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.

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.