Because of Joan Didion

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I mentioned Joan Didion for the first time in Seattle today. I must have said her name in my mind plenty of times but for the first time today, in Seattle (I cannot say this enough) I said her name out loud to my roommate.

My roommate is from Lebanon. Her name is Maha. She took a blue post it from her purse and wrote Joan Didion’s name down in small letters:

J-o-a-n  D-i-d-i-o-n

and I felt the quiet smile I always feel when I see Didion’s name in print.

At the visa interview in Chennai, when the white man behind the glass door had asked me what my SOP was about, I had said Joan Didion. And when he asked me who she was, I had felt incredibly stupid saying ‘She is an American writer’

***

Maha and I were saying how excited we are that they are going to take us on a study tour to Washington DC at the end of this month. I told her, ‘It’d would be tragic to be so close to New York and still not see it’

Ah! New York! You want to see because of Friends?

Yaaa, I said and then with a calm that took even me by surprise I said, ‘Because of Joan Didion’

It will always be Joan Didion’s New York for me now. In the way that it will always be Parodevi’s Bombay, and Adichie’s Nigeria. Cities are built to keep women away. Women may never belong to a city in the way that men do but cities always only belong to women.

Esra, who is from Turkey and now a student here like me, said that Orhan Pamuk is a psycho and we both giggled like children. She said – “Back home we don’t like his writing in Turkish very much. If we want to make fun of someone, we say you are talking like Pamuk writes”

Then she told me that he once put his phone on the balcony and took pictures of the city. “Same time each day and he saw different things it seems – such a crazy that man”

And now it is Esra’s Turkey. Like it is Elif Batuman’s Turkey (but it will never be Pamuk’s)

***

Here I must add because after years of not knowing, and then knowing, I am not going to suddenly unknow who I am – How do Dalit men and women figure here? Can cities ever belong to us? I don’t know. Maybe other cities can belong to us – perhaps even more than ours ever will. Then again – not all of us can afford to walk into strange, new cities and make them ours. But because of some odd luck that I am here now – I want to try.

Seattle is empty without my Basavanagudi cows and their dung, without the trees and their rains. But it is still mine. Today I woke at 5:30 and made it mine. I made it mine as I made hot water and drank it from a red mug. I made it mine as I walked on the same street up and down, effortlessly avoiding Starbucks. I made it mine when I was so distracted by the houses, I missed a turn. I made it mine when I saw a huge Ferrari showroom, said bah, and took a picture. I made it mine when I walked into Ba Bar last night and ordered Garlic Crab Noodles with a glass of wine.

I sat by the bar eating my food, drinking my drink and watched as the young bartender in front of me (grey dress with a slit down the side) climbed up the ladder in her black Nike shoes, and gently picked a bottle of scotch. I watched as she smoothly came down, her right hand clutching the bottle, her left holding-not holding the ladder.

This city is hers more than mine. But because she is now locked forever in a moment that I am writing about and because the next time I eat crab noodles, I’ll be in Bangalore, I will think about how she brought the bottle of scotch down and just like that – the city will be mine again. I sat today and put all my things in this city, so it is not empty anymore. That’s why I am sitting here writing this at 3 in the morning. It could be jet lag also, but lol.

 

 

What I learnt from reading The Murder Room by PD James

The Murder Room

It’s probably a bad idea to read a detective novel over three months. You forget who died, who had the most convenient alibi, and whose house was most unkempt. But if you’re reading PD James’ The Murder Room, it’s pardonable to stretch it for as long as you want.

The murder is just a background against which you discover characters whose lives and routines keep you more occupied and thrilled. This is what makes PD James incredible, that she is able to keep your interest in these things despite an equally compelling murder mystery.

***

I have learnt more things about teaching from Adam Dalgliesh than I have from my own experience in the classroom. Today I’m as unprepared as I was on the first day of class. But I have come to realise that in the profession of teaching, it’s sometimes an ordeal to talk to students like adults.

My response to their various hostilities range from giving hostility back; to ignoring them completely; to confronting them to talk it all out. But neither of these is a fitting response.

In a room full of Murder suspects, Dalgliesh interrogates everybody with the sternness of a businessman and the aloofness of a lover caught daydreaming. This is possibly the best response to unwarranted attacks and general hostility. When the suspects are tired of the cross examining and the hundred odd restrictions on their movements, they begin attacking Dalgliesh – sometimes even personally.

Dalgliesh has a clear sense of his job. He doesn’t care about settling power matters with those who question it. He wants to solve the case – if that gets in the way of people’s fragile ego, he gives exactly two and half fucks and moves on with his life.

A recent discovery that has made me very uncomfortable is that as a teacher, I have taken too many liberties to feel offended at the drop of a hat. While sometimes, I reserve the right to take offence, I should probably learn to be aloof.

I have bad days. Trapped in files and piles of admin work, I have often lost my temper. I continue to envy colleagues who talk to students in a consistently reasonable, annoyingly patient way.

When I think back to all those times that I have lost my cool, I cringe. Because there is nothing not performative about anger. Both on the inside and outside.  Regardless of what it’s about and where it’s coming from. This doesn’t make it less genuine – even if performance is a lie. It just makes me wonder if it’s really all that necessary – ashte.

Adam Dalgliesh is calm. During his worst moments – he’s still calm. He’s never severe on himself.

When Adam and Kate go to interview the mother of some murdered woman – Kate is taken aback by the generous make-up on the mother’s face. For a moment, I was also judgy bitchita. I was all ‘Why are you putting make-up on face when cops are coming to talk about your daughter’s murder?

The stepfather doesn’t figure here because it’s clear from his mannerisms that he’s happy step-daughter’s dead.

Adam Dalgliesh, calm as iceberg on ocean says – ‘It’s her wish to grieve the way she wants to. Clearly her daughter’s death made her vulnerable. So if she wants to brace the day by doing something that makes her feel powerful – why shouldn’t she do it?

I couldn’t applaud because book was heavy so I made my feet applaud.

***

Tally Clutton is my wonder woman. She craves solitude more than anyone else I have ever known. And she craves it not because she likes herself, but because she loves London. She knows she’ll never be able to enjoy the city if she doesn’t see it and live it alone, day after day. She walks the streets of London with the calm desperation of a woman in love willing to surrender.

She wants nothing more than to spend her last few days swallowing the city in slow, deliberate gulps. Sigh. I want to live and die like Tally Clutton. But before that I want to read all the PD James I can get my hands on.

You can watch the BBC adaptation here. But it’s a little blah because it ain’t the Tally Clutton from the book 😦

Meta Diaries – Days Three, Four, Five and Six

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Day Three

The film review contest had 20 participants. Some lizards wanted to know the name of the film so they could watch it aaram se at home. Some Dengue mosquitoes decided to participate only if the name of the film sounded interesting.

So what did we screen? Let’s just say that when I closed the door before leaving the AV Room, I was mercilessly giggling to myself.

We are screening this film again at 12:00 PM on Monday in case you want to swing by.

Today my Meta began when I walked into a class, determined to inflict on students – stories from the wasteland that was my youth. I do this often because I am repairing something I lost as a young adult – time. On AM’s blog long ago, I’d read his tribute to Mulky – where he says that the most important thing he learnt from Mulky was to never be a passive receiver of information, that to be invested in your own learning is the most reliable way of rescuing yourself from inner demons. I was 24 when I read that and needless to say, my life changed.

If I were a student, I wouldn’t be a volunteer at Meta, I’d be a lizard sitting in on all the sessions and watching them aaram se, with the head space to live in the moment and not worry about organising.

I craved for that head space at Venkat Srinivasan’s brilliant session on Archiving. I’d never thought science capable of having memory. I was convinced that any archiving to do with science must be boring. On the contrary – Srinivasan told us about a bunch of physicists who celebrated the success of experiments conducted by buying a bottle of wine. This collection grew until a point where they didn’t need to refer to any documents to find out about experiments. They just had to look at the bottle and all details would naturally come to them.

This is also archiving because it tells a story. I liked the session because it gave professional validity to my sentimental need to collect things. We are all archivists without meaning to be.

Archives could be playful — sometimes a more reliable way of remembering history. And what’s history without stories. We need archives because they are a definite way of releasing stories from the boredom of textbooks. As Naveen Tejaswi’s Rohingya session showed us. The story of a Bangla man’s love for Mallu films is a moment worth remembering and going back to.

Editor Deepika S’s session ‘A Story I Chased’ brought to light the many dilemmas a young journalist has to deal with. Her story was about uncovering the custodial torture of Bam Bahadur, a Nepali watchman whose case is still unsolved. As she narrated his story and the challenges of getting details from policemen, especially if you are a female reporter, three girls in the audience shook their heads involuntarily, their eyes widening with shock.

KN Balraj’s Cartooning workshop was a hit. It is fascinating to watch a cartoonist at work. As Shalom Sanjay observed, ‘It was a fast process, his nimble fingers barely paused’

At the quiz today, I discovered another joy. It is watching teammates cussing and abusing each other for getting an answer wrong, or worse – coming very close to the correct answer. Many noticed with glee as Bhargav Bsr’s amusing reactions went from furiously throwing pens down to standing up, walking in circles and sitting back again.

Philip Victor and Miracline Kiruba’s rendition of regional romantic songs pulled students from outside to inside where Coconut naans and chai were consumed deliriously even as Bibith Joy was seen walking out in a huff muttering things under his breath. (‘I am going to kill her’) – who? Apparently someone on the hospitality committee who refused him naan because they wanted to wait until after the performance. But then Bibith Joy saw an entire posse walk in with naans in their hands. In the end, he got his naan.

 

Days Four, Five, and Six

Had the pleasure of sitting in on quizzes conducted by four incredible young women. Donna Eva and Archita Raghu conducted part of Guesstalt, the general quiz on Day three. Sandra Jiju and Nikhita Thomas conducted part of Bookends, the book quiz on Day Five.

I think about the energy and time these students have invested in setting questions, editing, and doing research. I think about whether they were nervous before taking stage. I think about the many distractions and the number of things they could be doing on a weekend but they decide to come do this. And for this – I am grateful.

Often times, people too full of privilege wonder why we make a big deal out of Meta, because they ‘feel’ it is too overrated. First of all who told you to feel? If you have too many feelings then go act in Bhansali’s next film. Second of all, feelings are overrated. Third of all, you are overrated.

I like Meta because I get the opportunity to watch women claim spaces. Also because it’s always more desirable to learn from students invested in themselves than sit and have too many feelings about the world.

As Vasu from Pushpavalli says, if you have any more ratings/suggestions/feelings please put it in your BumSandra.

***
Day Six was exciting only and only because Praveen Kumar G and Manjunayak T Chellur read from their work. In both their stories there are memorable women. One pokes her sleeping husband, and thrusts a weeping baby in his arms and another spits rainbows from her mouth.

Stomach felt warm at various points yesterday. It’s delightful that young men are imagining women and writing women’s stories. Had the opportunity to interview both these men for Open Dosa. A piece coming up soon.

The only disappointing thing was students feeling too cool to listen to Kannada. But as Praveen Kumar G said – abuse them in Kannada, then they’ll learn the language to find out what you said. So – ನಾಯಿ ನನ್ ಮಕ್ಳು ನೆಗ್ಗಿದ್ ಬಿದ್ದು ನೆಲ್ಲಿಕಾಯಿ ಆಗಿ .

 

To Bombay from Bombay

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I must return to Bombay for several reasons. One because I tricked myself into believing that a poem is enough but it never is and two because I am reading Vivian Gornick.

Seven years between you and a city of your childhood is enough to make you want to give up everything in its honour. Even if a great deal of this childhood was spent stuck in an apartment on the 8th floor. Even if Bombay was a two- month long vacation in a house full of singing aunties, a toothpick of an uncle whose only connection to the house, and his solitude was the wheezing AC in the only bedroom of the apartment, and an OCD prone grandmother who washed the floor and the TV with equal amounts of Surf Excel and madness.

This is all that Bombay was. This and the shopping bags from Linking Road that amma lugged into big suitcases every evening. These bags had what my sister and I wore for the rest of the year – pants in the gaudiest of red, purple, and pink. Jackets in Amrutanjan yellows, and night dresses with cows and moons on them.

She really did shop for the whole town, as dad would often say. She got bags with 20 compartments for various sisters-in-law and their cousins. Back in Bangalore, during functions, ‘Attige Bombay inda tandiddu,’ (Aunt got from Bombay) was muttered approvingly.

The evenings were hot and sweaty only because we stepped out of the AC room then. As I remember Mahim – its street walls  were permanently blackened by building after building of factories. Blue carts stood idly on the footpath- and behind them – bearded old men in off-white shirts selling vad-pav. We’d hit Icy Spicy for Chinese and the good old Shobha for North Indian and Kulfi.

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When I found myself in this city seven years later, I asked the nearest taxi driver to show me the way out and he mumbled something from his swollen red mouth, pan juice overflowing.

In the taxi, I was glued to the window, inhaling the formless, moving shapes outside. Big billboards with Deepika Padukone’s face on them told me that it has indeed been seven years. I think back to the time when long ago, returning from a film at 8 in the night, my aunt suddenly announced that Rani Mukherji and Karan Johar were sitting in the car next to us at the signal. I poked my head out the window, in between our car and theirs- and gaped at the horrified couple who were not Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.

They were then visibly upset and my aunt proceeded with all shamelessness to make it clear to them that even she wasn’t all that happy with them for not being Karan Johar and Rani Mukherjee.

Bombay hadn’t changed or if it had, I was happy to note that I didn’t care. The air was hot and smelled like it always had – Like the fantasy I had of going to Juhu Beach or an open drainage and blinding myself with a pair of binoculars, having set upon myself the task of finding the sea smell. I say binoculars here because of Garcia Marquez.

In Living to Tell the Tale, he mentions a night he spent with some friends. His brother couldn’t sleep properly because the goat next door was giving birth and the persistent moans of labour disturbed him so he said that the goat’s noise ‘is as annoying as a lighthouse’

That Lighthouse is my Binoculars.

Marquez later says that he would never forget this moment. And as it turns out, neither have I.

Bombay smell is like petrol smell. Not everybody appreciates it. There are takers and then there are abusers. I take it whole-nosedly.

It’s what I imagine I’ll smell if I stand at the edge of a flyover and open my nose out to the sea –  and it’s the same smell that follows me, away from the flyover, past Kamathipura and Andheri and into Marine Drive.

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In my room at the hotel next to Bombay hospital, I sneak into the small, parched balcony that is barely holding itself along with its hundred pigeon-droppings and the blackened floor. I lean out and leaning out, I reached into the corners of the mind where Bombay was tangled like the numerous black wires on the clotheslines outside the Loreto building in Mahim.

***

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The next morning, I was walking up and down the Marine Drive beach assuming I’d get to see Shah Rukh Khan’s house somewhere. It was only after fishing out my phone and keying in my destination did I realise that that was in Bandra. You know how when you are young and if you are going to a city of film-land; you are positive that you will ‘run into’ a famous film star or at least catch a passing glance — à la Fan in Fan.

What is the point, I felt like asking after Google told me how far Mannat was from Marine Drive. I was sad for a moment and then I realised that I was in Paro Devi’s city and immediately felt like I do when I’m in love. I felt hopeful and alive from the pit of my stomach. It was 7:30 in the morning. I was a little drowsy, mildly hung-over, and no Shah Rukh Khan anywhere. But I realised that just being in the same city as your favourite writer can save you in ways even Shah Rukh Khan can’t.

Did Paro Devi come here often, I wondered. And through the rest of my stay there – it’s all I asked myself.

I was in the same city as another Shah-Rukh lover and that seemed enough. I was in the same city as a writer whose work I’d stalked for years. And there – standing in Marine Drive smiling sheepishly at all the joggers, I was able to rescue Bombay from Bombay.

I returned home with Two Bombays. One is the Bombay of my childhood and there it will remain happily for the rest of my life. The other is a borrowed Bombay – one that you know through someone else, one that comes alive in someone else’s writing. And because of some one else’s love for the city, you consume it and learn to love it.

Elena Ferrante said “When there is no love, not only the life of the people becomes sterile but the life of cities.”

When I first read this, I shook my head. I didn’t agree. For a long time I believed that  cities come out alive when one is not in love. But maybe I should have just read it more carefully. She is not saying anything about being in love, she is saying when there is no love. Very different things. And back in Marine Drive that day, if I hadn’t thought about Paro Devi who had taught me so much about love through her writing and her documentaries — Bombay would have become sterile.

Feminism is about Love and kindness, she says in so many of her interviews. And as I have come to realise, it really is the closest definition of Feminism.

But what does Shah Rukh Khan have to do with love or feminism?

Now only I will start writing next post.

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Mangalore, Dec 2017

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Some cities are like Bollywood songs. You might forget the lyrics but you’ll still remember the tune, one or two specific words, the hero’s jataks, and the heroine’s mataks. Mangalore is that ooru. I’ll only know it through its sounds.

The frogs are alive and croaking, the trucks on the Kottara Chowki highway drone on so familiarly that they become happy background scores to the long whistles of pressure cookers that fill the house with Dalithoy smells. It’s the only city that makes me appreciate music.

 

Perhaps also because my uncle who never gets lyrics right is still convinced that Shah Rukh is not calling Preity Zinta ‘Pretty Woman’ in Kal Ho Na Ho, he is calling her ‘Hari Rumaal.’ Or my aunt who thinks that Kareena & Vivek are not singing ‘Begaana Begaana Begaani’ in Yuva. They are singing ‘Madonna Madonna, Madonni’

F.R.O.G.S

This piece was written over a stretch of the first few rainy evenings in September. On the first evening, I sat at the department computer, earphones plugged in — listening to YouTube audios of croaking frogs, crickets and other night sounds.

Mangalore and Goa are two of my favourite cities because the frogs here know me well. What began as a tribute to frogs became an inward journey  into the home that I spent my childhood in.

TVs had a volume of their own here and this was the most liberating thing about the house. It was always blaring loud no matter who was around. Back home in Bangalore, every time I sensed my father’s mood swings, I wished all the TV volumes in the world would mute. But in Mangalore, rules bent themselves so neatly that we sat on them and made paper boats.

***

In the afternoons, Goa and Mangalore have the same slumberworthy capacities. The heat becomes duller, settling on the eyelids — making it heavy with sleep. And if there are trees around, the occasional rustle of the wind sends the birds into disarrayed flapping of wings, causing many hypnic jerks. The short dreams are always about birds – flapping eyelashes instead of wings. And, of aeroplanes that fly dangerously close to huts.

Read more here.

Lalbagh

Lalbagh has been the cause for many embarrassments in my life. The first time I saw it, I saw it two times but it felt like four. I had no idea there were 4 gates and sitting next to my friend in the bus, I saw the west and east gates in fifteen minutes and asked her if the driver was taking us round and round. Supriya slapped her forehead even as she struggled to keep from laughing rudely in my face.

She explained and I said, ‘oh’. Then I moved on with my life.

Many years later, my then best friend began frequenting Lalbagh. She’d sit there for hours, sometimes the whole day. She’d order from Dominos, eat cheese garlic bread and watch the lake. I never understood what she sought there but she went there every day. Whatever she sought, she must have found abundantly. She tried to get me to enjoy the quiet there and I did enjoy it, but it wasn’t something I wanted too much of. Now that I think about it, Josephine is probably the only woman from my past who knew how to be alone and enjoy it.

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One day in Lalbagh, Josephine and I were sitting on the bench and preparing to leave when suddenly, she grabbed me by the arm and started to whisk me away. ‘Whaaaat’, I moaned. ‘Don’t look back. Whatever you do, do not look back’, she muttered. So I looked back. A man who had been sleeping all evening had woken up and was now pleasuring himself quite ferociously. Like there was no tomorrow. The phrase ‘going to town’ came to mind.

That man effectively ruined our hitherto chaste friendship. We had never talked about bodily things before and suddenly we found it difficult to return to Lalbagh together.

After that unfortunate incident, I forgot all about Lalbagh and it went back to being that part of the road that smells nice when I ride past it. Occasionally, I’d give it a cheerless nod and bookmark it for the future.

 

***

Today, it rained so I thought why not and swerved right on Siddapura Road to park suddenly in the middle of actual riding. I parked and wondered if I had to pay. There was no counter so I walked on, looking back every now and then and half expecting an old man to come running after me, yelling at me to pay. Nobody came.

When I began looking around, I realised how afraid I am of my own thoughts. Every time a long walk is in the cards, I pack my ipod before anything else and rely too much on music to keep me away from myself. But the only music here was the crunchy footwear sound that I have come to appreciate so much. The after rain footwear on part dry crunch-crunch mud sound, like the sound people in cartoons make when they eat anything.

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The traffic noise seemed to be coming from an approaching city. It was drizzling and it seemed like the trees were making their own noise. Men in smart colored tees were jogging past me with their hoo hoo breathlessness. Somewhere an urdu speaking aunty was instructing her daughter to forget the ball forever if she dropped it into the lake. ‘Gaya tho uthech, bhoolna so’

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The lake became more and more real as I saw the birds near it. The faint traffic noise now seemed to be coming from above. I walked to the Lotus pond and trained my ears to pick up coastal sounds of frogs croaking. One, maybe two and then suddenly nothing. But the trees were having fun and continued making their rustling noise. I was understanding Josephine and began missing her terribly and missed also that outrageous man who molested himself.

It was a good day.