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.’

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.

***

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.

On & Off

After a devastating performance in class yesterday, I walked back to the department feeling unfamiliar pangs of guiltless-ness. A year ago, a bad class would have destroyed my inner peace and haunted the rest of my week. I’d find it very difficult to forgive myself. I am only now learning to let go. And this is very liberating because I know I will soon go back to the class and reclaim what I think I lost.

I am missing Delhi. I tell myself that I’d be restless there after three days. I tell myself that sometimes cities can show you their face only for two days and after that, they have nothing more to offer. Even so, when I was at the airport, boarding my flight back to Bangalore, there was a large Delhi-shaped emptiness that kept growing.

Delhi has always been scary. I still can’t bring myself to believe that on my first day there, I took myself out and plunged into the heart of the city with a rebellion I assumed only my parents could inspire in me. I took the metro and got lost, took the cycle-rickshaw and nearly died, walked from Daryaganj to Chawri Bazaar and didn’t have to punch anybody in the face.

On my last day there, a woman asked for my help with directions, and another woman asked me if I took the metro everyday. When I shamelessly said yes, she told me she was lost and I gave her the right directions. I can see myself living there and working there. This is enough imagination to sustain me for weeks.

Every time I explore a city alone, I find a piece of myself that I didn’t know was lost. This has been both gratifying and confusing to deal with.

In class today, we talked about Chaucer and writing. All the shattered selves from yesterday came back in silent prayer. With every passing day, my capacity to read is becoming increasingly demanding. One evening last week, I had a quiet affair with Habibi and got lost in its illustrations and story. We all had a lot to say about it at The Reading Room. Current read is Siddalingaiah’s ‘A Word With You, World’, which has been tempting me to return to my half-finished caste piece.

It is comforting to read Siddalingaiah. I wish I’d read the book last year, which may have been a time when I needed it the most. His stories remind me of my father’s childhood – they loom in the background and are told in a soothing voice. Never preachy nor patronizing, they reveal more than what I assume they can hold.

This has been my week – Habibi, Delhi, Metro, Chaucer, and Siddalingaiah.