Book Review: Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer

Bird Cottage, written by Eva Meijer, translated by Antoinette Fawcett, asks many questions. Why does one give up the comfort of a known life, and move to a cottage in the countryside, just to run a research on birds? Why does one antagonize one’s neighbour whose cats terrify the birds? Why does one choose to end up seeming rude to visitors who struggle to understand that every sudden movement would startle the birds? Why does one challenge nasty authorities when they try to destroy the birds’ homes? Why does one choose birds over everything else, at the cost of being called a misanthrope? Why? Why does it matter? But what else matters?

Gwendolen Howard wrote two books – Birds As Individuals and Living With Words — about her extraordinary yet quiet life with birds whom she extensively researched for more than three decades. The male world of science then, in the first half of the 20th century, looked down upon her reports. But Howard’s research offered an intimate view of her life with birds, and revealed a side that was largely unknown about the avian universe. Her best friend Star, a Great Tit, even learned to tap on tables and windows for a specific number of times when Howard requested. Howard was often found walking in Sussex, with a bunch of birds perched on her shoulders and arms. I often think of the image, and it warms my heart.

In Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage, fact meets fiction. Meijer takes some creative liberty, presents Howard’s life based on the available material, and fills the gap with her own imagination. The final product is a story that’s idyllic and heartbreaking in equal measure. After all the struggle to keep her cottage a safe haven for the birds, Howard left it to the Sussex Naturalists’ Trust, with the hope that it would be turned into a sanctuary, but her dreams died too. Her books, I figure, are out of print as well. But it is comforting to know that there was a person who was unconditionally trusted by the often-misunderstood birds. And there will always be somebody, braving all the ridicule, only to deeply love life in their own ways.

I shouldn’t ask myself whether what I’m doing is useful, or whether it’s enough. The birds show me that time is not the straight line that humans make of it. Things don’t come to an end, they just change form. A feeling becomes a thought, a thought an action, an action a thought, a thought a feeling. The first feeling returns, traces lines through the new one. The first thought sleeps a while, then crops up again later. This is how times intermingle; this is how we exist in different moments all at once.

Book Review: Mermaids in The Moonlight by Sharanya Manivannan

Then there are dreamers like you and me who want to believe there can be mermaid in lagoon. Fish-tailed, with a human heart!

Sharanya Manivannan’s Mermaids in The Moonlight starts from Mattakalappu in Ilankai. A note at the end of the book reads that we may know Mattakalappu as Batticaloa, and Ilankai as Sri Lanka. I am Tamil. And I know these places as how Nilavoli’s Amma calls them in her stories, and that’s how I want to remember these places too. From the meditative, enchanting Kallady Lagoon, as they try to listen to the song of a mermaid whom they name Ila, Amma tells Nilavoli about the mermaids, mer-creatures, and marine spirits of the world, and their stories which are deeply rooted in magic, faith, justice, love, longing, and loss. Just like the ocean, their stories come in waves, encouraging the child in me to hold on to wonder and curiosity, and comforting the adult in me with its poetry and the truth that I choose to see.

‘There is a lot of sorrow in this place,’ Amma whispered to me.
‘Sometimes you just have to pause and feel it.’

Mermaids in The Moonlight is just not imaginative, but it is politically correct, and that’s the change I have been hoping for children’s literature. The characters are from Asia, the illustrations are inclusive, there are stories about the women of Mattakalappu who lead their families, and there is a delightful surprise at the end, making the stories come full circle. There is also something beautiful about Hanuman, Ravanan’s daughter, and a love story about them that travelled from Thailand. The search to know more about mermaids can’t end with the book; it starts from there.

There are so many stories that disappear, like tears underwater…

When the book is set in Mattakalappu, how could Amma not talk about the land that saw war and pain? Children’s literature doesn’t just have to be about wise, talking animals. In ‘Mermaid in the Moonlight’, while relating the story of women in Rameshwaram in India, Amma tells Nilavoli about the people who reached the coastal town on tiny boats, escaping the war. The stories can hold safe space for adults, and children to understand that the world is kind and cruel at the same time, and to tell children that when life becomes overwhelming, curling up in the lap of stories could be restorative. Amma gives Nilavoli many things – truth, imagination, curiosity, and the cultures of many peoples. A child loved like that can make the healing less painful.

Book Review: Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo

Millennials would hate Barrington Jedidiah Walker (Barry), and the Gen Z’s would call him a dinosaur like his grandson who banters with him. In Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, Barry narrates what happens in his life from May 2010 to May 2011 while also recalling his life in Antigua, how he learned to live as a black immigrant in England, and how he is going to muster the courage to divorce his wife, and move in with Morris whom he has clandestinely loved for 64 years.

He is 74-years-old in 2010, but for him time has stopped ticking after the 70’s. He dresses like he has stepped out of the 50’s and looks ridiculously dapper. He is misogynistic, self-absorbed, hilarious and sometimes inappropriately funny. “Nobody can be depressed around me for long. Yesss. I am the Great Mood Levitator. I am the Human Valium,” Barry proudly declares. It’s easy to understand why his wife Carmel chose him. But the mystery of how the kind, empathetic, perceptive Morris fell in love with Barry remains unresolved.

Barry is everything that the dwellers of 21st century despise. Through that lens, Barry becomes unlikable. Here is where Evaristo’s storytelling becomes even more powerful. She shows all the great and dark sides of Barry not because she wants to say that everybody is flawed and perfect at the same time, but she holds a mirror to the system that makes life difficult for everybody, that influences the process of making decisions, and that makes and breaks your image, that you meticulously sculpt, in the eyes of your partners, friends, children… All the while Barry could be thinking that he was in control of most parts of his life, but the system, which’s created to oppress the people of colour, LGBTQ+, women, immigrants, was always at the wheel.

Named after Shabba Ranks’ addictive song Mr Loverman, Evaristo’s novel could be easily mistaken as a celebration of the life of a gay man who comes out of the closet at 74, and rides into the sunset with his childhood sweetheart, but through the second person narrative, where Evaristo’s words burn with grief, anger, and self-righteousness, the book also delivers a feminist sermon on what it means to be a black woman in England, the stigma around postpartum depression in the 60’s and 70’s, the pressure to play ‘gendered roles’, and the bouts of loneliness that the broken system impose on women.

If Barry’s chapters are full of colours, jokes, his narcissistic cartwheels, and sharp commentaries on racism, linguistic politics, and sexuality, if Barry’s chapters come across like a flowery filter on Instagram, Carmel’s chapters are sepia toned. A sharp contrast. Carmel talks about things which Barry refuses to share. It’s easy to love Barry — thanks to his large personality — but it’s not hard to understand Carmel. It’s not hard to empathise with her. Carmel could reach the point of making brave decisions at the end, but she wouldn’t understand what it was for Barry to live two lives for 50 years, and neither would Barry understand how Carmel feels about being a cover for her husband for half a century. As much as they think that they made each other’s life miserable, it’s not difficult to see what actually made everything unnecessarily complex and painful — colonization, racism, slavery, homophobia, misogyny…

If Barry is still living, he would be 85. And by now, he should have become politically correct, and more informed about systemic oppression. In 2010, he said…

‘Morris, I am an individual, specific, not generic. I am no more a pooftah than I am a homo, buller or anti-man.’ I start to quietly hum ‘I am What I am’. ‘You homosexual, Barry,’ he says, going po-faced on me. ‘We established that fact a long time ago.’ ‘Morris, dear. I ain’t no homosexual, I am a… Barrysexual!’ I won’t have nobody sticking me in a box and labelling it…

…Maybe that explains me to myself too. I don’t like to buck the so-called ‘system’, like those gay exhibitionists Morris loves so much. I like to infiltrate the system and benefit from it.

Among all sorts of growth that Barry experiences between May 2010 and May 2011, standing up for what he is, and what he believes in, must be the most meaningful. The cost — of having been forced to love a man in secret, breaking his wife’s heart, worrying if his grandson would throw one nasty glance at a white person inadvertently, and get some bullets pumped into his temple for that, being loathed by his own daughter — should be borne by the system.

He could write many letters apologising to Carmel, but he must ask himself if he would receive an apology from everybody who wronged his ancestors, who made his life harder than what it should have been. So, he should see some labels here. He is a black, gay man. He is an immigrant. He could be richer than many of his white neighbours, but he will forever be seen as a black immigrant. And for that, he can’t be oblivious to the existence of the box and labels. He should recognise them. He should take sides. He should fight the fight because it’s just not about Barry anymore. It’s about reorienting the whole world. It’s about keeping, and leaving it safe and inclusive. Captain Raymond Holt from Brooklyn 99 can share some tips.

Somewhere in the last chapter of Mr Loverman, Morris says, “..let we enjoy the vibes, man, enjoy the vibes.” It’s strange that he almost sounds like Barry here, but that’s the whole mood of the book. The battle is going to go on for some time, and while that goes, you might as well listen to some good music — Like Shirley Bassey’s The Girl from Tiger Bay — and no, you wouldn’t be judged for living your life.

There’s a crack in every pavement
Underneath there is a beach
It’s been a long time longing
As history repeats

Yes many times I’ve wondered
Why a part of me remains
In a place so full of beauty
That somehow never changed

I bought a ticket of a lifetime
There’s no denying who I am
Forever young, I will stay
The girl from Tiger Bay

Time has me believing
That there’s nothing left to prove
I feel the love within me
And love can’t be removed

All the memories and the scars
They dance away into the stars

Book Review: Woof!: Adventures by the Sea by Aparna Karthikeyan

That extra-friendly black-and-white dog I see at the beach every weekend, what does he do after humans leave? That reclusive brown dog I see at the tea stall, why does she prefer buns to biscuits? That senior white dog I used to see on my biking route, what is he doing now? Would he be lonely? Or does he have friends? What’s their story? How did they start living on the roads? Aparna Karthikeyan makes me ask such questions through her book Woof!: Adventures by The Sea. All the animals we see in public places, how much do we know about their lives, and how can we make their lives better? In the heartwarming tale about a pack that lives on the Mumbai beach, Aparna offers subtle answers. She throws gentle spotlight on the strays, our own Indian mongrels, and relates their stories with imagination that brims with authenticity, and empathy. If Nilanjana Roy’s The Wildlings made me purr for the cats in Delhi, Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! makes my imaginary tail wag, wag, wag for the strays in Mumbai.

On the third day of the great Mumbai monsoon, a small cardboard box appeared on the beach. It had rained and rained all afternoon; the sky was still and grey, and the sand was soggy. The box got wet very quickly. It started wriggling. The jute rope around its middle danced; the packaging tape along its sides bulged. Suddenly, a leg punched a hole through the top; quickly, another popped out. Then came a very long nose. And one folded ear. By the time half the creature had emerged, a small crowd had gathered. They were all dogs. And they were not happy.

The life on the beach is hard for the Don, and her friends. They are all stray dogs. Besides the harsh elements — the sun, the sand, and the sea — their souls are battered by the sheer struggle of living amidst a sea of humanity that ignores their existence, or unleashes its cruelty on them. Adding to their misery, there’s now another puppy — our heroine Shingmo. She will now become a part of their pack (the alpha is a girl, and that’s refreshing!), their joy, their everyday battles, and above all, she will go on a bigger adventure. While Shingmo is our heroine, the story just doesn’t follow her. The narrator knows about every dog in the pack, and even everything about their rivals. All the dogs’ backstories are memorable, their voices unique, their characteristics distinct. It’s only right to say that the book’s cast is an ensemble.

My favourite illustration by Sagar Kolwankar

Woof! starts with a very delightful illustration. It’s an introduction of the characters, with some adorable adjectives about each dog’s personality. Throughout the book, Sagar Kolwankar’s artwork is a fitting companion to Aparna Karthikeyan’s story. Just like how, in Aparna’s words, the dogs’ unique traits come to the surface, the illustrations, even if shown without any captions, can make me identify the dogs. Who can forget Thin’s Dustbin-is-Best face!

You know, people keep talking about this thing called kindess; they write poems and songs about it, but I haven’t really seen it much… Of course, some people are kind, but mostly, they’re very, very busy. They don’t have time to notice us; we’re just lumps curled up on the sand.

A rounded commentary about humans is made by Thug, a misunderstood dog, who just wants to have a chat, be scratched and hugged. People of all types can be found in Woof! Damu doesn’t have money to buy a cup of tea because he spent all that he had to get medicines for the strays. A policeman feeds the dogs biscuits dipped in tea. A woman brings meat and rice for the strays on the beach after a storm stops lashing. These are quotidian scenes in India, and they are even more soul-nourishing when they appear in Woof! because the dogs talk about them. And then there are those who abandon the dogs on the road because the dogs don’t know how to be Labradors, because the dogs are too much responsibility, and because the dogs are forgotten after a baby’s arrival. Imagine reading this book to a child. And how wiser the child would be for knowing that there are all sorts of people, different choices, and what does it take to being right! And, books on dogs don’t have to be awww-inducing, and tickle young readers with stories about goofy dogs. In Woof!, there is an elderly called Coconut, and he is often found ruminating about death. His meditation is full of wisdom, and warmth.

I should be forgiven for being too sure about the belief that stories about strays should end with our heroine finding a home. But Aparna Karthikeyan doesn’t end the book there. She gives that, and more. The pack’s bigger adventure, which makes them heroes in the eyes of the humans, is quite a surprise. The author just doesn’t talk to you, about adopting our Indies, in a non-preachy fashion, but she also decriminalizes the strays through the bigger adventure, and through every back story. She tells you why the strays do what they do. When humans are quick to call the strays a menace, the book shows that knowing them makes it easier to love them, and they should be loved. They deserve nothing less.

Aparna Karthikeyan’s Woof! Adventure By The Sea is a paean to our community dogs, our Indian mongrels. This country is their home, our hearts their thrones.

There’s enough poori in the world for everyone.

Anu Boo approves of Woof!

Book Review: We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

The solar system in Erin Entrada Kelly’s We Dream of Space consists of Cash, Fitch, Bird, and their parents. Who is the sun? Or rather, what is the sun? Isn’t it supposed to be love? But the siblings feel they are just drifting in the vast, dark, cold expanse of the universe, like rogue planets. The parents don’t stop fighting, and the siblings are mired in their individual battles. Cash has failed a grade, and because of which he can’t be on the school’s basketball team. Fitch struggles with a terrible temperament. And Bird, a very memorable character, who is the only one who tries to keep the family together, feels invisible. When they begin to believe that their lives can never intersect, a national tragedy — the Challenger disaster of 1986 — brings them together.

Erin Entrada Kelly is a empathetic storyteller. Even when she plants a couple of stereotypical characters in the story — like Fitch’s friend who can’t stop saying funny things about a girl who shows borderline interest for Fitch, like the girls in Bird’s activity group — she presents them all in a relatable light. There are mean children, but that doesn’t mean that they will always be mean. When Erin Entrada Kelly relates Fitch’s anger issues, the story seems extra real, as though it’s narrated from the place of lived experience. When she talks about Cash, the boy who ends up studying in his siblings’ class, she exhibits so much love for him. Everybody is special, including their parents, and especially their mother. She fights with her husband for gender equality, drops Gloria Steinem’s name in an argument, but always warns Bird to not eat junk because girls are supposed to look a certain way. The parents’ hypocrisy is criticised by the children, but Erin Entrada Kelly somewhere quietly asks, “Who is not hypocritical?”

Bird dreams of becoming the first female Shuttle commander. Her dreams are fuelled by her kind, passionate teacher Ms Salonga, who was not selected for Teacher in Space program. She might have been rejected, but she becomes a winner by spreading her love for space, by stirring curiosity in the young minds. She spends the entire month of January in 1986, 28 days before the launch of Challenger, by conducting activities after activities to make her students fall in love with space exploration. Her activities are profound. From questioning and understanding the need to learn about the universe, to drawing differences between humans and machines, Ms Salonga’s activities brim with her love for the universe, and only because of her enthusiasm, when the tragedy takes places, it hurts. It becomes easier to imagine why a 12-year-old Bird would be devastated by a national tragedy that she doesn’t experience first-hand, and how the catastrophe has the power to make and break dreams.

The imaginary exchanges which take place between Bird and her role model, astronaut Judith Resnik are the best parts of the book. A girl, who is made to believe that she is plain, who has big dreams, feels seen and heard, by an astronaut, whom she has never met, and whom she will never meet. Through those exchanges, Erin Entrada Kelly tells the young readers, and readers who feel young, that humans can be a mote of dust, and the universe can be incomprehensibly enormous, but that doesn’t mean we are insignificant, and that doesn’t mean our dreams don’t matter. And the author doesn’t offer a happily-ever-after. She shows that everything is not going to be rosy. The family doesn’t collapse into a group huddle at the end. But there will be helpers, and they will believe in our dreams, and in ourselves, as much as we do, and more so during the times when we struggle to believe in ourselves.

Sometimes I look up at the sky and I see all those stars and my mind works overtime. There is so much up there to explore. Who knows what’s happening in all that space? Maybe there’s someone on the other side of the Milky Way, looking up the sky just like I am. Maybe they see a dot in the sky and they make a wish on it, and the dot in the sky is Earth, and they’re actually wishing on me.

Book Review: A Velocity of Being

The dawn of our fast friendship was also a peculiar point in culture. Those were the early days of ebooks and the golden age of social media, when the very notion of reading — of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual surrender to a cohesive thread of thought composed by another human being, through which your own interior world can undergo a symphonic transformation — was becoming tattered by the fragment fetishism of the Web. Even those of us who partook in the medium openheartedly and optimistically were beginning to feel the chill of its looming shadow.

Cover courtesy: Brainpickings

…writes Maria Popova of Brainpickings fame in her introduction to A Velocity of Being, Letters to A Young Reader, edited by herself, and Claudia Bedrick, who has published this paean to reading, under Enchanted Lion Books. The book is a collection of 121 letters written to young readers, by creative people in several dimensions of life, about why they read, how does reading change them, who read to them when they were kids, and what sort of books they read now. Each letter is accompanied by visual interpretations of the letters, rendered by talented illustrators. From the passage I have quoted here, readers might come to a conclusion that Popova and Bedrick look down upon people who read on devices, but their truth is far from that. They don’t judge how you read, but they worry about the answer to the bigger questions — do you read at all? Will the generations who follow us read at all?

I took solace in a beautiful 1930 essay by Hermann Hesse titled The Magic of the Book in which the Nobel laureate argued that no matter how much our technology may evolve, reading will remain an elemental human hunger. Decades before the Internet as we know it existed, Hesse wrote: “We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority.

It was at this point, when technology was actively changing the landscape of reading, Popova and Bedrick began a project that went on for 8 years — reaching out to writers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and even a Holocaust survivor, requesting for letters from them, their offering to young readers, and for the young readers in adults — and ended with this book, a brilliant meditation on reading. The book is Popova and Bedrick’s gift to everybody involved in the grand, noble business of words. I picked up the book today to refer to my notes. Unwittingly, I read one letter after the other, ran my hands on the illustrations, only to realise that I was engrossed that I had almost forgotten to write this blog. It feels like A Velocity of Being has a beating heart; it almost can be felt when you touch the book, and something in you shifts, as though your love for reading quietly collides with the collective devotion that emanates from all the letters.

Image courtesy: Brainpickings

My favourite letters are the ones written by Jacqueline Woodson, Alain de Botton, Diane Ackerman, and Janna Levin. For now, I vividly remember their letters. A few months later, if you read the book, and talk to me about your favourites, I might say that I love what you love because I love everything about this book. In the Illustrations Department, each artist’s work is precious. Sometimes, the illustrations match the letters, and sometimes, they even lift them up. The Fan Brothers’ artwork of Where The Wild Things Are is ridiculously stunning that whenever I look at it, I gasp, and wish that I could be a part of that group, and listen to the monster read the book to me.

In her letter, Woodson writes about what reading does, and what matters most, as she holds her son, and reads a book to him. “…the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here…” — the priceless joy of sharing a story with someone, reading a book together. Diane Ackerman writes about the time when the bookmobile was her portal to multiple universes created by writers. “No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book… they explore and celebrate all it means to be human,” says Ackerman. The title of the book is borrowed from Janna Levin’s letter. Levin is one of my favourite scientists, and I immensely enjoyed her book Black Hole Survival Guide. Her sciency letter reads, “Books look static and quiet but they are not. They exude a pressure. They have a melody and stride. But they are only effective when balanced by the pressure of the reader, when they can reflect as well as transmit, when they elongate or quicken according to the velocity of the reader. You, reader, define the experience of the book. Every book you read could only be read in precisely that way by you.” All the 121 of them, loudly, quietly, humorously, beseechingly, assertively, tell the young readers that books are our light to navigate this dark, cold, chaotic yet magnificent universe.

Who was I when I was as young as the intended audience of A Velocity of Being? I was a shy, anxious girl, who was deposited in the only library in my neighbourhood, by my sister who wanted a break from me as she went on adventures by herself. I wish I had the curiosity to look around, be enchanted by a cover art, be piqued by a title. I wish I had the courage to walk up to the stoic librarian, and ask for a recommendation. I sat on a stool, and prayed for my sister to return on time to collect me.

At school, I was taken to the library just a handful of times. It was hard to focus on what the librarian was saying, for my focus was constantly buried in my classmates’ giggles. The librarian had a massive mole on her chin, and several strands of hair hung from it. A harmless mole looked like a goatee on her face, and the girls in my class couldn’t look beyond that. Maybe, that undermined the librarian’s confidence. She always seemed restless, and removed, and the children were mean to her. I wish she had taken me into the safe world of books, but she had to fight her own battles. The librarian continued to work in the school, but the classes were suspended, ending my journey into the world of books, even before it started. So, A Velocity of Being magnified my loss unintentionally, but it’s still okay. I am in my early 30’s, and I want to be optimistic about making up for what I couldn’t access when I was younger.

That’s why Alain de Botton’s letter resonates with me the most. His letter has a universal tone; its audience can be anybody — the youngest, the younger, and the young.

Dear Reader,

We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They tell us who we are but miss things out They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel — and sometimes, we’re unable to tell them, because we don’t really understand it ourselves. That’s where books come in. They explain us to ourselves and to others, and make us feel less strange, less isolated and less alone. We might have lots of good friends, but even with the best friends in the world, there are things that no one quite gets. That’s the moment to turn to books. They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Yours,
Alain

Book Review: Heartburn by Nora Ephron

I wouldn’t have discovered Nora Ephron’s Heartburn if the awesome folks at The Bookshop, Jor Bagh Market, hadn’t recommended it. At this point, after reading a bunch of books recommended by them, I knew that I might end up liking Heartburn as well, although the book’s rating on Goodreads doesn’t reflect my sentiment.

I quite liked Rachel Samstat. She was 38, a food writer, 7 months pregnant with her second child, and her second marriage was crumbling. She had moved into her father’s apartment to get a respite from her husband’s adultery, and the book started…

I was in New York, staying in my father’s apartment, I was crying most of the time, and every time I stopped crying I had to look at my father’s incredibly depressing walnut furniture and slate-gray lamps, which made me start crying again.

The book was published in 1983, and the story unfolded in the 70’s. Rachel had no social media then to casually follow her husband’s digital footprints, and to unwillingly learn that she was being betrayed. It had to happen the old-school way. She had to rummage in the socks drawer, run through the telephone bills, and look for inscriptions on the books gifted to her husband by his friends. Even after discovering that she was being cheated, Rachel related her story with the distance that a raconteur takes while narrating a funny anecdote, and her story still felt intimate.

Everybody in her life was funny. Perhaps, it’s just the way Rachel saw them, choosing to see what she thought was the chief aspect of their personalities. Her mother had a near death experience, and ran away with a man who believed he was God. Her father married her best friend’s sister. Her first husband froze his dead hamster, stored him in their own freezer, and offered a tiny bouquet to his deceased hamster-friend every day. One of her friends proposed her, jumped into a seal pond, and the seals followed him into the pond in horror to reclaim their habitat. They all made hilarious cameos in her story. In between, she dropped recipes to make some of her favourite delicacies. They appeared at random junctures, but she was that person whose life was built on the love for cooking, and who could express her love articulately through food, and even if she were moaning about her breakup, she was kind enough to get distracted, and shared recipes. She even shared one of her delightful essays titled Potatoes and Love: Some Reflections, and the next time when I eat mashed potatoes, I will think of Rachel.

Once in a while, Rachel addressed the reader, and assured that the story had a plot, but it was weak. It still worked for me though. If a book started with the central character being pregnant, one could predict how it would end. Although her narration seemed like she was rambling, it seemed warm, funny, and soulful. I caught myself laughing out loud quite a few times, and that’s saying something. I usually don’t laugh when I read funny books. The laughter usually rings in the head, and it dies there. Rachel made it audible.

When Rachel made the final decision, she sounded very unlike Rachel. Her ability to see the funny side of things disappeared. She seemed world-wearied, broken, exhausted, and maybe, she should have felt all of that a long while ago, and if she had, the book would have ended up sounding like another jilted person’s side of the story. It still was, in some way, perhaps. In her story, the husband was totally at fault, and while she questioned her contribution to the collapse, she was relieved by the betrayal.

That’s the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there’s something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.

At the end, Rachel justified her proclivity to turn everything into a story and a joke. I bought her view, and that also made her totally unreliable. What was she telling me in the first place? But it didn’t matter anymore.

Because if I tell the story, I control the version.

Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.

Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.

Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.

I must admit that Rachel’s sense of humour was not clean. It was replete with stereotypes about gender, and race, and some of her jokes reminded me of what the standup comedians dish out as jokes these days. I found myself stopping, and wondering if people laughed about such mean things forty years ago, and I squirmed in the thought that people still do. I wished some personal growth for Rachel.

Perhaps, if Ephron were alive, she might have written a sequel, and I would have still bought that book. I might not necessarily care about Rachel, but I am curious about her life. I liked the way she made me laugh when her jokes were politically correct, and when it stemmed from bewilderment, surprise, revenge, and resignation. I liked her more for she hadn’t lost hope. Also, there must be a TV show on this book.

Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that the only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.

Happy 7th Gotcha Day To Us!

“A really companionable and indispensable dog is an accident of nature. You can’t get it by breeding for it, and you can’t buy it with money. It just happens along.”

— EB White

It was 26-January-2014. She wasn’t Anu Boo then. Just Anu. Her rough, thin fur betrayed her ribcage. There were quite a few bald patches on her body. She was lying in a tiny, blue crate, anxiously looking at the feet which crossed her crate, and refusing to exchange eye-contact with anybody who bothered to kneel, and coo at her. She seemed overwhelmed by the cacophony of the fair. The place was hot even for January. The visitors were enamoured of other ‘perfect’ puppies at the fair. The puppies didn’t have to scream, “Take me home!” They just had to do something cute, or yawn, or fall into their water bowls, and the humans went awww. Anu refused to do anything that’s adorably stupid. She was invisible in that chaos.

Anu Boo, circa 2014.

An animal welfare organisation had set up a stall at a fair, with the good intention that the casual shoppers might have a change of heart, and take some animals home. 20 days after rescuing and fostering Anu, I took her to the fair, and prayed with all my being that I would meet a kind human who would be thrilled to take Anu home. Other puppies were being adopted, and taken home, but Anu stayed in the corner of her crate. Nobody wanted her. She was a brown mutt with a chronic skin condition, and above all, she exuded an air of moroseness. That would never be accepted by humans. They expect dogs to be cheerful, and entertain them with their antics. Anu was never going to dance in their circus. So, she was considered not-suitable-for-adoption.

As sellers dismantled their stalls, and the footfall reduced, Anu woke up from her nap, and looked at me inquiringly from the corner of her blue crate. “Are we not going home yet?”, her expression suggested. I rushed to the organiser, and told her that I wouldn’t like to sign up for the next adoption drive because I was going to adopt Anu. She had always been mine, and I was awfully late to realise that. I walked back to Anu swiftly as though someone was fighting with me to take her home, opened her crate’s door, lifted her, and gave a peck on her forehead. “Anu, I have always wanted to name my next dog Boo. But you are now used to the name ‘Anu’. So, you will be Anu Boo from today, and you will learn to love all of us including my canine brother Calvin. Okay? Okay!” I told her. She yawned again, looked around, and wriggled to be left alone.

Anu Boo officially arrived.

7 years later, as I write this blog, Anu Boo is snoozing on my bed. Her defiant ear dances to the tunes of the fan. She is deep into a dreamless slumber. A lot of things have changed, and not changed, since that day I put her up for adoption at a fair. Her fur is still brown but it shines as though I polish it every day. Her countenance is still morose, but sometimes innocent, and other times, wise. She continues to be misanthropic. She loathes strangers. She is skittish around men. She runs like a deer, and sits still like a monk. She relishes carrots, and apples, and despises dog-food. She is territorial, protective, jealous, funny, and effusive about her love for her family. When she is in the mood for it, she throws her head back, and howls along with me. She knows quite a few words in Tamil, and English. When she is not in the mood, she refuses to acknowledge any language’s existence. Her boundaries are non-negotiable, and when breached, she doesn’t hesitate to snarl, and bite even if the intruder is her family. She is very unlike my first dog Calvin. She taught me that each animal is an individual with unique characteristics, and idiosyncrasies. Above all, she is a warrior.

Anu Boo, at my terrace, during the golden hour.

In 7 years, she has lived a long life. She was stranded in an abandoned house for three months before I rescued her. Starvation brought out the cannibal in her. She ate her litter-mate’s carcass to survive. She was the lone survivor of her pack. Two years ago, she had a stroke. The vet initially thought it was an epileptic seizure, drugged her for a prolonged period, and the medicines changed her personality. She wasn’t my Anu Boo. I was almost resigned to the idea that as long as she was alive, I would be grateful. But my boyfriend, who is her No. 1 fan, convinced me to take another opinion from a vet whom we hadn’t met before. I trusted his instinct, and the vet diagnosed that what Anu Boo had was a stroke. He suggested that her body had the power to heal on its own, as much as it could, and that there was no need to keep her drugged to avert seizures. In a day, Anu Boo’s original grumpy yet adorable personality returned. She became my favourite curmudgeon again. Her body is not what it used to be before the stroke. The right side of her body is not fully functional anymore. She can’t scratch her ears using her right hindleg, or hold a treat between her paws, and her jaw is so weak that she can’t gnaw at a bone. What broke my heart is her disinclination to play with her toys which she used to adore. But I have risen above the heartbreak. She is here, completely embracing life, one moment at a time, and my heart beats with gratitude for that. I want her to live LONGER, become a super senior healthy doggie, and I want her muzzle and the hair above her eyes to become grey, and her face wiser. I want both of us to be enchanted by many setting suns. May my prayers be answered.

I am often asked who my best friend is, and what I seek in friendship. I offer vague responses to those questions because the world is not ready for my honest answer. Anu Boo is my best friend. Incarcerate me for committing the crime of anthropomorphizing my relationship with her, but she is my soulmate. I wish I could love many like the way I love her. Everything about her is perfect, including her imperfections. It’s life-affirming to lie on the floor with her, and see her belly rise and fall as she breathes. It’s liberating to realise that I am loving her, warts and all, and that I am still capable of loving a soul that way, without holding anything back. I feel alive when I sit with her at the window, look out, and be transfixed by a squirrel feverishly working on something, or a crow who lands at the window and flies away in a moment just to tease her. Anu Boo is truly the guardian of my being, my life-witness. Her very life is a quiet lesson in resilience, and in letting life stab us with its beauty and truth.

Anu Boo, and yours truly.

The Year of Words

I wrote this piece for the Blog-a-Thon that happened at work. I was asked to write about 2020, and how I navigated the year. I am saving it here for posterity.

In the end of March 2020, when the pandemic shed its cloak of mystery, appeared with fangs and all, and became almost palpable, I imagined myself running around like a lost dog. A wave of questions reached my mind’s shore – “What is really happening? What does ‘Work From Home’ mean really? When do I go back to the office? Will my books in the Little Free Library I set up at work miss me?” Above all, I perpetually meditated on the question, “How do I become a better leader?” Just like the questions, the answers came in waves too. While the pandemonium demanded distance in the physical world, while I operated from behind the opaque curtain of the virtual world, the gap between the worlds threatened to become wider. The abyss was hungry, and it wished that something would fall through the crack. However, an ancient tool – words, words, oh-so-glorious words! – unfolded itself, offering comfort, and assurance. Colleagues’ non-verbal cues – the all-is-well smile at the one-on-ones, the raised eyebrows which accentuate curiosity at meetings, the stretch that follows a completed task… — could have gone on a sabbatical, at least until I befriended MS Teams fully, but the old-world charm of words came to the rescue. Even as the pandemic raged, communication became the panacea. It’s ironic, yet utterly beautiful.

The Antidote to Phone Anxiety

Until the Work From Home started, the only time I picked up the phone to make a call every day was when I had to talk to the Transport Team to know my cab’s arrival. Most times, the sweet team would drop a message even before I could call them. I am the quintessential millennial who prefers texting to calling. I would spend a couple of extra minutes to send you a carefully crafted message on WhatsApp, but I wouldn’t dial your number. It’s a quirk that’s loved and loathed in equal measure. When the Work From Home began, the initial uproar didn’t hold any space for texting. Calls flew relentlessly like migrating birds. Calls from my team, peers, sharing updates, requesting for information, seeking help, and offering support. Every time the phone rang, my heart would plummet. I would see the phone quietly hum Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No 1, and mutter all the courage I have got to place my unsure finger on the green button. For the first two days, the calls went in a blur. In a couple of days, the time I took, stalling and listening to my ringtone, gradually reduced. I flexed some muscles, and began answering calls after three rings. Most times, there was always an excited, enthusiastic colleague thrilled to share some information. Other times, there were tired souls who hoped that the telephonic conversation would give them a respite from the quotidian agony of the quarantine. In time, it dawned on me that we were seeing something truly unprecedented, and that it was futile to stay looking inward, succumbing to new-age anxieties. The microbe, as it wove its web across the globe, offered an antidote to my phone anxiety, and alleviated the apprehensions gifted unasked by technology. The beauty of words had a healing effect on the conversations. Collaborations seemed easier. It felt good to pick up the phone and say, “I am so glad you called…”, or something even more vulnerable like, “I can actually hear your smile…” or “I wish we were at work!” Calls are not bad after all. They need not be judged harshly, perhaps.

Not A Black Hole

As we waited for the roadmap to emerge after the quarantine began, as calls continued to travel back and forth, messages started raining on WhatsApp. People wanted to feel heard and seen, people wanted to participate, and especially when the pandemic pulled the rug out from under us, creating space to share the extraordinariness of our ordinary lives became paramount. On our team’s WhatsApp group, we encouraged people to tell us about their lives in the lockdown. The traffic on the group continued to soar. Just like how listening is critical in real life, responding to someone’s message, regardless of how significant or trivial it is, becomes important in virtual life. 2020 taught me that meaningful relationships can be forged at work, even if we work from home, by merely sending thoughtful, empathetic messages. On our WhatsApp group, people shared pictures of the food that they made during the quarantine, images of their children’s artwork, aww-inducing pictures of their furry and feathery companions, and I saw the importance of not being a black hole that simply absorbs information but responding to as many messages as possible to tell people that they are being heard. My responses ranged between being super mundane and super emo, but I responded all the same. Instead of doling out templated responses, I took refuge in the beauty and power of words again. I abused adjectives, wrote sentences after sentences, and told them that whatever they were flaunting was worth it; our world was shut down, but it still needed to be celebrated for surviving. The practice of fervently responding to messages extended to professional conversations as well. Every tiny update met with a ‘Thank you for the note!’. Every heads-up received a ‘Thank you for sharing!’ In 2020, I understood that people don’t want their messages to disappear up in the air, but they want them to be received, and acknowledged, and the mere act of sending a tiny signal back is considered as revolutionary as receiving a message from another civilization from an unknown place in the universe. Everybody wants to be told that they are not alone, and that we are all in this together.

I Hear You

The Awkward Silence missed us when the lockdown began. It waited in its home – our lifts at work – with the hope that we would return in 2020. When that didn’t happen, the Awkward Silence left the lifts, and moved into MS Teams. “Can you hear me?” the organiser would ask at the meetings, and we all would wait, thinking that somebody would say yes. The Awkward Silence would enter and stay. “Are you able to see my screen?” the organiser would ask, and again we would be washed over by the bystander syndrome. The Awkward Silence would do a quick happy dance. “Have you got any questions for me?” The Awkward Silence would smirk. “Is anybody okay to switch on the video?” The Awkward Silence would wait and watch. 2020 pilfered the difference the calendars could have on our lives, and the ways we recognise the passage of time, but it also taught that when times become tougher the real difference can be made by doing one small act at a time, bringing one small difference to the table. Like saying, “Yes, I can hear you.” Like saying, “No, your screen is not shared yet.” Like saying, “Thank you for giving some time back in this meeting.” Like switching on the video sometimes when the organiser requests for some support. They all can seem minuscule in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, to that person, who is trying hard to swallow the anxiety that comes with organizing any virtual meeting, it might matter more than I can imagine. 2020 taught me that we can be sounding boards, devil’s advocates, but active participation is the building block to constructive exchange, especially when it happens through two black mirrors.

2020 was all about switching between microscopic and telescopic views. It made me be enamored with an ant entering and exiting a crack on the wall. It made me be transfixed by Camus’s reflections on existential dread. It filled me with despair and gratitude. It made me take a stroll on memory lane, and it moved me with the restlessness to break into the future. It made me miss my office, and it held space to discover new things about my coworkers despite the distance. It wasn’t a year of binaries, but of nuances. And I explored its diverse landscape on the vehicle called Communication, with words as its sturdy wheels. 2020 could have been an unyielding concrete, but by the way communication made ways to strengthen collaborations, be inclusive, innovate in our own ways, and look after ourselves and everybody around us, I believe that communication is the heroic plant which rebels, and grows from concrete.

“The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this.”

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Being An Emotional Hostage in A Friendship

Dear reader, I am writing this blog to purge emotions which were bottled up for close to four years, and I hope that the act of writing would help me feel cathartic. At the moment, if you are not in a good place, I recommend that you don’t read this blog. Thank you!

For a couple of years, I told myself that I had lost my writing voice, I had nothing important and original to say, and I shouldn’t pander to the idea that everybody can write. Yesterday, while reading a blog post, it occurred to me that I never lost my writing voice. Unknowingly, I had stolen the power of my words lest they hurt some, lest they were ridiculed by some. Not some, but one person. I was scared of that one person who had no respect for my boundaries, who stomped on my agency, and who shamed me for stating that I seek comfort in the company of a male partner. I had been so acutely aware of that one person’s unwelcomed arrival here, and how she would go back, and laugh with her friends, discussing my blogs, spotting grammatical errors in what I write (proving her privilege and colonial mindset), saying that I am cruel, callous, shallow, and hypocritical, and that my whole life is a lie. Her support system, her gang of friends once called me an Emotional Vampire because they were told that I have a tendency to enter people’s lives, and suck their souls. As I write this blog, the echo chamber of comments are ticking in her blog where I have been called names. Many a label has been slapped on me. I have been grotesquely presented, and this person had the audacity to even mention my name. I have been outrightly shamed in that blog. Why did I read her blog? Because somebody whom I respect and adore informed me about this unkind act, and tried to protect me from inadvertently stumbling upon the hate post. But I had to read it. Because I was under an impression that everything was over, and I was finally free. No! I am still being harassed. I understand that I would be a villain in somebody’s story. That’s natural. But, I must remove fiction from facts. However, my post is not a rebuttal. I am just gifting myself the closure that I thought I never needed. For once, I would like to set the truth free, even if it is going to hurt somebody, and even if it is going to open a can of worms. I am bracing myself.

In 2016, I made friends with somebody online. We spent incredible amount of time together on WhatsApp, talking, cracking jokes, laughing, exchanging thoughts, and reading the same books. I went to her place in another state to meet her, and she met me in my city as well. She helped me plan my solo trip to the US. She spent a lot of money in sending me presents. I had been constantly in touch with her, and I thought we were becoming good friends. It was also the time I was coping with a painful breakup, and I basked in the comfort, kindness, and the support she offered. I was truly grateful.

Almost six months after I befriended this person, I met Arun, with whom I considered establishing a romantic relationship. I needed a lot of time and space with him to ensure that I got to know more about him, and that my emotional baggage didn’t cast a shadow on our relationship. When I wasn’t trying to expend my energy into moving into a relationship, the friendship with that person didn’t seem demanding. But when the romantic relationship started taking shape, I couldn’t meet the needs of this friendship. I had no headspace. I was failing to be a good friend, and I couldn’t fully explore the relationship as well. I was asked to choose between the friendship that was fulfilling yet unfairly demanding I had ever had, and the relationship that brimmed with potential. I chose the latter. That’s when the sky fell.

This person couldn’t accept my thought process, and respect my decision. I was hounded for years, sent e-mails after e-mails. Her emissary sat in my WhatsApp window and my mailbox and every other social media platform, and I was shamed stating that I was enabling a misogynist. For all the mistakes that I did, I apologised. I went a step above and apologised on Arun’s behalf. If a friend couldn’t be supportive, a friend could at least try to respect my space, and boundaries. But my boundaries were breached time and again. Even when I had explicitly informed her that I was deeply sorry for not pursuing the friendship, that I was sorry for choosing the romantic relationship over the friendship, and that I was sorry for not trying to be more accountable, my notes fell into ears which refused to listen. Every time she came back asking an array of uncomfortable questions, demanding friendship, I had no heart to say no. Despite her condescension, the holier-than-thou attitude, I agreed to be a friend, but the finger-wagging never stopped. I was nagged and nagged and nagged. I receded again. It felt like being in the clutches of an abusive parent. Initially, I was accused of abandoning a friend. I wallowed in guilt. I ducked my head down, and tiptoed around my life like a wounded dog. Later, the whole situation was framed in a rather dangerous way. She believed that I was a damsel in distress. She thought that she should rescue me from my “misogynistic” boyfriend, break the shackles of patriarchy, and liberate me. How narcissistic, patronising one should be to pay no heed to my pleas to be left alone, and on top of everything, how one should be so deluded to believe that I was pining for what turned out to be a toxic friendship when all I wanted was to rebuild my life from the scratch! When I realised that she had no ability to respect my decision, I stopped responding to her e-mails. I sent my silence.

What made me feel unsafe was this person’s blatant refusal to respect my agency. In the pretense of looking out for me, she reached out to my mutual friends, not-so-gently prodding them to contact me, asking them to protect me, and tried to break my silence. For a moment, if this person could sit down, and think why I would shield myself with silence, she will see that the I didn’t trust her enough to give her the truth. But she thought that I was held hostage by my boyfriend, and that my silence was a scream for help. The truth was that I was being an emotional hostage in her friendship that turned out to be damaging to my mental health. The truth was that I felt grounded and safe in the romantic relationship that I could build. The truth was that I was personally growing, reading more books, leaning toward spirituality, being resourceful to my family, and building a full-time career. The truth was that I could choose what was right for me. The truth was that I refused to be knocked down for stating my need that I thrive in the company of a male partner. I am a human being. I cannot allow anybody to shame me for being human.

As I continued to be silent, and chose not to respond to her e-mails, this person sent one last note stating that I was an abuser, I had been stonewalling her, and that she had the wisdom to turn that pain into a ‘Stop the Silent Abuse’ campaign. I was requested to be a part of it, and she wanted to meet me. I felt ineffably insulted. When she mentioned that she felt abused, my heart plummeted. Because on the other side of what she called a wall, I was feeling abused, smothered, claustrophobic, strangled by her efforts to make me massage her bloated ego, submit to her masked patriarchy, validate her delusions, and hold space for her to unpack her baggage at the cost of my autonomy and mental wellbeing. I still agreed to meet because I wanted to give her the benefit of doubt. I still believed that I should stand with someone who feels victimized. When I met the person, I gathered all the kindness I could muster, and told her that I don’t want this friendship. But, the long meeting felt like I was being investigated for a crime that I didn’t commit. I was nagged for everything I said, for the efforts I made to dispel awkwardness, and I finally resorted to stay silent. I felt unsafe, ashamed, and utterly humiliated. I was unfairly judged. I was antagonised. Someone who came seeking friendship wouldn’t behave that way. But only because that she felt victimised by my silence, I bore the brunt with grace. That effort was not her way to expand her vulnerability. That was not loving-kindness. That was an intoxicating ego trip.

This person still writes about me in her blogs. And her friends — some of them claim to be my friends as well — trash-talk me along with this person. She has the right to express her views, make ways to process her pain, but these yeasayers shouldn’t throw dirt at me because they don’t know my side of the story. This is my side — despite stating that I have the right to live my life the way I want to, I am held accountable for her feelings. When I met her for the last time, I told her that I was truly, profusely sorry for hurting her, and I asked what I could do to make her feel better. But I was lectured in person, and now her friends write comments after comments on how I should stop hurting others. I chose to shut myself down because she didn’t deserve the gift of my vulnerability, and in the last few years, she had exploited it enough. After the meet, that person wrote a short story about our last meet, in the name of processing her pain, and it was shared with me. There was no need to send it to me. I still received the e-mail with dignity, and sent her good thoughts. I genuinely wished her well.

The online abuse still hasn’t stopped though. She is lurking in the shadows of my social media accounts, of my family’s, and my boyfriend’s. I am running like a prey, cleaning up my digital footprints after myself, and hoping that I wouldn’t be found by this person. In the pretense of seeking connection, she is establishing dominance over people. In the pretense of being radically kind and empathetic, I am worried that she would bring more trouble into my life. In the pretense of following some celebrated Buddhist teachers, she thinks it’s her life purpose to reform people, bring happiness into their lives, but she is only encroaching into people’s lives, manipulating, gaslighting, and causing psychological damage. If she is reading this blog, or if her friends are here, I request everybody to leave me alone. I beseech them to stop engaging with me, shaming me online, reaching out to my mutual friends, creating business opportunities for my family members without seeking their consent, invalidating my agency, and breaching my boundaries. Everything. Should. Stop. I don’t have trouble receiving kindness. I don’t want her type of kindness. There is nothing kind about being ‘brutally honest’ or being rude and cruel in the name of being authentic.

In Indian movies, cishet men can’t deal with breakups. They whine, moan, bawl, and choose passive aggressive ways to shame their exes. They hold their exes responsible for how they feel. In real life, some friendships are not different too. Patriarchy just doesn’t ruin relationships. It wrecks friendships as well. That’s what I learnt. In this case, it’s not the patriarchy entrenched in men, but in female friendships too.

With the traumatic experience that I have gone through, I have now lost the confidence to make friends. It’s going to take years for me to believe in friendship again, but until then, I am happy with the love and support that I have been receiving from some kind people on the Internet. As I finish writing this blog, I feel light and free. I finally find the ability in me to love, and respect myself. I will be able to write more. I am enough. I am imperfect, but I am enough. I choose what should stay and what should leave. I choose love. I choose peace. I choose kindness. I choose gratitude. I choose life. I choose myself.

In all the chaos, the Universe has been guiding me. I am where I am meant to be.

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

Toni Morrison

PS: To all my friends, who were contacted by this person to armtwist them into talking to me, I am SO SO SO SO sorry. Please accept my unconditional apology.