On Our Feet

Yesterday was a meh day at Meta. It was meha. Only 3 participants showed up for our film review contest where the copy of the film being screened was glitching throughout. This was after the projector cable in the AV room the event was originally supposed to happen in, didn’t work –so we took the three and a half people and moved up to another room. It seemed pointless to keep lugging the light orange Meta canvas around in grim situations like these but it followed nevertheless and sat in room A314.

What do we do if more people show up to register at the AV Room?, someone ambitious asked. Let’s keep the registration desk down and keep the other pink meta canvas there only, someone more ambitious said. 

The film continued, glitchingly and I sat and ached for it from far away where other things had already started going wrong. 

Later, at the talk by Arvind Narrain, I looked around the hall, and at the faces of people who were there to listen to him, and a few others who were there to keep Meta’s face. At one point Arvind Narrain mentioned Varavara Rao’s poetry where it is observed that cynicism is rarely the sentiment held by those imprisoned. That it belonged mostly to those on the outside, the free ones. And that the only sentiment those imprisoned are able to afford is hope. 

I smiled when I heard this and longed to keep the little merry I’d begun to feel inside imprisoned.

Moments later, I was pinched back to my own dabba-self when I asked myself if we are running Meta on a bodily memory that we have begun to feel an annual urge for. And whether we are fulfilling this urge despite the changes that make it challenging to hold any kind of activities for students on campus these days. Then I thought, what makes students run meta? If I am helping run it and doing it for nostalgia, what do the five students who appear unfailingly return for? What’s in it for them? 

I’m unable to answer this question. But some form is beginning to take shape in my mind.

I am thinking now about the many times I have watched students break down at my table last week, and the many more times I have. The boy who feels alone in their classroom, the girl misunderstood by her classmates and teachers, the girl holding herself like she is drowning, the boy who is coming more and more close to quitting but holding on because quitting is expensive, the girl who keeps more things inside than she lets on.

Now I am thinking how quickly I am moved to be on my feet when they break down in front of me and I run to make chai for them. Now I am thinking about how much more quickly they are on their feet when they get up to go bring chai for us. And I think this is probably it. With chai, we reach out to them in small ways and they reach out to us in large ways and in this way, we are all sort of kind of maybe holding each other even when we can barely be on our feet.

I don’t know if there’s something in the air that is causing this weepiness, the desire to break things and watch them crumble, some post-covid offline onlineness, and the general fatigue and collective vitamin b12 deficiency we all seem to be experiencing in small or big ways but even when it comes in waves, it sometimes has the capacity to make everything feel pointless. 

Last night, as I locked up the department feeling somewhat like this, I walked past the AV room and saw the pink meta canvas all alone. It stood cutely only but it made me mad that someone had forgotten it there. I grabbed it and went back to the department muttering curses in the darkness. I wanted to half-fling it and half-disappear into it.

I went back home sullenly, appreciating only the mango melba riding in my stomach. In college this morning, still somewhat sullen, I saw the same pink meta canvas sitting cutely alone outside our quiz venue. I don’t know what it was about this cuteness or aloneness but when I imagined a student lugging it all the way from the department to the auditorium block, that same small window of merry opened again and I felt my feet.

Tomorrow, if we are lucky, we will get to watch students perform giggly english translations of regional songs at BollyGood. And then if it doesn’t rain, we will sit under the banyan tree and watch students pecking away and making cuckoo noises at JAM. Then we will have chai under the banyan tree and stand till our feet hurt, until it’s time to slowly make our way back to the department.

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.

For Square Haunting

There’s something about the way Barathi reads that makes the writers she reads feel deeply and fiercely read. I envy her capacity to slide under the skin of your words, find the heart within them and give it more life than you ever could. This is how she writes as well.

To think that even my most ordinary thoughts and sentences find a home in her body/mind is to know that when she sends them back to me, I am going to catch them and when I do, I am going to fall hard. Sample this sentence: “when a space is sought to create art, such a space too, in turn, bears the complexities embedded in the artist’s method and being. Simply put, artists often have to create the space they want to be in because such a place did not exist until then” — this is all her. And that’s why, to get to know her as a writer, a reader, a person is a gift.

Sometimes Dalit women writing makes men’s dicks fall. I’ve seen this happen. I can give you proof but I don’t want to put dicks on my blog, there are enough of them in the world. I used to think that their dicks are falling because they want us to return our SC certificates but they are falling because we are writing and we won’t stop writing no matter how much they cry.

To have on the one hand, this fear of women writing, and on the other, women who celebrate women’s writing makes me happy.

I wish I spend all of this year reading more of Barathi and people like Barathi who make it possible to imagine a world where we are read in the way we want to write.

Rachel Cusk: how to proceed?

One morning last week.

Day had barely begun and I’d already surrendered to shame remixing in my head. Tried to get rid of it and took myself out for a walk and listened to this conversation between writers Rachel Cusk and Kjersti Skomsvold. Have been drinking Cusk’s sentences because they go in that smoothly. Kjersti Skomsvold herself is another bomb writer. Sample this delicious excerpt from her book ‘Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am’

‘Live life. Seize the day. I’m standing next to my bed, but I don’t know how to seize my day. Finally I decide to do what I always do: read obituaries. But first I head for the bathroom. Epsilon is a short man, so I don’t know why the bathroom mirror is hung so high. Epsilon says he is happy with it because he just needs to see where to part his hair.’

Three bits from the interview that I wanted to bring here – there’s apparently such a thing as writing without feeling like a writer and I am very curious to know why it made me smile. Towards the end of her trilogy, Cusk thanks ‘the people who treated me like a writer until I finally became one’. And I think that’s such a lovely thing to remember at a point when you are already writing and published. Gahhhhh. Skomsvold asks her about her reading life and Cusk very simply says that she uses reading to directly help herself. It sounded so light and easy when she said it. On some mornings I really do need to challenge the uselessness of my mind with honesty like that.

  1. ‘What compromises women,’ Cusk says, ‘babies, domesticity, mediocrity – compromises writing even more.’
  2. It’s ok if I can’t write 500 words every morning. If there’s something happening in my mind, I just want to bring it out. I want to perform the writing well enough.
  3. Arriving at truths while writing are more powerful than already knowing them beforehand.

***

‘I wrote greedily and joyfully’: Natalia Ginzburg

Wrote this sometime in November last year. Wanted to release it from my drafts-section, so here it is.

The department runs a certificate course in writing called Polemics for our Pandemics, where I teach a few sessions. Today, I took Natalia Ginzburg’s ‘My Vocation’ to class. I first read this woman in 2019 and thought no one had made writing seem so doable, so touchable, so lovable. Reading her was very freeing. It’s something I don’t feel very often and I was so thrilled and terrified of what I’d read and how she’d written that I didn’t go back to her for a long time.

At Moe’s Books in San Francisco that same year, my friend Simão picked up her novel, Family Lexicon in Italian, and I, only barely recognizing her name jumped. “Ginzburg”, he said, to my sheepish ‘OMG NATALIA GINSBERG’!!!. After that, I combed through every bookstore we were taken to, hunting for an English translation but I guess I searched badly. I am sure it was there and I didn’t look properly.

What I felt that morning in 2019, when I first read My Vocation was a throbbing freedom in my chest. No one had ever written about writing like that. And I know that tomorrow I will wake up and find another woman and say the same thing about her but it’s why we read no? To find more and more women who can teach us how to be and feel alive, despite love, and life, and other things.

I was looking forward to seeing this class because I haven’t taught in so long and it’s probably why I haven’t been myself since October. I feel like myself when I teach more than when I write. We wrapped up regular classes in October and since then, it’s like my days are full of me and I don’t like her at all. Most mornings since then, I have woken up feeling nervous about not knowing which version of myself I am going to get. It’s like living with a moody, ill-tempered husband. I can tell it’s a decent morning if I am able to fight the thing that I usually tend to think of as soon as I wake up. If I can’t, then I am fucked.

Reading about Ginzburg’s belief in her vocation returns me to mine. What a solid, spectacular writer. It’s her I was going to rely on when a former student who wrote and still writes like fire on ice was going to go do law. I almost took a print-out of My Vocation and handed it to her. Later when I sent her a copy of ‘The Little Virtues’, she loved it and that made me love Ginzburg even more.

Ginzburg unknotted a nagging worry I’d fed for a long time, often feeling caught between the desire to give everything away to one essay or one story and resisting it. Shouldn’t I save a really good detail for a book? For something bigger, brighter, better?

She says:

“I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings’. If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write’, that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it. When someone writes a story he should throw the best of everything into it, the best of whatever he possesses and has seen, all the best things that he has accumulated throughout his life.”

And I’m still learning how to give my writing everything I have. It hasn’t been possible to do this in the past couple of weeks. In these covid murders that the government has determinedly orchestrated, how does one find the will to accept that at this point, we don’t know if we are waiting for things to get better or worse…worse than this?

Featured Image Credits: Southwest Review

What I learnt about Writing from Jaisingh Nageswaran’s Photographs

In December last year, I spoke to photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran about his Mullai Periyar River photo-series. It was a humbling conversation. I was joined by Kiruba Devi who brought her watery giggles. He said some things that weren’t in the published piece but I want to remember them so I am putting them here.

  1. He said that the first time he held a camera, he felt strong. Like he’d finally learnt the language and will to live.
  2. When he visited Ambedkar’s house in Bombay with some friends, he said they ‘breathed deliberately to inhale the same air as Ambedkar’
  3. He becomes a child everytime he goes to the river.
  4. After spending years taking photographs around the country, he returned home to Vadipatti in 2020 and decided never to leave. The space in his Mumbai apartment was uninspiring and he grew bored of its neat Asian Paints-coloured walls. He longed to go back to the white-washed walls of his childhood home.
  5. First in the lockdown-series of photographs is a partially open door, a sliver of light escaping as if from a projector in a cinema hall (Caption: ‘Life in the times of Corona / Day 1/21’.) Then there’s a blue plastic bag with medium-sized tomatoes hanging on a wall next to bunched up black wires. Even in the everydayness of the images he chooses to photograph, his eye picks up details that are extraordinary because they neither come with the polish of manufactured- lockdown images that were all too regular on social media in the first few months of 2020 nor are they charged with the heaviness of mainstream aesthetics.
  6. In his hands, the camera is not a tool. It’s a scribe. We sense that his camera is not only recording the pictures but is actively plunging into people’s stories and writing them. The comments on his Instagram feed are full of appreciation. And it’s not hard to miss that he doesn’t reply to the people who leave praise for his work. ‘I am still learning to get better at English. When I do, I will reply to them’. Well-wishers alert him when his Instagram stories carry misspelt English words and he immediately deletes them. Writing in Tamizh is equally challenging because of dyslexia but what’s also true is that he has often been told that his pictures are so evocative, they need neither captions nor grammar.
  7. What I see in his photographs are the presentiment of a plunge and the plunge itself. And it’s how I have come to learn a lot about writing — by simply staring at Jaisingh Nageswaran’s pictures.

Leaky selves

Happy Ambedkar Jayanthi.

Today, my mother showed me how to close the leaky tap in our new house. She said, “I’ve told this to others but I don’t think they do it. It doesn’t take very long. When you close the tap fully, it starts leaking so what you must do is hold it gently and open it just a little bit, it will stop leaking.” I went to my room nodding but vaguely feeling like she was not talking about the leaky tap.

On some days, self-respect and leaky taps are the same. My self-respect leaks because I don’t know where to stop, when to not or how to summon it when I need it most. Today is as good a day as any other to remember that writing is my way to self-respect. Whether in English, Kannada or fucking Konkani.

Yesterday, Divya and I talked about the hate that is directed at Dalit Women for being visible. There’s a certain comedy to people carrying around a scale to measure Dalitness. Basically what has been decided by new-age woke Babas is that the only marker of Dalitness is invisibility. That if you are even a little visible, alive, dancing, eating, living – dude, are you even Dalit? The tragedy is that they don’t see this as comedy.

I thought of what has changed in five years and what hasn’t. I am a little more charmed by bullies than I used to be. My hair is longer. I have a sense of what a good day is like. I smile more. I love teaching more than I did back then. I can tolerate my non-writing days somewhat restlessly but I can. I am getting worse at respecting writing deadlines. My sense of self is still dangerously tied to things it shouldn’t be tied to. I learnt to cook some small things. I learnt to care for plants. I planted avocado pits over the lockdown last year and they are growing, fuck. I still make useless chai.

I am still writing.