Louisa’s Fall

I watched Persuasion today and was taken with Dakota Johnson’s Anne, like I knew I would be but even more by Louisa (Nia Towle). She surprised me like no other woman in love has. I have seen and heard women not only do stupid things in love but also believe that because they do it out of love, it somehow makes them noble. When I say them, I obviously mean moi.

But watching Louisa in love is as terrible as it is reaffirming. I have not read Persuasion but now want to after watching Louisa leap from a wall to revisit the sensation of being caught by the man she loves. It is disgustingly close to how I experienced love as a young woman.

He is leading her down the steps. When he reaches the landing she jumps, and he catches her and her giggles. Austen says “the sensation was delightful to her” – and to reproduce this she runs backs up again, declares to him that he must catch her again and leaps. It wasn’t sufficient warning and the fool falls down. He wouldn’t have been able to catch her safely from that height, even with sufficient warning.

I called her stupid 5 times even before I was fully done watching the scene. I watched it again and again, then went and watched the same scene from the 2007 and 1995 adaptations of the novel. And in each of these scenes, I was watching the same thing – a foolish woman leaping stupidly in love.

Even without meaning to, this need to leap, this desire to reproduce a sensation just because it seems delightful — even at the cost of knowing the pain it might bring — makes villains out of the ones who aren’t able to catch. It is unfair and more than that, it is unnecessary.

Why must we leap? Why must we expect to be caught? It’s perhaps why we do it. We don’t it because we are sure. We do it because we are unsure and want to be sure. It’s a gamble. A stupid, miserable one. It’s a lot like love. Stupid, stupid, love.

There is an interesting humiliation at play here. His is that she falls and hers is that he lets her. That there is an audience for this doesn’t help either case.

An old love and I would go to Kempegowda airport on his bike for kicks in 2008. This was before it was the resort it is today. Back then, it was just one long stretch of road to ride and play on. Once we were there, we’d sit and look at the sparrows, laugh, talk, watch the planes take off and head back.

One day, we began playing. We played lock & key, hide & seek and then running race. He obviously ran very fast. I couldn’t catch up so I began running the other way. He laughed, turned around and began chasing me. I don’t know how the game had changed but I was delighted to find it in my hands. Even so, I couldn’t continue running because I had started laughing so much. He caught up with me and we both buckled down with guffaws.

I went home feeling happy and childlike but mostly with a full stomach. He let the game go and chased me and this made me feel love. A month or something later we found ourselves in a large group of friends he liked because they were his friends and I hated because they were all chuths. We finished lunch at a dhaaba and were getting into our vehicles when the largeness of the parking area became a playground and again, somehow, we began playing running race. This time too, he was very fast and I began running in the opposite direction. I turned back and felt a mild stab of betrayal to watch him standing tall and proud, announcing in front of his friends “Go wherever you want”

We had an audience and he didn’t want to chase me. We had an audience and it’s why I wanted him to chase me. It’d have solidified our love in front of those chuths. In my late 30s, it kills me to say this but I haven’t gotten over this stupid way of leaping and feeling betrayed.

I never brought this up with him, we never found ourselves in large parking areas to lose ourselves in ever again. But I remember feeling empty in my stomach when he dropped me home that evening.

I feel stupid and foolish and small and petty as I type this but I wish there was a way of ensuring that our stomachs never feel that sudden vacuum. It shouldn’t have to fall on other people to catch us whenever we feel like leaping. It’s here that I recall Didion’s words on being in love and remaining indifferent at the same time. Self-respect makes it possible to achieve both she says.

I am thinking of how much self-respect Louisa had or didn’t moments before she took that leap. Why do we allow ourselves to give in to these random moments of leap? What are we hoping to find there? Something as strong and nurturing as the self-respect we seem to lack?

How do we preserve our sense of self despite love? This morning, I woke up uneasily in a rabbit hole I had been digging for sometime now- pinning down my self-respect to weak amulets. I could feel my Sunday slipping away from my hands even before it had begun. I hated it. I didn’t feel like myself. I felt betrayed, possessed, obsessed, in need of a severe makeover. Then I forced myself to watch a film, picked Persuasion, watched that scene, began writing this and somewhere in between the last two moments, I returned to myself.

I felt myself literally picking myself up at one point and I loved the sensation of feeling calm in my stomach again. I don’t know whom to thank for this. Dead white women writers?

A random dude once texted me on twitter to say that he finds it ironical when Dalit women feel inspired by white women. I told him I’d much rather feel inspired by dead white women than alive and thriving savarna women. His only response was “why not black women????????????”

Baba, on days when it feels like everything is slowly dying inside you and you want nothing more but to be held and feel sane and happy again, shouldn’t we do whatever it takes to persuade ourselves to feel whole again? So what if it’s some dead white woman from England speaking to me in Basavanagudi?

Maybe that was what Didion meant when she said not having self-respect was like returning home to oneself and finding it empty. That if we take the risk of leaping, we must also be prepared to take the risk of falling or worse, suffer the humiliation of not being caught.

On Self-respect or how to unpark a car in Basavanagudi

This Insta series was originally published on the Scrolls & Leaves Podcast.

Ever since I first read Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect a couple of years ago, I have taken it to every class I teach. My wish, that it gives young girls whatever sense of self I didn’t have when I was growing up is only slightly overshadowed by something selfish. I take it to class every year because I need to read it every year.

My self-respect tank runs on reserve through the year & for that one week when we do the essay in class, I feel like I have my self-respect firm in my palm. I try to understand how and why a white woman sitting so far away can know and have anything useful to say to a not- white teacher. But I’ve given up trying to reason with it. Those better equipped to deal with the ‘problematics’ of the situation may deal with it. I am more interested in taking the gift and running away with it.

A very Basavanagudi thing happened in Basavanagudi last week. We recently moved into a rented house and our neighbors already hate us. One doesn’t like that we park our car in front of our gate because he wants to park his car there. His caste, kula, gotra I don’t want to get  into, we live in Basavanagudi; you figure. 

One afternoon, my father was rushing to the bank and requested him to move his vehicle because it was blocking ours. The neighbor shrugged and didn’t come out of his house. My father went walking. 

After that, my father made it a point to park our car right at the gate before the neighbor could. Even though he shouldn’t have to, let’s proceed.

The neighbor called the traffic police & complained bitterly to the confused young officer who responded. If the officer was entertained, he couldn’t hide it well:  ‘So you have a problem if they park their car in front of their gate?’ Still, the neighbor persisted. My father lost it and ran screaming at the neighbor. The anger in my father’s voice does the same thing to me today that it has always done: irritate me, get me to think about how unnecessary it is, and bring me to automatic tears. In the past, I’ve seen my father scream so loudly, the red in his eyes don’t leave until the next morning, his face is concretely unmoving, and his temples throb as if struggling to come out. But when he was shouting at the neighbor, I realized it was the only thing he could’ve done. I understood the source of all his anger.

By then, the neighbor had gathered supporters on the strength of his and their births. Some stood on balconies, threads visible, saying to my father: ‘Just because you have a big car doesn’t mean…’ And that’s when I saw it – the source of their anger. The problem may not have been the car after all, it was the size of the car, which was perhaps as big as their bruised pride.

This morning, returning from a walk I saw a couple of policemen pacifying someone very much like the neighbor. He kept pointing at a few discarded flowers on the footpath. An hour ago when I’d walked the same way, I’d seen flower vendors sitting on the footpath under the shade of a large tree. The flower vendors were nowhere to be seen now. A man came running to them and said, “Saar, look at all this dirt, that too in front of a Brahmin house.”

What I’ve learnt from this tragicomical angst towards outsiders/’polluters’ in Basavanagudi is that the centre is not holding.

I am thinking of Gogu Shyamala’s ‘But Why Shouldn’t the Baindla Woman Ask for Her Land?’, where Saayamma bangs her fists, makes a fuss, and pushes the village heads with an iron grit and won’t leave until she takes back what belongs to her. I am thinking how much indignity there is in asking for things that you shouldn’t have to ask for (because they are yours to begin with).

I am thinking how those who make you ask for these things not only get to keep their dignity but yours as well. I am thinking of how the consequence of not making a fuss is different for different people. I am thinking of how every other passerby who heard my father roaring on the street would’ve called him an uncouth wild man. I am thinking of a Bahujan writer on a zoom panel I once attended. She was accused of not having got the question right and wouldn’t let go until both the moderator and the other speaker had apologized.  These people who took back what was theirs, took it despite the consequences – they were not wild; they weren’t even angry; they were just holding on to their self-respect.

I am led back to the quietness of Didion’s words and wonder whether it is enough to sneak my self-respect out from wherever it is hiding, and- whether it’ll do. It will do. Didion says, “​​To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect” — which to me means that some of our routes to self-respect aren’t going to be dignified and are certainly not going to be quiet. The route is what often gets us called mad and difficult. But it’s what will eventually free us from the Savarna expectation that we will keep eating kadlepuri while they hack at our self-respect.