November Book Reading Report

The Whole Shebang – Sticky Bits Of Being A Woman

By Lalit Iyer

Despite the somewhat misleading title, the book is really not about women in general, or even some women. It is a series of personal opinion pieces sorted into seventeen chapters on varied aspects of being Lalita Iyer, the woman. The author herself is at pains to point this out in the Prologue, which I would recommend as necessary first reading on picking up the book. Above all, it is a book for anyone interested in how a particular woman thinks of her life and herself.

This slim 142-page compendium based on earlier columns and writings, connects, soothes, provokes and preaches, and manages to feel mostly likeable and a just a little unsettling. There are the usual suspects- bitchy schoolgirls, teenage angst, breast longings, and infatuations based on nothing but a look…and then there are unconventional storylines playing tug of war with the standard issue memo on being a woman. There is frankness, wit, courage, confusion, confession and hope. And listicles in some chapters, with authorly gyaan and tips.

Claiming to be still figuring out “How to be a woman’, Lalita lays down her belief that “being a woman is a serious amount of admin.” And talks of the sense of things “left undone” and “checklists crawling beneath our epidermis, reminding us” of this. The rest of the book then unravels the author’s sense of being a work in progress through puberty to middle age, to be an independent person, in delightfully devilish detail.

Being pre-millennial, her recollections of childhood and youth bring to life times and images we have almost archived into non-existence, like the compulsory chemise worn under the white school uniform, wax-coated paper packed Parle-G, mixed tapes as courtship, and Ovaltine. A serial job changer, a science-y working as a journalist and writer, a woman who married later than most, and became a mother at almost forty, and is now at forty nine a single mother to her son, Lalita’s stories bring an unusual lens to the common and uncommon issues of her and every woman’s life.

I for one could not see the merit of so many pages devoted to getting one’s period, the travails with ill-fitting bras and the cruelty of thongs. But some of these, along with body size and image are topics I see many women of all ages obsess about almost forever. In Lalita’s blunt and vivid telling of these issues lies a comment on the tyranny of conflicting forces acting on women, and the cinch women are in, ironically, all at once, of seductive fashion, modesty dictats and a deeply conditioned desire for approval.

“Every once in a while, I muster the courage to walk into a Mango or a Zara or a Promod and try on clothes which fit one part of my body but don’t fit another and I tell myself – I am totally out of proportion. What I don’t tell myself is that these clothes were made to squash me into someone else’s shape.”

In the personal stories and stern guidelines of sorts, many readers will recognize how they don’t take themselves seriously as a person; beyond the relationship they have to significant others in their life. And how ambivalent they are about owning their careers and especially about money matters. And how they lose themselves even in the role that is supposedly their identity- that of a mother, or a wife.

“Mother love was not enough for me to feel me. I needed more, and I went after it. That was the only way I could retain my selfhood. That’s the only way I want Re to remember me when I am gone. Not someone who lost herself in him.”

The Whole Shebang has a bold, specific and contemporary tonality to its slice of life writing. There is vulnerability and openness of voice and individuality of details that draws the reader in. With confessions and intelligent wit it also exudes hope and sisterhood, and give wings to the reader’s imagination. The reader is likely to be comforted with a realization that she is not alone in all that confuses and confounds her. Someone else has been there too, and lived to tell the tale.

The most enjoyable bits of reading this book for me were the chapters on love, marriage, money, friends, the in-laws and the future. It is here I felt the writing acquired the most natural, most nuanced richness and depth. With engrossing self-deprecation and eyes open wide practicality Lalita reflects on the changes in her own thinking and the changing ways of the dating game. The affliction of imagining love stories is examined threadbare. The Idea of self-love is embraced.

“We are constantly examining our imaginary love stories in our heads – constructing and deconstructing scenarios – decoding what he said to reveal what he really meant, looking for signs, seeing signs while none exist: in text messages, whatsapps, Facebook, Instagram, and in all avatars in which it is humanly possible for one person to exist.”

I also specially liked the fact that topics like money, work, and motherhood are covered in a matter of fact way, without getting heavy handed or frivolous. Like in these lines from “Planning for retirement’.

“You need to have a nest egg both as assets and savings for retirement irrespective of a spouse or lack thereof or whether your parents are going to leave you a nice inheritance. … You will be surprised how few women factor this in. I have already budgeted for a halfway house with my friends when I am sixty. I don’t believe children should be treated as old-age insurance.”

Given the book’s chapters covers a wide span of time in a woman’s life it can grow along with the reader’s experience, and be a sounding board for the long haul, as well a companion for a brief fling. Rather like a combination shampoo-conditioner, unlike the dichotomous category of men someone put across to the author – that of being either a shampoo or a conditioner. (The shampoo is meant to leave, the conditioner meant to stay….read the book to know moreJ)

“When relationships are depleting, it’s friendships we turn to for replenishment, connection, a shared sensibility and laughs. Our women friends help us raise the bar; we look up to our friends more often and in more ways than we think. … How many times have you told a female friend, “You know, I should have so married you!”

The Whole Shebang is just one such friend every woman could commune with at least once.

 

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