Books are creatures that have perfected the art of contradiction. They bring the world to me, while simultaneously helping me shut out the world. During times of emotional turmoil, they allow me to find an escape. They whisper to me to get lost in them, they ask me to inhale and absorb, to savour and relish. They demand I pay attention. They make me aware of how much there is left to know, they help me form opinions, and encourage me to change preconceived notions.
Sometimes, they make me a bit jealous.
Recently, I read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, a deceptively simple coming-of-age book. It is a first person narrative about a young Hispanic girl growing up in one of Chicago’s poorest neighbourhoods. But hidden behind an easy to read structure is the voice it gives to people of colour. It paints for us pictures of the casual violence that is an inseparable part of their lives, the poverty and discrimination they keep trying to escape.
I spent a day wishing I could write like that – a book that reveals a different facet on multiple readings, depending on what the reader is seeking at that point in time.
A long time ago, I read a story by Ambai, titled In a Forest, a Deer. I was charmed by a magical quality that seemed to pervade this story, and its insistence on keeping women in the foreground. Last week, I finally started on her collection of short stories called Fish in a Dwindling Lake (translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Holmström). The blurb calls the author feminist par excellence, and I agree. She writes about women in unexpectedly intimate and sensitive ways, and passages which could be vulgar in the words of a lesser writer instead become revelatory. She writes confidently about the body, the feminine form that is subject to much policing and control – the body that is a integral to who I am as a woman, and that is also my prison.
I spent another day wishing I could write like that. But then I realised my craft and what I aspire my craft to be are places separated by a chasm. I like to think I’m building a bridge with practice. I may get there someday.
Ambai’s stories got me thinking about the female body, something I have always found fascinating. The female form is art, with its landscape that reminds me of hills and valleys, of rivulets rushing to empty their water, of fire, of grace and power. It almost feels like there is nothing to be curious about a male body, which by contrast, reminds me of plains, ordinary and unexceptional.
But I wonder if this female body, in all its glory, isn’t also a curse. It is burdened with being the keeper of culture and the placeholder for propriety. It is scrutinized and criticized. I decide I will not be that person, but this isn’t easy to achieve. I default to the perspectives handed to me by years of social conditioning.
Someday I too shall be a feminist par excellence. Until then, I am a work in progress.