyed being on the show
Every time I return from Dilli, and my AIDMAM sisters, I feel like I have become a better version of myself. This time, Asha Zech taught me to be less angry – nodkolona, aagatte (let us see, it will happen) she says about everything.
Through this all, I think I am close to understanding what Joan Didion meant when she said ‘Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point’
Why are you writing so many ‘Dalit- Dalit’ things these days?
While “I’ll write what I want” is generally a good response to stick with– I’m going to explain this to you with love, (because you seem like you have the potential to be a better person) and also with swalpa sarcasm (because I cannot able to control)
See for the longest time no? I had no idea why people were behaving the way they did with me:
why their tone changed from respectful (while talking to someone standing right next to me) to patronizing (the moment they noticed me)
why they thought that people were just being polite to me when they said they liked my blog (since there’s no possible way my blog could be nice)
why they were obsessed with how I ‘got to’ hang out with good looking intellectual people since obviously I don’t have the credentials to hang out with good-looking intellectual people at K or anywhere else
why they thought that the only way I was getting published was because people were doing me favors
why Savarna students thought/and continue to think that they have absolutely nothing to learn from me (this is getting too boring to deal with. I mean swalpa originality should be there even in Savarna-ness no? Too much to ask?)
why they thought it’s ok to tell me that they ‘don’t mind’ editing my writing (even if they don’t have the experience with either editing or writing) – even if they are just a Brahmin engineer with good English and a better internet connection.
It didn’t occur to me then to say fuck off. I thought they were right. So I spent some time doubting myself – maybe I really hadn’t earned my NET, maybe I really am not qualified to teach, maybe I’ll never be a good writer.
All of this was laid to rest when a friend made me see caste in all of this. After that I couldn’t see it any other way.
When Marquez read the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, he fell off the bed. He didn’t know that people were allowed to lie in stories. AM says that that moment was as though someone had given Marquez permission to write.
AM himself has been the biggest permission to me – to stop whining and start writing.
When this permission appeared, my relationship with writing changed. Until that point and sometimes even now, writing was torture because my sentences didn’t sound beautiful, my control over structure was a useless battle, and the Savarna reader in my head wouldn’t stop shrugging, grunting and yawning.
I have often told Christina that reading her feels like a hundred dams are breaking inside me. It’s because reading her feels like permission to shoot the Savarna reader in my head. After the shots were fired, my writing relaxed. It took a deep breath and decided that it just has to write.
So, dear friend – when I finally feel like I have the permission to write, why won’t I? It’s definitely not new. I have been writing ‘Dalit-Dalit’ things for sometime now. Read my old blog-posts if you haven’t already 🙂
2. Will you ever write about ‘normal things’?
It won’t seem normal enough to you because for you – entitlement is probably normal.
Lol. Ok see. I was on a panel earlier this year – it was about Savarna control over documentaries. There were a bunch of snooty Savarna peeps who sat in the first few rows and rolled their eyes because apparently the panel was about a “serious topic” and I was not being serious or political enough.
When I asked the panelists if they thought that being Dalit meant that we could only write about political things that concern Dalits — Thank god for Gee, because he said – “I want to see a Dalit writer write about romance and food. I want to see a Dalit director make horror films”
If only we had some of my (DBA) people in the audience, I’m sure there would have been claps and hoots and whistles and pelvic thrusts (I am thinking about my lovely sisters from the writing workshop here)
So basically – I want to write about everything. I want to write about farmers, I want to write about Mayawati, I want to write about Ranveer Singh, I want to write about Joan Didion, I want to write about Siddalingaiah, I want to write about Koffee with Karan, I want to write about Bollywood films and weddings, I want to write about fashion, travel, food, cows, and birds. I want to see my short stories get published in Caravan, Round Table, Dalit Camera, Granta, fucking New Yorker even. Because I want to be a good writer. Because I don’t want to stop learning, ever. Ever.
3. How can you write about Koffee with Karan and about being Dalit at the same time?
Arre. Let me ask you a question – how many Dalit people do you know? And how many Dalit writers do you know who write about popular culture?
Don’t Dalit people watch TV? Shouldn’t they also watch Koffee with Karan like you secretly do (under the covers)? Don’t Dalit people go to pubs? Don’t we like drinking? Don’t we like wearing nice clothes?
And please don’t give me this political-volitical nonsense. I have seen enough Savarna boys in college who suddenly become Angry Savarna Boys. Then they obviously read Das Kapital in sports fields (because everywhere else is too mainstream), then they talk about philosophy and Marx — only to go get an MA and join some Infosys or Accenture.
So, excuse me for not taking you seriously.
4. So what is the point of all this?
Basically it’s this – Ambedkar once told me to tell you – I can’t stop being Dalit just because you are casteless, macha. So stop being an ass.