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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Goosebumps

This is an extension of something I’d mentioned in an earlier post.

When I was in school, if there was anything I dreaded more than exams, it was the all too familiar Sunday evening feel – the dull panic of a joyous, empty day coming to an end and the mouth of a Monday opening wider and wider. Hair properly coconut- oiled, eyes aching slightly from the back to back films watched on Sony Max, books still packed heavily and tightly in a bag last opened on a Saturday afternoon and the inevitably depressing ‘show time over’ feeling. Dinner would be a lazy affair and in order to prolong the holiday, I’d stay up as late as possible only to wake up sad and grumpy the next morning.

This is what I like to call the Sunday Evening feel. Even though I was convinced that I wasn’t the only student feeling this, I couldn’t help wondering why so many of my classmates didn’t seem at all upset on Monday mornings. Was it just because they’d done their homework?

But in college, this Sunday feel became a threat. I’d taken science even though I had no interest in it and every day seemed like the end of Sunday. I grew anxious. Maybe this was permanent and my life after this would just be filled with Sunday evening feels.

But when I made the switch to Humanities, a part of this anxiety died and it’s only now that I realise that I must hug myself every day for making that switch. Because that switch has made sure that I have Sunday evening feels only on a Sunday evening, and sometimes not even then.

There are very few things that make me feel alive. And as I grow older, this list seems to get shorter. As of now this list includes, a very good sentence and floating in the pool. Now and then Mango Melba and a tall glass of rum make the cut. But when I am reading, I become an insufferable admirer of great sentences. When I come across a line that is going to change my life, I usually stop reading and celebrate life. And when I read a book that is filled with such a celebration, I find it extremely hard to remain neutral about the book and the writer.

I don’t know if students get worn out by a teacher who is excited by everything, and if they’d really rather like to listen to a teacher who hates everything. There is a certain charm about people who hate everything and then one day when they declare that they like something, everybody shuts up and listens to him. Note that it’s usually a ‘him’.

But I must say this, after having escaped a long life of Sunday Evening feels, I am not going to apologise for the things that make me feel alive.

I take what I read to all my classes. This semester, it has been quite the task – Siddalingaiah, Marquez, and Ferrante. At Meta this year, I was happy to be on a panel about reading Ferrante. All the panellists, much to everybody’s dismay, were Ferrante fans and to make it worse, we cared very little about our audience and enjoyed talking to each other. Many said that the point of a panel didn’t actually come through but maybe sometimes panels can just be about conversations. For the first time in my life I was talking about something shamelessly, without having a nervous breakdown. And to do that with students who are more like friends was just as thrilling.

I can’t be neutral or placid about writers who have given me goosebumps while reading them. They have made me feel more alive than an orgasm. And for this I’ll always always be grateful to them.

Telltale Tingles

I must slow down.  I’m afraid I am running very fast. When free time rolls around, I begin to compete with the time lost in my painfully absent youth. There is an embarrassed yet unashamed burning in my chest when I see younger women going at it with all the energy in the world. I think about their slender, unripe bodies and all the time they have ahead of them. These are the women that my 16 year old self wanted to be at 20, 21, 22.

I must slow down because I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. I caught hold of Marquez after Siddalingiah. Took weeks to finish Living to Tell the Tale and never got around to writing about it. I don’t know what to say. I have exhausted my enthusiasm for the man after dragging him to all my classes and inflicting him on all my students. There’s only so much I can say about him. That I know now why I read or write – it is only because it is in these moments that I feel unapologetically alive.

For some time now I have been wondering if it’s a bad thing to show passions to other people – the joy of reading a beautiful line, the emptiness after watching a brilliant film, the glory in talking to an interesting person. Because people stop trusting us when we don’t struggle to like something. I find that as a teacher, it is far easier to confess hatred than it is to admit passions. I wonder if students are annoyed by teachers who fall in love with everything that they read. But then I have come to learn that I must not apologize for feeling alive. Atleast not publicly.

I couldn’t bear to fill the void that Marquez left, with my own sordid writing. So I ran to other books – To Alison Bechdel, to Philip Pullman and this morning I stopped with Ambai. After three short stories, I just had to stop because I had run out of places in my body to feel full. Reading Ambai makes my body swell and I become afraid of what I see when I read her. The three stories I read today were each about women and their growing passions and how they struggled and went on to keep these passions. The women in her stories are what the women in my family would have been, if only they had run after their stories.

A couple of days ago, I watched ‘The Hours’ and found it strange that in Woolf’s death, I found an excuse to remain alive. I wish I could explain what that means. Nabokov said, ‘A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle…’

I feel a tingle in the small of my neck when I read something nice, yes. And also in my stomach – where something of a warm pool begins to collect. And that’s why now I have to slow down.