Reading Dorianne Laux’s poems is like taking in a deep breath and realizing that your lungs have never been used this way before – that all these days, you have wasted their capacity to hold, and you begin to worry – now that you have discovered it – this late in life – is there any point?
But of course, asking if there is any point to it is to miss the point entirely. I don’t have a train to catch. Even if I do, even if I am grossly late and have missed the train – I can always get to the next station and catch the train at my own pace. ‘No need to hurry, no need to shine’, Virginia Woolf said.
I read this poem by Dorianne Laux today. It is a regular day and like any other regular day, I am daydreaming about fighting with my parents. About marriage, about babies – about all the things that they want of me, that I do not want to give.
In these dreams, I am tall and wearing jeans that stretch easily whether I am running or walking. My mother’s loud voice cuts the air and lands on my hands. I run out the door and make life elsewhere. This poem fit in beautifully on this day and after I’d read it, the afternoon stretched itself out like a yawn and sat with me.
When I was young and had to rise at 5 a.m.
I did not look at the lamplight slicing
through the blinds and say: Once again
I have survived the night. I did not raise
my two hands to my face and whisper:
This is the miracle of my flesh. I walked
toward the cold water waiting to be released
and turned the tap so I could listen to it
thrash through the rusted pipes.
I cupped my palms and thought of nothing.
I dressed in my blue uniform and went to work.
I served the public, looked down on its
balding skulls, the knitted shawls draped
over its cancerous shoulders, and took its orders,
wrote up or easy or scrambled or poached
in the yellow pad’s margins and stabbed it through
the tip of the fry cook’s deadly planchette.
Those days I barely had a pulse. The manager
had vodka for breakfast, the busboys hid behind
the bleach boxes from the immigration cops,
and the head waitress took ten percent
of our tips and stuffed them in her pocket
with her cigarettes and lipstick. My feet
hurt. I balanced the meatloaf-laden trays.
Even the tips of my fingers ached.
I thought of nothing except sleep, a TV set’s
flickering cathode gleam washing over me,
baptizing my greasy body in its watery light.
And money, slipping the tassel of my coin purse
aside, opening the silver clasp, staring deep
into that dark sacrificial abyss.
What can I say about that time, those years
I leaned against the rickety balcony on my break,
smoking my last saved butt?
It was sheer bad luck when I picked up
the glass coffee pot and spun around
to pour another cup. All I could think
as it shattered was how it was the same shape
and size as the customer’s head. And this is why
I don’t believe in accidents, the grainy dregs
running like sludge down his thin tie
and pinstripe shirt like they were channels
riven for just this purpose.
It wasn’t my fault. I
know that. But what, really,
was the hurry? I dabbed at his belly with a napkin.
He didn’t have a cut on him (physics) and only
his earlobe was burned. But my last day there
was the first day I looked up as I walked, the trees
shimmering green lanterns under the Prussian blue
particulate sky, sun streaming between my fingers
as I waved at the bus, running, breathing hard, thinking:
This is the grand phenomenon of my body. This thirst
is mine. This is my one and only life.
On a Monday, the sentiment of “This thirst is mine. This is my one and only life” is enough to hold my own against my mother’s loud voice and her big hungry eyes.
Listening to Dorianne Laux read out her poems is like swallowing a long pause.
What is a pause anyway? A dot. a comma, a semi colon; — in the breathless routine of the everyday. But here with her, as she tastes each pause, as she smacks her lips after every line, you taste the pause too and before you know it, the afternoon is not yawning anymore – it is quietly awake and softly blinking.
I won’t lie. Even when I was imagining my grand reading plan for the 2 month long break, I didn’t believe it, which is why I must have imagined it in lovely colors like the orange of a Bangalore evening and the red of Mangalore mud. Even so, a girl can hope. Especially a girl who is soon going to walk with a cane, Dr. House style.
I was swallowed by the vortex of watching shit after shit on Netflix. I succumbed beautifully. When guilt finally arrived, it was too late. I had to attend to serious work shining with deadlines and all.
Often good things happen when I do serious work. The most important of them all is that I crave absent-mindedness for a bit so I take a break, go to Facebook, and see what shit I was doing in 2008, 2012, 2014. And I find things that make me giggle, make me put my fist in the mouth and bite, make me howl with laughter, and rarely something that will make me wonder – hey why haven’t I seen this before, what’s wrong with me?
Today was one such day. I wish every day is like this. I curse the days when I am not easily moved by wanting to be moved.
I watched this interview today and got some orange and red back in my life. It’s Gabito’s. He’s saying nice things about writing. Basically things that make me wonder what is stopping me from writing. Why can’t I shut up and write? I also realized why I’m wildly attracted to him. When he was talking, I couldn’t stop watching his face. I imagined him in bed. And concluded that he’ll be damn good. Cuddling included.
Ok shy is coming. This is what he said:
“Writing fiction is like hypnosis. You must hypnotize the reader so he only thinks about the story he’s being told. You need a lot of nails, screws, and hinges for him not to wake up. This is what I call carpentry – the narrative technique in a book, or in a film. Inspiration is one thing, but narration is different. Telling a story and turning it into a literary reality which enthralls the reader is impossible without this carpenter’s work.
To enthrall a reader is to control his breathing rhythm. It mustn’t be interrupted, if we don’t want him to wake up. When I’ve reached this rhythm in my writing and I realise one of my sentences has gotten stuck in a clumsy rhythm, I add one or two adjectives — even if they shouldn’t be there. Their function is to prevent the reader from waking up. That’s carpentry.”
That nails and screws bit made me shudder. There’s enough carpentry in my body as it is.
But yes – many sighs and yellow butterflies. You can watch the interview here:
I can recollect the last six years of my life only in semesters. No other measurement makes sense. The last time I did this, I was less obsessed with archiving. Even so, this still remains the only reliable way of dealing with the guilt of not writing about the books I read this semester.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – Simon Winchester
I was teaching a paper on linguistics this year and began my semester with this book. Kindle often gives one the impression that the reading is going a lot quicker than it usually does. Even so, the reading was slow – all the note-making definitely helped – as did the time I took to marvel at each history lesson learned. I loved the book because it told me fascinating stories about people who channeled all their energy into pursuits that are barely acknowledged today.
The book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The history of how a bunch of men spent 2 decades and more to produce the world’s first dictionary. Samuel Johnson had actually done it long before them, as did many other people who put together one form of a dictionary or the other. The earliest known was a dictionary of the most difficult words.
I discovered Samuel Johnson’s passion and wrote this little post to show him some love.
2. Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
I’d read Fun Home last year and still recall the line “If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust” with many giggles.
Bechdel is funny, mysterious, and obsessed with writing. Anyone who wants a little kick on their bums to get that push to start writing should read this. There are lovely panels featuring Bechdel at work – hands in her head, thinking, revising, editing, collecting material, typing even as she talks to her mother on the phone. Plus many many flashbacks. If there’s one thing I love about flashbacks, it’s watching them. If there’s one thing I love more – it’s reading them in graphic novels.
There is more Woolf in ‘Are You My Mother?’ than there is in ‘To the Lighthouse’. During my post-grad days, I tried reading To the Lighthouse and gave up because it went over my head. Not that I’ve suddenly become smart. But Bechdel took me to Woolf in a way that even the threat of failing M.A couldn’t. So easily, so kindly, so lovingly.
3. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
I’m convinced that Virginia Woolf wrote a better testimony to Feminism in ‘To the Lighthouse’ than in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. In TTL, Woolf warns us about all the Mr. Ramsays in the world. You and I know Mr. Ramsay very well. He is the man, who, when he walks into a room, any room – must have immediate attention. Otherwise he will throw tantrums. He has to know what you are doing, what you are thinking, otherwise he will die.
Reading this helped me deal with the Mr. Ramsays in my life.
4. The Murder Room – PD James
Took me several months to finish reading this one but perhaps that was a good thing. I will cherish Tally Clutton and her resolve to live alone. Wrote about this in March.
5. Poonachi – Perumal Murugan
I still worry that I didn’t say yes with my dignity intact when I was asked to be on a panel with Perumal Murugan and Kalyan Raman. My heart shrieked and made a fool of me.
I spent most of March being anxious. I worried because I didn’t know Tamil. I worried because English speaking worlds are all alike – they are always brutal to non-English speaking worlds. I worried because, in this equation, I was part of the English speaking world.
The panel was on Murugan’s Poonachi – a book that made me have feelings for goats.
A big part of the reading experience was compromised because of the panel. There was a sense of structure but for days I worried that I would just embarrass myself or worse, Murugan would hate me. I haven’t been able to write about the panel yet. When I can, I hope it can convey the pain and the love in my heart for Murugan.
6. The Goat Thief – Perumal Murugan
Devoured the stories slowly. Most stories have women doing fab things. My favorite had an angry housewife kicking the husband away from sitting in her favorite chair. She then carries the chair over to the kitchen with an enviable Jejamma style.
Another story had a woman who worries about a persistent smell in the house until eventually one day, she is swallowed by a commode.
But the most memorable story in the book is ‘shit’
Apparently, Murugan wanted to release a bunch of stories with the title Shit Stories but the publishers chickened out. Bastards.
‘Shit’ begins with a bunch of upper caste ‘progressive’ boys who go mad because of a stench in their house. Turns out the drainage pipe behind their house is broken so they call someone for help. The man who shows up, Dalit of course, goes down the septic tank and begins to unclog the shit. Murugan describes every step that the man does under the septic tank, while the reader is slowly taking in the boys’ disgust upon seeing this. After a while, like Manjule’s audience, you too begin to pat your cheek softly because Murugan has slapped it that loudly.
7. Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love – Lara Vapnyar
You only need to know that there are two old women named Luda and Milena in this book who made me laugh so much, that I cannot wait to be old and funny. I want to grow old with Namsies the way these two do.
Luda and Milena both compete for a man’s affections (boring, overdone, what else is new – ha, yes, but wait for it) They lure him with food even though they detest cooking. Every evening they break their heads over what to cook – all the while thinking sincerely about each other (not the man)
In the end, the man dies.
I’ll leave you with that.
8. Conversations With Friends – Sally Rooney
Here’s a book that made me wildly uncomfortable. It showed me the distance between me and how I’d like to write.
It showed me what to do with people who are meant to be characters in books that we always tell ourselves, we will write someday – one day.
In the book, I found the language for daily anxieties that friendships tend to bring, the pleasures that there are, in going over WhatsApp chats from years ago for no particular reason. How we devote entire afternoons lying on the bed, assessing relationships, friendships – looking for proof that really- they don’t love us. In fact, they never liked us, to begin with.
How phones play seesaw with our feelings. At one end, you have the deafening silence of laughing double blue ticks that have the quality of a burn. At the other end, you have that fleeting message tone which is sometimes a whistle, a bird song, a dot, a bite, an orgasm. Each having the capacity to make your heart euphoric and erase all self-doubt.
Obviously, we love the things that can show us our shame.
9. The Vegetarian – Han Kang
I loved Yeong-hye. I loved her miserable husband. I loved her resolve to become vegetarian. I loved her decision to sit in front of the refrigerator one morning and empty it slowly of all its meat. I loved that she made her husband eat tofu for days. I loved her calm. And like her husband, I felt destroyed by it too.
10. Joan Didion
Reading Why I writewas reassuring. Even though I am not there yet and perhaps never will be, it’s always gratifying to read a writer’s journey towards writing with a mad passion.
I discovered her madness in this article – How Joan Didion became Joan Didion. It’s a BuzzFeed thing which means it is pretty much buzzblah. But can’t complain: It took me to Didion. I don’t know many people who openly declare that they hate Pauline Kael. Even though I love Pauline Kael.
Here is her essay on New York. If you love places, the way they make you feel, how they tend to have more memories than your bodies, then you might like this essay. It’s never really a matter of liking or not liking a city. Didion shows us why.
11. The Idiot – Elif Batuman
Seline, Batuman’s writer-narrator is a freshman student moving into her dorm room at Harvard when we begin. Her roommate buys a refrigerator and tells her she can use it too but she must buy something for the room, like a poster. She suggests a ‘psychedelic’ poster. Seline can’t find one but finds the next option: A black and white picture of Albert Einstein. She is told to hang it above her desk and soon, several people express grave concern about this. Because you know? Opinions. Yawn.
He invented the atomic bomb, abused dogs, neglected his children. You worship him? Shame.
Don’t you know he abused his wife? How can you have his poster up on your wall? There are many greater geniuses who aren’t famous at all. Why is that?
After several days of torture, she sighs, and like all good girls, thinks of Nietzsche:
Maybe it’s because he’s really the best, and even jealous mudslingers can’t hide his star quality. Nietzsche would say that such a great genius is entitled to beat his wife.
That shut everyone up, I assume. But I was rolling on my bed howling with laughter.
Weeks later, when I was done, I could only satisfy the Batuman-shaped hole in my life by watching her YouTube interviews.
Obvi. What else could I read after having my heart raided by Batuman? I raided her back. Hacked into her New Yorker and LRB pieces.
In The Possessed, you see Batuman’s love for learning new languages. She learned Russian and Uzbek, applied for scholarships through her student life and got to live in Russia and Uzbekistan for two months.
In the essays, she tells us fascinating things she discovers. Take this for instance – In the Uzbek language, there are 100 words for ‘crying’ (!!!) There is a word for crying with a hoo-hoo sound, a word for crying after being dumped, for crying out of hunger, etc. I want to learn Uzbek now, especially since I cry 100 times for 100 things.
If you want a live example of how crazy she is – here is a videoof Batuman reading an excerpt from her essay The Murder of Leo Tolstoy. You can download it here.
13. Approaching Eye Level – Vivian Gornick
If I held onto what Feminism had made me see, I’d soon have myself.
– What Feminism means to me, Gornick.
I pored over essays on living alone, feminism, friendships, walking in the city and stopped for a long time after I read ‘Tribute’ – an obituary of a woman she calls Rhoda Munk. I have never heard of Rhoda Munk but the obituary, like all good obituaries, brings her alive. If you google Rhoda Munk, you will discover that even the internet has amnesia. There is not much that is known about her. Some say that Rhoda Munk is a pseudonym for someone else.
Even so, to write about someone that endearingly after they’ve died is to wish you’d known them well when they were alive. Gornick reminisces about the time she was invited to spend a weekend at Rhonda’s summer cottage. Over three days, the women talked, wrote, took long walks by the sea, had long conversations, cooked, read and took care of Rhonda’s many cats. This is what’s rarely possible even in most great marriages. She had that with Rhonda. A friendship with an older, accomplished woman, a writer, a possible mentor.
After that weekend though, Gornick tastes the bitter truth. She wasn’t special. The ‘honeymoon period’ of their friendship was over, she says.
Many many people begin to join them to live in the cottage. Turns out Rhonda had invited everyone she knew.
Gornick slips into the background and understands that nobody is ever really going to be enough for Rhonda and that’s what makes her Rhonda.
I don’t know Rhonda but I feel like I want to impress her.
14. The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan
Anne Fadiman introduces Marina Keegan as perhaps the only student to have boldly resisted Fadiman’s writing advice. Keegan was in Fadiman’s First-person writing class at Yale.
She resisted my suggestions because she didn’t want to sound like me; she wanted to sound like herself.
I was intrigued. Keegan was barely 20, and had the energy of a dead woman who’s come back alive to write. She had the guts to tell a published writer ki nehi boss, yeh mera style nehi hai. She wrote and rewrote until she was satisfied, which she never was. She was always convinced that she could write better.
In ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Keegan confesses that she doesn’t want to graduate. She wants to keep learning. She worries that it might stop if she goes out into the real world where one has to work to earn.
I wanted to shake her. The woman had already interned at the New Yorker’s fiction department and had received an offer to join them full time after graduation. She was barely 20. I feel like I must keep saying it. Feels like cuts on my wrist. Because what was I doing at 20?
The book is a collection of Keegan’s short-stories and essays. The characters in her stories will walk with you for a long time after you have finished reading. I remember the girl whose boyfriend died. She visits his parents to offer condolences and finds herself in the company of his beautiful ex-girlfriend whom they all love very much. Now she is grieving and jealous. Later, she finds his journal where he has written unflattering things about her.
I remember an old woman who reads to a blind young man twice a week. As soon as she enters his apartment, she takes off all her clothes and begins reading to him – stark naked. At one point her husband dies and she doesn’t go back to the blind man.
For someone who wrote astonishingly intimate stories about death and loss, it’s crazy that after 5 days of graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan died in an accident. She was barely 20.
Sometime in the month of October, I wondered if my blog was developing a certain direction. It’s because I read and wrote more about caste than I have about anything else this year. A lot of my posts and essays this year were attempts at making sense of my life, work, and relationships and I could only have written them after I had seen caste. It’s not something you can unsee after seeing.
It took me a while to see caste in my life. What do I mean by that?
My parents have protected me for as long as they could. They still do. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I even know my caste. That’s how hard they’ve worked to ensure my safety in a world they grew up in. I wonder then – would I be craving to know more about my caste were I an engineer or a doctor today? I don’t know. But I’m glad I’m in a profession that demands writing and reading from me vigorously, tirelessly.
I’m glad that my job includes dialogues with students. Because it’s here in the classroom that I get to meet some fascinating, talented, also arrogant students. And it’s also here – in this space that my parents cannot protect me.
‘Why isn’t Vj political about her identity?’ was something someone once asked.
I was amused because it is a stupid question. What did they want me to do? Wear a board that said ‘I am Dalit’ and walk around?
I was writing then just as much as I am writing now. What can be more political than writing?
Maybe they wanted me to be politically active on Facebook. So if I had shared a couple of newspaper/magazine articles on the atrocities against Dalits, that would have made me political about my identity no? I have come to hate this word – political. At one point, I wanted to get a dog and name it poly – short for political. Because I don’t know – just.
It’s ridiculous to demand someone to be political. It’s just as bad as making Aadhar mandatory or making the entire theatre stand up for the national anthem. Because all these demands come from the same place. The demand to see your response. To check. To see if you meet expected standards.
As Christina Dhanraj once pointed out – ‘Is our personal your political?’
But what is the point of showing up to a protest in town hall if you are there only to mark attendance of those absent?
I have arrived at this point in my life at my own pace. That’s how it is with most people. There’s no need to be Meena Kumari if people decide to go watch Bahubali first day first show instead of attending your radical talk on ‘freedom of expression.’
Maybe there’s genuine freedom of expression happening when a bunch of 45 -year -old middle-class housewives look forward to something more important than the return of sons and husbands from office. So they wake up one morning knowing that by the end of the day, they’ll know why Katappa killed Bahubali – that is perhaps more political than finding out what great revolution is happening in the lives of a privileged few who have the mind-space to go to a protest.
It took me a while to reach and read Ambedkar and understand why he is so important to my history. But now that I have, he is permanent in my life.
Even so — within the boundaries of a classroom, I wonder how it is for the many other Dalit teachers out there. While classrooms can be a space for growth, knowledge blah blah… they are also spaces of violence. I have heard of stories where teachers have been prejudiced against Avarna students. But what happens when a Savarna student with a certain kind of education and a certain kind of English decides that a Dalit teacher has nothing to teach them? How is it visible?
From my experience, it is visible in the way they patronize you, in the way they treat the assignments you give them in class, in the way they decide that they can learn more and better without you, and the amount of time they spend in coaxing other students to lose respect for you.
Is there a way out of this? There is and I learnt more about it this year.
After Ambedkar, AM is an inspiring example. There was a point when I used to call him Grammar Nazi. But then he called me Grammar Jew and I resigned. I know now why he taught himself to be perfect in the things he does, and in the things he says and writes. It’s so that no Savarna idiot could point a finger at him.
When he writes, it’s impossible to not be overwhelmed by his power over language. As far as I can see – this is what pisses them (whoever) the most. That they cannot point out flaws with his argument because they can’t point out flaws in his language.
Writer Sujatha Gidla once told me – ‘English is a weapon in the hands of Indians. You can fend off casteism to a small extent by wielding it’
It’s what Ambedkar did. It’s what AM does. And it’s also what I am slowly learning to do.
An incredible event this year was the Dalit Women Speak Out conference. It was a turning-point of sorts because it’s the most powerful thing to have ever happened to me. It forced me out of loneliness in a world that is run by making people invisible. AM had once said – ‘If spaces matter to you, you must claim them to create them’
And that’s what we must do. In the classroom and outside. Claim spaces. Make noise. Sing songs. Dance loudly. And it’s what numerous Dalit women did that day on stage.
When I walked out of the auditorium, I was shaking. I saw Gee outside and something just went off. We both broke down and clung to each other. We didn’t have to say anything or explain anything.
Someone creepily took off one picture and I am not complaining because this is my favourite picture of the year 🙂
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.
In one of my journals that I wrote as a student at Jain College – I remember recording an entry about how guilty I felt one morning for having asked amma some money to pay the college fee. She directed me towards the drawer and I took 18,000 from it. I must repay her, I’d written.
I have been reading The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Through last week and this – it’s all I’ve been reading. There is a chapter on Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson and how he spent nine years writing it. The man, like so many other authors from that time, had to discontinue his studies because his parents couldn’t afford it. Just like James Augustus Murray – the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Just like Shakespeare, and just like Dickens. And just like so many other men and women who wanted to study but couldn’t.
What happens to young people with an immense appetite for learning when they are pulled away from schools? I asked in a class, earlier this week.
“They become desperate to learn”, said someone. I couldn’t have looked for a better word myself. This BBC documentary explains Johnson’s desperation to work through the hard years to produce the damn dictionary. He had Tourette syndrome and was often the butt of many jokes – some really offensive even. At one point, when the dictionary work was almost dying – he overheard his assistants ridiculing him. He didn’t say anything. He just turned around and walked away.
The next morning, he showed up for work as if nothing had happened. What else did I expect him to do? He just wanted to work.
You would not deny me a place among the most faithful votaries of idleness, if you knew how often I have recollected my engagement, and contented myself to delay the performance for some reason which I durst not examine because I knew it to be false; how often I have sitten down to write, and rejoiced at interruption; and how often I have praised the dignity of resolution, determined at night to write in the morning, and deferred it in the morning to the quiet hours of the night. ~Samuel Johnson: Idler #83 (November 17, 1759), from “Robin Spritely,” a fictional correspondent.
When the dictionary was finally ready for print, he would still not send it to the publishers because he was waiting to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University (an M.A.), which later appeared on the title page of his Dictionary.
He waited. The way only a hungry man can wait. The desperation of a man who was hellbent on making sure that his poverty didn’t cost him what was taken away from him as a young boy – the appetite to learn, to achieve.
W.C Minor – a major collaborator of the OED, did something similar when he was holed up in an asylum. Clearly he had more comforts here- a cell turned library, a writing desk, attenders on call, food and booze. His demons were however, larger. The man had been torn apart by war which had led him to murder someone. On grounds of lunacy, he managed to escape imprisonment but in his mind, he was perpetually imprisoned – by monomania, by fear, by the want to be productive which his restlessness wouldn’t grant.
James Augustus Murray too had the same fate, perhaps worse. He left school too because there was no money. But his curiosities got the better of him and the man taught himself to apply, to develop a nose for details. What happened at this spot in this city 200 years ago? He did well without school. He became assistant headmaster at 17 and headmaster at 20.
And then tragedy struck – he fell in love.
I wish I could go back in time – partly to live history as it happened and to see the events unfold before my eyes- the wars, the black & white London, the great fire, and most importantly – writers at work. Partly also because I am curious – would I have taught myself to read and write if I couldn’t afford 18,000 for an education?
Years ago, I found a diary while cleaning the department. It belonged to AM. It had a list of books he had purchased and read as a student in his early 20s. After each book he had also recorded the amount spent on it. I felt gravely insulted by his diary. He had read about 200 books in a year. Money was tight so much of his reading happened by borrowing books.
Some say that it was easier to commit oneself to reading back then because there were no distractions. Even so. It must have taken some sort of odd courage to chop yourself off from everyone else in order to learn, to apply yourself to something – anything.
And as if silence isn’t distracting enough. Every time I crave silence, I am rewarded by it but within minutes, it has the capacity to become a punishment. Nothing in the world is as menacing as silence when you first want it, and then don’t want it.
Even so – this has been the most inspiring week. Even if I am fucking 29 Olay years old, even if I have started only now. My only comfort is that I can never be too old to feel inspired. Again and again.
Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.
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?
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 ***