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.

Klara And The Sun

Klara and the Sun is the latest novel of Kazuo Ishiguro and the first since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Regular readers of my blog will know that Ishiguro is among my favorite contemporary authors. I was eagerly looking forward to reading this book and unfortunately it left me a little underwhelmed. I didn’t have a great reading experience either with The Buried Giant, the book published prior to this one. I found it a laborious read and trudged along through the pages waiting for the novel to end. Klara and the Sun is not painstaking to read; on the contrary, it is fast-paced and a page turner. To me it seemed similar to Never Let Me Go; they are both sci-fi dystopian novels in a sense, and yet, I would hesitate to include them under any rigid genre categorization as they are also philosophical in tone and ultimately a meditation on the human condition and our existential plight. The same themes that we find in Never Let Me Go are rehashed and packaged in a new form in Klara and the Sun and although there are aspects to the book that are thought provoking, it falls far short of the former which packed great emotional force.

We are in an unnamed city in a futuristic world, albeit a foreseeable future. In a shop on a busy street, there are solar powered AF or Artificial Friends waiting to be sold. They are displayed in different areas of the store and get their turn at the coveted spot by the window to entice potential customers. Artificial Friends are robots created for the express purpose of providing children with guidance and companionship and to help them deal with their loneliness. They come programmed with a knowledge of many things. Yet they have very limited knowledge of the world outside. One of the AFs named Klara is different from the others. She is exceptionally observant and intuitive. She is purchased by a girl named Josie and moves to her house where she has to learn to understand her and the other adults of the house that include Chrissie, Josie’s mother and Melania, the hostile housekeeper. The only visitor is Rick the neighbor who is Josie’s childhood friend and current boyfriend. Josie is suffering from an unspecified illness which seems to be the consequence of being ‘lifted’. Her sister had apparently suffered from the same illness and died from it. Josie studies remotely at home on her ‘oblong’ with online tutors, an eerily timely detail in our post pandemic world. Other children are stuck at home too and have ‘interaction’ meetings arranged periodically by their parents where they learn to relate to each other.

There is all this new vocabulary thrown around. You wonder what ‘lifted ‘means and what an ‘oblong’ is. I actually looked up the dictionary in vain till I eventually figured out that these are invented words to describe this particular dystopian universe. An ‘oblong’ is something similar to an iPad or a smartphone. A child is ‘lifted ‘after having gone through the process of genetic editing which is an expensive procedure but popular with people of the upper classes to ensure that their children get into an elite university. Rick is not ‘lifted’ and due to his socio-economic situation he is doomed. We know that Josie’s parents are divorced and we learn that her father has been ‘substituted’ which means that he has lost his job and has been replaced by machines. Ishiguro does not explain any of these terms. He throws hints here and there and the mystery and suspense gradually build up. You know there is something sinister going on but have no idea what it could be. We are in a slow burn dystopia. Besides Klara is the narrator and we are seeing the world through her eyes and we have to piece together what’s going on through her limited understanding. As an AF her vocabulary is limited. I understand that a first person robotic voice would necessarily be devoid of elegance to fit the narrative, but I missed the beautiful prose of Ishiguro’s other novels.

Klara is convinced that exposure to the sun would help cure Josie of her mysterious illness. The sun assumes mythic proportions for her. It is interesting that Klara’s very name means brightness. Not only does she depend on the sun for nourishment and survival, she also endows it with divine energy and visits a barn which is almost like a pilgrimage place to make emotional pleas to the setting sun for Josie’s recovery. Robots have the same human propensities to pray and to bargain with the Gods. Klara with her caring nature and empathy, is humanized. She is programmed for servility and her unswerving loyalty and devotion to Josie remind me of Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day.

But on the other hand, we don’t forget that she’s a thing, an appliance. Rick’s mother, Helen, asks her: “After all, are you a guest at all? Or do I treat you like a vacuum cleaner?” She also reminds me of Offred of The Handmaid’s Tale but Offred was at least aware of her oppression. Klara has no idea that she is being used. She is obsequious and stands in a corner in the presence of other family members. She is often referred to in the third person. How fascinating then that an object of utility is more capable of unconditional love than Josie’s caregivers! The person who is the most human in the novel is not human at all. There are times we forget who she is and think of her as another human being but the illusion does not last long. For every so often the world becomes pixilated through her eyes devolving into cubes and cones and we are reminded that she is only a robot.  

Klara’s servility mirrors the racism and classism we see in the world. We dehumanize people below us and exploit them for labor. You can exploit those whom you love too like Chrissie whose maternal love is motivated by her own selfish desire. Chrissie was left bereft by the loss of her first daughter and doesn’t want to lose Josie as well. We know that she secretly takes her daughter for portrait sessions and there is something unsettling about the artist she has commissioned. Will Josie be saved? Will the sun listen to Klara’s fervent prayer? I don’t want to reveal more and spoil the fun for future readers.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is that it makes us think about life and mortality and the ethical decisions we have to make with the advance of science and technology. Can a soul be manufactured? Can a human be replicated in entirety? My hubby laughs when I say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to Alexa while giving her commands and reminds me that she has no feelings. But imagine a world where genetic editing is possible and where robots have feelings! What impact would such scientific progress have on division and hierarchy in society? Klara is just a product designed to be obsolete. She is a B2 model and there already exists a newer superior B3 model.

Is it far-fetched to imagine a time when artificial intelligence becomes so sophisticated that there is no demarcation between man and machine? Ishiguro portrays an alarming but a very possible futuristic world where no matter what scientific and technological advances we make, society will still be characterized by the same oppressive structures of race, class and inequality that will never be completely dismantled. This world, already disturbingly familiar, only becomes even more terrifying as we look into our future.

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!

The Goat Thief

Language is no bar when it comes to reading good literature provided one has access to excellent translations. I only have to think of all the Russian literature I have devoured without knowing a word of Russian. One area of literature that has remained relatively unexplored till recently is regional writing from India. The market is flooded with works by Indian writers writing in English but the rich range of works in local languages from India has only recently become accessible thanks to dedicated translators who have not only elevated translation to an art but have also made it an industry in its own right.

One such work that I read recently is a collection of short stories entitled The Goat Thief, written by the prolific Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, and translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman. Set in rural Tamil Nadu, the stories paint a vivid picture of life in the countryside – the slow and languorous passing of the days, the sprawling rice fields under the scorching rays of the sun, mischievous children climbing up palm trees and the petty gossip of the villagers on the ‘pyol’. The everyday events describing family and village life sometimes take a dark and melancholic turn. It doesn’t take much for the ordinary to become ominous, the mundane to transform into the macabre.

In the Preface to this collection of stories, Murugan compares the art of writing a short story to designing a ‘kolam’ or floor art made with rice flour in many Tamil homes. According to him, it could be a simple design with just four dots by hand or a more intricate one but there is a geometrical pattern and if something is amiss, you fix the flaw by perhaps placing a flower on the design and you follow the same method with a story. Though his stories are very vividly described, I thought they were not developed enough. Murugan succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension but there is no definite plot and the stories end abruptly. I am usually a fan of ambiguous endings. I don’t need all the loose ends tied up but I need something to work with. There should be some sort of a twist or an open ended conclusion at least. In my opinion, the ‘kolam’ pattern is left incomplete by Murugan in almost all of his stories.

Photo- Kolams of India Website

The stories are well-written and I was struck by the importance Murugan gives to inanimate objects. They are often anxiety provoking and they serve to define or explain the characters. They are endowed with human attributes and sometimes even with supernatural powers. In ‘The Well’, a grown man is having a delightful time swimming with a group of children but the story takes on a sinister turn. The well that ‘held a hoard of miracles within’, the well that was ‘full of compassion’ becomes a death pit. Even the innocent children turn into evil ‘demons’.

In ‘Musical Chairs’, an object becomes a bone of contention between a newly married couple. They have a peculiar attachment to a chair which the husband seems to monopolize and the wife insists on purchasing her own chair. He covets her chair too and what ensues is a battle of wills. In ‘Mirror of Innocence’, the parents and grandmother of a little girl are baffled by her constant sobbing in the middle of the night. She refuses to sleep and rejects all her toys. The parents finally realize that she is asking for a ‘uppu kundaan’ or a salt bowl which they use to scoop sugar. A worthless object becomes a source of agony for the child and her parents who pass a sleepless night. 

Murugan seems to have a strange fascination with excrement. Yes, shit. There are two stories in this collection dealing with the subject. He even penned an entire collection of stories centered around shit entitled Pee Kadaigal ( funnily, the Tamil word for shit is ‘pee’.) or Shit Stories and in the Preface he mentions that the book is often not included or mentioned in the list of books authored by him at literary meetings as people are embarrassed or outraged by the title and theme. I did not find the topic revolting as such but as his descriptions are so striking, I had a hard time controlling the urge to throw up. I could literally see and smell the shit while reading.

In ‘The Wailing of a Toilet Bowl’, a newly married lady is bothered by the foul smell emanating from soggy rice fermenting in the large vat of left over food in the kitchen. Yet she doesn’t reduce the quantity in her cooking in case unexpected guests show up. Her husband solves the problem by pouring the contents of the vat into the toilet bowl. Literally the rice is deposited in shit. The toilet bowl shrieks, screams and howls with hunger pangs every day in anticipation of the left over rice and becomes an insatiably hungry beast. It even assumes the shape of a skull. The lady is so frightened that the toilet or her ‘adversary’ would gobble her up that she doesn’t go to the bathroom when her husband is not home.

Then there is a story entitled ‘Shit’ about five bachelor men who live in a house in a remote suburb enjoying their independence. A horrid stench enters their rooms. The pipe from the toilet to the septic tank had broken in the middle and a shit heap has accumulated at the back of the house.  A sweeper is willing to remove it for 500 rupees but they are annoyed and bargain with him despite his protest: “ I have to put my hand in your shit, sir.” It is heartbreaking to see this man from a lower caste viewed with disgust and treated with derision when he is trying to solve their filthy problem. A tumbler that was a coveted object becomes one of revulsion when handled by the sweeper. This is a powerful story about caste dynamics and the best and the most complete in the collection. Murugan may have a penchant for writing scatalogical stories but unfortunately I don’t fancy reading them despite their brilliance: they are described in such graphic details and are so visually powerful that I could literally feel and smell the shit in a visceral way. My poor olfactory buds were protesting vehemently. Again, in the shit stories, the toilet bowl and the tumbler are objects imbued with symbolic meaning.

Many of the stories have a supernatural element. There is a sense of foreboding in the air. In ‘The Night The Owls Stopped Crying’, the night watchman in a farm house hears that a ghost of a young girl gang raped and killed resides on the property. He believes he senses her presence and starts having conversations with her.  

The stories also capture helplessness and the feeling of being trapped physically. In the title story, ‘The Goat Thief’ when Boopathy, the thief, realizes he is being pursued for stealing a goat, he jumps into a torrent of sewage water-  he is surrounded by all sides by the villagers and escape is impossible. There are thickets of sedge grass and snakes and insects in the water and he gets trapped in a patch of quicksand. His legs are buried deeper and deeper in the mire.

The remaining stories are snapshots of village life in Tamil Nadu. Whether it is the account of an old woman entrusted with the responsibility of looking after her great grandson in the summer or the incident when a grown man regresses to his childhood by playing with young children in the well or the story of an old man with a thatched shed who is tormented by jealousy on seeing a younger man build a house with a tiled roof, Murugan brings the bucolic countryside to life on every page.

The stories are evocative and awaken all our senses. They capture the local color very effectively. As an Indian and specifically as a Tamilian, I could relate to a lot of the cultural elements as observed in the behavior of the characters- applying holy ash on the forehead, praying to the local clan Goddess and believing in the power of the evil eye. The stories have a folktale feel to them- I can imagine them being narrated in the village square in front of a banyan tree. The translator has done an excellent job retaining the flavor of the original idiomatic expressions.

The stories were engaging but I felt they could have been developed further. They also did not resonate that much with me as I felt they were a little androcentric. I understand that they are penned from a man’s perspective but I think Murugan could have focused a bit more on the women and their issues. In some of the stories, he hints at the sense of loneliness and displacement felt by newly married women in their new homes. I wish he would have dwelt a little more on that subject. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to start with a collection of his short stories. Perumal Murugan is a prolific writer in all genres and most well known for his novels. I should get hold of one of his novels next for I have a feeling that the ‘kolam’ pattern may then turn out to be not just beautiful and intricate, but complete.

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

Olive Kitteridge

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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

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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!

 

 

 

 

The Testaments: The Sequel To The Handmaid’s Tale

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I read The Testaments, the long- awaited sequel to Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale and one of the joint winners of the 2019 Booker Prize vowing that I would cut the author some slack as sequels are seldom as compelling as their predecessors. Just think of Go Set A Watchman which was published decades after To Kill A Mockingbird, one of America’s most beloved classics and fell far short of the public’s expectations. One would have hardly imagined at the time of the publication of The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 that the dystopian fantasy would end up being prescient of the current political turmoil.

With the rise of the Christian Right and the misogyny in general of all organized religions, the novel has turned out to be hugely prophetic. In fact, in political rallies you often see activists dressed in the red cloaks and white bonnets of handmaidens to protest bills that would restrict abortions. The handmaid’s costume has also become a powerful symbol of the Me Too movement. Many women showed up in Washington donning the habit in protest of the swearing- in of the Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh.

The Handmaid’s Tale also resulted in a tremendously successful television series adaptation on Hulu ,which, incidentally, seems to have influenced the writing of the sequel. So Margaret Atwood had a lot to live up to and in spite of allowing for this latitude, I was still disappointed as the new novel which transports us once again into the totalitarian theocracy of the Republic of Gilead has an entirely different tone and structure from the original.

The Republic of Gilead portrayed in The Handmaid’s Tale was founded on a literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and emerged after the collapse of America in a society that witnessed a drop in fertility due to environmental reasons. Consequently, in this despotic society, women became prized for their fertility.

They were placed into strict classes with barely any prospects for mobility: the Wives or the spouses of the high-ranking commanders, the Marthas or servants, the Handmaids or former sluts forced into childbearing for other couples, the Pearl Girls or the missionaries, the Jezebels or the prostitutes, the Econowives or the wives of less wealthy and less powerful men, the Aunts or the moral guardians of the society who were the only women allowed to read and write and the most dehumanized of them all, the Unwomen or women like nuns and lesbians who could not perform any of the roles delegated by the patriarchy and were sent off to the colonies or forced labour camps where they died exposed to toxic levels of radiation.

Women were considered vessels and treated as chattel and often the Aunts and Wives were complicit in the oppression of their own gender. In the end and in their own way, both fertile and barren women were devalued and debased.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of one such woman told by a first person narrator threading together narratives from the past and the present. Offred, who has been stripped of her name and all her civil rights has forcibly been separated from her husband and daughter to become a reproductive surrogate. The Testaments picks up approximately 15 years after the end of The Handmaid’s Tale when the pregnant Offred gets into a van and goes either on the road to freedom or to be arrested for treason. The novel ends on a ambiguous note and a lot is left to the reader’s imagination.

In The Testaments, the separate stories or testimonies of three different women come together in a three part narrative. We have the first person account of Aunt Lydia whom we remember as the cruel matron and moral guardian of Gilead and whom we had seen only from Offred’s perspective. The vicious and dreaded aunt who trains and indoctrinates the future handmaids in the role of the narrator we least expect is a brilliant move by the author. “I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woollen mitten…And I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch..”, she quips.

We delve into her past and Gilead’s emergence through her diary entries which she is recording for posterity and understand some of the difficult and duplicitous choices she had to make, her interactions with the other founder aunts which involved a lot of scheming and backstabbing  and how she eventually made her way to the top.  She is the mastermind that sets in motion the downfall of Gilead.

We also have the accounts of two teenage girls; the story of Agnes Jemima, a girl who grew up in Gilead and Daisy a girl who grew up across the border in liberal Canada. Daisy is raised by overprotective adoptive parents who end up being murdered under mysterious circumstances. After their death, she gets involved in the resistance movement despite herself and travels to Gilead. Agnes is raised by a loving foster mother in Gilead who succumbs to an illness and dies and is miserable when her Dad remarries a disagreeable and cold woman. She is about to be married off to a commander but on discovering that her birth mother was a handmaid, she sets out on a new path.

Both girls are on a quest to find themselves and their paths cross with each other’s and that of Aunt Lydia’s. It is interesting to see the contrast between Gilead and the life across the border in Canada. Organizations from both countries are working to lure or rescue the girls across the border. The weakness in the narrative structure is the fact that both girls have such similar voices that I could barely distinguish the two of them till more facts became evident.

The book is an entertaining page turner but the shift from the dark claustrophobic tone and setting of the original to an action- packed Hollywood style entertainer is jarring and robs the original novel of its seriousness and sobering message. Many of the plot twists seem predictable and hackneyed such as the revelation of Baby Nicole’s identity and that of the mother of the two teenage girls. I don’t even have to worry about revealing spoilers as I could see them coming a mile away. Yes, the book is that shockingly predictable.

While The Handmaid’s Tale is a cautionary tale, The Testaments ends on a note of hope. Although it is heartening to know that resistance is always possible and that tyrannical regimes do collapse, some questions are best left unanswered, some tales best left untold.  The Testaments doesn’t have the same bone chilling effect of its predecessor. The Handmaid’s Tale left me with a feeling of disquietude and despair. I shuddered with disgust and indignation. In short, I was shaken to the core.

The most frightening epiphany is that Gilead is not altogether dystopian.The story doesn’t feel dated or far-fetched. The novel is chillingly resonant in the current political climate characterized by the control of women’s bodies and reproductive rights. The character of the handmaid has crossed over from the realm of fiction to reality as symbol of dissent. Margaret Atwood is a brilliant writer. The Testaments is a well- written and absorbing read.  I only wish she had left The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand alone novel. It would have been even more impactful and powerful like Orwell’s 1984.

Atwood has definitely shaken us out of our complacency that such events cannot transpire in our little worlds. Gilead exists in some pockets of society in every corner of the world. In some regions, women are banned from reading and writing; they are stripped of literacy, the ultimate instrument of empowerment. In other regions, they are not allowed to work, denied of their economic independence. All over the world, their bodies are objectified and subjected to violence, their voices silenced and stifled. In such an environment, things can escalate out of control in the blink of an eye. We only have to be reminded of Aunt Lydia’s ominous words:” You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Bluest Eye

 

blue_eye

 

I recently read an article about a homeless woman sentenced to five years in prison for using her friend’s address to enroll her son in school. And last week I heard that a rich actress who cheated to get her child to college got away with just fourteen days and community service. Needless to say, the poor homeless woman is black and the rich celebrity is white. Racial discrimination is rooted in a long history of oppression that continues to this day in mostly covert but shockingly, on occasion, in overt ways too. Literature is a safe space for black people to express their grievances and angst. Ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve been drawn to narratives chronicling the experience of America’s ‘free’ but still bonded people. When I heard about the recent demise of Toni Morrison, I started reading the books penned by her that I hadn’t read yet. I wanted to read her in chronological order to follow her development as a writer and began with her debut novel, The Bluest Eye.

Set in Lorain Ohio, the author’s childhood home, the story begins with the perspective of a young girl Claudia who bemoans the fact that no marigolds bloomed in the fall of 1941. She adds that they thought it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds didn’t grow. Pecola’s father had dropped his seed in his own plot of black dirt and just like the seeds shriveled and died, so did her baby. What? In the beginning of the novel itself we are told that Pecola is going to be impregnated by her father and that her baby is going to die. What a punch to the gut!

At that point I wanted to put the book down. Actually I wanted to fling it away. I can handle pretty much any topic but incest and pedophilia are where I draw the line. Yet I persisted. The lyrical writing pulled me in. Besides I wanted to know what happened to the child. How did she cope and did she emerge a survivor? The defeated narrator declares: “There is really nothing more to say- except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” We already have the facts. We just learn the details as we move along.

Through different perspectives in a series of flashbacks, we learn about the events that led to the tragedy. Two young black girls, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, live with their parents in Ohio. For a brief period they take in an eleven year old girl called Pecola Breedlove ( notice the ominous name) who comes from a troubled household. Her father is often drunk and her parents are physically and verbally abusive to each other and to her and her brother Sammy. She considers herself ugly and is perceived as hideous by her own community. She believes that if she were to have blue eyes, she would be pretty. If there is anyone more vulnerable than a black girl in our society, it is an ugly black girl.

But how exactly do we define ugliness? Eurocentic standards of beauty have been touted as ideal as a result of widespread colonialism and people who don’t live up to those ideals are conditioned to believe that they are inferior:

“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. . ‘Yes,’ they had said, ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”

Claudia feels anger towards the image of Shirley Temple, the quintessential pretty American child, staring at her from a blue and white cup and in a fit of rage, she dismembers her white doll. To be white is to be beautiful is the message screaming at her from billboards and magazines. There are very few white characters in this novel and they only appear in the periphery. The racism Morrison describes is internalized racism emanating from self-loathing. The book was inspired by a conversation she had with an African-American girl at elementary school who wished for blue eyes.

What prompts an Indian girl to stay out of the sun, a Nigerian girl to use skin whitening creams, a Chinese girl to consider eyelid surgery or an African-American girl to hide her naturally textured hair and go for hair straightening treatments? They have internalized all the messages of hatred they have heard throughout their lives. Even actress Lupita Nyong’o confessed that as a child she wished that she were not so ‘unbeautiful’!  It was not uncommon for me to see a dark-skinned girl in India treat someone who was darker with the same disdain she faced from someone who was lighter skinned. It is a vicious circle and this issue of ‘colorism’, ‘shadeism’ or ‘whitewashing’ or whatever else we may call it is far from black and white and is prevalent world wide across all races and cultures.

There is a character named Geraldine who calls herself colored as opposed to black as if color were on a spectrum. She thinks she is more cultured than other people of her race. Her son is not allowed to play with other black children. She unjustly accuses Pecola of killing a cat and calls her by a nasty racist epithet. A picture of Jesus on the wall looks down on this scene with sad and unsurprised eyes. Even God is helpless and unable to intervene. You would expect her to commiserate with people of her own race but her inferiority complex makes her treat with condescension people who are less powerful than she is.

One unforgettable scene that will stay with me forever is Pecola’s mother consoling and comforting the white child of her employer with affectionate words while she beats her own daughter for a minor accident. She is projecting everything she hates about herself on the little girl. In fact, just about everyone in town is guilty of doing it:

All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.” 

The inexorable passing of the seasons marks the progression of the plot but the narrative structure is disjointed as the point of view shifts continuously from character to character. There are different third person narrators and narrative insets by other characters in the first person. For me the most compelling part of the narration was observing the story through the eyes of another innocent child, Claudia. I wish Morrison had retained this structure for the entire story but the shifts in perspective may be to make us comprehend the behavior and motivations of the characters. She is not condoning their actions but wants us to understand what makes people who they are. In the afterword to the novel, she remarks in hindsight:

“My solution–break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader–seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn’t work: many readers remained touched but not moved.”

Pecola’s parents led terrible lives too. Her mother escapes from her loneliness and her poverty by cleaning a white woman’s house. Vendors respect her when she shops for her white employers but she is invisible as a black woman. Pecola’s father was abandoned as a child and experienced sexual humiliation at the hands of white thugs. There is no excuse whatsoever for sexual assault and violence but could society have prevented this rape? If only the world had been kinder to these people dehumanized by society, maybe..just maybe Pecola wouldn’t have ended up being raped.

The Dick and Jane reading primer used in the forties and fifties in classrooms to teach students to read serves as a framing device to show the difference between what is considered the ideal family in America and the chaotic and uncertain world the girls live in. The Dick and Jane booklet of a happy and financially stable white family contrasts with Pecola’s dysfunctional family. Morrison uses the simple words of the text to show how a family disintegrates. As she shares passages from the texts through the course of the novel, the words are strung together in a smaller font, without punctuation and then without spaces between words. Eventually the grammar and sentence structure fall apart.

This is an excellent and hard-hitting first novel but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I can see why it was banned in schools but I think it would fit well in the curriculum with To Kill A Mocking Bird and Why the Caged Bird Sings and can engender powerful conversations on race with older and more mature students. Through the intersectional prism of class, race and gender, we understand the complexities of power imbalances. Frieda is a black girl too and has an experience with someone touching her inappropriately but her parents who belong to a higher economic class protect her and throw the lecherous man out of the house.

I was curious about what happened to Pecola after the disaster. The girl who so yearned to be noticed is noticed alright but not in the way she wants and with devastating consequences. In her desperate longing for blue eyes, she seeks the assistance of the creepy Soaphead Church, a con artist and pedophile masking as a man of God, and eventually retreats into her own private world.

Children are the most powerless members of society. Pecola’s parents had failed her, her friends had failed her and the entire town had failed her. The novel ends on a note of despair. The soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers which will never bloom. But despite the despondent tone, one hopes that some progress has been made over the decades and that we can confidently state that maybe some marigolds will bloom after all in spite of the unyielding earth.