Postcard from today IV

I’ve been catching all the young teachers I know and pestering them to begin an online teaching journal of sorts. I think I am doing this out of a desire to take stock and watch them take stock of how far they’ve come and how much farther we must all go.

Sometimes I return to old posts written here on my blog from a time when not knowing how to take classes was my biggest weakness and strength. I don’t know how much of what I carry each day into the classroom now is a betrayal of what I haven’t been able to reconcile on my own, with myself, inside of myself. I am 34 and I still feel most lost when I have lied to other people, smallest when I watch in amazement when people I admire refuse to lie and are just silent and smiling when lying would’ve been so much easier.

Their refusal to lie sticks to me like pink bubble gum on chappals. Everywhere I walk is heavy with a personal stickiness that no one else knows or cares about.

In class yesterday, we talked about best revenges. I was carried away by own fondness for Lady Di and couldn’t stop gushing about her black off shoulder dress. Nothing tops that- I told them, until a student who disappears into himself every time he speaks (like Salvador) said something that made me laugh and also tore me a little. It’s a self-help mantra, yes but the words “kill them with your success, bury them with your smile” made me think about the gratifying sound of silence and the power there is in not having to do anything when something threatens to eat you from inside and outside.

When I enter a classroom, I am no longer the lying, small, distrustful, jealous, threatened, threatening woman in perpetual love. I am a teacher willing to be moved by students, and their willingness to smile. I am grateful for the reassuring presence of classrooms in my life. It’s here that it doesn’t seem to matter how broken I am.

Late last evening a student who has been carrying water filters in his neighbourhood to make money messaged to ask if I knew any doctors for severe arm pain. This is also another huge part about being a teacher – not having answers but wanting to help.

Postcard from today II

Woke up late and groggy. Last night’s short story energy was a ball of memory already. 2 hrs of invigilation duty. Spent the day running around and feeling better about no yoga. Spoke to a student today who asked me what it meant when I say in class ‘250 words’ — what is words? how does one calculate it? Was pinched back to the time not so long ago when I too didn’t know how to quantify words, letters, and alphabets. I am thinking of how much of what I do everyday is on auto-pilot, especially teaching, and how unaware I am of this. Write 250 words, 500 words, 1000 words is something I say everyday and yet I am also the same person who, once upon a time, couldn’t tell if jack opens a box of potatoes had 6 words in it or 23. How and why do we forget ourselves so easily?

When I’d joined the department 10 years ago, I’d asked A.M when I will begin to feel like a teacher. He told me I will feel like a teacher the day a student will tear my ass.

Today, after a long time, I felt it tear.

Student said he wanted to join the army, and spends 4 hours a day working out before beginning his job as a Swiggy Delivery Executive between 10 and 12 in the night.

I thought how immune our jobs sometimes make us to the very people we are in the job for. Ate grumpily at my desk later and wasn’t able to write.

Two mofo deadlines hang over my head as I type this.

P.S: Autopilot riding is ok, autopilot living too, why can’t autopilot writing happen?

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.