I Love You, Samuel Johnson

In one of my journals that I wrote as a student at Jain College – I remember recording an entry about how guilty I felt one morning for having asked amma some money to pay the college fee. She directed me towards the drawer and I took 18,000 from it. I must repay her, I’d written.

I have been reading The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Through last week and this – it’s all I’ve been reading. There is a chapter on Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson and how he spent nine years writing it. The man, like so many other authors from that time, had to discontinue his studies because his parents couldn’t afford it. Just like James Augustus Murray – the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Just like Shakespeare, and just like Dickens. And just like so many other men and women who wanted to study but couldn’t.

What happens to young people with an immense appetite for learning when they are pulled away from schools? I asked in a class, earlier this week.

“They become desperate to learn”, said someone. I couldn’t have looked for a better word myself. This BBC documentary explains Johnson’s desperation to work through the hard years to produce the damn dictionary. He had Tourette syndrome and was often the butt of many jokes – some really offensive even. At one point, when the dictionary work was almost dying – he overheard his assistants ridiculing him. He didn’t say anything. He just turned around and walked away.

The next morning, he showed up for work as if nothing had happened. What else did I expect him to do? He just wanted to work.

You would not deny me a place among the most faithful votaries of idleness, if you knew how often I have recollected my engagement, and contented myself to delay the performance for some reason which I durst not examine because I knew it to be false; how often I have sitten down to write, and rejoiced at interruption; and how often I have praised the dignity of resolution, determined at night to write in the morning, and deferred it in the morning to the quiet hours of the night.
~Samuel Johnson: Idler #83 (November 17, 1759), from “Robin Spritely,” a fictional correspondent.

When the dictionary was finally ready for print, he would still not send it to the publishers because he was waiting to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University (an M.A.), which later appeared on the title page of his Dictionary.

He waited. The way only a hungry man can wait. The desperation of a man who was hellbent on making sure that his poverty didn’t cost him what was taken away from him as a young boy – the appetite to learn, to achieve.

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Image credits – Wikimedia Commons | David Levy

W.C Minor – a major collaborator of the OED, did something similar when he was holed up in an asylum. Clearly he had more comforts here- a cell turned library, a writing desk, attenders on call, food and booze. His demons were however, larger. The man had been torn apart by war which had led him to murder someone. On grounds of lunacy, he managed to escape imprisonment but in his mind, he was perpetually imprisoned – by monomania, by fear, by the want to be productive which his restlessness wouldn’t grant.

James Augustus Murray too had the same fate, perhaps worse. He left school too because there was no money. But his curiosities got the better of him and the man taught himself to apply, to develop a nose for details. What happened at this spot in this city 200 years ago? He did well without school. He became assistant headmaster at 17 and headmaster at 20.

And then tragedy struck – he fell in love.

I wish I could go back in time – partly to live history as it happened and to see the events unfold before my eyes- the wars, the black & white London, the great fire, and most importantly – writers at work. Partly also because I am curious – would I have taught myself to read and write if I couldn’t afford 18,000 for an education?

Years ago, I found a diary while cleaning the department. It belonged to AM. It had a list of books he had purchased and read as a student in his early 20s. After each book he had also recorded the amount spent on it. I felt gravely insulted by his diary. He had read about 200 books in a year. Money was tight so much of his reading happened by borrowing books.

Some say that it was easier to commit oneself to reading back then because there were no distractions. Even so. It must have taken some sort of odd courage to chop yourself off from everyone else in order to learn, to apply yourself to something – anything.

And as if silence isn’t distracting enough. Every time I crave silence, I am rewarded by it but within minutes, it has the capacity to become a punishment. Nothing in the world is as menacing as silence when you first want it, and then don’t want it.

Even so – this has been the most inspiring week. Even if I am fucking 29 Olay years old, even if I have started only now. My only comfort is that I can never be too old to feel inspired. Again and again.

Read his very stylish Letter to Lord Chesterfield here. The man knew how to laugh.

Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

Featured Image Credits – http://www.bbc.co.uk

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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.

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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.

*******

UnDoing

This semester’s biggest achievement was discovering that Ambedkar loved the violin and learnt to play it a couple of years before his death. Also that he loved gardening and woke up early in the morning so he could water plants and spend time with them.

Only he could have known why learning a new skill or just doing something one loves to do is so important. Coming as he did from a world where people thrived on keeping him away – companionship with oneself wasn’t just natural but also a rebellion.

Ambedkar became someone outside of a portrait in the stories that I rummaged through. Reading Annihilation of Caste was a revelation. A lot of the things that I simply hadn’t noticed in school assumed ugly shapes. I understand now why friendships have never come to me easily and why they never will. And this realisation has also led me to believe that I’m completely at ease being by myself most of the time, barring the occasional loud moments of loneliness.

Last year I discovered Ambedkar through Siddalingaiah, and I saw in both their stories the image of my college- going father eating lunch alone. I don’t mean to present a picture of victimhood here because this is an image that I derive a lot of strength from.

This year, I was also prompted to ask myself why I haven’t seen or read the stories of my mother and my grandmother anywhere. But I can’t complain about not having read their stories because I haven’t made the effort to write them. It falls upon me to write their stories. I saw this after reading Sujatha Gidla’s Ants among Elephants. There is a powerful, unabashed confession she makes at the beginning of her book – about how important it was for her to learn her ancestors’ stories before they died.

This is a dizzying worry for me too – that if I don’t learn and write my ancestors’ stories – the history of an entire community would be lost – or worse – botched and rewritten in some dabba textbook.

From the other authors that I discovered through Ambedkar – Gogu Shyamala, Namdeo Dhasal, Mallika Amar Shaikh, and Vaidehi – I learnt to smell forgotten bits of my childhood which, as I have come to understand is easy to recollect but hard figuring out. Sometimes my childhood is watching Mr. India again and again and sometimes it is a gnawing desperation to run after some girls from school – to become friends with them.

***

In Living to Tell the Tale – everytime Marquez mentions nostalgia– it is used with the word ‘attack’. As in – ‘One evening, my mother suffered an attack of severe nostalgia’

Like a bad fever, nostalgia must then be endured and overcome. For the Dalit community today, I am wondering if nostalgia is an attack too. One that can only be endured and never overcome because their stories must never be forgotten. They must be told and heard over and over again.

This semester was also a rude awakening to truths I’d have preferred not to have learnt. I see a pattern in both my teaching and my writing. It’s that the effort is all there but it is never complete. I leave arguments unfinished; I don’t complete a thought because it’s too much work. And this is making me very afraid.

Usually when I stumble across ugly truths about myself, I take refuge in students’ writing. Reading them always helps me in ways that reading published authors don’t.  Students’ stories are sometimes told so simply and with so much energy that they puncture my powerlessness with language.

This is important because I still haven’t outgrown my ‘cheeks like Christmas mornings’ phase. This phase is what I began writing with – imitating English writers, and borrowing their metaphors. English handicaps writers like me because it isn’t the language I grew up with but it is the language I long to perfect and dream of conquering.

It’s clear though that I can never write in English the way so many others do because my relationship with it will always be fractured.

My stories and my parents’ stories and my grandparents’ stories all happened in Konkani and Kannada. It is strange to imagine them in English and stranger still to write them in English.

How to write then? It is very annoying to surrender writing to that kind of helplessness. A writer who rescued me from this fracture is Marquez. In his world, my powerlessness became less menacing. Stories are perhaps best told in the language that they happened in. And English needn’t be the monster I make it out to be. It can be the formless amoeba to my Konkani and Kannada. And when they all meet, formless becomes form.

I am cringing as I write this because as someone wise once suggested – it’s a sin to put Marquez and Magic realism so close to each other.

But maybe a community’s story needs the playfulness of Magic Realism to tell it. My Kottuncheri story found release because of this. Earlier this year, writing in Konkani opened many doors. Maybe it’s time to return to that project.

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.

Saved by the Terminator

This is the piece I wrote for our second volume of Engster – the Department’s biannual magazine. We finish ten years of streaming this year. So this volume has a section dedicated to memories – writings from former students of SJC. It also has the prize winning entries of the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for the Personal Essay – 2016. Leave a message if you’d like to buy a copy.

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I have reason to believe that sometimes I don’t know English. This morning, I was walking across the college field and saw a group of boys playing football. I stared at them for a while and imagined myself writing about it later. But I was struggling to locate words to describe the game – shoes scuttling or moving? Band of colors or range of colors? Dust or mud? Then maybe I know some words but I can never be sure which to use where.

At this point I must interrupt to mention a friend from school who I met recently. Throughout our school life, Gaana was a champion of sorts with English – top scorer, editor of the school magazine, winner of many creative writing contests, and the English teacher’s pet. I had always been in awe of her. On the most depressing days, I’d  imitate the way she sat in class, hoping something of hers would rub off on me and then maybe I could become ‘good in English’ like her. But then she took engineering.

And so I also took PCMB and struggled through the four months that I was a science student. Coming as we did from state board, we were both unprepared for labs, formulae and other things that students from ICSE and CBSE seemed perfectly okay with. While my friend managed to scrape through, I could only scrap.

I wondered if there was anybody else in class like me who just took science because their friend had or because their parents had smilingly imposed it upon them. It was hard to tell – around me were people who were confident about what they wanted to do.

I was put in one Mr. RKJ’s physics and math class: the morning batch, of course. 4:30 in the morning to be precise. I don’t know why he did this to himself but there he was at 4:30 every morning, in the basement turned classroom of his Basavanagudi home, standing in all his balding glory. Now, even I don’t know why I did that to myself.

RKJ was a very practical looking man with serious, gold-rimmed spectacles- the kind that gave him authority when he walked into a classroom full of morning breath-students, the kind that made me wonder if his wife was unhappy to wake up that early in the morning to make chai- nashta.

His son was rumoured to be sitting in the same batch with all of us but I never saw him. Poor chap, I thought. To wake up at an ungodly hour to sit in his father’s class along with psycho intelligent students who wept if they got 98 on 100. Rascals. Here I was getting legendary marks: 3 on 60. 9 on 75.

And then it rained one morning so I bunked tuition and never went back after that. This was right after a chemistry test morning when I was at the dining table mugging equations, wondering if I could make studying interesting by seeming interested.

And I tried. For several days before and after the test, I really did. At the test, the equations played dance India dance with me and so I ran out of the hall in tears: answer paper, question paper, pencil box all abandoned.

If this has been sounding too much like Taare Zameen Par, it is not. Because the only dyslexia I had was against studying science. So I made myself and others believe that I was bad at math and science only because I was good at English. But I certainly wasn’t. I was just a lazy girl who wanted to watch films all day. But to be taken seriously, I started writing horrible war poetry out of nowhere. Then I told my friends I was working on a novel. On what? I don’t know. But the title was going to be ‘A Writer Cries’ or some such drama. And then I kept telling people that ‘Science is Passé, only so I could use passé in a sentence because I’d just learnt its meaning. Then I tried to convince my father that if I kept studying science, the machines would come alive and destroy humanity like in Terminator.

After the Terminator episode, my father banned all Sci-fi/fantasy films at home. He still makes a fuss when we watch Harry Potter because he believes that had it not been for Arnold Shivajinagar, I’d be an engineer today.

Thanks to my made up dyslexia, I switched to Arts and have never regretted my decision.

***

On the last day of my final year degree, I discovered the college library and felt a gnawing ache in my chest. For the first time in my life, I felt I had actually lost something of value in all that time I’d wasted on keeping friendships that I have today abandoned. And so I took to reading to avoid getting into the trap of friendships. I failed and today I haunt their remnants on Instagram and Twitter.

I became somewhat of a reader after I started teaching and today it is the only reminder I have of what I was able to escape, even if out of sheer laziness. Reading has brought me closer to worlds I would have otherwise never known.

One evening, I sat in the old department reading the last page of One Hundred Years of Solitude. And then suddenly, I was very aware that I was going to remember this moment for a long time. It was a book that I had first started reading in PG and then again after that when I graduated. But I finally finished it then, in the old department — three years after I had started reading it. It was raining outside and both my professors were reading too. I looked around and my mind sighed louder than it ever has.

Marquez took me to places that I found difficult to imagine but his characters did such absurd things – they ascended into heaven, died and came back alive, wrote and predicted the future in Sanskrit, and he wrote about all of them so convincingly; that he brought to my home Macondo. I read over and over again the scene where a thousand ants carry a newborn out onto the road and devour it.

Vargas Llosa reopened my childhood and all its shame with a force that I am still recovering from. I was pushed into writing many things about my grandmother and the various women in my family after I read these two men.

I found the Neapolitan series three months ago and reading it has been painfully reassuring. Elena Ferrante brought me to confront a fear that I had been dutifully running away from. When I first started writing, I wanted to write like the people who I thought wrote beautifully. Theirs was the only way to write. My fear was that if didn’t learn to write like them -like that, I could never become a good writer. And so everything I wrote disgusted me – the language was too simple, the metaphors too dull and the voice too ambitious. I grew desperate and lost whatever little relationship I had with writing.

Then Ferrante taught me a more reliable way of writing – to write honestly. She taught me to write the way I feel. It doesn’t matter if there is no rhythm, no rhyme, and no sentences that look perfectly carved but as long as there is memory, there is a story and as long as there is a story, there is the desire to do something with it. After all, what else is the point to writing?

Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri taught me to outgrow my anger when I write. And so I write now, still desperate, still lost and struggling but when I finish, I feel like I do when after a tiring day, the bed that I want to sleep in is uncomfortable but I can always rely on my tiredness to put me to sleep well.

***

Gaana says that engineering was a mistake. In the last three years, her parents have made her meet over 50 men – all professionals and experts in engineering and medical. She liked only one man out of the 50 because he asked her if she’d eaten breakfast one morning. She was so delighted, she cried.

Back in RKJ’s tuition, where I was planning to quit science, I’d once asked a classmate (forever the first rank girl), if they had Arts in Vijaya College where she studied. She looked at me in wild horror – her studious, Brahmin face scrunching up in disgust. She never talked to me after that. Years later, I was waiting for a cab near her house, and I saw her standing outside– still bespectacled and first-rank looking. She was standing with a plate and feeding her year old toddler. For a moment, we looked at each other and then we looked away.

Most of my classmates today are married and abroad. These were people who were never mean to anybody but they frightened the living daylights out of me. They made it seem like it was completely normal to believe that science was the only desirable option and so was getting married at 25.

When I look back, I can see that I started very late. I have arrived at reading and writing only now and I’m reminded of this every single day of my teaching life. I find that everywhere, there are more and more students who have finished reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy but don’t know who Rakhi Sawant is. And it doesn’t help that I know her like the back of my hand. Didn’t these people ever watch TV?

What to do? How to teach?

This was slightly embarrassing to deal with in the first year of teaching. Four years later, I have accumulated a decent degree of shamelessness to be able to revel in the knowledge I have of useless things. My first lesson therefore was to cast away shame. The second was to learn to use this shamelessness convincingly. I have started late but I know Rakhi Sawant better than they know their Russian authors. And if I can find a way to connect Chaucer’s Wife of Bathe to Rakhi Sawant, then maybe there’s still hope for me.

***

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.