Remembering to Read

This morning, on the way to SLV to pick up breakfast – a security guard, in his 70s, sitting on a plastic chair outside an ATM with a pen and a Kannada newspaper, solving crossword. A little ahead, another oldish man with a shovel, uprooting a small plant by the compound of his house. He was wearing a white baniyan and panche.

Pretend it’s a city: have a list of books and films I must run to. Days are happier when I remember to remember that there is a woman named Fran Lebowitz who lives the way she wants to, reads, smokes, eats, walks, and goes back to live in her apartment alone– and no man no woman no child no parent can ever tell her anything. I am most curious about her love life, her sex life. But she’s given me so much that the other stuff, though I want to know everything about her — can never compete with how she makes it possible for me to believe that I can live however I want to, that I am young to not have to work hard to feel alive. That anything I’ll ever need is already with me, that I can move to NYC and live there forever (bring money, she says but – lol)

I spent all of this week crying. I cried in lifts and restrooms, at home, and at work, while riding. I don’t want to be that way ever again. I like to believe that I am not myself when I am not reading women. The months I spent in lockdown reading Toni Morrison, Marieke Lucas, Makenna Goodman, Sheila Heti, and Dawn Powell were the best days of my life. Nothing can ever come close to the intimacy I share with a woman whose work I’ve just begun to discover and rediscover. My problem is that I give too much attention to my life. I must remember everyday what Toni Morrison said: “I write because otherwise I would be stuck with life” and what Fran Lebowitz said, “Reading is better than life”

Reading is real, supremely more real than anything else I’ve ever known. More real than even perhaps, writing.

Against self-pity and hate

Such a boss Toni Morrison is. She’s my shield against woke twitter rage.

Here she talks about writing with so much honesty and intimacy that whatever little hate and rage there is, she pats gently. Listening to her and reading her are both lessons in humility. My quick fall to self-pity is helpless in front of her kindness, her hard and clear logic.

Big joys for rumlolarum

This came out today and I am smiling. To think that someone sitting so far away (not that it matters) has read me and allowed rumlolarum.com to sit inside their body and mind is a gift I will cherish for a long, long time.

When I began this blog in 2014, I had no idea where it was going. I only knew I had to write. WordPress was on the syllabus of a new course and I had to learn it before I taught it. Odd that students seemed to outgrow it but I never managed to. AM was saying last week that I am the prototype of the first EJP graduate, I agree wholeheartedly.

I did become a graduate in that sense only after I began reading and writing, which through my undergraduate and postgraduate days, I hadn’t learnt how to. Like RP Amudhan once said, ‘It took me 20 years to realise that I could learn’

Dear Toni

Dear Toni

I broke down in class last week when I was reading out this piece by a student. I haven’t wept in class before. I have caught myself just short of breaking down (sometimes unsuccessfully) while saying goodbye to students in the last class. But never like this, never in the middle of reading a piece. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if the piece wasn’t written by a student. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if she had never sat in my classes, if I had never watched her write, if I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I did, and I do. I am making excuses after all. I have always cried after reading her, sometimes privately, and now I can say publicly as well. She wrote things that aren’t easy to write. I cried because she was walking around with everything she hadn’t written until she wrote that piece, I cried because I don’t know what else she is still carrying.

I could have stopped reading, told the students to read it on their own, switched my camera off and composed myself. But I kept going, I don’t know why. I think she made me keep going. And I pray she keeps me going.

I once cried at Meta when a girl student had yelled at me under the banyan tree in college. I didn’t know what to do. But I just kept thinking, if I were a man, or a tall & pretty Savarna teacher with perfect teeth, sharp nose, and bright wide eyes, I wouldn’t be crying under the banyan tree. Maybe I would, I don’t know – but it’s unfair – this desire to know what it would’ve been like if I was Savarna. After all, how often does a Savarna teacher spend time thinking about what it’s like to be a Dalit teacher?

And also – I don’t like feeling that way. Because I know that if I were Savarna, I wouldn’t have been able to read Beloved the way I did and let it live inside me like it now does. There is a reason you write the way you do and when I’d finished reading Beloved, I felt closer to you in a way I wouldn’t have been able to feel if I were Savarna.

I don’t know if I’d have not cried if it were a boy yelling at me, not a girl. Because boys and their words have a way of hiding behind my teeth and making me angry and sour, never sad. The girl returned after months with two roses and an apology. I smiled and accepted all three. Then I wondered if I shouldn’t have, then I was happy that I had. Will I ever reach a stage where I’ll be confident about the choices I’ve made? Will I ever know what to do immediately? Will I ever have it in me to not cry, not be angry? But why should I not cry? What will I do with all that strength it takes to not cry? Where in my body will I keep so much strength? So much self-respect? So much control? I don’t have that much space in my body for that kind of control.

***

I have been waking up early, not to write oh but how I wish I could. I have been waking up early to look at the sky and think of you. I had read that you woke at 4 to make coffee and watch the light come. It’s how you knew that you were ready to write each day. That you didn’t have to be in the light, you had to be there before the light with coffee to know you were ready to write. I loved the sound of that so much that I have been waking early to watch the sun come up, to look at the way it touches the tree outside my door, and to think of you. Thinking of you makes me want to get ready to write.

I don’t know how it’s possible but your belief in storytelling, in the stories your parents told you, about themselves, and the world is how I see mine. I think it’s not easy for Savarna people to understand this or to even take this seriously. And I am learning to live with that. Because their inability to see love and stories makes me never want to give up on myself.

Today, I woke at 4:30 from a dream I wanted to urgently return to so I went back to finish it (Possessed teddy bear-owl with flapping, beating wings is going nuts in my room. Doesn’t leave me alone so I dump it in the trash outside. It becomes a baby and sits on the windowsill cackling at me before jumping to its death and returning again to my bedroom to haunt me. Basically this is Clifford Geertz + Mixer Week + Google Meet+ Online classes)

And when I woke up again, it was 5:59 and I felt like the day was already over, that I was too late. Then I really woke up, told myself to fuck off and begin the day (take trash out, bring milk, put it to boil, put bread in the oven, boil water, make coffee)

After that crying episode, I was afraid the students wouldn’t take my classes seriously anymore. That because of this ’emotional’ outburst, I have shown them that my intellectual relationship with the subject at hand (Resisting caste) has been compromised.

But then I thought, wtf – a teacher moved to tears because of something her student has written is nothing to be ashamed of. If there are teachers who have cried teaching Shakespeare, then A. Suresh is no less than Shakespeare. But it will be used against me, I know that. Someday, when I am least expecting it, it is going to come back and bite me.

So yes, bite me.

“I am not interested in happiness. Not yours, nor mine nor anybody’s. I don’t think we can afford it anymore. I don’t think it delivers the goods. Most important, it gets in the way of everything worth doing. Happiness has become a bankrupt idea, the vocabulary of which is frightening: money, things, protection, control, speed, and more. I’d like to substitute something else for its search. Something urgent, something neither the world nor you can continue without. I assume you have been trained to think- to have an intelligent encounter with problem-solving. It’s certainly what you will be expected to do. But I want to talk about the step before that. The preamble to problem-solving. I want to talk about the activity you were always warned against as being wasteful, impractical, hopeless. I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one. Not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision. Entrance into another’s space, someone else’s situation, sphere. By dreaming, the self permits intimacy with the Other without the risk of being the Other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action. We are in a mess, you know; we have to get out, and only the archaic definition of the word “dreaming” will save us: “to envision; a series of images of unusual vividness, clarity, order, and significance.”

~Toni Morrison~

When I read this from your Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address, I had a warm desire to hear you and Babasaheb talk to each other. I grew hungry to have you both in my belly, walk into a classroom and roar, walk to my table and write my heart out.

Someday, it will happen. I can feel it gathering in my fingertips.

Image credits: Speakola

Featured image credits: nytimes.com

Cielo Drive, Didion, & Dawn

I have been obsessed with the Cielo drive murders. It began one ordinary morning three days ago, when I was minding my own business by not paying any attention to deadlines. I was watching Didion again with my breakfast and we got to the point where she describes sitting in the pool when news of The Manson murders reached her. 

The 60s ended for her with these murders, she says. And for the first time in the many times I’ve watched the documentary, I felt compelled to dig into the murders. The thing with culture, contrary to what I believed all this while is that it is sometimes as alien to the person in it, as it is to someone outside. That was the point of  ‘the center will not hold’

Why and how – what kind of dark instinct could cause someone to drive to a celebrity’s house and murder a pregnant woman and her friends? But it didn’t occur to me that everyone who heard it in 1969 found it just as confusing as I did in 2020 hearing about it in my Bgudi home.

When I first watched it, many things about the documentary didn’t make sense to me. And I assumed someone who was born and brought up in America might find it easier to understand. Three days ago, I realised that even Didion wasn’t clear about what the hell was going on. Of the many things that I found puzzling was why strangers lived with one another in big mansions at Hollywood. Firstly, I thought only film stars lived there. Secondly, wasn’t it weird for married people with a child to have loud musicians over at their house all the time? And just what in the world did Didion mean when she said they had no idea who was sleeping at their house of 28 bedrooms?

Turns out she was just as lost as I am about the whole thing. She was just moving with things and when they got unbearable (drugs on her child’s bedroom floor) – she wanted normalcy, silence, order.

I can’t believe there’s the slightest chance that I might have driven past the Cielo Drive last year at L.A. I am wildly mad at myself for not having been in the mind space to absorb the city as deep as I know I have the capacity to.

Like one waste body, I was thinking constantly of internal group politics. Gahhhhh. Why does it always happen that I don’t know how to make friends and if I do, I don’t know how to keep them, and if I can’t, I don’t know how to still have the time of my fucking life? I want too much. I still think it would have been perfect to have found my soul mate in LA with whom I could’ve walked its slopy streets, drank its orange sun with some tall drinks, and talked endlessly about women and writing and stories and love.

I spent the last two days watching one film after another on the Manson murders, watched Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which I found funny and very well-done. Everything from the loud, wet plop that I came to look forward to with delightful anticipation every time Brad Pitt emptied the can of dog food onto a plate — to the conversation DiCaprio has with the intimidating little girl who tells him ‘And if I can be a tiny bit better, I want to be’ which became my motto for the night — I loved.

I can never understand what the fuck people mean when they say things like ‘didn’t reach expectations’ or ‘overrated’ or ‘hyped’ – Why do you think it’s about you? And why the insistence to measure everything watched, heard, and read in a system of numbers and ratings? Doesn’t your body watch the film along with you? Even in the most dabba film in the history of the world, you can’t find a scene that reached out to you, and held your attention?

When you say something is ‘so overhyped, it scares you to watch/read it’ – you are saying that you value other people’s judgements over yours and your body’s so much – that you don’t think you can muster the capacity to allow room for art to stand on its own with you.

When did we become bigger than art? Who are these important people who can make room for the hype to reach them but not the films and books? Pah. Self-importance is yet another prized Savarna possession. The Avarna relationship to art on the other hand is far more reliable. It’s you – your body – your eyes- and whatever it is you are breathing in. That is all. In the arms of an Avarna romantic, hype dies, math dies, and so does the English-medium love for logic and neatness.

This doesn’t mean you force yourself to feel and love everything you watch and read (although I don’t see the problem with that). No no. It means you believe in the capacity of even the most badly done film or play or book to have its moments. Didion said it best – “Let me lay it on the line: I like movies, and approach them with a tolerance so fond that it will possibly strike you as simple-minded. To engage my glazed attention a movie need be no classic of its kind, need be neither L’Avventura or Red River, neither Casablanca nor Citizen Kane; I ask only that it have its moments.”

Spent the day reading and dreaming about Dawn Powell. Her diary entries are just thrilling as her short stories. And I am feeling delicious feelings in my stomach about stalking yet another writer and eating her words inside out.

Read a few bits from Didion’s The White Album and am in awe of how her mind is what I am actually reading when I am reading her – every jump, map, note, flutter is readily available. How it would be to own her mind! Reminds me of a Borges short story called ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ in which various people come to own Shakespeare’s memory in the hope of being able to write like him, they can’t and keep looking for ways to get rid of it. Lol.

Jamaica Kincaid is yet another writer giving me butterflies. This story called Figures in the distance blew me away. A young girl is obsessed with death and tells the story of each dead body she hears and dreams about. Her mother’s hands catch dying people all the time and the girl grows more and more curious.

Storytelling becomes so much more intimate when a woman reads out another woman’s story, and a woman watering plants, and adjusting the phone tucked into her waist, listens to it and believes that it’s all she wants to do for the rest of her life.

Stupid

Oh how stupid I’ve been. Life itself is a distraction. It distracts me from living. So much of what I do is a response. To be better, to be good, to make it count. What kind of a soulless way to live is that? So far I’ve felt most alive when I don’t respond to anything, especially time. I’ve felt alive when I am learning, when I’m watering plants and listening to short stories, when I am discovering someone’s reading life, when I feel the itch to write & succumb to it wholeheartedly, full-bodily, beautifully – when I am hardly aware of time.

This beautiful blog reminded me that I am not really living. Why do I even bother doing anything that is not living? For now, this means giving myself permission to be swallowed by books and being unwilling to part with time to do anything else. Gahhh

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.