On the last day of school, before we closed for vacation, I ran after a girl I really liked, patted her on the shoulder & hugged her because I thought we hadn’t said bye properly. I don’t remember if I cried because I was going to miss her or because I wanted her to know I was already missing her. When I walked back home, my body fought to forget how weakly she’d hugged back. And when I imagined the hugs she gave her other friends, I wanted to take mine back.
In college one day, I got terribly sick. The fever had fangs & I was shivering. She gave me her brown sweater which I took home. I didn’t take it off when I lay down. I slept with it & dreamed of her smell. The smell left the day she told me that I was too conscious of marks. I wanted to say ‘so are you’ – but my stomach swallowed the words.
She & I went shopping for bras in Shivajinagar. When we tried them on later that evening, I told myself that this was the only kind of intimacy I ever wanted to know. She taught me how to make masala bhurji. She made milky sweet tea. When we ate KFC chicken, she pinched me for not sucking meat off the bones properly. She once stayed up all night because the boy she was in love with didn’t call. I wanted to go to his house & beat him to a pulp.
She dropped me home after college everyday. She smelled of Lakme peach body lotion & I always caught a whiff of it as I sat behind her on activa. She came home one day to wash her hair because they weren’t letting her wash her hair at home. She was seeing her boy the next day so it was urgent. We stood in my bathroom & as she held her hair down, I sprayed water on it. The droplets fell on her neck & then danced by our naked feet.
She held me when I wept because I didn’t know how to break up with an old love. She taught me how to use tampons & smiled when I told her I was terrified of them. We once spent an entire day drinking & talking about love, sex, & writing. Later that night, in the lift, we came very close to falling into each other but something held us back.
She wore backless blouses that made my fingers ache. She laughed like 78 parrots fluttering away from tree tops. Her lipstick rarely licked her teeth so I had no excuse to hold her face, pull her towards me, say ‘lipstick’ & wipe it off. One cold evening in Delhi, we wore dresses that tickled our kneecaps & danced to Beedi Jalaile.
I felt seized by a pleasure that forgot weak hugs, double games, gritted teeth, heteroness & other savarna games. Finally here was a she who wasn’t afraid to fall, more shameless than anyone & didn’t believe in holding back. Later that night, as our toes touched under someone’s blanket, I concluded that no revolution is brighter than Dalit women grabbing pleasure. It is now my own thithi that I was so arrested by the moment, I didn’t do more.
After the board exam results are out, you are in school with your mother to collect your transfer certificate. Your science teacher with the kindest smile runs into you and asks you what you want to do after this. You have this rehearsed by now – draw in a deep breath and say, ‘Arts’ as if that breath is not meant for you. It is meant to steady the person who is hearing you say ‘Arts.’
Don’t be surprised when she looks horrified. After all, you’ve spent every day of the previous week delivering this bomb to relative after relative. But be surprised that she doesn’t look entirely devastated when she finds out how much you got in science. 66 is not bad at all, she says. Standing next to you, your mother shifts uneasily. Then why? You are smarter than this of course. Come on, why Arts? Believe her when she says smarter than this. Then stifle the need to ask – smarter than what? You can’t imagine her saying 92 is not bad to someone who got 92 because then the only thing left to say is come on with a little more effort, you could have got 99.
But because you are weak, and don’t have the language to put up a glorious fight – take science. Sleep through the 5 am physics tuition where there are more students than there are in college classrooms. You are not hallucinating – everyone looks the same, and everyone sits in the same place. Regard the books and pencil boxes they keep on seats to ‘reserve’ it for their friends with fondness. Don’t diss it yet. Tomorrow these books and pencil boxes will come to your rescue when you have endless arguments about reservation with older versions of them.
Let shame prick you when you score in single digits but let it prick worse when they know how much you got but still ask you.
When you switch to Arts, feel relieved with people’s lack of affection for seats. You are puzzled when anyone sits anywhere except that girl who doesn’t drink from other people’s water bottles and doesn’t eat from other people’s boxes. Discover that it’s not true that Arts students are carefree. It is the college that is carefree with Arts students. Feel happy with where you are and ignore that longing for a course where reading and writing is the only requirement.
In M.A English, realise that the more you read, the more there is to read. Look back and wonder where you would be with a degree in science, assuming of course, that you would have somehow made it. You don’t have to wonder long. Seeing one is seeing them all. The one thing that Savarna networks unfailingly produce is an assembly line of xeroxed graduates. Same to same, with or without dslr and the occasional tiffin at Brahmins’ coffee bar.
Every time you see a tweet by Tejasvi Surya, you laugh but you know there’s a reason why this monkey was elected. You know who voted for him. That assembly line is not sleeping you know? It never does. Discover blogs written by some of them and snort every time you read ‘tambrahm blood,’ ‘tambrahm brains’, ‘tambrahm science’ — ask yourself why you wanted to be like them back in school.
They were good writers, readers, speakers, pretty. But why did it escape you that they were all spectacularly the same? There is no soul in manuals that teach good writing from bad writing for a reason. There is no soul in assembly lines for a reason. Wonder if they read your blog and roll their eyes. But you are oddly comforted and fairly unsettled by the knowledge that you are probably the only Dalit person they know so their rolling eyes is understandably of a different kind.
On some days, xerox brings relief. It is a relief rooted in knowing how easy it was to have slipped and fallen in. It is a relief rooted in gratitude. If the language for expressing gratitude is obnoxious, see which side of the assembly line you are in. On other days, wonder if your version of gratitude is the same as your father’s. He still believes science would have been the better option but you have learnt to recognise that his belief is untouched by assembly line pragmatics.
For days that are neither here nor there, there is Lorrie Moore. Read her. She makes you bearable.
No one told me that a big part of being an adult is paperwork. I spent all of last week being a good adult. And must now die in the nostalgia of sweet childhood where being adult was a lot more fun.
I am still hungry for the romance that I assume will only arrive after running away from home. The romance of living alone with a cat which will come and go like in Eunice D Souza‘s poems. Of dealing with plumbing issues on my own. Of having the occasional dinner party where friends bring expensive wine, and after they have gone, of staying up late to wash vessels and finally, of gazing out into the window like Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the enemy.
I have friends who live on their own and as I write this, I can hear their bouncing laughs. It is nothing like this. And I believe them when they say it. Even so, this has been my ultimate love story – to live alone except for those long weekends where lovers drop in and go, but cats always come back.
The second thing I am beginning to understand about adulthood is that it’s mostly about being blind to it. A lot of growing up has happened over this year and I haven’t had the time to slow down, to see it, to either congratulate myself or curse it. Early last week, on Ambedkar Jayanthi, I wrote something that I had been trying to write for 2 years now. That post had been sitting in various angry drafts in various folders. It is a story I may have told very often, but for the first time, it didn’t feel like it was pointless. This time I had something to say.
Until a certain point, my life was overcrowded with people whose victories were quite strangely and rather strongly determined by how pointless they could make me feel about my writing. I have kicked them all out of my life and that is the third thing about adulthood – the gift of being able to say fuck off.
First Post carried my piece. They have some really cool design so it reads differently and better than it does on my blog. You can read it here.
I am grateful to Snegaa, who is famous for making Brahmin bedbugs weep. Snegaa who has always been there – ever since I started this blog. Over the years I have sent her pieces that I’ve enjoyed writing as also those I’ve struggled with. She has always taken time to read them carefully and offer solid advice. As of today, she is my dominatrix agent who sends me one- line reminders about sending writing pitches to publishers.
Namsiess, the love of my life is actually My Brilliant Friend. She is my Elena Ferrante, and my Lila-Lenu.
Very quickly, before this begins to sound like some lame I’d like to thank speech, I want to return to that Saturday evening of December 2012 when I was a newbie in the department. How I shyly took a piece I’d written to show it to AM and how I’d turned around with great speed and ran for my life immediately after.
Over the years, I learnt not to run, I learnt to be less afraid of my writing and what he was going to say about it. Right from calmly telling me for the 100th time, why something wasn’t working in my writing – to his comments in those balloon like things on Microsoft word that went – ‘Were you fucking sleeping when you wrote this sentence? WAKE UP’ – to ‘Vj, just keep writing like you don’t care’ — It won’t be an exaggeration to say that over six years, he’s the teacher I am still learning from. Not just how to read and write, but also to work, to be a friend, to ignore, and most importantly — to be kind.
It’s my first time getting paid for something I’ve written. I have been waiting to let that sink in. It still hasn’t. And I hope it never does. Letting that sink in would be to forget the various small pleasures that I can otherwise mindlessly engage in. Like thinking about how all my school and college friends are married, about how I am every day grateful for not having done science/MBA/IIT/marriage/babies, about how I used to fail science and math but still managed to adult well, about how small I’d feel on days they’d return test papers with 9/60 and 3/50 — underlining boldly – the big failure I was to become in life.
I wish someone else was writing this but because nobody is going to narrate my life in third-person Anu Agarwal style, I must do it myself. That is the fourth thing about adulting. That sometimes you have to be the narrator, the writer, the heroine, and the villainess of your own fucking life.
P.S – Today rumlolarum is four-years-old. This baby has helped me grow more than I could have managed on my own. I’m all smiles and love. See? Proof: I don’t have to be married to be a mother.
Today I celebrate rumlolarum and my PCOD- prone uterus. Cheers!
The idea all along was to live castelessly. My father and mother did it well. The last time I saw them hassled was when we lived in an apartment in Basavanagudi and the man upstairs did jasoosi, found out we were Dalit and started making a fuss. First he had full respect for dad’s position in the government. Sir! Sir! He’d say every time he saw him. Then the ‘Sir’ went off. The first thing to go when people ‘find’ you out is respect. The second is conversation. He stopped talking to my dad and began talking to dad’s office car driver.
But Noorullah loved my dad. Dad still finds it very puzzling that Muslim men have the greatest love for him. Noorullah didn’t tolerate that man’s banter. Once he came to chat with Noorullah about dad’s income and if reservation was going to take care of his pension as well. I am told that Noorullah attacked the man with a newspaper and chased him up the stairs.
After a while, my parents thought it best to leave that house and go elsewhere. Amma was heartbroken. She had built it – brick by brick. Right from the colour of the walls to the spoon in the kitchen – amma had given the house more than two years of her life. It was our first ‘own’ house, our first ‘non-rented’ house and that too in Bangalore. Wherever we were before this, we had always lived in rented houses and amma had hated it. She was tired of the agarbattis and the dhoops that had to be lit every time she made fish or chicken. She was tired of being asked what caste we belonged to before we were even given a tour of the house.
Maybe they still experience caste in small shocks today but because they have seen so much worse, they just laugh it off and ignore it.
This should have been my first lesson.
Today dad keeps having WhatsApp fights with people who are anti-reservation. When Tina Dabi topped IAS, it bothered many people and they sent shit forwards to him. Dad would sit and compose long messages to shut them up. They all began the same way – Mr so and so. I think you are wrong because –
He does the same thing even when he posts his Islamophobia ridden and anti-Tamil forwards but that’s another story and another tragedy altogether. I think he has figured out that the country is so stupid and so beyond help that the only way to gain respect, especially if you are Dalit is by behaving like a Brahmin or at least by trying to become like one.
Very early in school, it became clear to me that there was something wrong with me. I stood before the mirror every day of my school life trying to figure out what it was. One day it was the gap between my teeth. Another day, it was the dullness under my eyes, the paleness of my skin, the thinness of my hair, the roundness of my nose. The day after that it was my weakness in math and science. And the next day it was a smell that followed me everywhere I went. I stopped eating egg.
But I couldn’t find out what it was and gave up. I did what I had seen my mother sometimes do. She’d make friends to learn the secrets of the trade, as it were – to be accepted, to be liked. So to forget my own discomfort with myself, I craved friendships that seemed to be in excess for other people everywhere. Girls and boys who lived next-door to each other, who would walk to school together, eat lunch together.
Years later when I will read Elena Ferrante, some bits of my caste ridden childhood will begin to make sense to me. I understood the violence in those books because that was caste in my world. This is probably why my students find it hard to relate to the book, to me – because I keep talking about experiences that were/are alien to them.
In Belgaum where I studied for a year, neighbour aunties would pull their daughters out of our house exactly at 5 to say ‘Abhyas maadbeku. Time aaytu’
I thought Abhyas was some karate class they went to. My mother and I realised much later that Abhyas meant practice, study. Everywhere we looked, parents were training their children to be competitive adults – to get them ready to take over the world.
It must have been daunting for my mother to prepare her children in a city where everyone was fast, everyone was modern, where Merit sat like a Brahmin God — that visible form that we could see but not touch. Like kaig sikkidru baig sigolla. The proverbial distance between the cup and the lips.
We were put in good schools but beyond that these other girls had something that my mother knew she couldn’t give us because she didn’t know what, she didn’t know how. But she did something. She did what other mothers were doing. She took us to music classes, dance classes and there she figured, we will learn something. But did we?
The music classes were amusing. The children there seemed to know everything there was to know already. So there was no learning happening. There was practice happening. And then one day the music master played some tune on his harmonium and asked us to recognise it. Yeh raga cha naav kai, he sang to us. My sister told him her name. He stared, gulped air and moved on. So did we.
We didn’t go back after that.
How was my mother to prepare us for this battle without right genes and pure blood? It must have been a lonely time and lonelier world. This was a battle she was not ready for. Dad kept getting transferred so for the longest time she fought this alone.
This is what some of you would call cultural capital. And some of you would call Merit.
What does this mean in our lives but? How to define this invisible code?
It was that neat handwriting in which studious Brahmin girls wrote in their hardbound books, which some of us could never touch. It went from their hands and into the hands of others deserving and then into their bags. It was like a secret document that only some had access to.
It was the look of utter disgust on the faces of these girls when I asked them on the morning of some exam – can you please explain this theorem? And then they explained the same with pleasing smiles when some of their own asked them the same question.
It was the neat partition of their oiled hair, the ability to sit in perfect padmasana during tuitions, the glow of their skin, and the aroma of their vegetarian lunch boxes.
Essentially, Merit is a tall building full of assembly lined, well-oiled Brahmin robots who receive all the training very early to take over the world – Engineering, MBA, IIT, IIM, and now because it’s cool – humanities.
Merit is definitely not just hard work then. It’s the license code to being allowed someplace because you are of the right kind.
And this became starkly obvious to me when I started working as a teacher. I was still blind to caste in many, many ways. And discovering Ambedkar wouldn’t happen for a couple more years. But again, there was that growing anonymous discomfort with myself. I think back to the time when a Brahmin colleague declared over lunch one day ‘I am proud to be a Brahmin.’ I think back to the time when there was clandestine discussion over my NET qualification and its validity because apparently there was no evidential ‘merit’ involved.
I can only cringe with disgust now. It is clear to me that caste networks operate invisibly but quite strongly everywhere, especially in schools and colleges, and even among students. Here of course it takes on various forms – talent, good English, knack etc.
In the classroom, I am quick to sense when a student doesn’t find me challenging enough. When I take books that I’ve liked into the classroom – it is with a faint hope that if I can open out the book for them — something might click, and they will want to read it. I have learnt to rely strongly on my own pleasure to be able to reach out to students.
But the students’ demands on my ability to offer challenge, puzzle is blurring into that dangerous line where they switch off pleasure completely. I am horrified by their indifference to pleasure. What is the point of literature if you only want to capitalize it into an app that offers challenge and devalues pleasure?
Isn’t pleasure political? Doesn’t that make it a challenge? A book that did this for me was Nabokov’s Lolita. I struggled because I couldn’t believe how much I was being seduced by the damn book. And that immediately became political.
One of the things I have learnt from reading Paromita Vohra and watching her interviews obsessively is the idea that no one can and no one must define what is pleasure or what is political for you. That choice is yours to make and yours alone.
I might be the lesser person here for putting pleasure over everything else. And I know I cannot escape it when it leads to situations I often find myself in. For instance, it hurts my eyes when I notice students dumb themselves down to talk to me. But at least it doesn’t hurt my heart, thank god. Just my eyes, but oh my eyes! My eyes!
But I’d rather have pleasure – you keep your merit OK? Tata bye bye.
What I have in abundance, that all Dalit people have, is the desire to learn, and the longing to feel alive.
This is the first thing I learnt from Ambedkar.
The next was that merit needn’t be something we cannot touch. Either by challenge or pleasure, if we can get to the point where learning becomes something we are invested in every day, then we have won.
When I saw this, it became tolerable, even desirable for me to look into the mirror every day.
A nagging question I have had of all big movements, whether it is feminism or the anti-caste movement – is what to do in situations that life throws at us?
Bratty cabbage girls who hate female teachers, Brahmin batata vadas who smirk when you talk about caste in classrooms. How to deal with them? I find that every now and then, I discover an answer because I’m always looking for one.
I went from anger to humour, from Ambedkar to Dhasal to Manjule, and found the answer with Gogu Shyamala.
The women in Gogu Shyamala’s stories (Father may be an elephant and mother only a small basket, but…) make me feel more empowered than #MeToo and #Losha.
In Jambava’s Lineage, Cina Ellamma is a young Bhagotam performer of the Nizamabad Chindu Ellavva Troupe. One day a bunch of upper caste men abuse her and she is outraged. She goes to the senior Ellamma for advice and this is what Ellamma tells her –
My child, we too have lived through many similar experiences … but we have somehow managed to keep the art of the Chindu Bhagotam alive. Those who resent or dislike us will speak harshly. We have to deal with them, persuade them maybe, but make sure that we continue with our own work. What you saw happening today is nothing compared to the high-handedness of the dora folk in the villages when I was a young girl. They would make us do all the work, and then say ‘keep your distance … you son of a madiga … chinduloda… dakkaloda’
As they listened to Ellamma, Cina Ellamma fell silent. Something touched her deep inside.
Ellamma continues –
‘The best way for us is to attract them with our performance, to make it so riveting that they sit and watch for hours. That is the most fitting reply to those who try to ride rough over us.
On stage I’d bring out all the anger and suffering hidden in my heart. I’d indirectly abuse some of the men sitting in the audience as if I was referring to someone else. Initially they were very angry, but gradually they changed, and grew more polite’
I am sorry if you don’t see the connection here but I do. Perhaps because Gogu Shyamala is writing about my women – not yours. My ancestors entertained and performed for a living. And this story is equally important to me as a teacher because what is teaching if not performance? When I am doing my job, there is room for a lot of Savarna noise to drown me out. When this happened in 2015, I was crippled. It took me years to move on. I wish I had it in me back then to make my performance so riveting that they sit and watch for hours.
Instead I whined and moped and did nothing except fume.
In Tataki Wins Again, Balamma walks like a ghost at the crack of dawn to go water her fields. If she is late, the upper caste landlord would empty all the water into his fields. And that’s why she’d wake up at 4 in the morning and get there before him, every single day. This offended him so decides to rape her.
He grabs hold of her one morning and drags her into the fields. When he begins to molest her, Tataki ‘takes aim and kicks him as hard as she could on the groin with both her legs.’
The landlord collapses.
In the village, the mala and madiga women giggled through their sari ends as they shared the news, “The landlord wanted to catch our balamani. She kicked him in the groin!”
When I read these stories I feel like I have more than just answers. I have a way to live.
At the Dalit Women’s Conference last year, Ruth Manorama said that our Dalit women must never respond to campaigns like #MeToo because we just end up becoming numbers for the benefit of Savarna Feminists.
It doesn’t happen to me very often but I heard my heart click into the right place when she said it.
My Mouma is a champion in life. She represents herself and she is not bound by anything. She is 82 and takes care of herself like a queen. If you mess with her, she will hit you on the head with a water bottle that she always carries around.
These are the women I want to read and write about. Sumitra, the woman in my short -story is vulgar in her laughter and dirty in demeanor.
I had just been looking in all the wrong place for answers but as it turns out – Dalit women have always had answers to these questions. Women with loud and vulgar laughter who, like their hair, are mad and untamable – always do.
*Featured Image Credits – Savarna Audience by Dr Sylvia Karpagam at drsylviakarpagam.wordpress.com
This is the piece I wrote for our second volume of Engster – the Department’s biannual magazine. We finish ten years of streaming this year. So this volume has a section dedicated to memories – writings from former students of SJC. It also has the prize winning entries of the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay – 2016. Leave a message if you’d like to buy a copy.
I have reason to believe that sometimes I don’t know English. This morning, I was walking across the college field and saw a group of boys playing football. I stared at them for a while and imagined myself writing about it later. But I was struggling to locate words to describe the game – shoes scuttling or moving?Band of colors or range of colors? Dust or mud? Then maybe I know some words but I can never be sure which to use where.
At this point I must interrupt to mention a friend from school who I met recently. Throughout our school life, Gaana was a champion of sorts with English – top scorer, editor of the school magazine, winner of many creative writing contests, and the English teacher’s pet. I had always been in awe of her. On the most depressing days, I’d imitate the way she sat in class, hoping something of hers would rub off on me and then maybe I could become ‘good in English’ like her. But then she took engineering.
And so I also took PCMB and struggled through the four months that I was a science student. Coming as we did from state board, we were both unprepared for labs, formulae and other things that students from ICSE and CBSE seemed perfectly okay with. While my friend managed to scrape through, I could only scrap.
I wondered if there was anybody else in class like me who just took science because their friend had or because their parents had smilingly imposed it upon them. It was hard to tell – around me were people who were confident about what they wanted to do.
I was put in one Mr. RKJ’s physics and math class: the morning batch, of course. 4:30 in the morning to be precise. I don’t know why he did this to himself but there he was at 4:30 every morning, in the basement turned classroom of his Basavanagudi home, standing in all his balding glory. Now, even I don’t know why I did that to myself.
RKJ was a very practical looking man with serious, gold-rimmed spectacles- the kind that gave him authority when he walked into a classroom full of morning breath-students, the kind that made me wonder if his wife was unhappy to wake up that early in the morning to make chai- nashta.
His son was rumoured to be sitting in the same batch with all of us but I never saw him. Poor chap, I thought. To wake up at an ungodly hour to sit in his father’s class along with psycho intelligent students who wept if they got 98 on 100. Rascals. Here I was getting legendary marks: 3 on 60. 9 on 75.
And then it rained one morning so I bunked tuition and never went back after that. This was right after a chemistry test morning when I was at the dining table mugging equations, wondering if I could make studying interesting by seeming interested.
And I tried. For several days before and after the test, I really did. At the test, the equations played dance India dance with me and so I ran out of the hall in tears: answer paper, question paper, pencil box all abandoned.
If this has been sounding too much like Taare Zameen Par, it is not. Because the only dyslexia I had was against studying science. So I made myself and others believe that I was bad at math and science only because I was good at English. But I certainly wasn’t. I was just a lazy girl who wanted to watch films all day. But to be taken seriously, I started writing horrible war poetry out of nowhere. Then I told my friends I was working on a novel. On what? I don’t know. But the title was going to be ‘A Writer Cries’ or some such drama. And then I kept telling people that ‘Science is Passé, only so I could use passé in a sentence because I’d just learnt its meaning. Then I tried to convince my father that if I kept studying science, the machines would come alive and destroy humanity like in Terminator.
After the Terminator episode, my father banned all Sci-fi/fantasy films at home. He still makes a fuss when we watch Harry Potter because he believes that had it not been for Arnold Shivajinagar, I’d be an engineer today.
Thanks to my made up dyslexia, I switched to Arts and have never regretted my decision.
On the last day of my final year degree, I discovered the college library and felt a gnawing ache in my chest. For the first time in my life, I felt I had actually lost something of value in all that time I’d wasted on keeping friendships that I have today abandoned. And so I took to reading to avoid getting into the trap of friendships. I failed and today I haunt their remnants on Instagram and Twitter.
I became somewhat of a reader after I started teaching and today it is the only reminder I have of what I was able to escape, even if out of sheer laziness. Reading has brought me closer to worlds I would have otherwise never known.
One evening, I sat in the old department reading the last page of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And then suddenly, I was very aware that I was going to remember this moment for a long time. It was a book that I had first started reading in PG and then again after that when I graduated. But I finally finished it then, in the old department — three years after I had started reading it. It was raining outside and both my professors were reading too. I looked around and my mind sighed louder than it ever has.
Marquez took me to places that I found difficult to imagine but his characters did such absurd things – they ascended into heaven, died and came back alive, wrote and predicted the future in Sanskrit, and he wrote about all of them so convincingly; that he brought to my home Macondo. I read over and over again the scene where a thousand ants carry a newborn out onto the road and devour it.
Vargas Llosa reopened my childhood and all its shame with a force that I am still recovering from. I was pushed into writing many things about my grandmother and the various women in my family after I read these two men.
I found the Neapolitan series three months ago and reading it has been painfully reassuring. Elena Ferrante brought me to confront a fear that I had been dutifully running away from. When I first started writing, I wanted to write like the people who I thought wrote beautifully. Theirs was the only way to write. My fear was that if didn’t learn to write like them -like that, I could never become a good writer. And so everything I wrote disgusted me – the language was too simple, the metaphors too dull and the voice too ambitious. I grew desperate and lost whatever little relationship I had with writing.
Then Ferrante taught me a more reliable way of writing – to write honestly. She taught me to write the way I feel. It doesn’t matter if there is no rhythm, no rhyme, and no sentences that look perfectly carved but as long as there is memory, there is a story and as long as there is a story, there is the desire to do something with it. After all, what else is the point to writing?
Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri taught me to outgrow my anger when I write. And so I write now, still desperate, still lost and struggling but when I finish, I feel like I do when after a tiring day, the bed that I want to sleep in is uncomfortable but I can always rely on my tiredness to put me to sleep well.
Gaana says that engineering was a mistake. In the last three years, her parents have made her meet over 50 men – all professionals and experts in engineering and medical. She liked only one man out of the 50 because he asked her if she’d eaten breakfast one morning. She was so delighted, she cried.
Back in RKJ’s tuition, where I was planning to quit science, I’d once asked a classmate (forever the first rank girl), if they had Arts in Vijaya College where she studied. She looked at me in wild horror – her studious, Brahmin face scrunching up in disgust. She never talked to me after that. Years later, I was waiting for a cab near her house, and I saw her standing outside– still bespectacled and first-rank looking. She was standing with a plate and feeding her year old toddler. For a moment, we looked at each other and then we looked away.
Most of my classmates today are married and abroad. These were people who were never mean to anybody but they frightened the living daylights out of me. They made it seem like it was completely normal to believe that science was the only desirable option and so was getting married at 25.
When I look back, I can see that I started very late. I have arrived at reading and writing only now and I’m reminded of this every single day of my teaching life. I find that everywhere, there are more and more students who have finished reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy but don’t know who Rakhi Sawant is. And it doesn’t help that I know her like the back of my hand. Didn’t these people ever watch TV?
What to do? How to teach?
This was slightly embarrassing to deal with in the first year of teaching. Four years later, I have accumulated a decent degree of shamelessness to be able to revel in the knowledge I have of useless things. My first lesson therefore was to cast away shame. The second was to learn to use this shamelessness convincingly. I have started late but I know Rakhi Sawant better than they know their Russian authors. And if I can find a way to connect Chaucer’s Wife of Bathe to Rakhi Sawant, then maybe there’s still hope for me.
This is an extension of something I’d mentioned in an earlier post.
When I was in school, if there was anything I dreaded more than exams, it was the all too familiar Sunday evening feel – the dull panic of a joyous, empty day coming to an end and the mouth of a Monday opening wider and wider. Hair properly coconut- oiled, eyes aching slightly from the back to back films watched on Sony Max, books still packed heavily and tightly in a bag last opened on a Saturday afternoon and the inevitably depressing ‘show time over’ feeling. Dinner would be a lazy affair and in order to prolong the holiday, I’d stay up as late as possible only to wake up sad and grumpy the next morning.
This is what I like to call the Sunday Evening feel. Even though I was convinced that I wasn’t the only student feeling this, I couldn’t help wondering why so many of my classmates didn’t seem at all upset on Monday mornings. Was it just because they’d done their homework?
But in college, this Sunday feel became a threat. I’d taken science even though I had no interest in it and every day seemed like the end of Sunday. I grew anxious. Maybe this was permanent and my life after this would just be filled with Sunday evening feels.
But when I made the switch to Humanities, a part of this anxiety died and it’s only now that I realise that I must hug myself every day for making that switch. Because that switch has made sure that I have Sunday evening feels only on a Sunday evening, and sometimes not even then.
There are very few things that make me feel alive. And as I grow older, this list seems to get shorter. As of now this list includes, a very good sentence and floating in the pool. Now and then Mango Melba and a tall glass of rum make the cut. But when I am reading, I become an insufferable admirer of great sentences. When I come across a line that is going to change my life, I usually stop reading and celebrate life. And when I read a book that is filled with such a celebration, I find it extremely hard to remain neutral about the book and the writer.
I don’t know if students get worn out by a teacher who is excited by everything, and if they’d really rather like to listen to a teacher who hates everything. There is a certain charm about people who hate everything and then one day when they declare that they like something, everybody shuts up and listens to him. Note that it’s usually a ‘him’.
But I must say this, after having escaped a long life of Sunday Evening feels, I am not going to apologise for the things that make me feel alive.
I take what I read to all my classes. This semester, it has been quite the task – Siddalingaiah, Marquez, and Ferrante. At Meta this year, I was happy to be on a panel about reading Ferrante. All the panellists, much to everybody’s dismay, were Ferrante fans and to make it worse, we cared very little about our audience and enjoyed talking to each other. Many said that the point of a panel didn’t actually come through but maybe sometimes panels can just be about conversations. For the first time in my life I was talking about something shamelessly, without having a nervous breakdown. And to do that with students who are more like friends was just as thrilling.
I can’t be neutral or placid about writers who have given me goosebumps while reading them. They have made me feel more alive than an orgasm. And for this I’ll always always be grateful to them.
As a shy, dull, and almost non-existent student in school, I spent a lot of time imagining a parallel universe where I could never be left behind. I owned this universe and so it was filled with the few people I liked and a few others, who, like me, were also left behind. And here too, there were people with power, of course. No imagination or fantasy is ever complete without a structural change in power. But the powerful people in my universe were teachers who could look beyond the rank students.
In my final year at school, I wrote a poem for our magazine and showed it to my teacher who took one long look at it and gave it back to me. It wasn’t good of course and I was a painfully clingy person so I didn’t really mind that she’d just walked off. I sent it to the editorial committee and waited. On the last day, when we got our school magazines, I kept turning over the pages to see if my poem was published. It wasn’t and I felt a tinge of shame. Although now I am glad they didn’t publish it because otherwise I’d have to bury myself alive.
Even so, I longed for an approval that I never got in school perhaps because I didn’t try enough or perhaps because academic excellence was the one thing where everything else was measured. And some of us didn’t always manage to make that cut.
When I became a teacher, I was very afraid. Somewhere I was still a very scared student and I had no way of knowing exactly when I’d feel like a teacher. “That moment will come”, someone said, “when a student will tear your ass.”
And that moment did come. It keeps coming again and again but I was surprised that it came from students who were too afraid to talk, let alone tear body parts. It is a challenge to look for these students beyond the limited space of the classroom. And it’s strange that when I began to look for them, I found pieces of myself.
At a panel on Rohith Vemula last year, I saw two girls arrive at a confidence I had never seen in them before. Coming as they did from a college where they’d been ignored for the most part, they said that they were surprised to have even been asked to be on the panel.
All of last year was spent waging a listless sort of war against whiny adults who felt betrayed for not being given opportunities that they felt they were more deserving of. At times like these, watching students come out of similar battles was the saving grace. At the end of that panel, the two girls were surrounded by classmates — some crying, some shocked — but all cheering them on for the good job they did.
It is now somewhat of a tradition that Meta’s biggest fans have been science students. Anna and Sahana, two students from the science stream have been the most diligent audience at Meta. They turn up for all the writing contests with one suave attitude that even my fingernail didn’t have when I was 20. Anna says she is taking up literature after this and presently has her nose buried in some history of English Literature book that she is reading for her entrance.
Vidya Bal, another science student is a little time bomb that is forever ticking. She does ten things at once and in 2014, when the prizes were being given away, we had to ask her to stay on the stage and collect them all at once because she had won that many.
I met Parinitha and Priya, two more science champs and enthu nutellas at a certificate course we offered last year and since then, they have shown an energy for writing and reading that I am both terrified and jealous of.
Meta has taught me things that no one else could have. It has taught me to see what isn’t visible – very often it’s the fear of not being “good enough” that so many of us hide behind. That and also perhaps that other people are truly more deserving in life because of whatever reason (fair skin, good English, better contacts, cool company) and in more ways than one, it has taught me to disregard these reasons.
Today, Meta is the space where the Banyan tree grows bigger and bigger and I feel smaller than I ever have. And that’s alright because true to its meaning, Meta has quite aptly taught me to look beyond myself. From watching these students organize and participate to watching the space itself morph into various shapes to accommodate panels, lec-dems, contests and various other conversations – the demands on the classroom as the only enabler of learning and experience have diminished – both for the student and the teacher. In more ways than one, Meta has become the parallel universe that I sought so desperately in school.
The energy that February finds in me comes from the wasteland that was my adolescence. This Friday, Meta will be 5 years old. And in the next 20 days, Meta will have come and gone, and only a February-sized itch will remain.
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.