Ants among Elephants

Here is my piece on reading Sujatha Gidla’s memoir – Ants among Elephants. The book was read over two days and written over three.

Best week ever.

The most comforting thing about the book was learning that I have to hurry. There are many, many family stories waiting to be written. This was also extremely unsettling. All the men and women in my family who can tell me about us – our caste, its history, and its stories are in their 80s.

Ants among Elephants is a story about many such people who dared to lift their heads up and look at the sky. And I am grateful for this because these are stories that must be written and told and shared — again and again — not just because soon, we will have lost all those who lived in these stories but also because these stories are what allow us to save them from being frozen like statues in history and government offices.

Featured image Credit: Shirin Jaafari/PRI via https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-10/india-she-was-untouchable-new-york-city-she-became-author

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Laugh like Sumitra

For as long as I can remember – I have always been a stalker, first, a writer second. Even when I am not writing, I am stalking. It isn’t worrisome because if stalking happens then can writing be far behind?

I have spent some spectacular nights on my phone jumping from website to blog to YouTube interviews of women writers I’m madly in love with. It’s usually the kind of night that spreads itself neatly on my bed till 4 in the morning – my body gently breaking from all the postures I have been trying, my eyes tired and watery, and my head brimming with inspiration.

So what am I trying to learn from them?

In the beginning it was mostly about learning how to say fuck off. Even now, I’m afraid, I’m still learning the same thing. But please understand that at various points in life, women need different degrees of being able to say fuck-off. The fuck-off that you imply at home for instance is a lot different from the fuck-off you want to scream outside. 

Beyond this is another freak show behaviour on my part. I’m obsessed with a strange desire to know everything about these women’s lives – who were their bullies in college? How did they fight back? How old were they when they first fell in love? When was the last time they cried? Do they use napkins or tampons or cups? Do they decide what to wear for work every day or do they just throw something on? How did they begin writing?

In the early 2000’s – the idea of a working woman in my family was radical. Her education, on the other hand was not radical because it was necessary to keep an engineer bride ready for a double-graduate groom. It was maybe more than necessary – it was meritorious.

Today, unmarried women in their late 20’s instinctively learn to show their middle-fingers at people who bug them about marriage and babies.

In the urban space therefore, even if I know many, many working women – it gives me a kind of high when they have work problems. My sister Bubbly’s work involves numerous conference calls when she is at home. Sometimes she sits with her laptop, her eyes scrunching at all manner of squiggly codes. I derive an odd pleasure from watching her work. One such busy morning, she was on a conference call when she was interrupted by a brother trying to wave at her. She shot him one killer look before going back to her call.

I love this. It’s incredible to see women being busy in a world that is just theirs. Kind of like a Bechdel pass. Bechdel fails are almost heartbreaking to watch- where female friendships are compromised because playing out to male fantasies or impressing men becomes more important. This is where Ferrante wins. In her world, there is neither any place for male fantasies nor for women who make everything about men.

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I’m wondering also, if things in my past could have been handled better – meaning- without losing calm and foresight. I’m not going to get into the details here because I have already written about it in several other posts. But just what is a decent response to bullies?

My friend says that being unavailable to attacks or the attackers is one way to go about it. You don’t give them space – either in your life or in your head. It’s the only response that merits many degrees of coolness in my opinion. The unavailability isn’t physical. Although that’s a good beginning. It’s mostly emotional, intellectual even. When you don’t talk about them or about yourself in relation to them and their attacks – you outgrow them, you take away power from them. They become small when you focus on something else – your work for instance.

Being unavailable doesn’t mean not caring. It’s this rock- star ability to make attackers cringe by laughing at them. Which means that you care but just not enough to satisfy them – you care, but only enough to laugh at them.

Say a co-worker has an opinion about you and your competence, and has said shitty things about you to people who are directly related to your work – like students maybe, or clients, or people you are in a business partnership with – what do you do then?

Do you call them out for being unprofessional? Do you do major drama? Or do you just ignore it?

Here is a thing I wish I had done – I wish I had laughed at them. I wish my body had filled itself with an untamable Dalit energy and I’d laughed in their faces. Gogu Shyamala’s Saayamma has this energy. So does Devi’s Dopdi. 

A short-story I once wrote has a woman named Sumitra leaping wildly, beating her chest and laughing at a man she hates very much. I don’t know where the energy to write Sumitra came from. It was based on an incident narrated to me. I gave her mad things to do because by then, somewhat of a mad woman was living inside me. 

I’d like to believe that all Dalit women are naturally equipped with a capacity to laugh menacingly. How? I don’t know but they just do. Someone once said that a good, strong laugh is one that shrinks cocks down. It is true. Nothing shrivels a cock and savarna pride more than the loud and ‘vulgar’ laugh of a Dalit woman.

*******

UnDoing

This semester’s biggest achievement was discovering that Ambedkar loved the violin and learnt to play it a couple of years before his death. Also that he loved gardening and woke up early in the morning so he could water plants and spend time with them.

Only he could have known why learning a new skill or just doing something one loves to do is so important. Coming as he did from a world where people thrived on keeping him away – companionship with oneself wasn’t just natural but also a rebellion.

Ambedkar became someone outside of a portrait in the stories that I rummaged through. Reading Annihilation of Caste was a revelation. A lot of the things that I simply hadn’t noticed in school assumed ugly shapes. I understand now why friendships have never come to me easily and why they never will. And this realisation has also led me to believe that I’m completely at ease being by myself most of the time, barring the occasional loud moments of loneliness.

Last year I discovered Ambedkar through Siddalingaiah, and I saw in both their stories the image of my college- going father eating lunch alone. I don’t mean to present a picture of victimhood here because this is an image that I derive a lot of strength from.

This year, I was also prompted to ask myself why I haven’t seen or read the stories of my mother and my grandmother anywhere. But I can’t complain about not having read their stories because I haven’t made the effort to write them. It falls upon me to write their stories. I saw this after reading Sujatha Gidla’s Ants among Elephants. There is a powerful, unabashed confession she makes at the beginning of her book – about how important it was for her to learn her ancestors’ stories before they died.

This is a dizzying worry for me too – that if I don’t learn and write my ancestors’ stories – the history of an entire community would be lost – or worse – botched and rewritten in some dabba textbook.

From the other authors that I discovered through Ambedkar – Gogu Shyamala, Namdeo Dhasal, Mallika Amar Shaikh, and Vaidehi – I learnt to smell forgotten bits of my childhood which, as I have come to understand is easy to recollect but hard figuring out. Sometimes my childhood is watching Mr. India again and again and sometimes it is a gnawing desperation to run after some girls from school – to become friends with them.

***

In Living to Tell the Tale – everytime Marquez mentions nostalgia– it is used with the word ‘attack’. As in – ‘One evening, my mother suffered an attack of severe nostalgia’

Like a bad fever, nostalgia must then be endured and overcome. For the Dalit community today, I am wondering if nostalgia is an attack too. One that can only be endured and never overcome because their stories must never be forgotten. They must be told and heard over and over again.

This semester was also a rude awakening to truths I’d have preferred not to have learnt. I see a pattern in both my teaching and my writing. It’s that the effort is all there but it is never complete. I leave arguments unfinished; I don’t complete a thought because it’s too much work. And this is making me very afraid.

Usually when I stumble across ugly truths about myself, I take refuge in students’ writing. Reading them always helps me in ways that reading published authors don’t.  Students’ stories are sometimes told so simply and with so much energy that they puncture my powerlessness with language.

This is important because I still haven’t outgrown my ‘cheeks like Christmas mornings’ phase. This phase is what I began writing with – imitating English writers, and borrowing their metaphors. English handicaps writers like me because it isn’t the language I grew up with but it is the language I long to perfect and dream of conquering.

It’s clear though that I can never write in English the way so many others do because my relationship with it will always be fractured.

My stories and my parents’ stories and my grandparents’ stories all happened in Konkani and Kannada. It is strange to imagine them in English and stranger still to write them in English.

How to write then? It is very annoying to surrender writing to that kind of helplessness. A writer who rescued me from this fracture is Marquez. In his world, my powerlessness became less menacing. Stories are perhaps best told in the language that they happened in. And English needn’t be the monster I make it out to be. It can be the formless amoeba to my Konkani and Kannada. And when they all meet, formless becomes form.

I am cringing as I write this because as someone wise once suggested – it’s a sin to put Marquez and Magic realism so close to each other.

But maybe a community’s story needs the playfulness of Magic Realism to tell it. My Kottuncheri story found release because of this. Earlier this year, writing in Konkani opened many doors. Maybe it’s time to return to that project.

F.R.O.G.S

This piece was written over a stretch of the first few rainy evenings in September. On the first evening, I sat at the department computer, earphones plugged in — listening to YouTube audios of croaking frogs, crickets and other night sounds.

Mangalore and Goa are two of my favourite cities because the frogs here know me well. What began as a tribute to frogs became an inward journey  into the home that I spent my childhood in.

TVs had a volume of their own here and this was the most liberating thing about the house. It was always blaring loud no matter who was around. Back home in Bangalore, every time I sensed my father’s mood swings, I wished all the TV volumes in the world would mute. But in Mangalore, rules bent themselves so neatly that we sat on them and made paper boats.

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In the afternoons, Goa and Mangalore have the same slumberworthy capacities. The heat becomes duller, settling on the eyelids — making it heavy with sleep. And if there are trees around, the occasional rustle of the wind sends the birds into disarrayed flapping of wings, causing many hypnic jerks. The short dreams are always about birds – flapping eyelashes instead of wings. And, of aeroplanes that fly dangerously close to huts.

Read more here.

In that small room with purple walls

In that small room with purple walls

You sat on the bed, giggling like water in a moving jug.

When I tried to touch you, you slapped my hands away and giggled some more.

 

In the bathroom, my water was ready –

The door locked – the lights, dim.

You banged on the door with a thousand fists and twelve fingers-

I don’t remember opening the door –

But you ran in – all thousand fists and twelve fingers and fell into the tub, into my water.

When the water jumped up and fell down — one-two-three of my eyelashes drowned in it too.

In that small room with purple walls.

The Day I Became a Woman

But how will I know when it’s noon?

Take this stick. When its shadow is getting shorter, it means that it is almost noon. When there is no shadow, it means the sun is fully up and you must be back home.

Via czaradox.blogspot.com

Via czaradox.blogspot.com

All three stories in The Day I Became a Woman begin in the middle. It feels like being caught in a conversation between lovers.

In the first one, little Hava cannot play with her friend Hassan anymore because, on her ninth birthday, she is believed to have become a woman. Her mother and granny fret over her for a long time before finally permitting her to play with Hassan. She is told that she must be back by noon.

They stitch a chador for her, and she runs to meet Hassan. But his mother has locked him inside the house. He is told that he cannot come out until he finishes his homework.

Hava has to scream his name many times before he comes to the window and the more he delays, the more she worries that her stick’s shadow will be gone. And then through the window, Hava and the boy hang out.

She buys sweets and puts her tiny hands through the window to give him a lollipop. Behind her, the stick is buried in a small mound of mud. She keeps looking back to check on the shadow.

***

If you don’t stop right now, I will divorce you

Ahoo is running away from everyone. She is one among the cyclists in a marathon but there is something sharp about her eyes that never lose focus as she peddles fiercely. In the beginning, we can only see her back. She is in one corner of the never-ending road. It is not too long before we see who she is running away from. Her husband chases her in his horse, galloping away. For miles along, it seems like the only people in the world are the girls, their cycles, the horse and its man.

Toka toka toka.

She knows he is here and peddles faster. Kitchi kitchi kitchi kitchi

Ahooooooooo, stop!

She barely looks at him. Sometimes she covers her face, annoyed clearly by this rude intrusion. His screams continue– I will leave you, I will divorce you.

Ahoo keeps cycling.

She doesn’t stop, she never stops – not even to acknowledge her own anger. And this is the most surprising and the least surprising thing about the film. Most surprising because – of what use is anger if you can’t show it? Especially to the person you’re angry with? But Ahoo doesn’t care about him enough to show him anything; she cares about herself which is why all that energy is going into peddling – so she can run away from him. It is least surprising because it’s what we have all heard many times over – let them do what they want – you just do your work. And in that moment Ahoo showed me how to be.

Asia Society

Via Asia Society

For many more miles, the only people in the world are Ahoo, her cycle, and her focus.

Earlier this year Faye D’Souza shut Maulana Yasoob Abbas up on her show.

“He (Maulana) hopes that he will rile me up. He hopes that I will throw a fit, and I will lose control of my panel and forget how to do my job. Let me tell you Maulana ji, I have seen the likes of you. I am not afraid of you, I am not threatened by you, I am not rattled by you. All you men think that if you rattle Sana Fatima when she is doing her job, if you rattle Sania Mirza while she is doing her job, if you rattle women when they are doing their job, then they will run back into their kitchens and leave the world for you again to conquer, I have news for you, we are not going anywhere.”

I am reminded of this when I watch Ahoo cycle as if nothing else in the world matters.

They are both vastly different moments but filled with such similar, deep urgency.

Ahoo’s husband throws a tantrum and leaves, and along with her, we sigh.

The women cycle – Ahoo is going fast and slow and fast and slow. Often, she rides slowly.

In Persian, Ahoo means Deer. And she moves like the deer when he comes. He goes and comes and when he does, he returns with more people. The only thing you need to know about the intruders is that each time they come, there are more and more men.

First the father, then – hold your breath – the mullah who is so thin and weak – he might just fall from his horse and die – and then, finally, ultimately – a troop of her brothers on their horses.

When they surround her, the camera zooms out and we never find out if they carried her home or killed her or took away her cycle. She may even have borrowed a cycle from one of the women. We’ll never know.

***

I have a feeling I’ll never remember what this ribbon is for.

Via firouzanfilms.com

Via firouzanfilms.com

In the third one – a very old woman has suddenly become very rich. She has ribbons in varied colors tied to her fingers – each ribbon reminding her of all the things she needs to buy – things that she could never buy before – a refrigerator, a bath tub, a dining table, teapot, crockery, AC, oven, gas, sofa. She finds a boy and pays him to cart her around the city. Every time she comes out of a building, a trail of carts with packaged goods follow her and so do little boys pushing these carts around.

All the goods are unpacked by the shore of a beach because she cannot remember what the last ribbon is for. She hopes that unpacking and organizing everything might remind her. The boys build the inside of a make-believe home for her as she lounges on the sofa and demands some tea.

All you need to know about the ending is that when the old woman sails off on a boat (all her things with her) – to catch a ship, so she can leave forever and find a home for herself; Hava, her mother and a couple of girls from the cycle marathon all step out of their stories to watch her leave.

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All these stories, all these women – teaching me how to live, how to survive, how to breathe, how to ignore, and how to continue doing work as if nothing else in the world matters.

And again, I find that I’m grateful for stories like I’ve never been and always been.

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