Doors

It’s exhausting to occupy two worlds when you know that really, you belong to only one because that’s where you want to be. Home is home only when I don’t have to deal with the fatherliness of boundaries, the anti-elixir of freedom. I wonder now what happens to the body in this fight between the life you want to live and the one you can’t escape.

A week ago I saw that in my mind I live a completely different life from one that is expected out of my body and me at home. Coming back home from work before the pandemic only held the promise of sleep and early morning solitude. It didn’t need me to change who I was before stepping into the house because everyone would already be asleep, except mother whose anger simmered on her eyelids in a half dream-half awake state.

That I had a place to be in every morning for nine years, that I didn’t have to wear another face for work, another for home offered me a kind of freedom I haven’t appreciated enough. It is irritating to write this with what I assume is a cheap xerox copy of freedom, knowing that outside this room, there are people with the original, people who see a completely different life for me, and seem awfully confident that it’s all going to happen, despite me.

I feel like a fraud sometimes, talking and dreaming of freedom with passion and fury – never intense enough to go get it. Sometimes I am able to persuade myself into believing that parental expectation is not free of caste, so I shouldn’t wallow in a helplessness that wasn’t designed by me. Despite that and despite years of knowing and unknowing caste, I continue to be bothered by how unsettling it is to confront that there’s still something I don’t have and will never have. Every day I wonder what it would be like to be the student whose ambitions burn my insides with a fever, to be in homes where marriage is barely mentioned, and dinner is always a table full of charts and maps- making plans to go here, go there for studies, and mornings aren’t battlefields for last night’s unspoken demands.

Stepping outside my room after class last week, I overheard someone say on the phone that getting daughters educated is a mistake, that they shouldn’t be sent to schools because they grow up wanting to do PhD, not wanting to be married. I walked straight back into my room, my legs burning with the desire to run, hands wishing they were now holding the key to the department door while my bedroom door swelled with rage and slammed hard on the other world, the bolt clicking it shut.

Today, I am just grateful for doors. They not only open other worlds for you, they also close.

Not going to stop

The distress about Dalits being able to access reservation and social capital is somewhat similar in that it upholds the argument that Dalits have unfairly and insincerely used something in their favour to promote themselves. You are saying that their achievements (however little or nonexistent) are always the result of somebody else’s hard work, friendship, and favour; that they have had to do no work to access the privileges they appear to be enjoying; that their work had nothing to do with their “capital” – social or otherwise. The erasure of work and merit from a Dalit person’s journey is violent.

***

Detour: While I still haven’t learnt how to take a moment to pause when my work is attacked, I am only now coming to the idea that I need to recognize it for what it truly is – a distraction. Meaning, it doesn’t merit more than one nod, two sighs, three teas and then – back to work.

But I feel compelled to protect my work because I don’t know who else is going to do it for me. I don’t see why people should take the effort to slip out of their day into mine only to vent bitterness. What instinct can cause people to lose themselves so uncontrollably to hate? And why am I expected to rise above and not make it about myself when my work is being questioned? I’m sure people will stop saying ‘You are not your work’ if they had any idea about how caste functions.

I spent the last three days responding to hate with anger. I was distracted. I couldn’t read or write without looking back, without feeling that someone was attacking something valuable and that I had to be there to protect it, not here – reading. I longed to go back to the week before where I’d settled into a routine of reading, listening to podcasts, and watering plants. Thankfully, after days of restlessness and the inability to read, I arrived at Toni Morrison’s words and now feel purged.

Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

I’m partly charmed by how easily this is also about caste. An attack on your work is a summon. It keeps you from working. That is its purpose – to stop you from doing what you really want to do. That is also the function of caste. It demands your full attention. It’s a trap. The more distracted you are, the longer they can keep you from working. Reading these words was like rubbing salt into the wounds of time wasted.

In an interview about writing Beloved, Toni Morrison was asked if she became as angry writing it as the reader was when they were reading it. “Is it possible for you to have written Beloved dispassionately?”

She says – “I couldn’t write it in anger. It is a paralyzing emotion. You can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, igniting feeling. I don’t think it’s any of that. It’s helpless. It is absence of control. And I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers, and clarity in order to write. Anger doesn’t provide any of that. I have no use for it whatsoever. I could be melancholy and I could be full of regret. But anger is useful to the people who watch it. It’s not useful to me”

When the interviewer misinterprets it to mean aloofness, she is quick yet patient to correct him – “Not aloofness. I am not aloof and unfeeling. I am an artist. It’s about putting those things in a different cauldron. My compassion could be just as harmful, my love, my fervor too. But to write a book, I must be penetrating and roving. After all, art is but the restoration of order”

I feel saved by these words today and I wish I remember to be saved by them every other day.

In memory of those who stood for a long time holding cow dung in their hands, and those who earnestly and diligently continue to do so – I am celebrating my blog. It is my version of the ‘extra saree’. This is my capital. I learnt how to write here. Keep throwing. I’ll keep writing. Not going to stop even if you stop throwing ❤️

It might also do me some good to remember that summer of 2018 when I was reading whatever I could find by Elif Batuman, and bothering those around me with questions on freedom, work, & love. Something about how women manage to find & keep joy in life.

A writer I really admire had told me this:

“I never ever feel the whole world is attacking me. I have no engagement with the whole world. I am very very interested in the opinions and judgements of a small group of people and even there much much much less than I did in my 20s. I don’t believe the whole world is interested in me either”

I was reminded of this today and want to print it out and keep it on me at all times. It makes me zoom out of myself for a bit and look at everything from a distance, always a relief since it’s so difficult to zoom out when anger takes over.

You can listen to Morrison’s interview here.

Is it THAT hard to leave us alone?

Journalism is no one’s father’s property.

I’ve seen a gate keeping mentality practiced by some journalists in upholding a Brahmanical distinction between what is pure journalism & what isn’t, what is serious hard-core journalism & what is chotabheem journalism.

One of them says ‘writing opinion pieces doesn’t make anybody a journalist.’ This was said in response to a tweet where I’d listed out the Dalit & Bahujan writers, journalists, & activists I’d invited to talk to students (since he was asking for percentages, I gave him names)

Dalit women activists talking about their experiences with upper caste men who threatened them when they were trying to put together a fact finding report about the rape and murders of Dalit women in Haryana and Jharkhand is not journalism?

A Dalit writer talking about Savarna gatekeeping in film writing/criticism is not journalism? A Dalit Transwoman, talking about her struggles with identity & writing her autobiography is not journalism?

A 92-year-old Dalit man talking about his experiences with caste is not journalism? There were Dalit students & teachers who were listening to him that day, hanging on to every word he was saying. He talked fiercely about caste & his school days on a panel with two Dalit students who had read his book, who had never before talked in front of an audience but inspired by the 92 year old man who called himself 29, they talked just as fiercely. This is not journalism?

A Bahujan writer talking about how he began writing, & how he now deals with criticism of his writing is not journalism? It may mean very little to you but having such writers come & talk about their experiences to Dalit students unlocks things that aren’t easy to understand. To begin with, it gives us hope to write & keep writing, even amidst Savarna gate keeping.

As a teacher, I’ve also come across Dalit & Bahujan students who deny caste, become aware of it later & figure out their own ways of negotiating with it. And it is their freedom to do that, as much as it is their freedom to not want anything from me or my work.

Now coming to the actual keeda of the matter, if your question is why wasn’t ‘I’ – self appointed god of journalism- invited – I can perhaps address that differently. But don’t mansplain Dalit women about what journalism is. Some of us have survived without your mentorship all these years, & will perhaps continue to survive. The goal of most writing courses is not as ambitious as producing Pulitzer Prize winners or even hard core journalists.

My goal is to keep students interested in life, in writing, and in wanting to become independent. And again this is subject to what they want to do. If that doesn’t allow me to be a godmother, I am ok with that.

I teach a paper on resisting caste. Students come to the classroom with set ideas about what to expect & find it hard to deal with a paper that isn’t taught like how other Indian literatures are. It has taken time to get to a position where I have the liberty to set a syllabus where I can only put Dalit, Bahujan & Adivasi writers but teaching it hasn’t been easy either. I can only teach that paper emotionally. And students aren’t used to that.

They demand intellectual rigour where I can only offer my own vulnerability. But a paper like this helps Dalit students find themselves & embrace their identities. And this is a big deal for me, even if it means that they don’t go to ACJ after & change the world. Not all uplifted people go to ACJ. Read this piece for some insight – http://www.opendosa.in/shoes-to-fill-a-journey-of-discovery-and-acceptance/

As for the claims that the Dalits who have social capital aren’t doing anything to uplift those who don’t. Best to begin practice at home. And even better if we stop imposing our ideas of upliftment on others. Even Ambedkar didn’t impose. Who are you?

Someday I want to see Dalit writers writing fiction for The New Yorker, I want to see them writing food essays for Gourmet, I want to see them screen their films at every international film festival. Is that wrong? Is it wrong to want those things for myself?

If there weren’t such persistent & dramatic Savarna gatekeeping here, we wouldn’t have to dream internationally. Sometimes our survival doesn’t seek other people’s permission or mentorship. I’ve learnt that the more visible you are, the more irritated they get.

It pisses them off to see that we are writing, teaching, surviving. But Ambedkar taught me to keep working despite who says what & it’s what I’m going to do. If that screws with your plans, Jai Bhim to you.

Some of us are not interested in being champions of revolution nor do we need your awards or rewards. We just want to work. Is it that hard to leave us alone?

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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Why so much extra?

Chhapaak (2020) has an interesting moment that I want to remember.

Malti (Deepika Padukone) and her team are in the office, celebrating the new amendment in the IPC (326 A and 326 B – which ensures a separate section for acid attacks) There is a cake that says ‘Happy Birthday 326 A 326 B’ – there are chips, samosas, juice, and loud music (Radha from Student of the Year) At one point, the neighbours phone them up, and ask for the volume to be reduced. They scream noooo and keep the party going. There’s mauj in the air. The women (all acid attack survivors) look happy and continue dancing.

Amol (Vikrant Massey) – activist, and founder of the NGO walks in and turns off the music. He looks displeased. Malti tries to pacify him (“come, cut the cake”) and he patronizingly asks for an explanation of what 326 A and B mean. Malti answers him and he goes on to berate her and all of them. It has only been amended. That doesn’t mean acid attacks will stop. Even cold drinks are more expensive than acid. Acid hasn’t been banned. Your own petition to ban acid has gone nowhere in the last 7 years and you want to party?

I want to slap his face.

Everything I want to take away from the film rests unfairly on what Malti will say next. And as I inch closer towards Malti, she calmly says “Amol sir, you know what your problem is? You behave as if you’ve been attacked with acid. But the acid was thrown on me, not you. And I — want to party

The people standing tensely around them loosen up a little, and begin laughing. Amol doesn’t know where to look. He has just been served so he retreats. 

I was left amazed but more importantly, I was left with a stone to throw at every idiot who took my personal and made it their political. Every so often, I meet young people who want to change the world. I don’t have very many feelings about them but it’s beyond irritating when they begin to act like Amol. Everything is either black or white. They won’t notice love but they talk about change. Nothing is political if it isn’t spelled out or doesn’t come with the color of dissent. You can’t party or run fests in times of dissent. What kind of a Dalit are you if you are happily sitting and organizing fests when the country is crumbling around you?

They ask this so articulately and with so much passion that you will wonder if they are Dalit.

In the past, I have felt extremely inadequate next to these super articulate people, looking back at my childhood and parents with bitterness, accusing them of having taught me nothing. Growing up was bitterness, inadequate, insecure, always doubting if I was thinking correctly, and always on the lookout for approval from super articulate people.

I craved the clarity that the Amols of the world had – they knew when they were right and that was ok but they pakka for sure knew when you were wrong. How do you arrive at that confidence? The Amols of the world have convinced us that we need their stamp of approval even to confirm our victim hood, even if it means that we want to party, despite our victim hood. 

It began changing when I discovered being Dalit and then I didn’t want to be that kind of articulate anymore. That kind of articulate is rooted in privilege, in the safe knowledge that there are enough people under you over whom you will always be above and therefore ‘better’ and ‘correct.’ That it’s somebody’s great fortune that you are forsaking this privilege to share their miseries. That you must be right because you have impeccable English and speak so fiercely and articulately.

When I became more and more watchful of my parents as Dalits, I went back to my childhood, and their early parenthood with a force that was still very new to me. There was guilt and I didn’t know where to put it in the middle of seeing them in a completely different light. I discovered them as heroes who did more revolution than anybody else and they did this without patronizing other people or knowing anything about activism. What can be more articulate than that?

The clarity with which super articulate people speak comes with its own share of arrogance and that made me thankful for everything I didn’t have as an adolescent. I still wish I had the courage to speak my mind when I thought I was right but I am glad I didn’t take that chance because as I have come to discover – constantly wondering if I am wrong is a better way to learn. It’s perhaps why in my adulthood now, I have very little to undo, to unsay, to apologize for. And like Malti, I can tell you to fuck off if I want to party or organise litfests.

What 2019 taught me

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At a Gender Bender panel last year, Paromita Vohra said that paying attention to something was a way of loving it. It was truth that I could hold in my hands for hours — and be struck with its simple marvels for a long time after.

2019 was great, funny, curious, strange, and sad. But I wasn’t always paying attention to it when it was happening. After months of feeling divorced from my many versions, I am here today to pay attention to the year that was and to all the versions of me that were. If this is too self-indulgent for you: get over yourself, it’s my website, I paid for it, I’m not going to write about your thatha here.

*I spent the morning of the first day in 2019, sitting at home, and applying for an internship program in Seattle. It was a long shot and I was sure my CV was nowhere close to meriting any notice. It was a one-month program and it felt surreal to be applying but I had fun putting together my CV and taking measure of how much work had been done and how much more remained. Co-wrote a piece for News 18 here.

*Later that month, I wrote about what it’s like to be Dalit and a teacher in a classroom full of Savarna students – here. The piece had been writing itself for a while before it came out, as was the follow-up piece written in a state of serious giggles.

*I haven’t had a stable February memory since 2013, thanks to Meta. I wrote about Meta 2019 here and here.

*In March, I wrote about filmmaker Jyoti Nisha here and paid attention to a song like I never have, and wrote about it here.

*In the mad rush of lab exam season one March morning, I got a call from the US Embassy with a bit of good news. I was standing at my table at work, shuffling through papers, waiting to start the exam, when the woman I was talking to said that I had been selected for the internship. I smiled, went to the bathroom and hugged myself. I couldn’t believe it, and as it happened, I wouldn’t believe it even until 3 months later, when I was boarding the plane to Seattle. I was happy but more worried. That’s the thing with dreams – when you reach there, you are so worried about things that could go wrong that you don’t pause to congratulate yourself for things that did go right.

*April was a good writing month, but a slow reading month. I am still very worried about how long it takes me to finish reading books. Reviewed Kancha Ilaiah’s and Yashica Dutt’s memoirs. Went to Goa alone and made a dog friend named bleach.

*May was spent lying in bed with the fan on full speed, reading Love in the Time of Cholera, eating avocados, and waiting for Seattle to happen.

*In June I was swallowed whole by Deborah Levy about whom I wrote here. After June 28 my time wasn’t mine until I returned from Seattle on Aug 12. I still haven’t figured out a way to write about it. A short-story seemed liberating so I am working on one now. I read a bit, didn’t write at all but spent long hours in the library reading and dreaming about writing.

*August and September were slow. If it weren’t for Kate Hepburn, I would have perhaps never recovered from Seattle.

*October 10 is World Mental Health Day and I wrote “I can’t be depressed, I am Dalit.” The thrill to write it arrived one morning when I was watching Trevor Noah’s interview of Oprah and the phrase ‘I can’t be depressed, I am Black’ struck me like an answer I had been looking for.  Sometime in September Parodevi mailed (took deep breaths but still died!) to ask if I’d like to curate a Sexy Saturday Song list for Agents of Ishq. I had fullto fun writing it even though I was confused between Silk Smitha and Dhanush. Although now that I look back, I wish I’d watched more Dhanush songs. Silk Smitha I am saving for myself. I am afraid my affair with her is longer, and much more passionate.

*Later that week I went to Tubingen, Germany to talk to students and faculty at the University of Tubingen. This was at the Department of Anthropology which was in a castle on top of some hill. I walked a lot, ate some interesting potato-meat things, drank a lot of wine and made friends. Loved being here although I couldn’t get much alone time. Even so, I stole an hour one evening to follow the sound of the hang drum. A bunch of people were playing it, sitting out in the open and I sat outside a cafe, drinking wine and listening to it. The memory of it still stings.

*Spent the next week back home writing a short story for the commonwealth prize. It was my first time living with a short story in my head like that. The earlier ones were all written innocently when I believed that I was writing important things, no matter how bad they were. I wish I had the courage that my past self did to write shittily and not be afraid of how shitty it was. The commonwealth story was shitty to say the least and I was supremely embarrassed to send it. But I want to get better and will not stop trying. Met an editor interested in a book. But more on this when I work on it properly.

*In November, I went to Maldives with the fam. It was a huge party with my two new-born nephews also. Absolutely no reading- writing happened. I stuffed my face with food, drank a lot, and was finally brought to admitting that I love kids, even more when they are not mine, maybe perhaps especially because they are not mine. I love being an aunt – I get all the good stuff – the laughs, the fun, the cute little edible fingers and toes and cheeks. Hanging out with them makes me happy. I love them a lot because I really like them and because I am convinced I never want to be a mother. Came back for a birthday that was on a Sunday. Went to Monkey Bar, ate pork curry and rice – said tearful byes.

*Started reading Beef, Brahmins, and Broken Men published by Navayana. Felt like I was getting closer to understanding the artist that is Babasaheb. The book reminded me of the times in which he’d have had to do research and write, surrounded by Savarna people who thought they knew better. No one else makes me want to work my ass off more than this man. The book review was published here. It’s my first for print and I am happy. Speaking of work, November 20 was my seven-year anniversary with the department. I am extremely grateful to all the people who love this place like I do, and also to all the people who hate it. Savarna hate deserves sympathy.  Paapa what else can they do? Cow dung is getting over, arms and all must also be hurting by now no? Do you like our sarees at least? Everyday we are wearing two-two only for you.

*December made me squeeze out this piece in two days. I was terrified of not making it, of not being good enough but pulled it off and it’s now my second byline for print. Has a caricature of my moothi also 🙂 Went to Dilli to conduct a writing workshop for my babes at AIDMAM. Spent long hours talking to my sisters, watching films, drinking wine, and eating chocolates. We wrote about love this time, about crazy aunts, and about wicked bananas. No one writes like Dalit women do because no one laughs like Dalit women do. Bookended this fab year at Goa. Read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, swam in the ocean, ate at Bhatti village, read Miranda July and felt like I only want to read short stories all my life without ever worrying about wanting to write one, wept and drank a lot. Invented a word – epipoofy. Wishing all single ladies loads of epipoofies in 2020.

I became more of a person last year, and yet I find myself thinking about the girl from 2015 who I am always working and writing for. She took forever to recognise humiliation and when she did, stopped writing – fearing what they would say, fearing what they had already said. She would certainly not approve of using third-person to talk about herself. But somehow in that ordinary moment of helplessness, putting up a picture of Babasaheb next to her made her feel extraordinarily powerful.

When having survived feels powerful, little else can equal that.

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Happy birthday, Savitrimai!

Happy Teachers’ Day to the woman who fought quietly, and knew that carrying an ‘extra’ saree in her bag was revolution enough. Celebrating this occasion on any other day is reinstating fixation with what my friend calls a ‘Savarna work ethic’ which is to give what’s needed and withhold the most important part of you for yourself – whether it’s time, energy or love – Savarna work ethic runs under the assumption that whatever you are giving to work is somehow ‘more than enough’, everything else is ‘extra’

Reminds me of the sweet, studious, Brahmin girls from school who would never share their notes, and who just had to leave school at exactly 3:00 PM even if there was drama practice, or extra curricular work to do. They ran back home to study and wouldn’t let anything get in the way. It’s powerful in its own right but establishes a sad limitation on how much you are allowed to give (in love and work) – nahi chahiye, beda.

Savitrimai went to work everyday and walked amidst literal name-calling and cow-dung-slinging. People waited outside her house armed with cow-dung to throw at her. She never stopped going, she never stopped working, didn’t even pause to defend herself, or even attack back. She carried an ‘extra’ saree and changed when she got to school. On her way back, she wore the morning saree because they were still standing with cow-dung, waiting for her return. I never get tired of telling this story because it has power and charm and endless lessons on revolution.

Savarna work ethic is sometimes just standing with cow-dung. The answer to that is to keep walking, to keep working and to keep an extra change of clothes in your bag. We need it now, we needed it yesterday, and we need it tomorrow.

Here’s an old piece I wrote on Maltirao Baudh who sang beautifully about Savitrimai.