Book Review — Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

22813605(Maybe, this is not really a review.)

Is it fair to board Roxane Gay’s vehicle? To scream…

I see you. I have been there. Me too.

Is it fair to air stories about my battle when Gay’s memoir is utterly raw and intimate? I don’t know. But Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body has exhumed some painful memories and writing about those here will be a comforting exercise in catharsis.

I was a few hours old when my aunt saw a nurse carrying me to another room. My aunt didn’t know it was her niece. Her jaw dropped; she asked my grandmother, “Whose child is this? So huge! Already looks like it’s 10-months-old!” The remark terrorised my grandmother. She said, “Shhh! That’s Ramesh’s child. She was born a couple of hours ago.” My mother always relates this conversation with pride because she pushed out that HUGE baby.

The word lives with me. HUGE.

My BMI has always been marginally alarming; I have been obese all my life. The biggest in my classroom, in my workplace, in my family, and even in elevators. Roxane Gay has given a fitting phrase to articulate my feelings — my body felt like a cage.

Someone whom I dearly love told her friend that I wasn’t going out often because I was fat. A cousin asked if my friends are scared of me in school because I am gigantic. My school teachers wanted me to try hard and win medals at shot put. In their minds, fat girls can lift heavy objects and hurl them effortlessly. Oh! And the elevators beeped, all heads turned toward me. Fine. I’ll walk out.

I was in Class 7 when my teacher took me to the staff room and whispered in my ears that I must start wearing a dupatta (shawl) over my school uniform to cover my large bosom. According to the rules, girls should wear shawls only from Class 8. I had one more year to enjoy that freedom. However, my teachers couldn’t handle the image of my chest. So she said, “Ask your parents to buy a dupatta for you okay?” I cringed, I collapsed into myself, but I decided not to tell my parents. I chose not to become different from my other classmates. I couldn’t envisage me being the only girl in the class to wear a dupatta. That would have been a shame. If I succumbed to fatshaming, it meant that I acknowledged that my bosom was a problem. I said yes to the teacher, but no to myself. I wore a dupatta only after I was promoted to Class 8.

My family was in a reunion. The oldest aunt in the family pulled my mother, directed her index finger at me, with a scowl on her face. I knew what was coming. I was livid and rebellious. “Why would you bring her like this? First cover her chest with a dupatta!” the aunt was almost yelling at my mother. I stood there, listening to the conversation. My mother uttered a feeble okay and I shot an angry glance at my aunt. That was all I could do then. But I continued to attend social gatherings without wearing a dupatta. I made my statement that way.

I walk to the men’s section to buy shirts; the salesgirls smirk. I ask for the next size and they stifle a giggle. At markets, strangers pass lewd remarks. Random women ask me in restrooms, “Where do you buy your plus-size clothes?” I wonder why they think it’s not a crime to ask personal questions to a total stranger.

Despite being rebellious, I felt like a victim. I bought clothes online to avoid human interaction and the ridicule. I chose oversized black clothes. I boycotted gyms because the trainers who had to be patient and empathetic were condescending. I was often mistaken for a man. (I still walk behind my boyfriend, use him as a fort since security guards rush to run their hands on me, presuming I am a man.) I intensely experienced the need to lose weight, become fit, look feminine. I still do. But since last year, the need seems less depressing and more motivating. I work out, try to watch what I eat, move often, because it feels good and I owe it to the people who love me.

Everyone was so worried about me when I broke my ankle and it confused me. I have a huge, loving family and a solid circle of friends, but these things were something of an abstraction, something to take for granted, and then all of a sudden, they weren’t… There were lots of concerned texts and e-mails, and I had to face something I’ve long pretended wasn’t true, for reasons I don’t fully understand. If I died, I would leave people behind who would struggle with my loss. I finally recognized that I matter to the people in my life and that I have a responsibility to matter to myself and take care of myself so they don’t have to lose me before my time, so I can have more time. When I broke my ankle, love was no longer an abstraction. It became this real, frustrating, messy, necessary thing, and I had a lot of it in my life. It was an overwhelming thing to realize. I am still trying to make sense of it all even though it has always been there.

I never had the right words to pin down my thoughts and then Roxane Gay’s book happened. It’s loud and sincere and burning. I am glad I read the book because I now have the vocabulary to embrace my journey. And I think we all must read the book because our bodies deserve the sort of respect that Gay advocates. This pale blue dot is everybody’s.

(I loved Big Reading Life’s blog on the book too. The link is here.)

Have you read the book? Have you read books like Gay’s memoir? What are your thoughts?

Blog: Hi, I Am Now An E-Book Monster!

kindle-bound-summers

“Check your Kindle!” says AK. I know such moments. The moments which fill me with surprise and love and kindness. My Kindle receives a new book, one that is not even in my radar. I absorb the cover’s beauty, read the praises, check the total number of hours I would spend with the book, and enter it. As simply as that. No ceremony.

I am content. When my boyfriend can buy and send books to my Kindle just to bring light to my gloomy day, the word ‘content’ is underwhelming. I am happy.

Some things don’t bother me anymore: The jacket is colourless, the comforting scent of the book doesn’t brush my nose, I don’t feel the book’s weight in my hands, I can’t prove that I am a monster by brandishing my dog-eared paperback, I haven’t bought a bookshelf in the last two years, and Anu Boo doesn’t miss barking at Amazon’s delivery guys. And, I don’t participate in the legendary debate — Ebooks vs Print Books.

Because I am a Kindle convert.

There, I have come out.

What possessed me? The reasons are many: The Charlottes in my room have to be shooed away once in two weeks, my bank account now houses the said Charlottes, and Anu Boo and I have to vacate our room if it has to accomodate another bookshelf. So, I surrendered to the compassionate Kindle.

Although I have almost stopped buying physical copies, I can’t answer some questions. What if my friends want to borrow my books? Am I not supposed to collect books and build a library for my children? How could I become a rebel when all my friends are married to physical books? The answers are sent away with the Charlottes. But Michael Crichton was right when he wrote this in Jurassic Park.

Life will find a way.

The family retires for the day and my Anu Boo curls up at my feet. The room is dark. I lie down on my side, thanking the Gods for the comfortable mattress, and facing the Kindle that is propped against the wall. I blink. The room goes behind a veil. I blink. The Kindle disappears. I blink. I am in Berlin. I blink again when slumber clouds my vision. I slip into the oblivion with contentment Happiness that puts its arm around me like a dear one. Peace.

PS: Kindle turns 10 today.

PPS: I have read 121 books this year; 70% of it were read on the Kindle.

funny-picture-books-vs-kindle

Book Review: Maidless in Mumbai

Behind every successful woman, there is a maid.

Mother did everything. Washing, cleaning, cooking, helping us with our homework, walking us to the school… Everything. When her strength and joie de vivre were stolen by Clinical Depression and Diabetes, when we all joined work, we had to hire a domestic help. Mother’s mood reflected the helper’s. If she performed well, Mother would be happy. If she didn’t turn up for work or if her work was sub-standard, Mother would hold it against the family. Sometimes — I know it’s absolutely irrational and absurd to consider this insecurity — I thought that Mother loved the domestic maid more than she loved us, only because the weight of the workload was so massive that she couldn’t envisage a life without somebody to help her. We could empathise. However, we were guilty for not cleaning up after ourselves.

Anu’s problem in Payal Kapadia’s Maidless in Mumbai is real. She is a political journalist on the verge of exposing an earth-shattering scandal. She is also a young mother who is made to extend her maternity leave months after months because her maids never stay. Her mother and mother-in-law fill her with advice, instead of actually helping her, and her husband Sameer is so mired in work that Anu is on a Sisyphean hunt for maids.

Did I claw my way up the career ladder only to fall off the maternal footstool?

Will Anu go back to work? Will Sameer see Anu’s struggles? Will the mothers get down to work? Payal Kapadia shares Anu’s diary to offer answers to these questions.

36012955Anu’s voice is sometimes light, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes determined, sometimes annoying, particularly when she tastes no success in retaining her employees. Kapadia’s writing is hilarious and marginally cringe-worthy or offensive at times. For instance, her Anu’s friends seem stereotypical. So is her neighbour from Singapore. I would have liked the book more without their mindlessness. Their conversations were not exactly funny. Perhaps humour comes with that price.

Beneath the humour, Payal Kapadia explores some burning themes — motherhood, relationships, gender-equality, work-ethics, parenting, and friendship. There is even a lovely touch on the importance of ‘letting go’. Maidless in Mumbai could have assumed a serious tone, but the book doesn’t want to go that further. While that choice is obvious, it doesn’t make the work any less significant or entertaining.

Somewhere while reading Anu’s diary entries, I kept asking myself, “How did Amma go to work, manage chores, run the family? All in a day’s work. How? And why is it not possible for Anu?” But the answer seems elusive on so many levels. If I try harder to answer, I can come up with an easy, “Oh! The times have changed.” Or a truer one like, “Maybe, we aren’t really trying.” I don’t know.

But who am I to pass such verdicts when I complain about my four-legged furry-friend Anu Boo’s defiant refusal to take a quick dump! 🙂

Alone in Berlin: German Lit Month — Part II

My first post on Alone in Berlin, which I read for German Lit Month is here.

Spoilers ahead…

“People with a faith have an easier time of it nowadays, I’m sure. They have someone they can turn to with their worries. They think all this killing is for a reason.”

“Thanks!” said Quangel, suddenly vicious. “A reason! It’s all senseless! Because they believe in heaven, they don’t want to fix anything on earth. Always crawl and keep a low profile. Heaven will fix everything. God knows why it’s happening. On the Day of Judgement we’ll find out. No, thanks!”

6801335Otto Quangel has changed. Writing postcards has changed him. He is still laconic, private, but the postcards are filling him with indignation, restlessness, and questions which he can answer. In a rare conversation with his wife Anna, he dismisses the presence of God. He observes that if there was a God, how could He allow the genocide. Otto is meditating on that theme for us, the readers. He is trying to pin down an answer for the questions that we all ask whenever we read about the Holocaust — What was God doing?

Anna is torn between her husband and God. She could be more rebellious and more opinionated than Otto, but she wants to alleviate their pain by applying the balm called God, even if He is taking them to the guillotine. Later, her Faith mutates into her unwavering love for her husband; she draws strength from that well to survive the final wait. The solitude might be making her cold and suicidal, but her only light is Love. The light of all lights.

Now he learned that this back-and-forth of wooden figures could bring something like happiness, clarity in one’s mind, a deep and honest pleasure in an elegant move, the discovery that it mattered very little if you won or lost, but that the pleasure of losing a closely contested match was much greater than that of winning through a blunder on the part of his opponent.

The insanity of Nazi cells challenges Anna’s determination and courage, but it makes Otto more sane. He enjoys the company of his cellmate (that is out of his character), establishes a routine which includes fitness, and even learns to play Chess. He is so close to death. But he feels free and more alive than ever. He reflects that he never knew that life could be this exciting — the most beautiful irony that Hans Fallada nonchalantly offered in Alone in Berlin.

Hans Fallada is ruthless. He borrows Hitler’s axe to kill almost every good soul in the book. I wanted Judge Fromm to live even after Otto and Anna, but in a pair of brackets, Fallada says that Fromm’s house is bombed three years later. I died a little. But the last chapter is the much-needed resurrection. All the old souls might have lost their lives, but Fallada plants Hope in a young soul, who flees Berlin. That boy could have become an easy victim or one among the Nazis. However, Fallada drops him with an endearing couple; he grows up in a farm, he is educated, he knows love, and maybe, he is the symbol of the Germany that the Quangels and the Judge desired. 

PS: My edition features the postcards written by the real couple and some notes from the interrogations. I shuddered when I read the cards. They were prosaic, but what made them powerful was what the couple risked to write and drop them. Heartrending!

Alone in Berlin: German Lit Month – Part I

IMG_0106Many thanks to Lizzy and Caroline for hosting the German Lit Month.

I spent a couple of hours to choose my read and zeroed in on Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin (which is also known as Every Man Dies Alone). The book is translated by Michael Hoffman. For the writing sounds utterly beautiful, I want to believe that Hoffman has done a remarkable job. My friends, who have read the book in German, should be able to validate my opinion. For the nonce, I am basking in the book, in its pain, in its people, in their failures, and in their little triumphs.

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Alone in Berlin is about 568 pages long in English. I have finished reading 50% and I couldn’t continue without gushing about how it’s already moving me, questioning my beliefs, and restoring my faith. Hence, I intend to write two blogs about the book. The first part is here.

The war has begun; not the one between countries which is siphoning off peoples’s blood, but the one that the Quangels are waging against Hitler and the Nazis. It’s not an elaborate battle, not a loud protest, but a quiet, systematic one, which is still precarious. They write postcards and drop them in places frequented by all sorts of citizen. They tell Berlin in their own way that Hitler has murdered their only child (their son). They ask Germans to go against the system within their own limits — put sand in machines, do not contribute toward the Winter Relief Fund, raise your voice silently, and so long as the voices are raised, Hitler would know that that kind of people still exist with a modicum of justice in their hearts.

‘The first sentence of our first card will read: “Mother! The Führer has murdered my son.”’ Once again, she shivered. There was something so bleak, so gloomy, so determined in the words Otto had just spoken. At that instant she grasped that this very first sentence was Otto’s absolute and irrevocable declaration of war, and also what that meant: war between, on the one side, the two of them, poor, small, insignificant workers who could be extinguished for just a word or two, and on the other, the Führer, the Party, the whole apparatus in all its power and glory, with three-fourths or even four-fifths of the German people behind it. And the two of them in this little room in Jablonski Strasse!

I read the aforementioned passage many times. I suffer from the inability to name the feeling I experienced when I read it, but it’s the kind of feeling I get when a piece of artwork tears through my heart, illuminates my head, and leaves me exhausted because of exhilaration. There is immense amount of pain in this passage. Despite the couple’s trauma, their fight lifts my spirit. Their son’s death is almost killing their marriage, taking them far apart from each other, but the protest brings them closer as never before. They feel empowered. They understand each other’s love language. Above all, their lives are second to their fight.

Fallada’s Berlin is sprinkled with noble souls. They are the stars in his dark Berlin. They ask me to think about the gravity of my actions. They tell me that random act of kindness saves lives. In spite of the depressing forces, the world wouldn’t be what it is today if those people didn’t stand up for what was just.

Alone in Berlin has arrested me. It’s hard to go on with my life when I know this book is waiting for me, with its engrossing, soulful story. Sample these: A jewess is hidden by a retired German judge, in his deceased daughter’s bedroom. An innocent loafer is chased by the Gestapo, only to make him a scapegoat. A postwoman leaves the Party and the city because his son killed a child in Poland. A widow, whose husband was killed by the Nazis for being a communist, does all she can she to save a man by thwarting the Gestapo. They are all stealing my sleep, but I can’t complain all the same.

Berlin breathes fear into me. It’s hard to live there when my neighbours are unempathetic and are constantly waiting for a chance to prove that I am anti-national, when my colleagues can’t care when I don’t turn up for work, when I can’t mourn my dear ones. In that hostile environment, the Quangels are battered yet brave, exposed yet cautious, falling yet rising. As the Gestapo is driven insane by the Quangels’s audacity, I cheer for them from my bedroom; I mutter a silent prayer under my breath for their battle to go on. I hope Fallada would be kinder to be in the next half.

What are you reading for the German Lit Month?

PS: Thank you, AK, for presenting this book. I heart you. ❤

 

Meet Kirthi Jayakumar and The Doodler of Dimashq

The Doodler of Dimashq is one of the most moving, thought-provoking, and unassuming books I have ever read on wars. Author Kirthi Jayakumar has given us Ameenah — the child bride, the survivor, the helper, the mother, the warrior, and the doodler of Dimashq. Ameenah’s story is so powerful and heartrending that it would make so many of us realise that we don’t dive into art to escape from our lives, but find our very lives there. Every doodle that Ameenah made on broken concrete slabs is a eulogy. Every scratch was a goodbye to the deceased. Every stroke was a bold statement. Every pattern was a quiet warning; wars may go on, but peace will be created in surprising ways.

Since I loved the book, I interviewed Kirthi Jayakumar for my blog. As always, her answers were enlightening and warm. Here is my favourite writer from Chennai, India.

Processed with VSCO with c1 preset1. What inspired you to write The Doodler of Dimashq?
The Doodler of Dimashq was born out of grief. What was happening in Syria in 2011, has now spiralled way out of control, and the whole world is wringing its hands and looking in on the conflict from the outside. Political will is lacking in places, and where it is not lacking, it isn’t able to make an impact. There are several actors involved and the conflict is now so convoluted politically — and the price for all this is being paid by innocent little ones, like Aylan Kurdi. It breaks my heart to think of the little boy and how much life there could have been ahead of him. Wordsworth’s beautiful poem, Lines Written in Early Spring come to mind: “And much it grieves my heart to think, what man has made of man.”

In Dimashq, where I had left, Death was a houseguest. In Aleppo, where I had come, Death had a permanent residence.

2. How did you research and how long did you take to write the book?
As a student of law and peace and conflict, much of the narrative around Syria was often part of many conversations I was privy to, whether for work or in engaging to learn from friends. In 2013, when I founded The Red Elephant Foundation, the narrative took on a different light when I started listening to stories and telling some of them, of people who survived these truths. I spoke with a man named Rami Nakhla who was a Syrian who left his country and continued to call for the end of war. I spoke with a girl called Ameena Sawwan who told me about how she and her family faced different aspects of the war. I made three more friends online whose names I cannot take for they asked me not to. I had a very good friend from 2011 who would tweet to me about incidents around her, and for the lack of any information confirming the contrary, I’ve heard that it is true that she is no more. All these people had stories in them — and most of them would tell me, “Remember our stories, and let the world know what is happening in Syria.” So this was largely all my research. The book itself, though, took a month.

Forget every line that was written in your memory. Forget what you were forced to remember about this. There is no history, there is only time. There is no memory, there is only the present. You stand here, watching an edifice like many before you stood and watched, and many after you will stand and watch. You are testament, your feet brush these cobbled streets like the feet of many before you, and many will, after you. You are like every grain in the sands of time. You are everywhere, nowhere, and somewhere, all the time.

3. Tell us about the themes explored in The Doodler of Dimashq.
The lone theme as it stands out, for me, has been survival. People say that the Willow, the tree, is the strongest. It bends, but doesn’t break. I think some human souls are like that. They bend, bend, bend, and bend, until the end. They never break. Ameenah is that, Tete is that. Fathi was certainly that. Ameenah’s teacher, was that. Qudsia was that, and Maryam, was that. The Doodler of Dimashq, in hindsight, for me, are fifteen doodles that found words to speak. If you see, in all the doodles — be it blanks, blacks or patterns — they only bent. But never broke.

4. Besides the protagonist Ameenah, which character is your favourite and why?
Thank you for asking me this. No one has yet asked me, and I’m especially chuffed that it is YOU and YOUR website that is carrying this first. It is Tete. Many assume that Tete is my Paati (grandmother), and I can understand why, because of the closeness I have had with her. But the truth is, Tete, is actually one of my closest friends, in fact, a lifeline. She is resilience, positivity and the greatest, greatest embodiment of live, love, let live, and be loved.

5. Have your Syrian friends read the book? What did they think?
Two of my Syrian friends read the book as a manuscript (i.e., they don’t have hard copies of the book). They found it painful, because it is so close to them. They were very appreciative and kind despite the pain they felt. I am very grateful to them for being so selfless in engaging despite their pain.

6. Each chapter begins with your explanation on a Zen-doodle pattern. For the benefit of readers who are new to Zen-doodling, could you tell us about how the patterns depict Ameenah’s state of mind?
The patterns are a reflection of both, the situation, and Ameenah’s response to the situation. In each one, the pattern is suggestive of what the key emotional evocation in that chapter will be. For example, in the chapter where the doodles are blanks, she is facing a situation where she has no strategy — being uprooted from all that was familiar. In a situation where she has curves and arcs, she is floating along with life — creating coping strategies through and through.

The strains wove a magic that sounded like someone was doodling with music, instead of ink.

7. What do you think are the prime problems for women in India and what can we do to make our country open and safe?
The lack of safety in itself — because of something called patriarchy being a form of structural violence in society, overt violence is not being controlled. The best approach is to create intersectional strategies that make navigation of public and private spaces safe, comfortable and equal to access and engage in.

8. What do you think of the literary scene in India?
Simply beautiful! I love that we have such great writers in English, and in every Indian language. It is my dream to learn as many languages as I can and read every book there is by some amazing Indian authors — but is one lifetime enough? 🙂 Right now I am soaking myself in a beautiful melange of Indian writing comprising Munshi Premchand, Ambai, Tagore and Perumal Murugan. 🙂

9. Who are your favourite authors and what are some of your favourite books?
Oh Deepika, isn’t this the toughest question to ask a reader? 🙂 My favourite authors are Susan Abulhawa, Jodi Picoult, Marjane Satrapi, Khaled Hosseini, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Naguib Mahfouz, Deepti Menon and you. My favourite books of all time are Mornings in Jenin and The Blue Between Sky and Water.

(Thank you for everything, Kirthi!) ❤

Kirthi 1About Kirthi Jayakumar:
Kirthi Jayakumar is an activist, artist, entrepreneur and writer from Chennai, India. She founded and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, a civilian peacebuilding initiative that works for gender equality through storytelling, advocacy and digital interventions. She also founded and runs fynePRINT, a feminist e-publishing imprint. She is a member of the Youth Working Group for Gender Equality under the UNIANYD. Kirthi is the recipient of the US Presidential Services Medal (2012) for her services as a volunteer to Delta Women NGO, and the two-time recipient of the UN Online Volunteer of the Year Award (2012, 2013). Her second book, The Dove’s Lament, made it to the final shortlist for the Muse India Young Writers’ Literary Award. Kirthi coded an app for survivors of gender-based violence called Saahas, which works as a web and mobile app. She was recently invited to the United State of Women Summit at the White House in Washington DC, as a nominated changemaker. Kirthi has spoken at TEDx Chennai, addressing Peace Education as a means to end Bullying. She has also spoken at FICCI FLO, as one of the youngest speakers to address the members. Kirthi has also had the distinction of addressing the UNV Partnerships Forum on her work as an epoch-making online volunteer with the United Nations. She is also a Zen Doodler, and runs a HerStory project called Femcyclopaedia. Her works have been commissioned by corporate establishments, non-profits and art collectors world over. Kirthi is the recipient of the 2016 Orange Flower Award from Women’s Web, the 2016 World Pulse Impact Leader Award and the 2017 Empowerment Leader Award from the Dais Foundation. Her work has been published in The Guardian and the TIME Magazine. She wrote and acted in Frankly Speaking, a play that takes off from where Anne Frank’s Diary ended, and also wrote and acted in two other plays, named HerStory and Dolls.

From Worn Corners, With Love

IMG_20170326_104551_540When I was neck-deep in loneliness, I had Worn Corners; the website was my most intimate friend. I was honest, brash, naive, livid there, and I unleashed all my emotions on the digital pal.

Today, I let go of that friend. Before I could completely grasp the reasons to quit on Worn Corners, I let it go. I removed the posts, deleted the sites, and buried the memories. Poof! Now, I have this clean slate. This fresh screen is staring at me, asking if I am sure about what I did, but I am already beginning again. The only thing which I have always done. Beginning again.

So, I was Worn Corners once. I am now New, Fractured Light. I will record my bookish and not-so-bookish thoughts here. I hope you will continue to send me some love. Thank you! ❤