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.

What is a Savarna Karen called?

I saw this on twitter today and wolf-whistled. Let’s not even begin to consider the audacity of telling someone ‘hey, your joy is triggering for me’ but to say ‘I’m white but I still feel…’ and in the same breath to also add ‘now that you are no longer an unhappy black woman, I don’t relate to you anymore.’ – how do you even address entitlement like this?

Bomb Stephanie Yeboah said this like the queen she is: “There does need to be an unpacking of why black joy seems to make some white women uncomfortable and the issue of entitlement. I don’t expect everyone to be happy for me, absolutely not! But being made to feel almost guilty for being happy is a weird flex.”

YES YES and YES!

If half our energies go away in addressing these entitlements, when do we do what we truly want to do? And please, no, this entitled behaviour isn’t our problem, it shouldn’t have to be but when someone goes out of their way to disrupt your joy, your work when you weren’t at all interested in their lives to begin with, understand that they do it out of entitlement yes, but also because your work makes them uncomfortable so we gots to keep kickin asses, sistahs.

Merit and my middle finger

This is a cartoon of Dr. Ambedkar that I return to very frequently these days. In it, Dr. Ambedkar is making way for sweepers (I assume this is Eeran’s way of depicting Dalit people) to enter the parliament; and is holding a rolled up paper that says Constitution. We know he is Dr. Ambedkar because of these things, yes but also because we know those glasses, that endearing rotundness of the belly that in other more humane depictions – holds capacity for big, shattering laughter. What’s supposed to shock us is that he is wearing a janeu, carrying gomutra (?), and blessing a line of Brahmin men at his feet.

He is referred to as the modern manu in one place and ‘our new brahmin’ in another. 

Context – this illustration was published in Filmindia in 1950, a little after the Hindu Code Bill and twenty three years after the Mahad Satyagraha where Manusmriti was first publicly burnt. The depiction of Dr. Ambedkar as a brahmin here is to issue a threat. To brahmins, yes but they are threatened by everything so let’s not go there. 

The threat here is issued also to the other ‘real’ Dalits. The ones real enough to be naked, starving, and dead. Because obviously, if you are literate, dress in suits, speak english, and have expensive tastes, bro are you even Dalit? This is the picture that began it all. Some call it the Savarna gaze, I call it more impetus to keep working.

While reading Babasaheb for the first time can open doors, give one the freedom, and the permission to reimagine oneself differently, it also makes one aware of the other door that is closed. One that only he can open. It’s the door I’m most curious about because the urge to know him more intimately can only be dissolved there. To know what worries he took home from work and back to work, how he worked, where he sat, what he ate, and how he dealt with distasteful reactions to his work. I tell myself that it isn’t necessary to know him like that. That his work is the way to know him and that it’s enough and it’s all there is to know and learn from really. But on some days, when the noise from outside pours in and I can’t hear myself or bring myself to read his words, I feel an itch to feel with my finger, the exact line of crease on his forehead, that line of worry and what he did to smoothen it out. 

He worked his way out, yes. But in that moment of absolute disgust when he found himself amidst attacks like the one above, whether savarna or otherwise – how did he overcome the paralysis of finding oneself in a state of distrust, inaction, and aggression?

The chilling fact about the Ambedkar cartoons is that they are all ridiculous depictions of him while he is at work. That’s where it hits savarna ego the most – that while you are at work, you take space, that your body is full of work and work full of your body and when they walk in pinching their noses, the stench of your work nauseates them.

Just his presence in the parliament was enough to threaten the cabbages who were barely interested in what actually happened in the parliament. Most of the cartoons are wordless depictions of Ambedkar. Quite obviously so. Ambedkar’s language is so precise that no savarna worth his salt can imitate it. So they put in all their bitterness into making his belly bellier but didn’t know how to make him look dimwitted so they gave him little to no speech.

It’s perhaps in these cartoons that we learn most about Ambedkar’s work ethic simply because it’s here in these cartoons that we see the acidic hatred towards him and his work. What surrounds these cartoons is Ambedkar’s silence and the resolve to not be distracted by cow dung when there is so much work to be done. Another version of Savitiri Mai’s extra saree if you will.

The lesson to learn from this is if you are a Dalit who reads and writes in English, who may not be as willing to share her pornography of caste violence with the world, who chases joy deliberately, persistently, madly – then there is a line of people waiting to take away your SC certificate. It’s a funny, funny world. If you want to survive, you have to prove to one set of savarna cabbages that your merit is hard earned and real. And to the other set of cabbages that despite your merit- you are still suffering. Any evidence of joy, confidence, stability means you are brahmin.

Either way, you are more convincing as a Dalit if you are dead. Don’t be alive, that’s all they are asking. And by chance, if you are alive: don’t look happy, don’t read, don’t write, and definitely not in English. Then, when they are satisfied that your suffering is authentic, then they will give you a real Dalit certificate. 

I dreamt of Babasaheb last night. He was wearing a suit, smoking a very expensive cigar, drinking single malt whiskey from a polished glass. His glasses were there, so was his belly. We were in a room full of books. We talked about work, food, love, and old letters. He told me to tell you ‘Nimduke certificate namduke beda’ (I don’t need your certificate)

To know more about this cartoon and others like it, please read No Laughing Matter : The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932–1956 by Unnamati Syama Sundar.

24.11.21

On the way to work today, I saw a pillion rider without helmet jump off the bike when he saw maama (cop, boss) at the Minerva circle signal. He ran to the footpath and maama didn’t notice him. After the traffic began to move, our rider friend waved at pillion escapee and asked to meet him on the other side of the road.

I took the regular left at Poornima theatre and went past Bishop Cotton Women’s Christian College and watched in awe as a man riding a bike began disposing rotten tomatoes. I couldn’t see where the tomatoes were being thrown from (a bag?). The tomatoes were squashed, tired of wanting to be red, and had settled for a greenish, unhappy orange.

At work, students carried the day, like they always do.

A sea of yellow girls squeezing smiles and songs.

To be a teacher on any other day is a blessing. To be a teacher on one’s birthday is a lesson in gratitude.

I hope that in the all years to come when I become 35, 42, 58, even 64 – I’ll still be a teacher.

And I hope that in all the lives to come, I’m still a woman – locking up her workplace before she’s the last one to leave and first to arrive the morning after where she is met with the smell of her own stale perfume from last night.

Throwing Chalk!

I have a new column at The Third Eye called Throwing Chalk (courtesy thechasingiamb, saadanam kayil)

I wrote the first essay in April, right about the time when second wave hit Bangalore. The first draft came apart like the jockey underwear I got 7- years ago. Only I knew about the holes but my editors are so smart that they also saw it and said ey this is nice but show that other one. So I wrote the second one, much tighter but also with holes that were easily darnable. I enjoyed writing this very much.

It feels like everything I need to say is inside me and I just have to sit long enough to perform some inner digging to get them all out. Writing has become very bodily these days. And I am learning to pay attention to how literal it is, how much of the body is in it. Grateful for this.

The essay is illustrated by the supremely talented Priyanka Paul whose amazing hand I want to kiss and do long dances with. Here is her glorious work:

You can read my column here.

High on LSD tomorrow

Comrades and Comradies,

My lou for The Open Dosa, Paromita Vohra and Agents of Ishq is coming in full force tomorrow at the Love, Sex, and Data conference. Banni. In spirit of total khud-ki-lena/ self- love feels, dropping these cute posters here, please don’t mind.

You can register here

Metonym 2021

In the coming month, our classrooms are going to change. So will our department. As always, the people desperate for these changes are neither students nor teachers. They are idiots drunk on power and god knows what else.

Sometimes when we sit in the department drinking chai, I get nervous because Arul sir won’t sit still. Let’s do Metonym, let’s do colloquium, let’s do screening, let’s do causerie. I always think where this man gets his energy from. It’s from chai, yes. But also from an intense desire to build a space for students that others are constantly trying to take away.

What he gives us is also a way of reimagining students as people beyond register numbers and DPs on MS Teams. Very few people take youngsters seriously these days. And most others like to believe that the only way in which youngsters can be taken seriously is if they do political things. As if that’s all young people are good for- and if they aren’t, a couple of heavy-metal english words are thrown at them to make them feel like crap.

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen young women show up for each other, be cheerleaders without pompoms, giggle and laugh together, be curious about each other, and hold each other in a way that only people who’ve never been held can. It always tickles me to watch two girls become friends. I watch them like a cat and smile and think, ah, this is why I became a teacher – to watch female friendships for free.

When those high on power like to stand in a line and throw cow dung on others who are on their way to work, the only way to defeat them is by playing everyday. It’s what my work allows me to do. It allows me to play with students which is all kinds of amusing because I didn’t play this much even when I was a child.

Despite what’s coming, I’ve gone to bed every night these last two weeks feeling great intrigue, envy, surprise, and above all, extreme fidaness for students.

So my dear Ashwath Narayana, what I want to say is, if you take our classrooms away, we will go outside and play.