Heee Hawww!

Before I left to Goa, I was in a bit of a lull. I couldn’t write nor read. I was exhausted by the endless inspiration consumed from watching YouTube interviews of my favourite women. I needed newer, more productive ways of stalking them. So I tweeted to Carmen Maria Machado (haw) and asked her if she’d mind answering some questions about writing. She replied immediately – said she wouldn’t mind. After I recovered from jumping up and down 400 times, I sat down and messaged all the students I know who loved her writing. They sent in questions and I put them together and mailed it over to her.

And then I was quite kicked, I wrote about Ferrante, went to Goa and felt more powerful than I have in years, got back and felt like a queen. I forgot all about the mail sometime during the trip because it suddenly hit me that she’s getting married. But then yesterday, I saw that she had replied. My day immediately took off and I haven’t stopped smiling since 🙂

This is my favourite bit from the interview:

Do you sometimes find it hard to continue after you’ve heard something unpleasant about your writing? How do you deal with it?

I used to, but I don’t anymore. Eventually you learn to let that stuff roll off you. You just have to remember that you don’t–and you can’t–write for everyone. Some people won’t like your work, and that’s fine. Write for yourself.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

Saved by the Terminator

This is the piece I wrote for our second volume of Engster – the Department’s biannual magazine. We finish ten years of streaming this year. So this volume has a section dedicated to memories – writings from former students of SJC. It also has the prize winning entries of the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay – 2016. Leave a message if you’d like to buy a copy.

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I have reason to believe that sometimes I don’t know English. This morning, I was walking across the college field and saw a group of boys playing football. I stared at them for a while and imagined myself writing about it later. But I was struggling to locate words to describe the game – shoes scuttling or moving? Band of colors or range of colors? Dust or mud? Then maybe I know some words but I can never be sure which to use where.

At this point I must interrupt to mention a friend from school who I met recently. Throughout our school life, Gaana was a champion of sorts with English – top scorer, editor of the school magazine, winner of many creative writing contests, and the English teacher’s pet. I had always been in awe of her. On the most depressing days, I’d  imitate the way she sat in class, hoping something of hers would rub off on me and then maybe I could become ‘good in English’ like her. But then she took engineering.

And so I also took PCMB and struggled through the four months that I was a science student. Coming as we did from state board, we were both unprepared for labs, formulae and other things that students from ICSE and CBSE seemed perfectly okay with. While my friend managed to scrape through, I could only scrap.

I wondered if there was anybody else in class like me who just took science because their friend had or because their parents had smilingly imposed it upon them. It was hard to tell – around me were people who were confident about what they wanted to do.

I was put in one Mr. RKJ’s physics and math class: the morning batch, of course. 4:30 in the morning to be precise. I don’t know why he did this to himself but there he was at 4:30 every morning, in the basement turned classroom of his Basavanagudi home, standing in all his balding glory. Now, even I don’t know why I did that to myself.

RKJ was a very practical looking man with serious, gold-rimmed spectacles- the kind that gave him authority when he walked into a classroom full of morning breath-students, the kind that made me wonder if his wife was unhappy to wake up that early in the morning to make chai- nashta.

His son was rumoured to be sitting in the same batch with all of us but I never saw him. Poor chap, I thought. To wake up at an ungodly hour to sit in his father’s class along with psycho intelligent students who wept if they got 98 on 100. Rascals. Here I was getting legendary marks: 3 on 60. 9 on 75.

And then it rained one morning so I bunked tuition and never went back after that. This was right after a chemistry test morning when I was at the dining table mugging equations, wondering if I could make studying interesting by seeming interested.

And I tried. For several days before and after the test, I really did. At the test, the equations played dance India dance with me and so I ran out of the hall in tears: answer paper, question paper, pencil box all abandoned.

If this has been sounding too much like Taare Zameen Par, it is not. Because the only dyslexia I had was against studying science. So I made myself and others believe that I was bad at math and science only because I was good at English. But I certainly wasn’t. I was just a lazy girl who wanted to watch films all day. But to be taken seriously, I started writing horrible war poetry out of nowhere. Then I told my friends I was working on a novel. On what? I don’t know. But the title was going to be ‘A Writer Cries’ or some such drama. And then I kept telling people that ‘Science is Passé, only so I could use passé in a sentence because I’d just learnt its meaning. Then I tried to convince my father that if I kept studying science, the machines would come alive and destroy humanity like in Terminator.

After the Terminator episode, my father banned all Sci-fi/fantasy films at home. He still makes a fuss when we watch Harry Potter because he believes that had it not been for Arnold Shivajinagar, I’d be an engineer today.

Thanks to my made up dyslexia, I switched to Arts and have never regretted my decision.

***

On the last day of my final year degree, I discovered the college library and felt a gnawing ache in my chest. For the first time in my life, I felt I had actually lost something of value in all that time I’d wasted on keeping friendships that I have today abandoned. And so I took to reading to avoid getting into the trap of friendships. I failed and today I haunt their remnants on Instagram and Twitter.

I became somewhat of a reader after I started teaching and today it is the only reminder I have of what I was able to escape, even if out of sheer laziness. Reading has brought me closer to worlds I would have otherwise never known.

One evening, I sat in the old department reading the last page of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And then suddenly, I was very aware that I was going to remember this moment for a long time. It was a book that I had first started reading in PG and then again after that when I graduated. But I finally finished it then, in the old department — three years after I had started reading it. It was raining outside and both my professors were reading too. I looked around and my mind sighed louder than it ever has.

Marquez took me to places that I found difficult to imagine but his characters did such absurd things – they ascended into heaven, died and came back alive, wrote and predicted the future in Sanskrit, and he wrote about all of them so convincingly; that he brought to my home Macondo. I read over and over again the scene where a thousand ants carry a newborn out onto the road and devour it.

Vargas Llosa reopened my childhood and all its shame with a force that I am still recovering from. I was pushed into writing many things about my grandmother and the various women in my family after I read these two men.

I found the Neapolitan series three months ago and reading it has been painfully reassuring. Elena Ferrante brought me to confront a fear that I had been dutifully running away from. When I first started writing, I wanted to write like the people who I thought wrote beautifully. Theirs was the only way to write. My fear was that if didn’t learn to write like them -like that, I could never become a good writer. And so everything I wrote disgusted me – the language was too simple, the metaphors too dull and the voice too ambitious. I grew desperate and lost whatever little relationship I had with writing.

Then Ferrante taught me a more reliable way of writing – to write honestly. She taught me to write the way I feel. It doesn’t matter if there is no rhythm, no rhyme, and no sentences that look perfectly carved but as long as there is memory, there is a story and as long as there is a story, there is the desire to do something with it. After all, what else is the point to writing?

Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri taught me to outgrow my anger when I write. And so I write now, still desperate, still lost and struggling but when I finish, I feel like I do when after a tiring day, the bed that I want to sleep in is uncomfortable but I can always rely on my tiredness to put me to sleep well.

***

Gaana says that engineering was a mistake. In the last three years, her parents have made her meet over 50 men – all professionals and experts in engineering and medical. She liked only one man out of the 50 because he asked her if she’d eaten breakfast one morning. She was so delighted, she cried.

Back in RKJ’s tuition, where I was planning to quit science, I’d once asked a classmate (forever the first rank girl), if they had Arts in Vijaya College where she studied. She looked at me in wild horror – her studious, Brahmin face scrunching up in disgust. She never talked to me after that. Years later, I was waiting for a cab near her house, and I saw her standing outside– still bespectacled and first-rank looking. She was standing with a plate and feeding her year old toddler. For a moment, we looked at each other and then we looked away.

Most of my classmates today are married and abroad. These were people who were never mean to anybody but they frightened the living daylights out of me. They made it seem like it was completely normal to believe that science was the only desirable option and so was getting married at 25.

When I look back, I can see that I started very late. I have arrived at reading and writing only now and I’m reminded of this every single day of my teaching life. I find that everywhere, there are more and more students who have finished reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy but don’t know who Rakhi Sawant is. And it doesn’t help that I know her like the back of my hand. Didn’t these people ever watch TV?

What to do? How to teach?

This was slightly embarrassing to deal with in the first year of teaching. Four years later, I have accumulated a decent degree of shamelessness to be able to revel in the knowledge I have of useless things. My first lesson therefore was to cast away shame. The second was to learn to use this shamelessness convincingly. I have started late but I know Rakhi Sawant better than they know their Russian authors. And if I can find a way to connect Chaucer’s Wife of Bathe to Rakhi Sawant, then maybe there’s still hope for me.

***

Punugu Bekku

At Meta this year, we inaugurated a series called the ‘Double Action.’ Members of the Department picked a story/essay in a regional language, translated it and read it in the original — the translation being projected on a screen. I couldn’t find things online that I could translate so I wrote a personal essay in Konkani. This is the first time I have come to associate Konkani with a world outside of my home and it was strangely liberating to note that more possibilities with writing seemed to open up when I began to think and write in Konkani. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to consider Konkani as a language I can tell a story in. I can’t say I’m too happy with what I’ve written but then again, that is never the point!

I don’t remember my mother’s smell. Sometimes I think that she never had a smell. And sometimes I think that I have deliberately forgotten her smell. I think I knew her smell better when I was small.

Her smell would hug her clothes and wouldn’t leave. After her clothes were washed and dried, they would fall into a heap on the sofa and I’d leap into them and sleep. In them, I could smell more of her than surf. And hers was always ponds, fair and lovely and a bit of her. I don’t know what that is. Her bindi would sit angrily like a red dot on her forehead. Sometimes the bindi would fall off and her face would look empty and if anyone so much as pointed that out to her, she’d jump around until she wore another one. My sister once told her that if the bindi falls, Ekta Kapoor believes that your husband has died. Amma yelled at her and then laughed.

She’d always feed us when we were small. Once, she put hot hot upma into my mouth and when I started howling in pain, she blew air into my mouth to soothe it. I laughed out loudly and the upma flew onto her face and just sat there.

No matter how sick she is, she always has the energy to show us that she is sick. We know she isn’t well by the way she asks for water. She sleeps like a corpse on the bed and moans. If in case we don’t bring her water on time, she will pretend to get up and say, ‘leave, I’ll only bring it.’ She will not have moved even an inch.

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Amma ani aav

When she sings, she sings with devotion. Just the other day she was singing Aamir Khan’s Delhi Belly song – I hate you like I love you with so much devotion, it sounded like she was praying to him.

When she was small, her grandmother would sing to her. She loved her grandmother. It seems she would only wear white and sit smelling nice and warm all day. My grandmother never wears white and she smells only of Marie biscuits and vibhooti. When I was small, I would sit on her lap and only drink Horlicks after she showed me both her breasts.

Amma calls me Punugu *bekku because I smell nice after having slathered volumes of lotion and deodorant. It seems the Punugu bekku’s shit smells really nice so people make perfumes out of it. I have always dreamt of smelling nice.

I’d sometimes hide in my mother’s cupboard and smell everything I could find there. Her saris smelled differently than her salwar kameez and nighties because she didn’t wear saris often, she never opened that side of the cupboard. It had a nice musty smell to it. And I taught myself to hug her saris and get the most out of it.

Amma’s other grandmother lives in Cochin. During summer, she takes off all her clothes and sits by the door wearing just a skirt and bra. If she still feels sweaty and hot, she takes off the bra also and sits naked with just a towel on. Her name is Narmadamma. When amma mentions her, pa gets a little angry but he also laughs a lot.

All of Amma’s relatives are reddish fair. And all the relatives on pa’s side are reddish dark. Pa doesn’t like this at all. He tried a lot to become fair like amma by using fair and lovely every day but it didn’t work. Once he almost emptied an entire tube and put it on his face. He woke up the next morning with his face burnt. We all call amma and pa – milk and decoction. Pa finds this also amusing.

Growing up is like a curse. I grew distant from amma. I remember how my sister and I’d force our way into amma and pa’s bed when they’d watch TV. Now there’s distance between us — there’s pause and a kind of shyness that I don’t understand when I step into their bedroom. When I was small, the smell of my house was empty – there was too much space and nothing to smell. Now there is too much to smell but no one to smell. Amma’s smell is going away and I’m trying to catch it.

*Bekku means cat in Kannada.

Beat

I am slowing down. I like it. There is no hurry. The beating in my throat, the itch in my mind, the knot in my stomach is softer now, like the slow ebbing away of a cramp and then there is nothing but silence left in the hollow of my abdomen, to celebrate and nurture.

 

Out of Body

Today I noticed that I have been forgetting to hang my keys on the key stand. Last morning, I panicked. I was getting ready for college when I realized that my keys weren’t on their usual hook. I retraced my steps, double checked my bag and ran around the house like a mad woman. Ma then told me that the keys were on the table in her room. I was baffled.

Things like this never happen to me. I am cursing myself even as I type this, I am muttering many touch-wood kind of things under my breath, but I really never lose things – keys, mobile, wallet. Never. Ever. Even if I lose them for maybe a minute or two, I always find them. There. I have said it. I know now that tomorrow morning when I wake up, my world would have turned upside down. I will find myself key-less, wallet-less and mobile-less.

In the department today, I read after a long time. I read a story about a Bengali woman who was consumed by the desire to write every day. Her husband hated it — he hid everything she wrote. But she’d write the same story over and over again. The story about a blind girl who could tell you the names of colors by just touching them.

She sat with a pen and a new sheet of paper every evening and wrote. She challenged her husband to a bet. He said she wasn’t talented enough to get published. Later he hid in his drawer, the letters that various editors wrote to his wife, telling her to send more stories.

In stories, either as writers or as characters, women are mad in a way that they cannot be in real life. I will disagree with this in the morning but this needs to be said.

When she writes every day, a little bit of her husband dies, until he cannot take it anymore and runs away. When I read this, I feel full and begin to smile endlessly.

I was just going to leave the department when it started to rain. So I sat and looked around. When I sit and look around, especially in the department, I have an out of body experience. I begin to think about all the things that have happened ever since we moved here. Things that happened last year and the year before that.

Outside, the construction workers were on full swing. There was drilling and what not. I sat on the steps and waited for the rain to stop. Every time the drone of machines paused for a minute, I thought the rain had gone and stood up to leave.

When I finally left, I thought about all the ways in which the place would be different tomorrow. Tomorrow of the bright day time. Of the endless work and its slicing hurry.

 

When Women Tie their Hair in a Bun, Leave Them Alone

Writing must become writing. Writing must become the want to write even if the desk is unkempt, and there are a hundred others things one should be doing, one could be doing. Writing must become slapping all other things off the table to make room for the dull heat of the net book, the cold forgotten earphones, and nothing else to keep it company. Not even the green mug of chai. Why does there have to be chai? Apparently Nabokov could only write standing. He stood every day of his life at a lectern and wrote. There was nothing else in this space – not chai, not music, not even quiet maybe.

It is different from the way I imagine Machado writes.

Writing has to be become the shock one wakes up with every morning and the warmth one sleeps with every night. It must become the zoo of sentences of beginnings that one repeats to oneself when one is riding. It shouldn’t be the way it is now- where only the beginnings remain and then their echoes follow one around to remind them of stories they could not write. That they cannot write.

When Machado writes, her bed is a mess. There is a mug of warm coffee in her hand but she only sips after writing a good sentence. Her table is messier and so is her hair. She has tied her hair together in a bun, keeping them away, as if to keep all distractions away. When women tie their hair together in a bun, leave them alone. They don’t want to be disturbed. My brother once told me that on days that I tie my hair in a bun, he is afraid of me. I laughed at him then. I think he is wise now.

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Image Credits: en.wikipedia.org

Writing must become the hole in my stomach when I go days without reading, the catch in my jaw when I don’t write, the pull in my gut when I read a student whose writing makes me jealous. Writing must become the words that appear magically in my mind and don’t leave without any notice when I am staring at the pausing cursor.

When Alice Munro writes, her characters come alive, robustly living and evaporating into stories that are more real than my nightmares. When Adichie writes, her hair is standing tall, her posture straight and she is wearing a skirt that I only have the courage to wear on holidays that I take alone. Their stories run each other down into puddles of joy and sorrow until I cannot say which is which anymore.

Writing must become the ache in my insides when I think about it. The strength to leave behind a desk that is piling up with work. It must override the temptation to sit, to talk, to be drawn into conversations. Writing must become feeling unafraid to walk out on fun.

When I imagine Woolf, Austen and the fictional Miss LaMotte, I imagine them in black & white. I imagine them taking long walks in a city whose imposed loneliness they resist. They are afraid of silence but maybe they are not afraid of being with themselves. When they write, they struggle and have no one to talk to but they continue to write. Outside their quiet homes, men write and write fiercely. It’s what they did. I will always feel indebted to all these women who wrote before me. I think I can write because they wrote.

Writing must become the smiling pause after I read something that tingles my back and sends goose bumps down my arms.

At long last, writing must become what I do every day, little little.

Llosa & Rio

The last perfect moment I had was a month ago. It was a Sunday. I was taking a shower at a friend’s house and I told myself, ‘This is a perfect moment. You will come back to this again and again.’ I had just finished sending a piece to my editor. The piece that had been sitting on my chest and laughing at me for over a month. In the bathroom that day, as I smiled into my own realization, I felt a burden lifting off. I looked at the brown tiles and wondered if I’d ever felt this light before.

S was screaming at me and B’s fortress of quietude had joined her, making its noisy fist on the bathroom door. They were both waiting. We were going to get breakfast at Mother Clucker’s. And then B and I were going to go to Blossom’s and then to Glen’s. I looked around and found a bottle of Tresemme shampoo. I thought about the long day ahead and couldn’t stop smiling.

I haven’t been able to write. It has been over a fortnight. I am reading a lot more than I used to but I am too exhausted to retain the tingling feeling of having read something nice. My copy of Nalini Jones’ ‘What You Call Winter’ came yesterday and I haven’t even opened it fully.

The most relieving moment, however, happened a week ago.

For a long time I was convinced that writing = talent and that without talent, hard work is bullshit. Mario Vargas Llosa’s ‘Letters to a Young Novelist’ had been sitting on my shelf for 2 years. Desperate to find a way out of the dry -writing spell, I read it and felt happier than I have in months.

I think that only those who come to literature as they might to religion, prepared to dedicate their time, energy, and efforts to their vocation, have what it takes to really become writers and transcend themselves in their works. The mysterious thing we call talent, or genius, does not spring to life full-fledged – at least not in novelists, although it may sometimes in poets or musicians. Instead it becomes apparent at the end of many long years of discipline and perseverance. There are no novel-writing prodigies. All the greatest, most revered novelists were first apprentice writers whose budding talent required early application and conviction. The example of those writers who, unlike Rimbaud, a brilliant poet even as an adolescent, were required to cultivate their talent gives heart to the beginner, don’t you think?

I feel stupidly delighted even as I am typing this. But there’s hope, even if there’s no talent. And for now, that’s more than enough. I went to bed a satisfied woman that night.

I have been watching women killing it at the Rio Olympics. I have been watching them and feeling great pangs of jealousy. The dedication, the hard work, the paying off of the hard work – all of it. I imagine the 4:00 am alarm clocks that woke them, the route they took to run to their practice, the sleep they hungrily looked forward to at the end of every day and I am filled with a deep sense of longing for that kind of madness. I want to wake up at 4, wear a track suit, drink an energy drink and sit down to write. After a long day at work, I want to pack my bags and take off to ‘practice’. I want to come back home and collapse and wake up again the next day to do it all over again.