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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***

 

To Adult means what?

Image credits: TeePublic
Featured Image credits: TeePublic

No one told me that a big part of being an adult is paperwork. I spent all of last week being a good adult. And must now die in the nostalgia of sweet childhood where being adult was a lot more fun.

I am still hungry for the romance that I assume will only arrive after running away from home. The romance of living alone with a cat which will come and go like in Eunice D Souza‘s poems. Of dealing with plumbing issues on my own. Of having the occasional dinner party where friends bring expensive wine, and after they have gone, of staying up late to wash vessels and finally, of gazing out into the window like Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the enemy.

I have friends who live on their own and as I write this, I can hear their bouncing laughs. It is nothing like this. And I believe them when they say it. Even so, this has been my ultimate love story – to live alone except for those long weekends where lovers drop in and go, but cats always come back.

I digress.

The second thing I am beginning to understand about adulthood is that it’s mostly about being blind to it. A lot of growing up has happened over this year and I haven’t had the time to slow down, to see it, to either congratulate myself or curse it. Early last week, on Ambedkar Jayanthi, I wrote something that I had been trying to write for 2 years now. That post had been sitting in various angry drafts in various folders. It is a story I may have told very often, but for the first time, it didn’t feel like it was pointless. This time I had something to say.

***
Until a certain point, my life was overcrowded with people whose victories were quite strangely and rather strongly determined by how pointless they could make me feel about my writing. I have kicked them all out of my life and that is the third thing about adulthood – the gift of being able to say fuck off.

First Post carried my piece. They have some really cool design so it reads differently and better than it does on my blog. You can read it here.

I am grateful to Snegaa, who is famous for making Brahmin bedbugs weep. Snegaa who has always been there – ever since I started this blog. Over the years I have sent her pieces that I’ve enjoyed writing as also those I’ve struggled with. She has always taken time to read them carefully and offer solid advice. As of today, she is my dominatrix agent who sends me one- line reminders about sending writing pitches to publishers.

Namsiess, the love of my life is actually My Brilliant Friend. She is my Elena Ferrante, and my Lila-Lenu.

Very quickly, before this begins to sound like some lame I’d like to thank speech, I want to return to that Saturday evening of December 2012 when I was a newbie in the department. How I shyly took a piece I’d written to show it to AM and how I’d turned around with great speed and ran for my life immediately after.

Over the years, I learnt not to run, I learnt to be less afraid of my writing and what he was going to say about it. Right from calmly telling me for the 100th time, why something wasn’t working in my writing  – to his comments in those balloon like things on Microsoft word that went – ‘Were you fucking sleeping when you wrote this sentence? WAKE UP’  – to ‘Vj, just keep writing like you don’t care’ — It won’t be an exaggeration to say that over six years, he’s the teacher I am still learning from. Not just how to read and write, but also to work, to be a friend, to ignore, and most importantly — to be kind.

***

It’s my first time getting paid for something I’ve written. I have been waiting to let that sink in. It still hasn’t. And I hope it never does. Letting that sink in would be to forget the various small pleasures that I can otherwise mindlessly engage in. Like thinking about how all my school and college friends are married, about how I am every day grateful for not having done science/MBA/IIT/marriage/babies, about how I used to fail science and math but still managed to adult well, about how small I’d feel on days they’d return test papers with 9/60 and 3/50 — underlining boldly – the big failure I was to become in life.

I wish someone else was writing this but because nobody is going to narrate my life in third-person Anu Agarwal style, I must do it myself. That is the fourth thing about adulting. That sometimes you have to be the narrator, the writer, the heroine, and the villainess of your own fucking life.

P.S – Today rumlolarum is four-years-old. This baby has helped me grow more than I could have managed on my own. I’m all smiles and love. See? Proof: I don’t have to be married to be a mother.

Today I celebrate rumlolarum and my PCOD- prone uterus. Cheers!

 

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Thank you, WordPress!

 

 

*** Featured Image credits: TeePublic

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2018

Department of English, St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous)  is announcing the sixth edition of The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2018.

If I could, I would write for this Prize. Because Friending/Unfriending seems like my full life only.

There was Rashmi who I sat next to in first standard. We never spoke but once when she wasn’t there, I peeked into her bag. And in that peek, I set into motion — my lifelong career of being fascinated with women. But I am stalker shakeela, I admit. Must stop.

There was Tanaaz who I pushed into the gutter because I didn’t like the way she was distant from me and seemed to be enjoying her private moments.

Then there was another girl who said she would put me in a mixie and grind me. You get the idea – I haven’t had the brightest of luck with friendships. And I must have done more violence on them than they have on me. So take your chance and write. About your Lilas and Lenus. About your Rashmis and Rohits.

In the previous years, we have had themes such as Finding Culture, Living Online, Finding Family etc. You can read the prize-winning essays here.

The theme this year is Friending/Unfriending. Deadline: 11 Feb 2018.

The contest is open to Students (School & college) and the general public. Mail your entries (MS-Word) to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com26167215_1960814583933938_3122900853717476084_n

Tuesday, 6:45 pm, Department

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Alison Bechdel, Virginia Woolf, Nagraj Manjule

Strange day.

Finished reading Alison Bechdel’s ‘Are you My Mother?’ this morning. She took me to Woolf like no one else has – not even Woolf herself. Bechdel’s dream sequences are told and drawn with so much ferocity that they begin to seep into the non -dream sequences as well. She gets you curious about desire, shame, words, and anger in a way that only your body can teach you.

I pulled out all my Freud books and set them aside. Later, in the department I spent sometime trying to warm up to Freud. The man is bloody unreadable. I turned instead to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse – hoping, like Bechdel, to find more answers about Psychoanalysis than psychoanalysts can give.

Stopped often – moved to A Writer’s Diary – then back To the Lighthouse.

Screened Fandry for a class – the fourth time this year – felt more disoriented than the last time. Thought of Jabya – thought of my brother – thought of his empty fair & lovely tube that he sometimes squeezed cream out of. Thought of the godforsaken woman on twitter who attacked my Sairat essay. Some Azadi woman. Chee. My ‘review’ was a glowing savarna review I believe and that’s why she didn’t ‘agree’ with it.

My friends told her to shut up. And because she realised she’d spoken too soonly, she apologized.

It may have been fuck-all writing but I now have this to say to her – ‘You are not required to agree with it. You are not even required to read it. It’s not a review, it’s an essay’

And then my head got all fuzzy like it does when I have jumped from one thought to another too quickly. Towards the end of Fandry, I had swallowed the guilt I feel everytime I watch it. Don’t know through what manner of luck, unluck – or through the hard work of parents –  some of us are able to escape fate.

Then my guilt became something else entirely –

For the first time, it became clear to me that I’ll never know if I’m good enough. I’ll never know for real if I’m actually good. There is no language that friends or enemies can use to tell me if I’m good or bad. Maybe it’s because they will never be able to separate it from the knowledge of what they think I deserve or don’t.

Story > History

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I like stories more than histories. Sometimes I can’t be too sure of the difference between the two but I imagine story as the wrinkled old face of a grandmother with a soothing afternoon voice narrating, gesturing, singing, touching, and laughing. And I imagine history in the sturdy shape of a wooden foot ruler in the hands of a tall man in an opaque white, full sleeved shirt.

14th April is branded in my memory because in school, we studied Ambedkar in Hindi, Kannada, Sanskrit and English, sometimes all in the same year. We were taught details, dates, amendments but today I remember Ambedkar only through the anecdotes. There was that recurring story of Ambedkar’s great love for books – how when he travelled, his bags had more books than clothes; how he studied under the streetlamps; how his father wouldn’t sleep until 3 in the morning so he could wake his son up in time. And then when I read Siddalingiah’s Ooru Keri, I found more such stories.

My favourite is the one where Ambedkar learnt to climb trees so he could have a decent place to read but the problem was that he didn’t know how to climb down and on more than one occasion, he’d fall tumbling down – all his books collapsing over him. Once there was an ash pit into which he fell. His friends teased him and called him Boodi (ash) Saheba. And Ambedkar is supposed to have told them, ‘I maybe Boodi Saheba now but I will be Baba Saheba in the future’. I smiled when I read this. I don’t know why this story cheered me up no end. I don’t care if it isn’t true, anymore than I care if he wasn’t really born on 14th April. But Ambedkar became someone outside a history textbook for me in these stories, and in these moments.

And then when I heard my father speak about Ambedkar and his past in much the same way that Siddalingiah did, I sat up and listened.

You should know that he did a lot for our people. We would have been nowhere without Ambedkar. The college which I’d joined was purely for merit students. I was only able to get a seat because I’m SC. When I joined, I found that everyone else had 80% and I only had 40%. I limped towards inferiority complex and after some days, I was engulfed in it. To come out of that complex, it took a lot of time and hard work but even then I was unable to reach their level and I finally came out as the last man in the race.

My father did his engineering in Davangere where, he tells us, he had some unforgettable experiences. He never had any money. And when he’d run out of toothpaste, he’d have to borrow some from his roommates. And so they bullied him into a deal. They gave him a blob of toothpaste every morning if he agreed to do their record work. So he sat up late every night doing record work for his friends along with his own. And then there were teachers who decidedly favoured the ‘merit’ students and were extremely hostile to him.

I couldn’t do anything. I just had to accept the situation. If I resisted, it’d hurt more. I myself didn’t want any unnecessary advantage on the pretext of discrimination. I felt if I wrote proper answers, certainly it should fetch more marks. So I worked harder.

***

When I joined the Department of English, I didn’t feel the need to be aware of my caste, in a way that I would have had to be if I were working elsewhere. My professors were here and I felt that I could continue my learning, now as a teacher.

I find it difficult to write what I want to, mainly because there are only so many words I can use to say that the Department is the place where I found myself and that I will always be grateful to it for showing me my own potential that years of schooling had destroyed.

My father has never come here, but I’m afraid that if he will, he’s not going to like what he sees – the desk at my workplace is my home. He’s going to know why I’m always dying here. But then maybe he will also be relieved. He has always made sure that his children don’t have to go through what he had to. And on some days, my biggest worry here is that I’m going to show up to work in pyjamas. So far it has almost happened only once. And that is only because I feel perfectly at home here. Really, what a fascist place this should be.

I have discovered that there are as many ways of living as there are of whining. And this liberal fascist department has taught me to always pick the former. And it has also taught me to not bother about those who pick the latter. ‘Let them be’, I have heard CA say very often. Not that I don’t whine now at all. For some of you this may very well be whining but I have also found joy in saying ‘evs’ to your miserable faces.

I have learnt to value conversation with students here. And the rotting Dalit students are the ones I enjoy talking to the most. Our convenor for ‘The Literary Society’ this year is one such rotting Dalit student that nobody cares about. He hangs out in the Department and we take great pleasure in watching him rot. So much so that we have taken considerable effort to move him to the hostel just so we can watch him rot a little more closely.

I find it interesting that attackers are now viewing the department as a place where people only preach, not practice. If that is true, then the legacy of the great liberal department would not have taken this long to ‘crumble’, if that’s what you think you are doing. People are not stupid and you cannot make them. Take a closer look at your lives. You stop talking to Dalit students because they disagree with you; you start campaigning against the department for not taking ‘your side’ after a tragic break up; you want only a certificate of ‘queerdom’ from the ‘right’ people so you pull out the many victim cards to supply sudden solidarity. Do yourself a favour and stop pretending that your concerns are political.

Let’s clear the air — there are people here and everywhere else who are convinced that I got my NET only because of reservation and have therefore decided that it is not valid. There are also people who believe that I shouldn’t be teaching certain classes because I am more qualified to polish shoes. But the four liberal fascists who, given their most absurd nature, should have been siding with them, chose instead to stand up for me and shut the wretched people up.

The twisted fascist who unofficially runs the department makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they are not used to seeing a non – Savarna with a little power. Who is preaching and not practicing now? Why fake so much concern for rotting Dalit students when you can’t handle a Shudra in power?

In a post that he wrote on his blog, Prof. Mani explains how Wingco Mulky gave him a life outside of himself and saved him from inner demons. Prof. Mani has been doing for other students what Mulky did for him. I don’t need to supply evidence for this but you need to know that this outweighs all your collective cowardice and your uninteresting complaints.

I am posting here an excerpt from Prof. Mani’s blog post –

There was so much that I needed to say to him. That over the years, it was he who had taught me how to live. That the lesson he taught all of us, never to be passive receivers of information, had been our salvation in the other paths we chose to tread. That when he asked me to join Appu and Och in taking over from him, six years ago, he gave me a focus outside myself-—freeing me thus from self-absorption, from a terrible downward spiral, from numerous personal demons.
That his life confirmed for me the value of staying put, that they truly live who choose to stay, that life is to be found here, not elsewhere nor in dollars.My sturdiest human relationship was with this man, fifty years older and a far better human being than I can ever hope to be. It was not one built of too many words and that is passing strange—I am, after all, a word-child and nothing else.
My debts to him will take the longest time to sort out. How do you best thank a man who gave you a world to be in, one who lifted you out of gawky, sharp-edged unloveliness into a sort of life, into community with other people? I never did, and those words are now an unresolved lump in the throat.
From building a syllabus that is more in favour of the student than the institution, to making sure that learning is never mechanical and the student participates actively in her own learning — the department under the leadership of the four liberal fascists and especially under the leadership of the twisted Prof. Mani has made possible what no noisemaker can ever hope to achieve.

Having tutored Dalit students for over three years now, I doubt a system like the ‘Tutorials’ will work very much with people who threaten to stop guiding students over petty disagreements. Prof. Mani designed tutorials to enable conversations with students who need it the most. And I am glad that these conversations will continue despite slanderous efforts by many to thwart them.

Do what you can, you cannot take away the fact that the Department has done more for me and people like me than your political, radical, intellectual, and liberal positions can ever do for anybody.

As Sigmund Freud would say, ‘the only rotten things in the state of Denmark either left or have been kicked out.’

February Itch

As a shy, dull, and almost non-existent student in school, I spent a lot of time imagining a parallel universe where I could never be left behind. I owned this universe and so it was filled with the few people I liked and a few others, who, like me, were also left behind. And here too, there were people with power, of course. No imagination or fantasy is ever complete without a structural change in power. But the powerful people in my universe were teachers who could look beyond the rank students.

In my final year at school, I wrote a poem for our magazine and showed it to my teacher who took one long look at it and gave it back to me. It wasn’t good of course and I was a painfully clingy person so I didn’t really mind that she’d just walked off. I sent it to the editorial committee and waited. On the last day, when we got our school magazines, I kept turning over the pages to see if my poem was published. It wasn’t and I felt a tinge of shame. Although now I am glad they didn’t publish it because otherwise I’d have to bury myself alive.

Even so, I longed for an approval that I never got in school perhaps because I didn’t try enough or perhaps because academic excellence was the one thing where everything else was measured. And some of us didn’t always manage to make that cut.

When I became a teacher, I was very afraid. Somewhere I was still a very scared student and I had no way of knowing exactly when I’d feel like a teacher. “That moment will come”, someone said, “when a student will tear your ass.”

And that moment did come. It keeps coming again and again but I was surprised that it came from students who were too afraid to talk, let alone tear body parts. It is a challenge to look for these students beyond the limited space of the classroom. And it’s strange that when I began to look for them, I found pieces of myself.

At a panel on Rohith Vemula last year, I saw two girls arrive at a confidence I had never seen in them before. Coming as they did from a college where they’d been ignored for the most part, they said that they were surprised to have even been asked to be on the panel.

All of last year was spent waging a listless sort of war against whiny adults who felt betrayed for not being given opportunities that they felt they were more deserving of. At times like these, watching students come out of similar battles was the saving grace. At the end of that panel, the two girls were surrounded by classmates — some crying, some shocked — but all cheering them on for the good job they did.

It is now somewhat of a tradition that Meta’s biggest fans have been science students. Anna and Sahana, two students from the science stream have been the most diligent audience at Meta. They turn up for all the writing contests with one suave attitude that even my fingernail didn’t have when I was 20. Anna says she is taking up literature after this and presently has her nose buried in some history of English Literature book that she is reading for her entrance.

Vidya Bal, another science student is a little time bomb that is forever ticking. She does ten things at once and in 2014, when the prizes were being given away, we had to ask her to stay on the stage and collect them all at once because she had won that many.

I met Parinitha and Priya, two more science champs and enthu nutellas at a certificate course we offered last year and since then, they have shown an energy for writing and reading that I am both terrified and jealous of.

Meta has taught me things that no one else could have. It has taught me to see what isn’t visible – very often it’s the fear of not being “good enough” that so many of us hide behind. That and also perhaps that other people are truly more deserving in life because of whatever reason (fair skin, good English, better contacts, cool company) and in more ways than one, it has taught me to disregard these reasons.

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Image Credits: Abhishek Anil & Canva

Today, Meta is the space where the Banyan tree grows bigger and bigger and I feel smaller than I ever have. And that’s alright because true to its meaning, Meta has quite aptly taught me to look beyond myself. From watching these students organize and participate to watching the space itself morph into various shapes to accommodate panels, lec-dems, contests and various other conversations – the demands on the classroom as the only enabler of learning and experience have diminished – both for the student and the teacher. In more ways than one, Meta has become the parallel universe that I sought so desperately in school.

The energy that February finds in me comes from the wasteland that was my adolescence. This Friday, Meta will be 5 years old. And in the next 20 days, Meta will have come and gone, and only a February-sized itch will remain.

Out of Body

Today I noticed that I have been forgetting to hang my keys on the key stand. Last morning, I panicked. I was getting ready for college when I realized that my keys weren’t on their usual hook. I retraced my steps, double checked my bag and ran around the house like a mad woman. Ma then told me that the keys were on the table in her room. I was baffled.

Things like this never happen to me. I am cursing myself even as I type this, I am muttering many touch-wood kind of things under my breath, but I really never lose things – keys, mobile, wallet. Never. Ever. Even if I lose them for maybe a minute or two, I always find them. There. I have said it. I know now that tomorrow morning when I wake up, my world would have turned upside down. I will find myself key-less, wallet-less and mobile-less.

In the department today, I read after a long time. I read a story about a Bengali woman who was consumed by the desire to write every day. Her husband hated it — he hid everything she wrote. But she’d write the same story over and over again. The story about a blind girl who could tell you the names of colors by just touching them.

She sat with a pen and a new sheet of paper every evening and wrote. She challenged her husband to a bet. He said she wasn’t talented enough to get published. Later he hid in his drawer, the letters that various editors wrote to his wife, telling her to send more stories.

In stories, either as writers or as characters, women are mad in a way that they cannot be in real life. I will disagree with this in the morning but this needs to be said.

When she writes every day, a little bit of her husband dies, until he cannot take it anymore and runs away. When I read this, I feel full and begin to smile endlessly.

I was just going to leave the department when it started to rain. So I sat and looked around. When I sit and look around, especially in the department, I have an out of body experience. I begin to think about all the things that have happened ever since we moved here. Things that happened last year and the year before that.

Outside, the construction workers were on full swing. There was drilling and what not. I sat on the steps and waited for the rain to stop. Every time the drone of machines paused for a minute, I thought the rain had gone and stood up to leave.

When I finally left, I thought about all the ways in which the place would be different tomorrow. Tomorrow of the bright day time. Of the endless work and its slicing hurry.