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.

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.

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.

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.

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.