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
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 Journeyto 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.