Maybe my boys are patient listeners. Or maybe they love me enough to listen to countless repetitions of the same old stories of the same old people and places and songs and books.
They do get frustrated at times. Mostly though, they give me a hug – quick or tight, as the occasion warrants – and let me ramble on. For better or for worse, they’ve had the onus of bringing up their mother, you see. She who so often disappears into those deep, dark, alone places full of shadows. Those abandoned houses of a fragmented childhood.
This is for them, my boys Appu and Adu. My poem that appears in RIC Journal.
a door groaned shut and a lizard, startled stopped in its tracks
At Varanasi, they whisper to the fish and set them free in the water.
I’d come to the Ghats to watch the sunrise, an event that was turning out to be more spectacular than I had imagined. Ahead of me, the sun spilled molten gold onto the calm waters of the Ganga. Majhis (boatmen) were ferrying passengers across in similar-looking rowboats, their silhouettes adding to the drama. A million seagulls circled above the boats, their squawks accompanying the sound of temple bells and the chants of worshippers performing pooja on the stone steps. Men and women were bathing in the holy waters, their faith shielding them from the biting cold of a winter morning. Wash away our sins, mother…
From the high octagonal stone platform I was sitting on, everything seemed surreal.
A while ago, I had bid goodbye to Pooja, a young engineer from Poona who was sharing the platform with me. She had come to the ghats with her brother and sister-in-law, and was kind enough to click a picture of me for memory. We had found each other on Instagram, and parted with vague promises to keep in touch.
I sat there alone for a long time afterward, at peace with the world that was bustling around me.
As I got up to leave, I saw a couple of Muslim men – father and son, presumably – carrying transparent yellow plastic bags, making their way to where I was sitting. I noticed that the bags held water, with small, black, live fish in them. I stopped in my tracks.
“Are those fish?” The father ignored me. Talk about stating the obvious.
The son nodded.
“What are they for?”
“To be released in the Ganga,” he mumbled without looking at me.
“To be…what! Why?”
“Why?Because…” He looked at his father, but the old man did not help. Then he turned and met my eyes. “...where else do fish belong except with Ganga Maiyya?”
Where else indeed.
I followed them as they went to the edge of the platform, asking their permission to click pictures. The son looked at his father again. Though the old man decidedly turned his back on me, the son did not seem to mind. I decided to take their silence for consent, but maintained an unobtrusive distance.
They sat down and carefully opened the bags. The older man took each bag separately, brought it close to his face and blew softly into it. Then both the father and the son gently took the fish one by one in their palms and dropped it into the water. That done, they got up and left.
No one gave a second glance. Except me, that is.
Later, I came to know that this is a sadka, a ritual performed by the members of the weaving community regardless of their faith. Meant to ward off evil, to protect their person and property.
Protect us, mother, protect our livelihood. You, who are all-accepting, all-forgiving. You who do not distinguish between humans and their faiths.Guard us against evil, Mother. Within and without…
A prayer or two, breathed into the slim, dark bodies of a dozen fishes. To be carried to the heart of a mighty river brimming with the desperate pleas of generations and lifetimes. Of the living and the dying, the hopeful and the hopeless.
Down there in her womb, these prayers too would feed on human sins and grow. As guardians, protectors. Shielding mortals from themselves…
It’s that time of the year when something inside you becomes heavier and slows you down. Not in an unpleasant way, but like your body does after a long, hard evening walk. You look for a bench to relax for a bit, knowing well that you’ll soon get up and get moving. There’s a mild sense of achievement as you sit down, face flushed, still slightly panting, feeling the sweat trickle down your throat and back.
And you look back on the path that took you through yet another year.
You see vistas of sand flanked by concrete buildings, you see cranes sticking out of half-made buildings like skeletal hands reaching out for the skies. Didn’t you hear the earth groan as you passed? You see the workers who were squatting on the ground outside the forbidding fences designed to keep out prying eyes, waiting for un-airconditioned buses to come and pick them up. Exhaustion drawn over them like a blanket, their collective silence punctuated by low conversations and brave attempts at hilarity. What awaited them at the other end of the journey was no lovers’ meeting – just cramped bedspaces in a camp in some forgotten corner of the city. (Forgotten is not the word perhaps, because, those are the places we head to when we feel the urge to do good deeds.) There they would wait in line to wash their bodies and clothes, pray or not, cook in turns, eat, hold conversations over the din of TV, and fall into exhausted sleep.
You look back on the impatient cars inching their way through the congealed traffic, at the taxis with worried, tired cabbies talking to any willing ear about the prohibitive traffic fines. Madam, my eyes filled up this time when I opened the salary slip – I was hoping to send something home at least this month… My wife has been struggling, really, but– Past the tired and hopeful faces of those waiting at bus stops, past young couples pushing their babies in prams, past the mosque-goers on their way to Maghrib. Past the tall gates of the park, on the treelined walkway, and around the lake, dodging other walkers, runners, bikers and stray cats, inhaling the fragrance of marigold mixed with a hint of manure…
You are now thankful for the bench you managed to secure – under the streetlamp, facing the lake. A couple of feet away from the stray cat that is still contemplating the possibilities you hold. Watching the pink and blue and green and white lights of lifetimes lived – yours and others’ – undulating peacefully on the water, as if the chasm beneath did not exist. And you give in to the urge to give in, to wrap yourself in the mild, lingering melancholy of another late December evening. You sit back and sigh.
Really, what do you have to complain about?
I’m grateful for each passing year that has been granted to me. Truly. It’s a gift that so many are deprived of.
For no reason, I’m thinking of my cousin who had passed away when he was much younger than I am today (young being a relative term). He was among the closest I had to a brother, yet we had grown apart. Until that day when, from two ends of a phone line, we promised each other that we’d meet up for sure the next time he came down. Because I am his little sister, and don’t I ever forget that. No matter what differences we might have, we are family.
A few months later, when his body went home in a refrigerated box, I was not there. I mourned for him deeply from inside the walls of the small room in this desert city that I was barely getting used to. But what I mourned for was my loss. I lost a brother, a very very vital part of my childhood, my life. My brother whom I lost before I could–
Grief can be extremely selfish.
Today, years later, I still grieve for him. Not in a guilt-ridden, debilitating way, but as a fleeting, momentary sadness – a small white cloud at the corner of the sky that disappears as quietly as it appears. Today it is for him that I grieve, for what he lost.
My brother, I wish you had lived. Long enough to experience the luxury of growing older. Of watching your hair turn grey (though knowing you, you’d have reached out for the bottle of hair dye at the first glimpse of it). Of discovering that peaceful space within yourself…
We could have sat on the porch of your old house and laughed about our childhood antics. Remember the time when you–? We could shake our heads and smile knowingly as we watch our children walk through life as if it was something infinite, to be taken with utmost seriousness…
I still miss you, you know. At times.
I don’t know why I’m thinking of him today, now, in this December morning when the mist outside has all but hidden the buildings across. I did not start out with the intention of writing about him! I was going to take a look at the year that was. I was going to contemplate on my own journey: the books I read, the people I met, the lessons I learned. I was going to talk about my writing – complete and incomplete, the teaching projects I have taken on, my students who are my dopamine.
I was going to talk about my ever-lengthening bucket list…
Instead, here I am, writing about life and loss and the evolution of grief. Maybe it’s time I stopped. I can start again, on another December morning. There’s a weekful of them left anyway.
“…women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. Without women capable of giving birth, human populations will die out. That is why mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population. Kill their babies and replace their babies with yours, as cats do; make women have babies they can’t afford to raise, or babies you will then remove from for your own purposes, steal babies — it’s been a widespread, age-old motif. The control of women and babies has been a feature of every oppressive regime on the planet.”
From Margaret Atwood’s new introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale
As a child, the high point of my life used to be the storytelling sessions we had during summer vacations. When Preetha, Praveenchettan, Pramod, Rajesh, Dinesh and I gathered around Jagdish (or Jagguettan, as we call him; our eldest cousin on my father’s side), listening in rapt silence to the stories he told us. No one, but no one, told a story like he did.
In a matter of minutes, he could make the walls of the small side room in Krishna Vihar disappear. And I would be standing on an unpaved street in the Wild West, watching Clint Eastwood enter, eyes screwed up against the sun, a cigar dangling from the side of his mouth… I would see his hat and poncho, his black horse, the taunting men…Now he is taking out his gun and— Dhishkyaun! My heart would jump to my mouth even as the bad guys lay dead on the ground. Jagguettan could, with the same ease, take me to a studio in the Greenwich Village where Jhonsy would be looking out of the window and counting the leaves on the ivy vine opposite. And when Sue revealed Behrman’s masterpiece, my eyes would sting with tears too embarrassed to flow out.
Jagguettan, with his endless supply of stories, trivia and comic books, used to be my hero. This, despite the fact that he had once declared me dead, while showing me how to find the pulse point on my wrist. After probing my then-skinny wrist for a good minute, he let go of it with a shake of his head. “No pulse,” he informed. “You’re dead!”
Growing up deprives you of a lot. For one, it takes you far away from cousins who tell stories. And when life decides its time for you to grow up, it comes at your bubble with a sledgehammer. All you can do is to quietly fold and pack the broken pieces of your childhood and stow them out of sight – in the farthest corner of your heart. Then you turn to books, a small part of you forever seeking your master storyteller between their pages. In hope.
Then one day, another lifetime or so later, comes a book. “I saw the home of a god at latitude 28º28′ south and longitude 105º21′ west — a deserted rock crowded with seabirds far, far out in the Pacific,”it begins. Your ears perk up. That voice – you know it! You’ve heard it before, in an almost-forgotten past. You read on, now eager, hopeful. And as the “…wave-battered, treeless, bush-less cliffs devoid of fresh water, grass, flowering plants and moss” unfurl before you, you realise with a thrill that it’s him, your Great Storyteller. You’ve found him again, inside the covers of this magical book titled ‘Atlas of an Anxious Man’.
You are, once again, that wide-eyed child standing at the open gates of wonderland.
As Christoph Ransmayr begins each story with “I saw…”, I see what he saw. I see people – living, dying and long-dead. I see oceans, islands, rainforests and polar ice caps. Icy peaks, salmon-filled rivers and volcanic lakes. Abandoned graveyards, sunken ships, and remains of ancient civilizations. I hear batwings, birdsongs, and five laughing men. And sometimes, as when I see “an empty park bench, one of three on the market square beside the wrought-iron fence of the adjacent apothecary garden in the village of Lambach in Upper Austria,” my eyes fill up.
Translated by Simon Pare for Seagull Books, the note in the jacket modestly describes Atlas of an Anxious Man as a ‘unique account that follows (its author) across the globe’. I would rather call it a book of stories. Stories woven out of Ransmayr’s experiences as an involved observer of people, places and events. Stories of love, grief, courage, heartbreak and lasting hope. Narrated as if to a group of close friends gathered around the fireplace on a cold evening.
The text inside the gorgeous jacket designed by Sunandini Banerjee is lyrical. It meanders unhurriedly through the many geographies Ransmayr has visited, pausing every so often to admire a garden or a graveyard, talk to its keeper, or listen to the sound of a sheepdog barking at a distance. The journey that starts from that first barren island 3,200 kilometres off the Chilian coast continues in no particular order across oceans, islands, mountains and continents, across treeless hillsides and tropical rainforests, across countrysides, cities and suburbs, until it reaches its lofty destination. As if the author is opening his atlas at random pages to shows us what he saw there.
“This crater, riven by erosion and tectonics, and half collapsed, resembled a skewed cauldron whose contents – a small house with a corrugated-iron roof, animal sheds, a barn and, above all, bellowing cattle and skin and bone horses on stony, black pastures – were about to be tipped into the sea. The cauldron’s lower rim lay so close to the surf that it was flecked again and again with flakes of spray whereas the upper edge of the crater faded away high above the breakers into scudding patches of fog.”
And I see it all. Every little thing.
Geography, however, is just one facet – albeit an intensely alive one – of this gem. There is also history, anthropology, politics, biology and astronomy. Philosophy too, among other things, woven intricately into the narrative by this master craftsman. Ultimately, Atlas of an Anxious Man is about human beings, as they come.
“I saw the dark, sweaty face of the fisherman Ho Doeun on a stormy November night in Phnom Penh. The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia was celebrating the water festival that night. Ho was kneeling on the bank of the Mekong, under the sparkling bouquets of fireworks whose flaming arches and bridges of light spanned the river for two or three heartbeats before fading away in a thundering spectacle of colour.”
What makes this book so exceptional to me, however, is the silken thread of compassion that runs through the length of its narrative. There is no judgment – none at all. The man who narrates these stories has already made his peace with vagaries, both human and otherwise. He is merely telling us what he saw, heard, felt and remembered.
“…an autumn bird no longer really had to impress anyone very much. It sang, when it sang, more for itself than for or against another bird.”
And if I feel a lingering sense of melancholy after turning the last page, it could be because the afterglow has lit up some forgotten corners of my soul – where the wait for the next Great Storyteller has resumed.
Among the many items I had left behind of my childhood are some dialects. About half a dozen of them, in fact. Very peculiar to the times, micro-geographies and cultures of the places I grew up in. Dialects that smelled of green fields and steaming paddy. Of cow-dung, rain and persistent anxiety. Of palm-trees and claustrophobia of the wide open spaces, and a loneliness that stuck to your clothes like the yellow, gluey mud you scratched off the sides of the lotus pond.
At the time I’d not even noticed the peculiarity of the lingo in which almost every vowel sound began and ended with the close-mid sound of ‘ɘ’. It was just a part of the landscape, like the greenness of the field or the blueness of the mountain, like the humid heat or the dark, lean bodies with their stench of sweat.
I’d just nod, not really sure why my eyes had filled up in the first place. Was I missing home or was I anxious about reaching it? I still don’t know.
Somewhere along the way, I made a choice – that of selective memory. Which meant that I let go of a lot of my childhood, including its dialects. I chose my memories in the order of their sunshine, and wove my narrative around them. I carefully picked the vocabulary, tone, and semantics of all the languages and their variations that had flowed past me, and created my own lingo. So now I have a set of streamlined memories that I can look back on and smile, and a language that rarely prods sleeping dogs. Malayalam with a hint of Tamil, which could have originated anywhere between the banks of the Nila and the blue shadows of Western Ghats. Liberally peppered with the English of all those cities I have lived, loved and read in.
Perhaps that was why rereading Khasakkinte Ithihasam (Legends of Khasak) was like a punch in the gut.
True. Like any self-respecting Malayali teenager with intellectual aspirations (pretensions?), I too had read O.V. Vijayan’s epic while still in school. But what I had never admitted to anyone was that most of what was in there had flown right past me without leaving a dent. I had understood little, and I remembered even less. When people spoke so highly of it, I would nod in agreement, embarrassed that I had nothing to contribute to the conversation.
The other day, while browsing through the collection in a tiny DC Books store in Karama, I picked up Khasakkinte Ithihasam again. A burst of enthusiasm triggered as much by the prices, as by the cover illustration. And of course, sheer curiosity.What is in there that has triggered so much dialogue for so many decades?
Life comes back to where it started – in one way or the other. The world I had eased myself out of enveloped me again like quagmire, oozing out of the 168 pages of the O.V. Vijayan’s classic novel. Only now, with almost half a century of life behind me, there is no way I can escape the vagaries of Khasak.
There is little I can say about the book that has not been said before.
Ravi is familiar – a young, literate, well-read man from a reasonably well-to-do family, in the throes of existential crisis. The quintessential protagonist of Malayalam literature of the time. I have met him in various forms and names between the pages of the many novels I have read. Vijayan, however, does not make any concessions for Ravi, unlike some other ‘heroes’ of that era. He is what he is by choice. Or compulsion – take your pick. But the last thing he needs is your sympathy.
What Vijayan narrates, however, is not Ravi’s story – it is the history of Khasak in all its myriad, yet dark, hues. Madhavan Nair, Appukkili, Mollakka, Nijaamali, Mymoona, Chandumma, Kunjaamina…. the list of Khasak’s children is endless, and each one plays a vital role in taking the narrative forward. Even the ghosts, gods and folklore of Khasak are living, breathing entities in Vijayan’s eerily familiar world, as real as it is imaginary. A world that is raw, primal and open to the elements.
Which, like life, brings me back to where I started – the dialect. It was the Malayalam that Vijayan has chosen for his epic that took me by the scruff of my neck. And it dropped me right in the middle of a world that I had safely stayed away from for decades. A very Khasak-like universe where a third of my memories (because my idea of ‘home’ was split three-ways during my growing up years) are set in.
Pazhanimala would tether the bullocks to the cart and we would go to the theatrein Oottarawith its thatched roof and stained screen to watch Jayan seducing married women with his pecs and biceps. Mutton biriyani from Rahmania Hotel after, and a return journey under the starry, starry sky, with the tinkle of little brass bells lulling me to sleep…
If all was well that is.
A stray memory that drifted in.
There is a Khasak napping inside me, like there is in so many others. And it has now become restless.
Every good prose, I feel, has poetry running through it like a golden thread. It is there in a turn of phrase, a line that you want to utter out loud. Poetry lingers like melancholy in Vijayan’s writing, woven into the harsh overtones of its vernacular, adding to its poignancy, its earthy shadows. Touching you in a way that only poetry can.
If the hallmark of good literature is to disturb the reader, to shake them out of complacency, then it’s little wonder that Khasakkinte Ithihasam continues to revive and thrive, decade after decade.
Yesterday morning, I made a rather feeble attempt to clear out the ton of paper that’s making my rather feeble IKEA shelf sag. I didn’t get very far of course, but I did find some interesting-in-retrospect notes I had jotted down. Most of them were work-notes, taken down while on assignments, but some are just wistful, random jottings, scribbled haphazardly, in Aditya’s old notebooks, sheets of A4 with stuff printed behind, or those cute-looking notepads I tend to hoard ambitiously.
Among them was this note – written at the beginning of this summer. I know I had just come back from my morning walk in the park, but I don’t know if I had meant to add to this or it was just a random thought. Either way, it brought a remembered smile – and a faint whiff of neem flowers – to my morning. And hope – that the summer is on its last legs, and it will become walkable again.
It’s only May, and the sun is already sleepless. Now there’s June, July, August, and September to go. The balmy breeze that’s still hovering will soon be evicted, her place taken by razor-edged summer wind that sears all it touches.
For now, though, the neem flowers are giving way to baby fruits – nature goes on, and so does life,
I breathe in deeply wondering why we, who are perfecting AI and plotting to colonize Mars, have not yet found a way to capture the fragrance of neem flowers and release it slowly, so it takes us through the summer.
That’s it. Just that much on a torn-out sheet of lined paper. I’m now sure I’d meant to add on, but it hadn’t happened. I did manage to dig out a photograph I had clicked on the day though, thanks to technology.
Ahead of me is a long summer day, complete with a long bus-metro-metro-cab commute to the end of Dubai and back. But for now, it’s just these green, green words jotted down in scratchy red ink. And they will see me through.
Another Onam day. And like on every Onam day for the past howevermany years, today too I feel that familiar, lingering sense of sadness. Melancholy, as a thin film of salt water that gathers at the corner of my eyes, blurring my vision ever so slightly.
Why sadness, you might ask.
And I would say, because I miss–
Oh, so many things!
I don’t know. Things… There’s a word for it – there has to be. For this longing for the unnameable; for what’s lost and can never come back… Ah never mind!
But let me tell you this. Very, very long ago, I’d started writing a story.
So what’s new in that, you might ask again.
Nothing at all, I’d say. It’s just one of the million almost-but-not-quite-complete projects that fill the hard drive of my Mac. Only, this one is on Onam. So I remembered it today. Also because I tend to drivel, and today I feel the itch to.
So allow me to share the beginning of my Onam story, Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams. As I have named it, for whatever it is worth.
Maybe I’d shared it here before? I’m not sure. Pardon me if I have. Here goes, then:
Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams
“I love Onam, don’t you!” She finished the sentence with an exclamation mark instead of a question mark, overwrote the ‘love’ and underlined the ‘Onam’, secure in the knowledge that the ‘you’ at the receiving end shared her passionate love for Onam. Malu was writing her diary after all.A worldly-wise fourteen, she hadn’t managed to outgrow her fascination for the festival. She loved the rituals and the colours, and more than anything else, she loved the folklore associated with it.
“It’s the most beautiful festival in the whole world.”Again she underlined and overwrote as required, for proper effect.Her ‘whole world’ began at Thenappilly where she lived, a small town with a radius of roughly six kilometres, to her father’s village – about twenty kilometres away. Her school was somewhere midway.
“Legend says that Kerala had, once upon a time, been ruled by a benevolent asura king, Mahabali. Now, Asuras were traditionally expected to terrorize humans and loot the land.Mahabali, on the contrary, loved his subjects, and was in turn loved by them.There was enough of everything for everybody in the land, so there was no theft, nor any other crime of any sort.”Kallavumilla chatiyumilla, kallatharangal mattonnumilla…There was no child who had not heard those lines and marveled at the utopia that Kerala had once been.
“However, the Devas – the Gods above – did not like the state of affairs in Kerala.They were worried that if this little piece of land became such a heaven, what was going to happen to their own ‘original’ heaven?So they decided that it was time for some subtle political manoeuvres.” Like dethroning the king, sending him to the netherworld, and claiming the land for themselves…The usual stuff.
“So they approached Lord Vishnu, one of the three mightiest gods, the thrimurthis. Vishnu heard them out, and promised to do something.”
At this point, Malu made slight alterations to the story.She did not like to believe that Lord Vishnu, her favourite among all the Gods, would do what he eventually did, just to appease some jealous immortals with serious complexes.No, he was too much of a man for that.There had to be a greater, more benevolent, reason! So Malu clung to a more acceptable version of the story she had once heard or read somewhere.
“Mahabali was a great guy, but his sons had not inherited his benevolence.Lord Vishnu feared that after Mahabali’s time, when his sons took over, they would reduce the land to nothing.He had to do something before that, so he intervened.”
That sounded like a reasonable enough explanation.
“So Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamanan, a dwarf Brahmin, and came to Mahabali’s court to ask him for three feet of land.No one refused a Brahmin anything. And Mahabali, who did not refuse anybody anything, told Vamanan to measure out the land he wanted and take it.The prudent men of his court suspected foul play and tried to stop him, but Mahabali, wise as the sages, knew his time was up. So he decided to play along.” After all, it was Lord Vishnu himself who had come for him!
“Vamanan the dwarf then grew so tall that the first foot he measured out covered the earth. The second encompassed the skies, and there was nowhere left to place the third foot.So Mahabali bowed down and asked Vamanan to place it on his head.
“Mahabali was thus sent to the netherworld. He asked for only one thing in return – that he should be allowed to return to his beautiful land once a year to visit his ‘children’. Since then, every year, his subjects welcomed their beloved king in the happiest way possible, regardless of the religion they followed. They made beautiful flower carpets in front of their houses through the ten days of the festival, and on the tenth day made the traditional feast, sadya, in his honour.” Malu was also writing for posterity.
Malu enjoyed preparing the flower bed in front of the old tharavadu – the family house where she lived with her mother and aunt – although growing up had curtailed most of the fun.When she was younger, she used to get up early in the morning and join her brothers – though she was an only child, she had plenty of cousins – and a few other children from the neighbourhood to pick flowers from anywhere they could. Roadsides, fences, temples, even other people’s back- and front-yards. Malu firmly refused to call that ‘stealing’ – it was every child’s solemn duty to gather as many flowers as they could on Onam days. The end justified the means, as they say.
So they would gather as many flowers as they could, rush back to tharavadu, and share the loot.While sharing, there would be a lot of arguments and fights, but in the end, might was always right.Malu’s brothers had a standing in the group that was unparalleled, so they were never short of flowers.
But now that she was fourteen, her mother refused to let her go with her gang.Added to that was the fact that now this ‘gang’ was almost non-existent – only one of her brothers lived at home; the others had left for big cities in search of jobs.So now she had to make do with the flowers from their own yard, and the supply was limited.
“Oh how I miss the Onams of my childhood!”
She drew a line to indicate that the entry for the day ended there. Then she decorated the margins with flowers and leaves.It was the Onam day entry, after all.
So it goes, my not-so-short story. On and on and on. Like me when I start talking. Do you know that I can talk myself out of anything? Sadness, nostalgia, frustration, anger, broken heart, broken bones… you name it. Ask my family if you don’t believe me. Or my students. In fact, people get worried when I am silent.
And see how I’m already feeling better?
Anyway, here’s wishing you all a very, very soulful Onam. There’s a payasam boiling away on my stove, in case you’re interested.
Grief loves the hollow, all it wants is to hear its own echo. Be careful.
Many times while reading Hisham Matar’s ‘In the Country of Men’, I asked myself if this book would have resonated so much with me had I not been living here, in the UAE. If I had not had, among my friends, people who hail from other Middle East nations. If we had not shared stories with each other over tea and croissants. Or reminisced longingly about our home countries while maneuvering the rush hour traffic…
The answer is, probably not. Because some stories tend to remain once removed until they enter your immediate orbit. Until the ambiguous ‘they’ becomes a Maha, Sameh or Yasmin. Until you see at close quarters the shadow of displacement and hopeless longing at the edges of their brown, sun-lit eyes. Then they begin to find their echo in you.
Once, early on in my brief stint with a corporate house as its content provider, I was introduced to someone who had just come back from Syria after the funeral of his sister. She had been arrested some weeks ago for taking part in protests. In the same office, a young girl, only slightly older than my son, went to her country on vacation and was held there under house arrest. In the idealism of her youth, she had posted some images of protests on social media. It took months of intervention for her to be allowed out of her country.
In the Country of Men reminded me of all these stories. And others I have heard and read over the past twelve years in the Middle East.
Set in Tripoli, Libya, during Qaddafi’s regime, the narrative unfolds as a series of events seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Suleiman. Slooma, as he is fondly addressed by the people close to him, is a not-very-silent witness to personal and political realities he is unable to fully grasp. His beautiful yet ‘ill’ mother is an enigma; so is his businessman father who suddenly goes away without informing him. Then there are others – friends, neighbours, and acquaintances – whose lives are inextricably tied to his own: Moosa, Nasser and several others, including his friend and next door neighbour Kareem and his father Ustath Rashid.
Suleiman is puzzled and deeply hurt by the events that unfold, and he reacts to them in ways that only a child is capable of. In the end, he too bears the brunt of an uprising gone wrong in the world of adults.
In the Country of Men is also a story of love – the love of a nine-year-old son for his mother. She who condemns Sheherzadie of One Thousand and One Nights for choosing the life of a slave over death. Suleiman’s love for his mother is complex, often inexplicable even to himself. He longs to protect her from her own past, from all the men who seem to run her life. Yet there are times when he is filled with anger and hatred towards this self-absorbed woman with secrets he can’t bear to be privy to.
If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark, warm embrace of hate, but always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love.
In the Country of Men certainly has its moments. Poignant ones. Some as beautiful as the Mediterranean sea and sky they evoke. And there are words that linger even after you close the book and put it away.
I suffer an absence, an ever-present absence, like an orphan not entirely certain of what he has missed or gained through his unchosen loss. (…) How readily and thinly we procure these fictional selves, deceiving the world and what we might have become if we hadn’t got in the way, if only we had waited to see what might have become of us.
So it goes, Matar’s narrative, which effectively conveys Suleiman’s love, loneliness, bewilderment and misplaced anger to the reader, while highlighting the pervading sense of the fear and anxiety that stems from Libya’s political climate of the time. The unease that Suleiman feels is also the reader’s.
I have to admit though that I was left feeling a little dissatisfied, especially towards the end, when the story suddenly seems to fragment, dissipate. There are paragraphs that felt disjointed and rushed, pages I sought more from. When I turned the last page and closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel that the narrative stopped just short of achieving something. Poetry, perhaps. Or something equally vague.
Or perhaps the fault lies in my expectations.
For a while now, I had been reading more about books than books themselves. My desk and bookshelf are full of half-read fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Sometimes I feel as if the summer has a vice-grip on my soul, not allowing me to focus on anything. ‘In the Country of Men’ is, in truth, the first book I have completed in many weeks. And I feel a sense of release – as if a dark spell has been broken. As if the ennui, the listlessness, will soon begin to ebb, like the heat outside. In that sense, I do have a lot to be grateful for. To Hisham Matar’s Man Booker Prize-nominated book.
I woke up to those words. They were there, inside the warm sheets, hovering between me and my sleep. Nudging me awake. Gently, persistently. I wish I knew what they meant, those words. I wish I could read dreams.
But then, I don’t remember dreaming of dragonflies. I just remember the words. And they didn’t come in my dreams. They woke me up.
This morning, there are dragonflies in the air. Just words. Without a speaker or a context.
When I was a child, I remember my mother peering at the heavy, grey-green-and-brown sky above our front yard and telling me: See how dragonflies are flying low? It’s going to rain! Come inside! And I would stand there, looking up at them, listening to their glassy wings, waiting for the rain. Wondering whether they were flying low because it was going to rain, or it was going to rain because they were flying low.
This morning, there are dragonflies in the air.
But I’m in a city now. A desert city. In the summer. With a pale, cloudless, dragonflyless sky stretched endlessly outside my window. High above the sand, the cars, the buildings and the few brave trees. Out of reach of us, little people. There are no dragonflies in the air. Never been.
In my living room, a painting. The result of a six-hour lesson on acrylic painting years ago. Where everything is a deep blue. The water, the sky, the sun, the people… Even the pink of the lotus is blue. In there, just above the flowers are a couple of dragonflies. Blue ones.