I cannot tell for certain when I knew I would end up with a career in teaching.
Family and friends of the family would say they knew right when I was five and had just started school. My favourite play activity after school was using the cemented wall at our utility area at home as a blackboard and ‘teaching’ imaginary students all that I had learnt in school that day. At the time, I believed very strongly in chalk (everything had to be written down neatly so the children could take notes) and using the cane (on the recalcitrant walls that refused to answer my questions correctly). Amused, parents, neighbours, relatives, and friends would always buy me more chalk and wooden rulers that passed as canes.
I was in high school when I acquired tuition students because there were two North Indian twins aged eight, our neighbours in Indiranagar, who needed help with studying languages, especially Kannada. The neighbour insisted on paying me a modest amount – Consider it pocket money – to ensure her daughters scored decently in their tests. They did. And I felt my first frisson of excitement at being called ‘Ma’am’, planning how to teach them, test them, and using a red pen to correct their writing. I used the money I earned to get more books at the circulating library.
I was twenty when I first entered a training room at the London School of Speech, Koramangala. My student was a tall, thin, strongly perfumed, coiffed-haired, sixteen-year-old Arab boy who knew conversational English but couldn’t understand grammar. I started coaching him in English grammar, and recognising for the first time in my own life how the rules actually worked, using Wren and Martin (a most wrongfully denigrated book). It worked. In twenty days, both of us had understood a lot about grammar and he felt confident of doing well at Christ College. On the last day he gave me a letter he’d written, ‘To my best sister who really taught me English, thank you…’
That same year, I entered a corporate training room for the first time. And for the first time, I received training on how to train. I had to sit in on my senior’s session as she made Parts of Speech, and Subject-Verb agreements, and Verb conjugations, fun, light, (the sessions were mostly held at night) obvious, and palatable to a largely second-language English crowd who were in Bangalore to join BPOs and call centres. Our students were almost the same age as us, often older. The sessions also happened at client locations – IBM, Accenture, and the like. I learnt very quickly to dress in a sari, wear big bindis, look imposing, knowledgeable, and experienced on the first day of the session. It was easy. I had the best role models in my lecturers who taught me at Jyoti Nivas College. I never revealed my age in class and my bearing was such that I unhesitatingly commanded people in their 30s or even 40s on how to use verbs correctly on calls and write better emails. This institute paid us very little, but gave us food and an inexhaustible supply of coffee (disgusting instant coffee), cardamom tea (to this day I can’t stand cardamom tea), and cookies through the night, and also dropped us back home by 4 am each day. The rush of this job was incomparable to any I’ve had. I didn’t dream of quitting in spite of having to be at college again by 9 am. I had always needed little sleep and if my waking hours could help me be fun and authoritative, and if I got paid (even if only a pittance) for it, I was sure as hell doing it. That’s how I started working very early on in life for no other reason than the high of doing the job (I always got excellent ratings as a trainer) and being financially independent (I could buy my own alcohol and cigarettes and clothes and books and music and no one could say anything to me).
Over the years, I tried various things to do with language, writing, and teaching – including being a journalist, MCing, creating and moderating communities, editing, doing voice-overs – but to this day, the rush I get when I first greet a new batch in a training room and the high I leave the room with, is incomparable to anything else. It’s why I was always sure I would open a school of some kind in my life.
Facilitating is pure meditation. For those hours in training, I am entirely focussed on the needs of my trainees. It’s all about quickly understanding their worldview and background, and then sharing a new perspective with them in a convincing way. Nearly always, they buy what I am saying. That’s the rush. The Fuck-I-was-born-to-do-this high. It is not an easy job; it’s definitely not for everyone but it does come very easily to me.
When I think about it like this, then it feels obvious that I did create a writing school and a community of writers, after all. It’s unsurprising also that I have been doing this for ten years of my life now. Bangalore Writers Workshop (BWW) which is both my creative child and a protective parent turns ten on January 20, 2022. Through these years, I have had the privilege of working with over 600 creative minds (only counting BWWers, not counting the corporate workshops we’ve had) learning so much more about the world and myself. The ethos of BWW has always been to be more aware as writers of text. As a community, it’s that awareness that has changed or at least made a difference to all our lives. I couldn’t be more grateful. We have mad, involved discussions on everything ranging from world politics to the different kinds of drains; we’ve raised money for migrant workers during the pandemic; volunteered time and efforts for those afflicted with COVID-19 during the second wave; written about, debated, and protested against CAA (when that was the only crisis we knew of); published one anthology of our writing; held numerous poetry readings, book launches, and book discussions; or simply met up for drinks to talk about the absurdity of life. Now that every thing is online, we’ve learnt to host BWW Socials online as well so we feel connected and reassured. The active, engaged, thriving BWW community today feels like an inevitable force of nature. It is certainly my lifeforce.
Ten years in, it’s remarkable how much the experience of running writing workshops and creating and moderating a community of writers has helped me grow and change as a person. As we all know, change is always painful, and growth always hurts.
When we started out, I was a stickler for grammar, syntax, punctuation. Ok. I was pedantic. Then I realized being pedantic meant that I was also being close-minded. I still believe in the sanctity of a well-crafted line, and my pulse still quickens when I see perfectly worded text, but the intensity with which I tried to impose these rules on others has pared down to a minimum. Students for whom English was a second language have humbled me with the openness of their worldview and I couldn’t in all honesty justify to myself being narrow in my own outlook, even if it was about the elements of language and style. Besides, the world has changed (and how) and we have worthier causes to pursue (if one must).
When we started out, I didn’t really believe in my own abilities. Sure, I knew I was good at what I was doing; it came easy to me so I never questioned it. But I always thought the skills I brought into the group, the experience I created could be done by anyone. That lack of awareness of my own power led me down inevitable but avoidable paths (in hindsight). I looked to others for praise, recognition, and even validation. Naturally, there was disappointment, disillusionment, a sense of betrayal, drama and stormy emotion, bad blood and all the rest of it. The people with whom I started this journey are no longer with me. It’s unfortunate it happened but those lessons led me to a better understanding and appreciation of my own skills and gave me the strength and independence to chart BWW’s course the way I always wanted to, without arguments and heartache.
When we started out, I was sure I would have at least two books out in ten years. BWW changed that. My own writing had to take a backseat. The wise Shashi Deshpande Ma’am warned me about this early on, but I still thought I would be able to facilitate workshops and write. Crafting an experience that was fun but full of gravitas, honest but not mean, meant the world to me. The BWW experience had to be just so. That was always the first priority because that’s how I made a living too. The joy came in mentoring writers who would do well and fulfill their writing destinies. So many of our students have successfully published their books, and nearly half our students have seen their work published in literary magazines. That’s perceivable success. But there is also the success one doesn’t see; one cannot measure stories about students changing lives, world-views, leading happier, more fulfilling lives. Relationships that have bloomed and blossomed through BWW. Couples that were born who got married and went on to have babies. Couples that were born who taught each other something, became muses, and changed each other. Business partnerships that sprung up. Families that came together with a shared passion for literature and reading. Parents and children who began to understand and appreciate each other better after the workshops. Women who found the courage to get out of unfulfilling even abusive relationships. Troubled writers who found a tribe. Men and women who began to question their upbringing, the stifling rules a regressive society thrust upon them and who found the courage to break free, in both small and dramatic ways. These are examples of what a writing workshop can do as it sets about making writers aware of the text. And these stories are the only victory that means anything to me.
When we started out, I thought it was all about me. ‘Look at what I am offering you, you aspiring writer.’ That ended very, very quickly. It’s all about the people. I learnt to be more empathetic. Workshopping a story together means threshing out details. You can’t go in to that adamant about what you know. Workshopping a story meaningfully needs a deep, immersive understanding of a writer’s world. It’s imperative to see how the writer views the world. Context is everything. While I continue to hold very strong opinions on politics, philosophy, and everything else in between, interacting with such a diverse group of people made me sensitive to the legitimacy of a point-of-view. I learnt that I could completely disagree with a worldview but I could still see the beauty and humanity in a person. I began to understand the world with more nuance. ‘Those who can’t, teach’ is bullshit. I have struggled trying to find more mentors for the workshop because good writers don’t make good facilitators. Writing is all about oneself. It’s a me-first activity. Facilitation is all about putting others first. A facilitator can never talk a lot about themselves or be half-present in the workshop. It’s like being in a Game of Thrones type battle. Your arm can get cut off, but you continue to anticipate your opponent’s moves and you continue to fight. I have been severely ill, burnt out, dealing with anxiety and depression, but inside the workshop I am 100% there, uncompromising on the quality, focused on giving my students what they need. What made it tenable, unalterable, and yes, easy, was having a community that pushed me to give more, that encouraged me to be my most authentic self as a facilitator, as a mentor, as a friend.
Today, I don’t need to wear a sari and a big bindi to be taken seriously in a classroom.
Today, I don’t need to be taken seriously at all.
I owe this knowledge, this freedom, and the bliss that comes from both, to my students, and for that I will forever be grateful.
In all my twenty years as a teacher, I have learnt that with teaching it’s enough if you laugh a lot while learning together.
The rest will follow.
In all my life, personal and professional, I have never celebrated a tin anniversary and got a diamond to commemorate an occasion. Yet, today, here we are. ‘I’m diamond, you know I glow up’. So I will leave you with the beautiful Bangtan boys who have brought so much joy to the world and to me because I can’t say it better than them now about this anniversary and this world we live in today –
This is getting heavy
Can you hear the bass boom? I’m ready (woo hoo)
Life is sweet as honey
Yeah, this beat cha-ching like money, huh
Disco overload, I’m into that, I’m good to go
I’m diamond, you know I glow up
Hey, so let’s go
‘Cause I-I-I’m in the stars tonight
So watch me bring the fire and set the night alight (hey)
Shining through the city with a little funk and soul
So I’m a light it up like dynamite, whoa oh oh– Dynamite by BTS
Of course, it will be terrible if I don’t sign off with the thank yous to:
First and always the BWW Community, for everything. But mostly, for trusting me with your stories, your voices, and your love, and for making BWW a safe, warm, welcoming, and engaging space.
The mentors’ team at BWW that I did manage to create – Sarita Talwai (for the kids’ batches), Vijay S (for poetry), and Mahima Jain (Freelance Journalism) who share my passion and vision around writing and facilitating. I am so grateful to you all.
Thank yous also to our erstwhile teaching partners: Philip John, Rahul Shingrani, Hari Ravikumar, Manoj Nair, Jon Magidsohn, Keerti Ramachandra, Deepa Padmanaban, Anu Gummaraju, Keerthana Jagadeesh, Indrayudh Ghoshal, and Rheea Mukherjee.
All the writers, editors, and publishers who generously share their time and counsel for the benefit of the BWW community, thank you.
Ayush Gupta and team WetInk for WetInk without whom absolutely nothing about BWW would work or be green and easy.
Our design partner Reuben Samson who tirelessly and consistently delivers my purple visions on time and with zero iterations.
Our location partner Work365 Spaces and our erstwhile location partner Newbridge Offices.
Special gratitude always to the Revannasiddiah family (Vinoda Ma’am, Rajesh and Rakesh) and FORHD.
Our photocopiers Kumar Sir and Ravi Sir.
Our event partner Urban Solace – Cafe for the Soul and my darling Perry Menzies for being the kindest, warmest host in Bangalore.
Our website and technical support team at Netzary Infodynamics. Special shout-out to Bhoomika K B, Alok Kumar Sahoo, and Ramdas S. Thank you so much!
Our publishing collaborator/partner Atta Galatta for sharing the vision of a Bangalore-themed anthology.
Our legal counsel Suparna Umashankar, especially during the dark times.
Our accountant Krishnamurthy Sir from Attitude Consultants, for putting up with my woefully inadequate knowledge of money, finance, taxes, and basic mathematics.
My mentor, therapist, and friend Kalpana Tanwar for letting me see and letting me learn. I wouldn’t be a diamond without you.
My mentor and friend Kalpana Tatavarti for always being available for advice and counsel, and pickles.
Lastly, a big thank you to the family and friends (you know who you are) for everything important and real like love, food, conversation, books, clothes, gifts, support, holidays, homes, wines, substances, and money.
Someday, I will make you all more proud, I swear. Till then, thank you very much!
Thank you for your time!
Eat well. Be well. Stay safe. Stay inspired.
Let’s be happy, healthy, and let’s love and laugh a lot!
P.S. Do look forward to our BWW Bangalore Anthology that will be out in 2022.