For the 300th Blog Post

What can I say today that hasn’t already been said –

Except that I am happy 3 times,

happy happy

—-

I could say I am glad that I didn’t stop writing

Not when people laughed and cried-

Not even when they played drinking games, and made bon-fiery jokes about caste and capacity

—-

I could say that I am learning to understand the sound of words,

as they fall on my dead ears.

That I hadn’t known for a long time

that words are capable of music,

and of delicious terror.

—-

I could say that I am beginning to enjoy waking up

at 5:30 on some mornings –

When my body isn’t up yet

and my eyes are still sleeping.

But I have taught myself to be tolerant of the happiness of birds

that early in the morning.

Even though it is rude to be that happy —

that early in the morning.

—-

I could say that the first word is always a stranger,

and the last always a politician

But I’m happy 3 times.

happy happy.

That sometimes,

even if I’m Struggling Annoyed Jealous Insecure Sleepy Grumpy

I’m still Writing.


 

Featured Image Credits – knowyourmeme.com

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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!

1

 

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

Laugh like Sumitra

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

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

So what am I trying to learn from them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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.