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.

Hamid

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Oh! What a twisted and tortured world it must be out there in modern day Kashmir. Where truth and lies overlap and blur and lose themselves in each other. Where everyday breaths are stolen against the everyday din of screaming bullets and pelted stones. Where the lakes freeze over the memories of stifled lives and the flickering hopes of those that yet live. Where blank eyed women queue up in front of their local constabulary or their visiting ministers, holding placards of missing sons and husbands. Where men of God become men of insurgence and violence and where mosques are centres for both prayer and propaganda. Where the echoes of clarions from the plains beneath and beyond rouse men, women and children to their patriotic duty. And where the chinar reaches out higher and higher to the skies, carrying with it tragic cries for help, for shelter, for peace, and for that ephemeral, traitorous or glorious azadi, only to fling them all back unheard on the blood soaked ground beneath.

 
Hamid is a cinematic ode to this present day Kashmir. A tale of cruel, irredeemable loss. Of a local boat maker, Rehmat, who goes missing one night. Of a father and husband who leaves his boat, his wife and his child suspended in limbo. Of his forlorn wife, Ishrat, who staunchly averts her face from the grim prospect of widowhood, losing herself instead in a frenzied search for her missing husband, forgetting even how to be a mother to her little boy. Of that little boy, Hamid, who telephones Allah at a miraculous configuration of the magical number 786, berates him soundly for his sorry situation, and orders him to return his father, Rehmat, to his rightful home and family. Of that telephone connection that crosses political divides and stirs concern and compassion in the beleaguered and tired CRPF jawan Abhay’s heart, spurring him to play along as Allah, offering sympathy, help and advice to the little boy. And keeping him afloat.

 
But above all it is a tale of lost innocence. As the seven-year old Hamid steps up to take charge of his life, his mother and their home, he simply squares his shoulders and grows up. He learns his father’s trade and completes the boat that he had been crafting. And then rescues his mother from the abyss of blind denial, bringing her back to life, teaching her how to be his mother again.

 
The beauty of Kashmir is breathtaking, but we see it as in a mirror cracked, the shards reflecting remnants of what must have gloriously been. The gentle splish-splosh of oars paddling along a peaceful lake, the hum of wood being sawed, the tender thrusting gold green of the chinar, the narrow roads winding through steep mountains and verdant valleys, the firans and the walnut, the light eyed Kashmiris and their peculiar sing-song intonation, the smoke billowing from wooden houses and the snow piling in the distance. The picture postcard of yesteryear now creased with barricades, soiled with gun powder and stamped equally as terrorist and terrorised.

 
Hamid stole my heart completely. Reshi as the little boy is heartbreakingly endearing. His confusion, his impatience, his stoicism, his humour, his beliefs and his doubts, all come through so cleanly and clearly, it’s hard to believe that this is actually a child acting. Rasika Duggal, whom I’d loved as Manto’s wife in the Nandita Das film, impressed me yet again as his distraught mother. Sumit Kaul makes your heart leap with love and joy in those tender nostalgic scenes between father and son. And Vikas Kumar as the stressed out jawan chafing against the killing of his comrade and aching to go back home to hold his newborn baby girl, makes me want to hold his hand and tell him to just breathe. All such mesmerising, eloquent performances.

 
But the one who stands above them all is the director, Aijaz Khan, who pins you down to the narrative of the little boy, to his dilemma and his resourcefulness, and his innocent heartwarming conversations with Allah. The strife that tears through the region remains firmly as the backdrop. There are no loyalties or partisan sentiments that are stoked, no jingoistic calls parading as patriotism, and no glorification of the call to azadi either. The canvas is what it is, and the lives painted in the foreground are those of Hamid and his family.

 

 

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The cinematography is vivid, making the lake pristine and pure or dark and secretive, the mountains menacing or friendly, the people opening up or clamping up, all as the mood of the story may be.
The music is haunting, and the Kashmiri song that the father and son sang together, plays on as the credits roll and leaves you ruing the loss of the melodic serenity of that land.

 

Oh! For what may have been. If only.

Oh! That it may still be. Inshallah!

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.