Self, thy name’s Esther

The first time I read a few lines attributed to her, I fell in love with Sylvia Plath. Thanks to the collection board that’s Pinterest, I discovered plenty of gut-wrenching, heart-clenching verses that Plath had written. Hooked, I went on a rampage of Sylvia stalking. Before I knew it, she’d become one of my favourite writers. I’d read about her curious suicide, and I’d watched Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of her life. Her story strengthened my affection for her and somewhere between feeling respect and pity towards her, I found myself doting after her as well.

Wonderful though it all was, I’d become addicted to Plath despite reading none of her works in complete. That’s how I came upon The Bell Jar—guilt-ridden and hungry to prove to myself that I know the author I adored.

Before flipping through its pages, I didn’t know what to expect from The Bell Jar. Wanting to figure it out for myself, I read none of the reviews and asked no one I know what they thought of the story. As I began reading, I grew fascinated by the protagonist of the story, Esther Greenwood. The reason, I later realised, is that she’s in no way special. Unlike many other protagonists with their exceptional talents shining through print, Esther was simple in all sense.

The book opens with her in the middle of a writer’s scholarship—something I could appreciate as an aspirer myself. Little by little, as the story progressed, I found parts of myself relating to Esther. She reminded me of my deeper self—the unassuming, uninterested self that often prefers solitude, dabbling in self-doubt and incessant imposter syndrome.

It was later that, as the narrative turned to Esther’s psychological issues, I understood that Esther isn’t just me, but she’s every other person, too. Not only was her behaviour characteristic of me, but she was also an embodiment of the natural evolution of the teenage mind.

It’s not easy growing up, and it’s even more difficult when you’re alone and lacking guidance. That’s most of us. That’s Esther.

That’s why it became tough to separate myself from the character. I became so involved in her life that I wanted to see how each day of her life unfolded. As she cringed, so did I. As she ran away from accepting herself, as did I. I followed her every move, her every decision and instinct as if it would all affect my life in a way.

It was as if were in a vortex where Esther—who struggled to find her own way—would guide mine.

By the time I finished the book, I could do nothing but stare at the wall. I felt intense pleasure within me, a silent jubilation. Esther was recovering. She had hope in her life. Although the book didn’t affirm she found her utopia, it hinted toward it. And having gone through her life with her, relating her every moment with mine, I felt as if my own life would be fine after all. It was as if I’d ridden a roller coaster—dizzy and unsure of what I’d face next, weak in the knees with butterflies in my chest—but had come to a secure halt with my entire being intact.

I couldn’t talk about the experience for days after I’d read the book. I didn’t know how I felt, and finding the right words seemed herculean. But as time went by, my feelings also evolved. From seeing myself in Esther, without a conscious effort, I began relating everything I knew of the author’s personal characteristics with that of Esther Greenwood. Then it hit me that the author herself battled with depression and psychological issues. I began to revere Esther as much as I did Sylvia. And my respect for the writer increased when I understood that she had manifested herself in Esther, giving readers a hint of what she herself was going through during her lifetime.

What a wonderful way to express oneself. Also, a little sad.

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Zorba: The unlikeable yet likeable

Zorba

You don’t often come across a book that inspires, confuses, and offends you at the same time. Zorba the Greek did all of that and more to me. Though I’d heard of the title before, I only pursued it because my brother recommended it. He’s not an avid reader, and so since he cherishes it, I guessed I would too.

Through the first few pages, I started to get bored. It seemed like any other fiction — a writer and his friend travelling abroad. It wasn’t clear where they headed or what they intended to do there. My only impetus to keep reading was the hope that a flash of interest would hit me as I turned some page. That page didn’t come for a long time, and I slacked in the mean time. Other priorities came up, and some days I just fell asleep even before opening the book.

It didn’t help that I was reading a misaligned PDF on a digital device. After eight hours at work, the idea of staring at the screen didn’t excite me. Regardless, I snuck in at least an hour on most days. Needless to say, it took me longer to read this than any other book. But that’s not because of these petty situations.

The real reason — I realised later — Zorba took me longer than I’d expected is because Zorba is an idiot. I couldn’t get my head round to like his weird personality that a world of avid readers adore. I hated him. Everything he says seemed to trivialise women, casting them as the weaker sex. He insisted on protecting and respecting a woman, and how when a man does all that, she’d offer herself to him like a slave. As if to prove his point, he takes advantage of a lone woman pining for love. He showers her with praises, gifts, and sweet talk until she falls in love with him and croons for marriage. I felt disgusted. And I couldn’t help but wonder why literature celebrates such an egomaniacal character.

As I read on, however, I realised that he wasn’t bad. Although his speech is fake, his intentions aren’t. As a reader at that point, Zorba’s character evolved so much, displaying an uncanny ability to express love toward the woman he’d seemed to have used. It was only as the story progressed to more aggressive scenes that I understood Zorba reveals his characteristics bit by bit, and it’s almost impossible to assess him midway through the book.

Not only does he express his care for the woman he’d seduced, but he also shows empathy as he fights for and defends another woman who the townsfolk mauled. To me, Zorba then rose from manipulative to compassionate.

While it’s the underlying characteristic I gauged from the narrative, throughout the book Zorba does other little things that hard to hate. Where we speak our mind, Zorba’s unique attraction is that he dances, instead. His playing the santuri, living as if he’d die at any moment, working like a dog, his extensive philosophy of existence—everything of his everyday habits is aspirational to say the least.

“Luckless man has raised what he thinks is an impassable barrier round his poor little existence. He takes refuge there and tries to bring a little order and security into his life. A little happiness. Everything must follow the beaten track, the sacrosanct routine, and comply with safe and simple rules. Inside this enclosure, fortified against the fierce attacks of the unknown, his petty certainties, crawling about like centipedes, go unchallenged. There is only one formidable enemy, mortally feared and hated; the Great Certainty.”

As page after digital page I flipped, I admired Zorba. I still hate that he patronises women and is shameless in thrusting his opinions on others. Regardless, I saw that while Zorba is everything that’s wrong with humankind, he’s also everything that humankind should persevere to become. Not only is Zorba’s character flawed, but it’s also philosophical—a realistic portrayal of human qualities. As I shut the book, I felt as if I’d spent my time in the company of an ordinary human—one who’s good and flawed. In the end I’ve acquired the ability to see through both qualities in Zorba, and still respect him for himself. It’s as if I now can discern the difference between an opinion and the person who holds that opinion. After all, opinions change, people often don’t.

Shadows of the past

I’ve never cared much for translated novels. They never quite work for me, because I don’t know whom to credit when I want to quote from the novel. Should I appreciate the original author of the thought or the translator who managed to convey a foreign concept in a language I understood, and in a way I appreciated? Well, that’s why I often conclude it’s better to avoid translated pieces altogether. Although I know by doing so I’d let go of a vast pool of literature, I’d still choose an English novel over the English version of an unknown original. And I held fast to these beliefs until a few weeks ago.

A few weeks ago, I borrowed a hefty book from my friend. Slapped across the cover in bold words was the title of the book: The Shadow of the Wind.

Interesting, I thought as I flipped through the pages without reading any of it. I hadn’t read much in a while, and was desperate to take home the first book I saw. And this book, in fact, seemed like a promising one, too. It wasn’t until after I had got home and gulped down half of my coffee did I realise the book was a translation.

I groaned a little, but read on. The plot unravelled fast enough, and so I want to give up midway.

I’m thankful for that over-caffeinated decision.

Soon after I realised that the story was a translation, my keenness had dropped a few notches. Although the first few pages retained my attention, once I entered the seventh chapter or so, things slowed down a little. In hindsight, this change of pace isn’t out of the ordinary. Many books linger on a slower pace, and the slowest part of this book was still much faster compared to most others. As a reader, I soon left the lag behind and the story picked up its momentum. And from that point forward, until I turned to the last page, I remained hooked—for the lack of a better word.

Not only did the book turn out exciting, but the narrative flowed with such ease that I didn’t even feel like closing the book. It was the first time in a long time that I had wanted to keep on reading, inspite of my initial aversion.

Set in Barcelona, this is the story of a young boy, who finds a book, and finds that its author had a mysterious past. He sets out to solve the mystery, and along the way, discovers how his life entwines with the unknown author’s by total coincidence.

From the book—

“Julian had once told me that a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

That was the most captivating part of this story. Halfway through the book, I could see the young boy walking the same steps as the person he’s trying to uncover. As a reader, I experienced history repeating itself, and watched in wonderment as two people unrelated and unknown to each other in every imaginable way converged in the same place for the same cause.

To make an otherwise serious narrative light-hearted, the author instigates humour through a vital character. In the way he’s portrayed, the character of Férmin breathes life into our dull protagonist. Every now and then, he amuses the reader with quirky love advice, strewing his speech with abundant wit and nerve. The pair undergoes many adventures, scanning the streets for clues, encountering blows from an evil policeman, and sometimes strolling through alleyways in disguise.

You can’t help but fall in love with the author’s attention to detail. Whether it’s Daniel’s (the hero) father saving up to buy a pen for his son, or a publisher’s employee spending her fortune on the same pen for the man she adored, every character is well-formed and deserving of awe. Each scene is meticulous, and each dialogue reveals the inner most emotions of the character.

In five-hundred pages, the author takes us round and round similar incidents and similar people, but each time, there’s something different and magnetic enough to pull the reader. That’s why I enjoyed every moment of this book, and so would you.

From the book —

“What the flower vendor interpreted as ‘pretty nasty’ was only the intensity that comes to those who, better late than never, have found a purpose in life and are pursuing it to make up for lost time.”

Having said all of that, though, I still don’t know if I like Carlos Ruiz Zofón’s writing or Lucia Graves’s translating. That’s an internal turmoil I’d never disentangle.

Even if you’re not a history buff, a fan of fantasy, or a thrill seeker, you’d still amaze with this book. The Shadow of the Wind is a tale of an avid reader, but it’s also a tale of a novelist, a tale of a book seller, and a tale of a publisher all mingled in one. If you’re a book lover in any form, this one should be on your list next.


Afterthought: This book has so much to talk about that it deserves a part two, too. Coming soon.

An extreme society, narrated

It’s not the first time that I’ve felt this way. It’s not the first time that a book has taken over my entire soul, twisted it, wrung it, and then left me on the counter struggling to unravel myself. But The Handmaid’s Tale did that a lot harder than the other books I’ve read so far.

The Handmaid's Tale

A few days ago, I wrote about a book that confused me, that left me with so many unidentifiable feelings. I was referring to this one. And now that I’ve finished reading it, I can assert that I’m still lost in an ocean of emotion.

A colleague asked me what this book was about, and it took me more than a few moments of staring behind his ears and then some more into his expecting eyes to reply I didn’t know how to explain it. I don’t.

But what I do know is what I felt reading The Handmaid’s Tale. A close friend recommended the book and I obliged. So even as I flipped the cover I knew I’d like the book. I read through the first few pages, and grew confused with every paragraph I read. Who’s this woman, trapped against her will? And why has she accepted her fate without rebellion? Those were the two questions that popped into my head right at the onset. And they remained unanswered throughout the forty-six chapters of the book.

The story is set in a time and place that I didn’t recognize. It wasn’t historic and most characters seemed aware of modern social niceties. Which was good, except for the fact that there was this woman—the protagonist, the narrator—who lived in a closed room much like a prison cell. She had a red uniform and a constant veil over her eyes and head preventing her from looking at others or others from looking at her. She didn’t choose this life, but she didn’t protest against it either. It was her home, and she was a handmaid to a Commander. Her sole duty was to bear children for the Commander, and she had three years to do it. If she failed, she’d be cast aside to a worse fate. A mistress, she says she would’ve been in olden times.

She went to a school where she had to learn to live as a handmaid. She had classmates — other handmaids in training — and yet none of them were young women. They were all middle aged-women, I later learnt, who had led different lives before.

Every page I turned told me something new about this unfamilar world I was venturing into. And the confusion kept me going until all the pieces of the puzzle unravelled before my eyes, leading me to the final few pages — historical notes.

Part of it reminded me of Inception, the movie. A reality and a woman pining for the past. Her past, her life and society of the past is now the reality for me the reader. And so, it felt as if I was reading the life of a woman in the future. But it wasn’t too far into the future because they still had normal television sets and simple cars. It seemed so much to me like the present. Although it was also an alternate reality—no one in their right mind would stifle a woman as a mere container to bear children, at least not in this century.

The further I read, the more I understood what had happened. And that terrified me to the bone. An ordinary woman snatched away from her husband and child, stripped from her ability to live as an independent, and thrust into becoming a utility. And the reasoning: men and women were too busy with their own lives that they didn’t want children anymore. Ha, I mused before my recognition gave way to more terror. That’s what’s happening in our world right now. In the story, birth rates plummeted. In our world, it soon might. In the story, their solution is to force women to give birth. In our world—?

At that moment, I realised that The Handmaid’s Tale could one day become my own. We could walk into a future like that. After all, it’s not unheard of—we’ve seen polygamy in history, maybe that’s the future as well. Maybe, like in the story, we’ll have a bunch of gun-held ruffians walking into a workplace threatening to shoot down the manager unless he dismisses all his women staff. Maybe one day these ruffians would incorporate new laws and bring The Republic of Gilead into existence.

It does seem far-fetched, and even neurotic to an extent, but then again, so’s everything in the news every day.

“Superlative exercise in science,”

Angela Carter calls this book.

It is. In every sense. But it’s also an enjoyable read. I don’t believe that Gilead would one day become a reality, but I do believe that Ms. Atwood has covered the essential mentality of our flippant society. This book will make every woman’s eyes roll in wonder, it’ll inflame her ego and dignity. But it’ll also leave every reader a little scared. It’ll haunt me for the rest of my life, but it’s also one of the best books I’ve read. No regrets.

Reading now

reading

Books never cease to amaze. I’m reading such a book at the moment—one that came with trusted recommendation. I’ve been reading it far longer than my usual pace, but I attribute that to work and insufficient leisure. Nevertheless, it’s the first time that reading a book for a prolonged period hasn’t bothered me. Other times it happened, I got bored and lost my involvement soon enough. This one, however, keeps me coming back every evening, even if it’s only for a couple of pages.

Somedays I don’t even have the time to read through and appreciate an entire chapter. Even then, the narrative is captivating enough to grip my curiosity. It’s not a detective story—there’s no Sherlock-like whiz running around in handsome overcoats solving crimes and annoying cops all over the place. It’s not a romantic comedy with a bride to be, a confused groom to become, and fidgety bridesmaids arguing over nail colours. It’s not even adult fiction with the heroine trying to battle her adolescent pangs and a drug addled mother. All those story lines are common—I’ve seen them in movies, I’ve heard about them from friends who’ve been to the movies, and I’ve read them myself or reviews of such books.

The one I’m reading now, however—which shall remain unnamed until I finish it—is about a woman and how she’s accepted what’s become of her reality. And each page leaves me a terrified. So much so that I turn the page by instinct to find out what happens next. I relate to the main character, but it’s the last thing I want to do. I don’t want a life like hers and yet I can feel her terror, her disgust, and her mindset carrying over to my own. When she squirms, I do too. When she glows for the tiniest of victories, so do I. As she turns away from the people who command her, as do I. I feel her and know her as if she’s me. And in the fleeting second in between turning the page, I wonder—in terror—she could well be me. And that’s what keeps me going, wanting to get to the end of the story.

Despite my eagerness to know what happens at the end of the story, the build up so far also has me apprehensive. What if it doesn’t end well? I won’t want to read through, to live through, this woman’s life only to figure out that she ends up with what she endured: disappointment. And so a part of me wishes this story would go on, that the weirdness would continue—ironic though it seems.

Stay tuned for more detailed observations.