Have been going on and on about Siddalingaiah’s Ooru Keri in my classes forever. So pleased that I can do this now at Champaca and with two super cool women – Nisha Susan and Kiruba Devi. If you’re in the ooru – do come!
I can recollect the last six years of my life only in semesters. No other measurement makes sense. The last time I did this, I was less obsessed with archiving. Even so, this still remains the only reliable way of dealing with the guilt of not writing about the books I read this semester.
The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary – Simon Winchester
I was teaching a paper on linguistics this year and began my semester with this book. Kindle often gives one the impression that the reading is going a lot quicker than it usually does. Even so, the reading was slow – all the note-making definitely helped – as did the time I took to marvel at each history lesson learned. I loved the book because it told me fascinating stories about people who channeled all their energy into pursuits that are barely acknowledged today.
The book is about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The history of how a bunch of men spent 2 decades and more to produce the world’s first dictionary. Samuel Johnson had actually done it long before them, as did many other people who put together one form of a dictionary or the other. The earliest known was a dictionary of the most difficult words.
I discovered Samuel Johnson’s passion and wrote this little post to show him some love.
2. Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
I’d read Fun Home last year and still recall the line “If there was ever a bigger pansy than my father, it was Marcel Proust” with many giggles.
Bechdel is funny, mysterious, and obsessed with writing. Anyone who wants a little kick on their bums to get that push to start writing should read this. There are lovely panels featuring Bechdel at work – hands in her head, thinking, revising, editing, collecting material, typing even as she talks to her mother on the phone. Plus many many flashbacks. If there’s one thing I love about flashbacks, it’s watching them. If there’s one thing I love more – it’s reading them in graphic novels.
There is more Woolf in ‘Are You My Mother?’ than there is in ‘To the Lighthouse’. During my post-grad days, I tried reading To the Lighthouse and gave up because it went over my head. Not that I’ve suddenly become smart. But Bechdel took me to Woolf in a way that even the threat of failing M.A couldn’t. So easily, so kindly, so lovingly.
3. To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
I’m convinced that Virginia Woolf wrote a better testimony to Feminism in ‘To the Lighthouse’ than in ‘A Room of One’s Own’. In TTL, Woolf warns us about all the Mr. Ramsays in the world. You and I know Mr. Ramsay very well. He is the man, who, when he walks into a room, any room – must have immediate attention. Otherwise he will throw tantrums. He has to know what you are doing, what you are thinking, otherwise he will die.
Reading this helped me deal with the Mr. Ramsays in my life.
4. The Murder Room – PD James
Took me several months to finish reading this one but perhaps that was a good thing. I will cherish Tally Clutton and her resolve to live alone. Wrote about this in March.
5. Poonachi – Perumal Murugan
I still worry that I didn’t say yes with my dignity intact when I was asked to be on a panel with Perumal Murugan and Kalyan Raman. My heart shrieked and made a fool of me.
I spent most of March being anxious. I worried because I didn’t know Tamil. I worried because English speaking worlds are all alike – they are always brutal to non-English speaking worlds. I worried because, in this equation, I was part of the English speaking world.
The panel was on Murugan’s Poonachi – a book that made me have feelings for goats.
A big part of the reading experience was compromised because of the panel. There was a sense of structure but for days I worried that I would just embarrass myself or worse, Murugan would hate me. I haven’t been able to write about the panel yet. When I can, I hope it can convey the pain and the love in my heart for Murugan.
6. The Goat Thief – Perumal Murugan
Devoured the stories slowly. Most stories have women doing fab things. My favorite had an angry housewife kicking the husband away from sitting in her favorite chair. She then carries the chair over to the kitchen with an enviable Jejamma style.
Another story had a woman who worries about a persistent smell in the house until eventually one day, she is swallowed by a commode.
But the most memorable story in the book is ‘shit’
Apparently, Murugan wanted to release a bunch of stories with the title Shit Stories but the publishers chickened out. Bastards.
‘Shit’ begins with a bunch of upper caste ‘progressive’ boys who go mad because of a stench in their house. Turns out the drainage pipe behind their house is broken so they call someone for help. The man who shows up, Dalit of course, goes down the septic tank and begins to unclog the shit. Murugan describes every step that the man does under the septic tank, while the reader is slowly taking in the boys’ disgust upon seeing this. After a while, like Manjule’s audience, you too begin to pat your cheek softly because Murugan has slapped it that loudly.
7. Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love – Lara Vapnyar
You only need to know that there are two old women named Luda and Milena in this book who made me laugh so much, that I cannot wait to be old and funny. I want to grow old with Namsies the way these two do.
Luda and Milena both compete for a man’s affections (boring, overdone, what else is new – ha, yes, but wait for it) They lure him with food even though they detest cooking. Every evening they break their heads over what to cook – all the while thinking sincerely about each other (not the man)
In the end, the man dies.
I’ll leave you with that.
8. Conversations With Friends – Sally Rooney
Here’s a book that made me wildly uncomfortable. It showed me the distance between me and how I’d like to write.
It showed me what to do with people who are meant to be characters in books that we always tell ourselves, we will write someday – one day.
In the book, I found the language for daily anxieties that friendships tend to bring, the pleasures that there are, in going over WhatsApp chats from years ago for no particular reason. How we devote entire afternoons lying on the bed, assessing relationships, friendships – looking for proof that really- they don’t love us. In fact, they never liked us, to begin with.
How phones play seesaw with our feelings. At one end, you have the deafening silence of laughing double blue ticks that have the quality of a burn. At the other end, you have that fleeting message tone which is sometimes a whistle, a bird song, a dot, a bite, an orgasm. Each having the capacity to make your heart euphoric and erase all self-doubt.
Obviously, we love the things that can show us our shame.
9. The Vegetarian – Han Kang
I loved Yeong-hye. I loved her miserable husband. I loved her resolve to become vegetarian. I loved her decision to sit in front of the refrigerator one morning and empty it slowly of all its meat. I loved that she made her husband eat tofu for days. I loved her calm. And like her husband, I felt destroyed by it too.
10. Joan Didion
Reading Why I write was reassuring. Even though I am not there yet and perhaps never will be, it’s always gratifying to read a writer’s journey towards writing with a mad passion.
I discovered her madness in this article – How Joan Didion became Joan Didion. It’s a BuzzFeed thing which means it is pretty much buzzblah. But can’t complain: It took me to Didion. I don’t know many people who openly declare that they hate Pauline Kael. Even though I love Pauline Kael.
Here is her essay on New York. If you love places, the way they make you feel, how they tend to have more memories than your bodies, then you might like this essay. It’s never really a matter of liking or not liking a city. Didion shows us why.
11. The Idiot – Elif Batuman
Seline, Batuman’s writer-narrator is a freshman student moving into her dorm room at Harvard when we begin. Her roommate buys a refrigerator and tells her she can use it too but she must buy something for the room, like a poster. She suggests a ‘psychedelic’ poster. Seline can’t find one but finds the next option: A black and white picture of Albert Einstein. She is told to hang it above her desk and soon, several people express grave concern about this. Because you know? Opinions. Yawn.
- He invented the atomic bomb, abused dogs, neglected his children. You worship him? Shame.
- Don’t you know he abused his wife? How can you have his poster up on your wall? There are many greater geniuses who aren’t famous at all. Why is that?
After several days of torture, she sighs, and like all good girls, thinks of Nietzsche:
Maybe it’s because he’s really the best, and even jealous mudslingers can’t hide his star quality. Nietzsche would say that such a great genius is entitled to beat his wife.
That shut everyone up, I assume. But I was rolling on my bed howling with laughter.
Weeks later, when I was done, I could only satisfy the Batuman-shaped hole in my life by watching her YouTube interviews.
This one is particularly funny. Shez a kyuttie.
12. The Possessed – Elif Batuman
Obvi. What else could I read after having my heart raided by Batuman? I raided her back. Hacked into her New Yorker and LRB pieces.
In The Possessed, you see Batuman’s love for learning new languages. She learned Russian and Uzbek, applied for scholarships through her student life and got to live in Russia and Uzbekistan for two months.
In the essays, she tells us fascinating things she discovers. Take this for instance – In the Uzbek language, there are 100 words for ‘crying’ (!!!) There is a word for crying with a hoo-hoo sound, a word for crying after being dumped, for crying out of hunger, etc. I want to learn Uzbek now, especially since I cry 100 times for 100 things.
13. Approaching Eye Level – Vivian Gornick
If I held onto what Feminism had made me see, I’d soon have myself.
– What Feminism means to me, Gornick.
I pored over essays on living alone, feminism, friendships, walking in the city and stopped for a long time after I read ‘Tribute’ – an obituary of a woman she calls Rhoda Munk. I have never heard of Rhoda Munk but the obituary, like all good obituaries, brings her alive. If you google Rhoda Munk, you will discover that even the internet has amnesia. There is not much that is known about her. Some say that Rhoda Munk is a pseudonym for someone else.
Even so, to write about someone that endearingly after they’ve died is to wish you’d known them well when they were alive. Gornick reminisces about the time she was invited to spend a weekend at Rhonda’s summer cottage. Over three days, the women talked, wrote, took long walks by the sea, had long conversations, cooked, read and took care of Rhonda’s many cats. This is what’s rarely possible even in most great marriages. She had that with Rhonda. A friendship with an older, accomplished woman, a writer, a possible mentor.
After that weekend though, Gornick tastes the bitter truth. She wasn’t special. The ‘honeymoon period’ of their friendship was over, she says.
Many many people begin to join them to live in the cottage. Turns out Rhonda had invited everyone she knew.
Gornick slips into the background and understands that nobody is ever really going to be enough for Rhonda and that’s what makes her Rhonda.
I don’t know Rhonda but I feel like I want to impress her.
14. The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan
Anne Fadiman introduces Marina Keegan as perhaps the only student to have boldly resisted Fadiman’s writing advice. Keegan was in Fadiman’s First-person writing class at Yale.
She resisted my suggestions because she didn’t want to sound like me; she wanted to sound like herself.
I was intrigued. Keegan was barely 20, and had the energy of a dead woman who’s come back alive to write. She had the guts to tell a published writer ki nehi boss, yeh mera style nehi hai. She wrote and rewrote until she was satisfied, which she never was. She was always convinced that she could write better.
In ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, Keegan confesses that she doesn’t want to graduate. She wants to keep learning. She worries that it might stop if she goes out into the real world where one has to work to earn.
I wanted to shake her. The woman had already interned at the New Yorker’s fiction department and had received an offer to join them full time after graduation. She was barely 20. I feel like I must keep saying it. Feels like cuts on my wrist. Because what was I doing at 20?
The book is a collection of Keegan’s short-stories and essays. The characters in her stories will walk with you for a long time after you have finished reading. I remember the girl whose boyfriend died. She visits his parents to offer condolences and finds herself in the company of his beautiful ex-girlfriend whom they all love very much. Now she is grieving and jealous. Later, she finds his journal where he has written unflattering things about her.
I remember an old woman who reads to a blind young man twice a week. As soon as she enters his apartment, she takes off all her clothes and begins reading to him – stark naked. At one point her husband dies and she doesn’t go back to the blind man.
For someone who wrote astonishingly intimate stories about death and loss, it’s crazy that after 5 days of graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan died in an accident. She was barely 20.
It’s probably a bad idea to read a detective novel over three months. You forget who died, who had the most convenient alibi, and whose house was most unkempt. But if you’re reading PD James’ The Murder Room, it’s pardonable to stretch it for as long as you want.
The murder is just a background against which you discover characters whose lives and routines keep you more occupied and thrilled. This is what makes PD James incredible, that she is able to keep your interest in these things despite an equally compelling murder mystery.
I have learnt more things about teaching from Adam Dalgliesh than I have from my own experience in the classroom. Today I’m as unprepared as I was on the first day of class. But I have come to realise that in the profession of teaching, it’s sometimes an ordeal to talk to students like adults.
My response to their various hostilities range from giving hostility back; to ignoring them completely; to confronting them to talk it all out. But neither of these is a fitting response.
In a room full of Murder suspects, Dalgliesh interrogates everybody with the sternness of a businessman and the aloofness of a lover caught daydreaming. This is possibly the best response to unwarranted attacks and general hostility. When the suspects are tired of the cross examining and the hundred odd restrictions on their movements, they begin attacking Dalgliesh – sometimes even personally.
Dalgliesh has a clear sense of his job. He doesn’t care about settling power matters with those who question it. He wants to solve the case – if that gets in the way of people’s fragile ego, he gives exactly two and half fucks and moves on with his life.
A recent discovery that has made me very uncomfortable is that as a teacher, I have taken too many liberties to feel offended at the drop of a hat. While sometimes, I reserve the right to take offence, I should probably learn to be aloof.
I have bad days. Trapped in files and piles of admin work, I have often lost my temper. I continue to envy colleagues who talk to students in a consistently reasonable, annoyingly patient way.
When I think back to all those times that I have lost my cool, I cringe. Because there is nothing not performative about anger. Both on the inside and outside. Regardless of what it’s about and where it’s coming from. This doesn’t make it less genuine – even if performance is a lie. It just makes me wonder if it’s really all that necessary – ashte.
Adam Dalgliesh is calm. During his worst moments – he’s still calm. He’s never severe on himself.
When Adam and Kate go to interview the mother of some murdered woman – Kate is taken aback by the generous make-up on the mother’s face. For a moment, I was also judgy bitchita. I was all ‘Why are you putting make-up on face when cops are coming to talk about your daughter’s murder?
The stepfather doesn’t figure here because it’s clear from his mannerisms that he’s happy step-daughter’s dead.
Adam Dalgliesh, calm as iceberg on ocean says – ‘It’s her wish to grieve the way she wants to. Clearly her daughter’s death made her vulnerable. So if she wants to brace the day by doing something that makes her feel powerful – why shouldn’t she do it?
I couldn’t applaud because book was heavy so I made my feet applaud.
Tally Clutton is my wonder woman. She craves solitude more than anyone else I have ever known. And she craves it not because she likes herself, but because she loves London. She knows she’ll never be able to enjoy the city if she doesn’t see it and live it alone, day after day. She walks the streets of London with the calm desperation of a woman in love willing to surrender.
She wants nothing more than to spend her last few days swallowing the city in slow, deliberate gulps. Sigh. I want to live and die like Tally Clutton. But before that I want to read all the PD James I can get my hands on.
You can watch the BBC adaptation here. But it’s a little blah because it ain’t the Tally Clutton from the book 😦
Alison Bechdel, Virginia Woolf, Nagraj Manjule
Finished reading Alison Bechdel’s ‘Are you My Mother?’ this morning. She took me to Woolf like no one else has – not even Woolf herself. Bechdel’s dream sequences are told and drawn with so much ferocity that they begin to seep into the non -dream sequences as well. She gets you curious about desire, shame, words, and anger in a way that only your body can teach you.
I pulled out all my Freud books and set them aside. Later, in the department I spent sometime trying to warm up to Freud. The man is bloody unreadable. I turned instead to Woolf’s To the Lighthouse – hoping, like Bechdel, to find more answers about Psychoanalysis than psychoanalysts can give.
Stopped often – moved to A Writer’s Diary – then back To the Lighthouse.
Screened Fandry for a class – the fourth time this year – felt more disoriented than the last time. Thought of Jabya – thought of my brother – thought of his empty fair & lovely tube that he sometimes squeezed cream out of. Thought of the godforsaken woman on twitter who attacked my Sairat essay. Some Azadi woman. Chee. My ‘review’ was a glowing savarna review I believe and that’s why she didn’t ‘agree’ with it.
My friends told her to shut up. And because she realised she’d spoken too soonly, she apologized.
It may have been fuck-all writing but I now have this to say to her – ‘You are not required to agree with it. You are not even required to read it. It’s not a review, it’s an essay’
And then my head got all fuzzy like it does when I have jumped from one thought to another too quickly. Towards the end of Fandry, I had swallowed the guilt I feel everytime I watch it. Don’t know through what manner of luck, unluck – or through the hard work of parents – some of us are able to escape fate.
Then my guilt became something else entirely –
For the first time, it became clear to me that I’ll never know if I’m good enough. I’ll never know for real if I’m actually good. There is no language that friends or enemies can use to tell me if I’m good or bad. Maybe it’s because they will never be able to separate it from the knowledge of what they think I deserve or don’t.
Here is my piece on reading Sujatha Gidla’s memoir – Ants among Elephants. The book was read over two days and written over three.
Best week ever.
The most comforting thing about the book was learning that I have to hurry. There are many, many family stories waiting to be written. This was also extremely unsettling. All the men and women in my family who can tell me about us – our caste, its history, and its stories are in their 80s.
Ants among Elephants is a story about many such people who dared to lift their heads up and look at the sky. And I am grateful for this because these are stories that must be written and told and shared — again and again — not just because soon, we will have lost all those who lived in these stories but also because these stories are what allow us to save them from being frozen like statues in history and government offices.
Featured image Credit: Shirin Jaafari/PRI via https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-08-10/india-she-was-untouchable-new-york-city-she-became-author
Finally, finally, finally. Sat down and wrote about reading Elena Ferrante. This is my first piece for The Open Dosa and I’m thrilled that it’s about Ferrante. My students and I were just dying to talk about her at Meta this year. The following picture is from the day of the panel.
This is my favourite picture from Meta. These girls and I have bonded over many other things – struggling with writing, reading, life, classes, clothes, and shoes. Now that we have Ferrante in common, these peeps will always be a part of me.
Read the piece here.
This is an extension of something I’d mentioned in an earlier post.
When I was in school, if there was anything I dreaded more than exams, it was the all too familiar Sunday evening feel – the dull panic of a joyous, empty day coming to an end and the mouth of a Monday opening wider and wider. Hair properly coconut- oiled, eyes aching slightly from the back to back films watched on Sony Max, books still packed heavily and tightly in a bag last opened on a Saturday afternoon and the inevitably depressing ‘show time over’ feeling. Dinner would be a lazy affair and in order to prolong the holiday, I’d stay up as late as possible only to wake up sad and grumpy the next morning.
This is what I like to call the Sunday Evening feel. Even though I was convinced that I wasn’t the only student feeling this, I couldn’t help wondering why so many of my classmates didn’t seem at all upset on Monday mornings. Was it just because they’d done their homework?
But in college, this Sunday feel became a threat. I’d taken science even though I had no interest in it and every day seemed like the end of Sunday. I grew anxious. Maybe this was permanent and my life after this would just be filled with Sunday evening feels.
But when I made the switch to Humanities, a part of this anxiety died and it’s only now that I realise that I must hug myself every day for making that switch. Because that switch has made sure that I have Sunday evening feels only on a Sunday evening, and sometimes not even then.
There are very few things that make me feel alive. And as I grow older, this list seems to get shorter. As of now this list includes, a very good sentence and floating in the pool. Now and then Mango Melba and a tall glass of rum make the cut. But when I am reading, I become an insufferable admirer of great sentences. When I come across a line that is going to change my life, I usually stop reading and celebrate life. And when I read a book that is filled with such a celebration, I find it extremely hard to remain neutral about the book and the writer.
I don’t know if students get worn out by a teacher who is excited by everything, and if they’d really rather like to listen to a teacher who hates everything. There is a certain charm about people who hate everything and then one day when they declare that they like something, everybody shuts up and listens to him. Note that it’s usually a ‘him’.
But I must say this, after having escaped a long life of Sunday Evening feels, I am not going to apologise for the things that make me feel alive.
I take what I read to all my classes. This semester, it has been quite the task – Siddalingaiah, Marquez, and Ferrante. At Meta this year, I was happy to be on a panel about reading Ferrante. All the panellists, much to everybody’s dismay, were Ferrante fans and to make it worse, we cared very little about our audience and enjoyed talking to each other. Many said that the point of a panel didn’t actually come through but maybe sometimes panels can just be about conversations. For the first time in my life I was talking about something shamelessly, without having a nervous breakdown. And to do that with students who are more like friends was just as thrilling.
I can’t be neutral or placid about writers who have given me goosebumps while reading them. They have made me feel more alive than an orgasm. And for this I’ll always always be grateful to them.
*Featured Image Credits: Popsugar
The first thing to strike me about Two Serious Ladies is little Miss Christina Goering’s casual way of literally immersing Mary, her sister’s friend into a stream to ‘rid her off her sins.’ “If you don’t lie down in the mud and let me pack the mud over you and then wash you in the stream, you’ll be forever condemned.” This happens after Christina’s sister has warned her to stay away from Mary.
I know a girl who I think would have done something similar in her childhood. This girl was once told by her classmates that they were not playing catch-catch with her so she had better stop chasing them. ‘We are running away from you’, they had all said.
In the beginning, we are told that, “As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her.”
Years later, while on a train, Miss Goering is told off by a conductor to stop molesting a woman who Miss Goering was only trying to chat with.
There is something cavalier about the way in which conversations begin in this book. One doesn’t really have to have familiarity or some kind of connection to begin talking to anybody. It just seems that a desire for conversation and a good drink is enough and perhaps it sometimes is. There is no prelude to most of these conversations and it is a strange learning experience for the reader.
While I struggled to adapt to the many moods of Miss Goering, actually just one mood – the mood to go elsewhere, I found myself being drawn closer and closer to Mrs. Copperfield’s interior monologues. I am inclined to believe that in these monologues, Jane Bowles allows us a certain kind of release that Miss Goering is constantly looking for but never finds.
When Pacifica teaches Mrs. Copperfield to swim, it is very early in the morning and they are in the ocean, their naked bodies now rubbing, now moving apart. Mrs. Copperfield is at this point reminded of a recurring dream. She is running towards a mannequin that is about eight feet high, made of flesh but is frighteningly lifeless. Both Mrs. Copperfield and the mannequin roll off a cliff. The mannequin protects her body from glass pieces and other objects. They roll and she thinks about Pacifica. They roll and she’s one with her.
Towards the end of the book, Miss Goering is descending a staircase after a brutish man she was supposed to spend the evening with has abandoned her. “The long staircase seemed short to her, like a dream that is remembered long after it has been dreamed. She stood on the street and waited to be overcome with joy and relief. But soon she was aware of a new sadness within herself. Hope, she felt had discarded a childish form forever.”
In both these scenes, there is a hidden tenacity for survival, for attaching meanings to events, and for happiness. At the end of the book, Mrs. Copperfield has resolved only to do the things that she wants to because she has come to discover that that’s all it takes to be happy and we know that to be happy, “is her sole object in life”
Pacifica is her inspiration to be happy and we know that when she leaves, Mrs. Copperfield is going to be broken. Mrs. Copperfield also knows this.
In a letter that Mr. Copperfield writes to her after she has decided to leave him, he says,
“Like most people, you are not able to face more than one fear during your lifetime. You also spend your life fleeing from your first fear towards your first hope. Be careful that you do not, through your own wiliness, end up always in the same position in which you began. I believe that only those men who reach the stage where it is possible for them to combat a second tragedy within themselves, and not the first over again, are worthy of being called mature. Your first pain, you carry it with you like a lodestone in your breast because all tenderness will come from there. You must carry it with you through your whole life but you must not circle around it.”
The only response she gives to both the letter, and her husband is shaking her head three times. And then we never hear of him
The most delightful bit in the book is Mrs. Copperfield’s rescue of Mrs. Quill who is left stranded in a very expensive hotel with no money, after the man who was to pay storms out on her. Mrs. Quill is dutifully harassed by the assistant manager and Mrs. Copperfield turns up to pay the bill and to tell him off. The assistant manager is horrid to Mrs. Quill. And the narrator lets on a little more than what would have been just enough to sympathise only with Mrs. Quill.
“The most horrid thing about you is that you’re just as grouchy now that you know your bill will be paid as you were before. You were mean and worried then and you’re mean and worried now. The expression on your face hasn’t changed one bit. It’s a dangerous man who reacts more or less in the same way to good news or bad news. I came here for two reasons. The first reason, naturally, was in order to see your face when you realized that a bill which you never expected to be paid was to be paid after all. I expected to be able to watch the transition. You understand – enemy into friend-that’s always terribly exciting. That’s why in a good movie the hero often hates the heroine until the very end.”
In Bowles’ rendition of taking back honor, I saw in wild fervor, the Dhanush in VIP who renders a two minute long monologue to an upper class, entitled brat. They are both at the opposite ends of class yes, but both have been jilted by being shown what they lack and they are now taking back ground.
Jane Bowles, according to this New Yorker essay, is forgotten. There is no trace of her in her own home where she lived with her writer husband. He, of course is remembered. This is the saddest thing I learnt today.
I am lying in bed in the same posture that I have been in for the last two days. After I have finished reading ‘The Illicit Happiness of other People’, I close it and turn away from it. I am not angry or irritated, neither happy nor sad. I am feeling nothing. It’s like turning away from a lover in the dead of the night after making violent love.
I play with a thread I have plucked out from the pillow cover. I am thinking many things. I am thinking about Unni. I am thinking if I can ever become like Unni. I am thinking if I know any girls like Unni. I am thinking of Mariamma who is more and more like all the Malabar women I have known and more and more a stranger that I am both afraid and protective of. And then I turn back to the book and start tracing it with my index finger.
A half hour later I am sitting here trying to figure out what it is that I want to say about the book. When I was reading it, I was writing already. I was telling myself – I will write about this sentence like this and this character like that. But mostly I was wondering how Manu Joseph wrote what he wrote.
I don’t usually start reading books soon as I get them. I wait until I feel settled and willing to surrender. When M gives me books, he tells me nothing. He doesn’t prepare me at all. He doesn’t say, ‘This book is going to change your life’, or even ‘I don’t know if you’ll like it’. He just leaves the book on my palm like it’s the most natural thing to do with books, and perhaps it is.
I giggle at the title when I first see it. I have come to know happiness as something that people work for, often very hard. And when I see the title on the cover of the book, I imagine a bespectacled man standing alone and looking at the rest of the world in great irritation. The rest of the world is a bunch of happy, bald men, showing their teeth and laughing.
The bespectacled man I imagine is Ousep Chacko, a journalist who is investigating his son, Unni Chacko’s mysterious suicide. Mariamma Chacko, Ousep’s wife is mourning the son’s death and is in a strange crux between her past and present. And like all the Malabar wives I know, she is plotting her husband’s murder. Unni was an artist, the genius kind but not troubled in the way geniuses are. He was a happy artist. That is the problem.
There is an unsettling, unspoken envy that Ousep carries for his talented dead son. Unni’s death is a reminder to Ousep of his own failure – not just as a father but also as a writer. Ousep was once a promising writer, the best that the Malabar Coast had produced in 20 years. But then he failed. As Ousep goes in search of his son’s past, hoping to find answers to his death, he sees for the first time the marvel that his son was. He sees that his son was a better artist than he will ever be.
I found myself siding with Ousep at these points.
And then I found myself siding with Thoma, Unni’s younger brother. Before leaving for school every morning, Thoma stands in front of the door, chanting, “Put fight Thoma. You can do this, Thoma.” This is what Unni taught him to do to feel stronger. Thoma must tell himself that every morning to be able to survive the day. Because last night, like every other night, Ousep got obnoxiously drunk and made a fool of himself in front of the whole apartment block. He called people names, screamed expletives, and returned home to force Thoma out of bed to write his obituary – The Obituary of a Failed Writer.
The lungi’s permanent position in that house is around the fan, where it must behave like a noose. Ousep dictates his obituary every night and Thoma must write it every night. They must put up with this every night and sometimes when it gets too absurd, they laugh. ‘They’ is Mariamma and Thoma. ‘They’ is never Ousep.
Mariamma leans on the bookshelf in the bedroom she has not shared with the man in years. He is still standing on the chair with the noose around his neck. She inspects the chair. It has grown weak over time but a chair never collapses like a table. That is the true nature of a good chair. At best, it becomes lame, it tilts. That won’t be enough to kill Ousep. She can go and snatch the chair right now from under his feet. It would be a perfect murder. She has considered it before but she is not very sure about the strength of the lungi or even the fan. Ousep is heavier than he looks.
Thoma begins to write Ousep’s obituary but sometimes, he has to remind himself of Unni’s death to stop from laughing. He isn’t laughing at Ousep or anything for that matter. He just is. This is perhaps one of the very few times in the book where Thoma laughs. It’s only after Ousep feels tired and hits the bed that Mariamma and Thoma go back to sleep.
Every morning, Mariamma wakes Ousep up with a shock of cold water. He wakes up screaming, shivering, and follows Mariamma out of his room — to catch her, hit her, yell at her, we don’t know why because he has never managed to catch her. Maybe even Ousep doesn’t know what he’d do if he caught her. On her way to hurrying out of the house, Mariamma signals for Thoma’s attention and points to her chappals which he then takes to the balcony and throws down for her to wear. After she catches hold of her chappals, she gives him a thumbs-up and goes.
The Chackos are everybody’s neighbours. They are the family that bad things happen to, ones we feel pity for and hope never to become like.
While it was in those bits that I sided with Ousep and Thoma. I sided with Mariamma all along. When the book begins, Mariamma is plotting Ousep’s murder. I wonder if Manu Joseph is also on Mariamma’s side.
OUSEP CHACKO, ACCORDING TO Mariamma Chacko, is the kind of man who has to be killed at the end of a story.
Nothing of the sort happens at the end of this story but I couldn’t help wondering if Manu Joseph wanted to kill Ousep just to see if it’d make Mariamma happy.
It is important to pick sides while one is reading this book. These sides aren’t set against anybody, it isn’t even a measure of who’s had the hardest time recovering from Unni’s death. This side is just an open space from which to lean from and watch these characters be weird and strange not only with each other, but also with themselves.
When Mariamma talks to the walls, she hitches her saree up to her knees, thighs exposed — and stands like a woman about to plough a field. She tells the walls her story, sometimes pausing to reprimand them, sometimes demanding answers. When she talks to the walls, she is addressing her past. She is addressing the man who molested her, her mother, and Unni’s sisters. These were people who troubled her. She addresses Ousep in third person to his face. But this only happens after he does his walk of shame every morning, after having made a scene the previous night.
THERE ARE THINGS MARIAMMA tells Ousep, looking him in the eye and addressing him in the third person, which have a stinging literary quality to them that reminds him of what they used to say in his village – all wives are writers. His favourite is her description of the way he walks in the morning despite the shame of the previous night. ‘As if he is going to collect a lifetime achievement award from the president.’
It’s easy to fall in love with Mariamma Chacko. It’s easier to hate Ousep. It’s difficult not to be surprised when we are told that Mariamma Chacko is an Economics postgraduate. The saree-hitching, wall-talking, son- loving, husband –hating mourner is an Economics postgraduate and it’s unfair that this information is thrown around without the least bit of warning. As if it’s just something that the writer forgot to add earlier, or worse, waited for the right moment so he could spring it upon us like some FYI Post Script. These are moments when I was convinced I don’t know this family. I don’t know many women who have a postgrad degree in economics. But then it’s not important. Because even the tube of Colgate toothpaste knows that her degree is useless in this house.
The life of Colgate is squeezed out of it until it is a flat strip of thin tortured metal. Then it is violated by toothbrushes and even index fingers for several days. The brushes are not thrown away until almost all the bristles disappear, and after the brushes do die in this autumnal way, the two postgraduates and their son use their fingers to clean their teeth until Mariamma somehow makes new brushes appear. Soaps are used until they go missing in the crevices of the body. Ousep has seen the strange sight of Mariamma staring at an empty oil bottle left standing inverted on a frying pan.
And then I was convinced that I know this family.
Mariamma became more believable for me after Mythili Subramanian enters the book. Mythili Subramanian is Unni and Thoma’s neighbor and close friend. Mariamma is very fond of Mythili and this I found oddly comforting. My own mother hated all my friends equally. There wasn’t a single friend that I brought home whom she trusted or liked. Mariamma’s fondness for Mythili was unclear to me. Does she see in Mythili a daughter she never had? Or does she see in herself a chance to be the kind of mother to this girl her own mother never was?
I will always remember Unni Chacko. For days after finishing the book, Unni didn’t let me feel depressed in peace. He obstructed my thoughts in a way he used to obstruct his mother from getting into one of her wall-talking, frenzied moods. I recognized this. Because every time he made his mother laugh, I smiled.
Over cocktails last evening, my cousin A and I talked about love. He said he is like most men he knows, ‘Only capable of being in love with the mother. No one else’
I have heard this before and I understand what it means but the only thing I could think of after A told me this was how different Unni is from the boys that I know. And yet how easily he succumbed to being like all the boys I know. But that hardly matters to me now.
Unni is a memory of a moment I cannot seem to let go of. Unni loved his mother and was capable of loving all other girls just as much. When he hugged Mythili forcefully, I felt a gush of longing. I pictured his strong, 17 year old, hungry arms around Mythili’s slender, unripe body and in that moment, I wanted to be held by Unni. I wanted to be made rash love to by Unni.
I find that there are very few words I can use to describe the moment I finished reading the book. I am going to try nevertheless. I felt empty, like I’d been dropped into a big pit that I didn’t want to get out of.
For days after that, I will think about Unni and owe him a kind of happiness I never knew I was capable of. He said, ‘One can never escape happiness.’ I have found it hard to be unhappy after reading this book. I don’t know what this means and I am too afraid to call this moment happiness. But it feels strange, this happiness, almost illicit.
Everything is post these days, as if we’re all just a footnote to something earlier that was real enough to have a name of its own.
~Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Cat’s Eye is my first Atwood novel. At Blossom’s long ago, I picked up The Handmaid’s Tale because the cover looked exciting but I never got around to reading it. It still sits on my shelf along with a line of other books I haven’t read. Meanwhile Atwood remained in my head, and I devoured her short-stories and inflicted them on all my students.
In my B.A Optional English class one day, when the teacher was doing Journey to the interior, two boys made a fuss about Atwood’s ‘whining’ and how it killed them that she wasn’t making use of the Canadian literary landscape. And like most boys who make a fuss about women writers, they ended up mansplaining the teacher. I remember this painfully because over the past year, I have read a bit of Atwood and a lot of Munro. It hurts me that I cannot go back in time and laugh in those boys’ faces.
Based on a page I read of The Handmaid’s Tale I decided she wrote densely — of time, of people, and of a life that must be read at leisure or not at all. I kept consoling myself with her short-stories until I was ready.
I have sat quietly and watched many a failed friendship walk out on me to not have been hooked by Atwood and the ordinariness of her characters. At the outset, Cat’s Eye is a Künstlerroman that follows the life of narrator/protagonist Elaine Risley, a painter who comes back to her hometown for a retrospective. The story moves back and forth between Elaine’s present-day as a successful artist to when she was a little girl in post war Toronto.
Much of Elaine’s childhood is about her messy relationship with people who can only be described as friend-bullies. Even before the actual story has begun, Elaine mentions Cordelia – her bestie from high school and her bully from pre high school.
We all have a Cordelia in our lives. We have all been Cordelias in other people’s lives. Cordelia is your regular after school bully – part insecure, part brave and completely unhappy. Elaine quickly becomes a toy for Cordelia and her two other friends – Grace and Carol. They resent and at the same time like Elaine’s vulnerability. It gives them a primal pleasure to take advantage of her. Most of this is sexual. I think they all adore Cordelia but it is Elaine they really want to fuck. And they are either too shy or too ashamed of their own desires for her so what do they do? They torture her. They tell her she needs to be taught manners and how to walk. She cannot smirk without their permission, and she cannot say ‘I don’t know’ – something that she finds very safe to hide behind.
What makes Elaine ordinary is that she is a little of everything she sees and learns from. And since the things that make us the most ordinary are the things we hate the most about ourselves, we are quick to see ourselves in Elaine.
The novel slows down when she doesn’t go through a life makeover to brave out these bullies, as one may hope. She claims what is rightfully hers in the most deliberate way and this does not at all seem artificial or sudden or even impossible for the reader. By this point the reader has also had enough. Cordelia, Grace and Carol nearly kill Elaine once by letting her drown.
After this incident, Elaine ignores them and at one point, walks away from them. For anybody who’s had trouble saying no to people, this a moment worth waiting for in the book. Walking away requires pain and a wound that must remain unhealed for the longest time. And when Elaine does it, a little bit of me felt free.
Cordelia reminded me of the girl from my 4thstd tuition who pinned me to a wall to enact a sex scene she’d seen in a Hollywood movie. Cordelia was also the neighbor who climbed over the tall compound dividing my house from hers – only to come running to me to announce that her school had declared holiday the next day before mine had. When I told her I had a holiday too, she threw a fit and ran away.
Through a freak course of nature Elaine becomes a bully too. But not the kind that she was bullied by. She forgets everything they did to her, especially what Cordelia did to her and a little later, Cordelia and Elaine become best friends. By now, Elaine has no memory of what happened. I paused here, wondering if this is Elaine’s act before she pulls something nastier on Cordelia. Turns out it’s not an act. Elaine really has no memory of being bullied.
When Elaine speaks about her childhood, I am compelled to listen because it’s an adult’s voice that’s not fully adulted, looking back at its childhood self with kindness. It’s not a voice that is telling Elaine she shouldn’t have done this this and this. It is perhaps a rare thing to find an adult voice that is far too kind to its younger self and this kept me surprised throughout the novel. Much like Humbert Humbert who gives a guilt-ridden yet hungry voice-over to his adult desires for the pre-pubescent Lolita, the adult Elaine does the same with the child Elaine. Her narrative is often guilty but never unforgiving.
When she hangs out with Cordelia, Grace and Carol on what she calls ‘one of those normal days’ — meaning when they are not being bullies, she takes a chance at being ordinary. The girls are rolling down the hill and laughing. Elaine who joins the fun says, my laughter is a performance, a grab at the ordinary. Seconds later she ends up paying a heavy price for making an attempt at the ‘ordinary’.
When I imagined Elaine in love, I imagined her to fall hard. But with both Josef and Jon, her two lovers in Art College, she’s a careful lover. She gives but is always aware of how much they give in return. When she is pregnant and marries Jon, she is aware that it’s not going to be a happy marriage. In the beginning she thinks she is supposed to feel lucky when Jon proposes marriage without making a fuss. It’s the way we feel when we aren’t exactly head-over-heels with somebody but because we know that they, by default are absentee lovers, we assume that whatever little care they nod in our direction, it needs to be grabbed and treasured.
We are repeatedly told that love isn’t the main thing in men’s lives, and when they so much as pay a little attention to it, we consider it our fortune.
When Jon and Elaine are falling out of love, fighting and avoiding each other, she says –
We fight over our right to remain children. At first I do not win these fights, because of love. Or so I say to myself. If I were to win them, the order of the world would be changed, and I am not ready for that. So instead I lose the fights, and master different arts. I shrug, tighten my mouth in silent rebuke, turn my back in bed, and leave questions unanswered. I say, “Do it however you like,” provoking sullen fury from Jon.
When she falls out of love with Josef, she says –
I was unfair to him, of course, but where would I have been without unfairness? In thrall, in harness young women needed unfairness, it’s one of their few defenses. They need callousness, they need their ignorance. They walk in the dark, along the edges of high cliffs, humming to themselves, thinking themselves invulnerable.
So much of Elaine is a mountain of indecisiveness. But in moments – unaware that she’s doing this, she produces bursts of feminist wisdom. Something her art is often ‘accused’ of in her later years. Elaine the artist is just as unsure and hesitant as Elaine the mother, Elaine the lover and even Elaine the friend. As a sister however, Elaine seemed more like a version of herself she cherished.
Elaine – broken and recovering from a bad bout of love, says –
Love blurs your vision; but after it recedes, you can see more clearly than ever. It’s like the tide going out, revealing whatever’s been thrown away and sunk: broken bottles, old gloves, rusting pop cans, nibbled fishbodies, and bones. This is the kind of thing you see if you sit in the darkness with open eyes, not knowing the future. The ruin you’ve made.
When you have finished reading Cat’s Eye, you will look back and find odd shapes from your own childhood sitting in little ruins. This will make you happy. If anything, Cat’s Eye has the power to make you believe in ghosts. All of my former Cordelia-ghosts are sitting next to me and staring even as I type this. They have come back alive and though I will never know what to say to them, I am not afraid of them anymore.