Snarky and snappy. The rules flew for the professor too. The Indian college classroom used to be a quieter place where the professor lectured, and the students took down notes in silence. In America, students put their feet up on the desk and sipped from giant Styrofoam cups of Coke but struck back at the professor’s Nietzsche references with quotes from Walter Benjamin. The basement rooms in Princeton’s Firestone library did not feel very underground but open and feisty and full of possibilities. You felt cheated, like you had just walked into a Dave Letterman show and underneath it was all Charlie Rose, a drunken symposium cooked up by Socrates and his admirers.
Fifteen years later, this was a new kind of a college where students from all over India wandered in on their way to Oberlin, Yale or Williams, losing their way a bit, perhaps their families had put the tuition money away for a Stanford MBA later on, because, this new college, obscenely expensive for most Indians, was obscenely cheap for them, so what to do with the money? But what do you know, these were also the young Indians who wrote personal essays that could give any serious writer a real pause, and had done the selfless work with NGOs that would get you into the sharp attention of the Harvard Admissions Office. Critics said the selfless work was done in order to get the attention of the Harvard Admission Office, but of course the critics would say such things, how could they neglect their calling? Next to the students of this new country, Megha felt her old self, left behind in Delhi’s LSR College, timid and stupid, yellowed with sudden time. She would play the game. What would Alberto say, would he be shocked?
It was a classroom made for her. She performed and hated her performance at the same time, her hatred becoming a smooth part of the performance. Her disdain for it all came across as disdain for the world and the students in the room, and the students soaked it all up.
Sometimes she hopped on the table, sometimes on heels, sometimes on stolid Mary Janes, scribbled on the board illegibly, and told them how she heard her own poetry read out in the midst of a hen-party in a Brighton pub, in bars and clubs in snowy Midwestern cities, locked in the restroom while pretending to snort coke. She made fun of all of them, made the most fun of herself. They loved her. They were too terrified to do otherwise. They Instagrammed the things she said, never naming her but who are you kidding?
Writing to Think was an intimate seminar where people could be bruised naked. For the first-year students, this was the only small class as otherwise they hid anonymous in the large lecture courses for the Common Core. Writing to Think sounded so cool, but it was such a blank slate, especially without composition handbooks that put you to sleep. She made the students do strange things in class: make one negative criticism of your immediate neighbour in class, develop that criticism into a paragraph and elaborate what the criticism said about yourself, the critic. That day, she brought a handful of pictures – a soldier stumbling on a grand piano in a bullet-ridden forest, a happy grandmother sitting in a sunlit kitchen where it rained apples, whole, red apples, neatly sliced apples. And the one that gave them the longest pause: a classroom of hijab-clad women, looking at a teacher, also a hijab- clad woman, pointing at the blackboard with a stick, a blackboard with a gaping hole in the middle, a hole like a crater that might have been drawn by a hand-grenade.
“Look at this picture carefully,” she sent it around the class, a small group of twelve students. “Now write a statement of teaching philosophy that reflects some aspect of this picture.”
“What is a statement of teaching philosophy?” Ujjaini, who never bothered to hide her confusion, raised her hand. “It’s a marketing document,” Megha said. “When you’re trying to sell yourself for a teaching job to a college.” She grinned, “A blueprint of how you like to teach.”
“Did you have to write one to get here?” Ujjaini asked. “Ok, I’m not the subject today,” Megha said. “Go write your philosophies. Twenty minutes.”
She checked her email as they wrote, gravitating inevitably to her Twitter and Instagram timelines. Sia had Instagrammed some of the rejected cover images, superimposed over a photo of the two of them drinking wine on the empty floor of Megha’s new flat, flanked by beautiful table mats. Grinning to herself, suddenly she was horrified. Rapidly, she turned to check if the projector cord was still hooked to her MacBook. It was not. She should have known, there was no way the class would be this quiet if suddenly her Instagram TL showed up on the screen. She thought of the poor graduate TA student back in New York whose laptop had started playing a porn film to a giant screen over a gallery class just as he hooked it to the projector. His student evaluations had skyrocketed that semester.
The action on Twitter was a jab at her guts. A teenage black girl had been shot by a white policeman in a suburb of Atlanta. The girl was badly injured but thankfully it was clear that she would live. A video letter from her to the white cop who had shot her had gone viral and many of her friends were tweeting about it. A film of darkness fell before Megha’s eyes and suddenly she wanted to scream. She was in class. She clutched her chair for support.
Among her notifications was a brief excerpt from one of her poems, one about a fight between home lizards and garden geckos with clear racial undertones, that Alberto had tweeted, tagging her. She retweeted several of the tweets with the trending hashtag, #handsoffblackbodies, helpless anger wracking her body. It was real, she wanted to scream, the bullets and the poems, there was a time when she could bleed language, suffer as the words sprouted, searing through the flesh. There was such a time.
She asked the students to read what they had written. They were uneasy, having to read their writing aloud, they were eighteen-year-olds and shy about others hearing what they had written, especially in their own voice.
But Megha wanted them to do it. Muansang, a guy whose writing was usually full of references to the Bible and the Greek classics, read first. He had written something beautiful and also a little scary. He wanted to say that what education gave you was sometimes quite painful and opened your eyes to things you would have been better off not knowing. There were a lot of apples in what he wrote, from the Garden of Eden to poison-coated apples that daring philosophers were made to eat and apples falling from trees following the force of nature and bitten apples that made computers. He also quoted Lisa Simpson telling her father Homer that to become intelligent is to lose one’s happiness.
After Muansang read his thing, it was open to group feedback and workshop. The other students liked what he’d written and seemed quite relieved that there wasn’t any more Bible in it than the flying reference to the Garden of Eden. Muansang was a good writer but his religious and epic references made everything a bit gloomy, like the class was a human throat that was being squeezed.
Ujjaini read next. “A breath of wind rushed through the bullet hole on the blackboard and the black silk of their hijabs came undone.” Some students looked horrified as they felt there was prejudice in this. But Ujjaini did not flutter. She went on and on about how the grenade hole was like a window of liberty and the breeze that rushed through the hole made the hijabs dishevelled.
“That’s the kind of thing a white man would like to say,” Sunalika said. “Blow off the hijab and feel the wind of liberty and all that. Why fall in that trap?”
Sunalika always spoke with a sense of responsibility, as if she knew things said could never be unsaid again. She was a natural President of the student council and grew more natural every day.
“I’m pretty sure the artist was trying to make a statement with a roomful of girls in hijab,” Ujjaini said. “And if you look at the teacher’s hijab, it’s kind of flying.”
Sunalika looked like she wanted to say something but held back. She did that sometimes. She was a second-year student and did not need to take this class but did just because she wanted to take a class with Megha.
They were shy but shocking. There was scattered range in what they read, in quality as well as the kind of thought, even the choice of form. There were poetic lines and the beginning of stories. There were stories in the grenade hole, through which you could see another classroom with a grenade hole, and through that another one – like a hall of mirrors. One poem read the teacher as a student, if she turned around you would see that she is just a girl of their age who had gone up there and was just pretending to be a teacher, there was no teacher in the class at all. They had all put in everything to read the picture and had read some weird things in it but they had focused very hard and that was the point, that they should find some absurd things that did not exist.
“I tried to look at the picture but could not latch my mind to it, there were so many other cool things around,”
Jishnu read his essay. “The picture was striking, especially the colours, there was so much green in a room that had been split open by a grenade that you wondered how the greenery wasn’t charred at all and then you realised that the green wasn’t the green of plant life but the green of a soldier’s uniform, somehow the classroom had gone all green, military green. And there was our teacher sitting out there, her face behind the dull steel of her MacBook and I was wondering what was she looking at, was she checking her email or posting on Twitter? I tried to guess but it was hard to stretch the thought because a knot of students were chatting very loudly outside our classroom and I saw a guy seated on the balustrade and a group of girls and guys around him and I felt he looked like a king on a throne but also a bit like a clown, a clown-king. Was our classroom also like the classroom with the bomb hole? Were all classrooms like that? Was teaching the lighting of the diya of a bomb?”
“Everything has spilled over,” Megha said. “You were supposed to write about the picture, not about the trouble you had focusing on it.”
“And how did you know she was on Twitter while we were writing?” Sunalika asked sharply.
“Actually...er,” Jishnu said. “She posted something, it came up on my TL.”
“Which means you were browsing Twitter when you were supposed to look at the picture.”
“Ok, that’s disturbing,” Megha said. “But he did write a teaching philosophy. No one else brought up teaching.”
“How is that a statement about teaching?” Ujjaini asked.
Megha started to tell them how.
Megha thought of calling the pantry for a cup of coffee but hesitated. It was pretty amazing that this was a university where faculty members could call for coffee and a liveried pantry staff brought it to you on a tray. On the other hand, it was coffee made with instant coffee powder and tasted sad. It was better to opt for the milk tea, but Megha still missed her coffee. She needed to get an espresso machine for her office.
There was a light knock on her door. “Yes,” Megha said. “Please come in.”
Jishnu stepped inside. Below his red MIT hoodie, he had a crumpled pair of three fourths cargo, hanging on his angular frame.
“I’m, I’m so sorry about the Twitter bit,” he said. “But yeah, my notifications were on and I saw that tweet with your poem and your comment on the thread. I guess I shouldn’t have brought it up in class.”
“Why?” Megha asked. “Because I was tweeting on class time?”
“None of my business, I was out of line,” he said. “But I get distracted every time you post or tweet.”
“You guys,” she rolled her eyes. “Just glued to your phones!”
“It’s not the phone,” he said slowly, “It’s what you do.”
“Listen,” she laughed. “Don’t confuse the message with the messenger. What wasn’t your business was everything outside of the picture. You were supposed to focus on it, not on me and my tweet and the people chatting outside the class.”
“Hmmm,” he bit his lips. “I was thinking, perhaps...maybe that it was a good way to teach.”
“I liked what you wrote, especially the part about the green in the picture. But you lack focus. When you are asked to look at something, you’re supposed to blank out the rest of the world. Your classmates got it – they wrote about nothing else – just the picture.”
“I, well...I feel it doesn’t work that way,” Jishnu looked hesitant. “I feel a good writer gets easily distracted.”
“Not have focus?” Megha asked, looking sharp into his eyes.
“Yes of course, enough focus to write,” Jishnu said. “But everything is so distracting, how can you not fidget around? You were smiling behind your MacBook, the students were making a racket out in the hallway, and I just had to know what you were smiling about.”
“I said don’t confuse the message with the messenger,” she looked at him with a smile. “You won’t, will you?”
“You’re right,” he said. “I’ve got to try. But I’m going to suck at this.”
“You won’t,” she said, her smile lost. “I know you’ll be fine.”
He was silent for a few seconds.
“But you know what I mean,” slowly, he said. “The picture was all around me, the whole blazing picture. How do you not look at everything? Just the picture in front is, is...kind of, not the real thing.”
“You really believe that?” Megha stared at him. His gawky muscles were alien, unfamiliar muscles that made him think and write in strange ways, ways that sucked you in, the eyes of a clawed bird.
“I really, really believe that,” he spoke earnestly, suddenly sounding like a little boy. “When I write, I cannot shut my eyes to anything. Everything swims its way into my writing. They make too much of focus, it’s....it’s not such a good thing.”
Megha looked into his eyes, glanced away quickly.
Excerpted with permission from The Middle Finger, Saikat Majumdar, Simon & Schuster India.