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.

To parents

Parenting is hard, and I know this because I have great parents. I’ve seen my parents manage to have meat on the table despite struggling to make ends meet. I’ve seen them toil each day just to make my day. I’ve seen them wage battles between them and yet hide them all behind a smile when I enter the room. I’ve seen them go out of their way to keep me comfortable, to provide my needs, to ensure I have my wants, too—even if it put them in an awkward place. I’ve seen them debate over what’s good for me, what’s bad for me, what I should study, where and how I should go to school, how much allowance I’m allowed, how to deal with my adolescent questions, when to have the “alcohol is bad for you” talk. I’ve seen them dabbling in confusion about parenting, and I’ve seen them figure it out. I have great parents.

But they’ve made mistakes, too. It’s easy for me to point out how they should have raised me instead of how they did, but as a child, I’m biased. I’m always going to say that they should’ve let me stay out until 11 PM and let it go if I get home drunk. Not that I’m a “going-out” kind of person, but all children have their own ideas about parenting.

One of the things my mother didn’t do well, is handling my liberties. She forbade certain movies that, when I watched later in life, seemed like nothing to even bother about. She was always over conscious, over protective, over worried that violence in movies would poison my mind. Sometimes it made me hate her—sometimes, I’d wonder why she never trusted me to make the right choices, why she wouldn’t accept that I needed exposure to grow in society.

She always wanted to keep me away from danger—away from the evils of society, to protect me from harassment in public busses, to save me from being mugged in local trains, to help escape cheating boyfriends, to get me through life unscathed and unworried.

She is a great mother.

But I still worry that she’s made me too soft — meek and scared of the great wide world. If I don’t learn the harshness of life, how would I ever face life?

It’s something I think a lot about, something I never stop thinking about.

That’s why I could relate to this poem about parenting. I’m no parent, but as a child I agree with Frank O’Hara. And I think you would, too. Even if you don’t, give this poem a read—it’s got imagery worth your time.

Ave Maria

What is a book to me?

When reading a novel, a short story, or a work of non-fiction, I don’t think about anything other than the story that the words in front of me tell me. I don’t care how the writer felt when they conceived the idea, how they strove to string words with words, how inviting the couch seemed when they had work to do. I don’t think about the trauma, the self-doubt, or the fleeting convictions a writer endures before they even get through the first paragraph of what they’ve imagined as a five hundred-page New York Times bestseller.

Holding a book, caressing the hardcover, flipping over to read the blurb, I’ve never even spared a thought about how a writer looks at their book. Published writers, I found out, have varied perspectives about their books. For some it’s a task — a taxing, yet compulsory process they need to endure to hear themselves speak their minds. For some others, like Anne Bradstreet, it’s like giving birth. I came across her poem where she says what it means to her to write and sell a book.

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,

It took me a while to understand the depth of her emotions, to appreciate her attitude. She extends the metaphor throughout the poem, addressing her book as a mother addressing her child. She apologises for her maternal instincts, for fussing over her child, for washing its face to make it presentable—for being a mother like any other.

I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,

And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.

I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,

Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;

I had always imagined, if I ever published one, that I’d be happy to put my book out, to let the world see and drop its jaws in awe. But Anne Bradstreet has a different view. She’s sad that she can’t afford a better overcoat for it, she doesn’t want to cast it away and force it to fend for itself. She wants her brainchild to live in grandeur and splendour—all the things a mother wishes for her child.

In better dress to trim thee was my mind,

But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.

She’s helpless, a mother struggling to make ends meet, dabbling in poverty, hurting because she’s unable to supply for her child. However, though hesitant, she lets go in the end — because she has to. At last she accepts reality, gives in because the only way for her to live is to send her child out the door.

This is a wonderful poem to read again and again. Here’s the whole of it, if you’re interested.

The Author to Her Book – Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

Interpreting maladies, and stories

I’ve always been a little doubtful of authors with Indian names. A little racist, I know, but having read a few Indian authors whose regard for English was far less than decent, I didn’t feel too guilty about myself either. However, I also know there were some exceptional Indian authors. I’m making a list and a recent entrant is Jhumpa Lahiri.

I have to say, I love her name. I love the way in rings in my ears, and rolls off my tongue. He family must’ve had a great sense of rhythm and respect for the listener. Perhaps that’s why Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing is also so aware of the reader’s mind and how her words would echo in their heads.

“Unsavoury sorts murmured indelicacies at cutlet stands”

Interpreter of maladies is a collection of short stories, some of them based in Bengal, some in Boston. What’s weird about this book is that though relatable in so many ways, Lahiri’s settings and her characters are yet un-relatable in many ways, too.

For example, she narrates the story of a young Indian-American couple. Their tour guide in India muses about their clothing, their relationship with each other and their children, their attitude towards natural beauty and photographed memories. And all the while, he makes judgements, often accurate, about how unhappy the couple are in their marriage — he observes like an old woman does with her hunched shoulders and ever-munching betal-stained mouth. The guide in the story is relatable because he’s a bit like an old woman, but he’s also un-relatable in many ways because he’s attracted to the young American woman he’s hosting. He contemplates his own unhappy marriage and compares himself to the young woman and her husband. He knows she’d go back to America in a week, and still he imagines — of writing letters to her, of nurturing a friendship with her, of explaining his job of interpreting maladies. All these qualities in a tour guide, who himself grew up wanting to be a scholar in five European languages, is a little unconventional, a surprising edge to a typical Indian character. And that’s what Lahiri does so well in her stories. She’s singled out some of the most common characteristics in Indian culture, spicing them up with unexpected behavioural patters to weave characters that refuse to leave the reader.

As a reader, you can’t help but appreciate Lahiri’s subtleties. In another story, Lahiri narrates the life of a young Bengali woman suffering from an unknown disease. Her neighbours talk about her behind her back and spread gossip, yet some offer to help. Referring to the women’s chattering, Lahiri paints a vivid picture so familiar to every Indian: “News spread between our window bars, across our clothes lines, and over the pigeon droppings that plastered the parapets of our rooftops.” That’s the India I grew up in, and yet, when reading Lahiri’s description, I can see the women gossiping along, drying their clothes under the burning mid day sun.

Another great aspect of this book is that the author herself has experienced both the worlds she describes. And I think that’s what makes some of the stories in this book, the stories that take place both in America as well as in India, so vivid and unforgettable. Some even outline regrettable, cringe-worthy incidents. What appears common in America in the late 60s is still taboo in some parts of India. This is an exchange between a mother and a daughter:

“It is improper for a lady and gentleman who are not married to one another to hold a private conversation without a chaperone!”

“For your information, Mother, it’s 1969. What would you do if you actually left the house one day and saw a girl in a miniskirt?”

Mrs. Croft sniffed. “I’d have her arrested.”

Mrs. Croft is a 103 year-old woman who cannot accept a man and woman speaking in private. And for that, her daughter mocks her — in 1969 America. The saddest thing, though, it’s 2017 and some Indians still cling to the same belief. The regrettable reality is that some parts of the world are yet to catch up to the sensibilities of equality and modern civilisation.

It’s things like these that make Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories a precious read. As an Indian, I loved reading narratives that I could relate to and smile as I recognised behaviours. As a person familiar with some ways of American life, I could sympathise with the feelings and emotions that the foreign characters portrayed. In sum, none of Lahiri’s creations are over-the-top unimaginable — they’re simple people living simple lives, who invite readers to share a few days in their lives. Interpreter of maladies is a wonderful read.

When arts and science collide

As an arts student in school, I had a hard time mingling with the science kids. For them, I was the one who read literature, making fiction the reality of my life. Whereas they micro-examined every organism, demystifying the nature of life. For them, I was nothing but a flimsy girl who walked around with her head in the clouds. My, they were so arrogant at times.

Most science students had the same egotistic attitude, and I so I began hating the elite that was science. Pity, since I enjoyed drawing sketching the heart, naming its parts, and narrating the story of how during inhalation, oxygenated blood runs through the veins, reaching every organ while deoxygenated blood travels through in the opposite direction. It was fun to create poetry about the body—for which I had to know about both. It wasn’t meant to be, though, because I didn’t want to become a bully as they.

I held on to literature, letting science off.

When Breath Becoms Air

And so when a friend recommended a book written by a doctor battling lung cancer, I hesitated. Did I want to read a fantastic, ego-filled book about how medical practice taught this doctor the fleeting nature of life?

My friend insisted, and I decided to give Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a try.

Just a few pages into the book, I realised I had been wrong about the author. He wasn’t just a doctor, but a literature major before he ventured into medicine. It was the first time I had heard of a doctor being sympathetic to those dabbling in the fictitious world of literature trying to reveal to the rest of the world that books speak reality, even though they guise as fiction. Paul not only studied literature, but used it as a coping mecanism during his treatment. He was a man of science and facts, but even he needed poetry and prose to survive.

According to the book, Paul loved writing, and reading the book, it’s evident that he did. I breezed through the book taking in all the emotions of a dying man speaking about death and disparity with indifference. In the first half of the book, Kalanithi talks about his journey from a literature student to a medical resident. He narrates his days and nights at the hospital tending to sick, even delusional patients. He writes about his fascination, how he approached anatomy classes, how the blade sliced through the belly of a pregnant woman as his attending doctor performed a C-section, he describes the pounding of a patient’s heart when they had cut through him to operate on the lung, he reminisces an incident when an annoying patient—who had to be conscious while Paul removed a tumor from his brain—swore at the doctors throughout the process urging them to get the stupid thing out of his head. As a reader, I felt myself crooning for most of Paul’s patients, and wishing that last one had died. Paul narrates such powerful stories, that you can’t help but emote along with him.

As a neurosurgeon, Paul speaks of the subtleties of the brain and the care that goes into each surgery. He speaks of the process in such a delicate manner that you, as a reader, can feel the sensitivities involved. As a writer, Paul employs the simplest of language, basic sentence structures, easy vocabulary—all of which makes for a needle sharp impact. The writing is straightforward and factual, the matter he writes about is moving and stiking. As a combination, the book is a joy to the beholder.

The second half of the book is more about Paul himself, about how his life, as a surgeon and as a husband, changed after his diagnosis. He speaks of his waking days and wakeful nights. He speaks of chemo and the pain that pricks at his spine, he speaks of discussing symptoms with fellow doctors, he speaks of his tears, of his fears, of his marriage, and the birth of his daughter.

I’m glad I read this book. It wasn’t life changing, it wasn’t a pool of advice, it wasn’t dramatic, mystic, or any of those things. Instead, it was simple, it was honest, and most of all, humble. And that makes When Breath Becomes Air a worthy read.