Animals ko dekho – Part two

After that year, not many animals came because we only became animals but that is another story. So I will tell you the next significant animal story which is the rat story that happened last month. So basically ever since this semester began, we have all been wondering why we are like this. Morning to evening everything is bish fish bish. In the skin of the evening, some relief begins to come in the form of chai and aloo bondas. Life was going on like this only. If one evening, we are swallowed by old videos, another evening by a new ajji who makes best vades.

Then came the rat.

Sometime in the beginning of October, Mini Ma’am said that a rat is eating all her food. Arul sah saw one big box behind her table and said there are rats. Etienne sir said that he hears them chewing things all day.

Then one day, there was proof. Someone gave Mini Ma’am 2 big bars of Amul chocolate. Next morning, one of them had been taken tabiyat se. Byavarsi rat had eaten the whole bar leaving only the cover for ma’am. The other bar had bite marks but looked like by the time it finished the first bar, the bootha of marx might have told the rat to saak maadu. It had no energy left to eat the second one so it gave up. Like this only, one one day, one one thing it was eating and going.

We wondered if the rat was coming in through the bathroom window so we began locking it up. Then for a few days, we forgot about the door and rat. 

One evening after polishing off whatever food and chai was there, Sah, Pranava, and I were sitting and wondering why Pranava couldn’t stop talking about Shweta Philip’s periods. At some point, Sah’s ears got signal that rat is chewing something in the big box so Pranava began to remove the books from the top of the box. Little by little, Mini Ma’am’s world was becoming smaller because rat had chewed through her badminton shoes, books, cards, and a packet of dates also.

Every time sah said it’s here it’s here, Pranava jumped one inch up in the air and came back. Every time Pranava removed one more thing from the box, he jumped two inches in the air and came back. Every time Pranava made noise, he got scared because of his own noise, jumped three inches in the air and came back. Like this he was doing and sah was just sitting and laughing and I was bravely standing by the box.

Sah was saying byavarsi rat would have drilled two holes in the box – one to enter and one to escape. So by the time we got to the box, it would’ve probably escaped and is now probably sitting somewhere and watching all of us. The minute he said this, Pranava’s heart began doing dab dab and little bit I also got scared because the image of a rat watching us go mad while we looked for it made it somewhat hitchcocky and bitchcocky also.

Pranava continued digging and after a long minute, he suddenly turned to sah and cried, “Why you had to say that sah? Now I can’t stop thinking about that rat watching us” – sah said “You worry about the rat’s feelings for you later.” Just after he said this, Pranava jumped fourteen inches up in the air because he sensed the rat scuttling between some books. I was bravely standing only but for safety reasons I stood on top of a chair. First of all, I was worried that Pranava was having a fit, second of all I was wearing an ankle-length dress so if the rat climbed up, I would be hacked to death by Pranava while sah would sit dreamily in the background stroking his beard saying hmmmm.

Pranava got tired of jumping so many times so we dragged the box towards the entrance. But because the box was almost empty, and we were so close to the mission, Pranava’s heart was doing full dub dub and I was bravely standing, so sah kept digging. We discovered more books, edges and all chewed properly by the rat. 

My copy of Ralph Waldo Ellison was found and just when I was giggling at the irony of looking for an eli and finding Eli’s son instead, Pranava screamed aieeeeeeee, launched himself outside the department, and ran around squealing it’s here it’s here. Apparently the rat had taken one look at him and gone back in.

Sah began digging aggressively, the rat jumped out and launched itself like pranava had only seconds ago. But because of Pranava’s incessant screaming, we couldn’t tell if it went inside the department or outside on the corridor. To be on the safer side, we dragged the box out. Sah hissed at Pranava to bring something to hit the rat with. He ran inside and I closed the door in case the rat wanted to follow its brother. 

Sah doubled down laughing maniacally when Pranava started screaming from inside saying don’t lock me in with the rat and started banging the door. Boy loses his shit before shit loses him. Sah opened the door and laughed in his face and then laughed more when he saw what Pranava had found to beat the rat – 2 copper water bottles. Sah took the plastic sword students had made for Upstage and said go man this is better.

In this manner, one mental boy with 2 bottles, one mad man with a sword, and one elegant, graceful, and brave lady carrying herself with profound dignity ran around the corridor chasing after the rat which, as we discovered had leapt behind the dustbin. From there, it scurried towards the labs where it disappeared behind the cupboard. Pranava ran to see if it had escaped from the window.

We were prepared to give up at this point but then he started laughing. Pranava, not the rat. Apparently the rat had heaved itself onto the skirting of the wall and was now standing there, one leg on each side of the wall, one paw on each side of the wall – like that lady from Tom & Jerry who climbs random things when she sees Jerry (this irony fest is a marvel film, I say)

At this point Sah hissed at Pranava to go bring the stick next to my table to thwack it on the rat. Sah was giving fotherly smile to byavarsi rat. Stick came, pranava fought bravely against the darkness, rat showed its bum and escaped towards the dustbin. Sah ran like Milkha Singh, somewhat dignified only but like jogging on a treadmill so it looked like he was standing in the same place running.

Pranava saw sah running and went dancing behind him like coyote from that road runner show. His chappals were getting in the way so he threw them and ran. He caught up with the rat and landed one tappak then threw the stick in one corner, screamed like tweety and ran away.

Sah took the stick and landed many tappaks. Rat there only spottu. In the middle of all this, tweety pranava suddenly turns up from nowhere and tries to cover my eyes saying madam I am here to protect you. Many bad words came to mouth but because I am a dignified, graceful, elegant, and brave lady – I kept them to myself.

Then Calvin came and we told him everything that had happened. Running after the byavarsi rat, killing it, and achieving all of this with tweety screaming every now then had made us hungry so we discarded the rat some 3 kms away and went to Khazana to belt biryani, veal kebabs, and phal.

Three people will tell you three versions of the story but please remember gentle reader that the most sincere, honest, truthful, and accurate account is the one you read here from Lady Whistledown herself.

On some winter evenings, I wonder what it would be like to see an audio-less CCTV footage of this whole thing.

Bhayankara.

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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.

Metonym 2021

In the coming month, our classrooms are going to change. So will our department. As always, the people desperate for these changes are neither students nor teachers. They are idiots drunk on power and god knows what else.

Sometimes when we sit in the department drinking chai, I get nervous because Arul sir won’t sit still. Let’s do Metonym, let’s do colloquium, let’s do screening, let’s do causerie. I always think where this man gets his energy from. It’s from chai, yes. But also from an intense desire to build a space for students that others are constantly trying to take away.

What he gives us is also a way of reimagining students as people beyond register numbers and DPs on MS Teams. Very few people take youngsters seriously these days. And most others like to believe that the only way in which youngsters can be taken seriously is if they do political things. As if that’s all young people are good for- and if they aren’t, a couple of heavy-metal english words are thrown at them to make them feel like crap.

In the last two weeks, I’ve seen young women show up for each other, be cheerleaders without pompoms, giggle and laugh together, be curious about each other, and hold each other in a way that only people who’ve never been held can. It always tickles me to watch two girls become friends. I watch them like a cat and smile and think, ah, this is why I became a teacher – to watch female friendships for free.

When those high on power like to stand in a line and throw cow dung on others who are on their way to work, the only way to defeat them is by playing everyday. It’s what my work allows me to do. It allows me to play with students which is all kinds of amusing because I didn’t play this much even when I was a child.

Despite what’s coming, I’ve gone to bed every night these last two weeks feeling great intrigue, envy, surprise, and above all, extreme fidaness for students.

So my dear Ashwath Narayana, what I want to say is, if you take our classrooms away, we will go outside and play.

Doors

It’s exhausting to occupy two worlds when you know that really, you belong to only one because that’s where you want to be. Home is home only when I don’t have to deal with the fatherliness of boundaries, the anti-elixir of freedom. I wonder now what happens to the body in this fight between the life you want to live and the one you can’t escape.

A week ago I saw that in my mind I live a completely different life from one that is expected out of my body and me at home. Coming back home from work before the pandemic only held the promise of sleep and early morning solitude. It didn’t need me to change who I was before stepping into the house because everyone would already be asleep, except mother whose anger simmered on her eyelids in a half dream-half awake state.

That I had a place to be in every morning for nine years, that I didn’t have to wear another face for work, another for home offered me a kind of freedom I haven’t appreciated enough. It is irritating to write this with what I assume is a cheap xerox copy of freedom, knowing that outside this room, there are people with the original, people who see a completely different life for me, and seem awfully confident that it’s all going to happen, despite me.

I feel like a fraud sometimes, talking and dreaming of freedom with passion and fury – never intense enough to go get it. Sometimes I am able to persuade myself into believing that parental expectation is not free of caste, so I shouldn’t wallow in a helplessness that wasn’t designed by me. Despite that and despite years of knowing and unknowing caste, I continue to be bothered by how unsettling it is to confront that there’s still something I don’t have and will never have. Every day I wonder what it would be like to be the student whose ambitions burn my insides with a fever, to be in homes where marriage is barely mentioned, and dinner is always a table full of charts and maps- making plans to go here, go there for studies, and mornings aren’t battlefields for last night’s unspoken demands.

Stepping outside my room after class last week, I overheard someone say on the phone that getting daughters educated is a mistake, that they shouldn’t be sent to schools because they grow up wanting to do PhD, not wanting to be married. I walked straight back into my room, my legs burning with the desire to run, hands wishing they were now holding the key to the department door while my bedroom door swelled with rage and slammed hard on the other world, the bolt clicking it shut.

Today, I am just grateful for doors. They not only open other worlds for you, they also close.

Thank you

I have often agreed with the saying that teaching is a thankless job. This 2019 piece was written out of one such helplessness. Sometimes minor annoyances come in the form of vengeful attacks but because those that sponsor it continue to remain unwaveringly boring, it’s neither challenging nor damaging to sleep or life. It’s the same people, the same bitterness over and over. If I am ever an enemy, I wish I am not as sad as people whose bitterness and gratitude are the same in their dullness and both equally uninspiring. But now and then, sometimes more often than expected, there are students who make it all worthwhile. They suck out all the bitterness and leave you with an energy that heals, and does the same thing that writing does to me – fills me with hope.

Year after year, Anjana’s writing reminds me that teaching is anything but thankless. Kiruba’s fine quality parsanalty, and churmuri giggles remind me that teaching is laughter. Keerthana’s arrow- sharpness reminds me that it’s possible to find yourself after years of hiding. Philip’s work reminds me of the kindness that’s so easy to forget these days. And Eshwari’s madness reminds me that it’s a disservice to love to be distracted by hate.

Here’s an excerpt from Anjana’s reflections on her final portfolio of writing.

I would like to say that I am drained of words like the many rivers in Bangalore. On a note of confession, I enjoy writing creative imaginative pieces rather than pieces than involve research. When I write creative pieces, I try to get my facts straight and perform a certain amount of digging and eating though many layers of brain of family and
internet. But that is not as tiring as the material you search for archiving. It has signs of imagination, but the facts have to be true. There were many incidents during writing this semester’s portfolio where I have felt I am horrible at writing and I have often ended up in the conclusion to never write again. But it was just a phase or more accurately I hope it is a phase that passes through. Also I recently noticed I have caught an annoying trait of shrinking my fingers or trying to produce a cracking sound with my hand when I don’t get a word I am looking for. This habit does not annoy anyone other than me personally. It could be because I didn’t notice the presence earlier and now I am not able to stop myself. My friend pointed it out to me and it has created a constant tone of irritation when I perform it in the middle of writing. A note on every piece, among the tasks, in a weird way I enjoyed working on Wikipedia. They did reject my piece and that felt bad, but then I wrote another article which are getting many contributions and it is fun to keep a check on it. Nowadays, when I am reading a topic on Wikipedia, I actually look into the references for a detailed work. I also end up adding few lines in articles that are related to me. Like the piece on Thrissur Pooram was kind of disappointing to someone born in Thrissur. I immediately put my knowledge into action and tried to find valid sources that I can give as references to support my statement.

The phrase “put my knowledge into action” is at the core of Dalit learning. And I am again grateful to get the annual opportunity to pay attention to this, and to learn from it and grow.

For everything else, there is Divya’s capacity for resolute love in the midst of hate and anger: a most life-giving reminder to keep working despite Savarna snowflakes.

C for Coming home

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This is my workplace. I learnt to read & write here. Over the years, I have tried & failed at finding the right words to say how grateful I am to be here. Futile as it may be, I never tire of trying again – and this time, in the spirit of #DalitHistoryMonth (er, still)

To discover oneself as Dalit – not of your own accord but by the way others treat you, is one of the crudest expressions of caste. If you grow up not realizing you are Dalit, then school will show you. If you make it to college, then college will confirm it for you. If you come out alive, then you can always count on the world outside to show you & shame you for it. And this department taught me to wrench out shame, and suck it bone-dry. 

If the only acceptable & desirable way to be anywhere in the world is by being Savarna- Brahmin, this place showed me the strength of laughing at it & reclaiming being Avarna as a better way to live & work. The HoD, an Avarna man himself, imagined & built it the way he envisioned Ambedkar’s work ethic. 

The idea of a classroom, of a good student is usually built on Savarna ideals of speed, quality, & good English. Our syllabus & practice say lol to this. Designed as it is for students who will not be left behind simply for not being born in families where good English does push-ups, our syllabus makes me believe in the work I get to do everyday. And the work I get to do everyday is humbling which is why it is also easy to lol at the baboons who keep attacking it. My only yardstick to measure the worth of these attacks is to see whether they are drenched in Savarna ego, which more often than not, they are – so, meh.

One of my most crucial learning here has been that I have failed as a teacher if I have, even for one day, stopped being a student. And that to be a student is to be a sponge – learning what thrills you & drinking it up fully. And it isn’t only by reading or writing that the students & I found a self here. It’s by learning how to have full-body conversations with people, & listening to their stories.

The boy who is a Vijay fan but dances only to Dhanush songs often returns, perhaps because he sees something here. The girls who had zero interest in reading or writing come back year after year to say thank you perhaps because they learnt something more valuable from the course. The little chili from Tirunelveli returns often to sit, breathe us all in with her eyes, eat books, & laugh her heart out. As for the others who may come here half or full Savarna, they always leave with Ambedkar. What they do with him later is really up to them.

And then there are those who sit inside, drink tea, laugh, or sit outside read, talk, play the guitar – never quiet leaving.

A remarkable thing about Hogwarts is its inclusivity & diversity.  There was a half-giant, a squib, a werewolf, those born to muggle parents, Severus Snape whom it used to be so tempting to distrust, and all kinds of people who would have been left behind for being misfits. The department is my Hogwarts. In more ways than one, it makes room for misfits like me.

The first night Harry spends at Hogwarts, he is shown sitting by the window with Hedwig – looking outside and sighing. He’s finally home.

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