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.

***

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February Itch

As a shy, dull, and almost non-existent student in school, I spent a lot of time imagining a parallel universe where I could never be left behind. I owned this universe and so it was filled with the few people I liked and a few others, who, like me, were also left behind. And here too, there were people with power, of course. No imagination or fantasy is ever complete without a structural change in power. But the powerful people in my universe were teachers who could look beyond the rank students.

In my final year at school, I wrote a poem for our magazine and showed it to my teacher who took one long look at it and gave it back to me. It wasn’t good of course and I was a painfully clingy person so I didn’t really mind that she’d just walked off. I sent it to the editorial committee and waited. On the last day, when we got our school magazines, I kept turning over the pages to see if my poem was published. It wasn’t and I felt a tinge of shame. Although now I am glad they didn’t publish it because otherwise I’d have to bury myself alive.

Even so, I longed for an approval that I never got in school perhaps because I didn’t try enough or perhaps because academic excellence was the one thing where everything else was measured. And some of us didn’t always manage to make that cut.

When I became a teacher, I was very afraid. Somewhere I was still a very scared student and I had no way of knowing exactly when I’d feel like a teacher. “That moment will come”, someone said, “when a student will tear your ass.”

And that moment did come. It keeps coming again and again but I was surprised that it came from students who were too afraid to talk, let alone tear body parts. It is a challenge to look for these students beyond the limited space of the classroom. And it’s strange that when I began to look for them, I found pieces of myself.

At a panel on Rohith Vemula last year, I saw two girls arrive at a confidence I had never seen in them before. Coming as they did from a college where they’d been ignored for the most part, they said that they were surprised to have even been asked to be on the panel.

All of last year was spent waging a listless sort of war against whiny adults who felt betrayed for not being given opportunities that they felt they were more deserving of. At times like these, watching students come out of similar battles was the saving grace. At the end of that panel, the two girls were surrounded by classmates — some crying, some shocked — but all cheering them on for the good job they did.

It is now somewhat of a tradition that Meta’s biggest fans have been science students. Anna and Sahana, two students from the science stream have been the most diligent audience at Meta. They turn up for all the writing contests with one suave attitude that even my fingernail didn’t have when I was 20. Anna says she is taking up literature after this and presently has her nose buried in some history of English Literature book that she is reading for her entrance.

Vidya Bal, another science student is a little time bomb that is forever ticking. She does ten things at once and in 2014, when the prizes were being given away, we had to ask her to stay on the stage and collect them all at once because she had won that many.

I met Parinitha and Priya, two more science champs and enthu nutellas at a certificate course we offered last year and since then, they have shown an energy for writing and reading that I am both terrified and jealous of.

Meta has taught me things that no one else could have. It has taught me to see what isn’t visible – very often it’s the fear of not being “good enough” that so many of us hide behind. That and also perhaps that other people are truly more deserving in life because of whatever reason (fair skin, good English, better contacts, cool company) and in more ways than one, it has taught me to disregard these reasons.

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Image Credits: Abhishek Anil & Canva

Today, Meta is the space where the Banyan tree grows bigger and bigger and I feel smaller than I ever have. And that’s alright because true to its meaning, Meta has quite aptly taught me to look beyond myself. From watching these students organize and participate to watching the space itself morph into various shapes to accommodate panels, lec-dems, contests and various other conversations – the demands on the classroom as the only enabler of learning and experience have diminished – both for the student and the teacher. In more ways than one, Meta has become the parallel universe that I sought so desperately in school.

The energy that February finds in me comes from the wasteland that was my adolescence. This Friday, Meta will be 5 years old. And in the next 20 days, Meta will have come and gone, and only a February-sized itch will remain.

Riding

When I’m riding to college, my posture changes 3 times. When I take the ‘sudden’ left immediately after home, my back is straight with caution, my arms relaxed on the handles, and my demeanour polite and undemanding, unlike my mother who watches me from the balcony every morning.

A little ahead and my body picks up speed and hurries past ambling cows who are immune to life and noise outside their bodies and ignore me to focus on the more important things in life- flies.

My body is at its rigid best when we pass by the loud and bellowing temple and its irritating, loyal devotees seated in their vehicles, their palms joined together outside the window. Arms that I’d like my super fast activa to chop in half. These are the only people I honk at mercilessly. I don’t like this excuse they have awarded themselves – that they shan’t be disturbed when they are praying to god in the middle of the road regardless of how many vehicles line up behind.

Near Jain College and its acutely chatty pupils, my grip on the accelerator thickens. They stand in the middle of the road to hi-five, to chat, to greet each other. They should be wiped off the earth.  When I begin honking, girls jump back in fright and roll their eyes, boys point their elongated arms at me in disgust while I flutter off happily.

***

At signals, my body is light and I try to balance the vehicle’s weight, alternating from one foot to the other. My eyes fall on fellow riders, wondering where they’re headed, where they’ve come from, whether they’ve bathed?

Now and then, my face becomes rounder and falls when it sees men who ogle from inside their vehicles. It falls, and then it stares back at them, gaze fixed, challenge accepted. Let’s see who withdraws first. Sometimes they withdraw first and when they don’t, and if I find the courage that morning, I flash my middle finger at them before scuttling off. This is the advantage of a two-wheeler. One cannot scuttle off in a car.

When I cross a busy road, my body is hesitant but my palms are stubborn. They have a tighter grip on the bike than I have on my life and in seconds, without so much as a passing register to the honking truck nearby, I speed to the other side.

***

On route to getting some alone time, my body is warm and I am happy. I smile at trees and the skyline; I appreciate the color in the evening, humming old and forgotten Bollywood songs and tunes of languages that I don’t know. When I am headed to G’s, I’m secretly a little anxious. The writing may or may not happen but there’s always plenty of hot chocolate to fall back on. And it’s always a nice thing to know that there are several plug points at G’s even though I may not need one.

Riding to K is mostly a set of decisions. Is it a rum kind of evening or a ginger chai kind? Cops never make it to this list. (Never been caught *fingers crossed*) Is it August already? Are my Mango Melbas gone? Mixed fried rice or pork noodles? When I’m picky, I flirt with other options but the heart wants what it wants and what it wants every night is mixed fried rice without liver. Because Anand approves.

***

Homewards, I’m goose bumping all over because the night is always chilly and mother is not sleeping until I get home.  When I first stole this bike from my brother, he’d park it inside for me every night. And then one day, just like that he refused. I learnt how to park decently but I don’t feel satisfied until I bang the bike’s bum to the noisy gate at least once before retiring.

At Peace

We close for Christmas holidays today. The department hasn’t been this quiet in a long time. I am tempted to do another list, but I won’t. WordPress anyway gives me an end-of-year review. Also, I don’t like that I have to rely so much on lists to keep the writing going.

It has been a good year. I won some, I lost some. At certain points, it looked like I lost more than I won but the biggest win this year has been to realize that I can survive all the things I thought I never could. For a long time I believed that I would never be able to deal with people hating me. Turns out I’m quite the bitch in the gofuckyourself department. Not bad at all. Although, I wish I was a nastier bitch and remembered to be nasty every now and then.

I am not too thrilled by the prospect of holidays only because they have come at such a terrific time that I am going to relax the fuck out of them, so much so that I am going to have to perform Krav Maga on myself (Fight Club style) to get back into work shape once college reopens.

Shri Pehelvan Sahaveer Main College

In my 10th std, everybody was convinced I was going to fail because I was the dullest child in Math that my family had ever produced. My English was declared just average because I didn’t know what the word ‘uxorious’ meant when we were watching Monsoon Wedding. My sister was the Harry Potter fan girl when this happened. So it was believed that she was the rock star and I needed help. My mother told me not to worry because they were going to set up a pharmacy in my name if I failed tenth and that I wouldn’t be jobless.

Whenever I think of this, I think of what all my high school over- achieving Brahmin friends would have said if they had seen me duck under the counter covered with Orbits and Kama sutra in Chintu Pharmacy. Or under the counter at Chintu Rajasthani cotton expo that had come mind numbingly close to Chintu’s café. Mouma seemed to be the only one who saw me with a degree in Humanities yet not in any of the Chintu buildings. She was the only woman to have faith in me. She said she would write letters to Puttaparthi Sai Baba and that he would pass me in all my exams.

I went to Shri Pehelvan Sahaveer Main College in Bangalore to do my B.A Journalism. It was quite a unique college. The Journalism course was run by the Psychology department and this was all kinds of hilarious. They kept finding saffronistas to teach us Journalism. My favourite cartoon was a Radio producer turned College lecturer named Radio Kantri. Radio Kantri taught us journalism by talking fondly of his childhood, The Hindu, Narendra Modi, and why A.R Rahman at the Oscars was the best thing to happen to India. Three years doing Journalism there and all I learnt was that The Hindu is a better newspaper than The Times of India.

In 2009, the infamous Mangalore Pub attack happened and I decided to send a pink Chaddi, thanks to The Pink Chaddi Campaign. Later that week, my father told me that he was friends with Pramod Muthalik, the bald head behind Sri Ram Sene, and that he had given him 10,000 Rs the previous year. I sent Muthalik another pink chaddi.

Mine

Four blunt pencils in a mud pot. A junk of bright pens that don’t write stand crammed at each other’s mercy in a purple pen stand, a long scale that goes unused for the longest time of the year, two sharpeners, one of which obviously does not work but still sits there, is picked up now and then, shoved into a pencil’s head and thrown back in disgust, curses under the breath. A pink eraser sits with black smudges and illegible markings all over it. A bunch of answer scripts peep out of the corner of the table. A malnourished water bottle wedged in between piles of books left unread. A pale blue plastic chair sticks out from in between the little space the desk accords it. A big window opens behind the desk.

 Students with all manner of hairstyles walk in and out of this room every day. Conversations, laughter, questions, rebuttals, answers, period. Repeat. A book shelf stands next to the chair quietly wielding boundless dialogues between its books and the owner. Another book shelf opens miles away, in front of the desk, like a monster yawning and showing off its mammoth teeth.  Pen stands glow in the light from across 11 tables sprawled on the floor, strong of wood, bulky of papers and old books. More plastic chairs lay scattered in their fate, rammed now and then into various desks to enable conversations. Some are merely disturbed by the helter-skelter of running students, no conversation, no song, no praises, and no cheer.

The room springs to life at 8:00, sometimes earlier. The first batch of the day’s old book smells hitting its first guests as they enter. Newspapers flash unreadable pictures and words from the floor. A kettle sits ready to wake you up, if the ancient smell of books hasn’t already woken you up.  Motes of dust sit collected on all manner of woody surfaces.

By evening the energy has plummeted into short naps and some rare long ones. Now you wake up and reread another long answer, now you wake up and listen to trashy music to keep other trashy noise away, now you wake up and sense the pressure of oncoming deadlines, now you wake up and feel inspired to just read.

The day ends when you take your feet off the chair, bang the net book shut, get your bag and lock up. A session of chai and more conversations open their arms out to you and you fall into them like the nose falls into slumber.