Knowing and Unknowing

At some point in 2015, I became very comfortable with the idea that teaching is an autopilot thing. That it was enough if I had read a text/poem/short-story once – no matter how long ago it was – that it would be enough if I remembered it. Teaching was – more than anything else, remembering. And sometimes only that.

I woke up in 2018 accidentally, when for an Arts and Culture Journalism class, I had to read Pauline Kael again, but this time – I fell for her. I noticed a lot of things that I had barely paid attention to the first time. Her words made me hungry to write like that and I felt very alive. So I spent an hour before class that day drinking pleasure out of her Bonnie and Clyde essay and then making notes on the white board in the small media lab. I knew exactly what I wanted to say and it was a very unusual feeling. It’s sadly the only hour in seven years where I think I actually did well.

The preparation that went into that hour was eerily close to the preparation that went in for a class on Metonymy and Synecdoche three years ago. But that lecture was a disaster even if the pleasure was similar. I had just begun to understand the concepts but not enough to teach them. A lot of things had gone wrong but that hour taught me to measure my own learning before I did anything else with it.

And the Pauline Kael class taught me how to measure my learning. I learnt that in order to know what I was saying, I needed to perform a different kind of remembering – a more reliable kind – something that even students could take pleasure in seeing. This kind of remembering was easier because I only had to figure out what the element of pleasure was but it was also trickier and more difficult because this meant I also had to convince students that this kind of learning was valuable. And it’s only now that I can say – I cannot convince them without knowing enough.

I am paying attention to this because it is distressing to notice that students who are very aware of their learning, whose faces light up when I begin to talk about a poem lose interest because I am unable to go beyond a point. And I want very much to complete that circle of learning for them and that circle of teaching for me – simply because they are interested.

In Seattle, I was a student again- furiously taking notes because I was afraid I would forget something that had made too much sense to me, that if I don’t immediately write it down, it would be lost, and the world would be a distressing place to live in again.

That was how I learnt and now, it’s how I want to teach.

I am beginning to see the 50 mins that I spend in the classroom with students as time I’ll never get back, not even if it’s the same class the next day. I have to give this all I have, no matter how many times I return to it later.

***

Teaching Creative Writing is becoming more and more challenging. To begin with, I have to get over my own boredom with using old materials. I stick to Deepak Bhat’s Monsoon memories because its lessons are plenty and liberating. And I want to continue sticking to that. But I think I am becoming a little disillusioned with my own comfort with speaking about writing because writing has been the hardest this year, and so speaking about it has been hard too.

The Dalit and Bahujan literature classes were difficult to teach this semester. It kept me on my toes for several reasons. For once, it made me return to Ambedkar every week. And I learnt a lot but had no idea where to put it or how.

And then I also saw that this is a class where I’d have assumed the auto-pilot method to work very well but it’s the only class where an auto-pilot method will never work because it’s difficult to talk about Ambedkar first as a Dalit man, a leader, a political figure and then to make students see the other Ambedkar – the sexy writer. And I can never do this from memory. I can only do it from a place of reverence and playfulness both of which are difficult to produce week after week without having read Ambedkar every day.

This semester, I read Maggie Nelson, Ali Smith, Natalia Ginzburg, and Miranda July but I don’t know what it means if I haven’t felt the desire to take them to classes yet but have enjoyed reading them very much. Maybe this has a lot to do with my realisation that teaching and writing are not on auto-pilot anymore and this scares me but it also makes me feel like an adult with real problems.

I now realise that the only writer I have consistently read over this year is Ambedkar and I am looking forward to approaching him as a creative writing teacher next semester.

What 2018 taught me

This news story from yesterday cheered me up.

Screenshot via TOI
Screenshot via TOI

“I was feeling cold and I thought Ambedkar would be feeling the same, and therefore I have covered him with a blanket and lit a bonfire near the statue”

This is the sort of story that Gabito would have loved – the sort that Manto showed us so often in his. But why that soulless headline? This is probably why Garcia Marquez said that journalists should read more fiction – someone who’d read Manto would never have written that headline.

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In other news, my time is being vacuum- cleaned by god knows what. Suddenly, there is too much to do and suddenly I am only watching Sex and the City. It’s January already which means it’s not long before the Pink Tabebuias outside my house start blooming and falling – not long before Meta comes and goes, not long before I whine about Orion Mall and BIFFES – not long before BQFF – and definitely not long before I am 31.

I wore a damn saree to celebrate turning 30 but mostly as tribute to Savitri Mai’s extra saree. Last year, I learnt that cow dung is best fought with an extra saree. 

My blog carries an extra saree more than I do because it gets attacked with more cow dung than I. It changes sarees like my mouma does – lazily, quickly, and effortlessly.

People who really want to engage don’t carry around cow dung. It’s a good thing that so much of Savarna opinion is unoriginal which means it’s the same old ghissapita flavor of cow dung which hasn’t changed since 2014.

But really – can’t you at least throw something of a challenge along with the cow dung?Even so, my blog likes wearing shimmering pink sarees with small mirrors on the border, and bright yellow bandhani sarees with backless blouses. In a small bag, it carries a plain cotton one – the color of cow dung.

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Some nice things happened in November – I realised that what I have really wanted since 16 was to be independent. It has taken me 14 years but it is finally beginning to feel like it’s happening – I am 16 again. It’s like coming home and finding myself waiting all these years.

And then, more answers began falling – a mad writing energy took over, First Post asked me to write columns for them (!) and I found new love for podcasts and poetry.

Everything is moving too fast, like news on Twitter – and like always I must come back to my blog to breathe.

I can’t help but recollect that when I began writing for The Ladies Finger – I wrote about what I really only care about – films, TV shows, and books. I wish I could go back to doing that. It’s where I learnt everything I know today. They took me seriously as a writer and made me believe that I am more than my caste. This is something that other news websites and magazines should probably learn – you only notice us when some burning caste issue takes over and suddenly Dalit women are in demand to write. It’s not a nice thing to do.

That’s why I am thrilled about writing columns. I am waiting to write about Sara Ali Khan, Mrs. Maisel, food and gossip.

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Much of last semester was spent at home with my damn foot in a plaster. Probably a valuable lesson – I now watch where I am walking. Something else that I began seeing only lately is the idea that sharing is anti-Brahmanical – whether it’s knowledge of what you are reading/writing or what Tejas Harad thoughtfully did here by sharing  what he wrote last year and how much he was paid – sharing essentially breaks down a system that benefits from keeping knowledge and money a secret.

Here are a bunch of things I read/listened to/ wrote:

Reading:

  1. The Mill on the Floss (going back to it now) – George Eliot
  2. How Proust Can Change Your Life –  Alain De Botton
  3. The year of Magical Thinking -Joan Didion
  4. Normal People – Sally Rooney
  5. Wild – Cheryl Strayed
  6. Essays by Rebecca Solnit
  7. Essays and poems by Patricia Lockwood
  8. Poems by Dorianne Laux
  9. The Neighbourhood – Mario Vargas Llosa
  10. Two Novellas – Paul Zacharia

Writing –

  1. A book review for The Open Dosa – A review of Mother steals a bicycle and other stories
  2. A report for The Open Dosa – What happened when Bengaluru’s working class women had a #MeToo meeting?
  3. An op-ed for First Post – Jack, what the hack: The absurd outrage of Brahmins against Twitter CEO
  4. An interview feature of Sujatha Gidla – In her words, and mine: Getting to know Ants Among Elephants’ award-winning author Sujatha Gidla
  5. A column on Maltirao Baudh- ‘Marenge toh manch pe marenge’: Experiencing love and finding answers in Maltirao Baudh’s songs
  6. Co-written with Sharmishta for News 18 – If ‘Untouchability’ at Sabarimala Makes You Angry, Then Welcome to the World of Dalit Women

I used to think that translation was effort, time, and energy. But it’s a whole other joy to get to know translation as an act of intimacy and love more than anything else. The Maltirao piece was translated to Hindi by Rahul Paswan and to Tamil by LJ Violet.

Paswan’s translation is much better than the faltu English original. Reading it in Hindi gives it another kind of energy altogether. If I could read Tamil, I am sure I would say the same about LJ Violet’s piece. Needless to say, the Maltirao piece is not mine anymore – it is theirs.

Here are a bunch of other things I am excited about –

  • Listening to Stitcher every morning
  • Getting back to riding
  • French press coffee
  • Sex and the City
  • Sara Ali Khan
  • Teaching Wordsworth for Research Seminar
  • At the Atta Galata event, Mandi said ‘Own your words’ – and I am now learning to stand tall and read out my work proudly.
  • Making time to write fiction
  • Goa
  • Reading Clifford Geertz
  • Writing academic paper proposals
  • ‘It was Gold’
  • Teasing the idea of a PhD on Joan Didion
  • Watching the stunning Living Smile Vidya speak so boldly here
  • Watching this Trevor Noah interview again and again – reminds me of mouma.
  • Owning days – especially weekends
  • Wearing sarees. I have always wanted to wear it the way Namsiess does.
  • Understanding quizzes as narrative
  • Wondering if there is more to math than numbers – understanding math as narrative too
  • One Sunday I talked about Pariyerum Perumal for The Lewd Cabal podcast run by a bunch of enthu tamil boys. I was nervous. I don’t think I made sense but I enjoyed being on the show
  • Every time I return from Dilli, and my AIDMAM sisters, I feel like I have become a better version of myself. This time, Asha Zech taught me to be less angry – nodkolona, aagatte (let us see, it will happen) she says about everything.

Through this all, I think I am close to understanding what Joan Didion meant when she said ‘Remember what it is to be me, that is always the point’

20182018

LOL – II

Image Credits - Alison Bechdel, Are you My Mother?
Image Credits – Alison Bechdel, Are you My Mother?

We are separated – you and I

by the big measure of laugh

that my work throws at you,

and others like you.

Even so, I hope that one day –

you too will find something that you love doing,

and then,

at least then – 

I, and the few others like me –

will stop mattering in your world.

And you, greatness embodied, can finally get a life

of your own,

your own.


B.I.N.G.I.N.G

Through the month spent binge-watching House MD, I worried that the irony of losing eyesight from watching a medical show would be too funny.

My eyes are tired now but the head is clearer. It scares me to think of the times when I’d look up from the screen to speak to someone and my eyes would begin watering.

I don’t know what to do with all the sunset that is suddenly falling on my desk now.

But I am glad it’s over. I didn’t know that a big part of binge-watching is also the bleeding hurry to get it over with and move on with life. I will miss listening to the words Tachycardia Lupus CT MRI Cardiomyopathy Cushing’s Vicodin Pithy Psychosis.

Goodbye, House. Thank you for believing that work really is everything. Even if proved otherwise.

house_wallpaper_by_ishtarisimo

To Adult means what?

Image credits: TeePublic
Featured Image credits: TeePublic

No one told me that a big part of being an adult is paperwork. I spent all of last week being a good adult. And must now die in the nostalgia of sweet childhood where being adult was a lot more fun.

I am still hungry for the romance that I assume will only arrive after running away from home. The romance of living alone with a cat which will come and go like in Eunice D Souza‘s poems. Of dealing with plumbing issues on my own. Of having the occasional dinner party where friends bring expensive wine, and after they have gone, of staying up late to wash vessels and finally, of gazing out into the window like Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the enemy.

I have friends who live on their own and as I write this, I can hear their bouncing laughs. It is nothing like this. And I believe them when they say it. Even so, this has been my ultimate love story – to live alone except for those long weekends where lovers drop in and go, but cats always come back.

I digress.

The second thing I am beginning to understand about adulthood is that it’s mostly about being blind to it. A lot of growing up has happened over this year and I haven’t had the time to slow down, to see it, to either congratulate myself or curse it. Early last week, on Ambedkar Jayanthi, I wrote something that I had been trying to write for 2 years now. That post had been sitting in various angry drafts in various folders. It is a story I may have told very often, but for the first time, it didn’t feel like it was pointless. This time I had something to say.

***
Until a certain point, my life was overcrowded with people whose victories were quite strangely and rather strongly determined by how pointless they could make me feel about my writing. I have kicked them all out of my life and that is the third thing about adulthood – the gift of being able to say fuck off.

First Post carried my piece. They have some really cool design so it reads differently and better than it does on my blog. You can read it here.

I am grateful to Snegaa, who is famous for making Brahmin bedbugs weep. Snegaa who has always been there – ever since I started this blog. Over the years I have sent her pieces that I’ve enjoyed writing as also those I’ve struggled with. She has always taken time to read them carefully and offer solid advice. As of today, she is my dominatrix agent who sends me one- line reminders about sending writing pitches to publishers.

Namsiess, the love of my life is actually My Brilliant Friend. She is my Elena Ferrante, and my Lila-Lenu.

Very quickly, before this begins to sound like some lame I’d like to thank speech, I want to return to that Saturday evening of December 2012 when I was a newbie in the department. How I shyly took a piece I’d written to show it to AM and how I’d turned around with great speed and ran for my life immediately after.

Over the years, I learnt not to run, I learnt to be less afraid of my writing and what he was going to say about it. Right from calmly telling me for the 100th time, why something wasn’t working in my writing  – to his comments in those balloon like things on Microsoft word that went – ‘Were you fucking sleeping when you wrote this sentence? WAKE UP’  – to ‘Vj, just keep writing like you don’t care’ — It won’t be an exaggeration to say that over six years, he’s the teacher I am still learning from. Not just how to read and write, but also to work, to be a friend, to ignore, and most importantly — to be kind.

***

It’s my first time getting paid for something I’ve written. I have been waiting to let that sink in. It still hasn’t. And I hope it never does. Letting that sink in would be to forget the various small pleasures that I can otherwise mindlessly engage in. Like thinking about how all my school and college friends are married, about how I am every day grateful for not having done science/MBA/IIT/marriage/babies, about how I used to fail science and math but still managed to adult well, about how small I’d feel on days they’d return test papers with 9/60 and 3/50 — underlining boldly – the big failure I was to become in life.

I wish someone else was writing this but because nobody is going to narrate my life in third-person Anu Agarwal style, I must do it myself. That is the fourth thing about adulting. That sometimes you have to be the narrator, the writer, the heroine, and the villainess of your own fucking life.

P.S – Today rumlolarum is four-years-old. This baby has helped me grow more than I could have managed on my own. I’m all smiles and love. See? Proof: I don’t have to be married to be a mother.

Today I celebrate rumlolarum and my PCOD- prone uterus. Cheers!

 

rumlolarum
Thank you, WordPress!

 

 

*** Featured Image credits: TeePublic

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.

***

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

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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