Story > History

I like stories more than histories. Sometimes I can’t be too sure of the difference between the two but I imagine story as the wrinkled old face of a grandmother with a soothing afternoon voice narrating, gesturing, singing, touching, and laughing. And I imagine history in the sturdy shape of a wooden foot ruler in the hands of a tall man in an opaque white, full sleeved shirt.

14th April is branded in my memory because in school, we studied Ambedkar in Hindi, Kannada, Sanskrit and English, sometimes all in the same year. We were taught details, dates, amendments but today I remember Ambedkar only through the anecdotes. There was that recurring story of Ambedkar’s great love for books – how when he travelled, his bags had more books than clothes; how he studied under the streetlamps; how his father wouldn’t sleep until 3 in the morning so he could wake his son up in time. And then when I read Siddalingiah’s Ooru Keri, I found more such stories.

My favourite is the one where Ambedkar learnt to climb trees so he could have a decent place to read but the problem was that he didn’t know how to climb down and on more than one occasion, he’d fall tumbling down – all his books collapsing over him. Once there was an ash pit into which he fell. His friends teased him and called him Boodi (ash) Saheba. And Ambedkar is supposed to have told them, ‘I maybe Boodi Saheba now but I will be Baba Saheba in the future’. I smiled when I read this. I don’t know why this story cheered me up no end. I don’t care if it isn’t true, anymore than I care if he wasn’t really born on 14th April. But Ambedkar became someone outside a history textbook for me in these stories, and in these moments.

And then when I heard my father speak about Ambedkar and his past in much the same way that Siddalingiah did, I sat up and listened.

You should know that he did a lot for our people. We would have been nowhere without Ambedkar. The college which I’d joined was purely for merit students. I was only able to get a seat because I’m SC. When I joined, I found that everyone else had 80% and I only had 40%. I limped towards inferiority complex and after some days, I was engulfed in it. To come out of that complex, it took a lot of time and hard work but even then I was unable to reach their level and I finally came out as the last man in the race.

My father did his engineering in Davangere where, he tells us, he had some unforgettable experiences. He never had any money. And when he’d run out of toothpaste, he’d have to borrow some from his roommates. And so they bullied him into a deal. They gave him a blob of toothpaste every morning if he agreed to do their record work. So he sat up late every night doing record work for his friends along with his own. And then there were teachers who decidedly favoured the ‘merit’ students and were extremely hostile to him.

I couldn’t do anything. I just had to accept the situation. If I resisted, it’d hurt more. I myself didn’t want any unnecessary advantage on the pretext of discrimination. I felt if I wrote proper answers, certainly it should fetch more marks. So I worked harder.

***

When I joined the Department of English, I didn’t feel the need to be aware of my caste, in a way that I would have had to be if I were working elsewhere. My professors were here and I felt that I could continue my learning, now as a teacher.

I find it difficult to write what I want to, mainly because there are only so many words I can use to say that the Department is the place where I found myself and that I will always be grateful to it for showing me my own potential that years of schooling had destroyed.

My father has never come here, but I’m afraid that if he will, he’s not going to like what he sees – the desk at my workplace is my home. He’s going to know why I’m always dying here. But then maybe he will also be relieved. He has always made sure that his children don’t have to go through what he had to. And on some days, my biggest worry here is that I’m going to show up to work in pyjamas. So far it has almost happened only once. And that is only because I feel perfectly at home here. Really, what a fascist place this should be.

I have discovered that there are as many ways of living as there are of whining. And this liberal fascist department has taught me to always pick the former. And it has also taught me to not bother about those who pick the latter. ‘Let them be’, I have heard CA say very often. Not that I don’t whine now at all. For some of you this may very well be whining but I have also found joy in saying ‘evs’ to your miserable faces.

I have learnt to value conversation with students here. And the rotting Dalit students are the ones I enjoy talking to the most. Our convenor for ‘The Literary Society’ this year is one such rotting Dalit student that nobody cares about. He hangs out in the Department and we take great pleasure in watching him rot. So much so that we have taken considerable effort to move him to the hostel just so we can watch him rot a little more closely.

I find it interesting that attackers are now viewing the department as a place where people only preach, not practice. If that is true, then the legacy of the great liberal department would not have taken this long to ‘crumble’, if that’s what you think you are doing. People are not stupid and you cannot make them. Take a closer look at your lives. You stop talking to Dalit students because they disagree with you; you start campaigning against the department for not taking ‘your side’ after a tragic break up; you want only a certificate of ‘queerdom’ from the ‘right’ people so you pull out the many victim cards to supply sudden solidarity. Do yourself a favour and stop pretending that your concerns are political.

Let’s clear the air — there are people here and everywhere else who are convinced that I got my NET only because of reservation and have therefore decided that it is not valid. There are also people who believe that I shouldn’t be teaching certain classes because I am more qualified to polish shoes. But the four liberal fascists who, given their most absurd nature, should have been siding with them, chose instead to stand up for me and shut the wretched people up.

The twisted fascist who unofficially runs the department makes a lot of people uncomfortable because they are not used to seeing a non – Savarna with a little power. Who is preaching and not practicing now? Why fake so much concern for rotting Dalit students when you can’t handle a Shudra in power?

In a post that he wrote on his blog, Prof. Mani explains how Wingco Mulky gave him a life outside of himself and saved him from inner demons. Prof. Mani has been doing for other students what Mulky did for him. I don’t need to supply evidence for this but you need to know that this outweighs all your collective cowardice and your uninteresting complaints.

I am posting here an excerpt from Prof. Mani’s blog post –

There was so much that I needed to say to him. That over the years, it was he who had taught me how to live. That the lesson he taught all of us, never to be passive receivers of information, had been our salvation in the other paths we chose to tread. That when he asked me to join Appu and Och in taking over from him, six years ago, he gave me a focus outside myself-—freeing me thus from self-absorption, from a terrible downward spiral, from numerous personal demons.
That his life confirmed for me the value of staying put, that they truly live who choose to stay, that life is to be found here, not elsewhere nor in dollars.My sturdiest human relationship was with this man, fifty years older and a far better human being than I can ever hope to be. It was not one built of too many words and that is passing strange—I am, after all, a word-child and nothing else.
My debts to him will take the longest time to sort out. How do you best thank a man who gave you a world to be in, one who lifted you out of gawky, sharp-edged unloveliness into a sort of life, into community with other people? I never did, and those words are now an unresolved lump in the throat.
From building a syllabus that is more in favour of the student than the institution, to making sure that learning is never mechanical and the student participates actively in her own learning — the department under the leadership of the four liberal fascists and especially under the leadership of the twisted Prof. Mani has made possible what no noisemaker can ever hope to achieve.

Having tutored Dalit students for over three years now, I doubt a system like the ‘Tutorials’ will work very much with people who threaten to stop guiding students over petty disagreements. Prof. Mani designed tutorials to enable conversations with students who need it the most. And I am glad that these conversations will continue despite slanderous efforts by many to thwart them.

Do what you can, you cannot take away the fact that the Department has done more for me and people like me than your political, radical, intellectual, and liberal positions can ever do for anybody.

As Sigmund Freud would say, ‘the only rotten things in the state of Denmark either left or have been kicked out.’

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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.

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.

W for Words

I was very impressed with a girl in my 8th std once for knowing dictionary-heavy words. She not only knew how to use these words, but also seemed to know the right moments in which to use them.

“What should we do to make studying more interesting?”asked my History teacher one day. While I was trying to figure out if it was a trick question because how can studying ever be interesting, the girl sitting behind me had an answer that stunned everybody into an acute, shameful silence.

“Break the monotony”, she said. The class held its breath, as if in anticipation of a bigger, stranger word that was just waiting to dive off her lips. My ears suddenly became sharp. I was sure I’d never be able to get over the genius of it all — her unassuming, calm face, the halo of silence after she said monotony, and how shaken I was for hours after that. I’d never heard of the word ‘monotony’ before. I’d perhaps heard someone older use it in an elderly boring way. But I was prompted to sit up and take notice when she said it. I went back home that evening and mugged up the meaning of monotony along with several other words.

Months later, I found a brand new copy of the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary at home. This soon became my toilet book.

The dictionary had a block of pages in the middle that only had pictures.One whole page on stationery items, another one on food, another one on classroom objects, and one more on fruits & vegetables. I’d gloss over the pictures for a long time. This was perhaps my first premature graphic novel reading experience. After I finished with the pictures, I’d read the words beneath it and focus on the US-UK variations, trying to see if the sound of the word matched the picture. Now that I recollect, my most significant learning moment happened on the commode.

This is the dictionary that taught me that aubergines and eggplants are the same, that chips in UK are actually french fries in US, that plaits and braids are the same, that stubble is the shorter, pokier version of the beard, that ‘blob’ is used for toothpaste and paint alike. Also that ‘blob’is probably the only word in the English language that actually does justice to its meaning. Blob is even to this day, my favourite word. When I hear blob, I see a small cloud of cream sitting in a neat drop with an apostrophe in the end.

I don’t know how but I learnt somewhere that tintinnabulation is the longest word in the English language. It is of course, untrue. But I couldn’t help smiling every time I heard the word. I imagined a string of yellow bells tied together with an invisible thread, ringing continuously.

I chanced upon ‘laissez faire’ in the same dictionary and waited impatiently to use the word in a sentence. When I couldn’t find my moment, I decided to randomly use it when I was talking to a friend about letting things go because another friend had stopped talking to us. My friend was puzzled, and looked at me – her face showing no sign of being impressed. I explained the word to her and she shrugged.

Another time, I learnt that the word ‘invincible’meant indestructible and so after waiting for ages, I finally used the word to describe a boy I’d had a long-standing crush on. The monotony girl asked me why I’d chosen that word for him. Clearly, she knew the meaning. I wanted to die. I’d had a longer- standing crush on her and when she wanted to know how in the world the boy was invincible, I had no answer. I’d expected her to ask me for the meaning because, like Thoma Chacko, I’d not only rehearsed my answer but also predicted how terribly impressed she was going to be.

I happened on ‘Deja Vu’ by chance. I used it in a poem that I wrote (keeping the Cambridge Dictionary close to me). It was a poem on Teenage that I’d very wittily decided to title, ‘Teen-ache’ – a term stolen from a section in the Women’s Era magazine. In it, I narrate at length, the various dilemmas of a teenager. I now have no memory of why, how and where I used ‘Deja Vu’. But when my English teacher asked me what it meant, I felt for the first time in my school life, a little accomplished. I sent it to the school magazine. Needless to say, they didn’t publish it and to this day, I’m deeply indebted to them for that.

Teaching and Learning

In my first month as a teacher, I believed I was good. No matter how badly classes went or how unprepared I was or how smart the students were, I believed I was good. It is my fourth year now and I believe I’m not so good. I may have improved but the threshold for anxiety, for taking offence is smaller than it was when I started.

There are good days and then there are bad days and this has nothing to do with how prepared or not I am. If a student has decided to disrupt class one day, it will happen. Sure, it’s up to me to decide if I’m going to let it affect the class but there’s only little resistance that I can put up. Beyond a point, I want that disruption too, I am curious to see what happens.

I am 24. I walk into a class on the second floor in H Block. This is a class I have been warned about. It’s a second year B.A class. There’s noise before and after I enter. We settle down but it’s not easy. The air is thick with leftovers of conversations that subside only to come back stronger and more forceful than before. I am nervous, I scream an expletive. They giggle. I lose it.

That is one kind of helplessness.

I am 25. I walk into a class that I have been warned about. Again. This is a classroom in the science block — more reason to feel nervous. We begin. They have all their computer science lab records stretched out in front of them. I remember what M has told me about not giving them the satisfaction of watching me get irked. Calmly, I tell them to stop writing in their lab records. They shuffle in their seats but in seconds, they go back to doing what they were doing. I still have patience but their disregard for what I’ve said makes me feel like I have the right to be angry and so, with gritted teeth I practice a deluded voice. ‘Keep the books away’

They are scared. But not all of them. Some of them are caught between the desire to join the few who are aggressively resisting and the few others who are giggling. I stand quiet and hold in what I’m feeling. What I’m feeling is total confusion.

When the bell rings, I storm out of the class preparing to ignore anybody who follows me out to apologize. Nobody comes. I wait weeks together for the apology to come. It never does.

That is one kind of waiting.

I am 27. I’m standing before a class that I’ve been told is special. And for some time, they really are. I have started to read and write with them. I am learning with them and a teacher never forgets something like that. It’s the first batch – one of its kind – filled with talented yet shy students, quiet and watchful ones, passive and aggressive ones.

Things used to be great. I looked forward to all my classes with them with a mad enthusiasm. I’d decide on the text and discussion with an energy that was new and encouraging. We’d talk endlessly. People who were usually quiet ventured to answer questions. I was thrilled. But something happened months later. They outgrew me and I didn’t.

I was standing before them after things had turned bitter and then turned very bad. And now it was frozen in a moment that I couldn’t touch. People on the outside had messed with this class. Things were said, jokes were made, and then just their remnants remained like echoes. It will be months before I find out exactly what happened. But then, there, in that moment, I have no idea.

I am doing Synecdoche and Metonymy. The concepts have confused me just as much as they have confused them. But I am trying. I get lost often and every time I try to recover, I get the feeling that it’s not going to go well. More jokes will be made, more accusations, more justifications, and more indifference. My head is throbbing with a desire to open the can of worms and let it all out. To sit with them, look them in the eye and ask them what went wrong. I am almost going to do that when I realize the pointlessness of it all.

Instead, I focus on the students who are making attempts to understand what I’m saying. I am back. I realize I must try harder. I tell myself that I will make sure they understand the concepts. I look at Maria who is looking at me with renewed interest. She tells me that she finds the topic fascinating. A boy sitting in the back wants to know if AM is in the department. The class shakes with a tension that has been waiting to erupt. They all laugh. I laugh with them. AM can explain Synecdoche better, I say. I don’t know if the boy’s comment was intentional or accidental. I decide not to answer that question. I let it go.

I start reading out a long story I’d found – it was a parody on the examples of Synecdoche and Metonymy. When I finish, the air is thin with something that I can’t put my finger on. It is a lot scarier than confusion. I sense disinterest, I sense irritation, and I sense a very big question mark – not just regarding Synecdoche and Metonymy but also my abilities as a teacher. This is amplified when the boy on my right rolls his eyes and puts his head down in a manner of giving up. His shoulders are bent with rehearsed indifference. Everything that he does, I take in. I want to remember.

Later I will discover that an outsider but no stranger to teaching has tampered with what I had with these students, what I could have had. They sat together, these people, to assess my qualification. The joke that they made, went something like this –

How many Vjs does it take to make a life? None. Because she is busy polishing shoes.

When I first hear this, I am reminded of the things my father had told me about being careful at the workplace and to keep him informed if anything went wrong. I ignored him. I thought he was being unnecessarily protective of me. Perhaps he’d always known that caste may not always follow me but other people will always follow caste.

I am reminded of my father’s disappointment when I chose not to do IAS. He was persuasive about IAS in a way that he has never been persuasive about anything else — even marriage. I think he’d figured out that to be able to survive as a Dalit woman in this country, his daughter is going to need something as powerful as IAS to shut people up.

I don’t know what to make of the joke. What is so funny or humiliating about polishing shoes, I will never know. My ancestors probably polished their ancestor’s shoes. Are they suggesting that I quit teaching and do something else that suits my caste? Like polish shoes?

Thankfully, when I find out about the joke, I am not teaching them anymore. Classes are done with. But I see them very often in corridors, in the canteen and in the department. I don’t know what to feel. I am angry but I am sadder. I start thinking about all my classes with them. I might have taught them the next morning after the joke was made. I wonder if they giggled when they saw my face that morning. Did they snigger as I continued teaching? I might have made a thousand pronunciation errors. I spend hours going over every detail – every single thing I did in their class that they might have made fun of.

I feel unqualified and want to quit. I am unable to write because I have started to doubt everything. I start depending exclusively on other people to tell me that I am good, that I can do this. I feel hopeful when I find that there are many people who have faith in me.

Months later, I’m sitting with two of the unhappiest women I’ve ever known. Since the day I got stuck with them, I’ve been trying to unstick. They are explaining why students hate me. Everything in their part of the world is understood by connections, contacts. Who hangs out with whom? Where? Are they cool enough? How to make connections? It’s too much like the world my father has always been cautious of. Contact making and keeping is another way of showing/hiding caste. And here with them, everything they say is drenched with caste. They don’t see this although they’d be quick to see it in others. This isn’t the first time they have thrown around big words. Access, favours, talent, qualification, social-climbing, power.

Upper caste women.

They are gone. I’m nigh on 28 now. I feel lighter, cooler and a lot more independent. When I turn into a corridor full of new students, I smile. They smile back. Their faces are innocent. They lack history in their demeanor and this is liberating. They are not shadowed by my past and that thought makes me appreciate what I have.

I enjoy teaching more than I did when I was 24, 25, 26 and 27. I find that the more I write, the more interesting teaching becomes. I also find that all that happened last year had to happen so I could feel a lot more forceful about my freedom. Friendships that began for disgusting, ambitious reasons had to end hatefully so that I could learn to value the many undemanding friendships I have come to acquire.

My relationship with students – even those I’ve had memorable conversations with, had to change so I could learn how to continue teaching despite the visible hatred. I’m a teacher. For every one and a half student who likes me, there will be a dozen who don’t. For what it’s worth, regardless of what happens later, I always have a nice time talking to students. And that probably shouldn’t change because that’s what teaching has come to mean. Conversations. In this profession, it’s the only pleasure that can be kept alive and away from people with all kinds of ugly designs.