A Letter to My Students.

The classes assigned to me in the current academic session come to an end tomorrow. My sensitivity to the movement of time makes it more difficult to come to terms with the fact that it has been almost a year since I dropped a career that was no longer serving, and nine months since an alternative path appeared. This new path has been suggested by well-wishers, at various points in time, especially during my Master’s program. I, on the contrary, refused to believe that I possessed any intellect beyond the roughly-strewn mind of a layperson, which I presume till today, even proudly at times. One reason, the academic world seemed distant, even though it explained well the reality that I had lived, was because it refused to come to par with the ordinary women and men, in a way that it imbibed true democracy. So to find myself suddenly standing amidst sixty faces, at least two times in a week, was not what I had prepared for, ever.

My friends, who have been with me in the last nine months, would know of how I talk about the work I do. I describe teaching, especially teaching young adults, as a spectrum between self-confidence including gregariousness and self-doubts not excluding self-loathing. Or at least, this is how I have experienced the profession, the respite being that there are an equal number of days spent on the extremes. But not even my closest friends would know of the perpetual nervousness that I feel, which at times, is because of poor understanding of the content, an inability to manage the class, or just sheer emotional turmoil. Nonetheless today, after what is an average length of human gestation, it seems, I need to write a few things to/for my students, especially those who will remain as the foremost faces, personalities, and memories, in my mind, when I would think of my first year as a lecturer.

Image result for toni morrison on hope
                                  Toni Morrison                                

The essay No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear by the eminent artist Toni Morrison comes to my mind, which was published in the 150th anniversary edition of The Nation where she writes:

“Christmas, the day after, in 2004, following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush.

I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine — and you?”, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work — not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Until this point in time, hope has remained for me, an abstract, one in which I wanted to rest in, but for its lack of dimensions and matter, kept slipping out. But within the closed quarters of a classroom, hope materialized and became of this world, and even though my work did not lead me to a predicament of an exile or a prison cell, I understood that this was no time to despair. In my current role, I have had the honour of witnessing an upcoming generation of sentient individuals, which is kind, sensitive, easygoing, well-meaning, intelligent, and good-humoured. In these young individuals, there is a predisposition to life – an attempt to brave the consequences of living, with or without things in their favour, to aspire, no matter what these aspirations are – and it is this predisposition that would make it infantile on my part, to not keep hope, especially in these times.

Each generation, passing through different political and social times in history, loses its way and finds itself, in most cases, the beacons of reconciliation and redemption coming from within its communal nurture. I believe, in this generation rests a sensitivity, which albeit hidden, is constantly receiving from its environment lessons of the past, the travails of the present, and the way for the future. Some of them are curious, thinking beyond what their mental faculties or academic exposure currently permits them to, while others are actively participating in the building of the present and future, surpassing the underestimated selves and deficient industrial skills. The intelligence, even research supports even though it hasn’t yet explained, has increased without bounds, and possibly the solutions that we have sought is currently being prepared in their minds.

Morrison elaborates further in her essay, which I believe stands true in every epoch,

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence.”

I stand in the imminent danger like many, of not knowing how tomorrow will look like; perhaps we are preparing ourselves, in our own ways, to survive without even being aware of it. Of course, the world as we had known it is crumbling, and replacing it are atrophic systems and ideologies. Some of us have resolved on our own, have decided not to give up, and still try to preserve a future for the ones who will inhabit it. But sometimes, not from the past, but from the future, we learn of this resolve. Sometimes it morphs itself as a simple question, “Why would someone do that?”; other times, it morphs as an overarching attempt to understand the world in its anatomy, “What does that mean?” From trailblazers in history and my mother, I have learned what I will be fighting against. Within the classroom, from these young adults, I have learned who I will be fighting for.

This piece then could be seen as a letter, a letter of gratitude, to my students, these young individuals, for giving back hope. Thank you.

Image from: Acts of Hope

The Great Debaters: A Review

Movie: The Great Debaters
Director: Denzel Washington

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me, “Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

-Langston Hughes, 1925 (Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes)

Harpo Films’ The Great Debaters is a classic, set on the high tones of melancholy, delicately infused with a passion for dignity and worth, that runs through one’s morals and forgotten history- one piercing stroke at a time. Set in the southern state of Texas, in the year 1935, the story brings together into its canvas broad characters—each of them a strong influence in the film only when interwoven together. But, for the film’s appeal to one’s humanity, for a turmoil-rich walk through our history together as a human race, for the richness rendered to one’s emotions, and for valuable lessons that one leaves with after this two hour long saga—one is left with a warm heart—our morals and conscience high with sanctity.

Wiley College is a small, all-black institution in the small town of Marshall, Texas. Torn between depression and with the growing seeds of the civil rights movement, the town of Marshall is the backdrop against which the team of young debaters train themselves under the scintillating teacher, Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson, played by Denzel Washington is probably the character which holds together the essence of the film with his brightness, cleverness, and his profound intelligence. Just as Langston Hughes’ I, too, am America reverberates through Tolson’s baritone, one is forced to go through the agony of the darker brother who is denied of dignity, pride, and worth, even as the American flags flew on the homes of the black Americans. His frame adds to his personality—for, he is the voice of the oral history—an inspiration to his students, a voice of reason, but at the most needed, a voice of resistance and revolution.  Observing Tolson closely, one can find his strong hold on satire, on how he mocks the South’s racial system through its own built. But satire is not what he leaves it at; he adds logic to expose how the racial discrimination has penetrated subtly into the psyches of the black Americans—“…which means I can lie about my age for the rest of my life…you think, that’s funny, to be born without record”. Tolson is unforgiving, ferocious, tough, and unyielding. On a parallel line, Tolson is also involved in organising a mixed-race sharecroppers’ Union, which eventually gets him into trouble with the local sheriffs. Rumours run wild of him being a Communist, but Tolson’s principles and beliefs keep him grounded and focused on what he is fighting for. He stands as the authoritative and righteous figure whose voice is the voice for the right, the voice of the poor, and the voice of the oppressed. Tolson’s influence on the other characters is noted starkly as the film continues.

The film also depicts the viciousness of racism as it was present in the South. The white supremacist regimes of Jim Crow had established segregation in the South. The conservative whites denied the Blacks their exercise of civil and political rights. The region’s reliance on agriculture continued to limit opportunities for most people. Blacks were exploited as sharecroppers and labourers.  Alongside the racial caste system, it also brings to the forefront the poverty and oppression of the agrarian South during the Depression. In one of the earlier scenes in the film, when Samantha Booke played by Jurnee Smollett, enters into Marshall, she witnesses the high-ridden poverty. Lined along the outskirts of the town are shanties- raw and naked- ringing the helplessness of the ones who have been left out by the State.

A profound belief in education remains the central theme in the film. This is highlighted in the opening scene where James Farmer Sr., a minister, says —“education is the only way out… the way out of ignorance… the way out of darkness into the glorious light…”. It points out how Blacks valued education and believed education to be the only means to equality—to civil rights. Tolson also uses the tried and tested means of education, of poetry, and the words and writings of people who were creating the Harlem Revolution. He advocates to his students to claim the rights of the Blacks as equal citizens of America through his classes. Has Tolson identified the future voices of the Civil Rights Movement in James Farmer Jr., Henry Lowe, and Samantha Booke is something that the audience has to find out for themselves. However, education as separate as that of the Whites and the Blacks, minds as separate as that of the Whites and Blacks, can they ever be integrated, or will they ever let to be integrated? Can a South which does not hesitate to lynch a Black man for a petty crime go to the extent of opening its schools and colleges for the Black brothers and sisters? Is the idea too progressive for 1935? And, if it is so, why is the ‘superior race’—the whites—not able to yet conceive the idea of considering the Blacks as their equal? And, how is it that the Blacks stand in lines nodding silently at every argument made in favour of their rights as human beings, their rights as Americans, their rights as citizens? The Wiley College Debate team’s victory is mere one instance of glory on the road towards the Civil Rights Movements. Many more have shattered the White pride and emancipated the Black dignity.

The film brings out the political and social conditions of the South where Blacks were second-class citizens. A Black could have a college degree, he or she could own a decent position, own a good house, and a car, but that would still not make him any better than even the white trash. The South was running on a madness, which was continuously fuelled by the revolutionary North. In the South, a Black man could be attacked for the simple reason of being a Black. The volatile politics shown with heart-wrenching trueness in the film only brings to light what it would have meant to have a black skin in the South. The film does not shy away from exposing the persecution and the humiliation that the blacks were put through in Jim Crow’s South. And, nor does the film hides the gruesome violations done towards the Blacks such as lynching. In the scene where the Wiley College Debate Team comes across lynching, one is not prepared to witness the vividness of the scene. Hanging from a tree is a burnt body of a young Black surrounded by a white mob. As the mob turns towards the car in which the team is travelling, one can see a small, white boy looking at the dead body. It goes on to convince the rashness with which the perverted psychosis of discriminating, criminalising and hating the Blacks had penetrated into the Whites of the South. Thus, ensues the journey to self-discovery and realisation.

The Wiley College Debate Team, which so far, had been considering debating nothing more than a competition, finally sets forth in understanding of what they are standing for. It is here when the team struggles to believe in themselves, and as young college students, one can understand the fear and the helplessness that they must be undergoing. However, one cannot help but discover that it is in moments such as these in which must have been inseminated the seeds of the Civil Rights movement. Most of the topics ever discussed throughout the film revolve around issues pertaining to civil rights.

One cannot escape the film without a heavy heart or a secret happiness when the Harvard audience stands tall and celebrates the victory of this young team. However, the critic remains in how the Wiley College Debate Team did not get a single debating argument against civil rights. Was it taken for granted that a young Black college team would want to argue in favour of civil rights and that white teams would want to argue against? Even more so, one has to question, why is there not a single white character projected in a positive light? The film transcends in the hearts of its audience as Blacks being the morally-superior race without giving much credit to the Whites.

The film has been able to cover the essence of the struggle of the years leading to the Civil Rights movement. It has put on the course of history a moment of glory preceded by violations, humiliation and hurt. It is the Civil Rights Movements that brings together the elements of morality, education, rights (civil, political, and human) and self determination together. And in bringing all these precious elements together, it lets one walk on a journey of humanness, love, dignity and respect. As Martin Luther King Jr. says, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

I wrote this review, as an assignment for my coursework during my Master’s program.

I Am A Black South Indian.

My ancestors are descendants of the Dravidian race, otherwise known as black South Indians. Five generations on my mother’s side and at least, two generations on my father’s side that I know of, have been born in Tamil Nadu. The generation following my grandparents’, including my parents, my sister, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews were all born in Chennai. I, the metaphorical black sheep of the family, was born in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

There is a chapter in Frantz Fanon’s classic The Wretched of the Earth dedicated to Colonial War and Mental Disorders. Himself a psychiatrist, Fanon begins this chapter with the statement, “But the war goes on…” delineating for the reader the sustained onslaught of colonialism on the mental health of the colonized individuals. He writes,

“Because it [colonialism] is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’”

Fanon was asking the question ‘In reality, who am I?’ in 1961, a question that I would ask first in the year 2013 and in the subsequent years, until now. By far, I have no concrete answer to this fluid, metaphysical question, but I have, in the process of asking this question to myself and sometimes others, learned a few things about its nature, the conditions under which this question is asked, and the individuals who have to ask this question. For the purpose of this essay, I refer to my own origins, which I understand limits the content, nonetheless, providing one individual’s understanding of her world among the seven billion.

I was born in a private hospital, as the first child to a Tamil couple, in the last breath of the 80s. I have often tried to track down the history of how my mother and father had met and the circumstances in which they had married. But between my mother’s refusal to talk about it and my cousins’ inability to provide me with details, I have learned to stick to one version – my parents had fallen in love and after a brief period of courtship, unknown to their respective families, had married on an April morning. I was born the following year. The birth of my sister the year later completed our family unit.

This period of the 80s immediately preceded liberalization of the country’s economy and its markets and was relatively a promising period to raise a family. My father was working as an Architectural Draftsman with an American agency that promoted cultural studies between the two countries, the particulars to which are still unknown to me but have recently drawn my interest. My mother, by default, stayed at home, raising her two children, and managing the household with the skills and knowledge that she had learned through observation, experimentation, and from their eventual perfection.

As any child would have, I learned to speak two languages – Tamil, which I learned from my parents and Hindi, the colloquial form learned from conversing with friends and in the school, while my official introduction to the language was achieved by my mother. This insignificant piece of information is, for me, relevant exceeding any other. My mother, a high school graduate, with no prior induction or instruction in Hindi, learned the language by watching public television (the art of national integration, was at the time, through language [imposition] pursued by media, in this case, through Doordarshan). Although my mother is a woman of good cognitive skills, well-versed and opinionated in politics, a great reader and retainer, the requirement to learn and use an alien language for purposes of running the household, made her seem uneducated, naïve, and infantile to her new neighbours. She persevered for herself, but mostly for us; always alert to the undertones, the undercurrents, and critically analyzed them to be weaved as stories that we grew up listening. Her defiant confidence has benefitted us in ways that we cannot even recount.

Until my fourth year in school, my sister and I communicated with our parents in Tamil. Our parents insisted and demanded that we speak in Tamil. We were reprimanded when we didn’t obey them. That preserving the language and the identity that they had identified with mattered so much to our parents never occurred to us then. By the time, I entered into the third grade, my sister and I, with new social influences and requirements from school, started conversing in Hindi with the added burden of Speak in English. For this reason, the Hindi that I speak with was the Hindi that I learned in Varanasi, just as my peers learned their first language. So, having born in the Northern belt, raised under the influence of regional linguistics, it comes as a surprise to me, when I am told, even by strangers that I cannot speak the language well.

The fact that I stutter today, when the situation demands me to speak in Hindi especially in a formal setting is because the language has changed (deteriorated) inside me after numerous regional influences (resulting from our frequent migration) including the Hindi that is spoken in Gurgaon and the Hindi that is spoken in Delhi. Perhaps, it is my South Indian blackness that makes it difficult to excuse a slipped pronunciation in the flow of an unrehearsed statement. I contend that my otherness has become the overarching logic to enforce upon me the status of one possessing lower knowledge, and hence, default inferiority just as my mother was enforced.

Colonization, one that targets the psyche of an individual or a group, is perhaps its worst implication. The results of the colonization can be seen in subtle and manifested behaviours and notions in multiple generations until the mould is broken. I implore to understand its necessity, the subversive means used by it, and the way, we, the colonized agree to perform it, as one accords when at gun point.

In her million-copy bestseller Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype, Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes of women and the wolves,

“Yet both have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors. They have been the targets of those who would clean up the wilds as well as the wildish environs of the psyche, extincting the instinctual, and leaving no trace of it behind. The predation of wolves and women by those who misunderstand them is strikingly similar.”

This argument, by its powerful distinction of how the oppressed are “hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed” can be extended to any relationship that creates an oppressor and an oppressed. For this essay, I extend it to the predicament of the ancestors who gave birth to me, the cultures and traditions that they built and inducted their young ones into, and the faltering crisis that I call my identity. “Who am I?”

My parents, after they migrated to live in an alien culture thirty years ago, gave up the minimal rights that they were accorded to under the solemn Constitution, often without protest. This subjugation, economically, socially, and mentally, has left in them a void, which longs for the familiarity of their origin, their culture. In my teenage, my mother was diagnosed with critically low bone mineral density, which predicted that she may be prone to osteoporosis, in her future. She suffers and puts up with her pain as many women endure throughout their life. What bothers me, when I realized it, was that her body’s deficiency could have been because of the radical change in her dietary intake. As a family that has rented its accommodation, my parents were demanded (and, not requested) that they cannot prepare non-vegetarian food items. This meant for my parents, to give up a habit they had cultivated by default, having consumed seafood for most of their living years until then. As human bodies and predisposition go, what you don’t do for long, the more resistance your body develops, so that my parents no longer have the willing inclination to eat seafood.

Perhaps, it was the knowledge of losing their power, their knowledge of being alienated and un-grouped that runs in their minds as they make decisions, as their choose their behaviours, even today. It exists in me as well, even today. It is for this very reason that I had to ask myself, “Who am I?” by culture, by descent, and by birth. That even though I have been marauded by multicultural realities, traditions, linguistics, and knowledge, none of these identities stick to me and stay with me. For a long time, I devised ways to exist, at times, defending, at times by being aggressive. I have said in spaces where this idea may be kept that I do not identify as a Tamil. But, in other places, the colour of my skin speaks for me.

It is equally difficult – not knowing one’s identity, not being given one’s identity, and having one predominant identity enforced upon. I suffer all three, just like many do. I believe there are countless stories that are waiting to be heard from all corners of the country, individuals rising to speak for themselves in their own words despite the hegemonic hand asphyxiating them. Perhaps, one day in the distant future, I would learn about my ancestors not as black, wild, uncouth, and as asuras, but as a people, a distinct group of people, with people-like dreams, aspirations, and travails. A history that is not written in comparison, in beatification, in negation, in resurrection, in contradiction, in contraction, or in exaggeration but written in agency and for human salvation, for all.

Then, I will tell my beautiful, intelligent, dark-skinned daughter, tucking away an overflowing curl of hair behind her ear, “You are a black South Indian, just as I am, just as your ancestors were”.