Metonym 2021

In the coming month, our classrooms are going to change. So will our department. As always, the people desperate for these changes are neither students nor teachers. They are idiots drunk on power and god knows what else.

Sometimes when we sit in the department drinking chai, I get nervous because Arul sir won’t sit still. Let’s do Metonym, let’s do colloquium, let’s do screening, let’s do causerie. I always think where this man gets his energy from. It’s from chai, yes. But also from an intense desire to build a space for students that others are constantly trying to take away.

What he gives us is also a way of reimagining students as people beyond register numbers and DPs on MS Teams. Very few people take youngsters seriously these days. And most others like to believe that the only way in which youngsters can be taken seriously is if they do political things. As if that’s all young people are good for- and if they aren’t, a couple of heavy-metal english words are thrown at them to make them feel like crap.

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen young women show up for each other, be cheerleaders without pompoms, giggle and laugh together, be curious about each other, and hold each other in a way that only people who’ve never been held can. It always tickles me to watch two girls become friends. I watch them like a cat and smile and think, ah, this is why I became a teacher – to watch female friendships for free.

When those high on power like to stand in a line and throw cow dung on others who are on their way to work, the only way to defeat them is by playing everyday. It’s what my work allows me to do. It allows me to play with students which is all kinds of amusing because I didn’t play this much even when I was a child.

Despite what’s coming, I’ve gone to bed every night these last two weeks feeling great intrigue, envy, surprise, and above all, extreme fidaness for students.

So my dear Ashwath Narayana, what I want to say is, if you take our classrooms away, we will go outside and play.

Doors

It’s exhausting to occupy two worlds when you know that really, you belong to only one because that’s where you want to be. Home is home only when I don’t have to deal with the fatherliness of boundaries, the anti-elixir of freedom. I wonder now what happens to the body in this fight between the life you want to live and the one you can’t escape.

A week ago I saw that in my mind I live a completely different life from one that is expected out of my body and me at home. Coming back home from work before the pandemic only held the promise of sleep and early morning solitude. It didn’t need me to change who I was before stepping into the house because everyone would already be asleep, except mother whose anger simmered on her eyelids in a half dream-half awake state.

That I had a place to be in every morning for nine years, that I didn’t have to wear another face for work, another for home offered me a kind of freedom I haven’t appreciated enough. It is irritating to write this with what I assume is a cheap xerox copy of freedom, knowing that outside this room, there are people with the original, people who see a completely different life for me, and seem awfully confident that it’s all going to happen, despite me.

I feel like a fraud sometimes, talking and dreaming of freedom with passion and fury – never intense enough to go get it. Sometimes I am able to persuade myself into believing that parental expectation is not free of caste, so I shouldn’t wallow in a helplessness that wasn’t designed by me. Despite that and despite years of knowing and unknowing caste, I continue to be bothered by how unsettling it is to confront that there’s still something I don’t have and will never have. Every day I wonder what it would be like to be the student whose ambitions burn my insides with a fever, to be in homes where marriage is barely mentioned, and dinner is always a table full of charts and maps- making plans to go here, go there for studies, and mornings aren’t battlefields for last night’s unspoken demands.

Stepping outside my room after class last week, I overheard someone say on the phone that getting daughters educated is a mistake, that they shouldn’t be sent to schools because they grow up wanting to do PhD, not wanting to be married. I walked straight back into my room, my legs burning with the desire to run, hands wishing they were now holding the key to the department door while my bedroom door swelled with rage and slammed hard on the other world, the bolt clicking it shut.

Today, I am just grateful for doors. They not only open other worlds for you, they also close.

Thank you

I have often agreed with the saying that teaching is a thankless job. This 2019 piece was written out of one such helplessness. Sometimes minor annoyances come in the form of vengeful attacks but because those that sponsor it continue to remain unwaveringly boring, it’s neither challenging nor damaging to sleep or life. It’s the same people, the same bitterness over and over. If I am ever an enemy, I wish I am not as sad as people whose bitterness and gratitude are the same in their dullness and both equally uninspiring. But now and then, sometimes more often than expected, there are students who make it all worthwhile. They suck out all the bitterness and leave you with an energy that heals, and does the same thing that writing does to me – fills me with hope.

Year after year, Anjana’s writing reminds me that teaching is anything but thankless. Kiruba’s fine quality parsanalty, and churmuri giggles remind me that teaching is laughter. Keerthana’s arrow- sharpness reminds me that it’s possible to find yourself after years of hiding. Philip’s work reminds me of the kindness that’s so easy to forget these days. And Eshwari’s madness reminds me that it’s a disservice to love to be distracted by hate.

Here’s an excerpt from Anjana’s reflections on her final portfolio of writing.

I would like to say that I am drained of words like the many rivers in Bangalore. On a note of confession, I enjoy writing creative imaginative pieces rather than pieces than involve research. When I write creative pieces, I try to get my facts straight and perform a certain amount of digging and eating though many layers of brain of family and
internet. But that is not as tiring as the material you search for archiving. It has signs of imagination, but the facts have to be true. There were many incidents during writing this semester’s portfolio where I have felt I am horrible at writing and I have often ended up in the conclusion to never write again. But it was just a phase or more accurately I hope it is a phase that passes through. Also I recently noticed I have caught an annoying trait of shrinking my fingers or trying to produce a cracking sound with my hand when I don’t get a word I am looking for. This habit does not annoy anyone other than me personally. It could be because I didn’t notice the presence earlier and now I am not able to stop myself. My friend pointed it out to me and it has created a constant tone of irritation when I perform it in the middle of writing. A note on every piece, among the tasks, in a weird way I enjoyed working on Wikipedia. They did reject my piece and that felt bad, but then I wrote another article which are getting many contributions and it is fun to keep a check on it. Nowadays, when I am reading a topic on Wikipedia, I actually look into the references for a detailed work. I also end up adding few lines in articles that are related to me. Like the piece on Thrissur Pooram was kind of disappointing to someone born in Thrissur. I immediately put my knowledge into action and tried to find valid sources that I can give as references to support my statement.

The phrase “put my knowledge into action” is at the core of Dalit learning. And I am again grateful to get the annual opportunity to pay attention to this, and to learn from it and grow.

For everything else, there is Divya’s capacity for resolute love in the midst of hate and anger: a most life-giving reminder to keep working despite Savarna snowflakes.

C for Coming home

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This is my workplace. I learnt to read & write here. Over the years, I have tried & failed at finding the right words to say how grateful I am to be here. Futile as it may be, I never tire of trying again – and this time, in the spirit of #DalitHistoryMonth (er, still)

To discover oneself as Dalit – not of your own accord but by the way others treat you, is one of the crudest expressions of caste. If you grow up not realizing you are Dalit, then school will show you. If you make it to college, then college will confirm it for you. If you come out alive, then you can always count on the world outside to show you & shame you for it. And this department taught me to wrench out shame, and suck it bone-dry. 

If the only acceptable & desirable way to be anywhere in the world is by being Savarna- Brahmin, this place showed me the strength of laughing at it & reclaiming being Avarna as a better way to live & work. The HoD, an Avarna man himself, imagined & built it the way he envisioned Ambedkar’s work ethic. 

The idea of a classroom, of a good student is usually built on Savarna ideals of speed, quality, & good English. Our syllabus & practice say lol to this. Designed as it is for students who will not be left behind simply for not being born in families where good English does push-ups, our syllabus makes me believe in the work I get to do everyday. And the work I get to do everyday is humbling which is why it is also easy to lol at the baboons who keep attacking it. My only yardstick to measure the worth of these attacks is to see whether they are drenched in Savarna ego, which more often than not, they are – so, meh.

One of my most crucial learning here has been that I have failed as a teacher if I have, even for one day, stopped being a student. And that to be a student is to be a sponge – learning what thrills you & drinking it up fully. And it isn’t only by reading or writing that the students & I found a self here. It’s by learning how to have full-body conversations with people, & listening to their stories.

The boy who is a Vijay fan but dances only to Dhanush songs often returns, perhaps because he sees something here. The girls who had zero interest in reading or writing come back year after year to say thank you perhaps because they learnt something more valuable from the course. The little chili from Tirunelveli returns often to sit, breathe us all in with her eyes, eat books, & laugh her heart out. As for the others who may come here half or full Savarna, they always leave with Ambedkar. What they do with him later is really up to them.

And then there are those who sit inside, drink tea, laugh, or sit outside read, talk, play the guitar – never quiet leaving.

A remarkable thing about Hogwarts is its inclusivity & diversity.  There was a half-giant, a squib, a werewolf, those born to muggle parents, Severus Snape whom it used to be so tempting to distrust, and all kinds of people who would have been left behind for being misfits. The department is my Hogwarts. In more ways than one, it makes room for misfits like me.

The first night Harry spends at Hogwarts, he is shown sitting by the window with Hedwig – looking outside and sighing. He’s finally home.

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T for Teaching

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This one is hard but it’s about love so it’s also easy. I am here somewhere, with my students. Behind us, on a screen is a black & white photo of Joan Didion. It was my idea to have her there. Let’s take a picture & send it to her, I told them. And they indulged me, like they always have.

We read a lot of Didion this semester. We memorized words on Self-respect, hoping it would give us some. We watched her on screen as she moved from one beautiful shot to another, we watched as she called herself wife – never quite becoming one, we watched as she became a widow – never quite seeming like one. And as always, I came out learning more than I taught.

Something the English Department is always accused of is all play, no work. We apparently only screen films in our classes and do nothing else. How cute. If that accusation was worth dignifying with a response, I’d have done that long ago. But as Prof. AM always reminds me, ‘Our work is our defence’ & that seems enough of a response – for now, and forever.

But I’ll tell you why I like watching things with students – half the time I am not even watching the screen, I am watching their faces. I want to see the little things that delight them, I want to know what makes them smile, what makes them forget their phones, what makes them laugh like lizards coming out of nowhere suddenly. And it’s what I am also hungrily looking for when we read & write together. I’ve had my share of miseries with students, yes. But what I’ve also had is their friendship & their laughlets.

I wouldn’t know what teaching is without stories, without laughing, without rain. And in my mind, I am forever teaching in the way Machado’s The Husband Stitch is narrated. I’ve gotten royally burnt for being so ambitious but I will never stop.

And today, I am grateful for never having stopped – even on the darkest days, when there was no rain, even when I felt like quitting & running away, even when I was empty of stories, even when I was made to believe that I suck at this. And there are days when I really really do, but it’s never enough to make me want to give up. Ambedkar’s blood y’all. And for most other days, there’s chai.

Meta Diaries – 2020: Part one

Meta is 8-years-old❤️
Here are some thoughts after 2 days.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of energy and education it takes to recognize when you are being humiliated. I don’t have very many feelings about Kumbalangi Nights but a scene I find myself returning to over and over again is the hair salon one in the film. It’s an eerily familiar scene – it shows you how without your knowledge or consent, you become trapped in a conversation with people who smile and ‘know’ things about you – things like your ability, qualification, merit, and caste.

A verdict is passed – if you disagree with them, they will look at you like you’re crazy. But of course, it is done with so much poise and dignity that you are bound to ask yourself if you imagined their bad behavior, if it’s even possible that someone who was kind enough to give you time and smile at you can have evil thoughts. For those of you who haven’t watched the film, you just need to revisit a scene from your everyday life where you’ve had to confront the hollow of powerlessness you feel in your stomach when someone with little to no authority seems to derive another kind of ‘more important’ authority from elsewhere. And indeed – it’s why they know they can get away with anything – they are safe in that authority, protected by a sense of knowing what to say when, knowing when they are being humiliated so they are always ready to give it back to you. What is this authority and where do they get it from? Caste.

I am most curious about how it meanders through at places of work. When you don’t know you are being humiliated, how do you defend yourself? Not that knowing you are being humiliated is any kind of a blessing. But how is it possible to work if you are defending it all the time? Where must one get the energy to do this everyday? These are some questions I have been obsessed with year after year.

February is perhaps the only month when I temporarily suspend these questions. It’s because February is the only month in the year when I work most with students. And because these are students who come to February and its synonym – Meta with the same kind of madness that I do, there isn’t much room for humiliation of that kind.

This year, Meta began for me when Alung Inpuihrwan, our student from Manipur sang Raghu Dixit’s ‘Munjane Manjalli’ at the inauguration. He owned the song in a way that I haven’t seen anybody own anything in a long time. When I think of how those with power in the country and elsewhere are swallowing every little space that belongs to students, I want to think of Alung who stood under the banyan tree, and sang in a language that he made his by putting into it every bit of music he could gather from his stomach. Even if this moment was later hijacked by organisational hiccups, Alung’s song is stamped in my memory.

At the end of Day one, it struck me that Meta’s tragedy is that it is so big in our imaginations that it doesn’t register simple realities like spaces suddenly becoming unavailable. It’s also somewhat of its silly charm that despite this, it will continue to produce moments, and give us invitations to look at students differently – which is what we need now more than ever.

This was written on 6 Feb 2020. Part two will be up soon.

What 2019 taught me

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At a Gender Bender panel last year, Paromita Vohra said that paying attention to something was a way of loving it. It was truth that I could hold in my hands for hours — and be struck with its simple marvels for a long time after.

2019 was great, funny, curious, strange, and sad. But I wasn’t always paying attention to it when it was happening. After months of feeling divorced from my many versions, I am here today to pay attention to the year that was and to all the versions of me that were. If this is too self-indulgent for you: get over yourself, it’s my website, I paid for it, I’m not going to write about your thatha here.

*I spent the morning of the first day in 2019, sitting at home, and applying for an internship program in Seattle. It was a long shot and I was sure my CV was nowhere close to meriting any notice. It was a one-month program and it felt surreal to be applying but I had fun putting together my CV and taking measure of how much work had been done and how much more remained. Co-wrote a piece for News 18 here.

*Later that month, I wrote about what it’s like to be Dalit and a teacher in a classroom full of Savarna students – here. The piece had been writing itself for a while before it came out, as was the follow-up piece written in a state of serious giggles.

*I haven’t had a stable February memory since 2013, thanks to Meta. I wrote about Meta 2019 here and here.

*In March, I wrote about filmmaker Jyoti Nisha here and paid attention to a song like I never have, and wrote about it here.

*In the mad rush of lab exam season one March morning, I got a call from the US Embassy with a bit of good news. I was standing at my table at work, shuffling through papers, waiting to start the exam, when the woman I was talking to said that I had been selected for the internship. I smiled, went to the bathroom and hugged myself. I couldn’t believe it, and as it happened, I wouldn’t believe it even until 3 months later, when I was boarding the plane to Seattle. I was happy but more worried. That’s the thing with dreams – when you reach there, you are so worried about things that could go wrong that you don’t pause to congratulate yourself for things that did go right.

*April was a good writing month, but a slow reading month. I am still very worried about how long it takes me to finish reading books. Reviewed Kancha Ilaiah’s and Yashica Dutt’s memoirs. Went to Goa alone and made a dog friend named bleach.

*May was spent lying in bed with the fan on full speed, reading Love in the Time of Cholera, eating avocados, and waiting for Seattle to happen.

*In June I was swallowed whole by Deborah Levy about whom I wrote here. After June 28 my time wasn’t mine until I returned from Seattle on Aug 12. I still haven’t figured out a way to write about it. A short-story seemed liberating so I am working on one now. I read a bit, didn’t write at all but spent long hours in the library reading and dreaming about writing.

*August and September were slow. If it weren’t for Kate Hepburn, I would have perhaps never recovered from Seattle.

*October 10 is World Mental Health Day and I wrote “I can’t be depressed, I am Dalit.” The thrill to write it arrived one morning when I was watching Trevor Noah’s interview of Oprah and the phrase ‘I can’t be depressed, I am Black’ struck me like an answer I had been looking for.  Sometime in September Parodevi mailed (took deep breaths but still died!) to ask if I’d like to curate a Sexy Saturday Song list for Agents of Ishq. I had fullto fun writing it even though I was confused between Silk Smitha and Dhanush. Although now that I look back, I wish I’d watched more Dhanush songs. Silk Smitha I am saving for myself. I am afraid my affair with her is longer, and much more passionate.

*Later that week I went to Tubingen, Germany to talk to students and faculty at the University of Tubingen. This was at the Department of Anthropology which was in a castle on top of some hill. I walked a lot, ate some interesting potato-meat things, drank a lot of wine and made friends. Loved being here although I couldn’t get much alone time. Even so, I stole an hour one evening to follow the sound of the hang drum. A bunch of people were playing it, sitting out in the open and I sat outside a cafe, drinking wine and listening to it. The memory of it still stings.

*Spent the next week back home writing a short story for the commonwealth prize. It was my first time living with a short story in my head like that. The earlier ones were all written innocently when I believed that I was writing important things, no matter how bad they were. I wish I had the courage that my past self did to write shittily and not be afraid of how shitty it was. The commonwealth story was shitty to say the least and I was supremely embarrassed to send it. But I want to get better and will not stop trying. Met an editor interested in a book. But more on this when I work on it properly.

*In November, I went to Maldives with the fam. It was a huge party with my two new-born nephews also. Absolutely no reading- writing happened. I stuffed my face with food, drank a lot, and was finally brought to admitting that I love kids, even more when they are not mine, maybe perhaps especially because they are not mine. I love being an aunt – I get all the good stuff – the laughs, the fun, the cute little edible fingers and toes and cheeks. Hanging out with them makes me happy. I love them a lot because I really like them and because I am convinced I never want to be a mother. Came back for a birthday that was on a Sunday. Went to Monkey Bar, ate pork curry and rice – said tearful byes.

*Started reading Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men published by Navayana. Felt like I was getting closer to understanding the artist that is Babasaheb. The book reminded me of the times in which he’d have had to do research and write, surrounded by Savarna people who thought they knew better. No one else makes me want to work my ass off more than this man. The book review was published here. It’s my first for print and I am happy. Speaking of work, November 20 was my seven-year anniversary with the department. I am extremely grateful to all the people who love this place like I do, and also to all the people who hate it. Savarna hate deserves sympathy.  Paapa what else can they do? Cow dung is getting over, arms and all must also be hurting by now no? Do you like our sarees at least? Everyday we are wearing two-two only for you.

*December made me squeeze out this piece in two days. I was terrified of not making it, of not being good enough but pulled it off and it’s now my second byline for print. Has a caricature of my moothi also 🙂 Went to Dilli to conduct a writing workshop for my babes at AIDMAM. Spent long hours talking to my sisters, watching films, drinking wine, and eating chocolates. We wrote about love this time, about crazy aunts, and about wicked bananas. No one writes like Dalit women do because no one laughs like Dalit women do. Bookended this fab year at Goa. Read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, swam in the ocean, ate at Bhatti village, read Miranda July and felt like I only want to read short stories all my life without ever worrying about wanting to write one, wept and drank a lot. Invented a word – epipoofy. Wishing all single ladies loads of epipoofies in 2020.

I became more of a person last year, and yet I find myself thinking about the girl from 2015 who I am always working and writing for. She took forever to recognise humiliation and when she did, stopped writing – fearing what they would say, fearing what they had already said. She would certainly not approve of using third-person to talk about herself. But somehow in that ordinary moment of helplessness, putting up a picture of Babasaheb next to her made her feel extraordinarily powerful.

When having survived feels powerful, little else can equal that.

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