3 Idlis, sambar and chutney

“I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder”



In the space that is sometimes as large as my heart, often just as tiny – I see myself alone – with all the books I am not reading – sitting on the impulse- on the dot -on the any moment now of waiting – for the beginning of a story that may or may not arrive.


“I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything — I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved deviously, didn’t let anyone know what I was doing”


My garden is overflowing with the sincerity to protect my laziness.


Read a story by Colette today about a woman who almost runs into her husband’s ex-wife (husband spots the ex-wife and rushes his new wife to another table). Wife is curious, husband bitches about his ex endlessly, says they weren’t able to make each other happy because she was difficult to please. New wife grows curiouser. Husband praises new wife’s ease to be around. New wife is happy. But even as they are leaving, she cannot stop herself from looking back at the woman, the other woman, the ex-wife who got away. She envies how the ex is smoking deliriously, her head resting on the back of the chair, eyes closed, smiling to a secret only she seems to know, unbothered by her ex-husband, and his new wife who both exit the restaurant in a kind of tearing hurry that she has neither the need nor the desire for.

Made me happy to read this short story.

My body is craving a routine I am not able to give it.

There is something that terrifies me more than not being able to write and that is not being able to read. I will stagnate and die if I can’t. I want to so badly read. I want to get lost in a novel. Surrender to it and feel torn every time I must leave it and go, like for class or for a shower or something. I want to feel murderous rage when I come back to find it lost, and then I want to carry that empty feeling, like I just lost a part of myself, and with that I want to sleep angrily, hungrily.

I am now thinking of what I do when I don’t know my own mind. I am soon to be a 35-year-old woman and can’t believe the fullness with which the numbers 3 & 5 throw themselves against the walls of my mouth. What does it mean to be 35? I don’t know. I don’t even know what it means to be 34, like I still don’t know what it meant to be 30, 29, 28 even.

I am worried that if I don’t write now, I will never write. I want to give myself away to 35 and seal myself there. I also want to grow older like all the woman who wear flowers in their hair do – with so much laugh and wine and long and lazy lunches with friends, and many photos of bright, sunlit windows on InstantGram. I can’t wait to grow old like that. Not like this where I can’t tell if I am crying because I am 35 or still 25. That’s something no one tells you. As you grow older, you don’t cry lesser. You cry fewer maybe but not lesser.

But I did read this lovely post by Aparna Vinod who just celebrated her 40th. Here is an excerpt:

For everyone who is asking me what being 40 feels like, it has been rupture. Attachment and disengagement are easy decisions, I value the senses and intuition much more. The Self is mostly unapologetic for being imperfect, both in body and opinion. There is a sense of calm, for I know who and what matter. There is unsettling desire to do more, learn more, be more … I have so much to give! There has not been a more trying decade than the 30s, but life creeped in slowly, opening windows, carrying light and promise, urging me to look at that awaits.

~Aparna Vinod, from FaceBook

This was reassuring to read.

Tomorrow is a new day. I will build myself a little more strongly tomorrow. For today, there is a glass of wine and a film.

Postcard from today V

I was reading old journal entries today and found these from 2015 and 2016.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015, 9:30 am, department

I am reading Hedda Gabler for my reading room meeting today. It’s nice. I’ve enjoyed reading it so far. I am back to being indifferent to nonsense at the workplace. Students are the only saving grace. I am not talking much. I am only reading and writing and when I talk, I only talk to students.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015, 9:15 am, Lab

I am wearing what Amma got me from Bombay. It’s a printed blue full sleeved shirt and black stretchy pants. I got my new blue watch from Flipkart. It was 5000 when I first saw it and 3500 when I finally purchased it. Yesterday was a good day. I finished reading Hedda Gabler and had my reading room session. Our next book is Rebecca by Daphne du. I also read a couple of travel pieces by Charukesi and Shahnaz Habib. Then I started reading Anu Aggarwal’s memoir. I like reading it so far. It is hilarious.

Today I have 2 lab hours and an Optional English hour. I want to get started with Rebecca but must finish reading Anu Aggarwal before that. It’s Gowri today. And holiday tomorrow. There is gossip and bitchita-ness all around. Loose talk about who is qualified to teach what and sub standard writing and reservation children and nonsense. It’s what people who have zero respect for work or for themselves do. It’s all they ever do. I am ignoring it. Pah. I sat in the lab for some time yesterday and finished reading the play. It’s a nice little place to get a whole lot of work done. Rubu Kaapa has left, and so has Chungrei.

End of another semester already. Waw.

I wish I had an archive button for old journal entries to show themselves every morning so I could be taken back to what I was thinking 7, 8, 9 years ago.

I woke at 5:45 today and didn’t go back to sleep. The sun was up and sketching itself mindfully on the floor and I thought fuck me this is so beautiful. I have moved into my newly renovated home, and deliberately renovated room which was purposefully and hopefully designed to make me write.

Reading these entries fill me with 2 things – relief and envy. Relief because I am now in a place where no one and nothing can take away what I have built for myself and my writing – not loose talk, not cow dung, not even apathy. Envy because I was probably a much fiercer writer back then who wrote everyday (despite everything else that was happening) with a fervour I don’t seem to have anymore. Even 5 years ago, I wrote as if I’d forget how to write if I didn’t write everyday.

Today it seems like I need the charm of beautifully decorated rooms and tables and the illusion of free time to bloody produce one good sentence. In other words, total spoilt brat I have become.

Watching young women at work learning to find themselves despite noise, disruptions and the temptation to give in to loose talk is what I am crazy about these days. Moments where they choose themselves over everybody and everything else. Hours that they devote to learning — to making their craft better, sharper, louder. The permission they give themselves to be absorbed by things that move them. These are all a privilege to witness. I steal time from my own days to sit and watch them do this.

Invigilation

Was very kicked to learn that to invigilate literally means to stay awake. It comes from the Latin Vigilare, meaning “to stay awake”. Made me think about all the other words I use everyday unconsciously and the many more I use annually without any idea about why they mean what they mean.

I’ve been thinking about old posts I wrote back when I was more earnest. Earnest is a word I tend to use when I am doing admission duty and I’m interviewing a student who is paapa and eager to learn. Apparently the word earnest comes from the early 15th century (“a pledge or promise;” often “a foretaste of what is to follow”)

Perhaps I’d pledged a kind of discipline, hunger, desire that is no longer easy to manifest anymore. I read this and felt a dull pain somewhere in the chestage area.

I need some invigilation in life.

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.

Reading Qabar

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 Nisha Susan, 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.

The snake wrote better than a pen.

For Square Haunting

There’s something about the way Barathi reads that makes the writers she reads feel deeply and fiercely read. I envy her capacity to slide under the skin of your words, find the heart within them and give it more life than you ever could. This is how she writes as well.

To think that even my most ordinary thoughts and sentences find a home in her body/mind is to know that when she sends them back to me, I am going to catch them and when I do, I am going to fall hard. Sample this sentence: “when a space is sought to create art, such a space too, in turn, bears the complexities embedded in the artist’s method and being. Simply put, artists often have to create the space they want to be in because such a place did not exist until then” — this is all her. And that’s why, to get to know her as a writer, a reader, a person is a gift.

Sometimes Dalit women writing makes men’s dicks fall. I’ve seen this happen. I can give you proof but I don’t want to put dicks on my blog, there are enough of them in the world. I used to think that their dicks are falling because they want us to return our SC certificates but they are falling because we are writing and we won’t stop writing no matter how much they cry.

To have on the one hand, this fear of women writing, and on the other, women who celebrate women’s writing makes me happy.

I wish I spend all of this year reading more of Barathi and people like Barathi who make it possible to imagine a world where we are read in the way we want to write.

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.