I wonder what it means that I remember how books (I have read) make me feel but not the story the books told me.
What happens when there are two sides to an argument…you agree with one side.. but prefer the person making the other side of argument? How do you make up your mind? Especially if it is a subject you don’t read much about…
This essay has me in a quandary but I am the first to admit I don’t know enough about “regional writing” to comment on it. But, to me, English is an intrinsic choice, one that I make without a thought to the power it supposedly awards me or success it ensures. So do not relate to the point that nuanced writing in English is a deliberate attempt at enhancing Indianness. On the other hand, I intensely dislike writers who wrap India on a platter and serve to the West. Jhumpa Lahiri and many similar writers come to mind.
On the other hand, I am huge fan of Chandra and of his writing too. But now am feeling a wee bit forced like I have to like his opinions too (not neccesary I know). So I can’t make up my mind about which side of the issue I feel strongly for.
That apart, the essay is very well written.
Books I have read recently have only convinced me how faith is what you derive out of any particular word, book or symbol. Anything can give you faith and it has absolutely nothing to do with religion. It can have signs, it can be rituals, it can be meditation or it can be gazing into a big tomb of a book.
If you have faith, it doesn’t matter where it helps you from. Which also means the books really had nothing to do with it. It’s how I chose to interpret what I read. Since books forms such an important part of my life, it made complete sense that cementing of faith had to come from a combination of them.
I’ve read a varied series in the last few months and each one left me awed – for all different reasons.
The first was – Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. This book had taken the world by storm and in my experience, most such books can be full of hokum.
While this book talks about one journey one woman makes, it doesn’t necessarily have translate into a lifestyle solution, ‘now available on the shelf’, for the reader. Which is what I think the book aimed for.
The book starts off well (but I have a sneaking feeling I loved the beginning only because the gastronomic treat the first section is). It’s very easily divided. Italy, the first part of her journey, where she lives for a few months to learn to speak the language better. Pray, when she comes to India to discover herself (I know!) and Love, when she lives in Indonesia with a healer for a focus that seemed blurred.
It’s only when you reach Pray section, the second phase, you realise her epiphany-laden journey may or may not continue in the same vein, for you, the reader. This part is based in India and I had to fight against my innate objections of India being typecast as a place to come and ‘discover your true being’. Thankfully the book does not classify the whole of India but only that ashram, as the very place to achieve oneness.
At this point in the book I remember thinking it takes very little to go from a non-believer to a believer. She thinks she knows what she wants and yet her body tells her of other things she needs. It’s a painful time for her. But it’s faith that keeps her going. Not faith in any one person or one philosophy. Just faith that she needs to get from one point to another.
It told me how a path of ‘getting better’ does not necessarily mean improvement or ease of method. It was like something made complete sense after that. It did not mean I need to go into an ashram but it meant believe in what you want, your actions will reflect what you believe in, therefore a self-fulling prophecy.
The third part in Indonesia was the blurriest to me. It spoke about love. It spoke about generic love and spoke about the need for love and for some reason, there was no resonance. It ends just like it starts, with no apparent focus. But that’s the best part. The open-endedness of the whole journey. Allowing any reader to go on it, and come away with what you are seeking.
The second book to partially alter my thinking stream was Bill Bryson’s A short History of Nearly Everything. (As an aside, this is how textbooks should be written).
It’s a book that, among other things, makes you aware of your scale. How big or small or important or insignificant you are.
How are there are *so* many things you still have no clue about and how there are stranger phenomenons that have to happen to convince you of your reason to be.
Last few days, even weeks, I have been going through a faith upheaval as it were. Nothing I say or thought matched my actions. And I wondered what was teaching me a lesson.
I lamented the lack of an obvious focus and need to prove myself. Like I heard in a bad movie some days ago, I stopped betting on myself. Suddenly, after an argument yesterday, it became clear. I had vaguely formed my milestones but that argument cemented it. It was the change faith had shown me but I was refusing to accept it.
Now how I reach the other end of the milestone is another matter altogether. But that’s where a third, unrelated book comes in. The third book was the Book of Ram by Devdutt Patnaik. I was reading the book in continuum to understand Sita better but did get a different takeaway.
The books says: “According to AdhyatmaRamayana, Ravan is our ego, that part of us that is constantly seeking external validation. Having submitted to adharma, our ego has abducted Sita, our mind. That is why we constantly seek to dominate the world around us and that is why we do not accept it for what it is.
We have to rescue Sita. We have to unleash the power of Hanuman, our intellect, cross the sea of life, overpower Ravan, burn his golden Lanka and reunite Sita and Ram, who await discovery within us.”
This emphatic conclusion of the book is reminscent of that one powerful line from one song of Swades:
My obsession started long ago, much before I realised I was named after this goddess and someone remarked that that community never names their girls after Sita — since she suffered so much. And turns out the building I live in is named after one of her children. But trivia apart, Sita still fascinates me.
It all came together one day when one friend was narrating a conversation she had with someone else. This friend had an arranged marriage with an unconventional beginning and today had a smooth relationship with her husband.
She leads a life like any of us do — works, runs a house how she feels like (doesn’t feel compelled to cook in short), has her friends, does her thing, spends money as she feels fit. Her friend mentioned to her how great it was that her husband treats her well and lets her do what she wants.
It rankled when I heard this but I thought may be the person making the observation truly had a bad relationship. This conversation came to me out of the Dubai. Subsequently I heard of another similar conversation between two women, one telling the other how great it was that her husband let her do what she wanted and gave her space to do what she wanted. This came from the US.
I kept thinking so maybe couples are stuck in a time warp abroad trying to preserve their Indianess and not really questioning the very roles they claim defined them. Then someone in Mumbai mentioned how it was great her husband let her work, let her do what she wanted and even let her decorate their house.
Somewhere along the way I lost my cool. I kept asking the last one who said this to me, what was so great if he treated you well??!!! Wasn’t it normal behaviour? She turns around and tell me, it’s okay for people like you to talk like that.
The silenced me. People like me? Unmarried was the first thought that crossed my mind but she said feminist. Or rather murmured it. And that stumped me. I didn’t think I was the feminist types. But if not being grateful for good behaviour from your partner is feminism, I guess I am a flag-bearing, card-carrying member.
I always get into trouble for this but whenever I have a conversation I am not satisified with, I replay the conversation with someone else, who I think can give me another point of view. So who else but a man.
He agreed with me that yes women place far too much faith in one person who happens to be their husband. Women today are very independent and take on so many decisive roles. Even after marriage they are usually more available for their ageing parents than sons but these women still glad when their husbands treat them well.
So why this conditioning? Why this gratefulness? Why this abject thankful attitude for something that should be a given?
A professor friend mentioned it to me in passing that it has perhaps been handed down to us in our mythology itself. Sita, the wife every woman aspires to be, is often the ideal myth. To be the ever-sacrificing, pious and pure wife.
That brought me to Ram. As mythology goes, to me he is flawed. Instead of encouraging his praja to think in a fair manner, he abandoned his wife. Maryada Purshottam aside, this itself makes him less of a king.
And to worship to the woman who still treated him like he did no wrong cannot be the best situation. Her other avatars where she stands up for her rights and rights the wrongs are better myths to follow.
But then I chanced upon some reading material and one neat movie that made it clear that while Sita may be what she was, contemporary times were slowly revisiting her myth too.
The book Retelling the Ramayana is a powerful book in that sense because Ram faces censure from his own for abandoning his pregnant wife. And other female characters from the Ramayana who are strong voices but have been rendered mute in the patriachal tale.
And then there was the movie: Sita Sings the Blues. I don’t know how I missed it all these years. But I chanced on it here and caught the whole movie online. And realised it was possible to view Sita in a different light. Another opinion, that has also made a popular feminist icon, is that though independent of thought and action, she still let her man make her decisions.
While some may point out that it is a bad example to set, others also say that it was finally she who took the all-important decision of asking Mother Earth to consume her. She abandoning him, not the other way around, which should have been the focus. I guess it’s easier to look at the smaller picture and think of how he abandoned her at her most trying time.
Somehow I forget now why I was so angry when I started this post. It lay in the ‘Drafts’ section for a while and now that I am ready to post it, I realise, there isn’t any anger any more.
And for those who are interested in Sita, check out this movie. All four characters have names of the goddess and four stories are about women empowerment (with Bollywoodisation I guess).