Lifesaver

“We’re talking about a life here!” With hands on her hips, Jane stood in the middle of the room, eyes and voice livid. She was addressing the lawmaker, her father, who sat smoking his pipe, cradling the arm of his couch.

“Calm down, Janet,” he spoke in a gruff, unperturbed voice, “Don’t strain yourself.”

“But,” she protested, “I’ve known Marigold all my life. They can’t slaughter her just because she’s growing. It’s unfair. We have to fight them!”

Her gazed at her teary eyes. “Don’t lose hope, yet. We’re in the right. The council may still reprieve your mango tree.”

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.

Gone with the wind

Dead, they declared him—

swirling, into nothingness

wife catapulted.

Wandering soul

wandering

Great start to the week, James mused looking at the bleary-eyed fifth years rummaging their backpacks for paint and brushes. Art was the first class on Mondays.

He walked amongst students, now hunched over with brush strokes waltzing on canvases. Later at his desk, James was skirting through the paintings when he stopped at Jason’s. Jason’s family had fallen apart a few months ago, James knew, when his widower father had left, leaving Jason in his grandmother’s care.

James stared at Jason’s painting—a boat adrift the sun-kissing ocean— and realised Jason had drawn not a boat but his heart.

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.