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Travel

Seeing and Reading

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Cluny Convent School

Pondicherry

Day Three – 11/10/16

When I am listening to the soundtrack of Pride & Prejudice, I imagine what it must be like to touch the keys of a piano. My sister and I were put in a music class in Belgaum once. We were new and mother made us do everything that our neighbours were doing. We were very late joining so the neighbour kids lent us their music book. It was filled with ragas, all written in neat, round Kannada.

Ma copied everything down in two separate notebooks.  She hand wrote it in a ball point pen. I don’t remember how long it took her. But we didn’t go to that music class for very long. We didn’t understand the instructions because they were in Marathi. One day, the music teacher played a tune on his harmonium and asked my sister, ‘ye raga cha naav kai?’ (What is the name of this raga?) And my sister screamed her name loudly. Everybody around us collapsed with laughter.

I was happy that at least we got people to laugh at us. I was sure they didn’t like us much. We were the strange girls from a strange town who didn’t speak their language.

***

When day 3 begins, I am sorry. My bus is at 11 pm and there is a lot to be done, drunken, walked on, touched and taken pictures of. In the middle of all this, I am worried because I only have Alice Munro to read and things with her are never quite simple. I decide to risk it and take her along. I leave the room determined to see and read as much as I can.

If it has rained all morning, I haven’t heard it. I can only tell by the suddenly wet roads. I take a little stroll by the beach and don’t recognise the almost vacant land before me. On a Tuesday morning, Beach Road was a ghost town. I walk to Indian Kaffe Express for breakfast. It’s a small restaurant with six tables and 2 waiters. And here I begin to read the first story in a book called ‘The Progress of Love’.

Reading Munro makes me hold out all my stories like one would hold out playing cards. In this moment, I see the capacity there is in all our lives for stories and storytelling. Atwood once said that in Munro’s stories she feels a nostalgia for vanished miseries.

The first story I pick is called ‘The Progress of Love’. It is the story of a girl, an old house with cornflower wallpapers, the many women and a few men in it. The girl recalls watching her mother trying to kill herself on a Saturday afternoon. Standing atop a chair, and noose around her neck, the mother tells her to go call her father. The girl runs down the hill, looks for her father at the farm, and cannot find him. She is still wearing her night clothes but she only realises this after it has been pointed out to her by a bunch of men who stand listlessly– ogling and sniggering at her. Your father is not here, they say and laugh loudly. The girl is repulsed by the sound of their laughter. Munro later says that the sound of a group of men laughing loudly is the most terrifying thing in the world.

While on the bus back home, there is a loud group of men that doesn’t shut up until very late in the night. They call each other loudly, make jokes and sing songs. By the cold silence that follows after, I can tell that everybody on the bus is annoyed with them. I am annoyed too but I am more afraid. Their voices are loud and all alike. Just before exploding into menacing guffaws, they whisper things to each other. Every time they do this, I tighten my grasp on the far end of the curtain and go deeper within the folds of my blanket. When they get off the bus at Electronic city, the many relieved faces of women and men peep out from the curtains. There is a long line of sighs heard. Mine, I am sure, is the longest.

***

The story continues. The girl runs back up the hill and waits for a train to pass by. Even as she waits, she bawls loudly in the faces of many strangers who are sitting by the window and watching her. This scene stayed with me. This is the most ridiculous, yet the boldest scene I have ever read.

My waffles are cold by now. I pack up and head towards the Romain Rolland Library.

It is a government -white building with dusty old stairs out the front. When I step in, I smell a faintly old library smell coming off the corners of the red oxide floor. I peep in and see some fifty old men sitting pinned in their white lungis and white shirts, all reading newspapers. My enthusiasm died a little bit and I left. I walked slowly towards the Pondicherry Museum.

The Pondicherry Museum is a treat. The first floor has a whole section of ancient coins, guns, swords and stones. The second floor has the entire bedroom/living room/dining room set of Governor Dupleix. This includes the hugest almirah I have ever seen and a giant piano. My favourite moment at the museum was watching two Tamil school boys gaping at a vintage car and nudging each other. ‘Par ra, indha car la, Jacku, Rosu titanic la kiss pannanga’ (See man, in this car only, Jack and Rose kiss off in Titanic)

I giggled at this for 5 minutes before regaining composure and heading for lunch.

***

Lunch was a solid 6 hour halt at Palais De Mahe. This was easily the best meal of the trip. Prawn Moilee with appam, 3 cocktails whose names I don’t remember, gin, and coffee. I sat with Munro, reading another story called ‘Lichens’

I was there until it was time for my bus. Flashback tells me that Goa was far more exciting. N suspects that I’m used to being on my own and that’s why it’s not what it was like. I am glad I did this though. I am happier and calmer. 

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Categories
In Between

To Alice Munro, Sandra Cisneros, and other women with elbows

And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow.

~Sandra Cisneros

The House on Mango Street

Early 2008 – Jain College.

We were doing Margaret Atwood in an Optional English class one day. We were reading Journey to the interior when a boy said that the Canadian landscape had never been utilised by its authors and that Margaret Atwood should do something with Canada instead of whining all the time. I remember being pissed off by this accusation. I liked Atwood. Why should it fall upon her to do things with the landscape, was my initial response. The teacher sided with me, and when the boy’s retort was the usual, ‘how much of Canadian literature are you even familiar with?’, she told him to bugger off.

We moved on to African Literature after that and the boy and I reconciled so I didn’t go back to reading or fighting. It was a strange time to be a student. Love was around, friendships were disappearing, and parents were sworn enemies. My biggest worry then was figuring out a lie to tell my mother for why I was going to be home late that evening. Time was endless and college really only came to picture a day before the exams. Evenings were spent with a dysfunctional group at the back of a car, watching a movie, eating or planning our next outing.

It’s only as I am writing this that I’m wondering if I should forgive myself for the things I didn’t do when I was 18.

But seven years later, I discovered Alice Munro and I am not thinking of the time I could have read her in. I don’t know what I am thinking when I am reading Munro. I look at the page numbers printed at the top of the pages –One number above the other, wondering if she put them there too, because they seem assured. I am looking at the page numbers only because I have read a line that has made me wonder how many notes the woman must have made in her life. I am convinced that if I pull an investigation and get to the root of it all, I’ll find stack upon stack of dusty notes scribbled in black ink. Or maybe blue, I don’t know.

I cannot read Munro for a long time. Now and then – Now more than then, I must look up from my book and blink, adjust my posture, tie my hair into a bun, and get up to make tea. I must make these readjustments so when I reread that same line; I am more prepared for its candour. Looking at the page numbers came after I had exhausted all of the above.

I am drawn into her stories so easily, moved by her characters so strangely that I feel isolated. That’s a measure of reading I’m growing to be quite comfortable with. If I am pushed into believing that the people around me are as strange as I want the characters in books to be, then I needn’t be afraid of them. I am doing just that. I am taking away all the people I meet and putting them in books that I want to write.

If I could go back to that class again, I would tell the boy there’s a lot of Canada in Munro’s stories. People are always going to Walley to sell things. People are always writing letters to people in Quebec, people are always talking about their children who are in Ontario. The roads are not crowded; they are wide and angled perfectly so there are trees growing at right angles, the sunlight passes through these trees in brilliant bright colors that aren’t just your orange or red. The houses are tall and yellow.

The train journeys are long like in real life, the conversations are short, like I wish they were in real life, and sometimes punctured by longer silences. Munro fills these silences by telling us what these people’s hands looked like or what they were like in a past that is not theirs anymore. Maybe she’s not even telling you what their past was like but you are thinking about it anyway because she’s told you so much about it and moved so quickly from it that you almost want to know what she’s not telling you.

Sandra Cisneros says women in her family sat their sadness on their elbows, always waiting at the window. I remember feeling very happy and sad when I read this line. Happy because who writes like that and sad because I thought of all the women in movies I had grown up watching and how most of them did sit their sadness on an elbow. I am so sure that if my mother’s room had a convenient window like that, she would sit her sadness on an elbow too. Actually she would sit her sadness on an elbow at my window so I could see it feel guilty.

This is an image that hasn’t turned up yet in my reading of Munro so far. The women are doing lots of things at windows but they are never sitting their sadness on their elbows. They are figuring out ways to get rid of strange men trying to talk to them in trains, they are searching for the daughter that left home and never came back, they are counting the number of walnuts that fall off from trees every year, they are cutting  parts of their faces off to deal with guilt, they are falling in and out of love, they are surviving wars and losses, and they are writing and reading letters. But they aren’t sitting their sadness on elbows.

Sometimes they seem just the right amount of sad for a rainy afternoon and you can’t help but sit by a window, your elbow sticking out, your eyes soft with sleep — watching the rain and dreaming sepia dreams.