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.