The Arrow of Time

I’m not afraid of death. I’m an old physicist — I’m afraid of time.

— Dr. Brand, Interstellar

Seven years ago, on this day, we let Calvin go. He was the first dog of my life. He was on a cold, steel table, surrounded by people, whom he fully hated and partially loved, and the ones whom he loved with his entire being waited in the reception, while he crossed the ‘rainbow bridge’. Between that day and to an unrecognised day in the recent past, I replayed that scene in my head many times to intentionally or accidentally untangle my mental knots about euthanasia. The knots were unyielding, but all of a sudden, there was a day when I thought about him and the image of him lying on a cold, steel table didn’t cross my mind. The arrow of time had crossed so much distance from that day that thoughts about this great black dog didn’t sting anymore. The image, the memory was there, like a Kodak-photograph, waiting to be held by a rational, balanced observer who would recall facts about the day when the picture was taken, who were there, what everybody ate, and what happened the day before and after that, and the observer didn’t have to struggle to swallow the lump in their throat or take a moment to hold their tears from streaking down their cheeks. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? No one can answer and confirm but the observer. That’s not an easy question to answer either.

Calvin’s story had no frills. In 2003, we had returned from a one-day trip to Pondicherry, and this boy who wanted to woo my sister stood at our door, holding a shoebox, with a black hole throbbing inside. We were not ready for a dog. We had dreamt for days and months, but dreaming didn’t mean we were ready. The boy waited to hand the shoebox to us. This black hole snoozed like that was all he was born to do. It took a few hours to convince my father, but the gravity of the black hole couldn’t be resisted. With no vision, no sense of direction, but with only his acute longing for his mother’s milk and another body’s warmth, he tumbled out of the shoebox and into our lives. He was fifteen days old, he was the size of a tiny floor-tile, he had two tiny greed beads for eyes, and his hunger was bottomless. We started the journey of raising him by reading a pocket-sized encyclopedia of dog care. The book had a bunch of information about how big he would become, his innate love for water and retrieving, and how friendly he would be with children, but it failed to warn us about the piranha he would morph into in a few weeks. It was not easy to love him with all the biting and zoomies and barking, and that was the point: he brought a new, effortless sort of love into my life.

For the next 12 years, Calvin was a ruffian. He welcomed guests and thieves; he stole snacks from children; he humped pillows, my short friends from school, tall men’s knees, and my mum; he dove into snake pits; he shamelessly watched people make love; he cold-shouldered other dogs but flirted with their humans; he pulled off a heist to steal dozens of jaangiri with Anu Boo and quietly ratted her out during our investigation by not licking his muzzle. His debaucheries must have shocked the canine moral police. And when we cried, he licked our tears. In my twenties, I dubbed that gesture as love, but now I understand that he simply loved salt. It was a grand life. And something primal and tender stirred in me whenever I held his large, bear-like face in my hands and looked into his cataract-filled eyes. One of the reasons why I love nonhuman animals is how they make the act of loving light and non-transactional.

Today, I retrieved this photograph. The calendar in the background suggests that the image must have been clicked in September or October 2003. Calvin was four or five months old, and I was sixteen years old. It must have been clicked when Calvin returned from his evening walk because the towel draped around his body must have been used to dry his paws after they were washed to remove tics he would have caught during the walk. I was in the final year of school, obsessed about love as projected by the cishet world of Tamil cinema, and I was impatient to finish school, become a grown-up, and do something — I was unsure what it was — with life. I look at the photograph, and I am moved by the untainted hope of the person I was, and I am jealous of this black dog who was cheerfully oblivious to the concept of time. Twelve September since that day, that ball of fur lied like a crumpled doormat on that steel table, and nineteen September since that day, I am here, writing this essay, a witness to the arrow of time that hurtles through space, with focus that can’t belong to this planet, like it knows where it is going, like it can’t wait to answer a call from a force that’s bigger than itself.

I try to not spend a lot of time on Facebook, for it is filled with echoes from my past, but some kind friends prefer Facebook to every other social media platform, and I drop by every once in a while to stay in touch. So, when my Messenger chimed that day, I was sure it was terrible news from someone or a cold ‘Hi’ from a person who had no idea of the rules of asynchronous communication. It was the former. A friend from school had entered my inbox to report that another friend from school was in her deathbed. She was 35, as old and young as me, and she was dying. We hadn’t met nor spoken to each other in sixteen years because I was a bad influence in her life, as reported by her mother, but the news shook me. I made some calls to talk to the people who were not from my past, but who fill my present, and the friend who brought the news to me wondered if I wanted to talk over the phone. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to hear a voice from my past. Accepting that offer would have meant assuming a personality that I tried hard to leave behind. The same evening, I was on Swiggy, trying to order biriyani for dinner, while listening to a virtual meeting at work, and the Messenger chimed again. The friend reported that our mutual friend had passed away. I took a deep breath, typed a feeble sorry on the Messenger, and went back to complete ordering my dinner. The virtual meeting was not entirely important. The dinner could have waited. I could have paused for a moment to process the information, but there was an inexplicable urge in the body that forced me to keep going, that screamed that it was business as usual and that I must fight or take flight, but I shouldn’t pause to give my mind and body a minute to receive the information. And then, that night, I saw this dead friend, sitting in a chair in my room, just like that time when I saw my dead athai sitting in my sofa on the night of her funeral that I refused to attend. I thought about the dead friend when I noticed the clear blue sky spotted with fluffy white clouds and wordlessly lamented about her having been robbed of the time to observe this universe. I thought about her when I had a cup of hot, milky, sugary tea. I thought about her when I listened to an upbeat song. She missed all of it; she would never have another chance. I mourned despite knowing that I hadn’t talked to her in sixteen years, and I had known her for only three years, and I mourned despite not knowing what broke my heart. It wasn’t my The-Prince-Became-Buddha moment. I wasn’t protected from life, for me to have woken up to my own mortality by the death of a friend. Calvin, the pandemic, a loved one who tried to die by suicide only to be held in love and fear later, a loved one who spent a harrowing week in a hospital, flitting between life and death, they all planted and watered death in my mind. But it is this friend’s death that grew and towered over every other memory and thought about death, and darkened the landscape of my fragile mind like a canopy. Maybe, it was because we sat next to each other in school. Maybe, it was how she made everyone else feel important by willingly playing the role of a sidekick. Maybe, it was her refusal to speak her mind. She was a mystery I never paid attention to, she was an absence that never coloured my life, but her death came dancing into my life, like the inebriated, carefree dancers caught in the rhythm of saavu molam, leading the last journey in Tamil funerals.

The hyperawareness of time that I have now been gifted with is not entirely a present nor a curse. I look outside the window, a blue bird enters my field of vision, I sniffle, and in a moment, I am arrested by the fear that I could lose that fragment of beauty any moment. I dust, catalogue, and put my four-hundred-and-five books back in the chest, and I am rendered immobile by the math that even if I read one book a week, it would take nearly eight years for me to finish reading all of them; I will be forty-three then. I listen to A.R. Rahman’s albums from the nineties, and I know that I am trying to reach something back in time while the arrow keeps moving in one direction and that’s not where I have turned toward. Time confiscates my agency and incarcerates me. My therapist once told me that staying deeply rooted in a moment, especially when it’s happy and pleasant, calls for some sort of courage to be vulnerable. Brené Brown’s talk was recommended, but I have read the book, and I am still on the fence. The omnipresent pop-culture makes it harder than what it is already by strategically placing a tragedy right after a happy moment in a show or a movie. The system has conditioned the humans to believe that being happy, taking in the good, is dearly expensive, and not everyone is bestowed with that privilege, except for teething puppies and hormonal teenagers perhaps.

Interstellar Fan Art Courtesy: Gulsah Minsin

In some ways, it’s not the pandemic or the friend who passed away or anyone’s close-shave with death. It’s my own fault. I crash-landed on thirty-five. One moment, I was twenty-six, giddy under neon lights, swaying to music, stuffing the face with food, untouched by the worries about health and finance and infidelity and dying alone or dying early and loyalty, and the next moment, I turned thirty-five and woke up to my dead friend’s apparition in my room. The answer to this meditation, the response to this essay, is slowing time down. My meditation teachers from Headspace would simply direct me to my meditation cushion to feel anchored, to gently latch on to the arrow of time while it flies and flies, but that’s still not the antidote to this existential dread, this longing for longevity. They would nudge me to accept that the arrow of time would keep hurtling but the speed is still relative. By slowing down my life, I could eventually trick myself into believing that the arrow slows down too. Who can be sure?

As a space nerd, I draw strength from the way cosmic objects behave. I find comfort in the randomness of the chaos and the predictability of the unknown in the cosmos. And I thrive engaging with dystopian science-fiction and solarpunk. When my mind is not actively monopolised by the endless deadlines and meetings at work, the reels on Instagram, and the ramblings of my own fear, I let my mind expand by thinking about the wonders of travelling near the speed of light, thanks to Interstellar. Cooper would hold his daughter, Murph, as she weeps and struggles to stop her father from taking that interstellar trip, and he would say that he wouldn’t age much as he would travel near the speed of light, and by the time he would return, they both could be of the same age. As the unpredictability of the universe goes, and a trip into a black hole and back, when Cooper returns, he ends up staying younger than his daughter. Time slowed down when he rushed, physics-wise and philosophically, very unlike how I feel living on this space rock. I rush, time rushes, and I look around to see that everything ages, including the observer and the traveller that I am. Knowing that every cosmic particle will decay some day, and the universe itself will age and end, and the arrow will fall, doesn’t help. It’s such a rich life, in spite of everything, and it’s fucking not enough.

On Finding The Strength To Do Both

Still. Something is missing. Something is off. So, how fucking spoiled am I, then? How fucking broken? What is wrong with me that I can have everything I could ever want and have ever asked for and still wake up in the morning feeling like every day is a slog?

In Becky Chambers’s first solarpunk, A Psalm For The Wild-Built, Sibling Dex had everything they wanted — they were raised in a farm, by parents who didn’t scar them for life, and they left behind a comfortable, safe life to become a tea monk, to hand out many cups of tea and to listen to their visitors lament about the death of their marriages breaching the surface after their cat passed away or worry about dogs who wouldn’t stop swallowing socks. Sibling Dex did what the tea monks were expected to do: travelled, parked their wagon, set up a cozy spot with generous amounts of quilts and cushions, served tea with herbs to let the restless minds stay still even if it’s just for brief moments, and let the routine spill from one day to another. Was that enough for Sibling Dex? No. Somewhere crickets were chirping, and Sibling Dex wanted to be there where the real sound of real crickets could caress their being. The device in their hand, eager to please as ever, could emulate the sound, but Sibling Dex knew they left the city to listen to the real, urgent conversations of crickets. The harder they tried, the worse they felt about the purpose that flickered like a mirage. Who brought solace and wisdom for Sibling Dex and told them that they were wonderful as they were and that it was enough to marvel at life for what it was? Not a philosopher spewing dense text about the purposelessness of life, but Splendid Speckled Mosscap, the robot.

You’re an animal, Sibling Dex. You are not separate or other. You’re an animal. And animals have no purpose. Nothing has a purpose. The world simply is. If you want to do things that are meaningful to others, fine! Good! So do I! But if I wanted to crawl into a cave and watch stalagmites with Frostfrog for the remainder of my days, that would also be both fine and good. You keep asking why your work is not enough, and I don’t know how to answer that, because it is enough to exist in the world and marvel at it. You don’t need to justify that, or earn it. You are allowed to just live. That is all most animals do.

Sibling Dex’s crickets are my writing. In the last two months, since I published my last book review here, I engaged with art in many forms: books, movies, shows, essays, music, artworks with which I followed many cycles of my breath. Fragments of my reflections about those appeared as vignettes here and there. Family visited. Good food was devoured. Loved ones healed. I took a long stride on my own path of healing, too. Oh, and career has been in the eye of a storm, but it’s going to be adventurous and rewarding, I hope. Invigorating conversations with friends take place everywhere, online and offline. I am there for people, the ones in flesh and bone, the ones blinking as cursors on white screens everywhere, the literary ones, and above all, myself. Like Sibling Dex, I wake up with prayers and gratitude for this perfect-in-its-own-way life, and I still hear a voice swimming to the top and settling like bubbles in a drink. ‘Something is missing.’ That ‘something’ has always been writing. And it’s not like I call, leave voice notes, languish in circle-back and low-hanging-fruit and leverage entirely. There is writing. There is an atom of my writer’s heart left in all the places where I leave my words. But this year should have been the one for fiction writing, discipline, and some structure in life to make room for more words. Life is refracted, however, the rainbow — the writing — doesn’t appear on the other end. My crickets are chirping somewhere. I can’t hear them.

When Sibling Dex was a child, their father took them to a monastery, where the tea monks treated Dex like an adult, where Dex witnessed a stream of people — people with, what Dex deemed as, important jobs — pour into the monastery to do nothing but only to enjoy a cup of tea offered by the monks. The monastery was like a waterbody, like birdbaths, springs, ponds, where animals cooled off, quenched their thirst, and found the strength to start the next leg of their journey. People with important jobs relished mugs of tea and short respite, and moved on with the pressing things in life. They found the strength to do both — to do the important job and to rest. When Sibling Dex shared that memory with Splendid Speckled Mosscap, I felt like I was offered a mug of tea by the book. As Sibling Dex realised that the yin and yang of rest and work could endlessly follow each other, that one could find the strength to do both, and when Mosscap finally declared that everyone is wonderful as they are, somewhere near Sibling Dex, crickets gently chirped, and I am here writing this piece and collecting the courage to dream about writing more, captions or stories or blogs or reviews. So long as the chirping goes, that’s good enough.

Becky Chambers dedicated this embrace of a book ‘for anybody who could use a break’. I have never seen a dedication on a book more personal and generous as that. A Psalm For The Wild-Built is also an answer to the question why we read and write — to lay stretched out on quilts laid out by writers and to draw strength from words handed out by them like mugs of warm tea.

Illustration courtesy: Randall Dameron, a graphic designer and illustrator from NC.

Book Review: Cold Skin By Albert Sánchez Piñol, Translated By Cheryl Leah Morgan

Early evening: the sky is unsually free of clouds. There is an impressive array of fixed and shooting stars. The sight brings tears to my eyes. My thoughts dwell on the latitude and the positioning of the firmament. I am so far from home that the constellations have come unhinged from their usual positions and I am unable to recognise them. But we must accept that there is no such thing as chaos. It is simply the human incapacity to assimilate new arrangement and ordering in the world. The universe is not susceptible to chaos; we are.

The synopsis and the blurbs struggle to fully embrace the bouquet of genres and themes Albert Sánchez Piñol weaves in Cold Skin, translated from the Catalan by Cheryl Leah Morgan. They call it a horror, a gothic novel, an unconventional thriller, and an allegorical tale on colonialism and xenophobia. In addition to all that’s been pinned down as the central themes of Cold Skin, I am tempted to argue that the novel is a man’s odyssey from the scaffoldings of survival to the lighthouse of compassion, and a love story that’s disgusting and problematic at the outset and entirely plausible and heartbreaking at the end.

‘We are never very far from those we hate. For this very reason, we shall never be truly close to those we love,’ the nameless narrator opens Cold Skin. He is on a ship, to be deposited in an island, which is barely a mile long, to observe the harsh polar winds in isolation. It’s during an unidentifiable time after the First World War. If the clocks of bureaucracy don’t break, he will be replaced by the next official in twelve months. He hopes to watch the wind and looks forward to enjoying the company of philosophers, thinkers, and writers through their words. What he encounters, though, is an island that teems with monsters, and a castaway whose mind has been permanently altered by the island.

The original includes information about the narrator’s life before he comes to the island, but in the English version, we rely on the narrator to drop crumbles here and there, and it does take some effort to connect the dots. We know that, in someone’s eyes, he is a traitor, maybe a deserter. So, he arrives expecting peace and a year of reflection in a strip of land that’s thousands of miles away from civilisation. What he gets is what his imagination is not capable of conjuring up; what he gets is a war with an enemy who is unpredictable and incomprehensible, burning of books to protect himself, rifles which won’t stop ringing, an unusual friendship, a lot of fornication that’s deemed taboo, and an unrequited love. The island teaches the narrator, ‘It just went to show that humanity was caught up in a series of invisible gears, destined to turn forever on themselves.’

Reviewers opine that the book is reminiscent of The Shape of Water, written by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro, but Cold Skin was published in 2002, nearly fifteen years before The Shape of Water, the movie and the book, was released. I am not familiar with Daniel Kraus’s others works to decide if Cold Skin is one among the first in contemporary literature to follow a love story that grows between a man and a beast, but to observe that Cold Skin has echoes of The Shape of Water is chronologically wrong and even a bit unfair. However, both the books present a question that boundlessly interests me — who are monsters? Us or them?

Cold Skin is an exercise in tolerance for readers who operate in absolutism, the very thing that the book painstakingly rips apart. On the surface, there is all sorts of violence. The first fifty pages don’t try to convince either. If that’s all would be sampled to test the novel’s merit, it would be cancelled before it’s given a chance to finish elevating its intention to action. There is blood and gore and abuse and a war that’s unforgiving, but that’s when it’s key to make the decision to not read Cold Skin like an unputdownable thriller that focusses on a man’s survival at the cost of suggesting extermination of whom he perceives as monsters, but as a loud meditation on humanity, war, loneliness, love, and our place in the cosmos.

On his second day on the island, after a sleepless, the most terrifying night of his life, the narrator says, ‘My own vulnerability terrified me as much as the monsters.’ The more I read that sentence, the more amused I am by the sentence’s universality. In some sense, this life is a war. Whom we believe are our friends, turn out to be monsters; whom we believe are dangerous monsters are benevolent humans underneath that misunderstood exterior. We cannot know at all times, and we shouldn’t be expected to know. The war is the effort we make to protect ourselves, incarcerated by our own defenses sometimes. The transition from monstrosity to compassionate human is not always linear too. The absolutism doesn’t come into effect here again. We are in a twilight zone, waiting and watching, to choose humans-cum-monsters-cum-humans, to give them the gift of our vulnerability.

Goodbye, The Guest Cat

A more fundamental reason why humans accepted cats in their homes is that cats taught humans to love them.

– Feline Philosophy by John Gray

We grieve in our own ways — I am writing this blog, Amma is chopping vegetables while listening to a religious melody on YouTube, and Appa is lying on the divan with his eyes closed. Today, we are all islands. Grief is the bridge; we can cross it to acknowledge the hurt, tend to each other’s wounds, but for now, the islands we have built around ourselves feel safe to mourn. The Guest Cat, whom I named after Takeshi Hiraide’s book, was found lifeless at our door this morning. There must have been a street-fight, the injuries on his body told us, and he chose our home, like every other time, to rest and recuperate. This time, though, his body couldn’t wait for the healing process to run its course. Appa shook The Guest Cat’s body, moved his tail, in the hope he would take another breath, in the hope he would wake up, shake it all off, and demand a bowl of Whiskas. There was only a mop of white fur and silence.

Appa will leave for work in a couple of hours; when the pain is unbearable, that is what he does — he goes to work. Amma will discuss with our neighbours the graphic details about The Guest Cat’s demise, and I will start work as well as though we hadn’t just lost the first feline friend of our lives, as though this sentient being who dropped by every day for several years would arrive again while sending a stream of mellifluous meows first to announce his regal arrival. We aren’t pausing, creating a moment to declare that The Guest Cat will not visit again; we will not open the door again to find him leaving his paw through the gate to gently touch our clothes; we will not be ambushed by his shocking beauty again. Today, grief is like a ball of cotton, like his white fur. It’s light but in time it will drown in our memories, regrets, and guilt. It’s going to be so heavy.

I named him The Guest Cat because I always knew that he didn’t belong to anyone; he belonged to himself. He sashayed into our building and our lives with an air of cockiness, grace, and dignity. Loving strays also means losing them every time they don’t choose to pay a visit. We wait with a bowlful of food, a heartful of anxiety, and they walk in again without a hint of remorse, soundlessly laughing at our vulnerability and love that is achingly beautiful. I wanted to tell The Guest Cat, ‘Laugh. Laugh at me. But keep returning. I am a fool to keep loving, but what will I do with my intelligence? Laugh, my friend!’ My family’s first response to losing non-human friends is taking an oath to not love them again. Death has a different effect on me — it throws spotlight on things which I failed to do, of course, but it makes me braver, it gives me the strength to start again and continue, and if death doesn’t remind us to practise love more often, what else will?

Today, as The Guest Cat begins his journey of returning to star stuff, I will learn to sit with the paradoxes in my life — I didn’t love him enough and I loved him with all I had; I didn’t protect him enough and I nourished his body in little, possible ways; I wish I showed up more and I am grateful for the times I could; he was my first cat and he wouldn’t be the last. I send him an infinite sky of gratitude for retraining my brain that was lazy in its love for effusive dogs and for making more room in my heart to accept love in its innumerable forms.

(Thanks for the trust, thanks for the friendship. Go well, The Guest Cat!) ❤

Unlike dogs, cats have not become part-human. They interact with us and may in their own way come to love us, but they are other than us in the deepest levels of their being. Having entered the human world, they allow us to look beyond it. No longer trapped within our own thoughts, we can learn from them why our nervous pursuit of happiness is bound to fail.

– Feline Philosophy by John Gray

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Because survival is insufficient.

It is not easy to say that. I don’t know the context in which the line appeared in Star Trek: Voyager, episode 122, twenty-three years ago, but we can’t use that expression now without sounding borderline insensitive, as the COVID-19 pandemic goes on, controlling the planet, coercing us to be grateful for every new day that gets added to our lives. However, when Emily St. John Mandel makes it the central theme of Station Eleven, she absolves us of our survivor’s guilt. When it all ends, when we begin again, or when it all ends, when we wait to begin again, we still find comfort in art. When our civilisation collapses, when our existence gets stripped down to hunting and gathering, we don’t simply survive, while that would have been enough, but we seek companionship and community, we look for beauty in everything, and we practise art. The expression makes me believe that I haven’t been greedy, in the last two years, for longing to do something more than surviving, something more than waking up, working, and existing.

After the collapse, The Travelling Symphony in Station Eleven walks across the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare, rendering Beethoven, living their days by entertaining those whose lives are momentarily uplifted by their music and art only for them to return to darkness and isolation after the performances. Before the collapse, a bunch of ‘high-functioning sleepwalkers’ gallop around their hyperconnected, fast-paced, seemingly safe and invincible world, dissatisfied and unhappy in their own ways. By flitting between the Before and After worlds, Emily St. John Mandel juxtaposes two realities in Station Eleven (and another in Miranda’s comic books). Station Eleven could have slipped into the argument that demonises modern technology and romanticises a world where there is no electricity, instant communication, and convenient and fast travel. Or, it could have instilled more fear by amplifying violence and atrocities of cult which take place after the collapse. However, Station Eleven does something compassionate by holding that juxtaposition, by building a Museum of Civilisation, and by offering a bright horizon of hope. It encourages us to pay more attention to what we have and how we use them. It shows that survival is everything and that along with the act of survival art persists.

Miranda’s comic books also answer the question that has many answers — why do we read? Her comics are her shadow life, but as the story unfolds, the boundary between the life on Station Eleven in her comic and the lives followed in Station Eleven, the book, blurs. The flickering boundary makes me wonder if that’s why we read, consume art — to pour our existence into a book, an artwork, a piece of music and to discover our identity in them, or for our identity to bleed and merge with them. Perhaps, inefficiency of languages also contributes to our quest, our hunt for metaphors in art, for us to make sense of our lives and our stories, for us to find meaning, and for us to do something, anything more than surviving. Clark Thompson, an organisational psychologist, a curator, the founder of Museum of Civilisation, is a memorable character for me, besides Miranda, in Station Eleven. That’s mainly because we share our suffering — enduring a life that’s eroded by the acidic waves of the corporates and fathoming the emptiness of ‘circle back’, ‘shoot an e-mail’, ‘leverage’, ‘touch base’. Despite how close his life was to sinking into the quicksand of meaninglessness glorified by the corporates, he sought beauty in a paperweight, an orange, and in improbable friendships. Knowing his story lit my heart. That’s all I can try do, too — survive and be waylaid by beauty.

Clark had always been fond of beautiful objects, and in his present state of mind, all objects were beautiful. He stood by the case and found himself moved by every object he saw there, by the human enterprise each object had required. Consider the snow globe. Consider the mind that invented those miniature storms, the factory worker who turned sheets of plastic into white flakes of snow, the hand that drew the plan for the miniature Severn City with its church steeple and city hall, the assembly-line worker who watched the globe glide past on a conveyer belt somewhere in China. Consider the white gloves on the hands of the woman who inserted the snow globes into boxes, to be packed into larger boxes, crates, shipping containers. Consider the card games played below decks in the evenings on the ship carrying the containers across the ocean, a hand stubbing out a cigarette in an overflowing ashtray, a haze of blue smoke in dim light, the cadences of a half dozen languages united by common profanities, the sailors’ dreams of land and women, these men for whom the ocean was a gray-line horizon to be traversed in ships the size of overturned skyscrapers. Consider the signature on the shipping manifest when the ship reached port, a signature unlike any other on earth, the coffee cup in the hand of the driver delivering boxes to the distribution center, the secret hopes of the UPS man carrying boxes of snow globes from there to the Severn City Airport. Clark shook the globe and held it up to the light. When he looked through it, the planes were warped and caught in whirling snow.

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.