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.

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

Picture courtesy - Granta

Looking back at The Husband Stitch

I have always been a teller of stories.

~Carmen Maria Machado

The first time I read The Husband Stitch, I wished I hadn’t read it. Because I knew that the many times after I’d reread it, I would continue to ask myself what it was like the first time -like asking someone who likes sex about their first time.

Reading it the first time was difficult. I had to pause every now and then and do something else. It was early November and I had a whole day yawning at my disposal. AM sent me the link and as I began to read it, I had the vague discomfort that only someone who is tragically falling in love can have.

Then there was this laziness that occasionally comes even when you have found a great piece of writing, and sometimes, especially after you have found a great piece of writing. This happens because the mind bookmarks it for a moment in the future where the reading will happen and where the energy to be left smitten and ravaged can be found in plenty, and- guiltlessly.

But I pushed — because I knew that the preliminary pleasure to be derived from The Husband Stitch was going to be like no other.

The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. Or perhaps the moral is that brides never fare well in stories, and one should avoid either being a bride, or being in a story. After all, stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.

Every time I had read a great line, I’d put my phone away, sigh, and dig deeper into the folds of my rug. I would shut my eyes for not more than three minutes before straightening up and starting over again.

Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make

Pride is the second mistake

And being right is the third and worst mistake.

The Husband Stitch was and still is the most haunting story I have ever read – the kind that makes you want to impose it on all the people you know and love. The kind that allows you to grow a little, no matter how overshadowed you are by it, and want to be.

As a teacher, here was another tiring thing I felt compelled to do – which was to take it to class after class and make students read it, with the hope that they will fall in love with it, like I had.

But – as I have come to learn – This is the worst mistake a teacher can make — especially if you are an Avarna woman teacher. And if like me, your language is questionable, if you falter over difficult words and don’t have answers to questions – then it doesn’t matter how much you love something, you will never be good enough. Not as good as someone Savarna or someone male or someone both.

I used to think I wasn’t good enough. Or rather, I was made to think I wasn’t good enough.

But I don’t let myself think that anymore.

Not because I have suddenly found confidence but because I recognise now how power works. Because centuries of Savarna assholes have gotten away by making a lot of people feel that they aren’t good enough, that they will never be good enough.

So now even if I’m not good enough, I tell myself it is okay. As long as I have stories to take cover under, and learn from – then everything will be okay. From Ambedkar, to Vaidehi, to Marquez, and Machado – I must keep trying. It’s what my father did, it’s what my mother does, and it’s what I must do.

Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. They are each borne from the clouds separately, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.

How did I do The Husband Stitch in class then?

I tried.

That’s all.

Today, I do that story in the classroom as though I own it – as though it came from my body after days and nights of sacrifices. But always remembering and painfully knowing that i did not write it. Maybe that’s how one must do stories in classrooms. As though something of value was sacrificed for it. As though without you, they would just burst into tiny puffs of smoke and disappear.

(If you are reading this story out loud, move aside the curtain to illustrate this final point to your listeners. It’ll be raining, I promise.)

Soon, I had found another reason to drag The Husband Stitch to other classes; I had to undo the memory of doing it the previous time. And so each time I do it, I am simultaneously undoing it. As a result – as of this moment, I know a couple of lines, and two paragraphs by heart. That’s the great thing about loving the same story everyday– that it can liberate vulnerable people who carry what they love proudly.

I did the story again, today. And loved it –again. And I felt the same wave of possibility that makes writing seem all at once doable and at once monstrous.

It’s what makes teaching enjoyable – I can fall in love everyday, shamelessly – with the same story – again and again and no one can take this away from me – no matter how good they are.

I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten the rest of the story.

*** All the sections that appear within quotes are from Carmen Maria Machado’s short-story – The Husband Stitch ***

*** Featured Image Credits – Granta

DULL HOLE

My bad day is a young male sitting anywhere in the classroom – his eyelashes thick with disapproval and his demeanour aching to break open in a string of loud and menacing laughter.

My bad day is an unwelcome pause that struts in between the beginning and the end of a sentence that I have forgotten midway. The pause blinks twice in the darkness behind my eyes before taking off.

My bad day is a tongue that hangs mutely in sandpapery devotion to a mind that can only see scratches.

When I walk out of a bad class, my dejection follows me around wearing a black hood. Its hisses are meaner than the many rejections in my mail box.

I seek the company of my alone table and here I fall back on the many assurances I can afford to believe in.

Then I open my laptop and drown in the many miseries of a dull admin life.

W for Words

I was very impressed with a girl in my 8th std once for knowing dictionary-heavy words. She not only knew how to use these words, but also seemed to know the right moments in which to use them.

“What should we do to make studying more interesting?”asked my History teacher one day. While I was trying to figure out if it was a trick question because how can studying ever be interesting, the girl sitting behind me had an answer that stunned everybody into an acute, shameful silence.

“Break the monotony”, she said. The class held its breath, as if in anticipation of a bigger, stranger word that was just waiting to dive off her lips. My ears suddenly became sharp. I was sure I’d never be able to get over the genius of it all — her unassuming, calm face, the halo of silence after she said monotony, and how shaken I was for hours after that. I’d never heard of the word ‘monotony’ before. I’d perhaps heard someone older use it in an elderly boring way. But I was prompted to sit up and take notice when she said it. I went back home that evening and mugged up the meaning of monotony along with several other words.

Months later, I found a brand new copy of the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary at home. This soon became my toilet book.

The dictionary had a block of pages in the middle that only had pictures.One whole page on stationery items, another one on food, another one on classroom objects, and one more on fruits & vegetables. I’d gloss over the pictures for a long time. This was perhaps my first premature graphic novel reading experience. After I finished with the pictures, I’d read the words beneath it and focus on the US-UK variations, trying to see if the sound of the word matched the picture. Now that I recollect, my most significant learning moment happened on the commode.

This is the dictionary that taught me that aubergines and eggplants are the same, that chips in UK are actually french fries in US, that plaits and braids are the same, that stubble is the shorter, pokier version of the beard, that ‘blob’ is used for toothpaste and paint alike. Also that ‘blob’is probably the only word in the English language that actually does justice to its meaning. Blob is even to this day, my favourite word. When I hear blob, I see a small cloud of cream sitting in a neat drop with an apostrophe in the end.

I don’t know how but I learnt somewhere that tintinnabulation is the longest word in the English language. It is of course, untrue. But I couldn’t help smiling every time I heard the word. I imagined a string of yellow bells tied together with an invisible thread, ringing continuously.

I chanced upon ‘laissez faire’ in the same dictionary and waited impatiently to use the word in a sentence. When I couldn’t find my moment, I decided to randomly use it when I was talking to a friend about letting things go because another friend had stopped talking to us. My friend was puzzled, and looked at me – her face showing no sign of being impressed. I explained the word to her and she shrugged.

Another time, I learnt that the word ‘invincible’meant indestructible and so after waiting for ages, I finally used the word to describe a boy I’d had a long-standing crush on. The monotony girl asked me why I’d chosen that word for him. Clearly, she knew the meaning. I wanted to die. I’d had a longer- standing crush on her and when she wanted to know how in the world the boy was invincible, I had no answer. I’d expected her to ask me for the meaning because, like Thoma Chacko, I’d not only rehearsed my answer but also predicted how terribly impressed she was going to be.

I happened on ‘Deja Vu’ by chance. I used it in a poem that I wrote (keeping the Cambridge Dictionary close to me). It was a poem on Teenage that I’d very wittily decided to title, ‘Teen-ache’ – a term stolen from a section in the Women’s Era magazine. In it, I narrate at length, the various dilemmas of a teenager. I now have no memory of why, how and where I used ‘Deja Vu’. But when my English teacher asked me what it meant, I felt for the first time in my school life, a little accomplished. I sent it to the school magazine. Needless to say, they didn’t publish it and to this day, I’m deeply indebted to them for that.

In Arts & Culture Class One Saturday Morning

In Arts & Culture last Saturday, I tried something I haven’t had the courage to try as a teacher all these years. I let students run the class.

We had just finished watching Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. While some of them were taken by surprise, some others were purely disgusted by him. One found his accent revolting, another found his energy irritating. What made the discussion livelier was that people were willing to admit these things and just as willing to listen to me when I admitted to liking the man. There was conversation after that about real and unreal in the world of cinema. We decided to take home our conversation and ponder over it.

In class the next day, D who was made to talk about his interest in films, set a mad story-telling vibe which later, the rest of the class followed. His stories were crazy. I would’ve never guessed how much of a fillum-crazy streak the boy had. From watching films in secret, to egging on friends to bunk class and go with him to watch movies and then getting caught – he’s done it all. We were thrilled to hear him narrate his escapades into the normal world – one we all thought was forbidden to him.

L told us that her destiny was to be a nun apparently. She was sent for training but she kept stuffing her face with food and this made her very unpopular with all the other nuns. When she went home for vacation, she decided never to go back because she liked to eat more than she wanted to become a nun.

Sometimes, I wasn’t able to decide who was more crazy – they or their families.

Like V for instance, whose dad took her to watch The Lion King when she was 4. He waited for the scene where Mufasa picks up Simba in his arms and shows him to the world. And then when the scene came, he took her in his arms and showed her around to all the people in the theatre.

A confessed deep and pure love for Dhanush because he looks just like her boyfriend. L went a step ahead and declared that Dhanush is the realest man because in her life so far, she has never met anybody who looks like Hrithik Roshan or Surya or Vijay but she has seen many a Dhanush. If it weren’t for the fact that I was holding my stomach and howling with laughter, I would’ve hugged her at this point.

S.M, who looked like I’d asked her to give me her kidney when I told her to take off her bag, said that she believes that the Bermuda triangle is a getaway to other worlds and we all agreed. She is also very attached to her bag. Maybe she sleeps with that thing around her neck.

K confessed to crying twice in his life. Once when his school made them all watch Taare Zameen Par and all the boys sniffed through the second-half of the movie and refused to show each other that they were crying. Another time was when the Late Paul Walker was paid tribute to in that recent Fast and Furious movie. L cracked up at this. She burst out laughing, her face turning shades of red, eyes all watery, saying over and over again, ‘you cried for fast and furious’

A.N said that S.S has ruined movies for her because he’s so much into film making, he’s always telling her to pay attention to the camera angle and such. S.S said he hates it when people aren’t paying attention to the movie and keep shifting around or checking their phones. Like me, even S.S believed for a long time that the hero and the heroine of any movie are married to each other and it freaked him out when he saw the same hero romance other heroines in other films.

They all told us something that none of us knew about them. From stories that surprised us to stories that made us see them differently to stories that had us giggling and howling. Enjoying films appeared to be the common most thing in all our lives. I’m beginning to think that we aren’t all that different from each other. And I am taking an odd comfort in knowing this. I’m happy 🙂

Saturday Morning Musings

My day began well yesterday. I got to college quite early and worked on the women in loos piece all morning. I found a variety of stories that just kept coming. I have often felt lighter and happier when I talk to strange women in the loos. When I started writing this piece, I wondered if it’s only a good idea and nothing more because I couldn’t go beyond the first two paragraphs. With every piece that I struggle with, I learn more about writing than much else. Turns out, a good idea is just enough to write. I got impatient with the piece and was almost going to give up when I decided to stop fussing and give it another shot.

In class yesterday, we did Adichie on fashion. I find that I’m learning more from the pieces that I have read long ago. I’m seeing them newly, as if for the first time again. I liked doing this piece very much. The class was more like a confession. I told them how much I like dressing up and how long it took me to admit it. Sometimes I wonder if all classes are actually confessions for teachers.

Somewhere in the middle of last month, I got a mild anxiety attack about my career. Perhaps because I had spent much of my vacation writing, watching movies and reading; I felt a little irritated when I had to abandon all of it to prepare for classes, to teach, and to do college work. I felt selfish one morning when I wondered what it’d be like to have a whole day for myself – writing and reading. A whole day without the hourly bells at college. For a moment, I considered giving up my job to sit at home and write. And then along with the bell, came my father’s approving and smiling face. He’d be thrilled to show me all the men he’s been accumulating for my marriage since I was 17.

It pained me to see his bright face in the middle of all that. That’s when I shook my head like a goat and went to class. That day in class, we talked about writing and I realized that I like talking about writing just as much as I like writing. And which bakra can I catch and talk about writing to if I quit teaching?

When I came back to the department, I felt guilty. I like teaching. I like writing more. But I’m not insane enough to sustain writing on an everyday basis. I feel the itch to write more when I don’t have the time. And teaching offers me the luxury of feeling that itch now and then. The joy of finding free time in the middle of a busy day and to think of writing in this free time is better than having a free day and not being able to write.

In other news, I have discovered a secret. It’s to wake up at an ungodly hour to write. I have been waking up at 5 every morning to write. And it’s silly but I’m surprised that my day is longer, that I’m able to write freely and that I have time to do Yoga. Some mornings are given up rather easily to bouts of self-pity and such but then I think of that maha bastard, Unni Chacko and I feel guilty being sad. Unni Chacko has done something to me.

Every time I feel compelled to be sad these days, I think of Unni Chacko and feel something heavy lifting off of my shoulders. I must, I must write about The Illicit Happiness of other People. Such a strange, lovely book.

I’m excited about S’s ‘cute dinner party’ tonight. She sent me an invitation and everything. Yesterday, in Arts and Culture, we were doing Zizek! We talked about cinema and the conversation went off to what is real and what is unreal and other such heavy questions. Too good. Today we will continue talking about film, real and unreal and then Sylvester Stallone is going to talk to us about why he’s interested in making films.

It’s only 8:20 am on a Saturday morning and I have the whole day. This better be a good weekend. Unni Chacko, please don’t leave me.