Everyone laughed. But I couldn’t laugh. Something was lodged in my eye. A shard of that rainbow. Everywhere I looked, I saw its muted colours. That unworldly violet especially.
I loved reading Qabar. I loved it more because I read it like I was 20, 21, 22 waiting for love from someone who didn’t know how to, learning to live without it, letting go, and allowing myself permission to be slowly built back. I wish I’d read it when I was 20, 21, 22. I could’ve learnt how to live then.
Qabar is the story of two women who build themselves back. Its charm is that it isn’t too charmed by this. It doesn’t keep drawing us back to these women in any extraordinary, thrilling way. It does the one thing we must all learn to do – it leaves women alone. They are there, that is all. The book is just an invitation to see them.
Bhavana is a judge whose mind I find deeply enviable. She allows love and magic to distract her in the most sensual way at work, and also disallows them when she wants to just work. She drinks her tea, gnashes her teeth and gets back to her seat, “trudging through the rest of her cases”
No one can barge into your mind unless you want them to.
To pick oneself up and be available for love again can be exhausting. When we first meet her, she is still picking the pieces up. And her ex husband is getting married again. What does Bhavana do?
It was an act of cruelty towards my ex-husband to have gone to his wedding. But it would have been an act of cruelty towards me to not have gone. I looked him in the eye and congratulated him. He looked deflated. And thus I drew my last drop of water from that particular well, drank it and turned the vessel upside down. Duty done, I departed.
Bhavana walks the same path her mother did, a woman who decided to leave her husband and get a room of her own because he wouldn’t let her bring a wounded dog to their house. That’s the short version we are given. What isn’t given is what we already know and what K.R. Meera will not waste time on.
In an interview with Meghan O’Rourke, Vivian Gornick says,
” A 1980s cartoon from The New Yorker showed a husband sitting in a chair with a newspaper in his hands and in the doorway is a wife walking out with a suitcase in her hand. The caption read, “But I’ve always been impossible. Why are you leaving now?” Who goes and who stays, and after how long or short a time, is entirely a matter of the individual psyche. You go when the grievance is making you ill. You stay when you’ve become inured. I think it by far worse to become inured to feeling ill than to face down the fear and insecurity that accompany a domestic break.”
K.R Meera’s women refuse being inured. Even if a large part of this argument is based on the fact that they refuse because they can, and are able to — just the sheer pleasure of reading a story about women who refuse is reassuring. The fact that I may never be able to refuse; because of who I am or where I come from isn’t reason enough to not want to read the stories of women who can. This is bigger than me because I am smaller than the stories I read and want to write. If I am not, I must and will make myself smaller.
Two hours to the office. Two hours back home. Sitting when I had a seat. Standing when I didn’t have one. That’s how I read all that I read.
Nisha Susan’s translation is the most intimate gift for women learning to write, and reading to live. At the heart of any kind of translation is an act of love which really is the essence of ‘OMG this woman is so cool, you must read her’. The world will be a sad, sad place the day we stop doing this.
Something else that I learnt quite unexpectedly from Qabar is a way of developing a life for the mind. That you could feel the similar surge you were trained to feel for a man, that you could find it in you to say no to this surge because you have suddenly realised that a woman you don’t know has the similar capacity to lift you from whatever dump he’s thrown you in by the sheer power of her words is a lesson worth learning every day, for the rest of your life.
In an interview with NishaSusan, K.R Meera says that before she wrote Aarachar she was able to work on her scriptwriting in the morning, book chapters in the noon, and reporting/feature stories in the night. I was at work, listening to this, cleaning my table when I half smiled, half whooped in joy. This lovely Marquez type division of the day was heartening to hear.
A small tap of warmth opened in my chest when I imagined spending my day here at work as a teacher in the morning, sleeper in the noon, and a short-story writer in the night. In the late evenings, this place quiets down, the wind is cool and the city noise dims into the larger background of silence that I am not always able to conjure.
I am alone and nothing returns me more to myself than this moment does.
Couldn’t sleep one night so spent it all by reading Eunice De Souza. I wish I could have more reading nights like these even if they make me groggy and teary the next day.
Eunice De Souza’s Dangerlok is what I needed to combat fucking NEP. Rina Ferreira, the single, double-parrot-keeping teacher in Bombay has the life, the guts, the buddhi that I want for me. She teaches English at a college, smokes, talks to her parrots, writes letters to her lovers, chills with her friend Vera with whom she goes oor-suthooing, comes back home, smokes, drinks chai, reads, and sleeps.
Every now and then, I need to be gently whisked and battered into remembering that I am a teacher. I spent all my childhood wanting to grow up and make my own money and now that I am doing it – I am barely even acknowledging it. I act as if I’m so used to it. But I need to, now and then behave as if it still surprises me that I teach for a living, for thrills, for fun, for play. That I get paid to do what I love.
Some moments from last week that I want to remember:
At an NEP meeting, someone said, “When you run into students years after you’ve taught them, they are not going to recognize you and thank you for teaching them passive voice. They will remember that you taught them Julius Caesar”
I returned to a science class to teach them general english after very long and had more fun than I’ve had teaching anything else in years. I became again, the girl I was nine years ago who wasn’t sure of anything except knowing that some thank yous are more genuine than others. And that when a student stays back after class to say it, words that once echoed sharply in hollow classrooms now make me smile. With this gratitude, I move from one meeting to another on MS Teams.
After I said bye to them last week, I was very nearly crying. We had been talking about English- its miseries and joys. And how it’s nothing to be afraid of, how there was once a man who sometimes wielded English like a weapon, sometimes like a suit, and sometimes as so much a part of him that it’s hard to imagine he once didn’t know English.
I am not very easily moved to tears when I talk about English. But to talk about English amidst students much like me was reassuring, like finding your own people after a long day of being lost. The English here is the kind we learn to speak despite school, despite teachers in school, despite not speaking it at home, and despite education itself.
Sometimes students can be so fiercely themselves, so delightfully hungry to learn that I wonder who is the teacher here. There is so much to learn from students about how to stand up against governments that are so anti-students and anti-learning. Those who come from such far away places to learn and make a stable future for themselves remind you of the anger you feel in your teeth for this fuckall government in whose imagination, the student is a young NRI- return Modi.
Later that same day, I broke down in class, again. Turned camera off this time. And cried harder when they reached out to console me. I was telling them about what it was like to be a young teacher. Did students take young women teachers seriously back then? I was telling them about not being able to stand in front of a class to teach Romeo and Juliet after I’d allowed myself to be belittled by opinions and that if I could go back in time, I’d own Shakespeare’s ass the way I know I can, the way this department has taught me to.
Any department that can teach its young Dalit women teachers to not be afraid of Shakespeare or of students who think they know Shakespeare just because they know English is an enemy of the Savarna state which makes the NEP – a beacon of Savarna rashtra and every teacher fighting it across the state, an Ambedkarite.
After classes these days, I am watching young people take care of other young people. Metonym, our inter-class literary championship is an excuse for us to make fraandship with students. It’s the last thing we’ll be able to do before NEP hits us so all my enthu is going there and I’m hoping they remember us for this, if not anything else.
I am exhausted from asking myself what would Ambedkar do if he was here so I’ve been watching Saarpatta every morning to begin the day.
Yesterday, in a Theatre Studies class when a student was just getting ready to perform, his mother walked in, banged a kitten on his lap and went away. He grabbed it in both his hands and threw the paapa kitten somewhere. She’s called Mia it seems. I died laughing.
Eunice De Souza would write her way out of NEP. It’s what I think I should also do. Why aren’t there any biographies of Miss De Souza? If there are, please tell me. I want to read.
I read this glorious Lockwood essay sometime back and began macheting my way through this post which I was supposed to have finished on 31 Dec 2020.
“While writing this, I read another essay that made me self-conscious; it lamented the trend toward the autobiographical review. Oh no, I said to myself, like Lenù at university, like Lila at the party, I have been doing it wrong the whole time. I went through what I had written, carefully removing the I, I, I. Then I stopped. I was even angry. I thought, what else do you read a book with but your body, your history?”
These lines made me think of all the ways in which I read and ate books through the lockdown last year. I carried some to bed with me, woke up with others but read them all with my body through the day. Sometimes I worry that the things I read go and die in my body in some unreachable place where I have placed them so gently that they become quiet and never resurface. What is the point of reading if I don’t remember what I read? Is reading supposed to sustain me only momentarily? Or is it teaching me things I can’t see and feel yet. Maybe it will come at that prime moment, like Thor’s hammer to Captain America when I need it most. Was watching Endgame with my brother last week and that scene made him weep a little. He looked up with his pinched face and wide eyes, making sure his tears went back right where they came from.
Zadie Smith said this lovely thing about the desire for elbow room being vital and it made me think of how my desire to read and keep reading was the only thing that gave my mind elbow room.
Began reading this one evening when I was charmed by the memory of a student who would only write and read sitting down – her back easy against the wall. I read the first five pages of Americanah sitting under the tabebuia tree one evening, my back fitting surprisingly nicely into the flat of the wall. All of March was soaked in Ifemelu’s sturdy decisions. There were moments when I just wanted to watch the women in the book sit and talk to each other in the salon. Then I wanted to follow Ifemelu everywhere she went- her university days, her trip to America, her affair – and never wanted to go back to the salon. This hilarious twitter thread made me see the Lagos that I imagined in Adichie’s words.
2.Self-help, Lorrie Moore
I remember a woman who was trying to escape a boy she falls out of love with. And I remember a mother’s instructions to her daughter ‘Cold men destroy women’. Was sitting under the trumpet tree and underlining these lines when mother asked me why I underline. I didn’t know what to say, I was very close to saying they are nice lines but then that would have led to more explanation so I just said notes for lecture and went back to reading. I am to blame for why she and I don’t have more to talk about.
3. There are Jews in my house, Lara Vapnyar
I have been a Lara Vapnyar fan ever since I read Katania and Deaf and Blind but my madness for the short story, and particularly the Lara Vapnyar short story grew after Luda and Milena where two women fight with each other to feed a man, kill him accidentally and then become best friends. In this collection of stories, a teacher struggles with a class after being told to handle sex education for them. She fears questions from one super-articulate student, hoping this child doesn’t come to class on the day they were told to ask her anything they want to about sex. Then there’s a woman who hides a Jewish mother-daughter in her house; rats them out to the cops, and later doesn’t know what to do with her life anymore.
4. The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Mr. M suggested I read this dude instead of dying about Gabito. So I found this book, downloaded it and was soon absorbed in the narrator’s world (and how easy it is for me to do that when the writer is Columbian, even if male). ‘But in all Latin American cities there’s one place or sometimes several places that live outside of time, that seem immutable while the rest is transformed. That’s what La Candelaria is like.’ I was brought to pay attention to ‘the sounds bodies make when they flee’, the ‘solitude of a child’, and indeed ‘the sound of things falling’. The book is the story of a young Professor, Antonio who is intrigued by a prison returnee, Ricardo, and his mysterious past. He witnesses Ricardo’s unfortunate murder and sets to uncover the story of Ricardo’s life. The Latin America I have in my mouth is from the cutie tattooed on my arm. I know very little of it otherwise. It’s only because of Vasquez now that the chilling descriptions of Pablo Escobar’s abandoned estate, the humungous zoo, the starving animals in it, and also the pregnant hippopotamus that managed to escape are on my mind.
5. The First Bad Man, Miranda July
I read July’s collection of short stories ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ in the last few days of 2019. The story of a woman driving around pointlessly with all her belongings in the car, stopping at signals and worrying that the ones around her will know that she has nowhere to go remained with me, as did the story of a young woman unwilling to let the other tenants in the house think that they own the porch that also partly belongs to her. After that, I have been accumulating her slowly. Too much of her causes what I call the July Rush. I was compelled to read her first novel after her short story, Roy Spivey made me giddy with joy. Listened to it on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast while watering plants, and died a little bit over roses that have never made me gasp like she does. The First Bad Man made me desire a woman like I didn’t know how to before- despite parents, despite myself, despite everyone else. ‘The point was Kissing’, she says. Just like that. The story of Cheryl and her miserable 20-something bully, Clee seemed possible despite how vulnerable Cheryl lets herself be and how much we don’t trust Clee. It seemed possible because July makes it possible before taking it away.
6. Beloved, Toni Morrison
There’s little I can say about a book that gave me a way to reimagine anger and love. I am terrified of what her writing does to me. Of how much more there is to learn about the calm that is possible to bring in writing, the kind with a power to break open every story you have ever told yourself and a thousand others you don’t. I see the same calm in her interviews, and speeches. Reading Morrison’s work is very reassuring. In Seattle, I overheard two white men saying that stories were responsible for a lot of wrong in the world of politics and I giggled quietly in my head. Toni’s writing is story-telling. Her story-telling is writing. The language of Beloved is the language of sleep right before waking up, where sentences just seem to flutter out of your eyelids.
7. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Thirteen stories come together to draw you into a long one. They are each told by a different character. In the first one, there’s a woman prone to kleptomania. She is on a date with a man and when we see her house through his eyes, we are shown the bonsai-like story of each of the objects stolen. There’s a bathtub in the kitchen and I remembered this detail with smiling pleasure when Dawn Powell mentions bathtubs in kitchens in her New York diaries. In the second one, there’s a man who succumbs easily to what he calls shame memories and doesn’t recover from them very well. My shame memories are small, like yours. But his are big and they keep getting bigger (kissing a nun on the mouth only because she leaned in, and he was tempted). He adds gold to his coffee and drinks this several times through the day. His secretary is the kleptomaniac girl from the first story whom he has feelings for. Rhea narrates the third story – the story of a college band – the flaming dildos.
There are three other girls and more boys, and they all love someone who loves someone else. Rhea feels undesired. She has freckles and she is on the inside of most things. I love that she loves her friend Jocelyn. But Jocelyn loves Lou – an older man who gets Jocelyn and Rhea high one evening and makes Jocelyn give him a blowjob at a concert they go to. In the fourth one, a Safari tour, and two young children discuss their father’s new girlfriend they are not very thrilled about. Said girlfriend is a student of anthropology and through their time there, she develops feelings for the man driving them around. In another, a man and his friend walk through New York city drunk all night. In the morning one of them flings himself into the river and dies. An event unfolds in every story and you might resist it the way your eyes resist a new book, especially when you’re on the first few lines. Then you give in because Egan’s control over the narrative is such that each new story is always as good as the last.
8. The Maple Stories, John Updike
Reading Maple Stories made me feel a lot surer about my capacity to be alone and in love at the same time. I don’t know what white and Savarna feminists are rambling about. In Twin Bedsin Rome, Joan Maple tells her husband, Richard that she was once turned on when a boy at the gas station was wiping her windshields and rocking the car side by side. She almost came. Richard is wildly jealous of this and I, wildly amused. Joan Maple has the perfect answers to her perpetually grumpy husband. When he accuses her of having an affair after having had one himself, she denies. The phone rang and when I picked up, no one answered. So, it is your lover, he says. Could be yours, she says. Then why would they hang up, he asks. Maybe they don’t love you anymore, she says calmly. And I fell about laughing. At one point Updike asks, ‘Can love be defined, simply, as the refusal to sleep?’ – and I said yes yes yes. Back when I was a girl in puppy love with a boy, I treasured the idea of being driven around by him in the late hours of the night. I imagined we would stop on a hill to watch the sunrise, and go back home to get some sleep. But then I think how lovelier it is to wake up next to a woman smiling into my face.
9. The Discomfort of Evening, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld
At one point in the story, the child-narrator tells us how when she was constipated, she was made to lie down on the sofa, bum in the air, her father hovering above, trying to push a soap down her anus. Mr. M confirms that this is practiced to irritate the bowels which helps ease constipation. I was zapped not so much because this is true but because of the chilling calm with which she narrates this scene, and several others. I learnt to let go of the distrust I usually have for child-narrators. I seem to only treasure Munro’s child narrators as if all the children in the world belong to her. They should, if they want to write. But it’s from Marieke Lucas that I learnt to have faith in Konkani when I feel lost. She says the most absurdly Konkani- sounding things about lendi. Here for instance, “My poo belonged to me, but once it was between the blades of grass, it belonged to the world” — or here about booger: “The tension makes me poke my little finger up my nose and hook a piece of snot. I glance at the yellowish ball and then put it in my mouth”
10. The short stories of Dawn Powell
Turns out that Dawn Powell is the writer I’d been waiting to read all my life. Last year’s best discovery, Fran Lebowitz led me to the very bestest Dawn Powell. She writes stories about women running away, about women living alone and working in a city, about women saving and hiding their money from men to spend on drinks with girlfriends. I don’t know if there’s a pioneer writer of women running-away stories. I am sure our mothers and grandmothers are all kinds of pioneers and it’s with the same regard that I read Powell’s women. I sent my first piece for LARB last September for a SUSI special issue. It’s not out yet but I had super fun writing it early one morning. Kept taking breaks to breathe the early morning Dawn Powell sky. I made a giant fool of myself loving her here.
11. Motherhood, Sheila Heti
I was in a bad space when I was trying to read this book. I was broken and angry that I’d let myself be broken again, like I was a fucking child, as if I’d never grown up, as if the last 32 years never happened. The book is largely about a woman’s quest to find out if she wants to have children or not (she doesn’t) but in the process, she learnt a lot more, and so did I. I read this very slowly and these lines gave me small hope to mend myself.
Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself-it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.
Yet making art makes me feel alive, and taking care of others doesn’t make me feel as alive.
A woman must have children because she must be occupied. When I think of all the people who want to forbid abortions, it seems it can only mean one thing-not that they want this new person in the world, but that they want that woman to be doing the work of childrearing more than they want her to be doing anything else.
A child is not a combination of you and your partner, but a reality all its own.
Of course, a woman will always be made to feel like a criminal, whatever choice she makes, however hard she tries.
What do we need to know about a person in order to like them? Before she wrapped her leftover buttered toast inside a paper napkin, I didn’t know whether I liked her or not. Then, when she wrapped up her toast in the napkin, I suddenly loved her. She liked toast even more than she liked being admired.
I thought about how unfair it was that she and I had to think about having kids-that we had to sit here talking about it, feeling like if we didn’t have children, we would always regret it. It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their thirties-when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience-from doing anything useful with them at all. It is hard to when such a large portion of your mind, at any given time, is preoccupied with the possibility-a question that didn’t seem to preoccupy the drunken men at all.
I had such a nice time the next day, pacing in the sunlight before my 4:30 lecture, realising how much writing has given me, and feeling so lucky that this passion was mine-right there, in the center of my life. And you are never lonely while writing, I thought, it’s impossible to be categorically impossible-because writing is a relationship. You’re in a relationship with some force that is more mysterious than yourself.
I am a blight on my own life. How can I stop being a blight on my life. It’s not right to always be sitting here, crying. Outrun your tears-that’s all you can do. Outrun your tears like an athlete every day. Outrun your tears like someone with faith. Okay, I will outrun my tears and win.
Only in failure. Only in our failures are we absolutely alone. Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free.
I don’t know why I don’t do the obvious thing-instead of fantasising about other lives, why not try to imagine what it’d be like to be me, and live the life that’s actually mine? The first time I ever had this thought, it gave me such a deep thrill, almost a sexual thrill, as if I was having sex with myself.
Getting my eggs frozen would have been like freezing my indecision. I couldn’t reveal my weakness to myself in such a tangible way.
But you know what you should be grateful for: following this tiniest thread of freedom, which is to write. That is all you ever truly wanted, so don’t vainly throw it away. Don’t throw it away chasing even more riches-more than what you’re owed.
The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it. We squeeze ourselves into the moments we allow, or the moments that have been allowed us.
Slowing down is important. Repetition important. Be in the same place, differently. Change the self, not the place.
I will do anything to save this relationship except walk on eggshells around you.
Your life can only be what your insides are. Your life sits in your lap. I saw my life literally sitting there.
12. The Shame, Makenna Goodman
Second of the anti-baby book I read last year 🙂 The married, mother-of-two narrator stalks a woman online. The woman our lady stalks wears super clothes, has lovely crockery, shoes, walls, and posts her entire life online. Our lady could have been that woman, had she not fallen in love, married, and had children. Our lady loves watching her and feels acute dread when the woman isn’t online. On a whim, she replies to a nanny vacancy ad the woman posts and then leaves husband and children behind, takes the car out in the middle of the night and drives and drives well into the morning to see this woman in flesh and bone.
13. Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Maloy
The first story had me kidnap a deep breath which I may not have let out since. A man on a horse meets a young woman in an evening class that he randomly walks into. He likes her, she doesn’t. One evening, her car breaks down and he takes her for dinner on his horse. (“He wanted to say that he wasn’t hungry when he was around her, but he feared the look on her face if he said it, the way she would shy away”) When she stops coming to class, he takes his truck, travels all night to go see her in another state. (“I just knew that if I didn’t start driving, I wasn’t going to see you again, and I didn’t want that. That’s all”). Two brothers in Spy vs. Spy take an age-old childhood fight atop a mountain peak and come tumbling down, fight still unresolved. Maloy observes, “They were bound like to dogs with their tails tied together, unable to move without having some opposite effect on the other, unable to live a single restful minute”. In Liliana, a man opens the front door one day to find his dead grandmother refusing to remain dead. The line that made me snort with relief was ‘Since my father’s death, my mother had been living in an ashram outside New Delhi. She sent us postcards about how deeply at peace she was, in the land of the caste system and the dowry murder’. I read the last couple of stories sitting in a park full of tall trees, small birds, old people, and young lovers.
14. How should a person be?- Sheila Heti
It’s a question I ask everyday and the answers fill me just as easily as they leave me. Nothing is good enough to be the final answer. How do some people just be? How do they get themselves out of a situation without being majorly disliked? Caste answers my questions but I still want to learn. Heti asks, “So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do”. Two artist friends love each other, support each other’s work. Narrator, like me, obsessed with learning to be, says about her friend, Margaux: “I admired her courage, her heart, and her brain. I envied the freedom I suspected in her, and wanted to know it better, and become that same way too”
Heti has one lovely scene in a chapter called Two Spiders. Begins with the worry that “It always was too scary; a threat I had felt since childhood that at any moment a relationship might disappear with a poof because of something little I had done or said.” Margaux explains to Heti that boundaries are what keep friendships alive. Literally alive. She takes the example of a spider they found in the bathroom of a hotel in Miami. They decide to keep the spider. Margaux would have thrown it out but Heti insists that they keep him. Soon, Heti begins to like the spider, as a pet she could be affectionate with. On their last night in Miami, they forget to close the bathroom door and the spider was next to Heti’s legs. Unthinkingly, Heti smashes it under her hand. “Boundaries, Sheila. Barriers. We need them. They let you love someone. Otherwise you might kill them.”
Genius lines, Sheila Heti Round II
~Smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time. #BoreMatKarYaar
~Silence is a fence for wisdom.
15. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
This was supposed to be read after I drooled all over A.S. Byatt’s Possession. That they were both on our M.A Syllabus meant that I was not ready for either then. I began reading this book after I watched Tartt in this 1992 interview and was very intrigued by her style. Style maane her dressing style, suit and bob cut and all. Plus uber cool handling of goofy male interviewer whose questions are longer than her answers, and who doesn’t even let her finish a sentence. I enjoyed reading The Secret History because it made me believe that I can still read. I was coming to the book after a long drawn spell of down first and up then and too up later. A moment that gave me smiling ache was Tartt describing a character’s relief from a painkiller to calm his migraine attack. The pain leaving was like ‘forgiveness’ she said. I took it all my classes and said see see. They saw and said ok, calm down. I am slightly obsessed with her suit boot style. Want to steal it for my work look. When I tried it in 2015, I looked tight in places I shouldn’t have. I gave up on that after I saw a full sized picture of what I looked like. Sticking to loose clothes since. Loose suits then maybe. The Secret History is about a bunch of students who study greek in a university. They study greek and only greek and nothing else. There’s a murder and then one more murder to cover up the first murder which was partly inspired by something they discovered in the Greek classes 🙂 Where is my university-murder mystery life man?
16. Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mohammed Hanif
Bestest book I read this year. After The Secret History, I was looking around my room thinking what to eat next, saw this copy Namsies had given me long ago and jumped. After 3 pages, I felt settled and thought, where were you all my life man? Book said, fuck you, I was on that shelf you put me on 5 years ago. I said ok ok come now, let’s see where you take me. Hanif’s sentences are oranges that you want to eat more and more of not because they are sweet but because you spent all your life believing that in one orange, not all pieces are sweet. This one was and how! It is a funny funny funny book because it is told simply. It made me think that if to eat, I don’t have to dislocate shoulder. To write also, I don’t have to dislocate anything no? The story is set at a hospital in Karachi where Alice, a nurse, single-handedly castrates men when they walk around expecting blowjobs. Her father offers castration of a different kind, perhaps leaving an even acute burn. (‘When I walk the streets, the streets belong to me. Have you noticed that when I walk the streets with my bamboo, they cross over to avoid my shadow? What are they scared of? Getting contaminated by their own refuse?’)
17. A Life Misspent (Kulli Bhat) Nirala, translated by Satti Khanna
Nitin told me about one charming scene from the book which I thought I misheard. A tear of deep attraction between a Dalit man and a Savarna man. I didn’t mishear. He showed me this sentence which I later read again and again not for what it revealed but how. Said men are sitting in a carriage when this happens — “I sat in front with the driver of the trap. The master of the trap gazed at me for some time before taking his seat in the back. I did not recognise the gaze then; I do now. It is the sort of gaze bestowed upon an exceedingly beautiful woman at the height of her beauty” – the man looking is Kulli Bhat, the man looked at is Nirala. A little ahead, sharing paan, Kulli says to Nirala: ‘How wonderfully the paan juice traces your lips, turning them into daggers’. Nirala was desperate to write a biography of someone but didn’t find anyone worthy enough. “Our heroes compensate for their weaknesses with grand statements. The blaze of light around what they say hides how they live”. Then he meets Kulli Bhat and this is his biography.
Although I was left wanting to know more about Kulli, it all comes together beautifully in the end when Nirala conducts the rituals after Kulli’s death. No pandit agrees to do it fearing ostracisation and impurity. Nirala decides to do it but doesn’t know some of the mantras. He seeks help from a Brahmin a day before the ritual, by-hearts some mantras, makes up the rest, and on the evening of the ritual – recites them less like a Brahmin more like a poet. “My recitation of the mantras was unsteady; I couldn’t find the right Pandit voice. I tried to exercise my imagination. I imagined I was living in the sixteenth century at the time of Surdas and Tulsidas. I imagined myself reading their poetry out loud. My face grew calmer. My recitation improved. Then I launched into Sanskrit, singing the praises of Lord Ganesha and Gauri. The listeners settled down and became lost in thought as sometimes happens at poetry festivals.” The moment is both subtly and piercingly anti-caste for me. That you use poetry to puncture Brahmanism is both beautiful and obvious.
18. Karachi, you’re killing me! – Saba Imtiaz
Nisha suggested this book when I was wallowing in covid grief-part non-covid drama. I wanted to read a book about a woman on the verge of changing her life. Felt settled in 2 pages and finished in 3 days. Ayesha is a journalist in Karachi on the hunt for a story that will give her her first break. When we first meet him, her boss, Kamran is on the phone with his wife insisting that she wear the black Armani, not the red. There only I died off little. After that, I watched as Ayesha trusts easily, breaks down, and picks herself up just as easily. Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to pick yourself up, like making your mind up to want to wash the plate immediately after you eat, not the next morning. Do it now only. The thing to know and what she tells herself is -“I’ll be fine”. As I was reading this, I realised that this was my second set-in-Karachi novel and head was hung in shame for not reading more earlier.
19. Moustache, S.Hareesh (Translated from the Malayalam by Jayasree Kalathil)
Currently reading. Insides are flourishing with words, fishes, kanji, trees, and birds. I am learning, like Vavachan to not lose ‘the sense of wonderment’ that others are more than happy to pee all over on. Know it, water it, hide it if you must — but above all, protect it when you have it. More on this when my insides are bursting with Hareesh’s worlds and words. Vavachan, a Dalit man plays the role of a policeman on stage. After the play, he keeps the moustache he was made to grow for the role. This causes terror in everyone. The Moustache grows and grows -birds build nests there, insects procreate, rivers flow, dams build themselves etc. The story follows this, what happens to him, his moustache, and the many rivers of Kuttanad.
Wrote this sometime in November last year. Wanted to release it from my drafts-section, so here it is.
The department runs a certificate course in writing called Polemics for our Pandemics, where I teach a few sessions. Today, I took Natalia Ginzburg’s ‘My Vocation’ to class. I first read this woman in 2019 and thought no one had made writing seem so doable, so touchable, so lovable. Reading her was very freeing. It’s something I don’t feel very often and I was so thrilled and terrified of what I’d read and how she’d written that I didn’t go back to her for a long time.
At Moe’s Books in San Francisco that same year, my friend Simão picked up her novel, Family Lexicon in Italian, and I, only barely recognizing her name jumped. “Ginzburg”, he said, to my sheepish ‘OMG NATALIA GINSBERG’!!!. After that, I combed through every bookstore we were taken to, hunting for an English translation but I guess I searched badly. I am sure it was there and I didn’t look properly.
What I felt that morning in 2019, when I first read My Vocation was a throbbing freedom in my chest. No one had ever written about writing like that. And I know that tomorrow I will wake up and find another woman and say the same thing about her but it’s why we read no? To find more and more women who can teach us how to be and feel alive, despite love, and life, and other things.
I was looking forward to seeing this class because I haven’t taught in so long and it’s probably why I haven’t been myself since October. I feel like myself when I teach more than when I write. We wrapped up regular classes in October and since then, it’s like my days are full of me and I don’t like her at all. Most mornings since then, I have woken up feeling nervous about not knowing which version of myself I am going to get. It’s like living with a moody, ill-tempered husband. I can tell it’s a decent morning if I am able to fight the thing that I usually tend to think of as soon as I wake up. If I can’t, then I am fucked.
Reading about Ginzburg’s belief in her vocation returns me to mine. What a solid, spectacular writer. It’s her I was going to rely on when a former student who wrote and still writes like fire on ice was going to go do law. I almost took a print-out of My Vocation and handed it to her. Later when I sent her a copy of ‘The Little Virtues’, she loved it and that made me love Ginzburg even more.
Ginzburg unknotted a nagging worry I’d fed for a long time, often feeling caught between the desire to give everything away to one essay or one story and resisting it. Shouldn’t I save a really good detail for a book? For something bigger, brighter, better?
“I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings’. If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write’, that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it. When someone writes a story he should throw the best of everything into it, the best of whatever he possesses and has seen, all the best things that he has accumulated throughout his life.”
And I’m still learning how to give my writing everything I have. It hasn’t been possible to do this in the past couple of weeks. In these covid murders that the government has determinedly orchestrated, how does one find the will to accept that at this point, we don’t know if we are waiting for things to get better or worse…worse than this?
I dreamt that I was severely irritated with myself for repeatedly using the phrases ‘holding with eyes’ and ‘didn’t let go’ – when I write. I felt liquid shame in my mouth when I saw that a whole lot of people would also recognise that as something I would say. Bah. In my dream also I am irritated with my writing. What does this mean?
In other news, while brushing teeth this morning, I suddenly became very grateful for having read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen the way I did. That morning in Seattle, I had nothing but Citizen on my mind. It became a book that I could write too. How nice to have had mornings like that. How nice to know that all I have to do now to have more mornings like that is just get lost in a book.
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.”
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.
In love with this stunning partnership, the grace to compliment one another on stage so willfully and mean it, the curiosity about each other’s writing that doesn’t seem scripted for stage and the readiness with which they embrace each other’s work.
And most of all, absolutely delighted that Adichie says this about Zadie:
“How happy I am to share the stage with Zadie. I have admired and followed Zadie’s work from the very beginning, from The White Teeth. And I’ve also really admired that she is this brilliant woman who is also a hot babe. I think it’s really important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes”
They discuss Americanah, race, racism, the importance of talking about hair, love, romance, writing, and sex. Adichie says that she based Americanah on the many Mills & Boon she read as a child. Such a slap on the faces of people who continue to propagate bullshit about high and low literature.
I like how happy they look. I like how they laugh and make the audience laugh. I like how they aren’t devoting any energy towards private and less private angers. Things white people, publishers, editors may have said but on this stage, they only have eyes and heart for writing.