Postcard from today V

I was reading old journal entries today and found these from 2015 and 2016.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015, 9:30 am, department

I am reading Hedda Gabler for my reading room meeting today. It’s nice. I’ve enjoyed reading it so far. I am back to being indifferent to nonsense at the workplace. Students are the only saving grace. I am not talking much. I am only reading and writing and when I talk, I only talk to students.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015, 9:15 am, Lab

I am wearing what Amma got me from Bombay. It’s a printed blue full sleeved shirt and black stretchy pants. I got my new blue watch from Flipkart. It was 5000 when I first saw it and 3500 when I finally purchased it. Yesterday was a good day. I finished reading Hedda Gabler and had my reading room session. Our next book is Rebecca by Daphne du. I also read a couple of travel pieces by Charukesi and Shahnaz Habib. Then I started reading Anu Aggarwal’s memoir. I like reading it so far. It is hilarious.

Today I have 2 lab hours and an Optional English hour. I want to get started with Rebecca but must finish reading Anu Aggarwal before that. It’s Gowri today. And holiday tomorrow. There is gossip and bitchita-ness all around. Loose talk about who is qualified to teach what and sub standard writing and reservation children and nonsense. It’s what people who have zero respect for work or for themselves do. It’s all they ever do. I am ignoring it. Pah. I sat in the lab for some time yesterday and finished reading the play. It’s a nice little place to get a whole lot of work done. Rubu Kaapa has left, and so has Chungrei.

End of another semester already. Waw.

I wish I had an archive button for old journal entries to show themselves every morning so I could be taken back to what I was thinking 7, 8, 9 years ago.

I woke at 5:45 today and didn’t go back to sleep. The sun was up and sketching itself mindfully on the floor and I thought fuck me this is so beautiful. I have moved into my newly renovated home, and deliberately renovated room which was purposefully and hopefully designed to make me write.

Reading these entries fill me with 2 things – relief and envy. Relief because I am now in a place where no one and nothing can take away what I have built for myself and my writing – not loose talk, not cow dung, not even apathy. Envy because I was probably a much fiercer writer back then who wrote everyday (despite everything else that was happening) with a fervour I don’t seem to have anymore. Even 5 years ago, I wrote as if I’d forget how to write if I didn’t write everyday.

Today it seems like I need the charm of beautifully decorated rooms and tables and the illusion of free time to bloody produce one good sentence. In other words, total spoilt brat I have become.

Watching young women at work learning to find themselves despite noise, disruptions and the temptation to give in to loose talk is what I am crazy about these days. Moments where they choose themselves over everybody and everything else. Hours that they devote to learning — to making their craft better, sharper, louder. The permission they give themselves to be absorbed by things that move them. These are all a privilege to witness. I steal time from my own days to sit and watch them do this.

The Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay 2022 – Finding a Self

In November last year, while shifting things in our new department, I found a lot of hand written notes by the late Prof Naidu. It was easy to match the firm handwriting with the assured face of the woman I see in the picture everyday. The notes were all deliberate, never written in a hurry or to kill time. They had purpose and seemed to know that if the author of those words didn’t want them there, they wouldn’t be there.

It seems a little odd to be writing so boldly about a woman I have never known but then it’s a name I recite and write about annually. And if I have found the stability to feel returned to the work I do because of someone’s handwriting, perhaps it doesn’t matter that I don’t know her well. After all, how well do we know ourselves to begin with?

It’s the tenth edition of The Prof Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize and I feel stupid for not having made the effort to learn more about the woman before. I now know her through what she’s left behind in the department. Small notes, smaller anecdotes, old post-its barely surviving.

For a general staff meeting dated 16.6.2003 at 10:30 am, she says ‘new orientation in the thinking of the college’ and on the next page – a list of agenda to be discussed at the monthly department meetings (depts must become autonomous bodies, avoid giving personal work to attenders) and then, in a corner of the page, with grit:

“We must do well what we are expected to be doing”

I read that sentence several times that day, each time returning with newly formed guilt, and each time marvelling at a different word. I paused at the word ‘expected’ – expected by whom? why are they expecting? Because they pay us? Or is the expectation from students?– which changes the whole meaning.

I don’t know what worry, decision, personal conclusion she was moved by enough to put that line down here, in the middle of minutes-taking but it had the razor sharpness of someone wounded from the knowledge/fear of not wanting to remain comfortable with doing just the bare minimum.

At Meta 2020, AM had pointed to what he called the Savarna work ethic – the refusal to go beyond what’s comfortable, easy, and the belief that you are superior to the work you do. I’ve thought of that often and in the age where people talk about self-care as justification for doing a bad job or no job – it’s interesting to find a note like that.

I felt more assured than I have felt in months. It made me think about my father who lectured me one morning for doing a half-hearted job with folding a bed sheet. I was riding high on western feminist theory back then so my only grouse was why someone who doesn’t make his own bed get to lecture me about a bed sheet. I believe now that what he was intending to teach me then was something he’s always taught us – do whatever you do with your full self or don’t do it at all. It’s comical to allow our self-importance to precede our work, and us. Prof. Naidu’s note and my father’s way of work helped me rescue a part of myself that occasionally needs rescuing.

I find that most of what I believe about myself isn’t mine. A lot is borrowed, a lot more is stolen. I learn the ways of being from students. I can ride out the most horrible day after an uplifting conversation with a student who tells me that she reads herself to sleep every night or the girl who always seems to know when it’s time to leave a relationship or the boy who is so aware of what his parents had to give up to put him in college that that gratitude never leaves his face, or the girl whose sense of self is so severe that no teacher, boyfriend, man, god can take it away.

It is quite possible that all the cool things about me are derived/borrowed/stolen from my students and I am in equal parts both miserable and grateful for a self that continues to learn from them more than anybody else.

If you feel inclined to write about the various selves you too have borrowed, tolerated, lived with – write us an essay and submit it by May 20th. More details here.

Reading Qabar

Everyone laughed. But I couldn’t laugh. Something was lodged in my eye. A shard of that rainbow. Everywhere I looked, I saw its muted colours. That unworldly violet especially.

I loved reading Qabar. I loved it more because I read it like I was 20, 21, 22 waiting for love from someone who didn’t know how to, learning to live without it, letting go, and allowing myself permission to be slowly built back. I wish I’d read it when I was 20, 21, 22. I could’ve learnt how to live then.

Qabar is the story of two women who build themselves back. Its charm is that it isn’t too charmed by this. It doesn’t keep drawing us back to these women in any extraordinary, thrilling way. It does the one thing we must all learn to do – it leaves women alone. They are there, that is all. The book is just an invitation to see them.

Bhavana is a judge whose mind I find deeply enviable. She allows love and magic to distract her in the most sensual way at work, and also disallows them when she wants to just work. She drinks her tea, gnashes her teeth and gets back to her seat, “trudging through the rest of her cases”

No one can barge into your mind unless you want them to.

To pick oneself up and be available for love again can be exhausting. When we first meet her, she is still picking the pieces up. And her ex husband is getting married again. What does Bhavana do?

It was an act of cruelty towards my ex-husband to have gone to his wedding. But it would have been an act of cruelty towards me to not have gone. I looked him in the eye and congratulated him. He looked deflated. And thus I drew my last drop of water from that particular well, drank it and turned the vessel upside down. Duty done, I departed.

Bhavana walks the same path her mother did, a woman who decided to leave her husband and get a room of her own because he wouldn’t let her bring a wounded dog to their house. That’s the short version we are given. What isn’t given is what we already know and what K.R. Meera will not waste time on.

In an interview with Meghan O’Rourke, Vivian Gornick says,

” A 1980s cartoon from The New Yorker showed a husband sitting in a chair with a newspaper in his hands and in the doorway is a wife walking out with a suitcase in her hand. The caption read, “But I’ve always been impossible. Why are you leaving now?” Who goes and who stays, and after how long or short a time, is entirely a matter of the individual psyche. You go when the grievance is making you ill. You stay when you’ve become inured. I think it by far worse to become inured to feeling ill than to face down the fear and insecurity that accompany a domestic break.”

K.R Meera’s women refuse being inured. Even if a large part of this argument is based on the fact that they refuse because they can, and are able to — just the sheer pleasure of reading a story about women who refuse is reassuring. The fact that I may never be able to refuse; because of who I am or where I come from isn’t reason enough to not want to read the stories of women who can. This is bigger than me because I am smaller than the stories I read and want to write. If I am not, I must and will make myself smaller.

Two hours to the office. Two hours back home. Sitting when I had a seat. Standing when I didn’t have one. That’s how I read all that I read.

Nisha Susan’s translation is the most intimate gift for women learning to write, and reading to live. At the heart of any kind of translation is an act of love which really is the essence of ‘OMG this woman is so cool, you must read her’. The world will be a sad, sad place the day we stop doing this.

Something else that I learnt quite unexpectedly from Qabar is a way of developing a life for the mind. That you could feel the similar surge you were trained to feel for a man, that you could find it in you to say no to this surge because you have suddenly realised that a woman you don’t know has the similar capacity to lift you from whatever dump he’s thrown you in by the sheer power of her words is a lesson worth learning every day, for the rest of your life.

In an interview with Nisha Susan, K.R Meera says that before she wrote Aarachar she was able to work on her scriptwriting in the morning, book chapters in the noon, and reporting/feature stories in the night. I was at work, listening to this, cleaning my table when I half smiled, half whooped in joy. This lovely Marquez type division of the day was heartening to hear.

A small tap of warmth opened in my chest when I imagined spending my day here at work as a teacher in the morning, sleeper in the noon, and a short-story writer in the night. In the late evenings, this place quiets down, the wind is cool and the city noise dims into the larger background of silence that I am not always able to conjure.

I am alone and nothing returns me more to myself than this moment does.

The snake wrote better than a pen.

24.11.21

On the way to work today, I saw a pillion rider without helmet jump off the bike when he saw maama (cop, boss) at the Minerva circle signal. He ran to the footpath and maama didn’t notice him. After the traffic began to move, our rider friend waved at pillion escapee and asked to meet him on the other side of the road.

I took the regular left at Poornima theatre and went past Bishop Cotton Women’s Christian College and watched in awe as a man riding a bike began disposing rotten tomatoes. I couldn’t see where the tomatoes were being thrown from (a bag?). The tomatoes were squashed, tired of wanting to be red, and had settled for a greenish, unhappy orange.

At work, students carried the day, like they always do.

A sea of yellow girls squeezing smiles and songs.

To be a teacher on any other day is a blessing. To be a teacher on one’s birthday is a lesson in gratitude.

I hope that in the all years to come when I become 35, 42, 58, even 64 – I’ll still be a teacher.

And I hope that in all the lives to come, I’m still a woman – locking up her workplace before she’s the last one to leave and first to arrive the morning after where she is met with the smell of her own stale perfume from last night.

Ann Patchett

I am drowning in Ann Patchett. When I read her latest essays now, I catch a fleeting hello, a nodding glimpse to something she has mentioned in her older essays which I am also reading. It’s like I am stitching. She is making me re-arrive at the personal essay as a form of journalism. Many gods of journalism, who cannot stand that other people read and write will die about this. But what else is new? They die about something or the other every day. But read Ann Patchett – she is remaking journalism, both the ‘serious’ one and the chota bheem one.

Whiny muffins like me who cry about too much work should read her essay ‘Nonfiction, an introduction’ where she outlines the beginning of her journey as a freelance writer. She says she learnt how to swallow pride as she watched some of her best sentences get chopped up by editors who worked with knives. She learnt, she says, how to write better by anything and everything that came her way. One day she’d be writing about ballroom dancing, another day about boutique farming, and some other day, about a lip balm. She soaked in everything she wrote and didn’t complain. In the end, it would all come together as she returned home to write what she really wanted to write – fiction.

“Somewhere along the line I learned to experience only the smallest, most private stabbing sensation when I watched my best sentences cut from an article because they did not advance the story. Ultimately, this skill came to benefit my fiction as well. The conversations I had had so often with magazine editors were now internalized. I could read both parts of the script. Did I think that was a beautiful sentence I had written? Yes, I did. Did it further the cause of the novel? No, not really. Could I then delete it? It was already gone”

AM had once said that to be a writer, one has to become small. There was so much to carry in that sentence that it made me afraid to think that I’d never be able to do it. But it’s true. Becoming small is the only mark of a writer thirsty to learn, a journalist hungry to see.

Forbrydelsen: Seeing Sarah Lund

Watching detective Sarah Lund on screen is an absorbing activity. Like doing homework for a teacher you really like. She is the most intriguing person on TV. And I don’t only mean detective TV.

There are many ways of seeing Sarah Lund but they are not enough. I only know that I can tell when she sees something while solving a murder and it’s not because the soundtrack seems like it was made for her face or because the tingling sensation in my arms means that she has solved something. I can tell because even though I am dying to know what she has seen, I am more distracted by her eyes which open like mouths to swallow details that are meaningless without her.

I like that no one in the show or outside can tell what she’s thinking. Earlier this year, when I was watching Drishyam 2, there was this delicious realisation that the film’s premise is built on the discipline of not using more words than necessary. I wanted to count the number of words Georgekutty used between Drishyam 1 and 2 because I was convinced there were very very few with his family and fewer with outsiders. It’s a good practice, I thought. More words means more talking means more revealing. Less is always better, especially if there’s murder involved.

Sarah Lund ties her hair in a ponytail. She wears sweaters that later became the iconic Sarah Lund sweaters. She carries a brown hand bag which she is very mindful of. She chews on nicotine gums mindlessly, sometimes even while talking to suspects. But she removes the gum from packets very carefully. She falls in and out of love through the three seasons. She has a son who doesn’t like her but she cannot do anything about it. She doesn’t respond to people who bother her with too many questions. She isn’t available for any explanations – neither expecting any nor giving any.

There is thoroughness in the way Sarah Lund sees people as if they are not people but photographs, as if they are their own memory. All she has to do is look long enough for them to reveal themselves. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t but her eyes are open regardless. She is not always right even if it seems like she has every right to be. That there are consequences to the things she does, to the things she doesn’t say make her touchable, reachable, knowable.

I don’t care that she isn’t though. Everyone who falls in love with Sarah Lund must prepare themselves for an Ek Tarfa Pyar. This does not mean that she doesn’t know how to give love, it means that you don’t want her to. You just want to spend your days watching her solve crime using as few words as womanly possible.

Watch Forbrydelsen here.

Chimmi & Zadie

In love with this stunning partnership, the grace to compliment one another on stage so willfully and mean it, the curiosity about each other’s writing that doesn’t seem scripted for stage and the readiness with which they embrace each other’s work.

And most of all, absolutely delighted that Adichie says this about Zadie:

“How happy I am to share the stage with Zadie. I have admired and followed Zadie’s work from the very beginning, from The White Teeth. And I’ve also really admired that she is this brilliant woman who is also a hot babe. I think it’s really important that brilliant women step out there and be hot babes”

They discuss Americanah, race, racism, the importance of talking about hair, love, romance, writing, and sex. Adichie says that she based Americanah on the many Mills & Boon she read as a child. Such a slap on the faces of people who continue to propagate bullshit about high and low literature.

I like how happy they look. I like how they laugh and make the audience laugh. I like how they aren’t devoting any energy towards private and less private angers. Things white people, publishers, editors may have said but on this stage, they only have eyes and heart for writing.