Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Stories of Grassroots Education in India

In a desperate attempt to keep all my writing in one place (ish, kind of), here is something that came out today. I like to think of it as a consolidation of all the thinking and talking in very many classrooms these past few years. In other words, here is a long-ish piece on what the classrooms can teach you even if you are not the student.

Thank you, Off Campus Class, for the space and the prodding. :)

https://offcampusclass.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/stories-of-grassroots-education-in-india/

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Travels. Travelled. Travelling.

They say memory wilts around the edges with time.

March 2011. He wore a khaki blazer and faded blue jeans, the quintessential wardrobe of a seasoned traveller. I don’t remember what I wore, probably my Superman t-shirt, slightly dulled with age, the blues and reds not as bright as they once used to be. His bald-by-choice head glistened in the mid-morning sun (mere creative license for airport tubelights) and his eyes were kind. He asked if I needed help and gently pointed me in the direction of the right gate. I was at Rome International Airport, and the air tasted of steely, sterilised air-conditioning.

May 2012. I see her in a white tunic, I am not sure why. I see all of them in white, almost like the children from The Sound of Music leaning against the bed, and that just cannot be right. The room had dull, moss green walls, and the wallpaper was a floral print. The roof sloped down above us, outlining the shape of a once-Russian-spa-turned-convention-centre in the middle of the hills. She told us about ‘bride-stealing,’ a practice in the awkward limbo between tradition and discomfort. Her audience spanned a colour spectrum, from the creaminess of the Philippines to the earthiness of Egypt and India, all the way through the chocolatey textures of Liberia. I was in Bavaria, and the air tasted of embraced diversity and the chilly nip of a late spring.

May 2013. He had blue eyes and brown hair speckled with the dust and dryness of the mountains. I feel like he was dressed in a black-turned-grey t-shirt but it could barely be seen under the sand-coloured sweater punctuated by stray thread, unravelling with experience and age. He seemed perpetually bewildered, trying to make sense of this phenomenon before him, a single girl travelling thousands of kilometres from home. Yet even the confusion couldn’t dull the instinctive hospitality and the well-intentioned attention. You must come to Kashmir, he told me. That is where the real beauty is, of lakes and carpets and shawls. I was in Ladakh, and the air tasted of strangeness and unusual amounts of salted chai.

July 2014. Her starched cotton sari was adamant in its solidity. It just would not move. I see it in pastels, either a pale blue or a soft green, maybe with a hint of pink. She stood by the door of a crumbling classroom that posed a picture of contradiction. Strewn about the cracked tiles and hung atop the peeling walls were ‘learning resources’ from a different era, a newer time, and there she stood representing all that was the Indian Classroom. She told us about her experience, a career that had spanned longer than my life at the time, and we pretended to live up to our image of authority, our conversation punctuated by the occasional cry for attention from the toddlers who made up our audience. I was in rural Tamil Nadu, and the air tasted of adjustment, experience, and the government Mid-Day Meal.

June 2015. She wore an apron, the kind that belongs in a cafeteria, and stood behind the billing counter. The name tag on her chest has pixelated in my mind. Was it a Violet? Or a Viola? Or perhaps there was no V at all. The boy ahead of me in line swiped his student card and traipsed out with a couple of bananas and what looked like noodle soup. I handed over a lemon poppyseed muffin. She paused the checkout to look me up and down. Is this your lunch, girl? I muttered an apologetic acceptance, my mind already back in my cabin and the afternoon’s tasklist. For Viola, for that is what we shall call her, there were other more important things. She told me I ought to eat more, take care of myself more, not neglect my health so far from home. She reminded me of my grandmother, many miles away. I was in small town Canada, and the air tasted of random acts of kindness and French Vanilla.

September 2016. The car was maroon, an Alto I think, and the man wore a blue t-shirt. We flagged him down to ask for directions, and he offered us a ride. Six of us tumbled into his car, a confusing knot of limbs and voices as we tripped over our sentences to introduce ourselves. You have the entire country in your car, we told him, almost a little pompous of this bubble of diversity. We asked to go to the taxi stand, he took us to town. We asked if there was an ATM, he made calls to local bank officials. We asked him if he was from the village, he told us its history. I was in rural Arunachal Pradesh, and the air tasted of the mustiness of showers not had and whiskey offered straight from the bottle.

They say memory fades over time.

-

Travelling is a shape-shifter. Commuting is a clean box; the expected scanning of airport displays and the impatient tapping in security lines. It is the feigned nonchalance that rattles off the next month’s itinerary, the glazed nothing-surprises-me-anymore look as cities blend into one another.  Family vacations are a knotted tangle. It is the carefully orchestrated dance of I-love-spending-time-together against the rhythm of give-me-my-own-space. It is a choreographed coexistence slightly rusty yet oiled by the emotional guilt that accompanies avoidance. It is a rigmarole of commitment, expectation, and obligation. But true pleasure? True pleasure lies in the solo. Real excitement is built in the evolution from grey, many-times-mended, inappropriately unwieldy suitcases to the just-as-grey but comfortably old, super-convenient rucksacks. It is hidden in the growth from packing a grossly unsuitable and overly large wardrobe to chuckling at anything more than two pairs of jeans and un-wrinkle-able t-shirts in dark colours that don’t show dirt. It lies in the quiet moments, atop side upper berths on the Indian Railways when I look around me and no one looks back, when I am a Nobody and I couldn’t be happier. Travelling is a shape-shifter, but the traveller, it would seem, is shapeless.

But don’t for a minute think shapelessness is easy. It is complex, complicated, sometimes confusing. Time and space, those deep philosophical categories that pose such layered challenges to the academic, become disposable on the road. When you wake to the sun and eat when you are hungry, when you walk a path just simply because it appeared before you or choose a destination only because it is so far away, what is space and time but mere romanticised words to throw out in travelogues and personal essays? Yet even amidst this romanticism, this willingness to move past categories and boundaries, there is the lurking need to acknowledge the very same containers we are so quick to dismiss. I wake to the sun and eat when I am hungry, yet I do not lurk after dark or take a midnight stroll. I choose a path because it appeared and set out to a destination far away, yet I look behind my shoulder to make sure no one else made the same decisions. I tell the world I will be unavailable, that the only-too-familiar speech bubble notification will not reach me, that I will not be refreshing my Gmail page. Then I call my emergency numbers and tell them I will be unavailable except if… There is always an ‘except’, a ‘Conditions Apply’ clause to my disappearing act, an asterisk to this suspension of time and space.

-

Of all my travelling memories, my worst is always walking out; of airports, railway stations, even just hotel rooms, towards someone waiting some feet away. Walking in smells of expectation and adventure mixed with the artificial steeliness of air-conditioning. Staying in feels like long waits and carpeted floors, each one taken refuge in till the automated voice announces final boarding calls. But walking out? Walking out has an awkward stance, an uncomfortable glance to it. It feels self-conscious, acutely observed. Walking out reeks of a person on the other end, standing, while you shuffle out of the automatic doors, trolley first, towards them. They wait, you feel weird. You shuffle. Even today, I breathe a sigh of relief when, in the odd chance that someone picks me up, they call to say they are late. Even today, I avert my gaze, pretending not to see them as they walk towards me to save them the awkwardness, the acute observation.

Walking in smells of happenings. Waiting smells of happenings. Walking out? It stinks of finality.

-

Travels, that quintessential Indian English word, denotes transportation; late night buses with reclining seats, and if you are lucky, an old 1990s movie. Travelling is an exercise in grammar, present continuous suggesting movement, a line segment that stretches between the start and the end. To me, though, the true form lies elsewhere. Travelled, in past, hinting at a certain finitude, a completion. When you travel, you always end. When you start, you always stop.

Yet every time I travelled, it is hardly a straight line. There is neither a home nor a destination. Instead it is a snaking path through foreign geographies and unchartered conversations, exploring personal boundaries and shared memory.

hitchhiking in a lorry
in Ladakh
drinking in bamboo
glasses
in Arunachal
moving
closerto (elusive)
fluency in Tamizh
                hoarding
                collecting
                storing
                stories
                                people and places and…
                                mine all
                                if only in narration
                                                                                a tangle of
                                                                                experiencesimpressionsopinions
                                                                                newly minted

Every time I travelled, it is defined in plural all at once, hardly a straight line. Perhaps it is a maze. Better still, perhaps it is not travelled at all.

Travelled is a verb, in past, complete. Journey is different. Journey speaks of a serendipitous stumbling coloured in the hues of promise. Journey is a noun, timeless, spaceless, always present.


I do not travelled. I journey.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

#KochiBiennale: The art, artist, art-ed

This past weekend, I gifted myself a little getaway, running off to Kochi (blessedly only four hours by train from Coimbatore) for the Kochi Muziris Biennale. Every few exhibits, every few hundred metres, every few minutes, I'd find myself perched on a parapet, a footpath, a rock of some sort. 

This past weekend, I wrote my way through the Biennale. I scrawled in a notebook that was falling apart, in handwriting that was near impossible to decipher, trying to make sure my hands kept up with my head. What lies below is an excerpt of these notes, cleaned up and spruced up for readability. 

I climbed ladders today, in a skirt, to get into a huge kaleidoscope, a swirling mass of colourful pieces of glass. I waded through water today, in a skirt, all the while reading rhythmic free verse memorializing a dead Syrian bo(d)y. I walked till my legs were numb today, in a skirt, in and out, in and out, in and out.

A man lying down, lighting up through infrared heat sensors. Another man, also lying down, gold beads popping out of his bellow button, critiquing the ability to create and earn from thin air. A wall covered with picture from an iPhone – ephemeral, useless except in the moment, except now memorialised for eternity. Another wall covered with layers of butter paper, fluttering in the wind as the artist adds layer after layer, commenting on complexity, transparency, multiplicity. A third covered in a ten-metre digital picture juxtaposing groups of giggling girls taking selfies against a medieval trading Chinese scene (was it medieval trading? It was Chinese for sure…), talking of the contrast with history and how far we’ve strayed from our roots.

Walls and walls and walls, pictures and paintings and posters. Wherever you turn, there are walls, there are paintings, there is creation. Wherever you turn, there is art. 

A slightly longer version of these assortment of thoughts can be found here.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Dear Man who followed me,

Dear LoverBoy who followed me,

When you brushed by me on a busy main road yesterday, I instinctively thought it was an accident. You walked by me, moving in the opposite direction. I was walking towards home and you, maybe you were heading to catch a bus? I felt your hand on my thigh, felt it through the layers of my sari, and I turned around. You did not look back, and I walked on, merely chalking it up as yet another experience of the streets. I had been thinking about something else, a sweet New Year’s message a boss had sent me, allowing myself two seconds of distraction when on a public road. For affording that luxury, I apologise.

I turned into a marginally quieter lane, using you as a convenient continuation to a conversation I was having. Some dude just brushed up against me, I texted, in the same indifferent tone as I would use to describe the car that just drove past or the movie poster that was blaring out at me. But of course, the reply came, and we went on to speak of more interesting things. For thinking that was the end of it, I apologise.

Halfway down that road, I heard your voice behind me, just that then I did not know it was yours. Stupidly enough, I thought it was one someone talking to another someone on the street. It was New Year after all, and everyone seemed to have somewhere to go and someone to talk to. I focused on not tripping over my sari in an effort to get home. Vathakozhambu and carrot curry were my only thoughts just then. After all, it was my penultimate dinner at home. Of course that had to be more important, right? Right? For not giving you any importance, I apologise.

And then you spoke. Hello madam, you said, and I turned around on instinct, checking for a stranger who was too close. You couldn’t have been talking to me, I thought. You were a stranger. Turns out that does not matter. My legs decided they had a mind of their own, and I found myself moving forward faster. I stepped across deflated tyres on the street, around autos parked in the middle of the road, all the while wondering whether it was better to walk into oncoming traffic and risk getting run over or towards the darker shadows on the side of the street. Would you follow me there? Or would you get bored and walk away? For not accounting for your persistence, I apologise.

Hello Madam. Wait, Madam. Give me five minutes, Madam. I want to talk to you, Madam. I just want your time, Madam. Why are you walking away, Madam. Just five minutes, Madam. You kept talking, I kept walking. You kept pursuing, I kept planning. What if you reached out and grabbed my sari? What if persistence gave way to frustration? Would that fuel aggression? Was I better off ducking into my neighbourhood departmental store? But what if I got caught in an empty aisle with you, a stack of pickle bottles behind me and just you in front? Was the street safer than that? What if I followed the rules of a self-assured confident woman and caused you pain? What if instead of reeling in shock after that, you decided to retaliate? For not having any of the answers, I apologise.

You were barely a step behind me. I couldn’t cross the road without walking in to you. I couldn’t stop walking without you bumping in to me. I couldn’t do anything but keep going. Reflexively, I picked up the phone. Did I make the call to ward you off or to calm me down? I don’t know. Lady Luck decided to take a nap just then and my first two attempts weren’t answered. Finally, when the phone was answered, I spoke a little too cheerily, trying to hide how much my hands were shaking just then. So, I am being followed, I said. The response was measured to the point of being scary. Oh ok, I heard, what are you going to do? For expecting a reaction more violent, I apologise.

You were still behind me, asking me to stop. In a last ditch effort to ward you off, I did. Enne thaan venum, I asked. What do you want from me? Pesanum, you said. I want to talk to you. Ungale pudichirukku. I like you. So what, I shot off. Ungalukku pudichirukku nna naan nikkanuma? Why should I stop just because you like me? I stormed off again, you followed again. I paused to avoid traffic. You spoke again. Nillange, you said. Stop. Do we know each other, I growled, and even as the words slipped off my tongue, I knew the words I would hear in response. Therinjikalaame, you said, in what I am sure you thought was a smooth comeback. We can get to know each other. I rolled my eyes, told myself off for not pre-empting that, and kept walking. For giving in to those few lines of conversation, I apologise.

You see, that entire conversation was at 7:30 in the evening, at a junction so busy that we used to crib about traffic jams in an otherwise quiet neighbourhood. I was aggressive in stance, angry in tone, and standing in the middle of the street. Why didn’t you call attention to yourself, people asked me later in the evening. Because of the half a dozen people who made eye contact with me in those few minutes, no one as much as paused. Diverted glances, awkward eye contact. For not having the confidence that I would be helped, I apologise.

And then you gave up. You threw a few choice words at my retreating back, and took the other turn at the junction. You cursed at me for rejecting you, yelled at the illogical prospect of my ignoring your advances, and swore at any possible relationships, present and future. I didn’t stop walking at a frenzied pace till I got home. All the choice words I could have thrown back at you just propelled my feet farther and farther away from that junction. For not opening my mouth, I apologise.

A friend called me back on that last stretch home. I couldn’t take the call ma, I am sorry, he apologised. It was fine, I told him. What’s up, he asked, and for the next few minutes he was assailed with a rather intense response to a safe opening question. But I am fine, I breezed, just walking into the house. And then it hit me. The minute I latched the door behind me and breathed in the confidence of being in a safe space, it hit me. For underestimating how much you could get under my skin, for believing I was numbed to the experience, I apologise.

Dear Stranger on the Street in your grey graphic t shirt and blue jeans, I remember your face much too clearly. I remember the swagger with which you walked next to me as I tried so hard to get away. I remember the casual confidence with which your hand brushed my thigh as you walked by near the busy-as-hell bus depot on New Year Day. I remember the entitlement in your tone as you told me off, your vocabulary choice describing various characteristics of me and my body. Your scruffy beard, the black thread around your neck, the red string around your wrist, the belt with the too-big buckle on your jeans, they have all been stored away as the latest addition to the Vermin file in my head. And for even having that file, as I am sure most other girls do, I do not apologise. That one is not on me.

You see, Stranger, I have the theory to back this up. I could rationalise this plenty, tell myself how you probably saw every Tamil movie on the face of the planet where the hero stalks the heroine into submission, and they love happily ever after (no, not a typo). I could explain it away as something you’ve deeply internalised, the laws of patriarchy and gender norms dictating that you chase, I refuse, you chase some more, I refuse slightly less vociferously, you keep chasing and I swoon. It isn’t your fault, is it? I could explain it away in big words with multiple syllables that roll off my tongue with an ease only born from habit. But I refuse to give you that leeway, and for that I do not apologise.

When I finally let it all hit me, lying on my bed just before heading to a shower, I was shaken, frustrated at myself. No, I did not ask for it and what I was wearing was immaterial to the moment. No, it was not my fault and I knew enough to discount anyone who suggested it. Why must it be a luxury to feel safe, I fumed, a righteous anger threatening to overwhelm me. Yet even that I understood. What I did not get was the speckles of thankfulness. Thank God you didn’t touch me, I found myself thinking. Thank God your idea of wooing did not involve reaching out and tugging at my sari. Thank God you did not decide to show me how much you loved. Thank God you didn’t follow me home. Thank God all the ‘it could have been’ horror stories remained just that. And in that moment, I felt a deep sense of disgust, at the world for teaching us to expect this on the streets, at you for blindly buying into these tropes, but mostly at myself. For having it in me to say thank you for how this panned out.

Dear Stranger, I will apologise for a couple of things from yesterday. For allowing myself a moment of distraction. For not slapping you or yelling or creating a scene at a busy junction on a Sunday evening. For not being able to control the quiver in my hands and the shiver in my knees the closer you came. But you, in the kilometre and a half that you walked with me, behind me, you showed me how much I had internalised. You made me ask myself difficult questions. So maybe next time this happens, for there will most definitely be a next time, I will be better prepared. Maybe next time, I will not automatically dial a guy’s number, as if the only source of strength in that situation can be male. And maybe the next girl you stop on the streets because you know, pudichirukku, would have fought these battles already.

Happy New Year from the girl in the white sari.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Dear Akka (on a bad day)

Once again, inspired by the specifics of today (more of which should find mention on my work blog here soon), but this is note-to-self-and-other for whenever we need it. Every last one of these kids and these stories come from my classroom, the good, the not-so-good, and the downright ugly. Everyone needs something to spice up their day, right?

-

Dear Akka (on a bad day),

Remember.

Remember the child who walked up to you in the middle of an intense class on homophones to say she had something to give you. What, you asked, in part disgruntled by the interruption but also for most part curious about what could have brought it about. Here, she smiles, pulling out a slightly squished rose. It looks like it travelled in an almost-safe place this morning, a plastic bag next to a water bottle perhaps, or atop a stack of books, surviving just enough pressure to come out with only a few petals ruffled and squashed. You smile. Thank you, you manage, as you try and compose yourself and the class to come back to homophones. Now, what is the difference between ‘bare’ and ‘bear,’ you ask.

Remember the child who you were afraid of, the one who was sent back from the remedial classes to “reintegrate” so to speak. How will I manage, you wondered, sometimes aloud but much more to yourself. Can I handle the twenty others in the class as I give him the attention he needs? And what if I can’t? Am I giving him what he is due? Splashed across a page of a notebook buried inside a bag, there is a question that will haunt you. Have YOU given them wholesome education today? Have you?

But also remember the same child, two months into the classroom, bending over a worksheet judiciously trying to keep pace with the class. You walk up to him and ask if everything is alright. He asks you for permission to speak in his mother tongue, casting away the alienness of what you are trying to impose in favour of the known, the familiar, the safe. Sure, you allow. Is this what I ought to do, he clarifies, and you nod in reassurance, patting him on the back as you walk by, hoping that half the encouragement you intend finds its way to him. The next day, he comes up to you and tells you he has finished the first worksheet and could you help him through the second in class? You rejoice. You hadn’t expected to even see the end of the first, forget hand over the second. Of course, you nod, meet me tomorrow and we will get it done.

Remember the girl who called you her guru, her role model. You felt your heart flutter in that minute, and you still don’t know if it is because of fear or gratitude. Could you live up to the job? What had you done to receive such high praise? What could you say to the sudden glow in her face as she talks to you about feeling inspired, motivated, driven to do better, do more? You tell her about your own story. You tell her you see that she can do it too. You tell her that you will be right there, one step behind her, as she feels her way around the world, gripping at the crevices that stop her from slipping. You race through the compartments in your mind, wondering who to talk to and where to look to give her that one more opportunity. Who knows what could tip the scale?

But also.

Remember the child who, early on a Wednesday morning, told you you were wasting his time. Why do we bother with this, Akka, he groaned almost to the tune your bruised ego was singing just then. Tell me more, you ask, unsure of whether you want to know the answer or you are just trying to do the adult thing of keeping a cool head. What is the point, he wants to know. And you set off into a spiel on stepping into another’s shoes, hurrying on before he cracks a bad joke and demands the shoe size. You tell them how a time-tested way to learn is to teach, and how by that logic, to answer questions you must make them. He seems only half mollified. You lean back into the wall, trying to blend into the background.

Remember the child who rebuked you for not doing enough. We have only done two stories in English, Akka, he complained, inadvertently pitting you against the colleagues who you laughed with at lunch. What did he know that one of those two was Marquez, something that all and sundry gaped at when you said you were reaching high? It didn’t matter that he had done four different worksheets, each reinforcing a different skill with the second, a story from the very-foreign Ghana, as he understood the difference between folktales and fact. To him, it was two sheets of paper versus many more, and in that moment, two just didn’t seem good enough. And he told you. And it stung.

Remember the one who just does not seem to care, and no amount of cajoling and begging and enticing would change that. The birds outside the window, the dogs at the door, the dust at the corner of the bench; it was all always more interesting than…well, you. You bring music and dance into the classroom, and whip out that magic weapon of a sponge ball. You animate your stories and coerce your voice into performing a roller coaster. All of it to no avail. You are still not interesting enough. So you pull through the class and breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it, only to have the memory wash over you the next time you tentatively set foot into a classroom and spy the one disinterested face amongst the bright sea of ‘good morning Akka!’s.

The next time you sit to plan a lesson, the next time you get handed a flower in class, the next time a student doesn’t seem to care for a word that you say, remember. Remember the Flower Girl, the Hardworker, the Starry-eyed One. But also, or more so, remember the Disgruntled One, the Disappointed One, the Bored Out of His Mind One. Remember what each brings to the table, to the classroom, to the discussion, even if you cannot hear the words out loud. Remember how each of them made you feel, what each of them made you think, why each of them matter. Remember what you owe each of them, a chance to find themselves in your classroom, whether aloud or not, on the page or not. Remember that your job is not to smile through flowers or cry through critique, but to level the playing field the best you can and watch from the sidelines. Remember.

Remember to ask yourself. Have you given them a wholesome education today?

Love,

Akka (on a good day)

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Reflections in the receding waters - Part 2

Up until 2015, power cuts conjured up images of a heavy wooden oonjal (swing) in a century-old house buried deep in a town known more in association with a Robin Hood-esque sandalwood smuggler than any image that colours my memories. For the first few years, that oonjal hung against the backdrop of a blown-up picture from the era where every frame was planned, choreographed, and executed to perfection so as to not “waste the roll.” The girl stands on what looks like a bridge, clad in a red pattu-pavadai and blue blouse, forehead adorned with a pottu whose size betrays the wearer’s age – too young. The child’s hair is in the quintessential ‘fountain kudumi’, that rite of passage that every girl passes through in the growth from mushroom cut to the more social acceptable “long hair.” There were a few other pictures on that wall, all from eras bygone, the creams and peaches of their tones blending right in to the peeling, crumbling walls of the house itself.

On that oonjal sits a lady, her feet folded up (sometimes both, occasionally one), revealing a certain ease that hangs easily about her. She seems comfortable with where she is, what she is, who she is. Every few minutes, if the air got too still or the room too quiet, she’d drop a foot down and give the oonjal a little nudge to set the creaking chains in motion as they strained against the engraved wooden plank above. On either side of this woman sit two girls, each clad in appropriately demure clothing – pavadais, frocks, skirts that touch the knees, every passing summer marked by the increasing length of their identical double braids that frame their faces. They almost always lean into the older woman, either snaking an arm through hers or resting an elbow on her lap, or better yet, stretching out on either side, amicably splitting her lap right down the middle. Every once in a while, the woman’s place would be taken over by a much older man, comforting in a veshti (dhoti) softened by age and a sleeved banian greyed by wear. His lap was even better; thicker, broader, more present. With every power cut, the two girls crawled their way to habit. The same oonjal. The same positions. To listen to stories of ancestors and local kings, mythologies and the heroics of the Gods, and occasionally, folklore from farther away. In the security of the darkness, they played word games and stumbled through the labyrinth that is English vocabulary. They learnt music and poetry, and learnt to identify the stars and the stories that go with each one of them. They laughed till their stomachs hurt. All on an oonjal in a house without power.

Until 2015, power cuts conjured up images of a heavy wooden oonjal and two pigtailed girls. It told the stories of the summer of my childhood visiting my maternal grandparents, swatting away insects as my grandfather told us tales from the pages of history, our own and other.

Up until 2015, power cuts were the slightly painful relationship you could never entirely come to hate, the one-too-many-eth piece of chocolate cake on a non-cheat day of a diet. There was mystery to it, an in that mystery lay an aura, a charm. Up until 2015, power cuts were cozy.

And then it was 2015.

I still talk of it as “just now,” the evening when a friend of mine and I sat huddled in a third girl’s hostel room in complete darkness. We had lost power a couple of days ago and news was trickling in that the city had it bad, that the downpour was in no hurry to stop, and we may not be able to deal with its consequences. We heard that a radio station had swung into action, that they had stopped broadcasting entertainment in favour of playing messenger between Those Who Could and Those Who Couldn’t. I remember how time hung heavy and low in the room that day, how every second seemed pregnant with the exhausted roller-coaster between dread and relief as our minds scanned through a mental checklist of all the neighbourhoods we cared about. Safe. Safe. Safe. Not so much. Oh damn. Safe.

Our lives for the last couple of days had been something out of a dream that was not quite right. We would wake up whenever the sun intruded into our rooms and head out to eat whenever our stomachs grew louder than the voices in the corridor outside. We could yell out to each other without having to battle with blaring speakers and music that usually kept us company. We read physical books that weren’t course material, played board games, and sat and chatted about everything under the sun. And then, that one night, we huddled in a friend’s room and decided we’d use the precious little phone battery we had left amongst us to hear of the world outside.

In the year since, I have written about my flood experiences plenty, enough for me to not have to revisit it. Yet, despite it all, despite the rather privileged experience I had of the Chennai floods (my home and everyone in it were fine, to begin with), something happened these last two days that shook my very being. One year later, I live in Anaikatti, a village on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a small settlement where nothing much actually ever happens. As I stepped into my room after spending Diwali weekend at home with a phone that was already dead with all the travel usage, I thought I had a hot shower and a plug point waiting for me before I ran to answer the cries of ‘Yashasvini Akka vandhutaange’ ('Yashasvini Akka has come!') that greeted my arrival. I walked in, casually flicked on the switches…and nothing happened. I called out to a colleague in the kitchenette next door. Has it been gone long, I asked, expecting her to say perhaps a couple of hours. Yes, since 6 PM last evening, she replied. That was fourteen hours and counting. I told myself it would be fine, dunked a bucket of ice-cold water on me in the claims of a shower, and ran off to class.

At 10:30 AM, as we drank our morning coffee, there was no power.
At 12:45 PM, as we sat down to lunch, there was no power.
At 3:30 PM, as we drank our afternoon tea, there was no power.
At 6:00 PM, when Grade 10 wrapped up their extra class, there was no power.

And at 6:00 PM, just as Grade 10 traipsed out of the school, it started getting dark. And the discomfort, the restlessness, the nervousness that had threatened to rear up within me all day was getting too loud to ignore. An Akka from housekeeping walked up to me and said ‘idhu ungalukku,’ gesturing that she expected me to take something from her. In the semi-darkness, it took me a minute to realise what it was. She handed me two candles and a matchbox in an action that reminded me with an uncanny force of another Akka in another building who had done the same thing for me just about a year ago. Adhiseshamma with pink candles and Tiger matches. Pali Akka with white candles and Cats matches. Apart from the minor detail of human names and animal species, what really was the difference?

I hid my discomfort behind a mask of jest. This is just like the floods, I chuckled. We barely know what the outside world is upto. Yet inside me, that same sentence took on a different tone – one of anxiety, of uncertainty. It came with images that haven’t gotten blurred by Time - of the Paati who berated me for giving her only one biscuit packet because veetle rendu pasange irukkange ma (there are two boys at home, ma), of the Anna who ridiculed me for handing out a few millilitres of Dettol because idhu vechuttu veeteya kazhuva mudiyum (can I really clean out my house with this?), of the Akka who asked me surreptitiously for pads because en prachanai unakku thaan puriyum ma (only you will understand my problems, ma) and ippo indhe time le ezhundukave mudiyale (I can't even get up at this time). Of the army jawan who asked me to go ahead and distribute the measly dozen food packets I had, of the mob that appeared from I-don’t-know-where at the sight of a jute bag in my hand, of the crowd that decided they couldn’t be bothered with me once it ran out, of the hand that caught the small of my back when they pushed me backwards into oncoming traffic on a busy main road. Yesterday, as I sat in a sari, my head tucked into my knees on a granite bench at a school far away, I could almost see water marks on the walls in front of me.

Today, from this corner of my world, I hope that Anna and Akka and Paati are okay. I hope that Anna’s baby and wife survived having a snake to keep them company in the stagnant water of their home, that they got the Dettol they needed to wash away the stench of a disaster. I hope that Akka was able to afford a new set of utensils inside of rubbing them thin to rid them of the filth. I hope the Paati’s grandsons play in the rain today, setting paper boats made of newsprint down the muddy streams that are Chennai’s gullies. I hope they don’t think of rain and think of a Parle G biscuit packet split in two. And I hope their Paati watches them and thinks of childhood and innocence, not of a helpless young girl who just didn’t have enough to give.


One year later, amidst a different rain and a different power cut in a different place, this is what I know. Up until 2015, power cuts were cozy. Today, it is all just a little scary.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

You. Are. Doing. Just. Fine.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write an advice column to my 15-year-old high school self. What would I say? What do I wish I knew? How could I be better equipped? Hugely complicated/influenced by the fact that I now teach 15-year-olds as a full-time job, I set out to do what justice I could to the task. And anyway, we could use a reminder every once in a while, right?

This letter is as much a response to the brief as is it a celebration of Headstart - the confidence it gave me to chase my dreams, the safety it gave me to stumble and fall, and the support it has given me ever since ever time I chose my path. From being the 6th grade kid who walked into a bedroom-turned-classroom to an alum beaming at the red brick buildings, this is the story of the last almost-decade.

-

Dear 15-year-old me,

I remember high school. I remember there were some good days and other bad days. I remember feeling like those IGCSE exams were the bane of all student existence and the pressure to do well, first batch and all. I remember being the first batch to graduate, and looking at Facebook pictures of makeshift graduation caps for this year’s batch, I remember our small little celebration in a classroom where junior students ripped pages of their notebook to write ‘I will miss you’ notes. I remember the group of us, four kids in total, who made that class, and having class pictures with more teachers than students. I remember Culture Class and science lab and doing the Wizard of Oz as a musical in that last year at school. I remember splashes of colour and the odd sound, weaving a tapestry that makes my memories of high school.

You know what I don’t remember though? I don’t remember what that big fight was about. I don’t remember the words inside the colourful mind map that we discussed in Geography class, my teacher and I, one on one. I don’t remember the days and the months and the years that were meant to go beside the doodled map of Europe we created, an F-shaped France and bits and bobbles all around it making up an entire continent aeons away. I don’t remember what the essay was on; just my teacher reminding me for the gazillionth time that ‘no one’ was two different words no matter what I thought. I don’t remember much of my Economics, only the sheaf of papers that accompanied Anna as he walked in, showing us what real preparation looked like. I don’t for the life of me remember the details of those classes; the dates and definitions, formulae and figures. But the dictum of being prepared? Oh yes, that one I do remember.

You see, I know high school can be tough. It is that uncomfortable mix of feeling settled because you grew up in that building and feeling restless because, well, you are fifteen. It is feeling like the unfairness of the world is summed up in the five alphabets of I-G-C-S-E, topped with the cherry of being the first batch. No pressure, hon. It is the joy of small classrooms – getting to know each other so well, learning to work together, blurring the lines between school-friends-family. It is also the nightmare of small classrooms – what happens if you fight with the one other girl in your class? I get it. I was there too, remember?

So here it is, my (and by that measure, future-your) sage words of wisdom. Put this up on that pin-up board of yours, wedged between Math formulae and Biology diagrams. You are doing fine.

You. Are. Doing. Just. Fine.

I could sit here and write tomes of all the things I wish you knew now, or the lessons I am praying you will learn. Except, when the time is right, I know you will. You will learn to accept yourself, be comfortable in your skin, make the most of every situation placed before you. You will grow into forming opinions and standing up for them, engaging in debate and holding your ground. You will get over the fear of walking into a room of strangers and come to embrace it, get past the terror of a stage and grow to feel comfortable with a mike. You will stop seeing ‘studious’ as an uncomfortable label attached to the back of an already too-long name and accept it as the person you are, even swapping it for ‘muggu’ in later years, laughing it off as just another descriptor of a complex character. You will figure out how to make your choices and live with their consequences. You will discern the path less taken and agonize over whether you want to be the one heading down that way, and then go ahead anyway. And through it all, you will be okay.

But I am getting a rather long way ahead of myself, jumping the gun almost a decade. For now, just know that you are doing okay. High school will come and go. Grade sheets will be celebrated and forgotten. Friends will be made and lost and then settle into the comfortable distance of occasional Facebook pings and the silent knowledge of support. Teachers will last, through one school and the next, through college, your first job and beyond, always the reassuring green dot on your Gmail chat list, a text away from help and hope. And every time someone asks you after a speech or an article or a presentation or just coffee where the seeds for everything after were sown, you will smile and talk about that school you once went to, a once-minimalist building where you painted on the walls and decorated the classrooms, where you shivered through your first speech and stumbled through your first performance. Always a Headstarter, you will say, and you will mean it, long after you are gone. Then as much as now, remember. You are doing okay. And when you feel like you aren’t doing okay, think back to a line of advice that will stay with you for years to come from a teacher in those high school classrooms. You aren’t Atlas. And you are doing okay.

Love,
23-year-old you