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, in 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 few 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 Pillar, 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.

I Have No New Notification

He asks me what my favored platforms are.

I explain that I don’t use any of them because they make me feel too squirrelly. Or not exactly squirrelly, more like a rat who can’t stop pushing a lever.

Pellet of affection! Pellet of rage! Please, please, my pretty!

Weather by Jenny Offill

I remember the moment when social media found me. 2007. A grey, oppressive corporate building in an industrial estate in Chennai. Comforted by the nothingness in two parottas I had for dinner, I sat in my chair and pulled out the keyboard when my coworker said, “My bestfriend from school is on Orkut.” He didn’t wait to see if I was curious about this new word. He had found his bestfriend, they spent all their nights riding the wave of nostalgia, and who knew who else was on Orkut. It was only three years since I finished school, and I hadn’t yet encountered expressions like ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’. It was an innocent time — dangerous rather — when people didn’t throw up their hands to grudgingly, reluctantly acknowledge their privilege. Of course, I wasn’t woke enough to see the way my school enabled casteism, sexism, colorism, and homophobia. The teachers were a bunch of bigots, and their mission was to develop young minds on the fecund soil of fear. Students would grow up to become their teachers, their parents. “I want to see if I can find my school friends on Orkut,” I told him. “Add me first, okay!” he ordered. Several times in the last 14 years, I tried to control that moment, replayed that scene in different ways, to stop him from telling me that he found his bestfriend from school on Orkut.

For 14 years, I was not in control of my brain. The confession, the theory, shakes my core, and something stirs and begins a lament in my heart, but the statement still sounds true — social media stole my brain. I, now, imagine that it was stored in a jar in an unknown place where light couldn’t enter, somehow mysteriously connected to my being and operated by many invisible hands of social media. The brain marinated in the ‘likes’, comments, validation, and curiosity. The joy of receiving instant gratification met the fear of missing out, and the brain altered itself. It seemingly lost the ability to distinguish offline life from the online one. And everything that happened between 2007 and 2021 was either a blessing that social media bestowed or a curse that it unleashed. But it all looked the same to the brain that lost its bearing.

Every decision I took — did I? — was inspired, fuelled, informed by social media and what I consumed there. Instagram made me look for instagrammable things. “Here is a baby leaf. Oh my Dog! Let me ‘gram it.” Twitter made me shouty, judgemental, and sanctimonious. “I am a woke, feministic, Savarna ally, and I am here to call out other Savarnas who aren’t enlightened yet. I am not liberal. I am beginning to tend toward left.” How many amens? How many RT’s? “I am growing huh!” My career soared, plummeted, flatlined, paused, and breathed again because of all the traps Facebook laid. From my laptop and smartphone, relationships — platonic, romantic, abusive — bled into my life. They entered my bedroom in flesh and blood, they entered my head in words and music, demanding love and submission and refusing to be tamed by the practicalities commanded by the offline life. “How does one think?” I had no time and space to ask that question. “How does one think and make informed, compassionate decisions?” the question never surfaced. “Who am I? What are my values?” they were not asked. Signals were coming in, infinitely, and I had to receive them even if I didn’t know what I would do with them nor how to respond to them, and I had to beam back without fully examining and understanding the contents I relayed. There was rush, joy, anxiety, and a maelstrom of emotions. Chaos. For 14 years, the mob let me believe that I was living a life, my life, as I ran along with it, to a destination that, in all probability, the mob didn’t know either.

When my 20-year-old self and all of her naivety signed up on Orkut, I was a reluctant, rookie adult, coerced to grow up because of circumstances, and I denied to give myself the solace that I was still adolescent, and I needed unconditional love and acceptance. I also needed to be taken to a library, and directed to a row of fiction to make it my lantern to make this journey. I needed to be gently nudged into the endless darkness of the universe only to spot stars emitting light for billions and billions of years. I needed to be told that I was just 20, I could quit my job and go back to college, there was no hurry, and that I had my whole life ahead of me. It was a life cushioned by many privileges, but the crucial ones, emotional and financial, were mere mirages. When Orkut verified my credentials, when the portal opened, I entered with my sweet innocence and curiosity, my life waiting to be permanently altered.


The days had passed without great peaks and troughs of emotion; her job and the domestic rituals that went with each season had been sufficiently varied and rewarding to occupy her. Small pleasures — the first cigarette of the day; a glass of sherry before Sunday lunch; a bar of chocolate parcelled out to last a week; a newly published library book, still pristine and untouched by other hands; the first hyacinths of spring; a neatly folded pile of ironing, smelling of summer; the garden under snow; an impulsive purchase of stationery for her drawer — had been encouragement enough.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

I remember the moment when I decided to quit social media. 24 July 2021. I had finished writing my 7th and the last paper of my B.A. English Literature exam, I had just had a telephonic argument with my partner about something that appeared so pressing then and so trivial now, and I placed the phone on the table, not dramatically and not like a person who was about to make an important decision, but just mindlessly. I held my right shoulder that had expectedly reacted to all the writing it was not used to doing, and I massaged my back that had taken the brunt of sitting in the same chair for 15 hours for four days in a row. I knew I would be pulled back into a vortex of pain if I tried leaving the bed the next morning. “I am done,” I muttered. Moved by my intuition that startled me with its conviction, I knew that it was unlike every other time when I stormed out of social media, deactivated accounts, slammed doors, erased footprints, and crawled back by opening new accounts. This time, something shifted. I was sure I was done. A nameless silence was birthed by the pain and agony then, and I wanted it to stay with me.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, and until the day I made the decision to protect my time, I spent, on an average, six hours on my phone by witnessing strangers’ fight on the Internet (“Whose side should I take here to be politically correct?”), by hate-watching Instagram influencers commodifying their private lives, and by watching hundreds and hundreds of videos of nonhuman animals being cute and human. My daily screentime now ranges between 40 and 90 minutes even when, I attempt to use the phone with an intention. “Six hours? You had so much time?” those who are on the tried and tested paths of life may wonder. “If you were married, if you had children, you wouldn’t have had time…” the unsolicited advice might threaten to slip out. For some, time is a vessel; what it can hold is limited to its dimensions. For some, time is a river; the only way to know what it can hold is by emptying into it all that you have.

Now that the noise has receded, I do small things, many of them. My latest obsession is to try measuring every effort I make to believe that I am exercising freewill and that I am not always pushed and pulled by elements beyond my control. At times, I wonder if I am missing out and even worse, what if I can’t know what I am missing out. When I was in a safe space once, I observed, “I envy those who can use social media mindfully, wisely.” The listener asked me, “Do you know anyone like that?” I said I wasn’t sure, and I didn’t say I could become that person. Along with the noise, the compulsive need to know everything that’s happening — pop-culture references, witty memes, life updates, authors causing disillusionment — has receded too. Once in a while, I am jolted by the realisation that I am ensconced in my bubble, my privilege — I can afford to stay offline when I am not working — and think hard about the credibility of the complaint I make against social media. If what we see is a prelude to the future, will my resistance to be a part of it make me a species that refuses to evolve and thereby fails to develop the skills to survive?

I am not a seasoned pessimist; I am not an eternal optimist either. In spite of the three decades I have spent on this pale blue dot, my world view, I believe, is still in its formative stage. Maybe, I am hurling stones at something that helped me to become who I am now. The tendency to carry out an autopsy needs to be replaced with the effort to show gratitude, to drop flowers on the path taken, perhaps. But that’s too peaceful, and while peace is all I want, I also want peace to make me feel alive. So, is this deep life? What is a deep life? To start, that question will help.

Automat, 1927 by Edward Hopper

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.

Book Review: The Orders Were To Rape You

Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual violence and genocide

In Purananuru, an anthology of four hundred Tamil poems written by more than 152 poets between the first and third centuries C.E., emperors were exalted. Their wisdom, and their valour in war were celebrated. But women were assigned certain roles. They were the martyrs’ mothers, widows, and daughters. Did women do anything other than beating their breasts, and wailing?

But in the Tamil Eelam war, women were on the front line, wielding weapons, brandishing courage, and battling to take back the land that belonged to them. The oppressors quelled their spirit by unleashing sexual violence on them, and on hundreds and hundreds of civilians who were displaced, and dehumanised.

In Meena Kandasamy’s The Orders Were To Rape You, the Tigresses, the female fighters of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, share their stories reluctantly first, and freely later in their poems. Every page is a lament. Every story is a reminder to challenge patriarchy, to not turn away when waylaid by injustice, and to question the Tamil moral universe that hurls misogynistic judgement on survivors.

Women raped as a weapon of war are potent tools for political mobilisation and grandstanding oratory, but in everyday life, they are viewed with derision, suspicion, shame.

Meena Kandasamy constantly asks herself, and the reader, why should the survivors be asked to live through their trauma again by relating their stories? Some of them choose to give words to their stories because they want Justice. But when will they receive it?

This essay is an exercise in intimacy. It questions why women on the margins have to trade in trauma for a chance to be heard.

When Meena Kandasamy was a teenager, she ‘lusted after’ the Tigresses, she confessed in her essay. A teenage girl, whose wings were clipped by the patriarchy entrenched in her own support system, would naturally be inspired by the images of women, wading through the woods, with AK47 in their hands, and reclaiming everything that is rightfully theirs. Tamil liberation was directly linked with Meena Kandasamy’s freedom from everything that incarcerated her in the Indian society. The Tigresses were here idols. But, after she met them in flesh, the images in her mind receded to the background.

Meeting a female Tiger in the flesh broke my own naive carnivalisation of war. When I encountered these women personally, the image I had constructed of female militancy shattered. Nothing had prepared me to brace for the reality that these powerful women would be so vulnerable.

In the first portion of the book, Meena Kandasamy writes about the documentary project which later turned into this essay. The passages in which she explored the differences between presenting the survivors’ stories on a screen, and through words, were particularly poignant. In the second portion of the book, Meena Kandasamy introduces the reader to poets who resisted across the globe. Their works are replete with metaphors of graveyard, dry lands, death, and pain, accentuating the truth that injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere.

I see the book’s cover, and think of the poetry and pain in it. There are silhouettes of women lunging. There are rifles in their hands. When I focus on the cover softly, I see blotches of blood. Blood is omnipresent in the lives of Tigresses. When they went to war, they were killed, and violated. When they stayed back, they were still violated, and tortured. When they fled the war, the violations took unimaginable forms in foreign lands. I am often told that bodies are our only homes, and we should look after it. And the more I read about gender-based violence, I realise that bodies are not homes; they are cages. How can something feel like home when there is no safety and freedom!