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.

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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.

Of poetry

I adore poetry. I try writing poetry, too, from time to time, but I fail almost every time. I still try, though. It’s such a disciplined and sensual form of art that I know I want to get it right some time or the other. How much command over the language a poet must have to express limitless vision in limited words.

It all started when I read Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade. From there, my craze only magnified as I read Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth and Dulce et decorum est. Those three war poems changed the way I see words and respond to their lure—it’s weird how war is always the starting point of enlightenment.

Once I understood the underlined meaning in these poems, I wanted more. I was addicted, and was desperate to quench the dryness that these poems left in my throat.

I had read poetry before, of course. I had read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and yet, these poems were different. Reading Shakespeare requires effort sincere effort and interest. These poems, though, thrust themselves at me. I didn’t have to know the details of war to understand its effects as told by Tennyson and Owen. They inflamed a strong passion in me for simple, yet well-articulated words.

For instance, this one in particular:

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

Which translates to: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Ah, the intensity of those words—coming from a soldier nonetheless, who knows what he’s talking about better than anyone else ever would. But what makes it even better is the placement of the phrase: “The Old Lie:”

“The Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”

The entire poem walks us through a vivid description of the war zone, and then, we get to the end where the poet claims that all the bullshit stories we tell young soldiers are empty words; lies. Poor Owen, he must’ve believed them all, like the rest of the lot. What a great poet he turned out at the hospital, before recovering and heading to the battleground again.

But that’s the power in good poetry: When said “write”, a writer writes, but a writer who said it right, writhes the emotion out of readers.

Wilfred Owen was one such writer. He made me, the reader, feel what he felt. The pain, the anguish, the heartbreak, and the loss of hope—I felt them all because the poet put them in such an artistic narrative. And that’s why we should read good poems, because like John Keating says, we need science and business to sustain, but we need poetry to live.

And what would we do if not live?

Tis a Sin

I’ve just finished reading a classic novel that I should’ve read ages ago. However, like so many other books, I took my time to get my hands on To Kill a Mockingbird. Needless to say, I regretted not reading it sooner. But there was also something different about this book than the others I’ve been reading.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a simple story. It has a complex plot that’s worth talking about for years together, but the story line was simple enough. Harper Lee had chosen a not-so-uncommon incident, and worked out a narrative around it. I didn’t realise it until after I finished reading it, but the entire plot wove around a single strand, one strong piece of gossamer that shone bright enough to attract and magnetic enough to keep me attracted through to the last page.

I can’t remember the last time I read a book so captivating, so relatable, and so enchanting. I loved the brother and sister. I loved how the brother would nag the sister saying she was becoming too much like a “girl.” Brothers do that, and not many books illustrate it as well as this one does. Throughout the story, the relationship between the brother and sister blossomed from childhood trebles, evolving into an everlasting bond of friendship and reliability. That’s how real brother-sister relationships mature, and I was amazed when I realised that no other book I’ve read (so far) ever mentioned anything like it.

Every character was a an entity in itself. Scout was an atom of energy, reminding me of my younger days when I frowned at pink flower frocks, picking, instead, a pair of comfortable overalls. Jem was a natural, a protective brother who watches out for his sister, loveable yet condescending at times — just like mine. As for Dill, he’s the kind of person we’d come across in life who has it all — or so it would see —  and yet, has nothing worth having.

Calpurnia, the beacon that lit up the Finch household, was the ever-smiling help at home that makes every child learn while they yearn for her cookies.

And Atticus, dear Atticus, what a father he made. Standing by the suppressed, jovial and just Atticus was the perfect protagonist. When he’s a typical father who doubts his parenting skills, when he demands the truth without raising a tone, when he caresses his daughter’s hair, when he embraces Jem’s adolescence — Atticus’s every action makes the reader love him even more.

How could anyone be unaware of such vivid writing and vivacious narrating? If it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, tis a greater sin to let great works go unappreciated. At least now I can cherish it, late though it is.

Hold It Down

I sometimes read poetry, and often, I come across a poem that strikes me so hard that I have to save it, savour it, and share it.

One such poems, by Gina Myers, is Hold It Down.

When I first read the poem, I was so awed that I wondered why I hadn’t heard of the poet before. I studied literature, but I’m ashamed, neverthelss, to admit that there are so many popular writers I’ve never event heard of. I read, but I don’t read that much. I’ve felt small when friends talk about books and writers they cherish whereas I’m just lost.

Regardless, I read the poem again, and realised it didn’t matter that I hadn’t heard of the poet before; the poem speaks louder than the poet could’ve.

It’s a little long, but it’s worth it. Here it is from Poetry Foundation:

It’s 70 degrees outside but in the drugstore
Christmas music plays over the speakers as
I stand in line balancing my checkbook
in my head, stretching things thin until
my next paycheck when the rent is due.
The security guard cracks a joke, but
I wasn’t paying attention, so I just smile
& step forward in line. Images move
across the screen. When I think about money
it seems impossible. All over the country
people are moving into the streets
& we’re here in Atlanta starting a new life.
Darkness surrounds the latest revision
of our shared history. Everything clouded.
Yesterday 1 couldn’t tear myself from the news
& already today the events have been distorted,
the numbers downplayed. It’s late fall
& in the early morning crispness, the leaves
fall from the trees & cover the sidewalks.
This new feeling we lack a name for, struggle
manifested in the streets & in parks & on bridges
across the nation. The headlines read
“Protesters clash with police,” but as we watched
the live stream, we saw aggression only by officers
dressed in riot gear. We saw people tossed
on the ground, hit with batons,
a woman punched in the face, an eighty-four year old
woman’s face drenched in pepper spray.
The images endless in this land of the free.
I’m losing focus, distracted by the newsfeed
on the computer screen, hitting refresh.
The cat paws at my leg, demands its own attention.
This shift entirely unexpected but necessary.
Leaves blot the window. Every so often
I leave & start from scratch, imagine
damaged relationships & sick cities
where there was no damage & no sickness
greater than anywhere else. In Atlanta,
everyone drives. The bartender called us
“hardcore” when we said we’d walked there.
She said, “No one in Atlanta walks anywhere.”
Walking home from work in post-daylight
savings time darkness I pass no one on the
sidewalks. I pass the traffic backed up by
the stoplight. The weekend passes too quickly—
I wish it would last longer, which is what this all
is really about: time & my lack of control
over it, my inability to do what I want with it.
And there’s a greater futility at work
here too—a greater frustration in my inability
to control my environment or to stop my country
from killing its citizens. The police beat people
standing still, linking arms, holding cardboard signs.
Each day I think more & more about the past,
about where things began to go wrong, where I, too,
began to go wrong. Before I moved, before I
got sick, before I unfriended you on Facebook,
before I decided I no longer loved you,
before New York, before college—thinking back
to childhood when we could run fearless
through the neighborhood at night, when
we didn’t think about the future, when we loved
our country because we didn’t know better.

Gina is a modern poet. Perhaps that’s the reason I relate to her writing so much. The story and the panic-inducing lifestyle of a youngster is all too familiar. And as I read through the poem, words jumped at me making me feel it’s me she’s talking about.

We’ve all had that mid-life crisis moment, when we look around us feeling repulsive at the society we call home. People are mean — to animals and to each other. Just as we’re trying to figure out our purpose and way in life, we watch our fellows taking incredible measures to hurt each other, and that’s heartbreaking.

We look around us and wonder why the country’s gone to the dogs. We look at authority wishing they’d be less brutal, we look at weapon-wielding children and wonder where the flowers had gone to. It’s the reality of our lives, a sight that none of us wants to see.

Growing up is a curse. We’re forced to see things and know things, and understand situations we’d rather not. It’s disturbing and painful, making us wish we were kids again, when we loved without conditions because we didn’t know better.

This poem is the heart of a broken person. It’s the heart of every 21st-century person.