Before Opening Door No. 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Hellfire by Leesa Gazi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Long Live The Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The snail who visited our garden.

Book Review: The Orders Were To Rape You

Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual violence and genocide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Book Review: Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer

Bird Cottage, written by Eva Meijer, translated by Antoinette Fawcett, asks many questions. Why does one give up the comfort of a known life, and move to a cottage in the countryside, just to run a research on birds? Why does one antagonize one’s neighbour whose cats terrify the birds? Why does one choose to end up seeming rude to visitors who struggle to understand that every sudden movement would startle the birds? Why does one challenge nasty authorities when they try to destroy the birds’ homes? Why does one choose birds over everything else, at the cost of being called a misanthrope? Why? Why does it matter? But what else matters?

Gwendolen Howard wrote two books – Birds As Individuals and Living With Words — about her extraordinary yet quiet life with birds whom she extensively researched for more than three decades. The male world of science then, in the first half of the 20th century, looked down upon her reports. But Howard’s research offered an intimate view of her life with birds, and revealed a side that was largely unknown about the avian universe. Her best friend Star, a Great Tit, even learned to tap on tables and windows for a specific number of times when Howard requested. Howard was often found walking in Sussex, with a bunch of birds perched on her shoulders and arms. I often think of the image, and it warms my heart.

In Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage, fact meets fiction. Meijer takes some creative liberty, presents Howard’s life based on the available material, and fills the gap with her own imagination. The final product is a story that’s idyllic and heartbreaking in equal measure. After all the struggle to keep her cottage a safe haven for the birds, Howard left it to the Sussex Naturalists’ Trust, with the hope that it would be turned into a sanctuary, but her dreams died too. Her books, I figure, are out of print as well. But it is comforting to know that there was a person who was unconditionally trusted by the often-misunderstood birds. And there will always be somebody, braving all the ridicule, only to deeply love life in their own ways.

I shouldn’t ask myself whether what I’m doing is useful, or whether it’s enough. The birds show me that time is not the straight line that humans make of it. Things don’t come to an end, they just change form. A feeling becomes a thought, a thought an action, an action a thought, a thought a feeling. The first feeling returns, traces lines through the new one. The first thought sleeps a while, then crops up again later. This is how times intermingle; this is how we exist in different moments all at once.

Book Review: Mermaids in The Moonlight by Sharanya Manivannan

Then there are dreamers like you and me who want to believe there can be mermaid in lagoon. Fish-tailed, with a human heart!

Sharanya Manivannan’s Mermaids in The Moonlight starts from Mattakalappu in Ilankai. A note at the end of the book reads that we may know Mattakalappu as Batticaloa, and Ilankai as Sri Lanka. I am Tamil. And I know these places as how Nilavoli’s Amma calls them in her stories, and that’s how I want to remember these places too. From the meditative, enchanting Kallady Lagoon, as they try to listen to the song of a mermaid whom they name Ila, Amma tells Nilavoli about the mermaids, mer-creatures, and marine spirits of the world, and their stories which are deeply rooted in magic, faith, justice, love, longing, and loss. Just like the ocean, their stories come in waves, encouraging the child in me to hold on to wonder and curiosity, and comforting the adult in me with its poetry and the truth that I choose to see.

‘There is a lot of sorrow in this place,’ Amma whispered to me.
‘Sometimes you just have to pause and feel it.’

Mermaids in The Moonlight is just not imaginative, but it is politically correct, and that’s the change I have been hoping for children’s literature. The characters are from Asia, the illustrations are inclusive, there are stories about the women of Mattakalappu who lead their families, and there is a delightful surprise at the end, making the stories come full circle. There is also something beautiful about Hanuman, Ravanan’s daughter, and a love story about them that travelled from Thailand. The search to know more about mermaids can’t end with the book; it starts from there.

There are so many stories that disappear, like tears underwater…

When the book is set in Mattakalappu, how could Amma not talk about the land that saw war and pain? Children’s literature doesn’t just have to be about wise, talking animals. In ‘Mermaid in the Moonlight’, while relating the story of women in Rameshwaram in India, Amma tells Nilavoli about the people who reached the coastal town on tiny boats, escaping the war. The stories can hold safe space for adults, and children to understand that the world is kind and cruel at the same time, and to tell children that when life becomes overwhelming, curling up in the lap of stories could be restorative. Amma gives Nilavoli many things – truth, imagination, curiosity, and the cultures of many peoples. A child loved like that can make the healing less painful.

Book Review: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Millennials would hate Barrington Jedidiah Walker (Barry), and the Gen Z’s would call him a dinosaur like his grandson who banters with him. In Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, Barry narrates what happens in his life from May 2010 to May 2011 while also recalling his life in Antigua, how he learned to live as a black immigrant in England, and how he is going to muster the courage to divorce his wife, and move in with Morris whom he has clandestinely loved for 64 years.

He is 74-years-old in 2010, but for him time has stopped ticking after the 70’s. He dresses like he has stepped out of the 50’s and looks ridiculously dapper. He is misogynistic, self-absorbed, hilarious and sometimes inappropriately funny. “Nobody can be depressed around me for long. Yesss. I am the Great Mood Levitator. I am the Human Valium,” Barry proudly declares. It’s easy to understand why his wife Carmel chose him. But the mystery of how the kind, empathetic, perceptive Morris fell in love with Barry remains unresolved.

Barry is everything that the dwellers of 21st century despise. Through that lens, Barry becomes unlikable. Here is where Evaristo’s storytelling becomes even more powerful. She shows all the great and dark sides of Barry not because she wants to say that everybody is flawed and perfect at the same time, but she holds a mirror to the system that makes life difficult for everybody, that influences the process of making decisions, and that makes and breaks your image, that you meticulously sculpt, in the eyes of your partners, friends, children… All the while Barry could be thinking that he was in control of most parts of his life, but the system, which’s created to oppress the people of colour, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, was always at the wheel.

Named after Shabba Ranks’ addictive song Mr Loverman, Evaristo’s novel could be easily mistaken as a celebration of the life of a gay man who comes out of the closet at 74, and rides into the sunset with his childhood sweetheart, but through the second person narrative, where Evaristo’s words burn with grief, anger, and self-righteousness, the book also delivers a feminist sermon on what it means to be a black woman in England, the stigma around postpartum depression in the 60’s and 70’s, the pressure to play ‘gendered roles’, and the bouts of loneliness that the broken system impose on women.

If Barry’s chapters are full of colours, jokes, his narcissistic cartwheels, and sharp commentaries on racism, linguistic politics, and sexuality, if Barry’s chapters come across like a flowery filter on Instagram, Carmel’s chapters are sepia toned. A sharp contrast. Carmel talks about things which Barry refuses to share. It’s easy to love Barry — thanks to his large personality — but it’s not hard to understand Carmel. It’s not hard to empathise with her. Carmel could reach the point of making brave decisions at the end, but she wouldn’t understand what it was for Barry to live two lives for 50 years, and neither would Barry understand how Carmel feels about being a cover for her husband for half a century. As much as they think that they made each other’s life miserable, it’s not difficult to see what actually made everything unnecessarily complex and painful — colonization, racism, slavery, homophobia, misogyny…

If Barry is still living, he would be 85. And by now, he should have become politically correct, and more informed about systemic oppression. In 2010, he said…

‘Morris, I am an individual, specific, not generic. I am no more a pooftah than I am a homo, buller or anti-man.’ I start to quietly hum ‘I am What I am’. ‘You homosexual, Barry,’ he says, going po-faced on me. ‘We established that fact a long time ago.’ ‘Morris, dear. I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’ I won’t have nobody sticking me in a box and labelling it…

…Maybe that explains me to myself too. I don’t like to buck the so-called ‘system’, like those gay exhibitionists Morris loves so much. I like to infiltrate the system and benefit from it.

Among all sorts of growth that Barry experiences between May 2010 and May 2011, standing up for what he is, and what he believes in, must be the most meaningful. The cost — of having been forced to love a man in secret, breaking his wife’s heart, worrying if his grandson would throw one nasty glance at a white person inadvertently, and get some bullets pumped into his temple for that, being loathed by his own daughter — should be borne by the system.

He could write many letters apologising to Carmel, but he must ask himself if he would receive an apology from everybody who wronged his ancestors, who made his life harder than what it should have been. So, he should see some labels here. He is a black, gay man. He is an immigrant. He could be richer than many of his white neighbours, but he will forever be seen as a black immigrant. And for that, he can’t be oblivious to the existence of the box and labels. He should recognise them. He should take sides. He should fight the fight because it’s just not about Barry anymore. It’s about reorienting the whole world. It’s about keeping, and leaving it safe and inclusive. Captain Raymond Holt from Brooklyn 99 can share some tips.

Somewhere in the last chapter of Mr Loverman, Morris says, “..let we enjoy the vibes, man, enjoy the vibes.” It’s strange that he almost sounds like Barry here, but that’s the whole mood of the book. The battle is going to go on for some time, and while that goes, you might as well listen to some good music — Like Shirley Bassey’s The Girl from Tiger Bay — and no, you wouldn’t be judged for living your life.

There’s a crack in every pavement
Underneath there is a beach
It’s been a long time longing
As history repeats

Yes many times I’ve wondered
Why a part of me remains
In a place so full of beauty
That somehow never changed

I bought a ticket of a lifetime
There’s no denying who I am
Forever young, I will stay
The girl from Tiger Bay

Time has me believing
That there’s nothing left to prove
I feel the love within me
And love can’t be removed

All the memories and the scars
They dance away into the stars