The Story of My Reading Life

In 2020, at the Chennai Book Fair, I heard something that was bewildering and powerful at the same time. After walking around the book stalls for a few hours, I stepped out, and I was relieved to find a coffee stall. I bought a cup of coffee, placed my backpack filled with books on the ground, sat on a tiny plastic stool, and started to drink my coffee as slowly as I could. Two men walked to the stand. The one who reached the stand first asked for a cup of coffee. The other man who had just reached the stand pulled out his wallet from his pocket, enquiring how much a cup cost, and when he heard that he had to pay thirty rupees for each cup, he turned to the other man at once and said, ‘Thirty rupees. Do you really need coffee now? We can buy a book for thirty rupees.’ The one who was holding the cup was about to start drinking, but after having heard the remark, he handed the cup back to the shopkeeper, and both the men left the stand. For a brief moment, I entertained the idea of abandoning my coffee, too. I wasn’t sure if he could buy a book there for thirty rupees really, but I felt like I was reprimanded for spending that money to buy a beverage and not a book. It’s been so long since I witnessed this exchange, but I haven’t stopped thinking about what the man said. Because we live in a place where we haven’t got democratic access to books, where we make small and big sacrifices all through our lives to borrow and buy books, where we expend so much of our time and energy just to identify easier, cheaper ways to get books, and where the mere act of waking up and choosing books every morning is a constant, subtle protest against forces which want to mine our attention, polarise our thinking, and stretch the distance between readers and books. I am trying not to sound like an alarmist here — one is not shot for reading, fortunately — but the effort we make, to get the sort of books we want to read, seems invisible, but it’s painfully humongous. 

Books entered my life in my late 20’s. Just six years ago, to be precise. Until then, I might have stumbled upon problematic books written by men who sported long white beard, drove Rolls-Royce cars, abused women, and stayed stoned forever. The men who read those men enthusiastically recommended their books to me for years, but an awful breakup had to happen for me to discover the joy of reading and good books. It felt like life itself was slipping through my hands, so I didn’t pay adequate attention to how often delivery representatives appeared to drop my book-packages. For about two years, I spent more than two-thousand rupees every month to buy books. On the other hand, even without realising that I was being fair to my impulsive decision to splurge, I devoured books. In November 2015, I had read twenty-one books. I wanted to hang on to something to save myself from drowning. Books were my life raft. From 2017 to 2018, I was unemployed for the first time since I started working when I was eighteen, I was broke, and I downloaded books to quench my appetite. It’s not something I am proud of, but I wasn’t thoughtful enough to reread what I owned then instead of downloading them illegally, and I didn’t try to find public libraries in my neighbourhood. The Internet seemed more accessible than a public library then. I went back to work in 2019, landed a job that put me in the place of privilege to afford books again, but now that I had experienced a long, dry spell when I couldn’t buy books, I was intensely aware of each droplet of money I was beginning to spend to not return to the arid phase again. As expected, I noticed that I was again spending thousands to buy books, and so, I subscribed to Scribd. Spending a few hundreds appeared better than shelling out thousands. Scribd’s catalogue was massive, delightful, and diverse. I was beginning to believe that my problem was solved; I didn’t have to deplete my financial resources to keep reading. The catch was, though, Scribd’s app was not compatible with Kindle. Because I didn’t own a tablet then, I read a dozen books on my phone. It’s now apparent that I had no respect for my vision. When I recently read Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults, a paperback thankfully, I was reminded of the time when I read her Neapolitan Quartet — four books, 1,693 pages, 3,60,000 words approximately — on my cell phone, a device that was slightly longer than a bar of soap. I might be judging my younger self now, but I don’t think I was not completely reckless, for it was Ferrante after all. A few months after I subscribed to Scribd, I decided to buy an iPad — I convinced myself that I was investing — just to read the books available on Scribd. Now, it felt like I could protect my money and that my long quest to find the ideal library, although it was a digital one, had finally ended. But it didn’t. In less than four months, I found myself blankly looking at the electronic pages on my iPad, words that looked like unintelligible symbols, and I found myself reading without comprehending, but simply mentally pronouncing the words. I attributed it to the memory loss and attention deficit that humanity was experiencing in general because of being cooped up, deprived of social interaction and healthy stimulation. This seemed deeper than that. I was feeling numb after spending two-thirds of my waking hours in front of a computer, triggered by the endless din of Microsoft products, wrestling with my fight-or-flight response. The memory loss, attention deficit, inability to comprehend seemed to have been accentuated by the reading I did on electronic devices in the hope that it would help me decompress. I was making things worse. Reading, I was sure, would assuage my anxiety, but I was growing more anxious about not being able to read deeply and not retaining anything that I read. Loss of the interest to write was an obvious side-effect. To make sure that I wasn’t making this up in my head, I did a little research to understand if there was anyone else like me, who felt exhausted while reading on devices. I fully acknowledged the echo chamber that is the Internet, and it came to my attention that I was not alone. Many readers had reverted to physical books for myriad reasons including the inability to comprehend and recall books read on electronic devices. I was certain that I hadn’t scratched out and that I didn’t have to return to physical books with my tail between my legs, but I was back to where I started — how would I be able to afford physical books all my life?

I gnawed at the question, the answer didn’t surface, but to make the situation worse, I discovered some Indian independent bookstores on Instagram. E-mails flew back and forth, pretty packages with gorgeous books and adorable bookmarks arrived, and the process was repeated so many times. I told myself that I had reasons to buy books from independent bookstores — birthdays, festivals, work milestones, retail therapy, and Jeff Bezos. But, on my journey to establish a healthy relationship with my book-buying habits, I learned that life couldn’t be perfect. On an uneventful morning, I woke up feeling like checking the cost of choosing independent stores. My last purchase proved that each book that I bought from an independent store cost hundred rupees more than Jeff Bezoz’s price. I decided that I wouldn’t be able to buy from independent stores every time and that I had to develop the courage to return to e-commerce sites and patronise independent bookstores once in a while. Anyway, the far left thought that I was participating in capitalism by buying books, the woke thought that I wasn’t supporting the independent stores enough, the far right thought I was being westernised, and there I was, a helpless, confused, tired person, who simply wanted to read and didn’t want to slit my wrist, shed blood just to be allowed to lay my hands on a book. With my electronic devices sunset to look after my mental health, with my relationship slim with independent stores, I was back to buying books on Amazon, but I wanted to try harder. My trips to public libraries began.

Connemara Public Library was welcoming. How did I not think of it and let myself suffer! All that the librarian needed was three-hundred rupees, and I was a member. Despite my enthusiasm, I trained myself to temper my expectations; I wanted to check out their collection first. The English Literature section was the quietest. It was way bigger than I imagined, but if the English Literature section was the Milky Way, the Tamil Literature wing was this universe. The enormity of the Tamil Literature wing, the difference in size between the English and Tamil sections, made me feel like an outsider. I read Tamil. However, as a reader, I prefer English to Tamil, and the place reminded me of how removed I was from the place I lived, how much I was missing, and it made me examine my choice to read in English and launched an inquiry about my biases. If I were an absolute outsider, I would have felt less awful maybe. If I were an outsider, it would have also meant that I didn’t belong here but somewhere. I felt stuck in between. I was neither here nor there. I swallowed the hurt and entered the English section to let books lick my wounds. The collection pulled me into a warm embrace. I struggled to choose six books (that was all I was allowed), but I felt decisive about bringing James Baldwin’s Another Country home. The copy that I had borrowed was printed in 1963 — it was twenty-four years older than me — and the moment I opened it at home, it died in my hands. The binding had encroached the text, and like characters who spill horrible but incomplete secrets before they die, the pages fell off the book as I flipped. I went back to the library a couple of weeks later to find other ancient and some contemporary books. I walked around the racks, sweating profusely, with my mouth behind the tyranny of a mask, and it occurred to me that I had spent about a thousand rupees in the last couple of weeks to visit the library. I stayed fifteen kilometres away from the library, and if I continued to read at the pace of two books per week, I would visit the library once a month and sometimes twice, and that meant I would spend a thousand rupees for the commute again. The corporates have ruined me — at times, unknowingly, I end up calculating the cost of my decisions. I did the math and decided that to make full use of my library subscription, I should become a member of another library that’s close to Connemara, and at the cost of one trip, I could borrow books from two libraries. The British Council was not as modest as Connemara when it came to annual subscription. I paid two-thousand and two-hundred rupees to become a member. Their collection, only English obviously, was not as diverse and large as Connemara, but there was an interesting mix of classic and contemporary. With two subscriptions in my pocket, I should have, ideally, felt relieved. The quest to find the ideal library should have ended there, but not yet. 

I was beginning to feel crushed under the due-date pressure. So many books were due at both the libraries, work bled into life, and the time carved out for reading faded. I was simply transporting books from home to the libraries, returning them unread. I was wasting money, time, and piling up blocks of anxiety. I could have bought more books using the money I spent for the commute. I could have read them in peace. As I write this piece, five books are staring at me from my bookshelf, including the beautiful Gionvanni’s Room, and maybe they are mentally screaming at me to send them back to their original places because they weren’t meant to stay with me so long. I can’t stop imagining how this scenario would have played out if I lived near the libraries or if the libraries lived near me. If the books were overdue, no problem. I could return and borrow later. If there were new arrivals, I could visit the library during my break at work to bring them home. I could volunteer, go for reading sessions, attend events, sit in silence, and not worry about returning home before the arrival of ungodly hours. 

I am not asking too much. From my home, there are five cinemas within a radius of five kilometres, and all the main roads which bookend my neighbourhood are populated with hundreds of restaurants. Movies, yes. Food, yes. Books, yes and no. There are a couple of libraries, but their collections fill me with dread — the Chetan Bhagats and the bankers of India who monopolise the racks by filling them with their misogynistic and mythological stories written with the goal of sending them to Bollywood. Or it’s the Sidney Sheldons and the JK Rowlings of the world, and piles and piles of academic and technical books (how to code, how to join IIT and IIM, how to crack NEET, how to speak in English) which are many Indians’ only way to a better life. We need all of those books with some room for diverse literature. I am taking a moment to check my privilege — an acquaintance, whose book collection filled me with awe, picked up a book and said, ‘I don’t like it. You can take it if you want.’ I considered taking it because I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy it by myself and that it wouldn’t be available in the public libraries here. My self-respect held my hands back. I turned down the offer politely. 

The system and the public make me feel perplexed. Except for Connemara, other public libraries seem to pander to the popular English novelists who misshape our reading. It’s just not the algorithm that’s messing with our reading choices, but the people in power, people who can fix the libraries’ catalogues. Maybe, their decisions are dictated by the budget, by the demand, by what the public is curious to read. Every other type of book is for the intellectuals, they think, maybe. It’s for the losers. It’s for the loners. It’s for the stuck-ups. It’s for the dreamers. It’s for the idealists. It’s for the rich. It’s for the sinners. It’s for the blessed. It’s for those who have got all the time in the universe. It’s not for those who want to live deeply. It’s not fun. While I write this, time and again, I realise that I am a minority here. If I weren’t after English books, this very system that I have been bitterly questioning could have been something that I am grateful for. But I am a minority with some privilege. Being able to read English is itself a privilege here. But no human being should suffer just to be able to read what they want to read. Public libraries are beautiful. In a country where there is no space at most homes to read and study, public libraries are a refuge. Tomorrow, I can visit a public library, sit in a wooden chair, and read my own books. I need not be fond of their collection to visit them. But this is the thing — I am back to where I started. There is a well-lit, safe, vast, quiet space, but I still need to buy what I want to read. So, I buy books like my whole life depends on it, as though I am an anxious animal squirreling away for winter. 

This year, I bought a steel bookshelf with glass doors. I loved it so much that I didn’t sleep much the night it arrived. I stayed awake just to keep looking at it — colourful rows of books framed by white doors. This year, I bought sixty-four books, and along with what I already had, I am now in possession of one-hundred-and-three books which I dream of reading someday. The roundabout route that I took to arrive where I am today has made me generous. I don’t hoard books, I don’t get too attached to them — I am not ready to donate Anuk Arudpragasam’s books yet — and I don’t harbour any apprehensions about letting them go. It feels like it’s my responsibility to pay it forward. But I still live with some anxieties. I spend more money than I intend to, I avoid buying clothes and shoes because I might as well pump that money into books again, and I am still in the clutches of my imagination that makes up unhelpful images — the times when I would be bookless. It may never happen but I suffer and survive the imaginary ones in my head every day: unemployment, fire, flood, relocation, loss of vision. The worst one among all is this — what will happen to the books when I die, when the books would be without me? 

Some Sunday afternoons are spent fleshing out some anxieties. I fix my gaze on my steel bookshelf with glass doors, and I tell myself that if I can’t afford books from next month, if I manage to read one book per week, I could go on for two years without buying and borrowing another book. The fear of missing out could be overwhelming, but isn’t it the same now, even when books keep coming home every week, every month? And then I smile — why do we struggle to expand this short life, to make sense of this long life, to live many lives in one life, to see, to observe, to feel seen, and to belong?

My little library

Book Review: The Earthspinner by Anuradha Roy

We are vessels of desire. We are conditioned to believe that who we are, the vessel that we are, is enough to hold all the desire that bubbles inside us, that we can live out this cosmic blink of a life by bottling it all up, by even refusing to acknowledge the existence of desire, only for the vessel to explode many times through out this short and long life, and to send us on a quest for more vessels to pour that desire. We turn to art. We pour it into colours, printed symbols, sounds. We turn to other sentient beings. We pour it into another human, a nonhuman animal, a tree. We are bottomless, and our desire keeps rising. Sometimes, we realise that we have a choice — our desire doesn’t have to be hidden; it can flow freely. Most times, we are robbed of our choices — our desire is crushed; it appears disgusting to an onlooker. It’s axed down. However, desire is like that heroic little plant that grows from concrete. So long as we exist, we continue to be vessels of desire, regardless of how many ever times it is snuffed. Even if it is put in a mare’s mouth and sent to the unimaginable depths of the ocean.

Murthy, gnarled with the weight of learning, wagging a futile finger at the lust-filled boys in the class and telling them how Lord Shiva’s passions had begun burning up the universe. To calm him and to save the earth, the gods placed his fires in a mare’s mouth, then took the mare to the ocean. Under the water the mare burns quietly still, Murthy had said, it shifts and moves with the waves, it turns on its side and drifts toward the ice caps slowly consuming the ocean, waiting for doomsday, when it will be released during the final deluge.

Ayyanar’s Horse
Kurangani, Tamil Nadu, India

The characters — Chinna the dog, Elango the potter, Sarayu the chronicler, Usman Alam the blind calligrapher, Devika the reporter, Raghav the geologist, even Mrs Khambatta the neighbour who recites a poem to a dog — together, make a kaleidoscope of a story in Anuradha Roy’s The Earthspinner. They are so broken, so whole, always leaning toward light, lapping it all up with a reverence for life. As the story continues to spin, they come together to make heartbreaking designs and patterns, and show the price that humans pay to love, to create, and to live in peace. They have been touched by loss and grief, and their lives as her potter’s wheel, Anuradha Roy throws stories which travel from an almost village in Deccan Plateau to England, exploring myths, allegories, desire, communal hate (even in the 70’s, the expression ‘go back to Pakistan’ was in use), harmony, limitless longing, and answers the questions of why and how human spirit is indomitable.

The stories zoom out when Sarayu writes about her life in England, and it zooms in when it shifts to Kummarapet, showing fractals after fractals, of lives which are seemingly still on the surface, with bloodcurdling horror throbbing underneath. If the branches of stories are removed, layer after layer, they can still stand as complete stories — a lost dog, a Hindu man falls in love with a Muslim woman, a girl is uprooted from everything that defines her, a myth about a horse… Anuradha Roy deftly weaves their lives together and shows how they are all interconnected. A butterfly lands on a girl’s cheek, igniting a creative spark that can never be extinguished. Not chaos, but shared existence. Among other things which are common among them, displacement is pivotal. Displacement that is unique and universal. When they all lose perspective, when they all have zoomed in too much, a geologist talks about this ancient planet, about how the plates are always shifting, and about the very earth that Elango uses to make his terracotta horse.

My father would have said change was the work of the earth spinning, spinning as it always had.

Photograph of Anuradha Roy by Rukun Advani

Stories, in which only one character knows a life-changing truth and the reader is privy to that, make me weep. I bear witness to all the suffering that the characters endure, and I hold the power to change their lives, but I stay stripped of my agency, I watch them make irreversibly wrong decisions, pining for lost opportunities, and walking lost in the labyrinth laid by circumstances. It’s even more devastating when even after the end, it’s just the other character and me who are in possession of the truth that will break hearts for many and reinstate faith for some. Maybe that is why it’s hard to start reading the next book after reading some books. I need some space and time to grieve, to let go of the could-have-been.

I will remember this novel for the sense of wonder it stirred in me, and for Anuradha Roy’s breathtaking writing, storytelling, and imagination. A blurb on the cover reads, ‘This is why you read fiction at all.’ This is truly why you read fiction like The Earthspinner. To feel human. To feel alive. To share loss and desire and longing and grief. To be comforted by stories. To be reminded of life’s brevity. To learn about ways to live it. To choose to live it in our own ways.

Of Hope And Other Angels

I have related this story so many times that the ink in my proverbial pen must have run dry by now. Even when the pen doesn’t let any ink run into the letters, rendering them invisible, I can’t stop writing this story; the impressions the letters leave are enough.

In the last few years, September has been a kind, memorable month for me. One September, I found a job that gave me economic independence. Another September, I found something more meaningful in the job I had found. September, once, brought someone into my life, who still travels along with me, with the courage and patience and fierce compassion that I never expected out of that person. Even this year, it has allowed me to reorient my view and set me on the path of creativity. Despite all the times September was sweet to me, I often think of that one time when it shook my life: Anu Boo had a stroke in September 2018.

I remember those fifteen days in fragments — a phone call; the devastating image of Anu Boo drooling her life out; several auto-rides to the clinic; vet’s confusion and helplessness; time bleeding from one day to another; Anu Boo being blind in one eye; her body leaning toward one side, walking sideways; Anu Boo standing in the living room and looking blank; desperate conversations with the vet to solve the mystery, to know the truth; Anu Boo swallowing the very anti-anxiety pills which I popped as a child; another vet looking at her with inscrutable curiosity; Anu Boo walking the long, slippery corridor at the hospital; being declared okay. Three years of strenuous exercise to bead all the fragments together, to make sense of those fifteen days, has turned futile. I still see only a montage. I do not know what caused the stroke, and I do not know what took control of her body for fifteen days. But she is here, with me, broken and whole, eager to please, quick to give that impossible love.

Not knowing what happened to her hurts me. Many nights, I would log off from work, turn to my left, and she would be lying on her bed, curled up like a croissant, wearing her vulnerability like a comforter. I would sit down on the floor, beside her, slowly scratch behind her ears, iron out the wrinkles on her forehead, and ask her to give me an answer to this question — ‘What happened that day?’ The Kabul grapes would look at me, but the answer would come as a wink. Only the right eye talks — the remnants of the illness. I would wink back and wonder how she would read my acknowledgement. The truth, the suffering, and the healing are cocooned in her silence and in research that this country cannot afford, yet, for nonhuman animals.

The trauma of going to the edge with her has permanently altered my ways of coexisting with her. An array of what-if questions taunt me when I find myself in a place to make simple, everyday decisions. A short lunch with the family at a restaurant that’s just a few kilometers away makes me worry about the time Anu Boo is left alone, although crated, at home. I dread the time when I would be asked to return to the office even though she wouldn’t be by herself. The trauma has brought reversal in our relationship — I suffer from separation anxiety that hasn’t triggered me yet. When my breath refuses to exit my body, I finally remind myself that this moment is all I have, and for now, Anu Boo is barking orders at us for her carrots to be sliced faster.

Since 2018, around the first week of September, I watch her closely, I watch everything closely, as though there is an invisible enemy against whom I need to protect all that matters to me. When she is asleep, I watch her belly to make sure it’s rising and falling. Even when my anxiety’s voice is louder than my hope and strength’s, sometimes, I look at Anu Boo with a sense of wonder that fills my entire being, like she is a miracle. I do not believe in any organised religion, and the usage of the word miracle makes me feel like I am walking out of my body, but I cannot resist the temptation of revering the unknown, something that put her back together for me. September quietly becomes synonymous for surviving with grace and gratitude.

Anu Boo is truly a survivor. When all of her littermates famished and perished, she survived, as a puppy, by feeding on her sibling’s carcass. After I rescued her from an abandoned house, rushed her to the vet, he found a funny odour escaping her mouth. He nonchalantly said that she was feeding on a carcass and she must be quarantined for fourteen days. Stifling a giggle, he added, ‘You have got a very curious puppy there.’ For three months, since the time she was born, she hadn’t laid eyes on a human being. But there she was, surrounded by a bunch of human beings, sitting on her haunches, on a cold, steel table, shivering, with her sibling’s flesh rotting in her stomach, reluctantly looking around, stealing hearts irresponsibly. She wasn’t going to let anyone stop her from surviving.

Hello Writing, My Old Friend

Why do I want to write? Why do I think I can write? What do I want to write?

I went there to find answers; I was received by more questions.

At the Creative Writing class, the facilitator gently observed that I should have discovered and embraced the answers by now. A decade ago, when I quit a comfortable corporate job, which was a world away from writing, to start writing for newspapers, the same questions waylaid me. My answers then were like Chennai’s summer — certain, harsh, and burned with passion. After a stint in media, and after living a life that demanded more of everything I had, I returned to the corporate a couple of years ago. Although I am actively involved in Communications at work, it’s still several worlds away from writing. And now, my answers to the same set of questions resemble Chennai’s winter — unsure, tepid, and coy.

The writing exercises I do for the class make me sit with the questions more. Sometimes, I squirm in the questions’ authoritative presence. Sometimes, I look at them the way I look at the night sky when the stars hide behind the clouds, when the light from the city smugly light up the clouds, mistaking the pollution it brings for brightness, and not knowing the long travel the starlight makes to land on the clouds. I look at the hazy, starless night sky and hope for a chink, a star from many light years away to wink at me, to recognise my agony. Why do I want to write?

For fame? For money? For joy? To feel special? To seek attention? To find a place? No and no and no. The compulsion, I feel, to write stems from the excess that fills me and spills over, flooding all areas of my life and threatening to drown me. I write because I want to come up for air. That excess struggles along with me, too, not knowing what to do with me – it hands me feelings which are not mine, it plants thoughts which abundantly reproduce more thoughts, like the snails in my mother’s garden. That excess, the thoughts and feelings and ideas, alighting from the books, needs to be redirected to a sea – this white space that is inviting and intimidating in equal measure.

I want to write because I want to play God, too. I want to invent people, be a fly on their walls, and truly know them. I want to be my own God. In the stories I dream to write, I want to give myself the voice I never had and the courage I wish I had. I want to confess and lace the truth – my truth –with some poetry and magic. I want to write my own safe space.

This is the difference between the time I started in 2011 and the road I am taking now: Paycheck and the thrill of scoring bylines do not hold the power to corrupt my potential. Ten years ago, even when I tried to run as fast as my peers, it didn’t seem enough. Against their multiple degrees from fancy universities, against their childhood stories about camping at libraries and devouring books even before they were tall enough to go on rides at theme parks, against their privileged lives which were removed from the squalid reality of this country, I stood no chance. My middle-class upbringing, while I am deeply grateful for what I had, did not prepare me for the unfairness of the industry I entered, and it did not equip me with the skill that I could have only afforded if I had had socioeconomic privileges. It was easy for me to chide my restless heart, like every other time, for I thought, it pined for something that was beyond my reach. It has taken many years for me to meet the ultimate truth – nothing was wrong with me, but the system was rigged.

The Creative Writing course covers important aspects of fiction writing. It intends to encourage me to aspire to become a published something. I still do not know what I want to write. Essays, short stories, blogs, I do not know. I want to write because I receive more than I need, from books, people, and life. I want to return the excess; I want to give back some words, some stories; I want to cut it all into a million pieces and leave them here. I cannot decide for the reader. The reader can pick a piece, turn it, read it, and drop it down again mindlessly. Or, the reader can take one home, and let it lie in a corner, collecting dust. I do not deserve the reader’s time and attention; I am devoid of that delusion.

Book Review: What We Know About Her by Krupa Ge

The cover and the endpapers of Krupa Ge’s What We Know About Her feature an illustration that reminds me of Ranganathan Theru, a popular commercial street in Chennai, or rather Madras, as the narrator Yamuna continues to lovingly call this city in 2019, even after it was officially renamed in 1996. In the art that looks grim and apocalyptic on the first impression and eerily real as the story unfolds, a sea of men (quite like the humanity that moves in waves in Ranganathan Theru) walks toward the reader, with just empty spaces in the places where their eyes should have been, and amidst these men, three women stand as though they are squirming under the spotlight that’s trained on them. Or, they are trying to resist being moved by the mob that doesn’t respect their agency, the pressure that’s exerted on them. They go against the current, and their faces betray a certain degree of effort and discomfort. The art suggests that men don’t see what matters, women are under constant surveillance, and despite that harsh light which dictates their lives, we don’t know much about the women. Should this push and pull go on for eternity? If women stop, reflect, and question, what will happen?

Yamuna needs answers. She wants to inherit her home which her commie mother has decided to donate to an NGO; her doctoral research has hit a roadblock; her relationship has flatlined. Her life is under a cloud of uncertainty. When you are tired of digging the same spot in the ground, you would entertain the idea of digging another spot to renew your hope of finding something underneath. Besides every other question that grows around her like a creeper, she lets one question, about her grandaunt, fill her being. “What did this family do to Lalitha?” The truth she unearths just doesn’t answer the question that presses her the most, but the one that shouldn’t be stopped asking. “What are the families, on this side of the world, doing to women?”

The answers come to her in the forms of delightful, traumatic, moving, poetic, introspective letters (even an excerpt, which gets an U/A rating for its language, from an autobiography called I Dream For My Sisters), written in the 40’s, by the women in her family, painting a detailed picture of their lives which were marked by oppression and Gender-based Violence for most parts and caressed and healed by clandestine freedom and art in some parts. The letters document each woman’s struggle with wanting to become her mother and breaking the chain of intergenerational trauma. In this chorus of narratives, Krupa Ge’s writing soars. Each letter starts with a pillaiyar suzhi, offers an intimate view into the letter writer’s mind, and also subtly reveals the way the Second World War directed their lives. The letters made me wonder about the times when I discovered that my mum could swim, the first watch that my dad wore was her gift, her favourite subject in school was physics, and she led a team when she worked in Solidaire TV. That mum, who flickered and appeared rarely and disappeared, shocked me by disclosing truths about an exciting, unknown side of her life, the side that was darkened by the familial responsibilities she was coerced to carry. What do I know about her! What do we know about all of them, really!

The entire novel plays against the backdrop of Carnatic music. There certainly needs to be a playlist on YouTube with all the songs featured in the book. Yamuna, for she is from the current time, tries to be politically correct. When her partner opines that Carnatic music is inaccessible, and ‘even to enjoy it, you need to know so much. And it’s a very closed space, even for someone who just wants to listen,’ Yamuna, who has paid enough thought to the caste-badge that the music wears, clarifies, “I was reading an interview of Rajarathinam Pillai, and he talks about how therukoothu, harikatha, nodighoshti, all of these made Carnatic music the default songs of the masses. All of that is marginalised now, which is possibly why it’s so alienating. It’s become a polarised, elitist space now.” Her narration is consistently laced with the politics of her time, my time. She discusses NRC, women’s reproductive rights, consent, gender security, and even jokes about ‘Allaha.., sorry, Prayagraj.’ Yamuna’s political assertion, as the novel progressed, stopped surprising me, for her grandaunt Lalitha’s views about Hitler surfaced; the oppressed stood by the oppressed.

Even when authors try to write a proper ‘Madras novel’, at times, they are shackled by the need to still make it universal. Once, a ‘Mumbai novel’ asked for it to be abandoned when the author had written ‘turmeric sauce’ for a dish that I haven’t yet understood. Krupa Ge, though, seems sure about catering to readers who know this world and to those who are willing to explore and learn. Clichés and idioms make way for some gorgeous metaphors which stem from South India, rendering an authenticity to the story. “Liked winged termites that come for mud lamps in alcoves, restless, looking for light before the rains.” “Her voice has the same effect as honey does on the quartz lingam in our house.” “The sun was on its way down, and the calm sky, the colour of parijatham stalk, made me homesick.”

After I finished reading What We Know About Her, I revisited some parts of Krupa Ge’s first book Rivers Remember, a narrative non-fiction about the flood of 2015, when Chennai drowned. It seemed like a futile, intrusive exercise, even to me, to connect some dots between the contents of both books, a fiction and a non-fiction, but I followed a sense of familiarity that lingered. Above all, both the books make the universe where Krupa Ge’s writing originates — Chennai, her own grandfather who was a communist and who found the Cine Musicians Union of Madras (it almost feels blasphemous to mention the legendary KV Kannaiah of What We Know About Her in brackets, but I make up for it by sharing a song that he loves), her grandmother who wrote diaries, the narrator named after a river, and some historical events like the flood of October 1943, which destroyed the city when it was already crushed under an air attack by a Japanese aircraft, and which makes a cameo in What We Know About Her at a crucial juncture when a character seeks redemption. Although Rivers Remember was published first, I gather from the Internet that the fiction had been growing in the author for about a decade, blurring boundaries between the real and the imagined. In the first work, rivers remember; in the second one, women want to be remembered. They want to flow, too, unobstructed by gender, caste, and class.

It is our job to keep on living, and to leave a record of what we saw in our time on this earth. If war is always around us, hate is forever holding us, it is we, those in the pursuit of life’s fleeting joys, that bear witness to the truth that art too is here. As is love. If hate and death are permanent, so are love and life. At least for some of us, some of the time.

Before Opening Door No. 34

Every birthday is a door. When the arbitrariness of life leaves you in front of a door each year, you are oblivious to what’s behind the door. Sometimes, you say a little prayer before turning the doorknob and you step into the room with hope and determination. Sometimes, you curse under your breath, wish you could relinquish the privilege of staying alive, and wait for the ground beneath your feet to swallow you right at that moment. Despite exercising free will, the act of opening the door feels involuntary when uncertainty crosses your mind. Once you step in, the room can appear like many things — a bootcamp, a field of sunflower, a trap, a dog park, a cat café, an ancient library… In 365 days, what’s behind the door works with the elements which make you you and eject another person when it’s time to make you appear in front of the next door. All your life, you go from door to door, surrendering the person whom you are, and collecting a person marked, touched, blessed by each door.

Time slips into civilian clothes for a few hours before your birthday every year. You are neither how old you are nor how old you will become. When Time is not watching, when Time is off duty, do you age at all? At the moment, I am in that timeless zone where Door No. 33 starts to flicker, and I pause to gather my belongings and pack my bags.

When I opened Door No. 33 last year, I didn’t pray and curse, and I was just grateful for having been given another opportunity to touch the cold doorknob one more time. Now when I look back, I can see that it was a unique year, just like every other year.

Behind Door No. 33, there was a room with a view. When I opened the windows each afternoon, I recalled what Edith Wharton wrote: “Set wide the window. Let me drink the day.” Each time I opened the window, the world waited to say hello. Clouds incessantly paraded, a young crow who aged along with me, a sparrow, an orange butterfly, a bunch of restless pigeons, a cursory glance of my neighbours living their lives… On some difficult days, I called all of it The Pandemic View. When I caught myself complaining about the spectacle that was exclusively staged for me every day, I wondered if I would have lived a different life if the pandemic didn’t exist. I didn’t need to answer. The Pandemic View would again morph into A Room With A View.

Behind Door No. 33, there were discoveries. How To Foster ‘Shoshin’, an article that I read on Pysche taught me how to walk behind things which constantly evoke awe. The article’s author Christian Jarrett mentioned, “Paraphrasing Albert Einstein, the researchers wrote that ‘one who never experiences awe ceases to discover’. The message is simple: to increase your open-mindedness, try taking the time to gaze in wonder at the stars.” My love for cosmos was born. I discovered my passion for astronomy, astrophysics, space science, and space opera. Like a sniffer dog after a scent, I hurried to watch videos, read articles, bury myself in books, and to claim a piece of the universe for myself. On days when the spirit moved me too much, I perched my binoculars on a tripod, and trained the mirrors to receive light from the Jovian moons and Saturn’s ring. Along with photons, more questions, terror, and existential dread poured into me, but so were awe and solace. Whenever I stood under the stars, when I thought about all the possible civilizations revolving around them, the absurdity and futility of life smothered me, and I felt crushed under the enormity of this universe. But, the consolation prize was how looking up helped me to stay grounded, to appreciate the human consciousness I was gifted with to observe this universe, and to let my insignificant ego be dissolved in the black ocean. As Carl Sagan said, we are all ‘…on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.’

Behind Door No. 33, there were lessons and chances to check my privileges. I might have read a slew of books in the last 12 months, but I worked on a personal project to read more books on India’s caste system, to understand and be aware of my privileges. The process of learning about social justice, and being agitated about the system, and the liberating internalisation of how I became the very system, demanded a heavy price – unearthing what was swept under the rug and recognizing discomfort and divisiveness as byproducts of the learning process.

Behind Door No. 33, there were friends and fun. The terrace garden that my mother lovingly raised. The basket of hibiscus she offered to her gods. The vegetables she harvested every week. The ritual that she carried out to remove evil eyes cast on her plants. The snail who appeared in the garden out of nowhere. The game trail that the Plant Whisperer paved just to say sweet nothings to every leaf. If friendship is about knowing, being there, and growing together, the garden, the snail, and the hundreds of sunsets I watched with the great love of my life, were my best friends.

Behind Door No. 33, there were words. My two-year long struggle with accepting my writing voice came to a quiet end last year. After shutting down and reopening several blogs, I made peace with what I have here. Among many things, the stars taught me that the very earth’s life is just a blink in the cosmic scheme of things. During that blink, my battle with my writing is nothing. My return to the stars is imminent and I might as well send myself off with some words, even if they are imperfect. Writing a blog that is 1,000 words long makes me believe that it’s easier to sell my soul to the devil, but as a writer, even though a reluctant one at that, I have decided to negotiate with the devil. If there were no words, what would I do with this long and short life, this will to keep going?

Behind Door No. 33, there were miracles, losses, health scares, my own body that I disrespected, my mind that broke and came together, helpers. There were anger, abuse, forgiveness, and reconciliation. There were moments of confusion and revelation. There were answers and questions for which there could be no answers. There were even conventional successes. What I saw behind the door, did it keep me happy? Even after opening 33 doors, I don’t know what happiness means, but what I am certain about is, that it was a good life.

As Door No. 33 flickers in quicker intervals, I choose to give myself the credit for trying hard to accept everything I could understand and everything I couldn’t fathom. As Door No. 34 beckons, I realise that I don’t have to bear the capitalistic expectation of measuring my life using the scale that wasn’t meant for me. The temptation is hard to resist though. I might even give in sometimes. But, when this planet’s lifespan itself is too short, I will choose to try harder to not lash at myself for not fitting in, for being different, for being obsessed with this wild life in my own ways. The voice in my head continues to sound like a 25-year-old’s. It’s curious, impressionable, open, and it’s often stifled by the world-weariness, the cynicism, and the wisdom of the 33-year-old in me. The more number of doors I open, the dissonance becomes louder. When there is no instruction manual, when the system is broken, when knowledge gathered by years of human intelligence can’t help humans to go ashore, I become the ultimate authority to judge and measure my life, and I live it the way I want.

Book Review: Hellfire by Leesa Gazi

In my last post — a review of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous — I wrote, “If the fences are eventually lifted, where will we go from there?” Strangely, Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire, translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, starts from there. Lovely gets out of the house for the first time all by herself. She is 40. As the book begins, the narrator tells us, “Getting out of the house, however, was a task as hard and complicated as crossing the pulserat, that final bridge of the afterlife spanning the fires of hell.” Hellfire answers the questions — why did Lovely take 40 years to do something that’s as unassuming as stepping out of the house by herself? Does Lovely cross the bridge? Or does the fire engulf her? If Lovely crosses the bridge, is she the same person when she reaches the other end? Or will she be permanently marked by Freedom?

Leesa Gazi’s Hellfire is 198 pages long. The rich, layered story of Farida Khanam and her daughters Lovely and Beauty unfolds like a fast-paced psychological thriller in those measly 198 pages. I keep harking back to the number of pages because despite being ridiculously short, the narrative bursts forth like water that gushes out just after a dam collapses. There is real force in Gazi’s storytelling, and Nadiya’s translation ensures that the force is not impeded.

For 40 years, Farida Khanam has always kept Lovely and Beauty on her watch. For children raised by Asian mothers, being under the constant supervision of their mothers is an everyday thing. But Farida Khanam stalks her own children. For instance, when Lovely and Beauty sit in their classroom, Farida Khanam watches them from their balcony that’s right opposite to their school. When they go out, she accompanies them. Every contact with the outside world is severed. The daughters’ privacy is limited to their bedrooms. The house is their bubble. They age, arrive well into middle-age, without experiencing the conventional milestones, trials, heartbreaks, joys, and triumphs of life. A golden cage is a cage all the same.

The reason why Farida Khanam keeps her daughter under lock and key is the story of what patriarchal societies do to women. We meet the important women in Farida Khanam’s life, and how they transfer their trauma to her. We see how they make Farida Khanam a woman of steel and a woman who cannot see the pain and damage she inflicts on her daughters. We meet the not-so-important men in her life, and how they are victims of patriarchy themselves, and how women continue to bear men’s cross. Gazi narrates each character’s story with the unwavering confidence of a creator who knows about every fibre of her characters’ being. But the most fascinating aspect of Gazi’s narration is how it’s impossible to guess the path the story would take despite knowing the characters and their motivation. In my copy, the last line of the story is the last line in the book itself. There are no acknowledgements, and notes about the author and the translator after the story ends. So, I was left reeling in shock when I read the last line. The punch in the gut was so sudden that I was breathless for a brief moment.

Hellfire is wild and disturbing, and it’s incredible and important. What makes it outstanding though is how the horror is omnipresent and surreal. Imagine this — you are ensconced in your bedroom, but the clouds suddenly become dark, and terrifying thoughts cross your mind. You just can’t say what’s bothering you, but you can feel a sense of impending doom. The horror that Hellfire holds is quite like what Shirley Jackson wrote in We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Nothing is explicit. In Hellfire, there is no mention of physical violence too. But the terror rises out of the characters’ realisation that how seemingly normal things are on the surface, and how just a chink is enough to see how deeply ruined they are.

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous By Ocean Vuong

I am always looking for something sweet, something ugly, something that talks about what it means to be human, something that can tell me that there is meaning and that this life is not absurd, and something that can hold space for me to salvage myself. Even when I read a pop-science book on how to survive black holes, I wait for the writer to pause, look into my eyes and say, “D, we are nothing. But by reading, you form your own meaning. By being alive now, you are something.” As a privileged woman with limited amount of experience in life, I lose the entitlement to say that I find meaning to my own existence in a book written by an author who is an immigrant, gay, whose family has survived a war, and who comes from a class, in all probabilities, definitely worse than where I was when I was a child. But I read to get answers. I read to find my current location. I read to feel less lonely. I am relying on people, who have lived a long life in time that’s long and short to them, to guide me, to endure this little life, to feel fully alive.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a difficult read. It’s more difficult than Yiyun Li’s Where Reasons End. Pain hosts the stories. Li’s narrator writes to her son who has passed away, and Vuong’s Little Dog writes to his mother who can’t read. They both have the liberty to empty the bubbling cauldron in their hearts, for their recipients are never going to write back to them. Li does hear back from her son, but that’s her grief talking, her imagination bridging the gap. From my vantage point, it’s freedom to not receive a response; it’s cathartic. The impatience of the recipient is eliminated while writing. Both the books are similar in the way they break words, put them in a tube, only to lift it to light, to keep turning it to form and to show various shapes and colours. What keeps shifting and appearing is truly a spectacle.

In an autofiction, the boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred. At several junctures, while reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t reading a memoir, but a novel. It’s Little Dog’s story written by Ocean Vuong who has pulled myriad threads from the fabric of his own life to weave this story. I shouldn’t have let myself feel disoriented because there aren’t many memoirs as lyrical and poetic as Vuong’s novel. But is it possible to relate one’s life only using poetry, or words which are poetic and filled with metaphors? On the other hand, the details pertaining to practicalities demand to be packed in words clinical and functional. Then can the memoir be termed poetic? That’s where I can see that autofiction breathes. It exhales things which memoirs hold back.

Vuong’s poetry and story are in a constant battle in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. They both fight to be in the forefront. I see them as two drivers taking turns to drive an enormous vehicle, on a very long highway. The speed is not constant, the vehicle responds to each driver differently, but the journey is memorable all the same. When the same vehicle is going to be steered by the same drivers again, at a distant point in future, the passing scenery could be entirely different.

Throughout the book, Vuong uses animal cruelty as an analogy. Animals are constantly in pain in his words. It made me flinch. Having been motivated by my love for animals, I even threw the net of skepticism on Vuong’s storytelling, and wondered if he loved animals at all. How could these analogies and metaphors stem from the mind and heart of someone who loves animals! Vuong answered my question in the last chapter. Who are we, human beings, if not animals ourselves, confined on this planet, surviving torture, succumbing to several forms of cruelties, and waiting for the gates to be opened! If the fences are eventually lifted, where will we go from there?

Book Review: Long Live The Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth

Trigger Warning: This blog contains mentions of suicide and depression.

There was a lid over the world. As in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I thought. I wondered if I should read it again, but surely it would only intensify my sense of isolation, I punch my fists into the air as if to smash the glass, but nothing happened. Where are the others, I thought. If it’s true, as it’s claimed, that other people really exist. I’m swimming underwater, I thought. They scream and shout and carry on on TV, but what for? Anyone can work out that life is ultimately a losing game.

The physiological and social needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy are met. According to a bourgeois, that should keep Ellinor happy. If she ‘complains’ about anything else in life, she would be shamed for it. She would be attacked for not acknowledging her privilege. But her struggles are real. She wonders why she has to wake up every morning. Why should she call her mother? Why is her sister so full of hope despite the terrible things which happened to her? Why? What is a routine? What is repetition? Why is she on this planet? Who put her on it? If someone put her on it, doesn’t she have the right to time her exit? All those impassive faces, the sea of humanity that she crosses on the road every day, how do they all feel about being here? Do they talk about it? Do they want to talk about it? If they talk, is the world ready to be stabbed by their truth? When Ellinor says, “Being human isn’t easy,” she becomes my voice too. She gives words to the existential dread that smothers me often every night.

Fight for a cause, came a whisper from the hallway.

In the first many pages of Vigdis Hjorth’s Long Live The Post Horn (translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund) Ellinor’s depression is palpable. Her struggle intensifies after a colleague dies by suicide. The book triggers; it’s relentless at it. At some point in time, I asked myself if I wanted to continue reading at all. But when Ellinor starts working with Norwegian Postal Workers Union, the novel transcends into an ode to letters, post office, and postal workers. Ellinor’s reluctant interactions with the postal workers are so moving and inspiring that I want to write a letter to somebody, and I want to assume the responsibility of protecting the postal workers’ job, and the dying art of letter writing. Hjorth has a subtle argument with me about the damaging effect of capitalism on my life and mental health. When Ellinor’s and the postal workers’ lives intersect, it becomes the classic, life-affirming situation of who-rescues-whom.

What do we do with our despair if our lives are too small to contain it? Deny our despair and ignore our beating hearts, remain at odds with ourselves and fight ourselves, or accept that there’s so much we’ll never understand intellectually and try to live with things which don’t add up, that what’s most important might be something we can only just sense, and teach our brains to illuminate our hearts and help us live with contradictions that can’t be cancelled out and become open to the idea that being a mere mortal is enough, more than enough in most respects, and once we’re alive, try to live with gratitude and passion…

I am going to shift to cynicism now. When someone is given the hand to walk away from the edge of life, what happens to them after that moment? Most books end there. They pander to the readers who demand happy ending, a fairy tale. Ellinor gets something to fight for. If she wins, what will happen to her after the glow of victory fades? Does she go back to being Sylvia Plath’s protagonist? Does she flit from one cause to another? My argument is not that I hate books which choose to give hope, but I want books to be more honest about depression and the ruthless way it relapses. Books aim for a crescendo. The aha-aha moment when the protagonist will be bathed in light. When I finished reading Long Live The Post Horn, I wasn’t infected by the hope that tried to emanate from my tablet. It’s been a week since I finished reading the book, and I have presented several questions to myself on why I wasn’t affected by its optimism. I have decided to blame it on the pandemic. Ellinor’s questions on existential dread continue to circle in my head. My post office may arrive soon. Or, I will find it in my heart to see the post offices in my life already. Maybe, not. But, above all, there are words, and I will crawl into their all-knowing embrace.

Book Review: The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

My mother’s garden received an unusual visitor. A snail. When I had posted a picture of the snail on Twitter, my friend Caroline recommended Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating. I was in between quite a few books when the recommendation came my way, but it became an antidote to my terrible reading slump. The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating is like the unexpected pleasant breeze that tropical summer lets in once in a while when heat tries to siphon off all hope.

With its mysterious, fluid movement, the snail was the quintessential t’ai chi master.

Time was all that Elisabeth Tova Bailey had after a series of illness made her lead her life from the bed. A friend brought a gift for her. It was a humble flower pot, but the friend also left a special someone in the pot. A snail. By being in the horizontal position, Bailey began to observe the snail’s behaviour and daily activities for one year. The world and the people around her had to go around, do their thing, but the snail was in no hurry. Its pace could have been still faster than Bailey’s, but by watching the snail, Bailey meditated on the isolation experienced by everyone who spends all their day on the bed, and the suffering that chronic illness imposes on them.

Her adventure with the snail started after she noticed a tiny square-hole in her envelope. The snail tore into it because it was hungry. To start caring for it, Bailey dove into malacological literature. She learnt what snails love eating, how many teeth they have got (her snail had more than 2,500), their sex (her snail was a hermaphrodite), their courtship and mating process (her snail had 118 offspring in less than a year when it lived in her terrarium), their million-year long journey to become who they are now, and their cryptic behaviour (they do feel!). As she went back and forth on the timeline of evolution, Bailey borrowed observations from scientists and poets, and she laced all that with her own quiet reflections on her illness and the way it had changed her life. My favourite quotes are the ones she borrowed from Kobayashi Issa and Rainer Maria Rilke. They ached with beauty and wisdom. They also gave me the comfort that there were so many of them who had the power to stop time from running away by simply watching a very tiny animal go about its day.

I could never have guessed what would get me through this past year — a woodland snail and its offspring; I honestly don’t think I would have made it otherwise. Watching another creature go about its life … somehow gave me, the watcher, purpose too. If life mattered to the snail and the snail mattered to me, it meant something in my life mattered, so I kept on… Snails may seem like tiny, even insignificant things compared to the wars going on around the world or a million other human problems, but they may well outlive our own species.

Bailey mostly focussed on the snail. While The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating is a memoir, Bailey’s story and her reflections appeared like bookends in each chapter. Sometimes, she explicitly drew parallels between the snail’s and her life, and most times, she handed information about what it means to be a snail, and left it at that. Even then, the book was so meditative that deep, calming thoughts lashed against the shore of my mind.

Books like The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating suggest that we live our personal timeline. We are not running on the same track, and so, our milestones are personal too. Conventional milestones — graduation, marriage, reproduction, owning properties — might give you a sense of accomplishment. But that shouldn’t rob you of the imagination to see others’ milestones. Running that marathon, cracking a complex code, raising your child might make your life look meaningful. For me, reading a book like this is life. Seeing my dog sitting against the setting sun is life. Listening to an invisible sparrow render a song is life. This life is hard as it is. So, what’s wrong in living it moment by moment?

The snail who visited our garden.