Remembering to Read

This morning, on the way to SLV to pick up breakfast – a security guard, in his 70s, sitting on a plastic chair outside an ATM with a pen and a Kannada newspaper, solving crossword. A little ahead, another oldish man with a shovel, uprooting a small plant by the compound of his house. He was wearing a white baniyan and panche.

Pretend it’s a city: have a list of books and films I must run to. Days are happier when I remember to remember that there is a woman named Fran Lebowitz who lives the way she wants to, reads, smokes, eats, walks, and goes back to live in her apartment alone– and no man no woman no child no parent can ever tell her anything. I am most curious about her love life, her sex life. But she’s given me so much that the other stuff, though I want to know everything about her — can never compete with how she makes it possible for me to believe that I can live however I want to, that I am young to not have to work hard to feel alive. That anything I’ll ever need is already with me, that I can move to NYC and live there forever (bring money, she says but – lol)

I spent all of this week crying. I cried in lifts and restrooms, at home, and at work, while riding. I don’t want to be that way ever again. I like to believe that I am not myself when I am not reading women. The months I spent in lockdown reading Toni Morrison, Marieke Lucas, Makenna Goodman, Sheila Heti, and Dawn Powell were the best days of my life. Nothing can ever come close to the intimacy I share with a woman whose work I’ve just begun to discover and rediscover. My problem is that I give too much attention to my life. I must remember everyday what Toni Morrison said: “I write because otherwise I would be stuck with life” and what Fran Lebowitz said, “Reading is better than life”

Reading is real, supremely more real than anything else I’ve ever known. More real than even perhaps, writing.

Reading Walking December

On my way home from the walk today, I saw a tree with leaves that reminded me of the giant leaves we plucked in Belgaum to serve food while playing kitchen-kitchen with the neighbor girls. Their food looked much tastier and healthier. And they even thought of things like pappads to make from white leaves, and beeda from green leaves with red veins. The leaf I recognized was used to serve other leaf-food in.

Finished reading Makenna Goodman’s The Shame which I think I read at a good time in my life, guilty only occasionally about my snail-slow pace. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as anti-baby literature but I think I am accumulating it smilingly 🙂

Work is mad but I am only realizing it because classes are over and the non teaching part of academic life is dancing on my head. I am a happier person when I teach and what’s nice is that I am barely aware of it. Woke up at 3:30 one morning this week and read till 7:00. Best morning. It took revenge a couple of days later but what joy to be with yourself that early in the morning with cool, blue silence.

This quote by Hannah Arendt returned me to reading with a fever. Made me think WTF am I doing when I am not reading?

The mere reading of a book requires some degree of isolation, of being protected against the presence of others.

Hannah Arendt

Very grateful to have found twitter in my late 20s. There is so little I want to undo and unsay in my 30s. Also – problematic, toxic, traumatic, overrated, ew, contradictory, cringe, binge, thirst, political political monkey monkey underpants. No thank you.

I read in the park these days. Read Maile Maloy this morning. Felt cheerful. The weather is perfect to read outdoors.

I have money plants growing out of wine and chai point bottles in my room now. The two avocado pits I planted earlier this year are growing tall on the terrace. I smile everytime I see them. I am using the same water bottle I did three years ago before which I had a red bottle of same build.

Birthday month was strange. I spent a lot of time inside my head and felt very distant from me. Made myself miserable and blamed it on the world. When I had enough, I took myself out and read like mad. Realized it’s the only thing I must keep doing to stop from going further in.

Looking forward to Alexander Chee and another round of Toni Morrison. Watched Rebecca, loved it. Watched a lot of TV and loved it more. I seem to have grown warmer to the idea that if I am wearing great clothes, nothing can undo me. Fashion is an answer, and sometimes a solution.

Through all the miserable points in my life from school, college, and work – I wish I had paid more attention to what I was wearing. May have even helped me own myself a little bit. N got me the bestest birthday gift. I was asking for self-respect, she got me a vibrator.

I thereby conclude that an orgasm is the best kind of self-respect.

Stupid

Oh how stupid I’ve been. Life itself is a distraction. It distracts me from living. So much of what I do is a response. To be better, to be good, to make it count. What kind of a soulless way to live is that? So far I’ve felt most alive when I don’t respond to anything, especially time. I’ve felt alive when I am learning, when I’m watering plants and listening to short stories, when I am discovering someone’s reading life, when I feel the itch to write & succumb to it wholeheartedly, full-bodily, beautifully – when I am hardly aware of time.

This beautiful blog reminded me that I am not really living. Why do I even bother doing anything that is not living? For now, this means giving myself permission to be swallowed by books and being unwilling to part with time to do anything else. Gahhh

Franny & Toni

Spent all of last week scrounging through everything Fran Lebowitz wrote and spoke. Read Beloved and came to discover Toni Morrison as a lot closer to me than I’d anticipated. My body is filled with her words and I’m letting them sleep inside as long as I can hold them there. But the better discovery was the close friendship between Fran and Toni. I am feeling an envy that is both happy and relieved. I’m excited to learn the things they said about each other.

Watching Fran is one kind of thrill. Reading Toni and realizing that my best writing years are yet to happen is another kind. Fran arrived in New York, much like Didion did. To write. To learn to write. Fran was barely 17. I want to go too. Discovering these women has made my resolve to see New York stronger. And so much that I don’t give a fuck about wanting to be special. I want to be as hopeful and as plain and as ordinary as those women were before they became famous. I want to see the city and feel the echo of their words in my eyes.

Stitcher is a gift. Here are some fab interviews that I loved by Etgar Keret, Claudia Rankine and Fran Lebowitz.

Keret narrates a funny incident involving his mother who, proud that her son had become a famous writer, made sure to ‘split’ her vegetable shopping just so she could return to the green grocer and say ‘you know my son’s story was published in the New Yorker’ while buying carrots – and then again — ‘you know he teaches in this great American University’ while buying cucumbers.

He says some really interesting things about fiction, something that I am getting more and more terrified of writing.

Claudia Rankine takes me back to my time at Seattle, and that evening we watched ‘Citizen’ performed powerfully on stage. So powerful that for the rest of the evening, I saw nothing but guilt and fear in the eyes of that one severely racist colleague.

I’m itching to write about it even as I gaze lovingly at the other three writing deadlines. Even so, I read this Paris Review Interview of Fran last night and went to bed happy and songful. She’s making me return to reading furiously. She says in an interview “If you want to learn how to write, and your parents are willing to pay obnoxious money to put you through a writing school, take that money, buy lots of books and read. It’s the only way to learn how to write”

In this interview, she says “But really, I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life”

Gahhhhh.

R for Reading

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My memory of watching Appa read is soaked in the sound of his laughter. I cannot separate the two. He’d have a ಬೀchi (Beechi) book open on his stomach, his back straight, his fingers firm on the spine. When he began laughing, the room had to hold its breath. His belly moving, his body shaking, puffs of air escaping his mouth, he’d explain why he was laughing. There was always a man named Thimma & something ridiculous always happened to him in very Vadivelu-like situations. 

Amma & I’d wait for him to finish & demand more explanation until he gave in & revealed that he was actually laughing because it reminded him of something from his hostel days. About the time when a boy terrified of ghosts refused to pass by the graveyard after they were returning from a late night horror film, and how one of them pointed at a tree and started howling only to watch the boy scream, run & fall, scream, get up, run & fall all the way back to the hostel.

I learnt a lot about pace from watching him read. It never happened that immediately after laughing at a funny bit, he returned with more laughter. There was always time for reflection after a laughing fit, almost as if the book had to use strength to calm him down, rest his bouncing belly, make him pause. Then he’d say mchh & close his eyes for a bit.

Schools can be creatures of Brahmanical impositions. Sanskrit was shoved down throats under the garb of ‘scoring subject’, Kannada was made alien because fears of halegannada (old Kannada) were thrown around, English was desirable, English songs even more so, boy bands were cool even if they had difficult names (Enrique was/is Henry K). 

I pushed myself to mug big words in the dictionary, never quite knowing when to use them. At home, I grew ashamed of all the Kannada books & hid them behind English books with thick, impressive spines, not knowing whom they had to be hidden from. It is not ironic that I teach English for a living today but have returned to Kannada with a fervor – a kind of Sairat. Reading Siddalingaiah helped this return. Watching Big boss Kannada confirmed this. Now when I write in Kannada sometimes, I am pleased that my hand remembers it very well.

I was born into castes that whipped Kannada & Konkani together to produce a gadbad of joys that English will never understand. And yet, a man living all the way in Latin America, in fucking Aracataca who wrote in Spanish, somehow made it to a tattoo on my arm.

Last week, Appa learnt that our thread-wearing neighbour had procured enough newspapers to sell. He went & asked for Deccan Herald with great interest, bought it & also a copy of Kannada Prabha. At home, he threw the DH in a corner & read KP. He did the same thing the next day, & the next. I smiled & felt rescued. Somehow by showing & hiding, we have found our own ways to survive, read, and be taken seriously. 

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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What 2018 taught me

This news story from yesterday cheered me up.

Screenshot via TOI
Screenshot via TOI

“I was feeling cold and I thought Ambedkar would be feeling the same, and therefore I have covered him with a blanket and lit a bonfire near the statue”

This is the sort of story that Gabito would have loved – the sort that Manto showed us so often in his. But why that soulless headline? This is probably why Garcia Marquez said that journalists should read more fiction – someone who’d read Manto would never have written that headline.

*~*~*

In other news, my time is being vacuum- cleaned by god knows what. Suddenly, there is too much to do and suddenly I am only watching Sex and the City. It’s January already which means it’s not long before the Pink Tabebuias outside my house start blooming and falling – not long before Meta comes and goes, not long before I whine about Orion Mall and BIFFES – not long before BQFF – and definitely not long before I am 31.

I wore a damn saree to celebrate turning 30 but mostly as tribute to Savitri Mai’s extra saree. Last year, I learnt that cow dung is best fought with an extra saree. 

My blog carries an extra saree more than I do because it gets attacked with more cow dung than I. It changes sarees like my mouma does – lazily, quickly, and effortlessly.

People who really want to engage don’t carry around cow dung. It’s a good thing that so much of Savarna opinion is unoriginal which means it’s the same old ghissapita flavor of cow dung which hasn’t changed since 2014.

But really – can’t you at least throw something of a challenge along with the cow dung?Even so, my blog likes wearing shimmering pink sarees with small mirrors on the border, and bright yellow bandhani sarees with backless blouses. In a small bag, it carries a plain cotton one – the color of cow dung.

*~*~*

Some nice things happened in November – I realised that what I have really wanted since 16 was to be independent. It has taken me 14 years but it is finally beginning to feel like it’s happening – I am 16 again. It’s like coming home and finding myself waiting all these years.

And then, more answers began falling – a mad writing energy took over, First Post asked me to write columns for them (!) and I found new love for podcasts and poetry.

Everything is moving too fast, like news on Twitter – and like always I must come back to my blog to breathe.

I can’t help but recollect that when I began writing for The Ladies Finger – I wrote about what I really only care about – films, TV shows, and books. I wish I could go back to doing that. It’s where I learnt everything I know today. They took me seriously as a writer and made me believe that I am more than my caste. This is something that other news websites and magazines should probably learn – you only notice us when some burning caste issue takes over and suddenly Dalit women are in demand to write. It’s not a nice thing to do.

That’s why I am thrilled about writing columns. I am waiting to write about Sara Ali Khan, Mrs. Maisel, food and gossip.

*~*~*

Much of last semester was spent at home with my damn foot in a plaster. Probably a valuable lesson – I now watch where I am walking. Something else that I began seeing only lately is the idea that sharing is anti-Brahmanical – whether it’s knowledge of what you are reading/writing or what Tejas Harad thoughtfully did here by sharing  what he wrote last year and how much he was paid – sharing essentially breaks down a system that benefits from keeping knowledge and money a secret.

Here are a bunch of things I read/listened to/ wrote:

Reading:

  1. The Mill on the Floss (going back to it now) – George Eliot
  2. How Proust Can Change Your Life –  Alain De Botton
  3. The year of Magical Thinking -Joan Didion
  4. Normal People – Sally Rooney
  5. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  6. Essays by Rebecca Solnit
  7. Essays and poems by Patricia Lockwood
  8. Poems by Dorianne Laux
  9. The Neighbourhood – Mario Vargas Llosa
  10. Two Novellas – Paul Zacharia

Writing –

  1. A book review for The Open Dosa – A review of Mother steals a bicycle and other stories
  2. A report for The Open Dosa – What happened when Bengaluru’s working class women had a #MeToo meeting?
  3. An op-ed for First Post – Jack, what the hack: The absurd outrage of Brahmins against Twitter CEO
  4. An interview feature of Sujatha Gidla – In her words, and mine: Getting to know Ants Among Elephants’ award-winning author Sujatha Gidla
  5. A column on Maltirao Baudh- ‘Marenge toh manch pe marenge’: Experiencing love and finding answers in Maltirao Baudh’s songs
  6. Co-written with Sharmishta for News 18 – If ‘Untouchability’ at Sabarimala Makes You Angry, Then Welcome to the World of Dalit Women

I used to think that translation was effort, time, and energy. But it’s a whole other joy to get to know translation as an act of intimacy and love more than anything else. The Maltirao piece was translated to Hindi by Rahul Paswan and to Tamil by LJ Violet.

Paswan’s translation is much better than the faltu English original. Reading it in Hindi gives it another kind of energy altogether. If I could read Tamil, I am sure I would say the same about LJ Violet’s piece. Needless to say, the Maltirao piece is not mine anymore – it is theirs.

Here are a bunch of other things I am excited about –

  • Listening to Stitcher every morning
  • Getting back to riding
  • French press coffee
  • Sex and the City
  • Sara Ali Khan
  • Teaching Wordsworth for Research Seminar
  • At the Atta Galata event, Mandi said ‘Own your words’ – and I am now learning to stand tall and read out my work proudly.
  • Making time to write fiction
  • Goa
  • Reading Clifford Geertz
  • Writing academic paper proposals
  • ‘It was Gold’
  • Teasing the idea of a PhD on Joan Didion
  • Watching the stunning Living Smile Vidya speak so boldly here
  • Watching this Trevor Noah interview again and again – reminds me of mouma.
  • Owning days – especially weekends
  • Wearing sarees. I have always wanted to wear it the way Namsiess does.
  • Understanding quizzes as narrative
  • Wondering if there is more to math than numbers – understanding math as narrative too
  • One Sunday I talked about Pariyerum Perumal for The Lewd Cabal podcast run by a bunch of enthu tamil boys. I was nervous. I don’t think I made sense but I enjoyed being on the show
  • Every time I return from Dilli, and my AIDMAM sisters, I feel like I have become a better version of myself. This time, Asha Zech taught me to be less angry – nodkolona, aagatte (let us see, it will happen) she says about everything.

Through this all, I think I am close to understanding what Joan Didion meant when she said ‘Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point’

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