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

Looking back at The Husband Stitch

Picture courtesy - Granta

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.

Teaching and Learning

In my first month as a teacher, I believed I was good. No matter how badly classes went or how unprepared I was or how smart the students were, I believed I was good. It is my fourth year now and I believe I’m not so good. I may have improved but the threshold for anxiety, for taking offence is smaller than it was when I started.

There are good days and then there are bad days and this has nothing to do with how prepared or not I am. If a student has decided to disrupt class one day, it will happen. Sure, it’s up to me to decide if I’m going to let it affect the class but there’s only little resistance that I can put up. Beyond a point, I want that disruption too, I am curious to see what happens.

I am 24. I walk into a class on the second floor in H Block. This is a class I have been warned about. It’s a second year B.A class. There’s noise before and after I enter. We settle down but it’s not easy. The air is thick with leftovers of conversations that subside only to come back stronger and more forceful than before. I am nervous, I scream an expletive. They giggle. I lose it.

That is one kind of helplessness.

I am 25. I walk into a class that I have been warned about. Again. This is a classroom in the science block — more reason to feel nervous. We begin. They have all their computer science lab records stretched out in front of them. I remember what M has told me about not giving them the satisfaction of watching me get irked. Calmly, I tell them to stop writing in their lab records. They shuffle in their seats but in seconds, they go back to doing what they were doing. I still have patience but their disregard for what I’ve said makes me feel like I have the right to be angry and so, with gritted teeth I practice a deluded voice. ‘Keep the books away’

They are scared. But not all of them. Some of them are caught between the desire to join the few who are aggressively resisting and the few others who are giggling. I stand quiet and hold in what I’m feeling. What I’m feeling is total confusion.

When the bell rings, I storm out of the class preparing to ignore anybody who follows me out to apologize. Nobody comes. I wait weeks together for the apology to come. It never does.

That is one kind of waiting.

I am 27. I’m standing before a class that I’ve been told is special. And for some time, they really are. I have started to read and write with them. I am learning with them and a teacher never forgets something like that. It’s the first batch – one of its kind – filled with talented yet shy students, quiet and watchful ones, passive and aggressive ones.

Things used to be great. I looked forward to all my classes with them with a mad enthusiasm. I’d decide on the text and discussion with an energy that was new and encouraging. We’d talk endlessly. People who were usually quiet ventured to answer questions. I was thrilled. But something happened months later. They outgrew me and I didn’t.

I was standing before them after things had turned bitter and then turned very bad. And now it was frozen in a moment that I couldn’t touch. People on the outside had messed with this class. Things were said, jokes were made, and then just their remnants remained like echoes. It will be months before I find out exactly what happened. But then, there, in that moment, I have no idea.

I am doing Synecdoche and Metonymy. The concepts have confused me just as much as they have confused them. But I am trying. I get lost often and every time I try to recover, I get the feeling that it’s not going to go well. More jokes will be made, more accusations, more justifications, and more indifference. My head is throbbing with a desire to open the can of worms and let it all out. To sit with them, look them in the eye and ask them what went wrong. I am almost going to do that when I realize the pointlessness of it all.

Instead, I focus on the students who are making attempts to understand what I’m saying. I am back. I realize I must try harder. I tell myself that I will make sure they understand the concepts. I look at Maria who is looking at me with renewed interest. She tells me that she finds the topic fascinating. A boy sitting in the back wants to know if AM is in the department. The class shakes with a tension that has been waiting to erupt. They all laugh. I laugh with them. AM can explain Synecdoche better, I say. I don’t know if the boy’s comment was intentional or accidental. I decide not to answer that question. I let it go.

I start reading out a long story I’d found – it was a parody on the examples of Synecdoche and Metonymy. When I finish, the air is thin with something that I can’t put my finger on. It is a lot scarier than confusion. I sense disinterest, I sense irritation, and I sense a very big question mark – not just regarding Synecdoche and Metonymy but also my abilities as a teacher. This is amplified when the boy on my right rolls his eyes and puts his head down in a manner of giving up. His shoulders are bent with rehearsed indifference. Everything that he does, I take in. I want to remember.

Later I will discover that an outsider but no stranger to teaching has tampered with what I had with these students, what I could have had. They sat together, these people, to assess my qualification. The joke that they made, went something like this –

How many Vjs does it take to make a life? None. Because she is busy polishing shoes.

When I first hear this, I am reminded of the things my father had told me about being careful at the workplace and to keep him informed if anything went wrong. I ignored him. I thought he was being unnecessarily protective of me. Perhaps he’d always known that caste may not always follow me but other people will always follow caste.

I am reminded of my father’s disappointment when I chose not to do IAS. He was persuasive about IAS in a way that he has never been persuasive about anything else — even marriage. I think he’d figured out that to be able to survive as a Dalit woman in this country, his daughter is going to need something as powerful as IAS to shut people up.

I don’t know what to make of the joke. What is so funny or humiliating about polishing shoes, I will never know. My ancestors probably polished their ancestor’s shoes. Are they suggesting that I quit teaching and do something else that suits my caste? Like polish shoes?

Thankfully, when I find out about the joke, I am not teaching them anymore. Classes are done with. But I see them very often in corridors, in the canteen and in the department. I don’t know what to feel. I am angry but I am sadder. I start thinking about all my classes with them. I might have taught them the next morning after the joke was made. I wonder if they giggled when they saw my face that morning. Did they snigger as I continued teaching? I might have made a thousand pronunciation errors. I spend hours going over every detail – every single thing I did in their class that they might have made fun of.

I feel unqualified and want to quit. I am unable to write because I have started to doubt everything. I start depending exclusively on other people to tell me that I am good, that I can do this. I feel hopeful when I find that there are many people who have faith in me.

Months later, I’m sitting with two of the unhappiest women I’ve ever known. Since the day I got stuck with them, I’ve been trying to unstick. They are explaining why students hate me. Everything in their part of the world is understood by connections, contacts. Who hangs out with whom? Where? Are they cool enough? How to make connections? It’s too much like the world my father has always been cautious of. Contact making and keeping is another way of showing/hiding caste. And here with them, everything they say is drenched with caste. They don’t see this although they’d be quick to see it in others. This isn’t the first time they have thrown around big words. Access, favours, talent, qualification, social-climbing, power.

Upper caste women.

They are gone. I’m nigh on 28 now. I feel lighter, cooler and a lot more independent. When I turn into a corridor full of new students, I smile. They smile back. Their faces are innocent. They lack history in their demeanor and this is liberating. They are not shadowed by my past and that thought makes me appreciate what I have.

I enjoy teaching more than I did when I was 24, 25, 26 and 27. I find that the more I write, the more interesting teaching becomes. I also find that all that happened last year had to happen so I could feel a lot more forceful about my freedom. Friendships that began for disgusting, ambitious reasons had to end hatefully so that I could learn to value the many undemanding friendships I have come to acquire.

My relationship with students – even those I’ve had memorable conversations with, had to change so I could learn how to continue teaching despite the visible hatred. I’m a teacher. For every one and a half student who likes me, there will be a dozen who don’t. For what it’s worth, regardless of what happens later, I always have a nice time talking to students. And that probably shouldn’t change because that’s what teaching has come to mean. Conversations. In this profession, it’s the only pleasure that can be kept alive and away from people with all kinds of ugly designs.

W – Wicked

Too many things on my mind today.

This post was originally going to be on W – Wanderlust, which was what was on my mind yesterday but too much of life has happened in a day. I have to write about the books that I found and bought yesterday. Also how it was the last day of the book fair and for some strange reason I found myself interested in all the cook books that there were this time, and there were many. I found Book One and Two of Delia’s ‘How to cook’ series, Zadie Smith’s ‘White Teeth’ and some travel books. I am excited about these cook books and I find that almost unnerving because I’ve never felt mad urges like these to see pictures of food and then reproduce it in real life, like step by step, like how that Nigella does it so effortlessly in her shows.

I like eating and watching things being cooked but have never shown actual interest in cooking. I don’t so much as lift a finger at home to do cooking stuff, unless I want to eat potatoes which is when I become a domestic goddess and do all the cleaning and peeling and boiling and butter frying. I do all this because  potatoes are special and I love them! It’s the best PMS food. Also, when you deep fry it with butter, your day just changes.

That. And then something strange happened this afternoon. Around 12:45 pm, just when I was deciding that it’s been a good day so far and that I should shut up and prepare for my next hour which was Additional English, I ‘stumbled’ on an article. Is there a better website than stumble.com? I doubt. That shit is just great. You literally stumble on some great stuff. The article was called, ’14 brilliant pieces of literature you can read in the time it takes to eat lunch’. I read Sandra Cisneros’ ‘Eleven’ and wept. It was beautiful and I took this beauty very seriously because the narration is slow but didn’t take time to open. The story was about an eleven year old girl and a red sweater that she was forced to wear. I haven’t ever read about birthdays being described like that. You know, like even if it is your birthday, you will cry. Sandra Cisneros is a genius. And to narrate a story that beautiful in less than 500 words? So things like these don’t happen that often with me. Usually when I start reading something online, I become a lazy, judgmental bitch so if I am not hooked to it in the first 2 lines, I stop reading. I’m useless like that. But Eleven just took me in. I was child and grown up at once, I saw myself, naked and embarrassed and crying. It’s just 2 pages so when I was done reading, I almost felt helpless. And then I took the worst decision of my life. I wanted my Add. Eng students to read it so I took it to class like some big hero only to watch their boring faces fall on every inch of my body and along with it died my enthusiasm for them and humanity.

I told them to go to hell. I also told them to just watch Pokemon and be stupid. I entered the damn class feeling inspired and happy and left feeling hopeless and spiteful. Bah. So that is W for Wicked because those kids are mean and wicked. Shattering life altering literature like that with their boring faces and all. Pah.