My memory of watching Appa read is soaked in the sound of his laughter. I cannot separate the two. He’d have a ಬೀchi (Beechi) book open on his stomach, his back straight, his fingers firm on the spine. When he began laughing, the room had to hold its breath. His belly moving, his body shaking, puffs of air escaping his mouth, he’d explain why he was laughing. There was always a man named Thimma & something ridiculous always happened to him in very Vadivelu-like situations.
Amma & I’d wait for him to finish & demand more explanation until he gave in & revealed that he was actually laughing because it reminded him of something from his hostel days. About the time when a boy terrified of ghosts refused to pass by the graveyard after they were returning from a late night horror film, and how one of them pointed at a tree and started howling only to watch the boy scream, run & fall, scream, get up, run & fall all the way back to the hostel.
I learnt a lot about pace from watching him read. It never happened that immediately after laughing at a funny bit, he returned with more laughter. There was always time for reflection after a laughing fit, almost as if the book had to use strength to calm him down, rest his bouncing belly, make him pause. Then he’d say mchh & close his eyes for a bit.
Schools can be creatures of Brahmanical impositions. Sanskrit was shoved down throats under the garb of ‘scoring subject’, Kannada was made alien because fears of halegannada (old Kannada) were thrown around, English was desirable, English songs even more so, boy bands were cool even if they had difficult names (Enrique was/is Henry K).
I pushed myself to mug big words in the dictionary, never quite knowing when to use them. At home, I grew ashamed of all the Kannada books & hid them behind English books with thick, impressive spines, not knowing whom they had to be hidden from. It is not ironic that I teach English for a living today but have returned to Kannada with a fervor – a kind of Sairat. Reading Siddalingaiah helped this return. Watching Big boss Kannada confirmed this. Now when I write in Kannada sometimes, I am pleased that my hand remembers it very well.
I was born into castes that whipped Kannada & Konkani together to produce a gadbad of joys that English will never understand. And yet, a man living all the way in Latin America, in fucking Aracataca who wrote in Spanish, somehow made it to a tattoo on my arm.
Last week, Appa learnt that our thread-wearing neighbour had procured enough newspapers to sell. He went & asked for Deccan Herald with great interest, bought it & also a copy of Kannada Prabha. At home, he threw the DH in a corner & read KP. He did the same thing the next day, & the next. I smiled & felt rescued. Somehow by showing & hiding, we have found our own ways to survive, read, and be taken seriously.
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 won’t lie. Even when I was imagining my grand reading plan for the 2 month long break, I didn’t believe it, which is why I must have imagined it in lovely colors like the orange of a Bangalore evening and the red of Mangalore mud. Even so, a girl can hope. Especially a girl who is soon going to walk with a cane, Dr. House style.
I was swallowed by the vortex of watching shit after shit on Netflix. I succumbed beautifully. When guilt finally arrived, it was too late. I had to attend to serious work shining with deadlines and all.
Often good things happen when I do serious work. The most important of them all is that I crave absent-mindedness for a bit so I take a break, go to Facebook, and see what shit I was doing in 2008, 2012, 2014. And I find things that make me giggle, make me put my fist in the mouth and bite, make me howl with laughter, and rarely something that will make me wonder – hey why haven’t I seen this before, what’s wrong with me?
Today was one such day. I wish every day is like this. I curse the days when I am not easily moved by wanting to be moved.
I watched this interview today and got some orange and red back in my life. It’s Gabito’s. He’s saying nice things about writing. Basically things that make me wonder what is stopping me from writing. Why can’t I shut up and write? I also realized why I’m wildly attracted to him. When he was talking, I couldn’t stop watching his face. I imagined him in bed. And concluded that he’ll be damn good. Cuddling included.
Ok shy is coming. This is what he said:
“Writing fiction is like hypnosis. You must hypnotize the reader so he only thinks about the story he’s being told. You need a lot of nails, screws, and hinges for him not to wake up. This is what I call carpentry – the narrative technique in a book, or in a film. Inspiration is one thing, but narration is different. Telling a story and turning it into a literary reality which enthralls the reader is impossible without this carpenter’s work.
To enthrall a reader is to control his breathing rhythm. It mustn’t be interrupted, if we don’t want him to wake up. When I’ve reached this rhythm in my writing and I realise one of my sentences has gotten stuck in a clumsy rhythm, I add one or two adjectives — even if they shouldn’t be there. Their function is to prevent the reader from waking up. That’s carpentry.”
That nails and screws bit made me shudder. There’s enough carpentry in my body as it is.
But yes – many sighs and yellow butterflies. You can watch the interview here:
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 😦
Fab year so far. Got to meet two of my favourite writers.
In Jan, Paro Devi came to college and stayed in the guest house right above the department so every morning, I sat at my desk with a spring in my bum- singing Parodevi is breathing above my desk – now she must be sleeping – now she must be eating.
I got to meet her personally and thank her for all the love she sends through her writing. Here’s a happy picture.
And then Times Lit Fest happened. It’s kakka and I would have never gone. I went only because I was to be on an interview with Sujatha Gidla 🙂
I don’t want to say much here because I’m writing about meeting her. Let me just say that I have never met an author who was just as happy to meet a fan as the fan was to meet her.
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.
Some cities share their stories with us so fiercely that when we leave, we don’t miss them anymore because their stories quietly replace them.
For the longest time, Delhi was lived quite precariously within the strong red walls of Karnataka Bhavan and its sombre neighbour, Ansal Plaza. This was where we headed to for a stroll, for pizza and to generally avoid the vacuum of living in a strange city and yet living outside of it.
Early this year in Ansal Plaza, I found Hi Seoul, and I allowed myself to feel less tortured about not having the courage to explore Dilli. Finding Hi Seoul was the result of some form of exploration, I told myself. So as my parents and aunt trundled to Dominos’; the sister, the brother, and I walked to Hi Seoul.
The next day, we caught our early morning flight to Manali. Delhi safely went back to being the building we stopped at before resuming the actual journey.
When I stepped out to go to Daryaganj, my phone was recovering from the heavy-duty Delhi Metro apps I’d just downloaded. Daryaganj, as my app pointed out, was squeezed between Chawri Bazaar and Chandni Chowk. The Chandni Chowk of Kajol from K3G’s galli, of delicious jelebis and cheap clothes that cousins talked about always a little breathlessly, and of the way my mother’s eyes turned suddenly soft and then shy when she recounted her second trip with dad there.
I cursed all my well-wishers back home who told me that I’d die if I didn’t take warm clothes and wear two socks and two bras in Delhi. I was baking – bra, body warmer, a full sleeved cotton shirt with frills, my brown jacket, socks and warm crocs.
I climbed out of the Chawri Bazaar Metro station and saw a line of cycle-rickshaws. My Google maps said walk 20 minutes to reach Daryaganj. I said chalo, why not and as I walked towards the footpath, one of my legs stood firmly in front of the cycle-rickshaw and refused to move. It all had to happen fast so obviously I went to the nearest cycle-rickshaw and looked inside. The last time I had seen one was in Band Baaja Baraat where Bittu and Shruti do their Shaadi Mubarak business phone call in a cycle rickshaw. Daryaganj jaana hai, I told my man. He nodded and I hopped inside.
My rucksack and I hugged each other as we sat because we were happy and didn’t want anyone or anything else in life. Except maybe some jelebis. Jelebis, yes. And as I sat there, bobbing up and down, I dreamt about a magic camera that could show you what all your friends were doing in that moment and then I imagined all my friends staring into my moment and feeling very happy for me. My father’s disapproving face appeared and I felt happier.
The cycle-rickshaw braked and I fell, face -first on my man’s back. My rucksack fell and along with it, all my camera fantasies and hopes. My father’s face erupted into raucous laughter and I sobered down. I had arrived in Dilli. I held on tightly to the sides of my cycle-rickshaw and felt a little afraid for my life. My man was humming and braking and screaming at bike/car walas and jumping in and out of potholes with very little effort.
The road suddenly sprung to life and all the vehicles jammed on the lane started screeching away. There was no trace of a footpath — all the cycle-rickshaws had pulled closed to one another and were honking in unison. We were now on a two way road with a serious monopoly issue. Our side had colonised half the road.
When we hadn’t moved for a while, I paid up and squeezed myself out and stood on no man’s land. I was trapped. There was no room for my rucksack and me to stand, let alone move. My man took pity and offered to drop me to the end of the road. I looked around to see various no man’s land people offering 100 bucks to just sit in the cycle-rickshaw.
The metro quickly became something I looked forward to travelling in everyday with a mild jouissance. Imagining my body and the bodies of many other women in the metro, lolling freely in the comfort of the ladies compartment made me want to know them differently.
A woman was reading a text book by the door – her lips pouting in enviable concentration, her eyelashes barely visible and her posture so confident, I wondered if she did this every day. Another wriggled into the space between two large women and apologized for her huge Mega Mart bag even as the women dutifully ignored her and went back to sleep.
On my last day in Dilli, two women asked me for directions and one of them enquired if I took the metro regularly. I shamelessly said yes and smiled like a maniac for the rest of the journey.
Monica James writes in Invisible Libraries that today, the library of Daryaganj contains the city. ‘A walk through the library of Daryaganj is also a walk through the city and in your wanderings books become your guides.’
There were various kinds of libraries here: deodorants, clothes, sweaters, track pants, spiral-bound books, diaries, but mostly more books. They were pouring out of the pavements. Lines and lines of massive books in all sizes displayed on thick, plastic blue covers. I scored two Judy Moodys here for Rs 10 each and a moth-eaten copy of Austen’s Sanditon for Rs 30 which I bought only for the inscription I found inside:
A mean sized auto pulled up at one of the pavements and a lean, short man wearing green chappals slowly started shutting down business for the day and arranging it in the back of the auto. Everywhere else, books were being returned to humongous plastic covers, rags and travel bags. One such pile was being stuffed in when I noticed a bent copy of Blankets. 200 Rs. I decided against it because by now my rucksack was threatening to burst. I still regret not buying it.
On the way back – the rush from before was gone and Meena Bazaar had fallen to a quiet mist. Shop after shop selling meat had their showcases filled to the brim with kebabs and sheeks. On the other side, boxes of sweet smelling fruits were piled on top of each other. At Jama Masjid, I cut into a galli full of weddingy shops: Invitation cards, tent works, plumbing, bride and groom clothes, and travel agents selling exclusive honeymoon deals.
In the corner, a thin man with a big scar on his forehead sat with his knees pressed to the chest – he was getting a shave from a large man dexterously waving his knife. All the top-half of the buildings in Chawri bazaar were blackened, dusty and closed. The lower half of the buildings flourished with activity. I walked on and on, realizing that in a parallel universe, I am sitting in one of the many balconies at Karnataka Bhavan gazing down at red brick walls.
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.
Tuesdays are tricky. Both my best and worst days in the last one month have been Tuesdays. I think Tuesdays like playing with me. So I’ve decided that they don’t have to like me but I am going to tolerate them. I had a pretty regular day – class, lunch, curses, tea- blah – blah. After my last class, I sat at my desk and wondered if should just cut my uterus out and hide it somewhere. But then it tired me to think of blood, especially since I haven’t seen any in god knows how long so I decided to nap and read and make chai – and in that order. Thankfully my habit of mindlessly doing shit on Facebook will never outgrow me and I found SR’s new piece up on the Finger. It’s on Margaret Atwood’s book – Cat’s Eye. SR’s opening lines made me blush. Like somebody teased me and I couldn’t help but blush and pout at the same time.
Margaret Atwood wrote my childhood before it happened. Or at least a very good approximation of it.
And as I continued reading, I realized that I have accumulated far too many Cordelias in my life that I’ll never have the balls to walk away from. Some of these Cordelias don’t even know that they were my Cordelias. SR quotes Elaine, who says:
But Cordelia doesn’t do these things or have this power over me because she’s my enemy. Far from it. I know about enemies. There are enemies in the schoolyard, they yell things at one another and if they’re boys they fight. In the war there were enemies. […] You throw snowballs at enemies and rejoice if they get hit. With enemies you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.
The basic problem with all my Cordelias has been that they have all been my really good friends. I am only now learning how to survive potential Cordelias – measured, cold, distance. Something I think I may be getting good at. SR’s essay saved my Tuesday and made me not want to do miserable things to my uterus.
I wanted to same-pinch the crap out of her when I read this:
For me, this was crying. I’d cry and run away. Crying slid me into another mental state; one in which I didn’t feel so trapped that I was paralyzed, and my legs would actually move. Cry and run, cry and run, that’s my go-to for whenever I feel trapped – even today.
Every time I read an old journal, I count the number of times I have written- I am not going to cry about this anymore! And the number manages to astonish me every time. Even today, nothing comforts me like crying does. After a long session of feeling sorry and crying, my mind is clear and I get awfully chirpy.
My goal for the next week is to read Cat’s Eye and read like a motherfucker.