3 Idlis, sambar and chutney

“I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder”



In the space that is sometimes as large as my heart, often just as tiny – I see myself alone – with all the books I am not reading – sitting on the impulse- on the dot -on the any moment now of waiting – for the beginning of a story that may or may not arrive.


“I dealt with it the same way I deal with everything — I just tended my own garden, didn’t pay much attention, behaved deviously, didn’t let anyone know what I was doing”


My garden is overflowing with the sincerity to protect my laziness.


Read a story by Colette today about a woman who almost runs into her husband’s ex-wife (husband spots the ex-wife and rushes his new wife to another table). Wife is curious, husband bitches about his ex endlessly, says they weren’t able to make each other happy because she was difficult to please. New wife grows curiouser. Husband praises new wife’s ease to be around. New wife is happy. But even as they are leaving, she cannot stop herself from looking back at the woman, the other woman, the ex-wife who got away. She envies how the ex is smoking deliriously, her head resting on the back of the chair, eyes closed, smiling to a secret only she seems to know, unbothered by her ex-husband, and his new wife who both exit the restaurant in a kind of tearing hurry that she has neither the need nor the desire for.

Made me happy to read this short story.

My body is craving a routine I am not able to give it.

There is something that terrifies me more than not being able to write and that is not being able to read. I will stagnate and die if I can’t. I want to so badly read. I want to get lost in a novel. Surrender to it and feel torn every time I must leave it and go, like for class or for a shower or something. I want to feel murderous rage when I come back to find it lost, and then I want to carry that empty feeling, like I just lost a part of myself, and with that I want to sleep angrily, hungrily.

I am now thinking of what I do when I don’t know my own mind. I am soon to be a 35-year-old woman and can’t believe the fullness with which the numbers 3 & 5 throw themselves against the walls of my mouth. What does it mean to be 35? I don’t know. I don’t even know what it means to be 34, like I still don’t know what it meant to be 30, 29, 28 even.

I am worried that if I don’t write now, I will never write. I want to give myself away to 35 and seal myself there. I also want to grow older like all the woman who wear flowers in their hair do – with so much laugh and wine and long and lazy lunches with friends, and many photos of bright, sunlit windows on InstantGram. I can’t wait to grow old like that. Not like this where I can’t tell if I am crying because I am 35 or still 25. That’s something no one tells you. As you grow older, you don’t cry lesser. You cry fewer maybe but not lesser.

But I did read this lovely post by Aparna Vinod who just celebrated her 40th. Here is an excerpt:

For everyone who is asking me what being 40 feels like, it has been rupture. Attachment and disengagement are easy decisions, I value the senses and intuition much more. The Self is mostly unapologetic for being imperfect, both in body and opinion. There is a sense of calm, for I know who and what matter. There is unsettling desire to do more, learn more, be more … I have so much to give! There has not been a more trying decade than the 30s, but life creeped in slowly, opening windows, carrying light and promise, urging me to look at that awaits.

~Aparna Vinod, from FaceBook

This was reassuring to read.

Tomorrow is a new day. I will build myself a little more strongly tomorrow. For today, there is a glass of wine and a film.

A word with you

Very few writers have the courage to laugh when they feel like laughing. Siddalingaiah was one among them. In Ooru Keri, I discovered a way to read and write, yes. But what I learnt more than anything was a way to laugh. Before that, I am not sure I knew how to laugh. Sometimes I stole laughter from my father who laughed with his stomach. And everytime he broke into his hiccupy laugh, the room held its breath for him to finish. I don’t know if Siddalingaiah laughs like this but I like to imagine he does. 

Siddalingaiah left me with many stories. 

I will leave you with four.

The first one I shamelessly find excuses to tell is the Boodisaheba story from Ooru Keri. The story of young Ambedkar falling into an ash pit from a tree, people teasing him and calling him Boodisaheba was something that might not have happened, need not have happened. But the image of a young Ambedkar saying that he might be Boodisaheba now but will be Babasaheb in future gave me goosebumps for how true it turned out to be.

I stood nervously in front of Townhall during the Anti CAA NRC protest one evening, my legs refusing to hold me. I clung to the mic with my heart but didn’t know what to say so I told them the Boodisaheba story. I could conjure only Siddalingaiah that day because no one wrote protest like he did and that’s because no one wrote poetry like he did. That Boodisaheba story is poetry, protest, and song.

The second one still puzzles me. When Bangalore Brahmins refused him a home for rent, he wasn’t bitter. That the home that was promised to him was taken away after the owners discovered that he was Dalit didn’t leave him angry. That when they made it worse by saying “we like you & would’ve given you this house if only you weren’t Dalit” didn’t make him want to scream. He put his hands together, said thank you and walked away.

That story continues to be a lesson that I still haven’t learnt.

The third is a story I am fascinated by: his love for graveyards, for the silences they offered him, for the muffled secrets they teased him with, for how magically poetry came to him when he sat in one and began to write. 

The fourth is a story I am stunned by: his capacity to hold multiple truths. He was being felicitated at a hostel in Bangalore and when he went on stage to receive it, he saw his mother standing on the first floor, a broom in hand, watching him. She was a sweeper there and he leaves us here at this point to take what we want from this truth. I don’t know what he took. I am scared to ask.

The fifth is a story for me. For all the laughter he taught me, the hardest to learn was laughing at myself. There is steel in my mouth when I think of the time someone called me a Brahmin for writing in English. The steel becomes grit when I think of how according to this beautiful logic, even Ambedkar must be a Brahmin. The grit shatters into 4 meters of giggles and 5 kilos of laughter when I think of Siddalingaiah. 

‘O world, I must get to know you

And so I must have a word with you’

P.S: He doesn’t say if a word should be in English or Kannada or Konkani or Urdu.

Dear Toni

I broke down in class last week when I was reading out this piece by a student. I haven’t wept in class before. I have caught myself just short of breaking down (sometimes unsuccessfully) while saying goodbye to students in the last class. But never like this, never in the middle of reading a piece. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if the piece wasn’t written by a student. Maybe I wouldn’t have broken down if she had never sat in my classes, if I had never watched her write, if I didn’t know what she was talking about. But I did, and I do. I am making excuses after all. I have always cried after reading her, sometimes privately, and now I can say publicly as well. She wrote things that aren’t easy to write. I cried because she was walking around with everything she hadn’t written until she wrote that piece, I cried because I don’t know what else she is still carrying.

I could have stopped reading, told the students to read it on their own, switched my camera off and composed myself. But I kept going, I don’t know why. I think she made me keep going. And I pray she keeps me going.

I once cried at Meta when a girl student had yelled at me under the banyan tree in college. I didn’t know what to do. But I just kept thinking, if I were a man, or a tall & pretty Savarna teacher with perfect teeth, sharp nose, and bright wide eyes, I wouldn’t be crying under the banyan tree. Maybe I would, I don’t know – but it’s unfair – this desire to know what it would’ve been like if I was Savarna. After all, how often does a Savarna teacher spend time thinking about what it’s like to be a Dalit teacher?

And also – I don’t like feeling that way. Because I know that if I were Savarna, I wouldn’t have been able to read Beloved the way I did and let it live inside me like it now does. There is a reason you write the way you do and when I’d finished reading Beloved, I felt closer to you in a way I wouldn’t have been able to feel if I were Savarna.

I don’t know if I’d have not cried if it were a boy yelling at me, not a girl. Because boys and their words have a way of hiding behind my teeth and making me angry and sour, never sad. The girl returned after months with two roses and an apology. I smiled and accepted all three. Then I wondered if I shouldn’t have, then I was happy that I had. Will I ever reach a stage where I’ll be confident about the choices I’ve made? Will I ever know what to do immediately? Will I ever have it in me to not cry, not be angry? But why should I not cry? What will I do with all that strength it takes to not cry? Where in my body will I keep so much strength? So much self-respect? So much control? I don’t have that much space in my body for that kind of control.

***

I have been waking up early, not to write oh but how I wish I could. I have been waking up early to look at the sky and think of you. I had read that you woke at 4 to make coffee and watch the light come. It’s how you knew that you were ready to write each day. That you didn’t have to be in the light, you had to be there before the light with coffee to know you were ready to write. I loved the sound of that so much that I have been waking early to watch the sun come up, to look at the way it touches the tree outside my door, and to think of you. Thinking of you makes me want to get ready to write.

I don’t know how it’s possible but your belief in storytelling, in the stories your parents told you, about themselves, and the world is how I see mine. I think it’s not easy for Savarna people to understand this or to even take this seriously. And I am learning to live with that. Because their inability to see love and stories makes me never want to give up on myself.

Today, I woke at 4:30 from a dream I wanted to urgently return to so I went back to finish it (Possessed teddy bear-owl with flapping, beating wings is going nuts in my room. Doesn’t leave me alone so I dump it in the trash outside. It becomes a baby and sits on the windowsill cackling at me before jumping to its death and returning again to my bedroom to haunt me. Basically this is Clifford Geertz + Mixer Week + Google Meet+ Online classes)

And when I woke up again, it was 5:59 and I felt like the day was already over, that I was too late. Then I really woke up, told myself to fuck off and begin the day (take trash out, bring milk, put it to boil, put bread in the oven, boil water, make coffee)

After that crying episode, I was afraid the students wouldn’t take my classes seriously anymore. That because of this ’emotional’ outburst, I have shown them that my intellectual relationship with the subject at hand (Resisting caste) has been compromised.

But then I thought, wtf – a teacher moved to tears because of something her student has written is nothing to be ashamed of. If there are teachers who have cried teaching Shakespeare, then A. Suresh is no less than Shakespeare. But it will be used against me, I know that. Someday, when I am least expecting it, it is going to come back and bite me.

So yes, bite me.

“I am not interested in happiness. Not yours, nor mine nor anybody’s. I don’t think we can afford it anymore. I don’t think it delivers the goods. Most important, it gets in the way of everything worth doing. Happiness has become a bankrupt idea, the vocabulary of which is frightening: money, things, protection, control, speed, and more. I’d like to substitute something else for its search. Something urgent, something neither the world nor you can continue without. I assume you have been trained to think- to have an intelligent encounter with problem-solving. It’s certainly what you will be expected to do. But I want to talk about the step before that. The preamble to problem-solving. I want to talk about the activity you were always warned against as being wasteful, impractical, hopeless. I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one. Not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision. Entrance into another’s space, someone else’s situation, sphere. By dreaming, the self permits intimacy with the Other without the risk of being the Other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action. We are in a mess, you know; we have to get out, and only the archaic definition of the word “dreaming” will save us: “to envision; a series of images of unusual vividness, clarity, order, and significance.”

~Toni Morrison~

When I read this from your Sarah Lawrence Commencement Address, I had a warm desire to hear you and Babasaheb talk to each other. I grew hungry to have you both in my belly, walk into a classroom and roar, walk to my table and write my heart out.

Someday, it will happen. I can feel it gathering in my fingertips.

Image credits: Speakola

Featured image credits: nytimes.com

H for hair

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The men in my mother’s family inherited a love for gossip. In my father’s, they inherited the more dignified baldness. Ajja had shiny white hair growing at the back of his head, leaving the top shinily exposed. He had a small, round face with the faintest trace of uneven white stubble, like an incomplete game of bingo.

Every Sunday morning, Ajja sat in the veranda with a towel on his lap, giving me a small hand-mirror to hold up to his face. Next to us, there’d be a red mug of hot water, shaving cream, brush, & a razor. I had to hold the hand mirror steady for him to begin shaving. I failed often because I’d keep bringing the mirror down to examine his face.

Every time I did this, he’d stare at me wordlessly & I’d say sorry & hold it back up. I couldn’t help it. I was fascinated by the procedure & wanted to take it all in. The smell of the shaving cream was always strongest when Ajja shaved. I could rarely smell it when Appa shaved boringly – standing by the wash basin. 

Ajja would squeeze a blob of shaving cream on the brush & I’d egg him on to take more. ‘Ashtu Saakagalla.’ First of all, he didn’t have much hair. There was some barely noticeable stubble, sandpapery in texture but watching Ajja shave was the single most joyous thing & I tried as much as I could to prolong the spectacle.

He’d smile, sprinkle some water on it & begin painting his face. If I opened my mouth, I could almost taste an acid-like something at this point. He made circular motions covering large parts of his cheeks, chin & throat, always saving the upper lip for last – it was the hardest & required the expertise of a beautician. He pursed his lips together & drew an efficient line, barely touching the nostril. 

Then in went the razor. Every time he cleaned a section & brought it down to dip into the red mug of water, I’d steal a glance expecting hair but there was only foam. Even so, when the blades hit the stubble, they made the most delicious, crispy, silvery sound. The sound of something sharp being cleared most gently. Hypnotized by the sound, I’d look for the expanse of naked skin on his face. There were always a few smears of shaving cream on his face – below his ears – sometimes inside, and under his neck. The foam happily floated in the red mug with occasional spikes of hair winking at us.

Post the shave, Ajja looked barren, emptier somehow. Like he had suddenly become strict, like he had no more stories. And week after week, I waited for the hair to grow so I could stand in front of him with the mirror & watch a story being told without words.

T for Teaching

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This one is hard but it’s about love so it’s also easy. I am here somewhere, with my students. Behind us, on a screen is a black & white photo of Joan Didion. It was my idea to have her there. Let’s take a picture & send it to her, I told them. And they indulged me, like they always have.

We read a lot of Didion this semester. We memorized words on Self-respect, hoping it would give us some. We watched her on screen as she moved from one beautiful shot to another, we watched as she called herself wife – never quite becoming one, we watched as she became a widow – never quite seeming like one. And as always, I came out learning more than I taught.

Something the English Department is always accused of is all play, no work. We apparently only screen films in our classes and do nothing else. How cute. If that accusation was worth dignifying with a response, I’d have done that long ago. But as Prof. AM always reminds me, ‘Our work is our defence’ & that seems enough of a response – for now, and forever.

But I’ll tell you why I like watching things with students – half the time I am not even watching the screen, I am watching their faces. I want to see the little things that delight them, I want to know what makes them smile, what makes them forget their phones, what makes them laugh like lizards coming out of nowhere suddenly. And it’s what I am also hungrily looking for when we read & write together. I’ve had my share of miseries with students, yes. But what I’ve also had is their friendship & their laughlets.

I wouldn’t know what teaching is without stories, without laughing, without rain. And in my mind, I am forever teaching in the way Machado’s The Husband Stitch is narrated. I’ve gotten royally burnt for being so ambitious but I will never stop.

And today, I am grateful for never having stopped – even on the darkest days, when there was no rain, even when I felt like quitting & running away, even when I was empty of stories, even when I was made to believe that I suck at this. And there are days when I really really do, but it’s never enough to make me want to give up. Ambedkar’s blood y’all. And for most other days, there’s chai.

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2020 – Making Do

***Disclaimer and announcement both attached***

My mother grew up in a house full of children. They were 7 but it always seemed like they were seventeen. And because there were so many of them, I imagined them all in a large and crumbling bungalow with squeaky, uneven staircases. I have neither lived in this house nor seen it. But years ago, I caught a passing glimpse when it was pointed out to me from a speeding auto. I stuck my neck out and saw what appeared to be a small house, heaving on its haunches surrounded by piles of bricks and cement. The house, as it turns out, had always been small – only its ghost in its own stories had been big like my mother’s laugh, which is loudest when she laughs with her two sisters.

It is louder when she laughs soundlessly- her eyes watering, face contorted, cheeks red, belly shaking, the rest of the body motionless on the floor – which is were they sat – her and her sisters – chattering endlessly, reminding each other of what they’d done as children.

All their stories are marked with a kind of poverty that they never learnt to forget. The one they often narrated involved a month-long wait to watch Amar Akbar Anthony in a theatre. The oldest earning member of the family, their brother (then 22) had to be convinced. Money had to be earned. So they took turns in selling more bags of tea powder than usual.

Finally, they made a small bag full of coins which couldn’t jingle because it was that heavy, and wound very tightly with a rubber band. Preparations began 3 days before the show. Clothes were washed and left to dry until they were warm and crunchy. They were then put under the beds and left to self- iron.

On the day they were supposed to go, the rain wouldn’t stop, the theatre was far away and they had to change two buses to get there so they decided to go the next day. At this point while narrating the story, my mother and her older sister took turns to imitate their middle sister who, when she was told they couldn’t watch the film that day – had rolled on the floor, beaten her chest and wept. She had made the most earnest preparations to watch the film that evening, so she spent a good few years after that being very angry with rain. Finally, they all got to watch Amar Akbar Anthony and it is perhaps one among the very few films that my mother didn’t mind us watching on repeat.

All the other houses my mother found after that could never become homes. How could they if she had to light a dozen agarbattis everytime she cooked fish? Or if she had to pretend we weren’t home when owners came to ask rent or complain about something?
***
Appa grew up in hostels more than in homes. He tells his stories like Siddalingaiah did – with a lot of heart and stomach. And because his laugh comes from somewhere deep inside his stomach- when his belly shakes violently, it is curious how the laugh comes out of his mouth in whispers, not sounds.

Pranks make him laugh, prank videos make him laugh more, Vadivelu makes him laugh, people who fall, fart, flee make him laugh. His favourite classroom story is about a boy whose bum was apparently pinched a lot, especially right after he gave attendance – so every time he said “Yes saar” – it was always followed by aiiiiieeee.

When my father imitates the boy’s aiiiiieeee, his face never betrays the expression of a properly pinched bum.

I eat these stories the same way I have eaten all their other stories – their humiliations in college, defending themselves against the gods of merit, not having money or food, being bullied for not being good enough, not knowing how to talk to people, and dealing with unkind, ugly, casteist institutions.

These stories live together, not because my parents wanted them to. They were made to. It was how they managed with what they had, it was the only way they knew how to make-do.

This is how I have come to know ‘Making-do’ – what about you? Write and send to barbranaiduprize@gmail.com

***DISCLAIMER: For the kind souls who walk around with a Savarna checklist of political correctness and might take offence at the bum-pinching or might feel that being able to watch Amar Akbar Anthony is not Dalit enough, not poor enough: Naale banni***

Bn 2020 Word A3_page-0001.jpgDownload the attachment here: BN 2020

 

Once Upon a Rainy Mangalore Day

When it rained in Mangalore, amma made us wear raincoats and carry umbrellas but we’d still get wet. One afternoon after school we went looking for a new house in an auto. The broker was on his bike in front of us, his feet slanting upward on both footrests. We followed his yellow raincoat. The huge bungalow we first stopped at had two coconut trees growing out of it. The trees shot upwards from the roof, and looked uneasy like the swords I’d sometimes seen emerge out of Swamiji tongues in Kanyakumari.

I looked at Amma. She squinted at the trees and looked miserable. I looked at the broker. He sighed and started giving the auto driver new directions for a new house.

I wanted to tell him no. I had already imagined spending all my free time under the trees. Never before had life organised itself so beautifully as it did on those house- hunting days where the space of a new home offered dreams of being good girl – set up a solid routine, do homework on time, sleep at 9, wake at 6.

Amma and broker were damaging my creative juices.

The second house was inside a huge compound sharing space with another house. I stepped out of the auto and into a puddle, slowly, deliberately. The water seeped into my socks making it squishy. I walked around carefully listening to each squish.

A girl climbed out of a school van in front of the other house and watched us. I recognized her as a classmate but struggled to remember her name. Amma was quick to notice when we greeted each other shyly. I’d already started day dreaming a routine – this time my new best friend was in all of them.

When I was pulled away from the house, and from her, and thrust into the auto – I was beginning to bawl. Amma patted my back loudly and said that closeness is not ok. It will ruin your life.

***