P for Political. A for Aadhar

I am here today to slow down, to take measure of things, to take a moment to breathe, look back and breathe some more. Nothing that has happened in the past few years is an accident. I started this blog to teach myself how to write. It might be the new-year happies but I am making a moment out of this moment because I have a lot of things to say today.

Sometime in the month of October, I wondered if my blog was developing a certain direction. It’s because I read and wrote more about caste than I have about anything else this year. A lot of my posts and essays this year were attempts at making sense of my life, work, and relationships and I could only have written them after I had seen caste. It’s not something you can unsee after seeing.

It took me a while to see caste in my life. What do I mean by that?

My parents have protected me for as long as they could. They still do. Sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I even know my caste. That’s how hard they’ve worked to ensure my safety in a world they grew up in – and know so well. I wonder then –  would I be craving to know more about my caste were I an engineer or a doctor today? I don’t know. But I’m glad I’m in a profession that demands writing and reading from me vigorously, tirelessly.

I’m glad that my job involves dialogues with students. Because it’s here in the classroom that I get to meet some fascinating, talented, and also arrogant people. And it’s also here – in this space that my parents cannot protect me.

‘Why isn’t Vj political about her identity?’ was something someone once asked.

I was amused because it is a stupid question. What did they want me to do? Wear a board that said ‘I am Dalit’ and walk around?

I was writing then just as much as I am writing now. What can be more political than writing?

Maybe they wanted me to be politically active on Facebook. So if I had shared a couple of newspaper/magazine articles on the atrocities against Dalits, that would have made me political about my identity no?

I have come to hate this word – political. At one point, I wanted to get a dog and name it poly – short for political. Because I don’t know – just.

It’s stupid, ridiculous and violent to demand someone to be political. It’s just as bad as making Aadhar mandatory or making the entire theatre stand up for the national anthem. Because all these demands come from the same place. The demand to see your response. To check. To see if you meet expected standards.

But what is the point of showing up to a protest in town hall if you are there only to mark attendance of those absent?

I have arrived at this point in my life at my own pace. That’s how it is with most people. There’s no need to be Meena Kumari if people decide to go watch Bahubali first day first show instead of attending your radical talk on ‘freedom of expression.’

Maybe there’s genuine freedom of expression happening when a bunch of 45 -year -old middle-class housewives look forward to something more important than the return of daughters, sons and husbands from office. So they wake up one morning knowing that by the end of the day, they’ll know why Katappa killed Bahubali – that is perhaps more political than finding out what great revolution is happening in the lives of a privileged few who have the freedom to go to a protest.

It took me a while to reach and read Ambedkar and understand why he is so important to me, my family, and my history. But now that I have, he is permanent in my life and that’s the best thing to have happened to me this year.

Even so — within the boundaries of a classroom, I wonder how it is for the many other Dalit teachers out there. While classrooms can be a space for growth, knowledge blah blah… they are also spaces of violence. I have heard of stories where teachers have been prejudiced against Avarna students. But what happens when a Savarna student with a certain kind of education and a certain kind of English decides that a Dalit teacher has nothing to teach him/her? How is it visible?

From my experience, it is visible in the way they patronize you, in the way they treat the assignments you give them in class, in the way they decide that they can learn more and better without you and the amount of time they spend in coaxing other students to lose respect for you.

Is there a way out of this? There is and I learnt more about it this year.

After Ambedkar, AM is the most inspiring example. There was a point when I used to call him Grammar Nazi. But then he called me Grammar Jew and I resigned. I know now why he taught himself to be perfect in the things he does, and in the things he says and writes. It’s so that no Savarna idiot can point a finger at him. When he writes, it’s impossible to not be overwhelmed by his power over language. As far as I can see – this is what pisses them (whoever) the most. That they cannot point out flaws with his argument because they can’t point out flaws in his language.

Writer Sujatha Gidla once told me – ‘English is a weapon in the hands of Indians. You can fend off casteism to a small extent by wielding it’

It’s what Ambedkar did. It’s what AM does. And it’s also what I am slowly learning to do.

***

An incredible event this year was the Dalit Women Speak Out conference. It was a turning-point of sorts because it’s the most powerful thing to have ever happened to me. It forced me out of loneliness in a world that is run by making people invisible. AM had once said – ‘If spaces matter to you, you must claim them to create them’

And that’s what we must do. In the classroom and outside. Claim spaces. Make noise. Sing songs. Dance loudly. And it’s what numerous Dalit women did that day on stage.

When I walked out of the auditorium, I was shaking. I saw Gee outside and something just went off. We both broke down and clung to each other. We didn’t have to say anything or explain anything. We just understood.

Someone creepily took off one picture and I am not complaining because this is my favourite picture of the year 🙂

 

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You can read my report here.

Here’s something that made me happy today. I must be doing a lot of things to piss people off but then I must also be doing something right. @Gobblefunkist – Thank you!

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Gratitude is a sheepish smile before you sleep

On some days, I feel grateful to be a teacher. Today was one such day. Nothing special happened. It was a regular first day – there were some promises to the self: to wake up early, do yoga, read, make chai, leave home early enough to enjoy the 8:30 am traffic, and nod at motorists. But as real life would have it, I only had time to do yoga.

From 9:00 to 11:00, I was in lab – absorbed. working. in my world. doing my thing. We talked about writing, blogging, dealing with insecurities. Two days ago, at 9:00 I would have been basking in vacation mode – thinking only about having a full breakfast. But today, just like that- I went from being a wasteful and useless member of the human species to an active member who isn’t so aware of her wastefulness.

I headed back to the department and spent the noon writing, and reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. Amazed at how she took notes of what she was reading, I did the same.

Lunch was a homely chicken saaru, rice, and Genasu -which I ate while watching Black Swan. This is my second time watching the film and I am once again grateful for passion, for women, and their stories of madness.

In my next class, we talked about our first visits to a theatre. I remembered suddenly my mother’s story of how she watched Satte Pe Satta after waiting for three months. They had to sell a lot of tea powder to make enough money – my mother and her siblings. When they had enough -they put the notes in a bundle and wound it neatly with a rubber band. They put the coins separately in a plastic bag. Preparations began a day before they were to watch the film. Clothes were picked out and put under beds to iron out creases, hair was washed, talcum powder dabba was almost empty.

I told them this in exchange for their stories. A student from Assam remembered tent films being screened for plantation workers. ‘They couldn’t find a screen so the films were projected on a white cloth,’ he said. Another student remembered paying Rs 7 to watch a film in his hometown. Someone else remembered how the names of films were announced by a cycle-wallah who carried banners and went around the town.

I returned again to the department for chai and more stories. A student’s Gokarna story, someone’s train journeys, someone else’s adventures with the camera.

At Lalbagh, where my two-wheeler stopped at the signal, I looked up and sighed at the 140 arms and fingers of big trees. The sky was plain, home was close, and I was happy for a doing a job that doesn’t bring me existential pain on Mondays.

I could have been anywhere – stuck at a desk behind a computer, doing codes – stuck at a desk behind files, under noisy ceiling fans – doing nothing. But I am here – at a desk in front of people – listening to and telling stories.

And for this – I will always be grateful.

Update – I didn’t realise this when I was writing the post but the day was indeed special. I finish five years of teaching 🙂

 

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The Day I Became a Woman

But how will I know when it’s noon?

Take this stick. When its shadow is getting shorter, it means that it is almost noon. When there is no shadow, it means the sun is fully up and you must be back home.

Via czaradox.blogspot.com

Via czaradox.blogspot.com

All three stories in The Day I Became a Woman begin in the middle. It feels like being caught in a conversation between lovers.

In the first one, little Hava cannot play with her friend Hassan anymore because, on her ninth birthday, she is believed to have become a woman. Her mother and granny fret over her for a long time before finally permitting her to play with Hassan. She is told that she must be back by noon.

They stitch a chador for her, and she runs to meet Hassan. But his mother has locked him inside the house. He is told that he cannot come out until he finishes his homework.

Hava has to scream his name many times before he comes to the window and the more he delays, the more she worries that her stick’s shadow will be gone. And then through the window, Hava and the boy hang out.

She buys sweets and puts her tiny hands through the window to give him a lollipop. Behind her, the stick is buried in a small mound of mud. She keeps looking back to check on the shadow.

***

If you don’t stop right now, I will divorce you

Ahoo is running away from everyone. She is one among the cyclists in a marathon but there is something sharp about her eyes that never lose focus as she peddles fiercely. In the beginning, we can only see her back. She is in one corner of the never-ending road. It is not too long before we see who she is running away from. Her husband chases her in his horse, galloping away. For miles along, it seems like the only people in the world are the girls, their cycles, the horse and its man.

Toka toka toka.

She knows he is here and peddles faster. Kitchi kitchi kitchi kitchi

Ahooooooooo, stop!

She barely looks at him. Sometimes she covers her face, annoyed clearly by this rude intrusion. His screams continue– I will leave you, I will divorce you.

Ahoo keeps cycling.

She doesn’t stop, she never stops – not even to acknowledge her own anger. And this is the most surprising and the least surprising thing about the film. Most surprising because – of what use is anger if you can’t show it? Especially to the person you’re angry with? But Ahoo doesn’t care about him enough to show him anything; she cares about herself which is why all that energy is going into peddling – so she can run away from him. It is least surprising because it’s what we have all heard many times over – let them do what they want – you just do your work. And in that moment Ahoo showed me how to be.

Asia Society

Via Asia Society

For many more miles, the only people in the world are Ahoo, her cycle, and her focus.

Earlier this year Faye D’Souza shut Maulana Yasoob Abbas up on her show.

“He (Maulana) hopes that he will rile me up. He hopes that I will throw a fit, and I will lose control of my panel and forget how to do my job. Let me tell you Maulana ji, I have seen the likes of you. I am not afraid of you, I am not threatened by you, I am not rattled by you. All you men think that if you rattle Sana Fatima when she is doing her job, if you rattle Sania Mirza while she is doing her job, if you rattle women when they are doing their job, then they will run back into their kitchens and leave the world for you again to conquer, I have news for you, we are not going anywhere.”

I am reminded of this when I watch Ahoo cycle as if nothing else in the world matters.

They are both vastly different moments but filled with such similar, deep urgency.

Ahoo’s husband throws a tantrum and leaves, and along with her, we sigh.

The women cycle – Ahoo is going fast and slow and fast and slow. Often, she rides slowly.

In Persian, Ahoo means Deer. And she moves like the deer when he comes. He goes and comes and when he does, he returns with more people. The only thing you need to know about the intruders is that each time they come, there are more and more men.

First the father, then – hold your breath – the mullah who is so thin and weak – he might just fall from his horse and die – and then, finally, ultimately – a troop of her brothers on their horses.

When they surround her, the camera zooms out and we never find out if they carried her home or killed her or took away her cycle. She may even have borrowed a cycle from one of the women. We’ll never know.

***

I have a feeling I’ll never remember what this ribbon is for.

Via firouzanfilms.com

Via firouzanfilms.com

In the third one – a very old woman has suddenly become very rich. She has ribbons in varied colors tied to her fingers – each ribbon reminding her of all the things she needs to buy – things that she could never buy before – a refrigerator, a bath tub, a dining table, teapot, crockery, AC, oven, gas, sofa. She finds a boy and pays him to cart her around the city. Every time she comes out of a building, a trail of carts with packaged goods follow her and so do little boys pushing these carts around.

All the goods are unpacked by the shore of a beach because she cannot remember what the last ribbon is for. She hopes that unpacking and organizing everything might remind her. The boys build the inside of a make-believe home for her as she lounges on the sofa and demands some tea.

All you need to know about the ending is that when the old woman sails off on a boat (all her things with her) – to catch a ship, so she can leave forever and find a home for herself; Hava, her mother and a couple of girls from the cycle marathon all step out of their stories to watch her leave.

***

All these stories, all these women – teaching me how to live, how to survive, how to breathe, how to ignore, and how to continue doing work as if nothing else in the world matters.

And again, I find that I’m grateful for stories like I’ve never been and always been.

***

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.

Kottuncheri

When something is lost at home, Mouma says that we can find it by praying to Goddess Kottuncheri and that when we do find it; we must please her by celebrating our joy.

Kottuncheri, like all rituals has a coconut, a vessel to keep it in, some beetle leaves, and five women. The coconut is made to fit inside the vessel, along with three adjoining beetle leaves. This is then put on a stool. The five women, of any age and size assemble around the stool. And when the eldest woman says start, they start running around the stool, like fire in the mountain, run, run, run. They run and while they run, they must chant loudly, ha – ha – ha – ha and clap their hands.

They do this for five rounds and stop. Mouma says that not all ghosts are evil and that some are even friendly and naughty, like children. These children -type ghosts like hiding objects that we are fond of. But they don’t like being laughed at and so, when we laugh loudly, it embarrasses them and they give up and return what they took from us.

I was 9 when I first saw a Kottuncheri. I didn’t mind not being part of it. I just wanted to watch these women clap their hands and say ha-ha-ha. Watching my mother do this was delightful. I’d never seen her body move around so much and she laughed so animatedly that I was sad when they stopped after the fifth round. I’d often lie and say I’ve lost my report card or my most important tie to be able to watch Kottuncheri. Mouma would sincerely conduct Kottuncheri sessions regardless of how well she knew my lies.

Mouma’s small, old body that I’m too afraid to watch even climb down the stairs hops from one side to another when she does Kottuncheri. Her shoulders sway when she jumps and claps on either side of her body.

Not all things that were lost have been found. But that’s not why they do Kottuncheri, I think. They just do it to clap their hands after a long time and laugh ha-ha-ha.

Mouma

Mouma’s neck is wrinkly like her hands. If I put my hands around her neck, and give it a good squeeze, I imagine I can feel the soft wriggly mass of bloody veins inside. When Mouma uses fair and lovely, she rubs her palms over her face and the film never leaves her. Not even in the evening when she returns home from wherever it is she goes to. She likes body massages and facials so all us sisters have painfully sat through these sessions, rubbing her face with whatever cream we could find, sometimes even using toothpaste on her cheeks, having convinced her that it’s really an imported brand.

When I was small, I’d sneak into her room to look for hidden packets of vibhooti – ones she’d hide just for me – away from mom’s reach. These packets came in varied bright colors – orange, green, blue, pink – made of cheap papery material, but all tiny and folded eloquently. Opening these packets was never fussy in the way that opening packets usually is. The thin layer of vibhooti would sit in an even, rectangular film. I wanted to ravage it and also not because it looked strangely perfect. In no less than two seconds, I’d paste my tongue on the vibhooti and hold it there for a minute. After I was sure that enough of it had been taken in, I’d roll my tongue back and wait for the burnt carbony taste to take over.

After devouring the vibhooti, I’d stand in front of the mirror to adore the white traces left behind. And then my stomach would rumble and I’d feel sick from the ash taste in my mouth.

Mouma’s room always smelled different from the rest of the house. While the rest of the house baked in the warm afternoon sun, her room was never hot.

No matter what time in the day it is, in Mangalore, all houses smell of Dalithoy. When they put ghee into the pan to make Dalithoy, the smell is the strongest in the hall and the doorway. From here it escapes to the neighbours’ house just as their Dalithoy smells come to us. Like this, we all live in one giant Dalithoy pan.

Except in mouma’s room though – where it smelled a little of marie biscuits, vibhooti and mostly other temple smells. A TV and a big tape recorder sat in two different corners of the room. She only switched the TV on in the evenings to watch her serials. And the tape recorder was only used to keep other things on top of it. I was surprised to find out much later that it actually worked.

Mouma’s tirganos (underskirts) were, like the packets of vibhooti, varied bright colors – green, red, and orange. They were all faded and that’s the only item of her clothing that I saw everywhere in her room. Even though she may have owned only three, it always seems like she had more. Her sarees, on the other hand were plenty and yet I remember only the yellow one with the red dots that she wore. This is the saree that I don’t remember being folded at all. It was worn, washed and made to fall in the heap full of freshly washed clothes, where it was picked up from and worn again as if it never left her body.

While it was being washed, she wore a blouse that was too small for her and a tirgano, like a proper Malabar woman. She kept her hair open when she was at home. And when she went out, she wore a phanthi (wig) and coiled all of it into a dignified bun. She stole lipsticks and creams from her daughters and hid all of them somewhere in her room. She stole bras from her grand-daughters that no one knows where she hides. Let alone what she does with them.

My Mouma, my heroine.

Lot’s Wife

I like watching women walk away. I realized this first when I was watching Piku. Piku and her friend, Syed are arguing and she has had enough. She holds the door open and wonders if she should sit in the car when suddenly, she announces, “You know what? I need a break” and then she just walks off. She walks off and doesn’t return to work for days after that. She cleans her home, arranges books, goes out for a party and does other things.

Season 3 Episode 8 of Gilmore girls: Lorelai, Rory and Emily all walk away. Richard has fixed an appointment with the Dean of Yale University without checking with either Lorelai or Rory. When he ambushes Rory outside the Dean’s office, Lorelai charges towards them and speaks to Rory.

When Richard interrupts, she says, “Rory – the only person I am speaking to. You don’t have to go in there if you don’t want to.” When Rory says she will go in, Lorelai walks away without saying a word. This isn’t a pissed off walking away. This is a – “I’m here for you and I won’t let them bully you so just say the word and we’ll go” – walking away.

I am always amazed when Lorelai walks away. She doesn’t want Rory to go in but she is gracious when Rory decides to. That’s the kind of walking away that comes from respecting people and their freedom. The kind that I hope I’ll be able to do one day.

Scenes later, Rory walks away from Richard and so does Emily. Except that when Emily walks away, I’m both amused and frightened. ‘Don’t you even look at me’, she says to Richard before storming off. It took me years to admit this but I never get tired of watching her on screen.

Someday I want to walk away like that. I want to walk away without wanting to look back. Often I look back because I feel like I have left something back and without it I cannot do anything. Often, it is nothing. Just my frightened self, sitting and staring at nothing.