By Vivek Shanbhag. Translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur
Meeting Mr. Shanbhag recently made me go back to his internationally acclaimed, translated into English novel. This is also the time I have been paying more attention to translations in general, and I must say that if you haven’t been reading outside the borders of English language originals, please start to do so.
Ghachar Ghochar is a masterpiece of subtle storytelling. The nonsense title phrase is easily understood as something terribly tangled, and needs no translation. But the rest of the book could not have reached non-Kannada speakers without the brilliant trans-creation. And that is something all discerning readers can be grateful for. Because this a novel that is not to be missed if you appreciate a finely crafted, solidly rooted story of large themes and concerns, that is as subtle as it is disconcerting.
Ghachar Ghochar is a scathing social and moral indictment, a detailed empirical study, and a precise self-reflection of the unnamed narrator on himself and his rather toxic, enmeshed family. Nothing is quite as it seems, in the claustrophobic life in the narrator’s home. The early privations of the family and its later wealth change something in the nature of power, loyalty and obedience between them. They remain a unit ready to defend and attack as one, through the change of fortunes, from attacking and crushing ants to breaking any intrusion or opposition in any form from anyone inside or outside the home. Into this tribalism comes the wife of the narrator, an outsider who refuses to assimilate and become a cog in the system of daily cruelties and blind obedience. Her independent stance and critical eye on what goes on around her are the undoing of much, in horrific ways.
The novel leads us to the edge and then does not tie up any lose ends. The reader can form their own conclusions with a mix of dread and hope against hope.
At 115 pages this is one of the slimmest books you can find so go get it if you haven’t yet. I am sure you will be left reeling.
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.
I have not watched a single one of the Nanavati murder trial and ménage-e-trios inspired movies, not have I ever been remotely curios about this so-called national sensation. Yet, after this book came out last month my book club decided to go for it. That compulsion, rather than the topic made me read it. And it turned out to be more than worth the time and effort. An enjoyable, educative and thought provoking read, in so many ways this turned out to be.
Bachi Karkaria has gone through exhaustive and extensive research to make the story richly detailed, in-depth, and almost a full sociological treatise on the times (1950-60) of the events, their background, context and aftermath on various aspects of the nation’s judicial systems and particularly Bombay’s socio-cultural life. From interviews with those who were around in those times, and those who can tell us something new as well as retell the old facts, she presents a fresh look at one of the most talked about murder cases in the history of modern India. Not a simple task, this, which Bachi carries off with élan.
The facts are supposedly known to everyone, but I will recap. Kawas Nanavati is being cheated on by his wife, Sylvia. She confesses to the husband, and tells him to be careful – she fears for his life as her lover, Prem Ahuja has a gun. The shattered husband is a naval commander. He too can get a gun. Which he does. And he then goes to confront the lover- to ask him what his intentions are, and if he plans to do the honorable thing by marrying Sylvia and taking care of the children. Kawas is seen going to Prem Ahuja’s room. There is no witness to what happens inside. Three shots ring out from behind closed doors. Nanavati walks out, his white dress unblemished and surrenders himself to the naval police for having shot a man. Ahuja is found dead with gun shot wounds.
In court, Kawas pleads not guilty. On purely circumstantial evidence the jury too calls him not guilty. Throughout the trail, Nanavati is the hero of the masses and the media. The jury system earns its nail in the coffin with this case and is never used again in India. Nanavati is found guilty on appeal, but again pardoned by the state governor.
These are the facts. But behind them lies a fascinating maze of coincidences, manipulations, prejudices, class and community networks of allegiance and privilege. Partisan media uses its power of mass opinion making, and forgets journalistic neutrality. The Blitz goes all out to defend Nanavati and runs petitions for him. How did all this actually play out? What factors could have worked behind the scenes to move which levers? Why was murder not seen as murder but a point of honor? What made Nanavati the hero he seemed to be viewed as? What made Sylvia not a vamp but an object of sympathy or even indifference? What made Ahuja a villain who no one shed tears for?
All this and more is the focus of Bachi Karkaria’s elaborate delving into this old story. Her recreation of the Bombay of the late 50s is picture perfect, in all details. The courts, the Navy areas, the localities of posh Malabar Hill, the cinemas, the markets, the streets all come alive as if a movie runs in real time. The dialogues, the imagery, the aura and ethos of the communities that play the main roles are all vividly and precisely depicted.
The writing does get over the top at just a very few places, in typical Bachi style, which I (in a case of absolutely subjective aesthetic preference) found a tad out of place in reading a serious book of investigative/reconstructive journalism, but I can’t say it took away much from the book. For a case as sensational as this, hyperbole and drama is part of the territory in the retelling. Bachi manages to keep the drama alive while she remains almost clinically detached in the retelling. Nothing is assumed or taken at face value, and the alternate possibility is considered and the alternate voice is given a legitimate place. Through it all if the author tends to lean towards anything, then it is to constitutional values and the spirit of constitutional law, and a sense of fairness and open minded questioning.
It can tend to feel repetitive and maybe slow reading for those looking for the more juicy kind of sleaze and gossip, but that is not the author’s intention, though she does not shy from presenting all of those facts too.
After all the points of law and constitutional propriety and Naval and Parsi privilege are debated and understood, the book still leaves me with the biggest mystery unsolved. How does a couple pick up the shot to hell pieces of their relationship after a man is killed in hot blood, over the matter of the wife’s infidelity, and go on to build a new life? The author does reveal a lot of factual details of the Nanavati’s life after their move to Canada, but those chapters lack the insights and depth of the proceedings of the trial, or of the context around it.
How did these people later forgive each other, if not totally forget the tragedy? I guess that will remain for us to guess and for them to know. Or food for another book.
My April Review. Kind of late, but still within my target of the month. Triggered by some things read recently about the abused wife of an Indian-born Techie CEO in USA.
“Why did she not leave him?”
“Why do you stay on?”
“If you take it, you deserve it.”
We have seen statements like those above. In the media. We have heard them from friends and in the family. We may have made them ourselves.
Judgments. Opinions. Rarely based on personal experience or insight. Rarely made with any degree of compassion. Often, a one up-manship. Or, a satisfied smugness, born of a safe place. Or, a resentment, born of denial.
Colleen Hoover is a New York Times best selling author who writes entertaining, contemporary novels about a certain kind of people in a certain milieu. ‘It Ends With Us’ though, is a very different kind of book from her; a work of fiction that derives directly from her own life. It has a message and a life lesson woven into the plot. With this book her avowed goal is to help people see things in a different light, and possibly find a way out.
This was not a book I had particularly wanted to read. It happened to be the selection of my book club group for March, and then they changed their mind. I already had a copy, and had started reading it when the change happened. So I carried it with me on my solo holiday to Kerala, not really intending to read it, but to give it away to a friend I would be meeting there.
And then, one night while it was raining and a rough high tide rolled up on the beach across my room window, I picked it up with a vague idea of studying the author’s plotting technique. I had a notebook and pencil ready.
I ended up reading the book over the next few days, carrying it with me to a fisherman’s home, to a beachside diner and around the hotel grounds. While Colleen Hoover plots smoothly and writes in a breezy, witty, chatty, easy to read style, those are not the reasons I kept reading this book. To me, the book is worth reading and worth reviewing for the compelling story it tells about the pernicious cocktail of love and abuse. And it is told with sensitivity, insight and honesty, coming from the author having lived that life, and her generous and kind decision to come out in public with it.
In her twenties, Lily bloom is trying to find her place in the word as an independent professional adult. She has come a long way from a childhood spent watching her mother being abused at home. The story starts right after the funeral of her father, whom she hated. She has refused to say anything in his praise at the funeral. It pains her that her mother never had strength to leave her abusive husband. She has her own past sorrows, and a journal where she has recorded her teenage turmoil in letters (never sent) to TV host Ellen. She is sure her life will be different from her mother’s.
Lily comes to live in Boston, works hard, falls in love, dreams of marriage. She is a girl with spunk, and a sensitive and kind heart. She is a girl who once sheltered and fed and fell in love with a homeless teenage squatter. She sticks to her ideals and values herself and is a loyal friend. Life seems to be finally offering her all her wishes on a platter- her dream of owning a florist shop comes true, the handsome, rich and brilliant neurosurgeon Ryle Kincaid agrees to ditch his aversion of a committed relationship to get engaged to her. She can start to put her difficult childhood behind her.
Typical to a bestseller’s arch, and maybe real life, this is all too good to be true. There are horrible things that start to happen. Shadows emerge. Past secrets get exposed. Trust is broken and fears have to be faced. The present seems to resemble a forgotten nightmare. Love is put to cruel tests. There is a price to be paid, sacrifices to be made. What will you stay true to – to the one you love, though they hurt you, and let the cycle of abuse and indignity continue? Who has to take responsibility to heal themselves? Does being in love mean giving up responsibility for your own integrity? Does being in love also allow for boundaries? When do you know it is time to back out? How do you deal with the fear of losing all you craved for and have found?
The author takes you through the tortured back and forth of a relationship that stumbles from extremes of passion and commitment to jealous rage, mistrust, violence and regret. Lily starts to find a new understanding of her mother, once she finds herself in the same shoes. She can relate to what, as a child had seemed sheer cowardice and a shameful lack of spine. She can understand why her mother had stayed on. And she has to ask herself- can she be the person who will be different? Can she muster what it will take?
The author does a commendable job of presenting both sides of the picture, when it comes to the perpetrators and victims of abuse in loving relationships. There are no pure black as sin villains, no pure white as driven snow victims. Just real people with real problems, real hopes, real personalities, who are making the best they can of the cards dealt to them. People who decide they have a choice, to change the way they play those cards. Or not. And we are made to feel like we can see why each of them does what they do.
Lily comes into her own finally with her brave choice. And for that, she is willing to pay the biggest price. Because, somethings cannot be allowed to continue, no matter how much you love what they bring to you, and how much it pains to let them go. Therefore, the title, It Ends With Us.
Colleen’s skill is in making a story about the most painful choices in life seems like a feel good read. There is no shying away from the gore, and yet, there is a happy ending. The only issue I have with the way the book is the way the story ends. Lily’s bravery and her difficult choice seems less of a stand-alone act of strength with the twist at the end. In the novel the author has clearly tried to make things seem easier and rosier for her fictional characters than it was in the real life inspiration for this book. Most people in such difficult situations stay on because they fear the unknown outside the walls of the known hell. They keep hoping the better moments will prevail more often. They cling to every kind word, every positive thing that happens. They cannot imagine being on the other side, which looks like an even darker void. I wish the author had not gone for a neat tying up of all lose ends, and left Lily unclear about the shape of her future, yet firm and clear about the choice she made for the present.
Except for this one cop out at the end, I still think It Ends With Us makes a very important point. That we are the only ones who can chose to break legacies of abuse – as the ones who heap it on others, or as the ones who are its targets. It is never our job to be another’s punching bag, or to keep hoping against hope that their ‘better nature’ will prevail in the face of all proof to the contrary. And while making this point about taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions, the book also shows us why so many of us caught in situations of abuse in intimate relationships are helpless to break out of the cycle of enmeshment. It shows how difficult it is to gather back a sense of self, when enmeshed in toxic love. It lays bare in beautiful excruciating detail the guts and self-discipline required to honor one’s own dignity, the fears to be dealt with on the way. It brings a lot of insight and wisdom and empathy of a survivor to a topic laden with much judgment and prejudice. By sharing her own life story as the starting point for this novel, Colleen Hoover offers redemptive hope for all who dream of a better tomorrow in their intimate relationships.
I hope this book makes many more people feel brave enough to decide that It Ends With Us. It must.
Most ladies of my mother’s generation never called their husband by name. Most women in my generation have not held hands with or made willing and happy eye-contact openly in public with their husbands, except to glare or signal something urgent. Many of us in any generation before or after my age cohort have not had a romance before marriage, and even less had a ‘love-marriage’.
But to watch our films one would think every street corner had a dozen love stories blooming. Actually, they may have bloomed in secret, but the path of true love never did run smooth in our part of the world.
Into this culture of romantic lack comes the glamour of married, fully legitimate and socially approved romance, with the filmy version of Karwa Chauth. It is the stuff of dreams. What is not to like? And then, along comes liberalization and the big push on consumerism. A heady cocktail of unarticulated, burning desire meeting unlimited supply. A match made in consumerism heaven.
Thus unfurls the yashchoprafication of an old, outdated, regressive and cautionary tale of patriarchal control.
Today, I wonder how many of the modern, financially well off women who fast and feast on this festival know the story that forms the bedrock of the rituals they follow in the name of celebration?
When they say they should have the choice to celebrate their marriage and the love in their marriage, do they know what their choice endorses?
The Karwa Chauth story I know is a cautionary tale for women. It stresses in no uncertain terms how marriage was a woman’s sole security and refuge, under the benign grace and fidelity of her husband.
This grace and fidelity though, is most precarious, the story warns. It could be lost at the slightest slip. So you have to be very careful you never let your devotion falter, least of all in favor of your own physical needs or your paternal family’s ‘misguided’ concern over you. Husband comes first, last and everything in-between. After all, you derive your existence and role and validation only as his wife.
So, the story goes…
Once upon a time there was a girl named Veerawati.
She married a brave and handsome chieftain and was delighted with all her finery and the position of a chief’s wife. But this was a spoiled and pampered girl, the little sister of seven doting brothers.
The brothers often took her to visit them back in her parental home. And there, during her Karwa Chauth fast, this girl was going to faint with weakness and hunger. Her brothers, concerned for her, tricked her into believing that the moon had risen, when it had not, and made her break her fast.
Barely had she taken some food and drink, that her misdemeanour brought a curse on her marriage. Her husband fell ill/ was wounded in battle and fell into a coma. Veerawati realised her mistake, and repented and prayed and begged gods and goddesses …and they said ok, he will not die but after many years, if you are good and fast well, he will awaken to life again.
So, began the PUNISHMENT of Veerawati, and her penance.
She took care of the husband, fasted properly every year…and took out the pins which pricked his body. When the last pin was left, she went out to arrange for her fast…in the meanwhile, the maid came and removed the pin, and the husband woke up and in his jumbled up memory, mistook the maid for the wife (maybe it was part of the continuing curse of punishment for the wife). Darn!
Now, the wife had the husband alive, but not with her! The maid became the wife, the wife now was the maid. Still Veerawati devotedly served him as a maid, and sang a song all the time about the switching of two dolls…at length, the chief asked her what this meant, and she told him the whole story. Then finally, he recognised her , and all her seva bore fruit and the husband – wife were re-united.
Bad Veerawati. Bad brothers who led her astray from her devotion.
What do we choose when we sing this katha as we pass the thaali around in the Karwa Chauth Puja.
Are we Veerawati? Should we be? Do we want to be her ?
If the modern KC following woman has no truck with this story, I wish she would drop the Veerawati song and katha from her thaali round and her moon gazing ritual. I wish there was no ‘touching the feet’ of the husband.
I wish we were a society more open to romance in our lives overall and did not need the cover of filmy fantasies which glamorise misogyny, to fulfil our dreams.
While it is its easy to be drawn to reflections about family ties in the festive season, my thoughts have been a lot about family ties almost all of the year and more. 2013 was my 20th wedding anniversary year, and it was also the year when I built up my experiential travel business. Anniversaries have been important to me this year in my personal life, and through my work, where I saw beautiful expressions of family landmarks being honored by some clients.
Thinking of these events, I wonder what is family to me, and what sort of a family legacy have I inherited, and can create. And I conclude that the value of family, for me, lies ultimately in the effortless sense of belonging and identity it bestows. It is about being in a web of natural, organic, given connections. But the making of these connections and the nurturing of them is a whole lot of work of intention, commitment and leadership. Which will make for some other blog posts, or a whole book, even, at some point. For now, it is the cosy easy embrace of familiarity I want to talk about.
Family is the first and everlasting bond we humans know and feel in this earthly existence. From the day we are born to the day we pass on, it is a family that welcomes us and bids us farewell. We may grow up, grow out and grow apart from our families, but the bond once born into can never be really torn asunder. Even renunciates do know who their original family are, and have to go through a very symbolic and intense rite of passage to renounce their earthly ties of blood and heart.
Of all the family stories of bonding I could narrate, to drive home my point about the easy, comforting embrace of family, the immediate and strongest memory that comes to me is infact about rather distant relatives and not the immediate nuclear family. My paternal uncle – twice removed – acted as my ‘local guardian’ when I was a teen, in hostel away from my own home. I had not met him for perhaps 5 years, and yet, going home to his home and immediate family for the weekend or a celebration felt like the most natural thing in the world. There was a sense of familiarity with them, going back to generations before either of us. While we personally may not have seen each other for years, I had heard about them and of two generations before them almost continuously as part of my own story, as part of the story of my parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Also uncle had lived with us in our home for a year when he had first started working, when I was a very small girl of 4 or 5 years. So I had a hazy sort of real time memory of him as well.
One foggy winter evening in Delhi when Dad was in town on some work, we all met up at the cousins’ home. My father and his cousin and I reminisced over drinks, and we talked and listened and learnt about scandals, fights, past dangers, escapades and achievements of so many relatives. I also shared a few tentative dreams and ideas of my own…
There was endless tasty food cooked lovingly and with pride by many family members, with stories connected to each dish, and the evening just went on and on in a cosy glow of oneness. It was not that we agreed on anything- rather, mostly we were in disagreement on practically every story or topic that would come up! And yet, the ease of sitting there , as if by some divine entitlement and saying freely how one felt, what one thought and what one had been through and dreamt of, was a most precious feeling . It was about having a context and a backdrop. That feeling of connection, which then leads me into an ever widening circle of life, is for me the ultimate gift of family.
The ‘just right’ context I felt then may have been first set by biology, then buttressed by social norms and culture, but just the force of biology/ marital bonds/obligations and culture would not be enough to hold it all together. We are all too familiar with family gatherings and even individual families where people can’t get along, fight a whole lot, and are very miserable with each other. So what makes for happy, well bonded family ties then? Why was the evening at my uncle’s home so memorable despite the differences?
I guess what made it meaningful was that it could hold us all connected, by letting us be, by complete acceptance into its fold, and sharing a collective story that could touch our core. In a beautiful, subtle, simple yet powerful way, that evening was all about family love, without the word being enunciated even once.
I have come to see the acknowledging, accepting and ‘letting-be’ as a sort of model of creating conscious relationships. It is about being aware, – rather, about choosing to be aware – that family and love is what we make of it.
I would also describe this as an open acknowledgment of and respect for the contribution of each one to the family or a relationship backdrop, by just being what they are, and doing what they do. Each link in the chain matters here. Not just the shiny bits. And finally, the consciousness, the awareness, the choice, is made by each one of us for ourselves.
Families are given to us and we are born into them, but what we make of our family life is a matter of our choice. So while family is about connections, context and backdrop, that context and backdrop is going to be the strong wind beneath my wings only when I am aware of it, and able to ride it, being one with it.
In the traditional Indian culture we have rituals and acts of marking attention, awareness and bringing to the conscious realm values such as respect and obedience to parents and elders, and unconditional care and indulgence of little children. Today, many such rituals and symbols are being discarded- partly for practical reasons, and partly with the many winds of change we face. The ‘home’ in the ‘native place’ of our childhood is rarer and rarer now, and the steady stream of family functions or get togethers occasioned by births, deaths, coming of age, engagement, marriage, childbirth and so much else, are now fast vanishing as real rites of conscious connections, becoming clones of any other kind of a party anywhere.
And so I come to thinking of what all can play the role of getting attention back in family relationships? Getting families to experience the PRESENCE of members, and to feel the connections, and not just be consumers of events, gifts and entertainment? What are your stories of family ties and connections? How do you experience, express and pass on the LOVE and ATTENTION in the family? Would be great to hear more stories from others on this.