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.

***

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Some July Things.

On some days, my life fits in very well with a 90’s Hindi pop album song. I haven’t had time to review this semester. I blinked and June and July were merged and Meta Schools began and ended. Metonym begins next week and I’m yet to blink a second time. But here are a couple of things that I am thinking about now:

  • Construction is in full force outside and I feel tired all the time that I spend outside classes.
  • I’m unable to sleep for more than 5 hours. I feel old already. And when I do sleep, I dream the strangest dreams.
  • I covered three events for The Open Dosa and have enjoyed going to events since. I love reporting — more than writing personal essays and even short stories. This is something I thought I’d never say.
  • Adichie, Ambedkar, and Anne Lamott are keeping me sane.
  • Mansplainers are on the rise and I’m glad that this online dictionary thing that my WordPress has suddenly found recognizes the word.
  • I seem to have lost the taste for chai. Is there anything worth living for now? I don’t know.
  • Teaching is becoming more and more interesting.
  • I am becoming more and more unsocial.
  • Teeth problems are serious. Don’t get a root canal unless you are in too much pain.

 

Albert Einstein

After class today, I sat and watched a documentary on Albert Einstein. To begin with, I still mumble when I pronounce his last name. I have never been much of a learner of physics matlab, I have never shown interest in understanding the workings of matter, mind or body. Whatever little I remember of the man is because of the English text book from my 9th std where we learnt about the genius and the eccentricity of Einstein. I remember the jokes he made, his smile and his hair. Basically I remember one picture. This picture:

Image Credits: googglet.com

Image Credits: googglet.com

In college last year, there was a one man play on the life and work of Albert Einstein. The stage was set with a black board, a table and a chair. I was a little curious here and enjoyed the performance a lot. Also, in many ways, the play broke down the many theories of Albert Einstein in simple English.

Ever since women beat the shit out of themselves in Olympics last year, I have grown to become very fascinated by what and how people dedicate their lives to and how they sustain this dedication through practice and discipline.

The BBC documentaries are always fun to watch. They humanize their subjects by taking us into their very lives – their rooms, work tables, documents. This makes them come alive and away from solid and unfeeling textbooks. So I watched today, an Albert Einstein poring over equations in his notebook and then another conducting his many thought experiments. For the first time, it feels like I have missed out on something valuable for not having paid attention in science classes. For two reasons:

  1. This Theory of Relativity thing is damn cool. I kept rewinding and forwarding at various points today to make sure I got it right. And at the end, even though it feels like I have learnt something, I won’t be able to explain it very well. I am still learning. But I know now that the reason Einstein is a genius is not only because he discovered/invented theories to understand the universe. But because he was able to explain these theories with working examples.
  2. What did Einstein and people like him have to work through their lifetime? He is passionately curious, is what he said. But how is one able to sustain this curiosity in the midst of all the other shit that life throws – love, money, power, jealousy, fame, career. Einstein had a lot of personal problems. He was married more than once, and these marriages were unhappy marriages, his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he was a physicist occupying a prestigious office in 1939 Germany. Clearly the world was collapsing and being born all around him. How did he work through it all?

I am fascinated by the way people remove themselves from people-emotions-feelings related problems and just set to work, like nothing else matters.

This documentary on Shakespeare reintroduced me to Shakespeare’s world and I remember reading Romeo and Juliet and The Merry Wives of Windsor and wondering why I ever thought he was unreadable.

Good, good Friday today!

Out of Body

Today I noticed that I have been forgetting to hang my keys on the key stand. Last morning, I panicked. I was getting ready for college when I realized that my keys weren’t on their usual hook. I retraced my steps, double checked my bag and ran around the house like a mad woman. Ma then told me that the keys were on the table in her room. I was baffled.

Things like this never happen to me. I am cursing myself even as I type this, I am muttering many touch-wood kind of things under my breath, but I really never lose things – keys, mobile, wallet. Never. Ever. Even if I lose them for maybe a minute or two, I always find them. There. I have said it. I know now that tomorrow morning when I wake up, my world would have turned upside down. I will find myself key-less, wallet-less and mobile-less.

In the department today, I read after a long time. I read a story about a Bengali woman who was consumed by the desire to write every day. Her husband hated it — he hid everything she wrote. But she’d write the same story over and over again. The story about a blind girl who could tell you the names of colors by just touching them.

She sat with a pen and a new sheet of paper every evening and wrote. She challenged her husband to a bet. He said she wasn’t talented enough to get published. Later he hid in his drawer, the letters that various editors wrote to his wife, telling her to send more stories.

In stories, either as writers or as characters, women are mad in a way that they cannot be in real life. I will disagree with this in the morning but this needs to be said.

When she writes every day, a little bit of her husband dies, until he cannot take it anymore and runs away. When I read this, I feel full and begin to smile endlessly.

I was just going to leave the department when it started to rain. So I sat and looked around. When I sit and look around, especially in the department, I have an out of body experience. I begin to think about all the things that have happened ever since we moved here. Things that happened last year and the year before that.

Outside, the construction workers were on full swing. There was drilling and what not. I sat on the steps and waited for the rain to stop. Every time the drone of machines paused for a minute, I thought the rain had gone and stood up to leave.

When I finally left, I thought about all the ways in which the place would be different tomorrow. Tomorrow of the bright day time. Of the endless work and its slicing hurry.

 

Riding

When I’m riding to college, my posture changes 3 times. When I take the ‘sudden’ left immediately after home, my back is straight with caution, my arms relaxed on the handles, and my demeanour polite and undemanding, unlike my mother who watches me from the balcony every morning.

A little ahead and my body picks up speed and hurries past ambling cows who are immune to life and noise outside their bodies and ignore me to focus on the more important things in life- flies.

My body is at its rigid best when we pass by the loud and bellowing temple and its irritating, loyal devotees seated in their vehicles, their palms joined together outside the window. Arms that I’d like my super fast activa to chop in half. These are the only people I honk at mercilessly. I don’t like this excuse they have awarded themselves – that they shan’t be disturbed when they are praying to god in the middle of the road regardless of how many vehicles line up behind.

Near Jain College and its acutely chatty pupils, my grip on the accelerator thickens. They stand in the middle of the road to hi-five, to chat, to greet each other. They should be wiped off the earth.  When I begin honking, girls jump back in fright and roll their eyes, boys point their elongated arms at me in disgust while I flutter off happily.

***

At signals, my body is light and I try to balance the vehicle’s weight, alternating from one foot to the other. My eyes fall on fellow riders, wondering where they’re headed, where they’ve come from, whether they’ve bathed?

Now and then, my face becomes rounder and falls when it sees men who ogle from inside their vehicles. It falls, and then it stares back at them, gaze fixed, challenge accepted. Let’s see who withdraws first. Sometimes they withdraw first and when they don’t, and if I find the courage that morning, I flash my middle finger at them before scuttling off. This is the advantage of a two-wheeler. One cannot scuttle off in a car.

When I cross a busy road, my body is hesitant but my palms are stubborn. They have a tighter grip on the bike than I have on my life and in seconds, without so much as a passing register to the honking truck nearby, I speed to the other side.

***

On route to getting some alone time, my body is warm and I am happy. I smile at trees and the skyline; I appreciate the color in the evening, humming old and forgotten Bollywood songs and tunes of languages that I don’t know. When I am headed to G’s, I’m secretly a little anxious. The writing may or may not happen but there’s always plenty of hot chocolate to fall back on. And it’s always a nice thing to know that there are several plug points at G’s even though I may not need one.

Riding to K is mostly a set of decisions. Is it a rum kind of evening or a ginger chai kind? Cops never make it to this list. (Never been caught *fingers crossed*) Is it August already? Are my Mango Melbas gone? Mixed fried rice or pork noodles? When I’m picky, I flirt with other options but the heart wants what it wants and what it wants every night is mixed fried rice without liver. Because Anand approves.

***

Homewards, I’m goose bumping all over because the night is always chilly and mother is not sleeping until I get home.  When I first stole this bike from my brother, he’d park it inside for me every night. And then one day, just like that he refused. I learnt how to park decently but I don’t feel satisfied until I bang the bike’s bum to the noisy gate at least once before retiring.

In Arts & Culture Class One Saturday Morning

In Arts & Culture last Saturday, I tried something I haven’t had the courage to try as a teacher all these years. I let students run the class.

We had just finished watching Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. While some of them were taken by surprise, some others were purely disgusted by him. One found his accent revolting, another found his energy irritating. What made the discussion livelier was that people were willing to admit these things and just as willing to listen to me when I admitted to liking the man. There was conversation after that about real and unreal in the world of cinema. We decided to take home our conversation and ponder over it.

In class the next day, D who was made to talk about his interest in films, set a mad story-telling vibe which later, the rest of the class followed. His stories were crazy. I would’ve never guessed how much of a fillum-crazy streak the boy had. From watching films in secret, to egging on friends to bunk class and go with him to watch movies and then getting caught – he’s done it all. We were thrilled to hear him narrate his escapades into the normal world – one we all thought was forbidden to him.

L told us that her destiny was to be a nun apparently. She was sent for training but she kept stuffing her face with food and this made her very unpopular with all the other nuns. When she went home for vacation, she decided never to go back because she liked to eat more than she wanted to become a nun.

Sometimes, I wasn’t able to decide who was more crazy – they or their families.

Like V for instance, whose dad took her to watch The Lion King when she was 4. He waited for the scene where Mufasa picks up Simba in his arms and shows him to the world. And then when the scene came, he took her in his arms and showed her around to all the people in the theatre.

A confessed deep and pure love for Dhanush because he looks just like her boyfriend. L went a step ahead and declared that Dhanush is the realest man because in her life so far, she has never met anybody who looks like Hrithik Roshan or Surya or Vijay but she has seen many a Dhanush. If it weren’t for the fact that I was holding my stomach and howling with laughter, I would’ve hugged her at this point.

S.M, who looked like I’d asked her to give me her kidney when I told her to take off her bag, said that she believes that the Bermuda triangle is a getaway to other worlds and we all agreed. She is also very attached to her bag. Maybe she sleeps with that thing around her neck.

K confessed to crying twice in his life. Once when his school made them all watch Taare Zameen Par and all the boys sniffed through the second-half of the movie and refused to show each other that they were crying. Another time was when the Late Paul Walker was paid tribute to in that recent Fast and Furious movie. L cracked up at this. She burst out laughing, her face turning shades of red, eyes all watery, saying over and over again, ‘you cried for fast and furious’

A.N said that S.S has ruined movies for her because he’s so much into film making, he’s always telling her to pay attention to the camera angle and such. S.S said he hates it when people aren’t paying attention to the movie and keep shifting around or checking their phones. Like me, even S.S believed for a long time that the hero and the heroine of any movie are married to each other and it freaked him out when he saw the same hero romance other heroines in other films.

They all told us something that none of us knew about them. From stories that surprised us to stories that made us see them differently to stories that had us giggling and howling. Enjoying films appeared to be the common most thing in all our lives. I’m beginning to think that we aren’t all that different from each other. And I am taking an odd comfort in knowing this. I’m happy 🙂

Teaching and Learning

In my first month as a teacher, I believed I was good. No matter how badly classes went or how unprepared I was or how smart the students were, I believed I was good. It is my fourth year now and I believe I’m not so good. I may have improved but the threshold for anxiety, for taking offence is smaller than it was when I started.

There are good days and then there are bad days and this has nothing to do with how prepared or not I am. If a student has decided to disrupt class one day, it will happen. Sure, it’s up to me to decide if I’m going to let it affect the class but there’s only little resistance that I can put up. Beyond a point, I want that disruption too, I am curious to see what happens.

I am 24. I walk into a class on the second floor in H Block. This is a class I have been warned about. It’s a second year B.A class. There’s noise before and after I enter. We settle down but it’s not easy. The air is thick with leftovers of conversations that subside only to come back stronger and more forceful than before. I am nervous, I scream an expletive. They giggle. I lose it.

That is one kind of helplessness.

I am 25. I walk into a class that I have been warned about. Again. This is a classroom in the science block — more reason to feel nervous. We begin. They have all their computer science lab records stretched out in front of them. I remember what M has told me about not giving them the satisfaction of watching me get irked. Calmly, I tell them to stop writing in their lab records. They shuffle in their seats but in seconds, they go back to doing what they were doing. I still have patience but their disregard for what I’ve said makes me feel like I have the right to be angry and so, with gritted teeth I practice a deluded voice. ‘Keep the books away’

They are scared. But not all of them. Some of them are caught between the desire to join the few who are aggressively resisting and the few others who are giggling. I stand quiet and hold in what I’m feeling. What I’m feeling is total confusion.

When the bell rings, I storm out of the class preparing to ignore anybody who follows me out to apologize. Nobody comes. I wait weeks together for the apology to come. It never does.

That is one kind of waiting.

I am 27. I’m standing before a class that I’ve been told is special. And for some time, they really are. I have started to read and write with them. I am learning with them and a teacher never forgets something like that. It’s the first batch – one of its kind – filled with talented yet shy students, quiet and watchful ones, passive and aggressive ones.

Things used to be great. I looked forward to all my classes with them with a mad enthusiasm. I’d decide on the text and discussion with an energy that was new and encouraging. We’d talk endlessly. People who were usually quiet ventured to answer questions. I was thrilled. But something happened months later. They outgrew me and I didn’t.

I was standing before them after things had turned bitter and then turned very bad. And now it was frozen in a moment that I couldn’t touch. People on the outside had messed with this class. Things were said, jokes were made, and then just their remnants remained like echoes. It will be months before I find out exactly what happened. But then, there, in that moment, I have no idea.

I am doing Synecdoche and Metonymy. The concepts have confused me just as much as they have confused them. But I am trying. I get lost often and every time I try to recover, I get the feeling that it’s not going to go well. More jokes will be made, more accusations, more justifications, and more indifference. My head is throbbing with a desire to open the can of worms and let it all out. To sit with them, look them in the eye and ask them what went wrong. I am almost going to do that when I realize the pointlessness of it all.

Instead, I focus on the students who are making attempts to understand what I’m saying. I am back. I realize I must try harder. I tell myself that I will make sure they understand the concepts. I look at Maria who is looking at me with renewed interest. She tells me that she finds the topic fascinating. A boy sitting in the back wants to know if AM is in the department. The class shakes with a tension that has been waiting to erupt. They all laugh. I laugh with them. AM can explain Synecdoche better, I say. I don’t know if the boy’s comment was intentional or accidental. I decide not to answer that question. I let it go.

I start reading out a long story I’d found – it was a parody on the examples of Synecdoche and Metonymy. When I finish, the air is thin with something that I can’t put my finger on. It is a lot scarier than confusion. I sense disinterest, I sense irritation, and I sense a very big question mark – not just regarding Synecdoche and Metonymy but also my abilities as a teacher. This is amplified when the boy on my right rolls his eyes and puts his head down in a manner of giving up. His shoulders are bent with rehearsed indifference. Everything that he does, I take in. I want to remember.

Later I will discover that an outsider but no stranger to teaching has tampered with what I had with these students, what I could have had. They sat together, these people, to assess my qualification. The joke that they made, went something like this –

How many Vjs does it take to make a life? None. Because she is busy polishing shoes.

When I first hear this, I am reminded of the things my father had told me about being careful at the workplace and to keep him informed if anything went wrong. I ignored him. I thought he was being unnecessarily protective of me. Perhaps he’d always known that caste may not always follow me but other people will always follow caste.

I am reminded of my father’s disappointment when I chose not to do IAS. He was persuasive about IAS in a way that he has never been persuasive about anything else — even marriage. I think he’d figured out that to be able to survive as a Dalit woman in this country, his daughter is going to need something as powerful as IAS to shut people up.

I don’t know what to make of the joke. What is so funny or humiliating about polishing shoes, I will never know. My ancestors probably polished their ancestor’s shoes. Are they suggesting that I quit teaching and do something else that suits my caste? Like polish shoes?

Thankfully, when I find out about the joke, I am not teaching them anymore. Classes are done with. But I see them very often in corridors, in the canteen and in the department. I don’t know what to feel. I am angry but I am sadder. I start thinking about all my classes with them. I might have taught them the next morning after the joke was made. I wonder if they giggled when they saw my face that morning. Did they snigger as I continued teaching? I might have made a thousand pronunciation errors. I spend hours going over every detail – every single thing I did in their class that they might have made fun of.

I feel unqualified and want to quit. I am unable to write because I have started to doubt everything. I start depending exclusively on other people to tell me that I am good, that I can do this. I feel hopeful when I find that there are many people who have faith in me.

Months later, I’m sitting with two of the unhappiest women I’ve ever known. Since the day I got stuck with them, I’ve been trying to unstick. They are explaining why students hate me. Everything in their part of the world is understood by connections, contacts. Who hangs out with whom? Where? Are they cool enough? How to make connections? It’s too much like the world my father has always been cautious of. Contact making and keeping is another way of showing/hiding caste. And here with them, everything they say is drenched with caste. They don’t see this although they’d be quick to see it in others. This isn’t the first time they have thrown around big words. Access, favours, talent, qualification, social-climbing, power.

Upper caste women.

They are gone. I’m nigh on 28 now. I feel lighter, cooler and a lot more independent. When I turn into a corridor full of new students, I smile. They smile back. Their faces are innocent. They lack history in their demeanor and this is liberating. They are not shadowed by my past and that thought makes me appreciate what I have.

I enjoy teaching more than I did when I was 24, 25, 26 and 27. I find that the more I write, the more interesting teaching becomes. I also find that all that happened last year had to happen so I could feel a lot more forceful about my freedom. Friendships that began for disgusting, ambitious reasons had to end hatefully so that I could learn to value the many undemanding friendships I have come to acquire.

My relationship with students – even those I’ve had memorable conversations with, had to change so I could learn how to continue teaching despite the visible hatred. I’m a teacher. For every one and a half student who likes me, there will be a dozen who don’t. For what it’s worth, regardless of what happens later, I always have a nice time talking to students. And that probably shouldn’t change because that’s what teaching has come to mean. Conversations. In this profession, it’s the only pleasure that can be kept alive and away from people with all kinds of ugly designs.