Who do you think you are?

is the name of a lovely book by Alice Munro.

it’s also what a boy’s posture once asked of me as he stood tall in front of my desk, his finger issuing a warning to me and my table.

Behind him were creepers that had work to do but hung for some reason, on every word I said, every yawn I stole, every fart I managed.

And that day I learnt that very few things in this dreary world are as cute as 18-year-old boys taking themselves seriously.

TIL that ‘Who do you think you are?’ is also the name of a TV show.

Thank you

I have often agreed with the saying that teaching is a thankless job. This 2019 piece was written out of one such helplessness. Sometimes minor annoyances come in the form of vengeful attacks but because those that sponsor it continue to remain unwaveringly boring, it’s neither challenging nor damaging to sleep or life. It’s the same people, the same bitterness over and over. If I am ever an enemy, I wish I am not as sad as people whose bitterness and gratitude are the same in their dullness and both equally uninspiring. But now and then, sometimes more often than expected, there are students who make it all worthwhile. They suck out all the bitterness and leave you with an energy that heals, and does the same thing that writing does to me – fills me with hope.

Year after year, Anjana’s writing reminds me that teaching is anything but thankless. Kiruba’s fine quality parsanalty, and churmuri giggles remind me that teaching is laughter. Keerthana’s arrow- sharpness reminds me that it’s possible to find yourself after years of hiding. Philip’s work reminds me of the kindness that’s so easy to forget these days. And Eshwari’s madness reminds me that it’s a disservice to love to be distracted by hate.

Here’s an excerpt from Anjana’s reflections on her final portfolio of writing.

I would like to say that I am drained of words like the many rivers in Bangalore. On a note of confession, I enjoy writing creative imaginative pieces rather than pieces than involve research. When I write creative pieces, I try to get my facts straight and perform a certain amount of digging and eating though many layers of brain of family and
internet. But that is not as tiring as the material you search for archiving. It has signs of imagination, but the facts have to be true. There were many incidents during writing this semester’s portfolio where I have felt I am horrible at writing and I have often ended up in the conclusion to never write again. But it was just a phase or more accurately I hope it is a phase that passes through. Also I recently noticed I have caught an annoying trait of shrinking my fingers or trying to produce a cracking sound with my hand when I don’t get a word I am looking for. This habit does not annoy anyone other than me personally. It could be because I didn’t notice the presence earlier and now I am not able to stop myself. My friend pointed it out to me and it has created a constant tone of irritation when I perform it in the middle of writing. A note on every piece, among the tasks, in a weird way I enjoyed working on Wikipedia. They did reject my piece and that felt bad, but then I wrote another article which are getting many contributions and it is fun to keep a check on it. Nowadays, when I am reading a topic on Wikipedia, I actually look into the references for a detailed work. I also end up adding few lines in articles that are related to me. Like the piece on Thrissur Pooram was kind of disappointing to someone born in Thrissur. I immediately put my knowledge into action and tried to find valid sources that I can give as references to support my statement.

The phrase “put my knowledge into action” is at the core of Dalit learning. And I am again grateful to get the annual opportunity to pay attention to this, and to learn from it and grow.

For everything else, there is Divya’s capacity for resolute love in the midst of hate and anger: a most life-giving reminder to keep working despite Savarna snowflakes.

C for Coming home

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This is my workplace. I learnt to read & write here. Over the years, I have tried & failed at finding the right words to say how grateful I am to be here. Futile as it may be, I never tire of trying again – and this time, in the spirit of #DalitHistoryMonth (er, still)

To discover oneself as Dalit – not of your own accord but by the way others treat you, is one of the crudest expressions of caste. If you grow up not realizing you are Dalit, then school will show you. If you make it to college, then college will confirm it for you. If you come out alive, then you can always count on the world outside to show you & shame you for it. And this department taught me to wrench out shame, and suck it bone-dry. 

If the only acceptable & desirable way to be anywhere in the world is by being Savarna- Brahmin, this place showed me the strength of laughing at it & reclaiming being Avarna as a better way to live & work. The HoD, an Avarna man himself, imagined & built it the way he envisioned Ambedkar’s work ethic. 

The idea of a classroom, of a good student is usually built on Savarna ideals of speed, quality, & good English. Our syllabus & practice say lol to this. Designed as it is for students who will not be left behind simply for not being born in families where good English does push-ups, our syllabus makes me believe in the work I get to do everyday. And the work I get to do everyday is humbling which is why it is also easy to lol at the baboons who keep attacking it. My only yardstick to measure the worth of these attacks is to see whether they are drenched in Savarna ego, which more often than not, they are – so, meh.

One of my most crucial learning here has been that I have failed as a teacher if I have, even for one day, stopped being a student. And that to be a student is to be a sponge – learning what thrills you & drinking it up fully. And it isn’t only by reading or writing that the students & I found a self here. It’s by learning how to have full-body conversations with people, & listening to their stories.

The boy who is a Vijay fan but dances only to Dhanush songs often returns, perhaps because he sees something here. The girls who had zero interest in reading or writing come back year after year to say thank you perhaps because they learnt something more valuable from the course. The little chili from Tirunelveli returns often to sit, breathe us all in with her eyes, eat books, & laugh her heart out. As for the others who may come here half or full Savarna, they always leave with Ambedkar. What they do with him later is really up to them.

And then there are those who sit inside, drink tea, laugh, or sit outside read, talk, play the guitar – never quiet leaving.

A remarkable thing about Hogwarts is its inclusivity & diversity.  There was a half-giant, a squib, a werewolf, those born to muggle parents, Severus Snape whom it used to be so tempting to distrust, and all kinds of people who would have been left behind for being misfits. The department is my Hogwarts. In more ways than one, it makes room for misfits like me.

The first night Harry spends at Hogwarts, he is shown sitting by the window with Hedwig – looking outside and sighing. He’s finally home.

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T for Teaching

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This one is hard but it’s about love so it’s also easy. I am here somewhere, with my students. Behind us, on a screen is a black & white photo of Joan Didion. It was my idea to have her there. Let’s take a picture & send it to her, I told them. And they indulged me, like they always have.

We read a lot of Didion this semester. We memorized words on Self-respect, hoping it would give us some. We watched her on screen as she moved from one beautiful shot to another, we watched as she called herself wife – never quite becoming one, we watched as she became a widow – never quite seeming like one. And as always, I came out learning more than I taught.

Something the English Department is always accused of is all play, no work. We apparently only screen films in our classes and do nothing else. How cute. If that accusation was worth dignifying with a response, I’d have done that long ago. But as Prof. AM always reminds me, ‘Our work is our defence’ & that seems enough of a response – for now, and forever.

But I’ll tell you why I like watching things with students – half the time I am not even watching the screen, I am watching their faces. I want to see the little things that delight them, I want to know what makes them smile, what makes them forget their phones, what makes them laugh like lizards coming out of nowhere suddenly. And it’s what I am also hungrily looking for when we read & write together. I’ve had my share of miseries with students, yes. But what I’ve also had is their friendship & their laughlets.

I wouldn’t know what teaching is without stories, without laughing, without rain. And in my mind, I am forever teaching in the way Machado’s The Husband Stitch is narrated. I’ve gotten royally burnt for being so ambitious but I will never stop.

And today, I am grateful for never having stopped – even on the darkest days, when there was no rain, even when I felt like quitting & running away, even when I was empty of stories, even when I was made to believe that I suck at this. And there are days when I really really do, but it’s never enough to make me want to give up. Ambedkar’s blood y’all. And for most other days, there’s chai.

X for Xerox

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. 

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Meta Diaries – 2020: Part one

Meta is 8-years-old❤️
Here are some thoughts after 2 days.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of energy and education it takes to recognize when you are being humiliated. I don’t have very many feelings about Kumbalangi Nights but a scene I find myself returning to over and over again is the hair salon one in the film. It’s an eerily familiar scene – it shows you how without your knowledge or consent, you become trapped in a conversation with people who smile and ‘know’ things about you – things like your ability, qualification, merit, and caste.

A verdict is passed – if you disagree with them, they will look at you like you’re crazy. But of course, it is done with so much poise and dignity that you are bound to ask yourself if you imagined their bad behavior, if it’s even possible that someone who was kind enough to give you time and smile at you can have evil thoughts. For those of you who haven’t watched the film, you just need to revisit a scene from your everyday life where you’ve had to confront the hollow of powerlessness you feel in your stomach when someone with little to no authority seems to derive another kind of ‘more important’ authority from elsewhere. And indeed – it’s why they know they can get away with anything – they are safe in that authority, protected by a sense of knowing what to say when, knowing when they are being humiliated so they are always ready to give it back to you. What is this authority and where do they get it from? Caste.

I am most curious about how it meanders through at places of work. When you don’t know you are being humiliated, how do you defend yourself? Not that knowing you are being humiliated is any kind of a blessing. But how is it possible to work if you are defending it all the time? Where must one get the energy to do this everyday? These are some questions I have been obsessed with year after year.

February is perhaps the only month when I temporarily suspend these questions. It’s because February is the only month in the year when I work most with students. And because these are students who come to February and its synonym – Meta with the same kind of madness that I do, there isn’t much room for humiliation of that kind.

This year, Meta began for me when Alung Inpuihrwan, our student from Manipur sang Raghu Dixit’s ‘Munjane Manjalli’ at the inauguration. He owned the song in a way that I haven’t seen anybody own anything in a long time. When I think of how those with power in the country and elsewhere are swallowing every little space that belongs to students, I want to think of Alung who stood under the banyan tree, and sang in a language that he made his by putting into it every bit of music he could gather from his stomach. Even if this moment was later hijacked by organisational hiccups, Alung’s song is stamped in my memory.

At the end of Day one, it struck me that Meta’s tragedy is that it is so big in our imaginations that it doesn’t register simple realities like spaces suddenly becoming unavailable. It’s also somewhat of its silly charm that despite this, it will continue to produce moments, and give us invitations to look at students differently – which is what we need now more than ever.

This was written on 6 Feb 2020. Part two will be up soon.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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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