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!

Book Review: Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

This was their perfect moment. Another almost-erased history unaborted. And this house with its hundred-plus years. This house with its stained-glass and leaded windows. This house with its generations cheering, saying, Dance, y’all and Ashe and The ancestors are in the house, say what? I and everything and everyone around me was their dream come true now. If this moment was a sentence, I’d be the period.

The sixteen-year-old Melody says, “…I’d be the period,” at her coming-of-age ceremony. It’s not an empty statement that is made by a teenager who thinks that the world revolves around her. Melody is aware of her blackness. Of the race massacre and the fire that her black family survived in Tulsa. Of the constant battle her grandparents fought to weave a net of financial security for their family. Of her father’s childhood in which there were no class privileges. Of her mother’s absence, and the love that could have held them together. But Melody still doesn’t fully grasp the gravity of the impact two teenagers’ curiosity, about sex and biology, had on their lives. Of how something shifted and became even tighter in her grandmother’s heart. Of how something became even tender in her grandfather’s soul. Of how she became everything for her father. And of everything that her mother could have had, and everything that her mother lost.

In less than 200 pages of lyrical writing, Jacqueline Woodson brings every character alive in Red At The Bone. Her entire cast is memorable. Even Baby Benjamin (as my friend Vishy points out here) whose life is described in just a couple of passages. CathyMarie who props up Iris when she didn’t know she needed help. Sabe who won’t stop talking about fire and gold, but she had every reason to keep talking about them. Sabe, who is a staunch Catholic, and her little rebel against the nuns. Never mess with a momma who is grieving her daughter’s lost adolescence. She would brave the inferno to protect her child’s heart. Above all, Iris. She needs a lot of empathy. While every other character gives all their love to what she creates, in the process of creating the very thing, Iris believes she has lost the person whom she could have possibly become. How would she try to become that person when she didn’t have the time and opportunity to meet that person? Through Iris, and her journey toward discovering herself, Woodson explores the themes of sexuality, teenage pregnancy, motherhood, racial identity, and love.

You’re going to learn this. I mean, I hope you learn this. Love changes and changes. Then it changes again.

On the surface, Woodson’s writing looks effortless. The story goes back and forth in time, there are multiple perspectives, but her storytelling doesn’t falter. It doesn’t wait anywhere to take a breath. It unfolds with the confidence of a writer who leans back on her chair, and just let the words flow from her fingertips to the keyboard. The sentences don’t jostle each other. They politely arrive, one after the other, from Woodson’s heart, with a certainty that’s almost magical, as though her Black ancestors themselves want her to tell their stories.

Shoot, I love that people think the world is even halfway ready for what we about to bring.

(I read this gorgeous book along with my friends Vishy and Bina, and we had an extraordinary discussion after that. I feel grateful.)