Author: anusrini20

When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife

Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You reminded me of Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook For My Lover – poetic when describing the mundane, picking apart a relationship and offering it to the reader, the vulnerability and strength of the woman who narrates her own story. There are no similarities in the stories they choose to share with us though. Where Rosalyn D’Mello captures a love that nourishes and evolves, Meena Kandasamy paints for us the ugly underbelly of a marriage.

It starts out alright. The promise of a better life, the lure of building a better world with ideologies that the partners agree on. But this story devolves quickly into one of abuse and the quest for control. We read in horror as the narrator describes the destruction of her real and virtual personalities, the constant monitoring of what she wears, whom she talks to, and where she goes, the taunts, the punishment that makes use of weapons lying around the house. When he hits her, she realises it can only get worse. We continue to read in horror as she describes marital rape – a situation in which the rapist isn’t a stranger behind the bus stop, but a man who returns to the bed every night with the intent to own and destroy.

It is too easy to ask why. Why this woman, this self proclaimed feminist, wouldn’t walk out. I have asked this question too, when I didn’t know better. She methodically answers the questions that will be asked of her – for getting married and for leaving.

As women, we are constantly reminded of what it means to be a Good Girl, a Good Wife, or in this context, a Good Tamil Woman. None of these categories allow women to breathe, to forge their own identities. We are asked to be women who do not talk back, who obey, whose silence means acquiescence, whose clothes do not command attention. We are judged, talked down to, lectured at for not conforming. We are asked to adjust – for partner, for parents, for family and friends who are quick to blame and slow to support.

I was surprised to find myself being able to relate to the narrator, even if I have not been with a partner who treated me as less than human. But maybe I have been that woman who was stifled and let down by those she placed her trust in.

The unnamed narrator walks away one day, towards freedom and a justice that never seems to be available. I imagine her conversing with Nina Simone as she walks:

Fish in the sea you know how I feel

River running free you know how I feel

Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn

It’s a new day

It’s a new life

for me

And I’m feeling good

In that moment, the woman in the story, the woman recalling this story, she is every woman who found in her courage to protect herself, who refused to do what was expected of her. She is free.

This is also a story about words and what happens to a writer when her writing is discarded and her words are censored. She writes whole essays in her mind. She writes and erases so her transgression isn’t discovered. She observes her life with the hope that she can write about it. She then reclaims these events from the retellings of others. She teaches us what feminism looks like in the face of a patriarchy that is cruel, sadistic and repressive, a patriarchy that is enabled by men and women.

I am always conscious of how this kind of writing is perceived, partly because this is the only way I know to write. And even if I may declare I write for myself, I seek validation in the responses of others. First person narratives about women and their issues, as if men were merely bystanders and not perpetrators, do not get talked about enough. They are dismissed as the emotional hemorrhage of sensitive women. But Meena Kandasamy has no time for that kind of talk. She dazzles us with her craft. She tells us exactly what we are in for and yet manages to surprise us.

#BlogHer17

1080x1080 VOTY Awards_060817-short blog post3It turns out I am one of the Voices Of The Year at this year’s BlogHer conference. It wasn’t a miracle – I submitted a few of my blog posts and somebody liked what they read. I am almost embarrassed to admit how much I’m looking forward to attending the conference in Orlando later this week.

But the excitement brings with it a small helping of shame. I wrote about my grief, and this brought me recognition, which leaves me feeling uncomfortable. I mined my loss for attention.

Maybe if my grandmother were around, she would ask me to just enjoy myself.

The harrowing tales of anthropomorphic mice

When I was about Anne Frank’s age, I read her diary.

Anne kept a diary all through the time she hid in The Secret Annex with her family. She wrote everything that any person under more normal circumstances would write of – books, sex, food, parents, the news. While this makes her diary easy to relate to, it also reminds us of a childhood that was destroyed by the Holocaust. They were discovered and sent away to concentration camps. Her father, Otto Frank was the only survivor. Anne wanted to be a writer, and so he published her diaries.

The world shifted a bit after I read Anne Frank’s diary. There was a before and after. After, I knew of the horrors that people subjected other people to.

More recently, I read Maus, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that talks about his parents’ experiences as Polish Jews during the second World War – the rights that were snatched away slowly at first, the dehumanization and torture, Auschwitz and finally their departure to the United States. They survived the Holocaust, but did they really? They were broken in countless ways.

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In the novel, Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis as cats, possibly taking from Hitler’s own propaganda about how Jews weren’t fully human somehow. The anthropomorphic characters allow us to distance ourselves from the events, which are too horrific for even the most gruesome imagination. I do not know how the author found in him the courage to create this work of art, which is beautiful and terrible all at once.

The storytelling is straightforward, and Spiegelman does not try to portray his father, Vladek, as a hero for surviving. He survived through a combination of extraordinary resourcefulness, and a luck that managed to keep him alive even when circumstances conspired against him. Vladek comes across as a neurotic and racist Jewish man, difficult to live with, haunted by the things he has been made to see.

There isn’t much I can say about Maus that hasn’t already been said. Comics are often considered frivolous, something to look at distractedly over the rim of your coffee mug. But I have learnt that comics can also talk about ‘serious’ things, without trivializing them. They can bring to us stories we might not want to discover, if in another medium.

Maus made me cry.

Shtum

IMG_20170609_103655_009Shtum was almost a novel about too many things.

Jonah, an eleven year old autistic boy who only communicates by pointing at pictures on cards.

His father Ben, who drowns either in alcohol or self-pity.

His mother Emma, who has a pill problem and is exhausted by her marriage.

His grandfather Georg, a Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor, now dying of cancer.

Jonah is not the kind of autistic boy we like to see. He does not have a Special Talent that could make him popular. He is fascinated by light and bubbles, frequently needs his diaper changed, will harm himself or others in the time of a blink. On an average day, he raids the refrigerator for food which he then throws around the house, paints the wall with his excretions, bites others and himself. He is not Forrest Gump.

As the novel begins, Emma convinces Ben to agree to a temporary separation. She asks him to take Jonah and live with his father for a while. She tells him single fathers have a better chance of getting their child accepted to a residential facility. Ben deludes himself into thinking Emma is waiting to come back.

Emma and Ben are exhausted. They alternate between feeling guilty for being resentful towards Jonah and overcompensating for this guilt. Jonah, without any words, communicates clearly his desires. His parents, even with all the words in their arsenal, are unable to communicate to each other.

But Shtum never became too difficult to bear, even when it made me cry. It is as much about a boy for whom language has no meaning, as it is about a couple whose marriage is disintegrating. It is consistently funny and compassionate, ultimately hopeful that love -and a lot of money- might just be enough to get through.

The novel is interspersed with official letters from the authorities who try to decide what is best for Jonah, hospital records and images that Jonah uses. These make for an interesting visual counterpoint to the text.

Shtum is somewhat haunting because it couldn’t entirely be fiction. The author Jim Lester is father to a severely autistic son, and I can only imagine his own life experiences have informed this novel. This is especially evident in conversations where we read others’ reactions to Jonah, the superficial support extended by acquaintances, the idea that such a child wouldn’t matter as much as a normal child.

One Life

I once knew a man named Jesús (Spanish, pronounced Hé-sus). Jesús pushed his cart around the building all day, cleaning toilets, wiping floors, dusting tables. He didn’t know much English and I didn’t know any Spanish. He taught me three phrases:

Buenos dias! Good morning!

Buenos tardes! Good afternoon!

Buenos noches! Good night!

We would wave and smile and greet each other thrice a day.

Once he gave me churros. Another time tortillas his wife made. I know I gave him the food of my people in return, but I cannot remember what. We always said Thanks and Gracias.

Jesús is the only Mexican I have known, a man who wore often a t-shirt that said Guadalajara, pointed to it and told me “Home.” What I had in common with him was Brown skin, and a fondness for plantain chips.

David Lida’s novel One Life forces us to look into the lives people we frequently dismiss as Others, or talk of only in stereotypes. Cleaning Lady Mexican. Pregnant Teenager Mexican. Poor Mexican. Just another person hard on luck.

One Life is narrated by Richard, a mitigation specialist and somewhat successful writer, who investigates people that the state has decided serve the death penalty. Richard is dead though. He talks to us from beyond, which is a technique I have not encountered before. Of course, that speaks more about my own ignorance.

Esperanza Morales is convicted of killing her own baby. It was not very difficult to accuse her of this crime, she admits to it. Richard is at first irreverent, he thinks he could get her off the death penalty if he manages to unearth stories of past trauma – abusive father? poverty and starvation? Surely his interviews with family members in Mexico will throw up something tragic. She is one among the many who lived through hell to cross the border into United States. But she is invisible and miserable in the promised land, treated as less than human. Nothing is truly better, except prison maybe. The outside world doesn’t hold much charm for her.

Richard is fascinated by Mexico – he likes the women, the food, the music, the stories. He is a compassionate protagonist who shows us both sides – the events that shape people, the decisions they make in difficult circumstances, who they end up becoming, and how someone of privilege possibly sees them. We also learn about the way countries treat outsiders, the loss of dignity that comes with desperation, and how unjust justice systems could be.

It appears that there is much of the author in Richard, who is also a mitigation specialist working for lawyers in the US. For a subject so morbid, he suffuses the pages with emotion. It drained me, but also left me feeling unexpectedly hopeful – in some small part because of the sliver of peace Esperanza wrests for herself at the end.

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Here is home

Leaving often must mean looking for a home often, wishing the house would become by itself the kind of home you would like to come back to. A home that is warm and lived in, that tells stories of afternoons spent reading in the balcony, walls that have borne witness to both terrible arguments and the laughter of friends, tea and biscuits shared on brisk mornings.

Moving is never pleasant, except when you find something you had long ago given up as lost. Moving is stepping over sharp objects as you wonder how you ended up with so many things, even after making partially successful attempts to live like a minimalist. It is picking something to wear out of a suitcase because you forgot you had to meet someone and packed all your nice clothes a few days earlier than necessary. It is the mild annoyance that creeps up when you realize you have to sleep surrounded by carton boxes and plastic covers, because your house needs to be brought down and set up elsewhere.

Moving is also the citrusy air freshener that greets you when you open the door, the fresh coat of paint, fine sawdust in corners that come from repairing shelves. It is the sudden joy that catches you unawares, because for a moment, you think you left your problems behind and almost believe you can start anew. You find out then that you never truly leave something behind, it is within you like splinters and scars; some memories that you retrieve with abandon and others that you keep locked down.

Soon this house will smell of cumin and incense, occasionally of cigarette smoke from the dying embers of a habit that refuses to leave, perfume and detergent. Soon there will be stains on the carpet, grease in places you can never hope to get out, hair in the bathroom and furniture you can live without. Soon a bedroom will emerge, that you will attempt to make cozy, a kitchen that you wish to be bright and spotless, a study into which you retreat, a couch for you to be lazy in. Soon it will be a home.

But you’ve always carried your home with you.


Interview #4

I hand him my résumé. He smiles. His smile tells me that he will call me by a term of endearment, he will criticize my clothes, he will instruct me to take printouts and bring files, he will examine my marital status.

I tell him I can start on Monday.


Editor’s pick for microprose this week:

I’ve often said that one of the best ways to tell a microstory is to leave a lot of it outside the lines, giving the reader just enough detail to see the shape of it as a backdrop. Anusha did all that this week, from the way the title (Interview #4) sets the stage for the narrator’s quiet desperation, to the all-too-relatable way she knows things about her potential boss from the life experience that is implied rather than told. This was an especially uncomfortable story to read in the US yesterday against the backdrop of Comey’s testimony, because I, like most people, was already in a state of sympathetic cringing about the personal compromises we sometimes have to make to get and keep a job we need.