Ants among Elephants

Here is my piece on reading Sujatha Gidla’s memoir – Ants among Elephants. The book was read over two days and written over three.

Best week ever.

The most comforting thing about the book was learning that I have to hurry. There are many, many family stories waiting to be written. This was also extremely unsettling. All the men and women in my family who can tell me about us – our caste, its history, and its stories are in their 80s.

Ants among Elephants is a story about many such people who dared to lift their heads up and look at the sky. And I am grateful for this because these are stories that must be written and told and shared — again and again — not just because soon, we will have lost all those who lived in these stories but also because these stories are what allow us to save them from being frozen like statues in history and government offices.

Featured image Credit: Shirin Jaafari/PRI via https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-10/india-she-was-untouchable-new-york-city-she-became-author

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Laugh like Sumitra

For as long as I can remember – I have always been a stalker, first, a writer second. Even when I am not writing, I am stalking. It isn’t worrisome because if stalking happens then can writing be far behind?

I have spent some spectacular nights on my phone jumping from website to blog to YouTube interviews of women writers I’m madly in love with. It’s usually the kind of night that spreads itself neatly on my bed till 4 in the morning – my body gently breaking from all the postures I have been trying, my eyes tired and watery, and my head brimming with inspiration.

So what am I trying to learn from them?

In the beginning it was mostly about learning how to say fuck off. Even now, I’m afraid, I’m still learning the same thing. But please understand that at various points in life, women need different degrees of being able to say fuck-off. The fuck-off that you imply at home for instance is a lot different from the fuck-off you want to scream outside. 

Beyond this is another freak show behaviour on my part. I’m obsessed with a strange desire to know everything about these women’s lives – who were their bullies in college? How did they fight back? How old were they when they first fell in love? When was the last time they cried? Do they use napkins or tampons or cups? Do they decide what to wear for work every day or do they just throw something on? How did they begin writing?

In the early 2000’s – the idea of a working woman in my family was radical. Her education, on the other hand was not radical because it was necessary to keep an engineer bride ready for a double-graduate groom. It was maybe more than necessary – it was meritorious.

Today, unmarried women in their late 20’s instinctively learn to show their middle-fingers at people who bug them about marriage and babies.

In the urban space therefore, even if I know many, many working women – it gives me a kind of high when they have work problems. My sister Bubbly’s work involves numerous conference calls when she is at home. Sometimes she sits with her laptop, her eyes scrunching at all manner of squiggly codes. I derive an odd pleasure from watching her work. One such busy morning, she was on a conference call when she was interrupted by a brother trying to wave at her. She shot him one killer look before going back to her call.

I love this. It’s incredible to see women being busy in a world that is just theirs. Kind of like a Bechdel pass. Bechdel fails are almost heartbreaking to watch- where female friendships are compromised because playing out to male fantasies or impressing men becomes more important. This is where Ferrante wins. In her world, there is neither any place for male fantasies nor for women who make everything about men.

*******

I’m wondering also, if things in my past could have been handled better – meaning- without losing calm and foresight. I’m not going to get into the details here because I have already written about it in several other posts. But just what is a decent response to bullies?

My friend says that being unavailable to attacks or the attackers is one way to go about it. You don’t give them space – either in your life or in your head. It’s the only response that merits many degrees of coolness in my opinion. The unavailability isn’t physical. Although that’s a good beginning. It’s mostly emotional, intellectual even. When you don’t talk about them or about yourself in relation to them and their attacks – you outgrow them, you take away power from them. They become small when you focus on something else – your work for instance.

Being unavailable doesn’t mean not caring. It’s this rock- star ability to make attackers cringe by laughing at them. Which means that you care but just not enough to satisfy them – you care, but only enough to laugh at them.

Say a co-worker has an opinion about you and your competence, and has said shitty things about you to people who are directly related to your work – like students maybe, or clients, or people you are in a business partnership with – what do you do then?

Do you call them out for being unprofessional? Do you do major drama? Or do you just ignore it?

Here is a thing I wish I had done – I wish I had laughed at them. I wish my body had filled itself with an untamable Dalit energy and I’d laughed in their faces. Gogu Shyamala’s Saayamma has this energy. So does Devi’s Dopdi. 

A short-story I once wrote has a woman named Sumitra leaping wildly, beating her chest and laughing at a man she hates very much. I don’t know where the energy to write Sumitra came from. It was based on an incident narrated to me. I gave her mad things to do because by then, somewhat of a mad woman was living inside me. 

I’d like to believe that all Dalit women are naturally equipped with a capacity to laugh menacingly. How? I don’t know but they just do. Someone once said that a good, strong laugh is one that shrinks cocks down. It is true. Nothing shrivels a cock and savarna pride more than the loud and ‘vulgar’ laugh of a Dalit woman.

*******

Heee Hawww!

Before I left to Goa, I was in a bit of a lull. I couldn’t write nor read. I was exhausted by the endless inspiration consumed from watching YouTube interviews of my favourite women. I needed newer, more productive ways of stalking them. So I tweeted to Carmen Maria Machado (haw) and asked her if she’d mind answering some questions about writing. She replied immediately – said she wouldn’t mind. After I recovered from jumping up and down 400 times, I sat down and messaged all the students I know who loved her writing. They sent in questions and I put them together and mailed it over to her.

And then I was quite kicked, I wrote about Ferrante, went to Goa and felt more powerful than I have in years, got back and felt like a queen. I forgot all about the mail sometime during the trip because it suddenly hit me that she’s getting married. But then yesterday, I saw that she had replied. My day immediately took off and I haven’t stopped smiling since 🙂

This is my favourite bit from the interview:

Do you sometimes find it hard to continue after you’ve heard something unpleasant about your writing? How do you deal with it?

I used to, but I don’t anymore. Eventually you learn to let that stuff roll off you. You just have to remember that you don’t–and you can’t–write for everyone. Some people won’t like your work, and that’s fine. Write for yourself.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

On Elena Ferrante

Finally, finally, finally. Sat down and wrote about reading Elena Ferrante. This is my first piece for The Open Dosa and I’m thrilled that it’s about Ferrante. My students and I were just dying to talk about her at Meta this year. The following picture is from the day of the panel.

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For Drishti, Ila, and Vismaya. With Louu.

This is my favourite picture from Meta. These girls and I have bonded over many other things – struggling with writing, reading, life, classes, clothes, and shoes. Now that we have Ferrante in common, these peeps will always be a part of me.

Read the piece here.

Telltale Tingles

I must slow down.  I’m afraid I am running very fast. When free time rolls around, I begin to compete with the time lost in my painfully absent youth. There is an embarrassed yet unashamed burning in my chest when I see younger women going at it with all the energy in the world. I think about their slender, unripe bodies and all the time they have ahead of them. These are the women that my 16 year old self wanted to be at 20, 21, 22.

I must slow down because I’m in a hurry to get somewhere. I caught hold of Marquez after Siddalingiah. Took weeks to finish Living to Tell the Tale and never got around to writing about it. I don’t know what to say. I have exhausted my enthusiasm for the man after dragging him to all my classes and inflicting him on all my students. There’s only so much I can say about him. That I know now why I read or write – it is only because it is in these moments that I feel unapologetically alive.

For some time now I have been wondering if it’s a bad thing to show passions to other people – the joy of reading a beautiful line, the emptiness after watching a brilliant film, the glory in talking to an interesting person. Because people stop trusting us when we don’t struggle to like something. I find that as a teacher, it is far easier to confess hatred than it is to admit passions. I wonder if students are annoyed by teachers who fall in love with everything that they read. But then I have come to learn that I must not apologize for feeling alive. Atleast not publicly.

I couldn’t bear to fill the void that Marquez left, with my own sordid writing. So I ran to other books – To Alison Bechdel, to Philip Pullman and this morning I stopped with Ambai. After three short stories, I just had to stop because I had run out of places in my body to feel full. Reading Ambai makes my body swell and I become afraid of what I see when I read her. The three stories I read today were each about women and their growing passions and how they struggled and went on to keep these passions. The women in her stories are what the women in my family would have been, if only they had run after their stories.

A couple of days ago, I watched ‘The Hours’ and found it strange that in Woolf’s death, I found an excuse to remain alive. I wish I could explain what that means. Nabokov said, ‘A wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine. It is there that occurs the telltale tingle…’

I feel a tingle in the small of my neck when I read something nice, yes. And also in my stomach – where something of a warm pool begins to collect. And that’s why now I have to slow down.

About Two Serious Ladies

The first thing to strike me about Two Serious Ladies is little Miss Christina Goering’s casual way of literally immersing Mary, her sister’s friend into a stream to ‘rid her off her sins.’ “If you don’t lie down in the mud and let me pack the mud over you and then wash you in the stream, you’ll be forever condemned.” This happens after Christina’s sister has warned her to stay away from Mary.

I know a girl who I think would have done something similar in her childhood. This girl was once told by her classmates that they were not playing catch-catch with her so she had better stop chasing them. ‘We are running away from you’, they had all said.

In the beginning, we are told that, “As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her.”

Years later, while on a train, Miss Goering is told off by a conductor to stop molesting a woman who Miss Goering was only trying to chat with.

There is something cavalier about the way in which conversations begin in this book. One doesn’t really have to have familiarity or some kind of connection to begin talking to anybody. It just seems that a desire for conversation and a good drink is enough and perhaps it sometimes is. There is no prelude to most of these conversations and it is a strange learning experience for the reader.

While I struggled to adapt to the many moods of Miss Goering, actually just one mood – the mood to go elsewhere, I found myself being drawn closer and closer to Mrs. Copperfield’s interior monologues. I am inclined to believe that in these monologues, Jane Bowles allows us a certain kind of release that Miss Goering is constantly looking for but never finds.

When Pacifica teaches Mrs. Copperfield to swim, it is very early in the morning and they are in the ocean, their naked bodies now rubbing, now moving apart. Mrs. Copperfield is at this point reminded of a recurring dream. She is running towards a mannequin that is about eight feet high, made of flesh but is frighteningly lifeless. Both Mrs. Copperfield and the mannequin roll off a cliff. The mannequin protects her body from glass pieces and other objects. They roll and she thinks about Pacifica. They roll and she’s one with her.

Towards the end of the book, Miss Goering is descending a staircase after a brutish man she was supposed to spend the evening with has abandoned her. “The long staircase seemed short to her, like a dream that is remembered long after it has been dreamed. She stood on the street and waited to be overcome with joy and relief. But soon she was aware of a new sadness within herself. Hope, she felt had discarded a childish form forever.”

In both these scenes, there is a hidden tenacity for survival, for attaching meanings to events, and for happiness. At the end of the book, Mrs. Copperfield has resolved only to do the things that she wants to because she has come to discover that that’s all it takes to be happy and we know that to be happy, “is her sole object in life”

Pacifica is her inspiration to be happy and we know that when she leaves, Mrs. Copperfield is going to be broken. Mrs. Copperfield also knows this.

In a letter that Mr. Copperfield writes to her after she has decided to leave him, he says,

“Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your lifetime. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness, end up always in the same position in which you began. I believe that only those men who reach the stage where it is possible for them to combat a second tragedy within themselves, and not the first over again, are worthy of being called mature. Your first pain, you carry it with you like a lodestone in your breast because all tenderness will come from there. You must carry it with you through your whole life but you must not circle around it.”

The only response she gives to both the letter, and her husband is shaking her head three times. And then we never hear of him

The most delightful bit in the book is Mrs. Copperfield’s rescue of Mrs. Quill who is left stranded in a very expensive hotel with no money, after the man who was to pay storms out on her. Mrs. Quill is dutifully harassed by the assistant manager and Mrs. Copperfield turns up to pay the bill and to tell him off. The assistant manager is horrid to Mrs. Quill. And the narrator lets on a little more than what would have been just enough to sympathise only with Mrs. Quill.

“The most horrid thing about you is that you’re just as grouchy now that you know your bill will be paid as you were before. You were mean and worried then and you’re mean and worried now. The expression on your face hasn’t changed one bit. It’s a dangerous man who reacts more or less in the same way to good news or bad news. I came here for two reasons. The first reason, naturally, was in order to see your face when you realized that a bill which you never expected to be paid was to be paid after all. I expected to be able to watch the transition. You understand – enemy into friend-that’s always terribly exciting. That’s why in a good movie the hero often hates the heroine until the very end.”

In Bowles’ rendition of taking back honor, I saw in wild fervor, the Dhanush in VIP who renders a two minute long monologue to an upper class, entitled brat. They are both at the opposite ends of class yes, but both have been jilted by being shown what they lack and they are now taking back ground.

Jane Bowles, according to this New Yorker essay, is forgotten. There is no trace of her in her own home where she lived with her writer husband. He, of course is remembered. This is the saddest thing I learnt today.