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’

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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)

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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.

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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 😦

Once upon a not so long ago

Image Credits: The TLS Blog
Featured Image Credits: The TLS Blog

If like me, you come from an adolescence that didn’t know it was happening while it was happening, if you weren’t aware of the joys that investing in oneself can bring — if you made the mistake of making one person central to your entire life, then you will hurry through the remainder of your youth with a biting madness.

Marquez’s life changed after reading the first line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It paralysed him first and then set him free. ‘I didn’t know you could lie in writing,’ he said.

Paris Review
Image Credits – Paris Review

A discovery that did the same for me was ‘I didn’t know I could live like this’

Live how you ask. Like you are alive after a long time of being dead. Like you don’t want to share your day with anybody because you guard the time you have like a lion guarding his cubs. Like any moment not spent doing the things you love (even if it is sleeping for 8 hours or staring at yellow curtains for 3 hours) makes you cringe. Like the thought of marriage makes you say no thanks, I’ll give you one kidney if you want. Pliss leave me alone.

When you spend your youth chasing fears and running away from them at the same time, there’s very little left to love yourself. You go to bed unhappy and wake up miserable. You will allow a beautiful thing like love to cripple you. You will invite self-pity and aren’t too far from depression.

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I spent last night poring over Amulya Shruti’s blog. Her writing is like carpentry. You can’t help but watch as she is at it – tugging, pulling, breaking, joining, cutting, welding and then when she’s done: the work stands itself up and grins at you. Almost as if the writing came out of her body. This confirms a long standing suspicion I have had of the connection between music and writing.

The practice of writing is not to make writing perfect but to train your body to become a sort of vessel for writing.

Here is a piece on Kishori Amonkar. Read it. Ila explains it better than I can.

Kishori Amonkar has always said about music: that she was not singing a raag, but that the raag was coming through her — where the music was more important than the musician.

India Samvad
Image Credits: India Samvad

***

Before leaving to college yesterday, I listened to Paromita Vohra speak at IIHS on YouTube (Bless you) — been reeling from too much love since then – for everyone in general but myself, in particular. No one else has made loving oneself seem so attractive and desirable.

She speaks with a clarity that can arm you with a rare pleasure for work. I myself went to college with a spring in my bum.

She wonders what it must have been like for Lata Mangeshkar to go to work every day with the conviction of producing a perfect song. Apparently she drove directors mad because she wouldn’t let go until the song could not be made more perfect. What must it be like to have this kind of a relationship with work? Paromita asks. Then she says, “I like writing perfect columns. I’m not saying all my columns are great but they are definitely good”

With Paro Devi & her fans - Jan 2018
With Paro Devi & her fans – Jan 2018

I love women. I love it even more when they talk about their work and take pride in what they do. It’s the most glorious ache to spend hours agonizing over each word, sharpening each sentence until they become flesh- ripping canines.   

How to produce good writing though? How to make that glorious ache visible? How to begin? How to develop style? I was thankful to all the faces that asked these questions. 

Vohra said – ‘It’s important to know yourself and to know the kind of things you like to write. It’s the only thing that helps. You should be able to show your own political journey in your writing.’

Often she has said that she likens the act of writing columns to Bollywood film songs – there’s rasa, there’s oomph, there’s persuasion, there’s a question and then there’s some degree of attempt at solving this question.

This comparison never fails to make me happy. A large part of my childhood was spent listening to these songs, watching useless films and feeling guilty about not doing productive work. But then there are writers like these who seem to be rooting for all the pleasures of my childhood and saying — no no that was good, it’s what makes you write. Work is play, play is work.

For someone whose only occupation was to imagine her own death while brushing her teeth – and to weep while she rehearsed what others would say and feel at her funeral – a commitment to working towards something – no matter how bad she is at it – is a gift, a luxury.

"I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again - as I always am when I write" - Virginia Woolf Image Credits: The Telegraph
“I was in a queer mood, thinking myself very old: but now I am a woman again – as I always am when I write” – Virginia Woolf Image Credits: The Telegraph

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Featured Image Credits: The TLS Blog

Meta Diaries: Days Seven and Eight

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A new contest we’ve added this year (for other fests to grab, and announce it as the first time anyone in college has ever conducted it) is Pretext.

I’ll just say the word interpret and give you a picture of Hitler’s jingling anatomy and a Nazi symbol for heart. Do what you can in 5 minutes. So this happened on Day Seven and we saw some ten contestants staring at fellow team mates hungrily and blinking rarely.

Our first Panel at Meta was to commemorate 50 years of JAM (Just a Minute) Our panelists were alumni Darius Sunawala, Prof Cheriyan Alexander and students Izrael and Zahed.

Coming as I do with only a degree in Bollywood, I had for the longest time assumed that JAM is what little Anjali did in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai – where she picked the word Maa and stumbled and stuttered until Paa came and rescued her.

I was wrong. JAM has been adapted and made raita-khichdi of by many. It was a delight to watch Darius speak of the good ol days. Prof Arul Mani had told us at JAM the other day that Nicholas Parsons based the rules of JAM on an incident from school. His professor caught him daydreaming and asked him to explain to the class what was being discussed without hesitation, repetition and deviation (!)
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CK Meena’s Lec Dem on women in journalism was proof that we need sessions like these every other week. Some five bois were rolling eyes at the mere mention of women.The eyes came out of sockets when she hadn’t even reached the fem of feminism.

Nevertheless, she told us about how women reporters back then were rare and if they did join, were given dog shows and cake shows and flower shows to cover. Maybe the bois should have rolled eyes at this.
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Day Eight began with a change in venues. But that has never bothered Meta.

Our event Nose Cut (are the creative peeps listening?) was quite the hit. After slight mind acrobatics, it was decided that Alok Nath, Rakhi Sawant, Tiger Shroff and Lola Kutty would be put together. Most of the participants chose Alok Nath and the one team that chose Lola Kutty won the audience over with his rendition of confused malluness and ever-falling pallu. At one point he said ‘female chetas’ and people howled.

Anchor What made me Dil-Khush yesterday because two BCA students came first.

The gulabi moment of the Young Adult Fiction panel was one Miss Sarah Rodriguez announcing quite coolly that “no writer writes for the entire world” and Prof Rincy Thomas declaring that “there should be an event at Meta where boys should be given a copy of The Princess Diaries” – that was our all-women – all -kickass – panel at Meta this year.

The highlight of the day was writer SR Ramakrishna talking about translating the late UR Ananthamurthy’s autobiography – Suragi. When he read out some excerpts, I couldn’t help but notice how much the voice was like the one in Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri (A word with you, world – also translated by SR Ramakrishna)

It was amusing to note that in three of the five excerpts he read, three people died — and all very casually. ‘He played cards and then he died’

Managed to get a signed copy. Cannot wait to read it.

Happy New Year to Me

Fab year so far. Got to meet two of my favourite writers.

In Jan, Paro Devi came to college and stayed in the guest house right above the department so every morning, I sat at my desk with a spring in my bum- singing Parodevi is breathing above my desk – now she must be sleeping – now she must be eating.

I got to meet her personally and thank her for all the love she sends through her writing. Here’s a happy picture.

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Blee.

And then Times Lit Fest happened. It’s kakka and I would have never gone. I went only because I was to be on an interview with Sujatha Gidla 🙂

I don’t want to say much here because I’m writing about meeting her. Let me just say that I have never met an author who was just as happy to meet a fan as the fan was to meet her.

You can watch the interview here

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In other news, Meta begins today. So I’ll see you after 400 years 🙂

Ants among Elephants

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Here is my piece on reading Sujatha Gidla’s memoir – Ants among Elephants. The book was read over two days and written over three.

Best week ever.

The most comforting thing about the book was learning that I have to hurry. There are many, many family stories waiting to be written. This was also extremely unsettling. All the men and women in my family who can tell me about us – our caste, its history, and its stories are in their 80s.

Ants among Elephants is a story about many such people who dared to lift their heads up and look at the sky. And I am grateful for this because these are stories that must be written and told and shared — again and again — not just because soon, we will have lost all those who lived in these stories but also because these stories are what allow us to save them from being frozen like statues in history and government offices.

Featured image Credit: Shirin Jaafari/PRI via https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-10/india-she-was-untouchable-new-york-city-she-became-author