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OH, TO READ!

I am an inveterate reader. Committed, addicted, insatiable.

I come from a family of readers. Growing up at a time and place where television hadn’t reached us yet leave alone the powerfully addictive internet, reading was my window to the world. We siblings would quarrel about who had first claim to a new book, wait impatiently for each to have their turn with it and then discuss it to shreds. My voice in those discussions was the youngest, but as the tradition of our family had it, each voice and opinion was heard with respect, including mine. That, I believe, encouraged me to think and speak independently.

As an adolescent I spent many an idyllic afternoon in the shade of the luxuriant mango tree in our garden, sprawled on an old cane armchair, engrossed in the book in hand. I travelled the world over, learning of different lands and climes, met the most interesting people, understanding the compulsions of many kinds of human behaviour. I learned of many other vital details as well, the way other people spoke, the kinds of food they ate, the clothes they wore. The particular and peculiar dreams they chased, their challenges and struggles, their energies and fulfilments. All that and more without even putting a foot out. All from those pages that turned on their own, almost rhythmically, pages from which men and women spoke to me earnestly, passionately, sharing the stories they had unearthed, those that they had imagined, the sensibilities they had formed, the values they had learned.

The reading habit thrives on in our family and has thankfully been imbibed and refined by our gen next. They, of course, read in newer ways too, sometimes on devices and screens, tapping on an unfamiliar word to get an idea of what it means, unlike us who would perforce heave the voluminous dictionary out and then pore through those very fine pages and finer print. Sometimes I see my multitasking daughter with her earphones plugged in, listening to a narrator reading a book, while her hands continue working on something else. Yet I stay old-fashioned faithful to paper and print. For me, there is something on the printed page of a book that so magically and intimately connects me with the author that nothing else compares to it. As if those words were written expressly for me, me alone. That only the author and I  inhabit that space there, exploring worlds and ideas together, me seeing through their eyes, feeling through their beating heart and throbbing pulse. I become privy to the twists and plunges their minds take, see the thoughts appearing and the words forming as they give aesthetic shape to their creative substance. Sympathetic to their fear, anxiety, hope and belief as they transmit it all to me, trusting me and my empathy to understand and appreciate all that they had communicated. That particular private communication from author to reader cannot, I believe, be replicated in any other way. There may be audio narrations, screen and theatre adaptations of the written content, and they may be eminently successful, but then other agencies, other minds and voices intrude and that precious intimacy is lost.

I also believe that the reader completes the book. As in any communication, it is only when both ends are in matching fine fettle does the message sink in with all its intent, import and nuances. When I read I bring my perspective, my lived experience, my openness to new ideas, which might be entirely different from yours, different from the author’s too. Which is why the appeal of a book varies across readers, as also for the same reader at different stages of her life. While at times I may look forward to complexity of plot, arcs and depths to characters, a heft in the issues woven into the narrative, at others I might simply be in the mood for a mood, an ambience, its genesis, its subtleties, its heightening, perhaps with a climax and resolution.

I remain a sucker for stories. Whatever your premise, convince me through your writing and I will read it through. From mystery and crime to political sagas to espionage. Tales from wars. Histories and philosophical mullings. Dramas in families, at the workplace. Social constructs and how they changed over the centuries. The nitty gritty of race. Ethnic strife. Caste. Gender. The un-muffled cries of the planet. Translations from across the globe and from the many languages of India. The literature out there for every genre, every kind of earthly and unearthly experience is so vast and varied, it’s impossible to digest even a fraction of it in any single lifetime. Edifying, enthralling, inspiring, changing. Pushing me to read on. And on.

However, I typically read little when I’m writing. Impressionable me, I fear that my voice might imitate the one I’m reading. Of course, all that I’ve read from the very beginning has seeped and settled in me, furbished and refurbished my knowledge of the world around as also of me in it. It has questioned my hitherto givens, taught me to look differently, allow for, if not believe, the unbelievable. It has deepened my vocabulary, tweaked my expression, groomed my style, and effectively helped modulate my voice. But all only through its distilled essence. An unconscious churning through of what appeals to me, is in accord with me and myself, what challenges my thinking too but has enough value to be retained, appropriated for myself.

But what if one is so bewitched by a writer as to write like her! Like a sycophantic clone? That’s a strict no-no. I’d rather wait for the spell to pass, emerge to find myself again, question the spell and my succumbing to it however transitorily, and then begin a critique, a distillation of the writer’s appeal, their contribution to all that I know and think and feel, and then write as old dis-enchanted me. Not same old, for that magical voice I had been enthralled by has seeped in too. But again, only in its valuable residue, refining me as author without compromising the integrity of my voice.

So, books to be read pile up as the one I’m writing piles on the plot and pages. Reader friends recommend authors and their oeuvres, I look them up on the net, I sift through their reviews, I sometimes order them in. I excitedly tear through the wrappings and let my hungry eyes feast on the cover, smell the fresh pages packed with promising print. I hold them close for a minute and then stack them with the others that wait too. And I return to my computer, to what I am presently absorbed in, hoping that the thoughts and words I type are worthy to join a To-Be-Read list.  

In this world of today where the virtual is beginning to outstrip the real, my reading circles meet, and discussions, arguments and quarrels (yes, those too) happen more in the virtual space. Through the beneficence of technology and social media I have managed to reconnect with friends I went to school with decades ago, many scattered across the globe, some too busy in their lives to take time out to actually physically meet. Yet, we turn up regularly in our virtual reading room. Eagerly, expectantly. Reading, reviewing, recommending, rejecting. Curious about each other’s choices, the whys of the recommendation, the rebuttals from some about why the appeal wasn’t what it was touted to be. Those who don’t read as avidly or regularly, join in from the side-lines, adding their own telling experiences with caveats to the theme that has surfaced from a book. And as our minds continue to broaden with the diversity of material read, they also close in on each other’s minds, lives and journeys, as if we had bonded spending real time together. We are Booked for life.

I used to wonder about people who don’t read, until I accepted that they were the other sorts from the all-sorts I read about. Or about those who professed to love nothing better than curling up with a book but whined about their lack of leisure to actually do so. I would itch to remind them that they preferred and prioritised other pursuits. That reading is a compulsion not a choice. One reads. Simple. Sometimes one re-reads too, some rare times as soon as the last page is done, turning swiftly back to the first where it all began. Anyway. I meet my kind in bookstores, in libraries and reading dens, the book in their hands introducing, sometimes recommending the person. In a happy role reversal, my daughter treats me to visits to bookstores in whichever city she’s currently living in. Some stores several storeys high, bursting at the seams with treasures from across the world, contemporary and from times gone by, and the both of us browsing, sifting and gathering in as much as we can. I recognise the look on the faces around, the eyes suffused with calm excitement, soaking in the riches. I appreciate their deciding between this and that as they fit their purchases in their purses. I see a child pick a storybook, looking wistfully at yet another, and I long to give it to her. But I know she’ll be back for it as soon as she can, she’s as badly hooked as I am. And my heart sings with joy.

Well, my life seems to have returned to the basic skills I was taught as a child: reading and writing. But there are so many worlds contained within those two simple words, myriads and realms of knowledge, imagination and possibilities, all kinds of sensitivities and sophistications, ranges and depths of human experiences, so much more that I am waiting to discover…that I join in the most frequent refrain I hear from readers: so many books, such little time. And I smile as I write and add mine to them.

THE DUTCH HOUSE by Ann Patchett: A REVIEW

Everyone’s been raving about Ann Patchett and her fabulous books. A few years ago I had heard of her Bel Canto, how well-received it was, making waves in literary circles, and I had marked the book down for a later read. But then I recently picked her The Dutch House instead, trusting my instincts of trusting an old school-friend’s recommendation! The avid and discerning reader that she is, I often blindly follow her suggestions. And I was amply rewarded. 

What a page turner! I was hooked from the start, read voraciously through, and was so satisfied in the end that I had a huge smile plastered on my face. Patchett has the masterly knack of grabbing her reader from the first word onward and she simply doesn’t let go. 

Spanning years and generations, the tale is told simply. All in the voice of Danny Conroy, the son born to the Dutch House, his memories of his childhood in it, the family that cocooned him within, his sudden eviction with the ensuing painful missing,and then the settled nostalgia tinctured with a selective rosiness that grows deeper as the years pass, colouring both home and family. The story goes back and forth in time, a memory there, a present day occurrence here, all patched together as in a richly hued and textured quilt, and we watch it take shape and substance as our Danny boy comes of age, grows to be independent, settles in his choice of profession and partner, raises a family of his own. All with the Dutch House of his earliest years remaining firmly in his sights.

The descriptions of the house are wonderfully evocative, its massive glass doors that allow the blinding sunlight to dazzle through, its spacious rooms and stairs, its hiding spaces and caches and corners, the pool at the back with petals and leaves skimming across its shimmering surface, the grass and trees and path out front, rolling down to the street that marked the address. You see the structurerise before your eyes, you go on a tour within and marvel at the paintings here and the chandelier there, the tapestry and the secret alcoves, you hear the voices whispering or laughing or quarrelling, you feel the warmth that nestles in its kitchen, you cringe at the unpleasantness that comes to fruit in it.Patchett builds its history carefully, when and how it was constructed by its original Dutch owners, why and how it changed hands, all against a backdrop ofevents unfolding around the world, stamping time and date.

The Conroy family coming in from their skeletally humble roots, struggle to adjust to the sudden leap in lifestyle, acclimatising themselves to an unfamiliar grandeur, straining somewhat to be happy in the imposing environs. The mother remains overwhelmed by the aura and proportions of her new house, mystified by the sudden shift in fortunes.  The taciturn father relishes and cherishes it all as the icing of his well-earned cake. The children torn between the two, make the place their own, marking their own territories within, etching their rights to it, only to have them frustratingly effaced, stumped by the lot that cruelly became theirs. The pretender to its ownership and her guile and wiles, her mean-spiritedness, ruthlessness. The house staff, all strongly supportive women that battle through unflinchingly, their raising of the children, teaching them values, patience, commitment, solidarity and a lot else. The intense loyalty between the siblings, Danny and Maeve, a knowing in their gut that they would always have each other, even if the world around them were to crumble away. Maeve leading the way in all that they plot, plan and do, making good their lack of resources with oodles of her own fiery gumption. And Danny following faithfully, believing in her implicitly, pressing pause on his own dreams to fructify hers. It’s such a riveting tale of circumstance and experience, all so heartfelt and earnest, that it feels lived and breathed,  endured and borne, lost and hated, won and vindicated. 

I especially liked how Patchett’s writing changes from Danny’s childhood to boyhood, on to adulthood and then middle age. There is an innocence that surrenders to instinctive animal wisdom in his perspective as a child, a clear idea of what his needs are and who fulfils them and how. That changes as the years roll by, circumstances change and much is lost and learned. The voice becomes clearer, stronger, there is a concretisation of views and values, a defensiveness that underscores attachments, that accommodates one parent’s eccentricities, though obdurately denying the other’s theirs. All subsequent attachments remain peripheral to the central sustaining bond with his sister. And then the writing becomes brisk, as if there is an urgency to grow up, do things, finish this, move to that, regain all that had been lost. There is a brusqueness too, not unseemly, for he is recounting the years when he no longer wanted to get trapped by others’ agendas and vendettas and the lousy hand that fate had dealt them. He’s done his dues, he now does as he wants.

There are some important themes that are referenced, but very deftly. For example, there is that instance that will remain in my memory, when Danny’s sister asks him to get over their mother’s desertion, that men do it all the time and seem allowed to. What about Buddha, she asks. Sainthood has its own shadows, why condemn only the woman who chooses that path? And all through, a few questions continue swirling around, about the weight and onus of motherhood. Does a mother who leaves her children to their father’s care, deciding to live her own life free from her husband’s arrangement of it, never deserve to be understood? How valid are a child’s expectations of a mother’s unfailing presence and attention to its wants, how much of that is natural, and how much influenced through social conditioning? Must a child’s wants always trump its mother’s? As Danny grows before us as an able protagonist, marked with his share of flaws, liable to anger, un-forgivingness and selfish self-absorption,as much as to love and resilience and steadfast commitment, how willing are we to allow for his imperfections? How quickly will we judge him? Judge his mother? And the woman who supplants her in their familial home?

Of course, all is not perfect, there are some lacunae. The premise of some relations, why they cement or why they fail through the passage of time, as between Danny and his wife, seem a little sketchily drawn. The plot seems linear, somewhat predictable in parts, though it reveals itself in a non-linear way. There is a lot that is wrought by fortuitous chance. Some happy serendipity, some weird coincidences, some ultra-neat falling back to what once was, like fate coming full circle with a restitution of original rights. I could quibble with that and say, it’s just a bit much to believe, a little too pat and tidy. But I won’t. The book with all its craft and simplicity, its fine and broad strokes, its stories within stories, characters that carry their personal histories and love and animosities into their futures and still remain deeply entwined with each other, made me happy. That counts. For a lot.

Can’t wait to get hold of Bel Canto. Or, maybe, State of Wonder which my daughter recommends emphatically. Dive in again into prolific Patchett’s pages, be swept away again by her enchanting words, see through her eyes and know that the world and its stories she has searched and sensed and imagined will enrich mine. Bliss.

QUIET PLEASE!

Discourse is becoming increasingly fractious, I find. Frivolously fractious too. So much so that labelling it as discourse is an insult to the word. There are more verbal brawls today than there are respectful discussions.  

Am I growing out of date, I ask myself, when I fear I cannot keep pace with the histrionics that pepper otherwise routine conversations, sometimes spiralling them into slanging matches. Eyebrows drawn together, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed, breathing rapid, fingers wagging, fists thumping, that is how normal genteel people I’ve known all my life have begun speaking. Everything is exaggeratedly terrible or praiseworthy, everyone is fit either for worship or for the gallows. Hyperbolics are exhausting, when they aren’t disgusting. 

Societies are becoming more and more polarised they say. Ironic, isn’t it, in this era of globalisation. This and the other. Us and them. Ours and theirs. It is as if demarcating lines are drawn clearer for combat and it is our duty to recognise and defend the territory we occupy, political, ideological, social, economic, religious, regional, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, artistic, sartorial and on. Ambivalence about whether and how we pray, unsureness about whether or not we support a paradigm, reservation about whether or not a government deserves our support, that could be construed as the vacillation of the typically weak. We must belong. This side or that. Not that everyone on the side we’ve picked necessarily knows all about the side they are defending. One may know nothing, but one still needs to voice opinion in support, all in the spirit of proud partisanship. The speaking voice must be loud and clear even though the substance of speech is shaky and hazy at best.

I’ve stopped watching the news on our TV. I find the tenor there an insufferable effrontery. The decibels are deafening. Even when I mute the newscast to salvage my ears, the myriad contortions of newscasters’ faces are voluble enough. And the debates are a farce. Harangues, rather. When a motley group of guests is invited solely for the host’s pleasure of pulping them in public view. Why they continue to accept invitations is a mystery to me. Masochism? Maybe. Or then, losing face is just a staged sham and there is something bigger to be won off stage. 

Yet these debates are consumed avidly by our citizenry. It is prime time entertainment. When allegiances are put to the test every night, when questions are thrown in the face of the other while denying any reasonable room to answer, when their hapless discomfiture and their ineffective dancing around to edge a word in are pounced upon gleefully as vindications of their contemptibility. When tables overturned bring forth wrath, the more intense when the embarrassment is larger. I find this appetite for aggression, the addictive excitement of anger rather disturbing. When viewers vicariously quarrel with all their ‘others’, badgering and berating their opponents paraded every successive night on that idiot box. And it is this style of address and debate that has seeped into our living rooms. Where we see ourselves as legitimised in breaking into quarrels, shouting above each other, slanging one another viciously, sometimes even without provocation. It is as if there is a contagious itch to fight. An itch we don’t wish to cure. One that we are growing fond of. 

The itch gets exacerbated during the seasonal tamasha of elections. Head honchos of political outfits bellow through megaphones at their captive audiences shepherded forcibly to the rally grounds hours and hours ahead on the promise of darshan of their lords and masters and, of course, some pitiful lucre. But the address is to the entire constituency, not merely those hapless heads arrayed ahead. The target audience is the mohalla, the state, the nation, whatever the pie up for contest. And the spicy snippets of their speeches become the screaming headlines in the press, print and electronic, and thence the theme of the subsequent debates. Our excitable citizenry is agog, alert on their chosen warpaths, ganging up with their ilk against their adversaries. Often, there isn’t much that differentiates the two really. 

Group chats on digital platforms are also at times irritatingly LOUD. Yeah, the capitals go with the volume of the impact our netizens want to make when typing words to match. Many have an ongoing angst to share. Really? Where is the energy for this coming from? Oftentimes the angst has been formatted for them, I suspect, with an insidious reaching in for whatever discontent that might have been simmering in them already and purposefully deflecting it and exploiting it for other agendas. So then we have positions and counter-positions, posts and counter-posts, forwards and counter-forwards, people gathering on their respective sides, defending their threatened echo chambers, picking up virtual cudgels to battle it out on their phones and tabs and other what-have-you-s. Emojis get deployed as missiles. Exclamation marks abound. And then the labels fly thick and fast, that these so-and-sos are this-and-that-and-the-dreaded-other and that they must be challenged, made to rescind their traitorous opinions and beliefs, silenced and perhaps hounded out of chat groups. Wordy warriors wearing their judging hats oh-so-seriously. Oftentimes the labels regress to uncivil name-calling, but hey, civility is an old-world virtue, passé for this volubly brash world of today. 

Hmm. I am out of date. For I miss the even tenor that marked debates earlier. That of gentle persuasions, resigned acceptances, the agreeing to disagree and still being respectful of the other. When questions poked but did not bludgeon, when answers were substantive and not mere rhetorical theatrics, when the speaking voice was polite though clear and firm, when the listening ears paid attention not merely to rebut but to first absorb and reflect and then accept, qualify or refute as the case may be. 

Yeah, I’m probably a misfit, I guess. And you may agree with that and may have already condemned me with pursed lips and frowning foreheads. No matter. I assure you that when you want to be heard, I will lend an ear. And I will try to reply without the theatrics. 

Anyway, shush for now. From me too. 

Rohini Paranjpe Sathe

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Coping. Rebooting.

It hasn’t been easy, has it? This year and more of struggling, surviving, losing, coping, adjusting, wrapping our heads and hearts, minds and bodies around the new emerging normal. All yet fluid and floating, unsettled and undefined, allowing this today, prohibiting that tomorrow, and then perversely changing everything all over again. 

At first life threatened to stagnate or worse, disappear. It began to stand still not just within our isolated spaces but also in the stoic scenes outside the walls of our confines. Birds sang, dogs barked, bees swarmed as busily as before, but our own species seemed somewhat stifled, somewhat muted. Justifiably so. Hunkered down. Waiting. Watching. Breathing. Praying that breath would not cruelly forsake us.

Of course, there were those who still continued to scream shrilly. Out of TV boxes, on social media, in newsprint, in living rooms and, shamelessly flouting all consideration to the vulnerability of others’ lives, in indiscriminate public gatherings. At each other, with each other, sometimes at the virus itself. Go Corona! 

Corona didn’t go. But jobs went. Bread on tables dwindled. Migrants marched home, some died on the way. Shops shut. Manufacturing reduced to essentials. Construction halted. Temple and churches and mosques became silent. Buses, trains and planes hung around in their depots and sheds and hangars. Schools emptied. Play stopped. Hope flickered thin. 

Hospitals burst at their seams with the bloating influx of the infected, the coughing, the gasping, the sinking, the dying. Beleaguered and bleary eyed, doctors and nurses struggled to piece together a line of treatment to fight a brand-new unknown variable. We thanked them sincerely, profusely, bestowed upon them bouquets of gratitude. Sometimes brickbats when they could not save someone we knew, was dear to us.

Breath faded quietly. Ventilators hummed loudly. We lost some of our own, some dear, some admired. We mourned. We looked on others of our species with suspicion, would they be the harbingers of our demise, we wondered. We clung to our old trying to save them from being snatched away. Then the not so old and then the younger. 

Somewhere in between those two pandemic waves many cast their vulnerability aside, refusing to get beaten by that frightfully microscopic parasitic entity that was looking to lodge in our lungs. They stepped out as before, meeting, gathering, thronging, a token mask dangling on their chins. Breathing in and out unconstrained, daring disease, daring death. Unto themselves as unto others. We called them foolhardy, myopic, irresponsible and so on. I guess they were all of that but they were mostly fed up of being cooped in. Of being idle, unemployed, un-fed. Many did what they did to survive. What if there is no roof over one’s head or means to earn food for the belly? Starve to death in fear of the virus catching one alive? Conundrum. 

Those fortunate and privileged to remain safely ensconced in their well-equipped houses became smarter. Children and youth, students alike sat glued to their screens, “Yes, Teacher! No, Teacher!” they chorused as the teaching community tried to salvage their education, teachers retraining themselves, learning new skills so that they could still faithfully discharge their responsibilities. Many woke up in the middle of the night to record lessons in the quiet that they were denied during regular school hours. Many pined for the tea breaks on campus, the chai as hot as the gossip that was shared. Most stayed the course.

Men and women continued to work from home, hunched over their computers, tapping away on their keyboards, calling, dealing, Zooming, beaming. Protecting their incomes. Spending and shopping online. Ordering in food. Insisting on contactless deliveries. Hygiene and sanitation and safety, they demanded. Some barking at delivery boys who scurried around fulfilling customers’ orders to feed their own bellies. Some whining about the number of phone calls they had to answer to confirm addresses, some about the bungling of orders, some suspecting that their food had been contaminated, perhaps sampled on the way or worse spit into. Congratulating themselves on doing their bit to save the human race: staying home, staying safe. Outsourcing danger to deliverers.

During the first few months of the nation-wide lockdown the great Indian middle class moaned and groaned about having to clean their houses, cook their food, tend to their gardens. They believed it their birth-right to outsource all of that to the underprivileged women and men who worked in their homes for a pittance. They now cursed the necessity of picking up brooms and applying elbow grease in scrubbing the burnt bits off pots and pans. The Indian diaspora in the west sniggered about how housework was not a new burden for them, perhaps privately welcoming the denial of domestic help to the brethren they had left behind in their motherland. As soon as it was legally permitted, we opened our doors and welcomed back our maids and cooks and gardeners and drivers. We sighed with relief. Husbands who pretended to have been harassed by belligerent wives turned their backs once more on the piles of dirty dishes and laundry, expecting all to be cleaned, sorted and stored again just as before, that is without their having to lift a finger. Yet the sexist jokes on women subjugating men into domestic chains continued to abound.  

Stories of domestic violence started doing the rounds. Whispers about the shouts that came from this house and that. A wife longing for the lockdown to end so that she could get some respite from her ever-present abusive husband. Children watching in fear as they saw their parents quarrelling, sparring, fighting. Staying safe from the virus but not from the ugliness that lurked within themselves. Tempers frayed on the enforced togetherness, small homes growing smaller, noisier. Tight budgets growing tighter as each child, each adult demanded their own exclusive internet access. Bills accumulated, savings shrank, patience thinned, words and objects flew. A few searched for a stretch of rope to end it all.

One wave receded and work resumed, shops and factories opened up, labour turned up at the gates again. Temples and churches and mosques opened their arms to their believers again. Roads grew crowded again. Festivals. Weddings. Funerals. Gatherings. Rallies. Protests. Melas and melees. Another wave washed over us taking away many many more. Oxygen grew scarce. Hospital beds were scarcer. Governments and their oppositions harangued, blamed each other and this and that and then slammed rhetorical what-abouts to silence already timid lay voices. Netizen and other volunteers stepped up to steer the sick towards healing, sending ambulances to their homes, securing admissions in hospitals, medicines for recovery, oxygen to breathe, food to eat. All moved by compassion. Experts warned of a third wave that could take our children away. Fear grabbed us by our throats.

Working quietly, whisked away from the everyday drama surrounding the virus, men and women worked diligently yet speedily in labs, decoding the enemy, mapping its structure, studying its behaviour, trying this, testing that. A process that normally took a half-dozen years was heroically squeezed into months. Brave ordinary humans offered themselves as guinea pigs in trials. Success, scientists announced, the vaccines were ready. Hurrah! Their pharma patrons rejoiced too, their investment was to bear noble fruit. Vials were packed and distributed. Hope consolidated. We hurried to immunise ourselves, outsmart that evil cunning Covid. We had survived, we felt lucky. We would survive, we were confident.

I watched it all from home. I swung from hope to despair to hope and all of that all over again. I wrote. I read. I sang. All with as much conviction and energy as I could muster. I laughed, I quarrelled, I reconciled. I brooded, I introspected. I talked to myself. I unearthed old memories, made new ones. I bonded virtually with a few old and new friends, some old and new colleagues. Checking and re-checking that all was well with them. For some it was not. I learned of them suffering. I worried. I learned of their passing. I mourned, I wept. I consoled, I comforted. I longed to reach out and hug, kiss away that hurt of loss. I didn’t. I stayed at home. I stayed safe.

I survived. As did you. Of course, I am no longer the same. Nor are you. But that’s okay. For this is our new normal. Whatever the hell that means.

Photo Credit : Copyright free images Canva and Pixabay

The Days of Abandonment

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT

                                                                                                                                                                    by Elena Ferrante

 

A Review

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 There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves.  And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.

Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.

The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.

Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.

The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.

Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.

The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.

Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.

There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….

Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.

The Sense Of An Ending

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

By Julian Barnes

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A Review

I remember falling in love with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes when I’d read it a couple of years ago. I also remember realising as soon as I’d finished, that I needed to read it again (which I did for a book club), slowly, carefully, with more attention to every word, understanding and savouring the ideas that Barnes subtly, almost insidiously, puts across. Ideas and concepts that I had probably let slip by in my hungry pursuit of the narrative.

 
Well, the narrative is what it is and I’m a firm believer in all possible sorts. Your story can be anything. It’s how you tell it that matters. Convince me. Barnes did. Retired, well-settled and, perhaps, a tad placid Tony Webster receives a letter and a bequest of money from the departed mother of his ex-girlfriend from college, Veronica. And this triggers a chain of memories from his distant youth, each unfolding gradually in its interpretive shades and details as we read on. Memories of the prodigally gifted and deeply reflective Adrian. The somewhat unreadable Veronica and his weekend with her judging family. Her mostly reticent and yet once curiously chatty mother. And, of course, the suicides. The earlier one from school founding the basis of understanding and comparing with the one from later on. All characters, all turns and twists in the plot, all interpretations and re-interpretations of events, chains of causation, utterances, attitudes, expressions, all seem completely plausible. And through the remembering and recounting of them all is Tony’s sympathetic but pragmatic ex-wife, Margaret, listening to his ramblings, shrewdly pinning the source of his agitation and smartly moving on. And Tony continues to sift through his memories trying to fit them coherently with the reality he sees today.

 
We all know time to be malleable, sometimes treacherously so, as we are forced to learn during moments of huge emotional turmoil. We also know our memory to be fallible at best, patching together the snatches and snippets that filter through time’s subjective sieve, leading us to construe or misconstrue according to our own predispositions. We know that history is written differently by victors and the vanquished, and again by the survivors of any period of turbulence. We know that each experience of every relationship determines not merely the progress over time of that particular relationship, but of all others as well, for we are but the accumulation of all that we have experienced. We know that while we could fantasize about life imitating art, many of us let life simply happen to us, that our innate inertia leads us to choices that render us peaceable and comfortably settled.

 
But here is a writer that takes all of this and more and pushes the envelope further and further and even further, until we are gasping drenched in the power of his ideation.
Every word, every observation, every analogy, every metaphor is apt. Just so. And they all impel you to question yourself, to cross check against the parallels in your own personal history, in your own sets of predilections and prejudices, in your own dwelling over personal pettiness and thence missing the larger picture, your own shuffling and reshuffling of cards from your memory to come up with a hand that suits you best at that particular moment.

 
Barnes’ style of writing is deceptively simple, chatty, homely, but it packs in huge punches, especially when you’re not looking. There’s dry humour, recourse to satire, and an ability and willingness to look at people and things, ourselves included, square in the eye. To me, Barnes is like a wise old owl, nestled comfortably and seemingly stoically in his favourite tree, staring into the darkness around and deciphering nuances in the night as only owls can. He peels the darkness that we hide within us and then pierces right through. Illumination.

 
Well, this slim little book, more novella than novel, is packed with power and will probably prove to be timeless in its appeal.

 

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(Image Source : Google Images) 

 

I also watched Riteish Batra’s film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending. I was extremely sceptical as to how such a reflective and nuanced piece of writing could be faithfully translated to visual celluloid. But I was happily surprised. Batra has, of course, tweaked the storyline, ironed ambiguities into definitives and fleshed in a character more than in the original. Well directed, well scripted and well performed, it was a rewarding experience. Of course, less so than the book. But I’m not really complaining. Batra has impressed with Lunchbox and Our Souls at Night as well. And am happy that we have a young director who handles human sensitivities with such grace. And quiet confidence.

In the Company of Art

When I first started writing it was just something to do, to kill time that sat staring at me, mocking my uselessness in a world of busy and productive people. A bad back had put a temporary halt to my normal routine and I was at my wits’ end as to how I would get through the vacant long twenty four hours of the day, each day, each week, each month, for some months. I grew restless and then listless. And deprived of regular company, extremely lonely.

 

Then I suddenly remembered my friend Lila’s suggestion: write. It had been made soon after I had returned from a beautiful holiday in Ratnagiri and had recounted my experiences to her. My Guru, Madhuritai, had always insisted that there is a writer in me waiting to come out, but I had never really paid much heed. Where was the time anyway? But now there was more than plenty of it, and I undertook it as a project, a challenge. Picking up the pen was an achievement in itself, as was writing the first few lines. It wasn’t easy. My pages looked ugly, marred with scratches and squiggles as my mind ploughed back and forth, searching for appropriate expressions, suitable phrases, the apt words to clothe my raw and sometimes equally elusive thoughts. When my article on Konkan was complete I mailed it to Lila, relieved that it was done, but also happy that I could do it. Hurrah! After the euphoria had subsided a little I thought I could do it again. I did. I wrote. And I wrote. And Lila faithfully read it all, prodding me along, ever encouraging, ever supportive. Her mail box was soon deluged. I read some of my work to Madhuritai and she too was happy and proud like an indulgent parent.

 

That was then. Life has long since returned to its old routine and my day is happily full again. Yet I continue to write. Why? Because I just couldn’t stop. Because it is so wonderfully rewarding, so cathartic, so therapeutic and so liberating. I have found a loyal and committed friend in my computer screen. (Yes, I have graduated from paper and pen to that modern day contraption. Well done, I congratulate myself!) It has opened up a window to my mind, helping me understand my own sentiments, gather my thoughts, formalise my views, making them lucid, almost tangible. It helps me retrieve caches of dusty memories, giving me a fresh insight into my own past, where I come from, why I feel the way I do. And it never doubts my sensibilities. It takes, and it takes, without faulting, questioning, reproaching. Ever accepting.

 

Of course, what is written will be read. That is a given. It is first read by me, and so it must be true to me. It must honestly portray that bit of me that I am opening up. It must satisfy me. If it satisfies others who read it, that is a bonus. And I got plenty of such bonuses from a growing group of readers.

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The first not-so-good, unfavourable feedbacks that I received made me rather grumpy and miserable. I sulked a bit. I was assailed by self-doubt. I would wonder why something that appealed to me wasn’t universally appealing. I wondered if I should change my style, change my outlook, or if I should stop writing altogether. But I changed nothing. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I still maintain that if my work appeals to me, if it is good enough for me, then it is good in itself. For, the bottom line is that I write for myself. Primarily a readership of one. And I reminded myself that I needed to be democratically liberal, that people will have different views, different perceptions, different tastes. I write from my perspective and with my integrity, my expression largely conditioned by what I have experienced, read and assimilated over the years. A feedback does not only endorse or question the veracity or appropriateness of my views and my expression, but also opens up the reader to me: her views, her reading habits, her preferences, her yardsticks of judgement. And there is enough room in this world for multitudes of those. I just needed to learn to accept that. And get along. And continue to request and welcome feedbacks, open minded.

 

Of course, the process of writing can be a lonely one. But that is true of most art. One communicates with oneself, engaged in a dialogue with one’s mind and heart and soul. All our faculties are turned inward. Excitedly hopeful about the end result yet anxious. All on one’s own. When I sing, I am all by myself, even if the room is full of people. Nobody holds my hand and guides me along. The agony over a missed note or the ecstasy over a true one are mine and mine alone. But therein lies a beautiful truth: the art itself is the artist’s true companion. True friend. True guide. I am blessed to have discovered that. And that just adds to the adage, art for art’s sake.