World of Wonders

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments was Barnes and Noble’s Book of the Year 2020 and poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s first book in prose. One could call it poetry in prose as the poet’s touch is very evident in the collection of essays. In each essay or rather vignette, the author focuses on a specific natural wonder from the plant or animal kingdom and connects it to a personal experience in her life. The stunning cover and the gorgeous illustrations that accompany almost every vignette by artist Fumi Nakamura pair beautifully with the writing.

As an half Indian and half Filipino person of color living in the US, Aimee felt quite out of place in school and took refuge in the natural world around her. Her parents were educated professionals who moved around quite a bit within the US. It was nature that helped Aimee get through a lonely childhood whether in Arizona or Western New York, Kansas, Ohio or Mississippi. Life was difficult as a bi-racial first generation American and she recounts how her family was subjected to comments that ranged all the way from ignorant remarks and micro-aggressions to blatant racism.

Aimee makes her way through this hateful world with the help of nature. A tall catalpa tree with its giant heart-shaped leaves and long extending branches served as a green umbrella to provide shade to her and her sister from the sun in western Kansas and also to shelter them from unblinking eyes who were not used to brown-skinned people. The leaves could cover her face entirely if she needed anonymity. The distinctive smile of an axolotl which extends from one end of its face to the other is similar to her sheepish or rather salamander- like smile when a white girl at school tells her what make up she can wear and not wear on her brown skin.

In one of the chapters she describes how in an animal drawing contest at elementary school, she picked the peacock as her subject, inspired by the beautiful peacocks with their iridescent turquoise and jade feathers she came across in her father’s hometown in India. Her teacher told her sternly that she was supposed to draw only American animals as they live in ‘Ah-mer-i-kah’ and she had to abandon her animal of choice and pick another one. She drew a bald eagle perched on a cliff and added an American flag to the picture as well. She ended up winning first prize but the incident scarred her and she writes:

This is the story of how I learned to ignore anything from India….. But what the peacock can do is remind you of a home you will run away from and run back to all your life.

As an Indian-American, it pained me to see that a teacher caused her to reject her beautiful and rich cultural background. I would have rushed to set up a conference with the principal if my children had to deal with such a prejudiced teacher. But I understand that she grew up in the eighties in a small town and the only way to survive in those days was to ignore and fit in completely to be accepted. Eventually as she grows up, she learns to love what she pushed away with embarrassment during her childhood and on her wedding day chooses a peacock- hued saree as her outfit. The sarees on the dance floor worn by her and her guests flash in the light in reds, violets, teal and turquoise reminding her of a bird of paradise.

The essays are mostly in chronological order tracing the trajectory of her life as she completes her education and settles into a career, falls in love and marries, has children and finds a place she can call ‘home’. She has a strong bond with her family. It is the world outside that is hostile and frightening. Just like the red-spotted newt that spends years wandering the forest floor before it decides which spot to settle in, she wandered from state to state before putting her roots down in Mississippi.

For the most part, the author seamlessly weaves the natural world into her personal stories but sometimes the connections she makes between the exterior world and her interior state of mind are tenuous and facile. A corpse flower with its stinking smell reminds her how to clear out the weeds of the dating world or the touch-me-not plant teaches her to fend off predators by folding inward and shutting down. Her son opens his wee mouth in amazement and wonder and she is reminded of the ribbon eel drawing water over its gills to help it breathe. 

The first few essays were wonderful and informative. My interest was piqued when she referred to obscure flora and fauna. For instance, the colorful glass bangles that she got as a gift from her grandmother in India remind her of a comb jelly which flashes mini rainbows in the darkest oceans. I immediately googled the creature as I wanted to find out more about it. But unfortunately some of the later chapters had almost an encyclopedic feel to them and I felt I was reading a Wikipedia entry.

She also keeps hammering the point that she is brown-skinned. I can understand the trauma she must have endured as a child but why have a chapter entitled “Questions while Searching for Birds with my half- white sons…”? She has already told us she is married to a white guy. Is there any need to keep reinforcing the color of skin when there is no relevance? Also the writing evoked mixed reactions in me. It vacillates from lush and lyrical paragraphs describing succulent cara cara oranges or the chattering of bonnet macaques to clumsy phrases like “…after an especially plus amount of warm rain.” I am also nitpicky about grammar and some chapters have typos and errors like ‘another boatmen came up’ or ‘they busted out laughing.’ The book would have benefited from more fastidious proofreading and editing.

In spite of these annoying features, it is a gentle and meditative book that reminds us to savor the world around us. It is also a call for conservation entreating us to save our fragile planet. The author brings up the fascinating but sobering fact that fourteen new species of dancing frogs were discovered in Kerala, in southern India, only to be endangered almost as soon as they were discovered, due to erratic monsoon patterns. There are thousands of unnamed extinctions in the natural world when species become extinct even before they have had a chance to be discovered. She bemoans the fact that children have lost touch with nature and are glued to their phones or games. I was surprised when she mentioned that out of 22 students in her poetry class, 17 said that they had never seen a firefly although they lived in a town where fireflies were common. Aimee Nezhukumatathil asks us to slow down and look for fireflies:

I know I will search for fireflies all the rest of my days, even though they dwindle a little bit more each year. I can’t help it. They blink on and off, a lime glow to the summer night air, as if to say: I am still here, you are still here, I am still here, you are still here, I am, you are, over and over again. 

World of Wonders is a paean to nature and its amazing diversity as reflected in the millions of species that make up life on earth. If only we would also embrace this diversity within our own species!

Interior Chinatown

There has been a spate of violent attacks targeted against Asians and Asian- Americans in recent times. However Anti-Asian harassment is not new. Although exacerbated during the pandemic, the prejudice is rooted in a long history of discrimination towards Asian-Americans since the earliest Asian immigrants came to the US centuries ago. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2020, is a satirical novel on the Chinese-American immigrant experience. The most unique feature of the novel is its unconventional format.

The characters of the book are part of a procedural cop show called ‘Black and White’ and the book itself is written in the form of a screenplay for a TV show. It is divided into seven acts with scene headings and even presented in the Courier font used in scripts. ‘Black and White'(ostensibly a spoof of ‘Law and Order’) has a charismatic black man and a beautiful white woman in the lead roles of detectives. Willis Wu, a Taiwanese- American has the role of ‘Background Oriental Male’. He is relegated to the background as all Asian-Americans are in the formulaic world of Hollywood. They only get bit parts and are sometimes reduced to playing props and corpses.

Willis Wu mostly gets to play Generic Asian Man. If he is lucky, sometimes he gets to be Background Oriental Making a Weird Face or even Disgraced Son. For now he is a bit player: but he dreams that one day he will be offered the most coveted role someone who looks like him might aspire to: Kung Fu Guy.

The Golden Palace restaurant in Chinatown serves as the set for the television show. Willis Wu, his friends and parents live in SRO ( Single Room Occupancy) apartments directly above the restaurant and are all Asian American extras. Their highest aspiration is to become ‘ Kung Fu Guy’ emulating an ‘older brother’, one of their gang who has made it. To land the coveted role of ‘Kung- Fu Guy’, Willis Wu practices martial arts and perfects his fake accent. In other words, he tries to fit his stereotype. He eventually makes his way up to ‘Special Guest Star’. Even Willis’ father’ Sifu’ was once ‘Kung Fu Guy’ but is now ‘Old Asian Man’ and his mother has been demoted from ‘Seductress’ to ‘Old Asian Woman’. These immigrants with their dreams and struggles are trapped in Chinatown just as they are trapped in these roles. The real world is only an extension of the entertainment world.

An elegant paifang or archway marks the official entrance to Chinatown in most cities. It is symbolic as an entryway for immigrants settling there. But the book cover design shows vertical bars that resemble a prison under the pagoda-like structure. The title Interior Chinatown is the description of the setting written on the script and could also refer to the claustrophobic lives of the residents living in humble conditions eking out a hand to mouth existence. They live in a physical and mental prison. And a metaphorical one too for they are also trapped in prisons of prejudice and stereotypes.

While reading the book there are times when you don’t know where the reel life ends and the real life begins. The boundaries are blurred between the two for Hollywood is nothing but the microcosm of the macrocosm. White people raise their voices and speak slowly to Asian people as if they won’t be able to understand anything they are saying. Asia is seen as a monolith. Every Asian is believed to be from mainland China. They are all lumped together just as all five of Willis Wu’s housemates are lumped together.

According to a witness, as the first man hit Allen in the temple, knocking him to the ground, they said, “This is for Pearl Harbor.” Young Wu thinks: it could have been him. Nakamoto says: it should have been him. All of the housemates realize: it was them. All of them. That was the point. They are all the same. All the same to the people who struck Allen in the head until his eyes swelled shut. All the same as they filled a large sack with batteries and stones, and hit Allen in the stomach with it until blood came up from his throat. Allen was Wu and Park and Kim and Nakamoto, and they were all Allen. Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam. Whatever. Anywhere over there. Slope. Jap. Nip. Chink. Towelhead. Whatever. All of them in the house, after that, they should become closer. But they don’t. They don’t sit around the table anymore, comparing names. because now they know what they are. Will always be. Asian Man.

Willis falls in love with Karen, a mixed race actress who used to play the role of ‘Ethnically Ambiguous girl’. They get married and have a daughter together. She receives an offer for a show of her own with a part included for Willis but he refuses to get out of Chinatown and give up on his ‘Kung Fu Guy’ dream. They get divorced and she moves to the suburbs with their daughter. When Willis eventually gets the coveted role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he wonders why he even wanted it. He will only be perpetuating the stereotype. How much of the racism has he internalized? In order to be accepted, you have to live according to the script. You live to fit into the stereotype and it then becomes a self -fulfilling prophecy. In his quest for the fake role of ‘Kung Fu Guy’, he has lost the real life role of family man. He leaves Chinatown to rejoin Karen and his daughter and is tried in court in the ‘Case of the Missing Man’ for running away from the role assigned to him with who else but his successful ‘older brother’ as his defense lawyer. The unusual court case culminating in the denouement is a brilliant tour de force by the author.

  The script format is occasionally interspersed with disturbing facts about the history of anti-immigration laws in the US and narration in the second person when Willis reflects on his life and on his parents’ lives. The use of the second person creates instant empathy in the reader. There is a moving passage where Willis’ father sings at the local karaoke bar. As an immigrant myself, I could relate to that feeling that even if you have left the country, it never leaves you.

If you don’t believe it, go down to your local karaoke bar on a busy night. Wait until the third hour, when the drunk frat boys and gastropub waitresses with headshots are all done with Backstreet Boys and Alicia Keys and locate the slightly older Asian businessman standing patiently in line for his turn, his face warmly rouged on Crown or Japanese lager, and when he steps up and starts slaying “Country Roads,” try not to laugh, or wink knowingly or clap a little too hard, because by the time he gets to “West Virginia, mountain mama,” you’re going to be singing along, and by the time he’s done, you might understand why a seventy-seven-year-old guy from a tiny island in the Taiwan Strait who’s been in a foreign country for two-thirds of his life can nail a song, note perfect, about wanting to go home.” 

Yu ingeniously exposes the marginalization of Asian Americans through the lens of ‘Black and White’, the clever title revealing how we view the world with no nuance, no shades in between. There were two things that bothered me slightly about the book; the first the implication that black people are more visible than Asians and are treated the same as white actors, and, the second, the focus on just the working class diaspora without any mention of the more successful Asian immigrants like the author himself. The only accomplished immigrant we come across is this mystical ‘older brother’ who seems to represent an ideal. In this aspect, the book seems a little dated in its depiction. Is the author guilty of the same kind of ‘Generic Asian Man’ portrayal that he is criticizing? Or was that deliberate to reinforce the premise of the book? Nevertheless, it is an ambitious and brilliant book both thematically and stylistically that makes us think more deeply about race, identity and assimilation.

Letter From Peking

I love diving into lesser known works of famous authors; you never know what pearls you might come up with. Letter from Peking is one such pearl of a book written by the legendary Pearl S. Buck. She is most famous for The Good Earth, a novel about rural pre-revolutionary China that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, earning the distinction of being the first American woman to be honored with the award. I may be one of the rare readers who preferred Letter From Peking to her popular and award winning novels. Letter From Peking, published in 1957, has an unusual plot and a sad and haunting tone. I was moved to tears several times while reading.

The story is about long distance love and a family caught between two countries, two continents and two cultures. The setting is Vermont and the novel is written in the form of a dateless diary with a lot of flashback to Peking. Elizabeth has been separated from her beloved husband for five years and has been raising their son alone on her family’s farm in Vermont. While studying at Radcliffe College, she had met Gerald MacLeod, a half-Chinese half-American doctoral student at Harvard. They got married and returned to Peking where they spent many happy years together until the rise of the Communist regime when it was no longer safe for Elizabeth and her son to stay there. Gerald is the President of the University in Peking and it is not clear if and when he will return to the US to join his family.

Elizabeth leads a quiet life in Vermont managing her farm and devoting her days to her son Rennie and Gerald’s father, Baba, a Scotsman from Virginia whom she is looking after in his old age. The caretaker of the farm and his wife, the single doctor who takes a romantic interest in Elizabeth and summer residents are among the few people who revolve in their orbit. She pines for her husband and reminisces about the beautiful love they shared. In fact, they were each other’s first love. “The first run of maple syrup, John Burroughs says, is like first love, “always the best, always the fullest, always the sweetest, while there is a purity and delicacy of flavor about the sugar that far surpasses any subsequent yield.”

Now she lives on the strength of her memories and on the hope that they will be reunited again which seems like a dim prospect in the political climate of the time. She reassures herself:“Gerald has not deserted me nor I him. We are divided by history, past and present.” Letters are the only form of communication between them. They have to be sent clandestinely as communication with westerners is banned by the Communists. At first fairly frequent, they start dwindling in number until a final one comes along. The contents of the last letter are not revealed till the end.

Although not a widow, the sad reality is that Elizabeth is one in many ways. I felt a lot of sympathy and compassion for her. Can you imagine not seeing your spouse for years and living life without knowing if you’ll ever meet again? There is so much uncertainty coupled with the loneliness but yet Eve as Gerald used to call his beloved Elizabeth, takes it all in stride with so much grace. There are men vying for her attention but she fends off their advances staying loyal to her husband. I think what appealed to me in the book was the gentleness in the tone despite the sadness. There is something very moving about Elizabeth’s serene acceptance of her situation and resignation to her fate. Her loneliness is described with poignancy:

Oh, the awful silence of the valley at night! No one comes near me and I am as alone as though I lived solitary upon a planet. Here and there in the distance a light burns. It means a house, a home, two people, perhaps children. The oil lamp burns yellow in Matt’s little house, and far down at the end of the valley the bright single light is the naked electric bulb that never goes out above the office door of Bruce Spaulden. I know, too, the intermittent flares of summer folk. None of them burns for me. Sometimes I light every lamp in my empty house and a stranger passing by could believe the house is full of guests. But I have no guests.”

I loved the Vermont setting and its juxtaposition with Peking; the grandeur of Chinese civilization offers an interesting contrast to the gentle beauty of Vermont and captures the essence of the novel. Elizabeth cherishes her husband’s Chinese heritage and wants her son to appreciate it too and wants him to have a life partner who would accept and understand it too. Baba lives in the past and still wears Chinese silk robes and reads Chinese books. As Elizabeth says, he still lives in the world of Confucius and Chinese emperors. I think that’s an important distinction- there is the grand old China- one of the oldest civilizations of the world and the new Communist regime which is entirely different. Her father-in-law is the only link to her husband and it is interesting that though Baba and Elizabeth are not Chinese by blood, they are proud to be linked to the rich culture.

Being quarter Chinese, Rennie, on the other hand, wrestles with his identity. Which country do you claim as your own when you can’t embrace both? It was a period of Sino-American geo-political tensions and there was a real fear of China and suspicion of anyone favorable to it and a similar distrust on the part of the authoritarian Chinese government towards Americans. Besides, in those days mixed families were not as common. Rennie has to choose between America and China and sadly between his mother and father. Unlike his mother, it is not so easy for him to forgive his father and it is safer for him to reject his heritage.

He falls in love with a girl in the neighborhood named Allegra and he is worried that revealing his Chinese identity will keep her from liking him. Elizabeth is harsh and judgmental about his relationship with the white girl. She wonders how Rennie could love a girl whose heart can “only hold one cup”. Pearl S. Buck beautifully depicts the complicated mother-son relationship.“Yet no mother can save her son. She can only watch and wait and wring her hands.” I thought her feelings arose from her loneliness. Her son was the only constant person in her life and she seemed jealous like any over protective mother. But later on I realized that maybe she was on to something as she seemed to readily accept his relationship with Mary, a girl she thought to be better suited to him and who would understand and embrace his Chinese heritage.

Gerald and Elizabeth’s relationship is tender and sweet no doubt, but I felt that she could have been idealizing it at times. Time and distance can make you lose perspective. When a person is absent, we tend to focus on their positive qualities and overlook their flaws. We only remember the good times. The bitter truth is that Gerald chose his country over her. Gerald’s patriotism and love for China prevented him from leaving his country. He had the opportunity to return to the US with her but didn’t and then it became too late. Even her son points it out to her but she is in some kind of denial mode. She continues to be fiercely protective of him.

I was struck by the dignity and poise Elizabeth had in the face of suffering but I do think she had a slight ‘holier than thou‘ attitude- she felt that no relationship could compare to this sublime love of theirs and she is steadfast in her belief that this true perfect love can withstand barriers of time, distance, race and culture. Her attitude seems like a coping mechanism. She needed something to cling on to, to give her hope to continue waiting.

In spite of some annoying traits, Elizabeth is on the whole a sympathetic character and I think it is because she is a lot like a modern day single mom who is self-reliant and has to raise her son singlehandedly. She is an independent woman who lives alone, works hard and makes her own money by managing a big farm by herself. She interacts mostly with men and like a single woman sometimes has to deal with their romantic interest in her. She also takes care of her father-in- law like a lot of women who end up taking the responsibility of caregiving. I am not going to reveal what happens in the end; what the final letter disclosed and whether Elizabeth is reunited with her husband. I hope I have piqued your curiosity enough to want to read the book.

When Pearl S. Buck died in 1973, former President Richard Nixon called her “a human bridge between the civilizations of the East and the West.”Though there are critics who believe that she perpetuated stereotypes about the Chinese, there is no doubt that she was instrumental in making China and the Chinese real and relevant to many people. This ‘pearl’ of a novel is more than a story about interracial conflict. It is a story about the love a woman is capable of- a love in its myriad complex forms-the undying love that she has for an absent husband, the protective love she has for her son, the filial duty and affection for her in-laws and most of all the love for a country that she has no ties of blood to but has embraced with her heart and soul. Imagine all this tumult of emotion soaked up in the quiet and gentle beauty of Vermont!

Have you read this novel or any other novel by Pearl S. Buck? And have you enjoyed reading any lesser known works of popular authors?

 

The Innocents Or Not So Innocent Abroad

Click on the link below to access a hypertext map that traces the route of The Quaker City excursion: https://twain.lib.virginia.edu/innocent/iamaphp.html

I recently read The Innocents Abroad, a travelogue of a journey by ship to Europe and the Holy Land, undertaken by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain. When you hear the name Mark Twain, you immediately think of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not many people know that he was a prolific travel writer well before he published his two famous novels. In 1867, he embarked on a pleasure excursion with a group of fellow Americans from New York aboard Quaker City, a retired Civil War ship, for a five and a half month long trip around the Mediterranean. At the time he was a travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper, “The Alta California” and sent dispatches about his travels to them and to “The New York Tribune” and “The New York Herald” too. The Innocents Abroad was published two years later, in 1869. It was a perfect pick for the pandemic as it let me indulge in some armchair travel! It made me reminisce nostalgically about the places I have already visited and compare notes with his experiences and also made me dream of places I have yet to visit.

Mark Twain’s incomparable humor sets this book apart from the countless run of the mill travel guides. I laughed out aloud innumerable times while reading and at times I was practically in stitches. I would say Mark Twain is right up there with Oscar Wilde as one of the wittiest writers I have ever read! Whether the group is traversing through the countryside of the Middle East on recalcitrant donkeys or horses, looking in desperation for soap anywhere in Europe, having a disappointing shaving experience in France, being dragged up the Pyramids by ‘draggers’ asking for ‘baksheesh’, sneaking into the Parthenon at night and stealing grapes along the way, having a private rendezvous with the Czar of Russia or playing pranks on the tourist guides by acting dumb, every experience is recounted with caustic humor.

The group’s language troubles with the French provides a good example of a humorous quip:

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language. One of our passengers said to a shopkeeper, in reference to a proposed return to buy a pair of gloves, “Allong restay trankeel—may be ve coom Moonday;” and would you believe it, that shopkeeper, a born Frenchman, had to ask what it was that had been said. Sometimes it seems to me, somehow, that there must be a difference between Parisian French and Quaker City French.”

I fell over the floor laughing when I read his description of the famed Turkish bath. Turkey was a country that had conjured up visions of the Arabian Nights for him. He had imagined the voluptuousness of the perfumes of Araby, the richness of the silks and carpets and the sensuousness of a luxuriating bath but instead he was in a dark, dingy and slippery corner from where he was taken to a place that resembled a chicken coop and served a Turkish drink which turned out to be the most execrable coffee:

“He took me back and flooded me with hot water, then turbaned my head, swathed me with dry table-cloths, and conducted me to a latticed chicken-coop in one of the galleries, and pointed to one of those Arkansas beds. I mounted it, and vaguely expected the odors of Araby again. They did not come.The blank, unornamented coop had nothing about it of that oriental voluptuousness one reads of so much. It was more suggestive of the county hospital than any thing else. The skinny servitor brought a narghili, and I got him to take it out again without wasting any time about it. Then he brought the world-renowned Turkish coffee that poets have sung so rapturously for many generations, and I seized upon it as the last hope that was left of my old dreams of Eastern luxury. It was another fraud. Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. “

I have only picked a handful of examples from the book of his scintillating wit. Practically every page is full of bantering remarks and railleries. Unfortunately, some of the humor degenerates into appallingly racist and xenophobic comments. At first I gave him the benefit of the doubt for living in a different time when people were not politically correct and when there was no concept of cultural relativity. But as I continued reading, I felt that some of the racist diatribes were offensive. He is disgusted by the poverty around him in Bashan, Syria and describes the crippled, the lepers, the vermin infested children with eye sores and beggars distressed with hunger in very unflattering terms :“They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.”

Some of his remarks are downright misogynistic. “She was the only Syrian female we have seen yet who was not so sinfully ugly that she couldn’t smile after ten o’clock Saturday night without breaking the Sabbath.” He comes across a ‘monster headed dwarf’ and a ‘mustached woman’ inside a railway car leaving Milan. He makes it clear that they were not show people for “Alas, deformity and female beards are too common in Italy to attract attention.” Along with the misogyny and racism, there is animal cruelty thrown in for good measure. His ingenious and refreshing wit and the fact that he did not spare anyone- not even himself or his fellow Americans made me forgive him for some of the over top comments. Maybe the book is a product of its time but it is as infuriating as it is funny.

He cracked me up with the descriptions of all the artwork he comes across in Europe. He was not that moved by the famous paintings and sculptures of the Old masters. According to him, it is difficult to admire them when the place is full of them from ceiling to walls. He does not think much of the Hagia Sophia either and calls it “the rustiest old barn in heathendom”. He ridicules the inflated tales of travel writers as reality does not meet the expectations you have after reading their accounts. He is scathing in his criticisms about the Catholic Church and their penchant for obsessively collecting relics including skulls many of which are of dubious origin. It is amusing how a part of the original crown of thorns shows up in every church.

The book inadvertently highlights the stereotype of the ugly American abroad. Every tour guide is called Ferguson and every place Jackson because they can’t be bothered learning new names. There are many examples of American ethnocentrism throughout the book. Twain feels the beautiful Lake Como and the Sea of Galilee pale in comparison to Lake Tahoe. I was shocked that the American ‘pilgrims’ chipped away pieces of monuments and ruins to bring back home as souvenirs! What a different time! We even hesitate to pick a seashell from a beach these days. Twain mocks their behavior but suggests that the reverse would never be tolerated. “Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from altar railings for curiosities, and climb and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith — the other only the profanation of a pagan one.”How preposterous is that statement! The ‘innocents abroad’ even shamelessly flouted quarantine rules. It was interesting that some countries did not allow them to disembark because of cholera or the plague. Living through the pandemic right now made that detail more meaningful to me. Twain makes self deprecating jokes too and lampoons Americans who behave badly abroad: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.” 

Twain’s prose is rich and lyrical too along with being humorous. Here’s a poetic description of the Sphinx in Egypt:

The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never any thing human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever image of stone thought, it was thinking. It was looking toward the verge of the landscape, yet looking at nothing—nothing but distance and vacancy. It was looking over and beyond every thing of the present, and far into the past. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time—over lines of century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years. It was the type of an attribute of man—of a faculty of his heart and brain. It was MEMORY—RETROSPECTION—wrought into visible, tangible form…….The Sphynx is grand in its loneliness; it is imposing in its magnitude; it is impressive in the mystery that hangs over its story. And there is that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the awful presence of God.”

I noticed that Twain and his fellow travelers mellowed down towards the end of the journey. They experienced travel fatigue from having traveled so long and extensively. In fact Twain does not linger over his descriptions of Spain or the places they visit on the way back. The book ends with these oft quoted lines: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Over time, the memory of disagreeable incidents faded away and Twain states that he would happily undertake the same journey if given a chance again.

I highly recommend this satirically humorous account of Twain’s travels. Make sure you are reading an edition with illustrations by True Williams which are as amusing as the text. This is a long book and I took my time to read it. It is informative and illuminating and Twain digresses at times to regale the readers with interesting legends and stories. Although I found the sojourns in Italy and France to be the most humorous, I enjoyed the parts about the Middle East as I haven’t been there. It was fascinating to journey through Syria and Palestine and see all the Biblical places and people come alive. I interrupted the reading to google some of the information and returned to the page lingering over every detail. At one point in the book, he describes Venetians enjoying granita ( a distant cousin of Italian ice) on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I felt reading this book was like slowing down to savor every bite of the delicious granita offered by Mark Twain.

 

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

As another year comes to a close, I reflect on the books that had the greatest impact on me in 2020. In the genre of non fiction, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is the most powerful book I have read this year. The title itself piqued my interest. The premise of the book is that ‘caste’, a term traditionally associated with India, is a better word to describe racism in the US. As someone who has grown up in India, caste is not just a term I am familiar with, but something that has seeped into every aspect of my existence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that often people are not even aware of how they are perpetuating the caste system even if they openly and truly condemn it. In that aspect, caste is very similar to white supremacy and Wilkerson posits that African Americans in the United States are at the lowest rung in a hierarchy analogous to both the caste system in India and the Nazi rule in Germany. She claims that “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste…. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

One might wonder if these cross cultural comparisons have any merit for how do we compare 400 years of American history with 12 years of Nazi rule and 3000 years of a complex system of social stratification in India? The three share basic methods of subjugation and the underlying feeling of dehumanization is the same. So caste and not race is the lens though which we should view America, according to Wilkerson. It is not just a matter of semantics but a better framework to understand and analyze the inequities. Wilkerson says that Nazi Germany was inspired by American segregation laws and believe it or not, they thought the American system was too extreme. I have often wondered why people are only shocked by Nazis and their brutality when what African Americans endured as slaves was no less. Even the Nazis thought that determining the percentage of blood that made you black to be too harsh. It is only on reading this book I realized that there was no basis to the one drop of blood rule ( which even black people have come to believe- so deep is the brainwashing or rather whitewashing) and that theory was touted just to keep black people in their place.

Wilkerson delineates 8 pillars of caste that are common across the three societies and gives examples from each category to illustrate her point. Endomagy is one of the pillars of caste I found fascinating as a comparison. She equates the past ban on interracial marriages in the US to the control of marriage and mating in India where traditionally people married into their own caste. Alabama was the last state in the union to overturn the ban on interracial marriage in 2000, 33 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional in all states. And yet, more than 40% of Alabamians voted against overturning it. Now, in the US and in India, legally you are allowed to marry any one you want. But only 10% of the population in India marries outside its caste and only 15% of marriages in the US are interracial. This number includes Hispanics and Asians as well. The percentage would be a lot lower if it were only blacks. Sadly, the figures speak for themselves.

Another pillar of caste that I found striking to compare is the emphasis on pollution and purity. Black people were considered impure and dirty just as Dalits who belong to the lowest echelons of the caste system in India and whose very shadows were once considered polluting and who often eat and drink from separate containers to this day. It was no different for black people till a few decades ago when they drank water from separate fountains and were not allowed to use swimming pools frequented by white people. Wilkerson cites the example of Al Bright, the only black child on the Little League Team in the town of Youngston, Ohio who was banned from using a swimming pool when his team went on a celebration outing. When parents and coaches protested, he was allowed to float on a raft without his feet touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager only after all the white kids had vacated the pool. This incident took place in 1951.   

The book traces the history of enslavement in the South from 1619 when the first Africans were brought to Virginia to the Civil War and subsequent period when the caste system was perpetuated through the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolition of slavery, the country found ways to keep black people subjugated. Wilkerson describes in detail discriminatory housing policies, unethical medical experiments and horrific lynchings where the white community would come to view the spectacle, collect body parts as souvenirs and send postcards of the event to family and friends. This was an astounding revelation to me for as a recent immigrant, I didn’t fully know or understand the extent of the horrors African Americans were subjected to in the past. I had always viewed America as the leader of the free world. But what a paradox then that the country that espouses the values of liberty and justice for all fails many of its citizens on just those counts? For unless the racism inherent in society is acknowledged and addressed, any claim to be the beacon of democracy rings hollow.

“Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history, It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.”  

We are loathe to talk about past horrors but events that happened long ago still color our thinking. The book depicts current realities too with the backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Wilkerson believes that white voters vote against their own self interest when the power they hold is threatened for the reality is that in a few decades, they will no longer be the majority of the population. She goes on to ask this uncomfortable question: ”..if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” In the US, there is controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments whereas Germany has no statues or memorials to Nazi officers and looks back upon the Third Reich as a shameful part of its history. Americans not willing to dismantle monuments is emblematic of the larger unwillingness to dismantle the system.

Wilkerson lays bare some stark and painful truths about race relations with scholarly research and compelling personal anecdotes. She describes how she was viewed with suspicion while traveling business class. She was followed in the airport and questioned by agents on a car rental company’s shuttle bus and not one passenger came to her defense. Throughout the book she employs striking metaphors to drive home her point. She likens caste variously to the foundation of an old house, to a computer operating system, and to a staged performance. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

There are some gaps in the arguments Wilkerson puts forth. She tends to view caste as a binary and has omitted the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and does not dwell much on how class operates within caste- for instance how do we explain the success of Asian immigrants in the US who are not white? Some of the comparisons of the treatment of African American to Jews seem tenuous too. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Jews and not dominate them while black people in the US and Dalits in India were needed by the dominant class for economic exploitation. 

In addressing the caste system in India, Wilkerson focuses mainly on Brahmins and Dalits but caste is far from a two tier system in India. It is an extremely complex dynamic whose definition is broader and more nuanced. There are four main castes or ‘varna’. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word varna itself means color indicating that originally skin color was used to determine place in a hierarchy. The four castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya,Vaishya and Shudra or the priestly, the warrior, the merchant and the laborer respectively and each caste is further divided into sub castes. Dalits once known as ‘ untouchables’ and whose work involves removal of garbage and animal carcasses, cleaning toilets and sewers, are the most oppressed group. They are even excluded from the traditional classification and form a fifth caste.

There could be more than 5000 castes and sub castes in India and often a subjugated group also subjugates in turn, those they perceive to be lower on the rung. Besides the caste system is not restricted to Hindus but is practiced in some form or other by Muslims and Christians too. Caste is not the exclusive domain of religion but has insidiously seeped into Indian culture. Wilkerson cites sociological research and discusses the activism of Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar but does not take into account current realities in India where the government has implemented affirmative action initiatives for the marginalized and where we witness the evolution of a rapidly growing Dalit political movement to fight caste hegemony and Hindu nationalism as they continue to be targets of lynching and rape.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is illuminating. It inspired me to do some soul searching about my own heritage and my complicity in keeping the machinery going. Call it unconscious or silent bias, in the end the discrimination whether in the US or in India is part of an underlying unspoken system of hierarchy. We have accepted this system and adapted to it. I naively believed that caste was not something that was all that prevalent in urban India where I grew up and was mostly confined to rural pockets of the country. I didn’t care what castes my friends belonged to or what last names they went by. Yet, I was guilty of not protesting when the domestic helpers drank water from separate glasses or were not allowed to use the bathrooms at home. Often in a high rise I would come across separate lifts- one for the residents of the building and one ‘ for servants and dogs’. I remember being shocked and angered by it but not enough to do anything about it. Not only do we need to have empathy but ‘radical empathy’, to borrow Wilkerson’s words, to bring about social change.

Caste is an eye opening book especially for those born into privilege who need to shoulder the responsibility for the inequities in society and work to eradicate the deeply entrenched social malady but the sad part is that not everyone is willing to open their eyes to the truth. Although the book ends on a note of hope, it is a long and tortuous road ahead. And there was a part of me that wondered despondently if it is truly possible to live in a world without any implicit hierarchy of race, caste or class!

Maria Lactans- The Nursing Madonna

The Virgin Nursing The Child-Pompeo Batoni- Circa 1760- 1780

I recently came across a raw and powerful poem on the internet which describes Mary’s experience of breastfeeding the Infant Jesus to illustrate how women are unfairly excluded from the pulpit. The poem was penned by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler who belongs to the evangelical group ‘Churches of Christ’ which prevents women from occupying positions of authority in the church and even from actively participating in worship services. The poem went viral as it struck a chord with many women all over the world. And I am one of those women:

A Christmas Poem
by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

The poem illustrates the absurdity of preventing women from occupying the pulpit. A woman is barred from priesthood because of her biology but it is her biology that makes her experience more meaningful and personal. A woman who had the visceral and moving experience of giving birth to the Lord would surely understand what faith is all about. And Mary, who experiences the discomfort and fatigue of childbirth and nursing, represents all women. Although Kaitlin Shetler describes an experience with a particular church, the exclusion of women from positions of religious authority is an issue that crosses over denominations and religions.

Women cannot be ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. Women’s ordination is a controversial issue in Buddhist communities too. There is also a misogynistic belief that a woman is polluting because of her body. Menstrual taboos of Hinduism result in male only religious spaces and male specific religious duties. Traditionally, it is only a male priest who has had the right to conduct weddings and religious functions. Often the only reason cited is that there is no precedent and that it is divinely ordained. But the truth of the matter is that these are man made restrictions which have distorted the original teachings of all the major religions and reflect the oppressive structures of patriarchy. Many Hindu women are challenging the traditional notions of priesthood and some have begun officiating at ceremonies. Muslim women have also been fighting for the right to be appointed as imams. We have a growing number of women of all faiths who refuse to be held back from the full expression of their spirituality and are fighting for gender equity in religious matters.

I was struck by the description of the nursing Madonna in the poem. It made me wonder why we hardly see images of Mary breastfeeding in art and that led me to conduct some research on the topic. After all, those were days before formula use and we would not have survived as a species without this natural function. I discovered that the motif of Maria Lactans or the Nursing Madonna was predominant in religious iconography in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The Virgin Nursing the Child with St. John the Baptist in Adoration- Giampietrino- Circa 1500-20
Madonna Litta- Disputed attribution to Leonardo da Vinci, possibly the work of one of his pupils- 1490

Mother Mary was even associated with lactation miracles. There is a belief that the floor of the Milk Grotto, a chapel in Bethlehem, changed its color to white when a drop of Mary’s milk fell on it. The shrine is visited to this day by women trying to conceive and new mothers who wish to increase the quantity of their milk. There is a lot of artwork dedicated to the lactation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian monk and abbott. Legend has it that Mary squirted breastmilk into his mouth to reveal herself as the mother of mankind and to either cure him of an eye infection or to grant him spiritual wisdom, depending on the variant of the story. There was nothing scandalous about exposing a breast till the 18th century but later on as the breast became more and more sexualized, people became squeamish about it and the image of the lactating virgin fell out of fashion.

Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard by Alonso Cano, 1650

Christmas is essentially a story about birth and the bond between a mother and child. Kaitlin Shetler, in this poem, humanizes the divine Virgin Mary who is doing what millions of women have been doing since time immemorial. I felt a connection with Mary and with all women across the world in the simple yet sacred acts of birthing and nurturing. We are part of this ancient sisterhood spanning millennia. And there is a primal priestess in every woman, buried under centuries of oppression, who needs to rightfully reclaim her place.

Galaktotrophousa by Master Ioannis, 1778

All pictures are from Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

Olive, Again!

When you get old, you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way…You go through life and you think you are something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something, and then you see that you are no longer anything.– Olive, Again

Oh Godfrey, our crotchety and cantankerous Olive is back and it is a pleasure to visit this old friend again, who, in the interim, has become even older and a tad wiser. Olive Kitteridge left us with a widowed Olive, estranged from her only son Christopher and enjoying a budding friendship with fellow senior citizen, Jack Kennison. You can read my blog post on Olive Kitteridge here: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/olive-kitteridge/

The dreary quotidian life of this retired high school math teacher resumes in this new book, Olive, Again which I wouldn’t call a sequel but a continuation for it picks up where Olive Kitteridge left and has the same flavor as its predecessor. The only difference is that the considerably older Olive suffers a lot more loneliness now and is faced with the frightening and impending prospect of death. She is still the same old opinionated and outspoken Olive who has retained most of her ‘oliveness’ but seems just a little more mellowed by life.

The structure of the new book is pretty much the same like the previous one- a series of stories or rather snapshots of life of the residents of the fictitious seaside town of Crosby, Maine, pivoting around the protagonist Olive, who, at times, only makes a passing appearance. These interconnected vignettes depict the ordinary lives of ordinary people who go about their humdrum lives and routines with aplomb but struggle and hide their sadness behind masks. In the course of the book, Olive Kitteridge ages from her seventies well into her eighties, becomes widowed twice and moves to an assisted living facility.

What do you do when life throws curveballs at you? The stories are about people struggling with alcoholism, infidelity, suicide, illness and the painful complexity of relationships. To add to those problems are the inevitable indignities of aging- from the nuisance and embarrassment of incontinence and buying adult diapers furtively to facing a decline in faculties and physical mobility and dealing with the ensuing isolation and depression. When Olive consoles Cindy Combs who is battling cancer, she says: “You know, Cindy, if you should be dying, if you do die, the truth is—we’re all just a few steps behind you. Twenty minutes behind you, and that’s the truth.” It’s not a matter of if but a question of when and what we can do to live our last days with as much dignity as possible.

Olive marries Jack, a former professor at Harvard who was kicked out on allegations of sexual assault. Along with the humiliation, he is now grappling with guilt for having cheated on his deceased wife. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander too. He is suddenly faced with the crushing realization that his wife cheated on him too. Olive herself admits that she had an ‘almost affair’ while married to Henry. Whether they cheated or were tempted to cheat, they still love and miss their former spouses. And that’s the beauty of the novel-it addresses all the grey areas and paradoxes of life. Olive and Jack are both grieving their spouses and come together in their loneliness. It is never too late to love even if age has taken a toll on their bodies- even if Jack admits that being with Olive was like ”kissing a barnacle covered whale” and even if he is mortified by his own expanding and very conspicuous girth.

Both Olive and Jack try to repair their fractured relationships with their children. The homophobic Jack comes to terms with his daughter’s sexual orientation. In “The Motherless Child”, Christopher visits Olive with his wife Annabelle and four children, in an attempt at reconciliation. Olive tries her best despite some uneasy moments and is frustrated that the grandchildren are not warming up to her. She overhears Ann call her a narcissist. Ann has recently lost her mother and Olive wonders if she herself raised a motherless child. She has become more self aware and introspective and confronts her own imperfections. Yet when she is hospitalized later, Christopher visits her so frequently that the doctor remarks that she must have been a very good mother to him, leaving Olive confused and unconvinced.

Olive has the capacity to make you laugh and to break your heart too. At a ‘stupid” baby shower where she shows up without a gift and is annoyed by the tacky modern rituals of youngsters, she helps a woman deliver her baby in the back of her own car. Olive visits Cindy Combs who is suffering from cancer and craves company. No one visits her out of awkwardness or fear. But Olive shows up and is there for her. In “Heart”, she suffers a heart attack and befriends two of the nurse’s aides who take care of her; Halima a Somali girl who lives in the nearby town of Shirley Falls where Somali refugees have settled and experience xenophobia and Betty, a Trump supporter who gets on her nerves. Olive is very kind to Halima and in spite of her political differences with Betty, she feels compassion for her when she hears that she has carried a torch secretly for Jerry Skyler all her life and wonders “the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be.” And even Olive felt this love for Betty despite the bumper sticker on her truck.

In the end it all comes down to the power of connection- feeling heard and emotionally supported by another human being.When life doesn’t make sense, these bonds give a meaning and purpose to it. And sometimes you make the discovery that there are kindred spirits. Cindy Combs and Olive realize that they both have a similar appreciation for the February light in the winter sky. In “Helped”, Suzanne Larkins is adapting to the death of her father and is plagued with guilt over an affair she had. Her mother who is suffering from dementia makes a devastating revelation. She reaches out to her family lawyer Bernie Green in a moment of tenderness and they discover they have a lot in common. In “The Poet”, Olive has lunch with a former student Andrea L’Rieux who has become the Poet Laureate and who depicts Olive and her loneliness in a poem. Even if it is not a flattering image, Olive recognizes that:  “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another.”  

   After being widowed again, in her assisted living facility she befriends Isabelle Daigneault, a character from one of her previous novels, Amy and Isabelle and it is touching when the two ladies come up with a schedule of checking on each other twice a day to make sure they have not fallen dead or fainted in their rooms. Characters from other novels like The Burgess Boys put in appearances reinforcing the idea of a community of familiar people, that not only Olive bumps into in town but that the reader encounters again like a long lost friend.

 There are two stories that add a discordant note to the collection. In “Cleaning”, Kayley Callaghan, an eighth grader cleans house for Mrs.  Ringrose and regularly unbuttons her blouse for Mr. Ringrose in exchange for money. There is a hint of pedophilia and I can’t imagine a young girl enjoying doing this for a much older man. In “The End of Civil War Days”, a  daughter reveals to her estranged parents that she is a dominatrix and is going to star in a new documentary. One wonders why Strout felt compelled to add these two stories considerably different in tone from the others and in which Olive hardly plays a role.

The new book is very similar to the first one. Her creator herself exclaims: “That Olive! She continues to surprise me, continues to enrage me, continues to sadden me, and continues to make me love her.” Olive is unabashedly and unapologetically herself- a curmudgeon. The only difference is that “that old bag, ‘that pickle’ is just a little bit softer and reveals a vulnerable side to her. She has positively impacted students who still remember her little nuggets of wisdom. We’ve all encountered Olives. And who knows, maybe we have a bit of her within us too?

There is sadness pervading the whole work with little rays of hope here and there like the sunlight streaming in through the windows which seems to be a cherished leitmotiv in Strout’s works. Life is hard and we can only make it bearable seeking those few evanescent moments of love and connection and reveling in the beauties of nature. The beautiful cover with falling leaves illustrates the impermanence of life. Life is enigmatic and ephemeral just as each passing season in New England and the only thing we can do, to borrow the words of Suzanne Larkin in “Helped’ is “To bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.”

 

Crocus Focus

Crocus
Crocuses in my garden!

I am finally greeted with the first splash of color in the garden! When I stepped out today, out of the blue ( or rather purple), I saw violet and lavender crocuses waking up from their slumber, stretching their delicate heads out through patches of dry grass and moss, slush and fallen pine needles, and turning their faces upwards to the sky. These cheerful blooms are always the first ones to lead the spring parade of flowers.

Somewhat serendipitously I came across an uplifting poem about crocuses. I am happy to share it with you as it is timely not only because it is spring and the first day of National Poetry Month in the US, but also because it could easily apply to our current situation of social distancing and isolation in these gloomy times.

The poem was penned by Hannah Flagg Gould, a late 18th and early 19th century American poet. She was a prolific poet from Newburyport, MA but never gained much recognition as her other New England contemporary, Emily Dickinson. Like the latter, she led a quiet secluded life and never married. Her mother had died when she was a child and she spent most of her youth caring for her father who was a Revolutionary war veteran.

Her friends collected the poems she contributed to periodicals and published them as Poems in 1832. Inspired by the success of the collection, she went on to pen several more volumes of poetry. Her poems, simple and gentle in expression, and infused with a deep spiritual sensibility, deal with a wide range of themes ranging from American history, religion and war, to poems for children and poems about nature.

The Crocus’s Soliloquy

Down in my solitude under the snow,
Where nothing cheering can reach me;
Here, without light to see how to grow,
I’ll trust to nature to teach me.

I will not despair–nor be idle, nor frown,
Locked in so gloomy a dwelling;
My leaves shall run up, and my roots shall run down,
While the bud in my bosom is swelling.

Soon as the frost will get out of my bed,
From this cold dungeon to free me,
I will peer up with my little bright head,
And all will be joyful to see me.

Then from my heart will young petals diverge,
As rays of the sun from their focus;
I from the darkness of earth shall emerge,
A happy and beautiful Crocus!

Many, perhaps, from so simple a flower,
This little lesson may borrow,
Patient today, through its gloomiest hour,
We come out the brighter tomorrow.

~ Hannah F. Gould

Crocus2
Crocuses blooming in the garden right now!

The crocus is one of the first to spring to life from the bare and barren earth signaling the end of winter and ushering in a new season. There are always a few flowers that don’t make it in the spring; some trees that die and some birds that don’t return home. Nature is filled with uncertainty but the rhythm and recurring patterns continue and keep us going. We can learn a lot about rebirth and renewal from the cycles of nature.

It is fascinating how every verse of this simple 19th century poem resonates with our current reality. I hope we never lose hope and have faith that the trying times we are going through with the global pandemic will be behind us soon even as we lose some of our citizens. Hocus pocus, may we be like the crocus! May we emerge unscathed on the morrow from the darkness of the earth with patience and tenacity like these bright little blooms!

Hannah Gould’s most popular poem is ” A Name in the Sand”, but, unfortunately, it has been erroneously attributed to other people. I hope there is a revival of interest in this poet and that she is lifted out of obscurity. She deserves to come back to life like the crocus she so beautifully describes!

 

 

Olive Kitteridge

19018981

Olive Kitteridge is a book that has been lying neglected on my bookshelf for years. I had always meant to get to it as I had heard a lot about it and it had even won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. I finally read it as I wanted to read the recently published Olive, Again which is not technically a sequel, but I thought reading Olive Kitteridge first would get me acquainted with the eponymous character. I have to warn you that it is not the best book to read during a global pandemic. In one word, it is DEPRESSING! 

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of thirteen disparate short stories set around the mundane lives of the residents of the fictional New England coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a grumpy retired school teacher who features in some form or the other in every story.  In some stories, she is the main character while in others she is a peripheral presence or just mentioned in passing. The structure is disjointed and the stories are not in chronological order. They span decades in the life of our protagonist- from middle age through old age- first as wife and mother, eventually caretaker of her husband who suffers a stroke and finally as a widow. More than stories, these are vignettes weaving a tapestry of senior life with its small town gossip, banal routines, simple joys and profound sorrows. If there is one overarching theme, it is loneliness…loneliness despite the presence of others. The reader is the voyeur who has a window into the unremarkable lives of these unremarkable people. 

Olive lives with her husband Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist and her son Christopher, a podiatrist. She loves them both but she is unable to express her affection and treats them rather brusquely. In fact, she is a curmudgeon who is loud, aggressive and unkind to everyone in town. “She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people.”

She has a sadistic streak to her. In A Little Burst, on the day of her son’s wedding, she overhears her daughter- in- law Suzanne discussing her with a friend. In a fit of rage, she steals Suzanne’s shoes and bra and ruins her cashmere sweater and this surreptitious act is her ‘little burst of happiness’. In the story entitled Tulips, Olive visits Louise and Roger Larkin who lead a reclusive existence after their son was implicated in a murder. The visit is not that of a friendly concerned neighbor or even one prompted by morbid curiosity. She visits them in order to feel better about her own life. Louise is on to her and accuses her thus: “ You came here for a nice dose of schadenfreude, and it didn’t work.”

 How can a reader commiserate with such an intimidating and irascible woman? The stucture of the book is interesting as we get to see how Olive is perceived by the different residents of her town. As I come to know her better, I see her in a new light. People are complex and I was quick to judge Olive just as she is quick to judge others. She is capable of empathy for behind that mask of a cantankerous woman lie sadness, insecurity and fear. She is moved by the plight of an anorexic girl and bursts into tears:

Olive shook her head again, blew her nose. She looked at Nina and said quietly, ‘I don’t know who you are, but young lady, you’re breaking my heart.’
‘I’m not trying to,’ said Nina, defensively. ‘It’s not like I can help it.’
‘Oh, I know that. I know.’ Olive nodded.

  And she, very profoundly, adds: “We are all starving.” 

There aren’t too many older women depicted in fiction and it’s refreshing to get a peek into the autumn of life. We forgive Olive for although she is flawed, she is human. We feel sorry for the immeasurable loneliness she experiences in the emptiness of her home after Christopher moves away from her physically to California and then to New York and drifts apart emotionally too and when Henry is at a nursing home and after he dies. Along with Olive’s increasing self- awareness, the reader’s empathy and understanding deepen too. We learn later on that though Olive and Henry loved each other, they both had secret crushes on other people and were aware of it but didn’t talk about it. The truth is that there are a lot of Olives and Henrys around us, starved of attention and affection. 

On the surface, the residents lead a quiet life but delve deeper and you realize that the specter of death hangs over every story. Just like Olive, death is an omnipresent force that inserts itself insidiously in every story and in every uneventful life. Olive’s father had committed suicide and she herself has contemplated it on occasion. In Incoming Tide, Kevin Coulson, sits in his car near the marina, on the verge of taking his life. And then there are other sorrows like having a son imprisoned for stabbing a woman twenty nine times, finding out that your husband was unfaithful on the day of his funeral and being jilted at the altar by your fiancé. 

Life is difficult. And sometimes it is unbearably difficult. This is the human condition. In the midst of all the sorrow, there are a few moments here and there that provide a ray of hope like the sunlight that comes streaming in through the window slats of a dark home- a motif that recurs in this work. Ultimately, humans seek connection in a lonely existence, to make life slightly less unbearable. Olive, after the death of her husband, meets Jack Kennison and finds a new purpose in life. It is never too late to love. Lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies are as needy as young, firm ones, Olive thought : “But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union-what pieces life took out of you.”  

 Like Olive, the novel is not without its flaws. A Different Road stands apart from the other stories as its plot is implausible, in contrast to the stark realism of the other stories. The fact that Olive stops with Henry at a hospital to use the restroom and is forcibly examined by the nurses and that men armed with guns show up and hold them hostage seems too far fetched. This is the only ludicrous story in an otherwise brilliant collection. 

 There is a distinct New England sensibility to the work. The people reflect the weather and its moods, Yet, this small town is a microcosm of the larger world outside. We all inhabit this suffocating world and are familiar with its alienation to some degree. The beauty of this ‘novel in stories’ is how Elizabeth Strout with her lyrical phrases infuses the prosaic lives of these residents with poetry. 

 If I could paraphrase this book in one or two sentences, I would say: Don’t grow old along with me. The worst is yet to be. That’s how distressing it is! I certainly don’t look forward to growing old after reading Olive Kitteridge. Now on to Olive, Again. But before picking up that book, I need something lighter in the interim like a humorous Sophie Kinsella or a feel good romance novel. 

 

 

 

 

 

Flight Behavior

MonarchButterfly
Cluster of overwintering monarch butterflies in Pacific Grove, CA.   Photo Credit: Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History

” Just as the butterfly, I too will awaken in my own time. ” ~ Deborah Chaskin

I am mesmerized by monarch butterflies. They are charming creatures whose iridescent wings remind me of stained glass windows in an old church. More extraordinary than the graceful beauty of these winged wonders, is their unique phenomenon of migration. In North America, they overwinter east and west of the Rockies, in the mountains of Central Mexico and the central coast of California, respectively. It is amazing that they make the trajectory to the same destination where previous generations of monarchs have congregated, without ever having been there before. It is simply programmed in their DNA. Apart from the biological marvel of migration, their metamorphosis is a great symbol and inspiration for poets and artists.

I recently visited Pacific Grove in California, which is the winter migratory stop for hordes of monarch butterflies. Until recently, it was a veritable mecca for the monarchs. Now their numbers are dwindling at an alarming rate. While I was at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary there, a lady noticed my enthusiasm for the butterflies and suggested I read a book called Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. I hadn’t read any book by her although I had always been meaning to read The Poisonwood Bible. On my return, I immediately checked out the book from my library. Flight Behavior is a wonderful work of fiction which also addresses the pressing issue of global warming which results in migration collapse of the monarchs.

Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman who lives in the fictitious Appalachian town of Feathertown, Tennessee, is fleeing from her husband and family and is on her way to embark on her first extra- marital affair when she encounters a ‘miracle’ on the mountain where she is supposed to have a tryst with her would- be lover. She accidentally stumbles upon “a sea of orange fire”. The woman who was ready to take flight from her marriage is stopped in her tracks by this dazzling vision and returns home in a daze. She only realizes later that what she saw were millions upon millions of monarch butterflies. They were supposed to overwinter in Mexico as they usually do but instead take up residence on the Turnbow property in Tennessee, a site that could prove fatal to their survival. The locals interpret the off -course migratory pattern of the butterflies as divine intervention and Dellarobia, the witness to this supernatural phenomenon, returns, much to her surprise, to unexpected fame both in town and in the media.

As soon as I started reading the book, I was captivated by the poetic descriptions. Butterflies are beautiful creatures and Kingsolver endows them with even more beauty with her lyrical language which is as enchanting as the monarchs her protagonist happens upon:

“The sun slipped out by another degree, passing its warmth across the land, and the mountains seemed to explode with light. Brightness of a new intensity moved up the valley in a rippling wave, like the disturbed surface of a lake. Every bough glowed with an orange glaze.”

“Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road. For her alone these orange boughs lifted, these long shadows became a brightness rising. It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.”

I was also intrigued by the unique name of the heroine- Dellarobia. Its meaning becomes clear as you read the novel. Dellarobia is a bright young woman leading a life of drudgery as a poor sheep farmer’s wife. Her husband Cub is a dull, unimaginative and passive man. They married at a young age due to an unexpected unpregnancy which subsequently resulted in a miscarriage. They probably wouldn’t have married otherwise. They stayed married and went on to have two more children, Preston and Cordelia. Cub is a decent and devoted man who cares about Dellarobia and their children. Yet she is unhappy as they are not compatible. Her in- laws who own the farm are struggling to keep it going. She maintains a cordial relationship with them but they have never warmed up to her. Her mother- in- law Hester is cold and sarcastic to her. Her only confidante and support is her best friend Dovey.

Dellarobia is a stay at home mother which “was the loneliest kind of lonely in which she was always and never by herself.” She has a roving eye and seems to be attracted easily to other men. She has had a lot of crushes but has not acted on them. How she longs to escape from the small town life, the gossip and the poverty!

Into her confined world, enters a charismatic African- American lepidopterist by the name of Ovid Byron who bears a likeness from his charming personality and erudition down to his initials to a former President although Kingsolver insists that any resemblance is fortuitous. He shows up in town with some post graduate students to study the erratic behavior of the butterflies and stays on the Turnbows’ farm. He sets up his RV in Dellarobia’s backyard and converts a sheep shed into a lab. Dellarobia herself is eventually hired to work on his project and her world view widens. Needless to say, our protagonist who has a propensity to develop crushes is immediately attracted to this young, intelligent and educated man. Along with giving her explanations about the behavior of butterflies, he also gives her butterflies in her stomach and makes her heart flutter.

Ovid Byron is the spokesperson through whom Kingsolver, who is a biologist herself, expounds her thoughts on climate change which could lead to the potential extinction of the butterflies. The only drawback to the novel is that at times Byron seems to be pontificating on the horrors of climate change which gives the novel a didactic and almost text book feel to it like it were a lecture from Biology 101.

Most of the people in the small town are suspicious of scientists. The locals interpret the vagaries of the weather as being in the hands of Providence. Biblical metaphors abound like Dellarobia’s Moses- like vision on the mountain and the massive floods reminiscent of Noah’s Ark to explain the people’s beliefs. There are two distinct worlds- the rural and  the God fearing community rigid in its views and the urban and progressive one aware of the dangers of climate change and Dellarobia bridges the two worlds. People who live paycheck to paycheck couldn’t care less about the environment. There is a funny and ironical moment in the story when an environmental activist reads out from a list the different ways to lessen your carbon footprint. Although ignorant about science, Dellarobia and her neighbors are so poor that they don’t really even have a carbon footprint.

Dellarobia is willing to leave her children and run away with someone. She seems flighty and impetuous, ready to ruin her reputation as good wife and mother but at the same time she is a caring and responsible wife and mother. These are inherent contradictions faced by every woman. Some act on their impulses or are close to acting on them while most of them carry on in their constrained and unhappy lives.

Dellarobia like the butterflies is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own. Dr.Byron is the catalyst to this awakening but does he reciprocate the ardent feelings Dellarobia has for him? Will this shepherdess in southern Appalachia leave her husband and move on to greener pastures? Will she burst forth from her cocoon in a blaze of glory and spread her wings? There is a moving scene towards the end where she appreciates her husband and knows that he will always be there for her. You feel sorry for him as he is a good guy. They are two decent people who just happen to be wrong for each other. There are two small plot twists at the end that I did not fully anticipate and that enhanced my reading pleasure.

I found this book fascinating as it addresses the larger issue of climate change within the smaller human dramas of family life and relationships. It asks two important but distinct questions: Do we as human beings have a responsibility towards our planet? Does a woman have a right to lead a fulfilling life and to indulge in her own ‘flight behavior’? It makes us ponder over them with the metaphor of the monarch butterfly which brings the two together. And what results is a brilliant novel as bedazzling as clusters of amber and onyx butterflies hanging from trees!