On Our Feet

Yesterday was a meh day at Meta. It was meha. Only 3 participants showed up for our film review contest where the copy of the film being screened was glitching throughout. This was after the projector cable in the AV room the event was originally supposed to happen in, didn’t work –so we took the three and a half people and moved up to another room. It seemed pointless to keep lugging the light orange Meta canvas around in grim situations like these but it followed nevertheless and sat in room A314.

What do we do if more people show up to register at the AV Room?, someone ambitious asked. Let’s keep the registration desk down and keep the other pink meta canvas there only, someone more ambitious said. 

The film continued, glitchingly and I sat and ached for it from far away where other things had already started going wrong. 

Later, at the talk by Arvind Narrain, I looked around the hall, and at the faces of people who were there to listen to him, and a few others who were there to keep Meta’s face. At one point Arvind Narrain mentioned Varavara Rao’s poetry where it is observed that cynicism is rarely the sentiment held by those imprisoned. That it belonged mostly to those on the outside, the free ones. And that the only sentiment those imprisoned are able to afford is hope. 

I smiled when I heard this and longed to keep the little merry I’d begun to feel inside imprisoned.

Moments later, I was pinched back to my own dabba-self when I asked myself if we are running Meta on a bodily memory that we have begun to feel an annual urge for. And whether we are fulfilling this urge despite the changes that make it challenging to hold any kind of activities for students on campus these days. Then I thought, what makes students run meta? If I am helping run it and doing it for nostalgia, what do the five students who appear unfailingly return for? What’s in it for them? 

I’m unable to answer this question. But some form is beginning to take shape in my mind.

I am thinking now about the many times I have watched students break down at my table last week, and the many more times I have. The boy who feels alone in their classroom, the girl misunderstood by her classmates and teachers, the girl holding herself like she is drowning, the boy who is coming more and more close to quitting but holding on because quitting is expensive, the girl who keeps more things inside than she lets on.

Now I am thinking how quickly I am moved to be on my feet when they break down in front of me and I run to make chai for them. Now I am thinking about how much more quickly they are on their feet when they get up to go bring chai for us. And I think this is probably it. With chai, we reach out to them in small ways and they reach out to us in large ways and in this way, we are all sort of kind of maybe holding each other even when we can barely be on our feet.

I don’t know if there’s something in the air that is causing this weepiness, the desire to break things and watch them crumble, some post-covid offline onlineness, and the general fatigue and collective vitamin b12 deficiency we all seem to be experiencing in small or big ways but even when it comes in waves, it sometimes has the capacity to make everything feel pointless. 

Last night, as I locked up the department feeling somewhat like this, I walked past the AV room and saw the pink meta canvas all alone. It stood cutely only but it made me mad that someone had forgotten it there. I grabbed it and went back to the department muttering curses in the darkness. I wanted to half-fling it and half-disappear into it.

I went back home sullenly, appreciating only the mango melba riding in my stomach. In college this morning, still somewhat sullen, I saw the same pink meta canvas sitting cutely alone outside our quiz venue. I don’t know what it was about this cuteness or aloneness but when I imagined a student lugging it all the way from the department to the auditorium block, that same small window of merry opened again and I felt my feet.

Tomorrow, if we are lucky, we will get to watch students perform giggly english translations of regional songs at BollyGood. And then if it doesn’t rain, we will sit under the banyan tree and watch students pecking away and making cuckoo noises at JAM. Then we will have chai under the banyan tree and stand till our feet hurt, until it’s time to slowly make our way back to the department.

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2022 – Finding a Self

In November last year, while shifting things in our new department, I found a lot of hand written notes by the late Prof Naidu. It was easy to match the firm handwriting with the assured face of the woman I see in the picture everyday. The notes were all deliberate, never written in a hurry or to kill time. They had purpose and seemed to know that if the author of those words didn’t want them there, they wouldn’t be there.

It seems a little odd to be writing so boldly about a woman I have never known but then it’s a name I recite and write about annually. And if I have found the stability to feel returned to the work I do because of someone’s handwriting, perhaps it doesn’t matter that I don’t know her well. After all, how well do we know ourselves to begin with?

It’s the tenth edition of The Prof Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize and I feel stupid for not having made the effort to learn more about the woman before. I now know her through what she’s left behind in the department. Small notes, smaller anecdotes, old post-its barely surviving.

For a general staff meeting dated 16.6.2003 at 10:30 am, she says ‘new orientation in the thinking of the college’ and on the next page – a list of agenda to be discussed at the monthly department meetings (depts must become autonomous bodies, avoid giving personal work to attenders) and then, in a corner of the page, with grit:

“We must do well what we are expected to be doing”

I read that sentence several times that day, each time returning with newly formed guilt, and each time marvelling at a different word. I paused at the word ‘expected’ – expected by whom? why are they expecting? Because they pay us? Or is the expectation from students?– which changes the whole meaning.

I don’t know what worry, decision, personal conclusion she was moved by enough to put that line down here, in the middle of minutes-taking but it had the razor sharpness of someone wounded from the knowledge/fear of not wanting to remain comfortable with doing just the bare minimum.

At Meta 2020, AM had pointed to what he called the Savarna work ethic – the refusal to go beyond what’s comfortable, easy, and the belief that you are superior to the work you do. I’ve thought of that often and in the age where people talk about self-care as justification for doing a bad job or no job – it’s interesting to find a note like that.

I felt more assured than I have felt in months. It made me think about my father who lectured me one morning for doing a half-hearted job with folding a bed sheet. I was riding high on western feminist theory back then so my only grouse was why someone who doesn’t make his own bed get to lecture me about a bed sheet. I believe now that what he was intending to teach me then was something he’s always taught us – do whatever you do with your full self or don’t do it at all. It’s comical to allow our self-importance to precede our work, and us. Prof. Naidu’s note and my father’s way of work helped me rescue a part of myself that occasionally needs rescuing.

I find that most of what I believe about myself isn’t mine. A lot is borrowed, a lot more is stolen. I learn the ways of being from students. I can ride out the most horrible day after an uplifting conversation with a student who tells me that she reads herself to sleep every night or the girl who always seems to know when it’s time to leave a relationship or the boy who is so aware of what his parents had to give up to put him in college that that gratitude never leaves his face, or the girl whose sense of self is so severe that no teacher, boyfriend, man, god can take it away.

It is quite possible that all the cool things about me are derived/borrowed/stolen from my students and I am in equal parts both miserable and grateful for a self that continues to learn from them more than anybody else.

If you feel inclined to write about the various selves you too have borrowed, tolerated, lived with – write us an essay and submit it by May 20th. More details here.