- Loving this SRK reel where he talks about Saroj Khan whacking his head for complaining that there was too much work. She told him that as an artist he shouldn’t complain when there is work because not having work is a bigger and more real problem.
- The ability to breathe well is everything.
- Silence is a reasonable response to women who perform male supremacy. Pointing it out is exhausting.
- For my sister’s wedding, I wore a red chikankari kurta, the grandest set I own. Guests kept asking me when I was going to get ready.
- I want to watch Farzi everyday.
- Law is sexy. Reading it as literature is sexier.
- I vaguely wondered if I would be taken seriously if I combed my hair more often. Then I told myself to fuck off so I stopped wondering.
- Wondering is a reliable word.
- Thinking about long and lazy lunches with women I adore makes me less bitter.
- Poetry has all the answers.
- This kept me up last night:
“I have come to realize that excellence is achieved through devotion. My devotion does not mean retiring to a forest & meditating there. My idea of devotion implies extreme power of enduring suffering, and extreme power of working” – Dr. B.R Ambedkar
It’s somewhat of a relief that you aren’t around to see what these people would have done with this quote. They would have called your work ethic toxic and you, elite Dalit. There’s no limit to how many words we can use everyday. Not that that would have made us more careful. But a girl can hope no? It is rare to find people who have discipline with words and work, like you did.
Tomorrow is independence day it seems. I have a few wishes – I want to learn how to work, like you did. I want to learn how not to tolerate fools, like you did. I want to sustain a discipline with words, work, people, and myself, like you did. Please teach me how.
Love & hugses
Postcard from today II
Woke up late and groggy. Last night’s short story energy was a ball of memory already. 2 hrs of invigilation duty. Spent the day running around and feeling better about no yoga. Spoke to a student today who asked me what it meant when I say in class ‘250 words’ — what is words? how does one calculate it? Was pinched back to the time not so long ago when I too didn’t know how to quantify words, letters, and alphabets. I am thinking of how much of what I do everyday is on auto-pilot, especially teaching, and how unaware I am of this. Write 250 words, 500 words, 1000 words is something I say everyday and yet I am also the same person who, once upon a time, couldn’t tell if jack opens a box of potatoes had 6 words in it or 23. How and why do we forget ourselves so easily?
When I’d joined the department 10 years ago, I’d asked A.M when I will begin to feel like a teacher. He told me I will feel like a teacher the day a student will tear my ass.
Today, after a long time, I felt it tear.
Student said he wanted to join the army, and spends 4 hours a day working out before beginning his job as a Swiggy Delivery Executive between 10 and 12 in the night.
I thought how immune our jobs sometimes make us to the very people we are in the job for. Ate grumpily at my desk later and wasn’t able to write.
Two mofo deadlines hang over my head as I type this.
P.S: Autopilot riding is ok, autopilot living too, why can’t autopilot writing happen?
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.
In the coming month, our classrooms are going to change. So will our department. As always, the people desperate for these changes are neither students nor teachers. They are idiots drunk on power and god knows what else.
Sometimes when we sit in the department drinking chai, I get nervous because Arul sir won’t sit still. Let’s do Metonym, let’s do colloquium, let’s do screening, let’s do causerie. I always think where this man gets his energy from. It’s from chai, yes. But also from an intense desire to build a space for students that others are constantly trying to take away.
What he gives us is also a way of reimagining students as people beyond register numbers and DPs on MS Teams. Very few people take youngsters seriously these days. And most others like to believe that the only way in which youngsters can be taken seriously is if they do political things. As if that’s all young people are good for- and if they aren’t, a couple of heavy-metal english words are thrown at them to make them feel like crap.
In the last two weeks, I’ve seen young women show up for each other, be cheerleaders without pompoms, giggle and laugh together, be curious about each other, and hold each other in a way that only people who’ve never been held can. It always tickles me to watch two girls become friends. I watch them like a cat and smile and think, ah, this is why I became a teacher – to watch female friendships for free.
When those high on power like to stand in a line and throw cow dung on others who are on their way to work, the only way to defeat them is by playing everyday. It’s what my work allows me to do. It allows me to play with students which is all kinds of amusing because I didn’t play this much even when I was a child.
Despite what’s coming, I’ve gone to bed every night these last two weeks feeling great intrigue, envy, surprise, and above all, extreme fidaness for students.
So my dear Ashwath Narayana, what I want to say is, if you take our classrooms away, we will go outside and play.
It’s exhausting to occupy two worlds when you know that really, you belong to only one because that’s where you want to be. Home is home only when I don’t have to deal with the fatherliness of boundaries, the anti-elixir of freedom. I wonder now what happens to the body in this fight between the life you want to live and the one you can’t escape.
A week ago I saw that in my mind I live a completely different life from one that is expected out of my body and me at home. Coming back home from work before the pandemic only held the promise of sleep and early morning solitude. It didn’t need me to change who I was before stepping into the house because everyone would already be asleep, except mother whose anger simmered on her eyelids in a half dream-half awake state.
That I had a place to be in every morning for nine years, that I didn’t have to wear another face for work, another for home offered me a kind of freedom I haven’t appreciated enough. It is irritating to write this with what I assume is a cheap xerox copy of freedom, knowing that outside this room, there are people with the original, people who see a completely different life for me, and seem awfully confident that it’s all going to happen, despite me.
I feel like a fraud sometimes, talking and dreaming of freedom with passion and fury – never intense enough to go get it. Sometimes I am able to persuade myself into believing that parental expectation is not free of caste, so I shouldn’t wallow in a helplessness that wasn’t designed by me. Despite that and despite years of knowing and unknowing caste, I continue to be bothered by how unsettling it is to confront that there’s still something I don’t have and will never have. Every day I wonder what it would be like to be the student whose ambitions burn my insides with a fever, to be in homes where marriage is barely mentioned, and dinner is always a table full of charts and maps- making plans to go here, go there for studies, and mornings aren’t battlefields for last night’s unspoken demands.
Stepping outside my room after class last week, I overheard someone say on the phone that getting daughters educated is a mistake, that they shouldn’t be sent to schools because they grow up wanting to do PhD, not wanting to be married. I walked straight back into my room, my legs burning with the desire to run, hands wishing they were now holding the key to the department door while my bedroom door swelled with rage and slammed hard on the other world, the bolt clicking it shut.
Today, I am just grateful for doors. They not only open other worlds for you, they also close.
Not going to stop
The distress about Dalits being able to access reservation and social capital is somewhat similar in that it upholds the argument that Dalits have unfairly and insincerely used something in their favour to promote themselves. You are saying that their achievements (however little or nonexistent) are always the result of somebody else’s hard work, friendship, and favour; that they have had to do no work to access the privileges they appear to be enjoying; that their work had nothing to do with their “capital” – social or otherwise. The erasure of work and merit from a Dalit person’s journey is violent.
Detour: While I still haven’t learnt how to take a moment to pause when my work is attacked, I am only now coming to the idea that I need to recognize it for what it truly is – a distraction. Meaning, it doesn’t merit more than one nod, two sighs, three teas and then – back to work.
But I feel compelled to protect my work because I don’t know who else is going to do it for me. I don’t see why people should take the effort to slip out of their day into mine only to vent bitterness. What instinct can cause people to lose themselves so uncontrollably to hate? And why am I expected to rise above and not make it about myself when my work is being questioned? I’m sure people will stop saying ‘You are not your work’ if they had any idea about how caste functions.
I spent the last three days responding to hate with anger. I was distracted. I couldn’t read or write without looking back, without feeling that someone was attacking something valuable and that I had to be there to protect it, not here – reading. I longed to go back to the week before where I’d settled into a routine of reading, listening to podcasts, and watering plants. Thankfully, after days of restlessness and the inability to read, I arrived at Toni Morrison’s words and now feel purged.
Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
I’m partly charmed by how easily this is also about caste. An attack on your work is a summon. It keeps you from working. That is its purpose – to stop you from doing what you really want to do. That is also the function of caste. It demands your full attention. It’s a trap. The more distracted you are, the longer they can keep you from working. Reading these words was like rubbing salt into the wounds of time wasted.
In an interview about writing Beloved, Toni Morrison was asked if she became as angry writing it as the reader was when they were reading it. “Is it possible for you to have written Beloved dispassionately?”
She says – “I couldn’t write it in anger. It is a paralyzing emotion. You can’t get anything done. People sort of think it’s an interesting, passionate, igniting feeling. I don’t think it’s any of that. It’s helpless. It is absence of control. And I need all of my skills, all of the control, all of my powers, and clarity in order to write. Anger doesn’t provide any of that. I have no use for it whatsoever. I could be melancholy and I could be full of regret. But anger is useful to the people who watch it. It’s not useful to me”
When the interviewer misinterprets it to mean aloofness, she is quick yet patient to correct him – “Not aloofness. I am not aloof and unfeeling. I am an artist. It’s about putting those things in a different cauldron. My compassion could be just as harmful, my love, my fervor too. But to write a book, I must be penetrating and roving. After all, art is but the restoration of order”
I feel saved by these words today and I wish I remember to be saved by them every other day.
In memory of those who stood for a long time holding cow dung in their hands, and those who earnestly and diligently continue to do so – I am celebrating my blog. It is my version of the ‘extra saree’. This is my capital. I learnt how to write here. Keep throwing. I’ll keep writing. Not going to stop even if you stop throwing ❤️
It might also do me some good to remember that summer of 2018 when I was reading whatever I could find by Elif Batuman, and bothering those around me with questions on freedom, work, & love. Something about how women manage to find & keep joy in life.
A writer I really admire had told me this:
“I never ever feel the whole world is attacking me. I have no engagement with the whole world. I am very very interested in the opinions and judgements of a small group of people and even there much much much less than I did in my 20s. I don’t believe the whole world is interested in me either”
I was reminded of this today and want to print it out and keep it on me at all times. It makes me zoom out of myself for a bit and look at everything from a distance, always a relief since it’s so difficult to zoom out when anger takes over.
You can listen to Morrison’s interview here.