Part One – Meta Diaries: What does Fire in the Tongue mean?

Meta is seven-years-old. I will keep coming back to this again and again, but let’s move on for now. The theme this year is Fire in the Tongue. It can mean anything you want it to mean.

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At the inauguration however, it came to mean something else and I can’t see it any other way now. The threat that people with power are going to take away our history, our story from us is always there. It’s even more vicious these days. Speaking against such a power is necessary in whatever way and form we can. Here is the speech by Prof. Arul Mani that can tell you a little more about what Fire in the Tongue means —

“Across India, young men and women from communities excluded from education are beginning to find the fire with which to contest years of exclusion – that is the spirit that we pay tribute to when we say tongues of fire – Fire in the tongue.

This year we will be inaugurating the Rohith Vemula Archive of Dalit, Tribal, Bahujan, and Minority experience  – one of the small things we have been working towards. Jesuit institutions were among the first to make inclusion and social justice a part of their vision. Our Department has enjoyed this partnership that we have been working on for several years. And The Vemula Archive is one way of making visible the principle of inclusion, social justice, and the Jesuit Principle of preferential option for the poor.

When we say Fire in the tongue, if you want to look for another embodiment, another physical realisation of that principle, you don’t have to look much further than the man they are paying tribute to when they say Jai Bhim. The Constitution of India continues to speak words of fire to years of exclusion – look there and you will find words of fire every time you need it.

These principles are relevant. In a country where the government of the day in a circular, tried to declare the word ‘Dalit’ illegal as if declaring the word ‘Dalit’ illegal would somehow change history and allow us to continue to live happy, uninterrupted lives.

The idea of Fire in the tongue is also worth holding close to the heart when you remember that the septuagenarian politician in Karnataka who is trying hard to become chief minister before he dies will go down in history – not for how hard he tried – but for the fact that when he was in power, he passed a legislation which gave policemen the authority to open people’s tiffin boxes and check for whether they were carrying beef. That is the achievement that this politician will be remembered for.

In times like these, we all need to find fire in the tongue to speak for diversity, to speak for who we are, and to speak for the worlds we come from”

Let’s just say that fest and protest needn’t be the 2 horrifying opposites that we sometimes make them to be.

***

It has never been hard to locate a moment that signals the beginning of Meta for me.

Early in January, a young boy graduating this year came to the department feeling anxious. He was afraid of graduating. ‘I don’t know what will happen outside’ he said. It is normal for every graduating student to have this anxiety. But even though it was familiar, he was saying something else. I didn’t know what to say to him. His fear wasn’t very different from my own. One side of this fear is not knowing. The other side is knowing. In between, is a desperation to find kindness. He was afraid of leaving behind the kindness he had found inside, and terrified of not finding it outside.

And because I didn’t want to lie to him, we both sat outside the department looking at the sunset, crying.

Then we picked ourselves up, laughed because we were taking ourselves too seriously, and went in for chai.

How many people does it take to run Meta?

Later that evening, a colleague held up seven of his fingers at this boy and told him – “It takes seven people” The boy didn’t have to be told that he was among the seven. He only had to be reminded that he was capable of things he wasn’t giving himself credit for. When he was made to see that the kindness & humility he brings to his work were enough, he smiled. For me, this was when Meta began this year.

***

After the inauguration, the students of I MA English presented stage adaptations of Macbeth (At Midnight), Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet (Macha, where art thou), a shadow play on Hamlet (Ham-lit: The answers lie in the dark), exhibits of the Globe theatre and Queen Elizabeth herself, and a comic strip of Shakespeare.

The Found Books series is a great opportunity for teachers to explore their relationship with a book outside of classroom practices. Prof. Navya inaugurated the series yesterday with Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’

At the Shadow play – lights were turned off, phones were on silent, and we proceeded into the Globe theatre – took our seats (some on chairs, some on the floor – deliberately executed by the presenters to show us what watching a play really was like back then) All this happened even as speakers played background noises from the 16th Century.

 

***

Day One began with a lot a admin annoyances and the regular tech-giving-haath situations. Watching students deal with all this in their own quirky, mad ways has always been a dirty, almost voyeuristic pleasure of mine.

There’s the girl who becomes Rudhramadevi when there are money/stall issues. The boy who never tires of running. The boy who puts in all his energy and love into delightful little works of art. The girl who can put many a techie boy to shame by making printers submit to her will. The girl who does magic when she designs posters. The little boss girl who walks in and everyone shuts up. The boy who smiles like an angel and works like a maniac. The boy who eats clean egg biryanis but doesn’t mind dirtying himself with mad meta work. The girl who is part lioness, part stand-up comedian.

They are a Justice League of their own kind. They could be fighting god knows how many inner-demons of their own, and still – they come here and become warriors of a different kind, with fire in their tongues.

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***

 

Dear Mr Weiner

**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**
**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**

Dear Mr Weiner

When I think about writers,

I think about you Mr Weiner, from my degree days

you who proudly told everyone –

‘Yoohoo. I am a writer. I write.’

Often you wrote about yourself in third person,

‘But he was different from others. He could write. He could really write and not just string words together.’ (Like I am doing now)

 

When I think about writers, 

I also think about 2 lovely girls

from a class I taught years ago.

How they both hesitated to call themselves writers

even though they wrote like motherfuckers.

So now I want to say to you, Mr Weiner,

‘If at least one inch of your pubic hair can write like those girls, we’ll talk.’

***

**Featured Image Credits: Young Writers Society**

Gratitude is a sheepish smile before you sleep

On some days, I feel grateful to be a teacher. Today was one such day. Nothing special happened. It was a regular first day – there were some promises to the self: to wake up early, do yoga, read, make chai, leave home early enough to enjoy the 8:30 am traffic, and nod at motorists. But as real life would have it, I only had time to do yoga.

From 9:00 to 11:00, I was in lab – absorbed. working. in my world. doing my thing. We talked about writing, blogging, dealing with insecurities. Two days ago, at 9:00 I would have been basking in vacation mode – thinking only about having a full breakfast. But today, just like that- I went from being a wasteful and useless member of the human species to an active member who isn’t so aware of her wastefulness.

I headed back to the department and spent the noon writing, and reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. Amazed at how she took notes of what she was reading, I did the same.

Lunch was a homely chicken saaru, rice, and Genasu -which I ate while watching Black Swan. This is my second time watching the film and I am once again grateful for passion, for women, and their stories of madness.

In my next class, we talked about our first visits to a theatre. I remembered suddenly my mother’s story of how she watched Satte Pe Satta after waiting for three months. They had to sell a lot of tea powder to make enough money – my mother and her siblings. When they had enough -they put the notes in a bundle and wound it neatly with a rubber band. They put the coins separately in a plastic bag. Preparations began a day before they were to watch the film. Clothes were picked out and put under beds to iron out creases, hair was washed, talcum powder dabba was almost empty.

I told them this in exchange for their stories. A student from Assam remembered tent films being screened for plantation workers. ‘They couldn’t find a screen so the films were projected on a white cloth,’ he said. Another student remembered paying Rs 7 to watch a film in his hometown. Someone else remembered how the names of films were announced by a cycle-wallah who carried banners and went around the town.

I returned again to the department for chai and more stories. A student’s Gokarna story, someone’s train journeys, someone else’s adventures with the camera.

At Lalbagh, where my two-wheeler stopped at the signal, I looked up and sighed at the 140 arms and fingers of big trees. The sky was plain, home was close, and I was happy for a doing a job that doesn’t bring me existential pain on Mondays.

I could have been anywhere – stuck at a desk behind a computer, doing codes – stuck at a desk behind files, under noisy ceiling fans – doing nothing. But I am here – at a desk in front of people – listening to and telling stories.

And for this – I will always be grateful.

Update – I didn’t realise this when I was writing the post but the day was indeed special. I finish five years of teaching 🙂

 

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February Itch

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.

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Image Credits: Abhishek Anil & Canva

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.

Teaching and Learning

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

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

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

That is one kind of helplessness.

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

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

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

That is one kind of waiting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upper caste women.

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

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

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