Do people write to exorcise their inner demons? Does fictionalizing it help them come to terms with reality? Maybe so, just as journaling is supposed to do.
In these days of very short attention span, I am immensely grateful for such books that come my way, that makes me forget the world around. That they may take me to another world of pain and loss is another matter altogether.
Spanning four generations starting in Ein Hod, a beautiful village in Palestine, the story follows the family of Amal, the protagonist, to the refugee camp in Jenin, to Jerusalem, Lebanon and the United States. A family that has lived on the same property for generations, growing olives is suddenly displaced with the formation of Israel. What they thought was temporary slowly turns permanent. The proud patriarch, whose very soul is deeply interconnected with his land, slowly loses himself. His bright son and his spirited gypsy of a wife turns shadows of themselves and turns inward, trying to fight their inner demons. As for their kids, one of the twin sons gets lost as they flee and ends up in an Israeli home and grows up as one, eventually and inevitably fighting against his own brother. Amal, their daughter is born in the camp and grows up listening to the stories of their long lost glory.
The author takes you through Amal’s life, tells us how her mornings with her father shapes her for life, how everything she loved comes crumbling around her, how you could be hounded for life for what your loved ones could have done, how she finds an ephemeral love and how beautiful souls help her physically escape the war and rife.
This could be the story of families anywhere in war torn areas. People displaced overnight, strangers taking over what was yours for generations, what you had taken for granted. You don’t lose hope at first, dream of returning home. Some resign themselves to their fate. Others rebel and try to wreak revenge. What is right and what is wrong, how can you judge anyone?
As always, it’s never the governments that saves some of them. Individuals and organizations fight for them and some are rescued. What exactly are they rescued from is another question altogether. The scars are passed on from generation to generation. It was after reading Yiyun Li’s ‘Where Reasons End’ that I started wondering whether we pass on our emotional scars to our offspring as part of our DNA. So much of our instincts are inherited, aren’t they? We get scared of expressing our emotions, fearing our loved ones might get too dependent on us and what if we turn incapable of providing solace one day? To protect them we retreat, we withhold. In turn pass on the same insecurities and fears to the next generation.
It’s a story of betrayals, of being let down, letting others and even our loved ones down. How spirits are broken, trodden upon. Also of hope. That in spite of all the wrongdoings, there are beacons of light everywhere and they are the ones that keeps hope alive. It’s also a story of love, between parents and children, siblings. More important, it’s a story of friendships that cross the borders of class and religion.
Apparently someone had accused the author of being one sided. How would you not be, when the story is so personal. Abulhawa’s parents are from Jerusalem, her father was expelled during the 1967 war, her mother was in Germany at that time and could never go back. When you lose everything that you once had and stood for, how is it even possible to think otherwise?
I could draw a lot of parallels with Kashmir. A generation that had a past they were proud of, and their offspring that has not known anything better or different. How fights turn personal and violent when it hits places and people close to your heart. How privileged we are, who judge them from afar, exhorting them to be happy with what they’ve been left with. What do we really know of their pain?
There is a slightly old movie that I watched recently, ‘I Am.’ Four stories, one of which is from Kashmir. Two childhood friends, one a Pandit girl and the other a Muslim. Juhi Chawla’s character plays the Pandit girl. She’s back in Kashmir to sell her ancestral home off. Her friend, played by Manisha Koirala is eagerly trying to connect with her. For Juhi’s character, the pain is too raw, she feels the others have had a better deal. All the while scenes of destruction and a life controlled by police and paramilitary forces are shown. The boy in the family was a one time militant but had surrendered years ago. The family still continues to be harassed. In the last scene, Koirala who’s had enough of Juhi’s barbs asks her, “do you think you would have been happy here if we were the ones who were forced to leave?”
One of the most poignant parts in the book is where the family goes back to their ancestral home that is now converted into an artist’s retreat. The current owners shut the door on them saying they’ve seen too many of their kind. They want to be left in peace.
Peace, it means so many different things, depending on who you are and where you are from, isn’t it?
‘The Jackfruit Company’ said the label and ‘Pulled Pork,’ the product. Our humble chakka and pork? That is interesting, I thought and checked the ingredients. ‘Young Jackfruit, Water, Expeller Pressed Canola Oil, Pea Protein, Sea Salt, Yeast, Smoked Sugar, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Black Pepper.’ But where did the pork go? That is when realization dawned. The links that were flooding my timeline which as usual were skipped for meatier contents. The new age miracle food that is apparently creating storms across chef’s tables in western world. ‘The perfect whole food plant-based meat alternative,’ said the experts. Is it all a dream, I wondered. And as is my usual wont, closed my eyes and set out on a trip of more than a few thousand miles, back to that sleepy village by the river Pamba.
The trees stood like an afterthought. One here, one there, minding its own business and demanding nothing but some space in the yard. I am not sure whether anyone even seriously planted a seed or sapling. Maybe it just grew by itself from a nut that was discarded carelessly. Its childhood would have been slightly tough if there were goats around, the leaves were their favorite food. Growing up without much ado, the fruits would start sprouting after three to four years.
The outer layer looks like the face of a teenager with an acute case of pimple break outs. The heart though is another story altogether. It takes one form when raw and a totally different one when ripe. Just like that teenager. I have seen only two types of chakka, the firm and strong varikka and the coy and mellow koozha. And may be one more, the much-coveted sub species, the thenvarikka, so called for its honey like sweetness. The fruits would usually be left undisturbed to languish by itself until they reached the stage of just before turning ripe.
Cutting the fruit and separating the chula is not for the mild hearted. A large knife sharpened to perfection, one or two strong strokes across the middle, it would open its heart wide and lay bare in front of you, ready to be torn apart. Woe betide you if you forgot to coat your hands in ample amounts of coconut oil, for this can be a sticky affair. The sap gets attached to you quite easily and getting it off your hands can be quite a task.
The raw ones were taken down occasionally to make the mouth watering puzhukku. The petals are cut into small pieces and boiled in water until it turns soft. Meanwhile a concoction of grated coconut, shallots, green chillies, a few pinches of cumin and turmeric powder gets ground on stone. This is then dumped on top of the now soft chakka pieces, covered and cooked for a few minutes. Once the raw smell goes off, everything is mixed well, a teaspoon or so of coconut oil and few sprigs of curry leaves added and the puzhukku is ready. Paired with kaanthaari chutney or fiery red fish curry, this is one of the tastiest breakfast or evening dishes you could ever think of. The plethora of raw jackfruit preparations that we see marketed across the world today singing paeans to its nutritious value tells us how wise our ancestors were. Another much coveted raw jack fruit preparation is the fried version, the chakka varuthathu. Split open just at the right stage, somewhere between raw and ripe, the flowers are expertly cut into long pieces, smeared with turmeric, fried crisp until golden in coconut oil and sprinkled with salt. The thinner the strips, the higher your expertise in making this. As for devouring it one after another, anyone could lay claim to be a master.
The fun starts as the fruit ripens. You don’t have to keep a tab; your nose will tell you when it is ready. I have heard people say it stinks, but then what do those amateurs know of golden ambrosia? The thenvarikka takes precedence everywhere. The easiest of all is the chakka puttu. Replace the grated coconut with sliced chakka chula and voila, a meal by itself is ready. No sides required, for this one.
The ingredients in almost all the sweet dishes are more or less the same. Jaggery, grated coconut, powdered cardamom, dried ginger and some flour. The mix, what you wrap it in, and the strength of your forearms makes all the difference. The first version has a wrapped and non-wrapped version. Melt the jaggery, add grated coconut, cardamom powder and a pinch of salt. Slowly sauté until everything is mixed well, the chakka pieces should retain its identity and not lose itself in the mix. This is used as a filling, also eaten as such when the spirits of gluttony gets out of control. The outer covering is of rice flour made into a dough with salt and water. This is gently spread into a thin oblong on banana leaves. The filling is spread on one side, and the leaf gently folded to close it. Steamed in a traditional appa chembu , this is the famous ada. The banana leaves impart its own flavor into the ada as it sweats itself out and droops in the steam. Another version is to fill the chakka mix inside a ball of the same dough and steaming it. The chakka kozhukkatta.
The kumbil was made from the koozha species. The chulas would be a gooey mess and you just have to press it neatly through a sturdy sieve. The standard ingredients along with a few pinches of cumin seeds, the jackfruit paste mixed into it and rice flour added little by little, the consistency have to be neither too thick nor too loose. Next comes the tricky part. Leaves of cinnamon tree have to be deftly shaped into cones, filled with the chakka mix and covered with one end of the leaf. Sometimes the leaves are also kept in place with sticks of coconut leaves. Steaming it is, again. Another one for the evening snacks.
The next version test your patience and strength. The ingredients are pretty much the same again. A fairly large uruli would be hoisted on a triangle of stones, jaggery melted in it and sliced pieces of jackfruit added. It would be stirred relentlessly; the intent is not to allow it to stick to the vessel. The mixture boils and hisses in anger at first, and then slowly hardens itself into reality. At this stage ghee is added little by little to make it pliant. Dried ginger powder added a little later and after a couple of hours, the whole thing gathers into a mass and gets detached from the vessel. This is now transferred into a flat vessel smeared with ghee and shaped into balls or cut into flat pieces. The chakka varattiyathu is ready. Somewhere along the process if wheat flour, more ghee and fried cashew nuts are added, this turns into halwa. There are differing opinions, some say varattiyathu and halwa are the same. Cousins and friends couldn’t shed light on this dilemma, but an aunt confirmed it. My taste buds seldom lie or forget, I knew. I remember the distinct tastes of each, ammachi’s chakka halwa was my favorite. The varattaiyathu will always remain the poor cousin.
Talking about chakka, how can one forget its kuru,? Never discarded, these were dried in the sun and added to a list of curries. By itself with some shallots , chilli powder and turmeric, it transforms itself into the tastiest mezhukku puratti, added to pieces of mango and ground coconut gravy it turns itself into the lip smacking chakka kuru maanga curry, prawns and mango pieces in coconut milk converts this into a non veg curry, how much more versatile can a fruit be?
The daughter comes in to ask something and I am jolted out of my reverie. I am pulled back to the label with its promises of meat like texture. Yes, or no? There can never be a substitute for certain things in life, I realize. It was the taste of the land that added flavor to those dishes of yore, further sweetened by the banter of my grandmother and her helpers, the gossip, tears and a few drops of sweat they added, and the most important ingredient of all, the abundance of love that was poured into it that made it special. No promises of meat like taste can replace it. Ever.
chakka – jackfruit
varikka, koozha, thenvarikka – varieties of jackfruit
chula – individual fruits inside the jackfruit
puzhukku – steamed version of raw jackfruit with some spices
kaanthaari – bird’s eye chilli
appa chembu – vessel used for steaming food
varuthathu – fried
uruli – large heavy bottomed vessel made of bell metal
varattiyathu – a sweet sautéed dish
kuru – seed
ammachi – grandmother
mezhukku puratti – savoury sautéed dish
maanga – mango
Francoise Frenkel was born to be a bookseller. Books were her favorite gifts right from childhood. Such was her love for books that the bookshelf that she had custom made for her sixteenth birthday had glass walls on all four sides and was promptly placed in the middle of her bedroom.
Born in Poland, life took her to Paris, “for long years of study and work.’ For someone who spent every spare moment of hers “along the riverbanks in front of the bouquinistes’ old, damp cases of books,” it was only natural that she started working in a bookshop.
The First World War left its aftermath on her homeland and home. Returning to Poland she finds her home almost bare and with no trace of her beloved books and her dream bookshelf. However, when the time came to chose a profession, she didn’t have to think twice, selling books it was. The Francophile that she had turned into, her first choice was to open a French bookshop in Poland. Fate led her to Berlin instead. In no time ‘La Maison du Livre’ became a haven for intellectuals and artists alike, it was frequented by diplomats and celebrities.
She started facing difficulties in 1935 as Jews were becoming targets of suspicion. Importing books became a challenge with innumerable bureaucratic hurdles to be faced. Confiscation of newspapers and books of blacklisted authors became the order of the day. Then came the forms that asked details of her race, generations of her family. Her narration here was eerily familiar to what we see and hear in India these days.
“Are you Frau So-and-So? Father’s name? Mother’s name? Race? Age? Date and place of birth? Identity papers! You are accused of having left at Easter for an unknown destination and of crossing the border illegally.”
Then came Kristallnach – the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938.
“The city burned like Nero’s Rome that day, engulfed in an atmosphere of destruction.
Goods and wares which had been hurled out of windows were carried off by the mob. Whoever tried to defend himself or to save his property was manhandled and abused.
This time, there were bloody, murderous encounters. Everything took place under the very noses of an uninterested police force.
Right next door to these scenes of looting, officers were directing traffic.”
Her bookshop was spared, but the time had come to move on, or literally flee to Paris. And from there starts her saga in search of refuge. From Paris to Avignon to Vichy, Clermont-Ferrand, Nice and Annecy, she is helped by a series of French people most of whom are ashamed of the happenings in their country and what their country men are forced to do. In the end, she literally throws herself over a fence of barbed wire into Switzerland.
It’s a tale of persecution, of unimaginable horror as we all know by now. But Frenkel’s story focuses mostly on the goodness of the people who helped her in spite of the grave risks they themselves would have faced. She gets arrested, is thrown into prison, faces some dark characters, however it’s light that pervades her narrative. Particularly moving for me was how she finds joy in nature even as she is waiting for one of the two – capture or escape, chances of capture being higher.
“A water fountain murmuring in the middle of a square. Nearby, a little bridge from ancient times, looking toylike with its delicate balustrade.
A footbridge seemingly lifted straight out of a theater set; the lively rushing stream and pervasive smell of watery plant life the only things to remind you that it was real. On the street corner, an old church surrounded by dilapidated buildings.”
‘The Rediscovered Memoir of One Woman’s Harrowing Escape From the Nazis’ says the red stamp on the cover of the book. The book was originally published in 1945, and went largely unnoticed I guess. It was then apparently rediscovered in a jumble sale in Nice and republished in 2015. Originally written in French, the English translation is by Stephanie Smee.
All through the book I couldn’t help but think of Anne Frank. In spite of all they had to go through, it is hope, light and the goodness of people that shines through. Frank broke free through her words, Frenkel, physically too. One is left thinking why we as a race never learn from what happened to others. How patterns keep repeating over the years, how a false sense of superiority or having been persecuted paves the way to persecuting another race, some other religion. Hope prevails, in spite of all the blood and gore.
These words sent a chill down the spine, though. Eerily familiar.
“Oh, the memory of the emergence of a leader with the face of an automaton, a face so deeply marked by hate and pride, dead to all feelings of love, friendship, goodness, or pity …
And clustered around this leader with his hysterical voice, a captive crowd capable of any violence, any murderous act!”
I am a faithful infidel. In my relationship with books, that is. At any point in time, there are at least 4-5 books in various stages of reading. Some are left behind on the way, to be forgotten completely. Others are picked up depending on the time of the day and the level of lucidity or exhaustion of the mind, as the case maybe. Interesting fiction gathers pace while engrossing non fiction is taken one or two chapters a day. The list on my e-reader keeps expanding almost daily. And half of them recede into a place so far down that sometimes it is lost for ever. However, some others are dragged back to the top as another list appears and the said book have to be read, just then.
So it was with this one. Downloaded some time ago, picked up for reading after an appearance somewhere in December. One chapter at a time, over a couple of months.
The premise was interesting enough, a psychotherapist, four patients of hers, and her therapist. I didn’t have any expectations, honestly. Maybe because I was not sure what to expect. Lori Gottlieb is an American writer and psychotherapist who writes the Dear Therapist in The Atlantic, said Wikipedia. Whatever, I was ready to take a chance.
Her patients – a self absorbed Hollywood producer, a thirty five old, recently married terminally ill woman, an almost seventy year old who is planning to kill herself if something really good did not happen to her soon enough, and a twenty something girl who flits from one relationship to another. Then catastrophe strikes the therapist. Her boyfriend who she was planning to get married to, drops a bombshell that he wants to opt out. The reason? He doesn’t think he can bring up another kid, that too someone as young as the author’s son. Her whole world comes crashing down and her search for healing brings her to another therapist’s couch, that of the inimitable Wendell. Of course, it’s a pseudo name. But that’s besides the point.
Reading through the first few chapters was like browsing through some magazine articles at random. The author was slowly building the confidence of her patients in her, while she herself was struggling to face her issues. Under the age old guise of finding a therapist ‘for a friend,’ she lands up on Wendell’s couch. Literally and of course figuratively. She is no different from her patients, talking about everything under the sun except what needed to be talked about.
Slowly, each story grows on you. What seems obvious are not the real issues. The roots of each case go deep, planted long ago, watered by others and nourished by themselves. The insecurities, deep rooted fears and in almost all cases, the never ending guilt that makes them stop on their tracks, stunting their emotional growth and affecting their relationships.
Even in the Western world where you can find more therapists than pediatricians, it is still a stigma. One of Lori’s patients even pays her in cash, not to leave any trails. Going to therapy is equated with being crazy, having a mental illness, that needs ‘treatment.’ Lori’s stories bring out how therapy is much more than that, how it is more about emotional growth, crossing the deep chasm of guilt, taking responsibility for our selves even when we might be scared to death.
The meaning of the book took a turn for better for me somewhere midway when the author quoted Viktor Frankl. Something that I keep reminding myself from time to time, to live by. If you haven’t yet, read his ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning.’ It will stay with you, for life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
As the author starts confronting her demons, there is a marked change in her patient’s lives too. Slow, but sure. Yes, a young woman is inching closer to death, however in acceptance and thankful for the short and happy life she has had. With an obituary that could be the aim of all our lives,
“For every single day of her thirty-five years,” she wanted it to read, “Julie Callahan Blue was loved.”
The producer finds acceptance about a catastrophe that has turned his life upside down, the guilt laden old woman reaches out to the dear ones whom she had hurt deeply, the young woman learns to stand her ground in relationships and her smoking habit too. It’s miraculous how their attitudes and their lives itself change once acceptance is made.
“At some point, being a fulfilled adult means taking responsibility for the course of your own life and accepting the fact that now you’re in charge of your choices.”
As Lori and her patients cross their hurdles something unwinds in us too. So much dust and cobwebs swept under the carpet that our minds are. And the carpet growing mustier and thicker as years go by. How our behaviors are shaped by unresolved happenings and thoughts. How guilt overpowers us. That the uncertainties, the questions, the doubts, the angst is all necessary before we take that leap of faith.
“Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and experience something before its meaning becomes apparent.”
So, here I am. Ready to leap.
Maybe I will find my own Wendell. And maybe I will talk to her.
It took me a couple of years to go past a few pages the first of Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels. Once that threshold was crossed, there was no looking back. In two weeks, all four was done and I was totally blown away.
This one took a similar turn, if I may say so. The difference though was each sentence of the Neapolitan four were devoured in detail. The Abandonment was a fast forward in contrast. One fine day, Mario tells his wife Olga that he no longer wants to have a life with her. In the fifteen years they were together, he had given some hints of unusual behavior maybe twice and Olga had believed that all those were behind them. What goes through her and her life in the ensuing days is what Ferrante portrays in this very short book.
The various phases that Olga goes through, the total disbelief, the difficulty to accept, the sheer bewilderment as to what went wrong, the cycle of guilt, the all consuming anger, the feeling of losing her mind, the changing relationship with her children, and finally the acceptance is described in graphic detail.
There is no shying away from the honesty of the protagonist’s emotions. She hates everything and everyone including her children. However, she has no choice but to go ahead with taking care of the home. While the man walks away with a younger woman, without even a thought of how his family will manage, the woman is left to pick up the pieces.
Rooting for Olga right from the beginning, almost shouting at her to get on with her life, I skipped sentences and whole paragraphs even. Ferrante doesn’t disappoint with the depth of her character portrayals. You get angry and depressed in turns, at a point I was wondering why I was going through such torture in the first place. That is where Ferrante’s magic is. She has you in her spell and it cannot be broken until you have turned the last page.
Journaling as a means of coming to terms with her father’s illness and her relationship with her father is what started it all, says Emilie Pine, an Associate Professor Of Drama at the University Of Dublin. An alcoholic father who could never be relied upon, needing his daughters when he is almost on his deathbed. How does one deal with it? The author tries to be as honest as possible, including her dilemma on whether to be even there for him or not. This sense of absolute truth sets the tone for the rest of the essays.
The pain of infertility, the stigma of menstrual bleeding, the difficulty in speaking about separation especially that of your parents, the wild years of her youth, alcoholism, sexual assaults that she experienced and finally on being female in a world that is still predominantly male, she doesn’t spare herself even a bit. To paraphrase her own words, “I wrote a book that I needed to read.”
What does another memoir do? Why read something so visceral? Why was I not able to put it down? What made my heart race through certain pages? As a dear friend once told me, we need to tell our stories so that others don’t feel lonely. That they realize there are others who have gone through the same. And came out strong. That the ones that seem to have it all are the ones that were once beaten up by life. That each of us have a million stories among us. Telling it aloud builds us, as one and as many.
Each page, every word in here is our story. Our thoughts, our angst. We are not alone.
Four women, three generations. Fardeen, Isra, Sarah and Deya. The first two, immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. Sarah and Deya, two generations of women born and brought up in Arab Brooklyn, forced to conform, waiting to break free.
At seventeen, Deya is forced to ‘sit with suitors.’ College is not for well brought up girls of Palestinian origin. She is torn apart between duty to her grandparents on one side and the urge to break free and be her own person on the other. She and her three younger sisters have only faint memories of their parents, who ‘died in a car accident.’ She seem to be on the brink of falling into a repeating pattern. Her mother, Isra was married off to a man almost twice her age and had to move to the land of dreams, America, almost overnight. All that Deya remembers is a mother who was almost always sad. She has some happy memories though, mostly of her mother reading aloud to her.
Isra had already followed the path of most Palestinian women, she was handed over a dose of reality by her mother before the wedding,
“Isra cleared her throat. “But Mama, what about love?”
Mama glared at her through the steam. “What about it?”
“I’ve always wanted to fall in love.”
“Fall in love? What are you saying? Did I raise a sharmouta?”
“No . . . no . . .” Isra hesitated. “But what if the suitor and I don’t love each other?”
“Love each other? What does love have to do with marriage? You think your father and I love each other?”
Isra’s eyes shifted to the ground. “I thought you must, a little.”
“Mama sighed. “Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s sabr, patience.”
All that Fardeen, her mother in law wants from her is a set of grandsons. Her only respite is Sarah, her twelve year old sister in law. The spark of rebellious fire in Sarah is what sustains Isra through the few years of marriage and four daughters.
As Deya goes through the process of being shown to a prospective groom, she is also struggling to come to terms with questions that has haunted her throughout. As she is succumbing to pressure, a mysterious woman appears at their door step and drops a letter for her. What follows forces her to finally confront the truth about her parents and her own choices.
In the background is the story of women almost everywhere. Of being there for their men, cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, toiling till the end of their lives. Especially of Arab women irrespective of where in the world they are. Being beaten up is taken in their stride. Most of them who are brought up in traditional manner cannot even find anything wrong with it. The conditioning is to believe that they must have done something to welcome it. For a man can never be wrong. And a woman can never question him because ‘a woman is no man.’
The author, Etaf Rum is Palestinian American. Having grown up in Brooklyn herself, what she must have seen around her must have been something very similar. In her interview here, she mentions how she had to write about the abuse in spite of the knowledge that she might be opening up a can of worms among her community. She was married after high school, had her daughter at eighteen and a son two years later. Maybe it is autobiographical in nature in that the feelings, the angst, the inner struggles of each woman is brought out so poignantly, at times it is gut wrenching. Our hearts go out to each of them, even Fardeena. What she has gone through is what makes her behave so, and she doesn’t even for a moment believe that this is a cycle that can be broken.
The most beautiful part of the story is the love for books shared by Isra, Sarah and then Deya. ‘Thousand and One Nights,’ ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Bell Jar,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ even ‘Dr.Seuss,’ gives them joy, solace, an escape from reality, and maybe redemption itself. The choice is theirs to make and each of them do it in their own way.
The women / girls are sure to tug at the string of your hearts which in all probability might still be roaming around between the kitchen and basement of that Brooklyn apartment.