Reading in Progress During Lockdown -- Rituparna Roy
I’m writing this post to motivate myself to finish the reading list I have for the quarantine. In the very limited time that I have at my disposal (yes: my problem - as I’ve already written in my personal blog earlier this month - is not a surfeit of time, but a lack of it), I have had to choose between reading and writing; and in the last couple of weeks, I’ve prioritized writing. That, too, hasn’t happened much, but even that wouldn’t have happened if I’d read more. But I so want to read more…!
I’m not “catching up” with books – with the latest titles, etc. I’m just reading what I’ve wanted to for a while now, but haven’t had a chance.
First in that list was Michelle Obama’s Becoming (2018) –
This is the only one I’ve finished reading so far. It has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read: "I spent much of my childhood listening to the sound of striving". Indeed, the book is one long, sustained narrative of Michelle's striving: as an African-American girl from a working class background in Chicago who works her way to Princeton and a successful legal career ('Becoming Me'); as a working mother to two children and wife of a hot shot state senator ('Becoming Us'); and finally as the first Black First Lady of the US ('Becoming More').
Lucid, honest and poignant, this book is unputdownable!
I had bought the book earlier this year as a farewell gift for a dear colleague. Soon after, I gifted it to myself on my Birthday. While buying, the bookshop attendant suggested I buy the accompanying journal with it. I didn’t know about it, and hence at first, didn’t understand what he was saying. When he brought it to me, though, I fell in love with it instantly. “A guided journal for discovering your voice”, it said, with the cover twinning the book cover in the same beautiful blue. Who could resist that?!
Inside, is an introduction by Michelle Obama, quotes from the book, and “prompts to help you discover—and rediscover—your story.”
I haven’t written a single word in that journal yet. I find it just too beautiful to use…J
Reading now: Lisa Ray’s Close To The Bone (2019)
Like all Indians, I knew her principally as a supermodel who had (to use a beloved media expression) “created waves” in the early 90s after winning the Gladrags Supermodel Contest as a teenager. She was sultriness personified in all the products she endorsed (‘Vimal’, ‘Evita’ are the ones that immediately come to mind), eventually graduating (like all successful models) to acting; her most memorable performance being in Deepa Mehta’s Water (the third part of the director’s ‘Elements trilogy’, after Fire and 1947: Earth).
Memoirs of celebrities flood the market all the time. Though I’m interested in the genre, I’ve always avoided celebrity memoirs because - a) most of them don’t interest me; but more importantly, b) they are often ghost-written. I am interested not in reading about a life, but in the recounting of it. If the telling itself is in someone else’s voice, then it’s not a memoir at all.
Lisa Ray’s case was different. I’d read a couple of her poems in The Punch Magazine in Jan 2018 and liked them. A year later, while browsing through new titles in a bookshop, I came upon Close to the Bone. I read the ‘Prologue’ and ‘Acknowledgement’ sitting on a bean bag in the shop… and got hooked.
I have just read the first chapter, which begins with the unusual romance of her parents (Bengali father, Polish mother) in the 1980s and ends with her on the threshold of a modelling career. Her parents’ is a very endearing story, lovingly told, with a healthy dose of humour. And her own 17 years have enough in them to hold the attention of the reader. In this chapter, she has tried to make sense of her mixed inheritance, and trace the origins of the essential nomad in her. It is the beauty of the prose that has struck me, above all... and that is principally what makes me want to finish the book.
Up next: Sujatha Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017)
This book won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize 2018 – but that’s not why I’m reading it. It’s been there on my wish list ever since it was published… and I was happy that it received a prize.
Caste defines Hindus in a way nothing else does. Many upper-caste Hindus live in denial of this fact for most of their lives. Not exactly in denial of the fact that the caste system exists: they will readily agree that lower castes live inhuman, abominable lives; what they will deny is that the same system gives them structural advantages that allow them to lead the lives they live. I was one among them – till age 40. I knew about caste differences, of course, and found its indictments in literature and films moving. But I became aware of it in a whole new way when the then Indian government, led by V. P. Singh, tried to implement the ‘Mandal Commission’ recommendations about affirmative action in favour of SCs/STs/OBCs (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes/Other Backward Classes) in 1989. I was just about to give my Boards then and it affected my life in a very direct way: it meant, among other things, that I may not get admission in the college I desired due to the quota that was reserved for students belonging to scheduled castes and tribes. I eventually did get into the college I dreamt of, and academically at least, went on to do most of the things that I wanted to.
I, of course, put it all down to hard work – which had been my only mantra in life, inherited from strict teacher parents and reinforced in a Roman Catholic missionary school. I sincerely believed it to be the only magic key that had opened up all doors of opportunity for me and I self-righteously attributed the puny successes of my life to it… until 2016, that is, when for the first time, I fully realized the part played by the structural advantages that I’ve always had as an upper-caste Hindu.
The realization came in the wake of my co-teaching a course on ‘Diversity’ in a Liberal Arts College in the Netherlands. We had structured the course around different markers of identity – gender, race, class, nationality, religion and language. We couldn’t include more as, in the block system that the college followed, we could teach for only six weeks. Some of my colleagues wanted to include ‘age’ and ‘disability’; I would have liked to add ‘caste’. That couldn’t happen, but I did include it in the class discussions - explaining to my international students that caste is to India what race is to America. In fact, it was some readings that we had during the ‘Race’ week that compelled me to think anew about my own caste existence. I learnt a lot more in that course than I taught.
This kind of caste blindness that I’ve just described is impossible for a person born into a lower caste, especially into the lowest of them – ‘the untouchables’ (achhyut). That’s because they live the humiliation of their caste every day of their lives, in every sphere of activity. Two such lives - the author’s uncle and mother - are at the heart of Ant Among Elephants.
The book was published in 2017: that’s very significant. For 2017 happened to be the 70th year of Indian Independence; and the book demonstrated that independent India has failed its minorities, even after seven decades of its existence and despite all the democratic, secular ideals enshrined in its constitution (framed by one of the greatest leaders that this land has produced, B.R. Ambedkar - an untouchable).
Having visited India for the first time just before the pandemic hit (we were so lucky not to be stuck like so many other travellers!) I'm very interested in what you say about the caste system. My husband and I and 2 friends visited Rajasthan and were bowled over by the beauty of its landscapes, cities, palaces and other historic buildings (like the Taj Mahal, of course - we missed clashing with Trump's visit by 24 hours, phew!). We had a number of wonderful guides, extremely knowledgeable and cultivated, whose experience of the caste system chimed very much with how you describe it ie being high caste they took their advantage for granted. We were told that great advances have been made, there are low-caste people now in important professions and in the government. But when I asked if marriages happened between the castes this was a definite no. Yes it happened, but it led to social rejection. When a system has been around for 1000 (? or more?) years, as the caste system has, I imagine it's not something you can change easily.
We loved India - so much beauty and kindness and rich, exciting history and colour - I even got to like Indian food (which in the UK I don't very much!). We hope very much to explore more of it one day... if we're ever allowed to travel again.
Hope your daughter is surviving lockdown!
Thank you for sharing your Rajasthan experience. I have seen neither Agra nor Rajasthan - that's a pity. Hope to do that in the (near/distant?) future :)
I am delighted to know you liked your India trip. Yes, Indian food in India can't be compared with what goes in its name in the West.
Next time, when you visit India, you should come to Kolkata!
My daughter is fine, thank you. Her ingenuity & resourcefulness amazes me... but how long can she go on this way? With just zoom classes? Don't know...
Hope your mother is doing well?