Category Archives: Vulnerability

‘A Woman Is No Man’

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.

‘The Weekend’ Bernhard Schlink

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A terrorist, freed from prison after almost thirty years. His sister, who has been a mother to him gathering a group of his friends from thirty years ago. A weekend in the country. In the hope that at least one of them can help him, guide him back to life.

They were an angst filled generation. Fired with anger against establishment, fascism, inequalities, injustice. Today, they are a motley group. A journalist, a vicar, a lawyer, a businessman, a teacher, having lived, loved, lost, gained. And Jorg, the terrorist.

As the weekend unfolds, questions are asked, more to themselves than others. Some secrets unveiled, some still hidden. The futility of ‘what others think,’ for some of them realize that others might not have been  thinking anything at all. That all they were afraid of all this time was maybe fear itself. Only that.

Some existential questions, and some beautiful answers from unexpected sources. A son, trying to find answers from a father that had given just given him up, forgotten him? All through this, how relationships make and break, how one’s truth could be another’s lie. Of betrayals and guilt.

Why terrorism, who is a terrorist and why, how should they be treated and what becomes of them if they are not killed in youth, would they have dreams like others, what of their family.

Also, how the realism of life overwhelms the idealism of youth, how the cycle repeats itself. How much is in our control, how much from our genes and circumstances, and whether we have any right to all to judge the other for the paths they chose, even question them.

Finally, the freedom. The peace that comes from knowing that all you can and should do is let it be.

It took me less than half a weekend. Pick it up if life, people , their thoughts, questions, relationships, expectations and conversations excite you.

And peace be with you 🙏

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

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An 18 year old Australian girl goes to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange program, hears of an execution which incidentally is the last one there, then spends ten years in research and converts it into a spellbinding story – that is Hannah Kent and her debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for you.

Agnes Magnusdottir is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend. The story is set in early 19th century. The execution is to happen in the area where it happened, but there are no prisons there. Jon Jonson, a regional official is forced to take her into his household for safekeeping until the deed is done. His wife Margaret and their two daughters have mixed reactions to Agnes being with them. The story unfolds mostly through Agnes narrating it to Toti, the young priest who is assigned to make her repent before her death.

Margaret has heard bits and pieces of Agnes’s story and she is rightly uncomfortable with having to put up with a murderess in her life that is already fraught with enough pain and challenges. But her innate goodness comes through right from the beginning. The background that is set is already stark with the unbearable cold and the dilapidated, grimy state of their surroundings. Even that seems mild in comparison to the state that Agnes is in. Margaret cannot ignore it even though she had decided not to have too much to do with the fallen woman.

Agnes slowly settles herself into the household silently, and she turns into a support that Margaret desperately needed. The two daughters are a contrast in characters and the way they treat Agnes. As her story unfolds, along with the reader, the family also comes to know of the why and how of what happened that night.

The maturity of the writing and the understanding of the psyche of the characters is truly commendable. What held my attention was the nuances of the underlying emotions between the women. The connect that only women seem to have, the subtle ways in which Margaret shows her support for someone who has no one else in the world and how she defends Agnes against her nosy neighbours tugs at your heart.

Agnes, like any other woman longs for stability and validation that has been denied her right from childhood when her mother leaves her when she was six. The manner in which her life turns out shows us how circumstances and people’s opinions can make or mar us. It underlines how nothing ever is stark black or white, and it is in the gray areas that we live and love.

The characters are drawn out so well that we can almost touch and feel them. It is as though you are lying in one of the beds in the room and listening to Agnes pouring her heart out to the young priest. You cry for her as she refuses to taint anyone, especially the baby that she saved the life of. And the despair and futility of it all, when finally the inevitable happens.

I don’t know why we are so amazed reading a brilliant debut novel, especially by someone young. How can one write about such emotions without going through something similar, we wonder. Then you realize, that is what brilliance is all about. That one can write so deeply about something they might not have experienced.

A must read, I would say. And totally deserving all the awards that it garnered.

 

 

The latest from my favorite author

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Eating wasps. Haven’t we all? Mistaking it for a honey bee, hoping and dreaming that it’s an eternal pot of honey that we have caught. Only to be stung, the honey turning bitter the moment it enters our mouth.

The story starts with the poet Sreelakshmi killing herself and the bone of her little finger being locked in an old cupboard by her lover Markose. After years, we find the cupboard in a resort “Near the Nila,’   the finger held tight by a little girl who is haunted by the ghosts of an ‘uncle.’

We come across them, one after another. Those that attempted to catch and eat wasps of validation. For Urvashi, it was her desirability  after fifty, for Megha, that she was lovable, for Najma, that there was life after a horrible tragedy, for Brinda, that life was all about demolishing her opponents, for Lilliana, a life after a scandal, for Molly, the act of contrition that she is trying to figure out.

There is a little bit of us in each of those women. The never ending attempt to validate ourselves, in someone or something else. As if our very existence will not be justified until someone makes a tick mark.  The ever elusive ink of approval. That we are desirable, lovable, worthy, wise, valuable. And we go in search of one chimera after another. That eternal pot of honey at the end of the rainbow. If we cannot get the whole pot, let’s at least get that honey bee. So we run after them, knowing not what they are. And getting stung.

What is endearing in these stories is what happens after the bitter bite. When they realize that it is poison that they consumed. It starts with Radha, I would say. Those of you who have read the author’s ‘Mistress’ would remember her. I did not like how the story ended, honestly. The meekness, they very ordinariness of her decision had enraged me. She stays in the background in this story. But the place is pervaded by her soul, the steely resolve in her can be felt in each stone of that place. And I love this new Radha.

The women make their own honey in spite of, or maybe because of the wasps that consumed them temporarily. Is it because all of them are contemporary, I wonder. The reach of social media, the ready availability of news from across the world makes them aware that they are not alone in this journey. Many have trodden the path that they now embark upon. They were stung too, but they just spit the poison out and continued. Not in the least bothered about their swollen lips and blue faces.

And that makes me wonder whether Sreelakshmi would have a taken a different path had she lived in these times. She made an attempt at going  on a road less travelled much before it was built. Only to fall.

The men in these stories seem to have gone scot free, left to live their lives as they wanted. But then, isn’t that too what happens time and again? Slices of life as we know it. Maybe that explains the heavy feeling that hung upon me even days after finishing the book.

 

Being Vulnerable

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“I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning,”

Acknowledging that you are vulnerable, asking for help when you need it. Most of the time, it takes something that shocks you out of life as you knew it, to bring you to your knees. We wonder why certain things happen to us. The reasons may not always seem clear in the beginning. And it is revealed only to those who search for it, with all their heart.

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I’ve always respected this woman, though ‘Lean In’ was not something that I fully subscribed to. Then came her husband’s death. How she reacted to it was beyond belief. She opened herself up, completely. In the process she has inspired millions to open themselves up, to have the courage to accept their vulnerabilities, and say it out loud. Coming from one of the ‘strongest’ women in the professional world today, this must have let out a huge sigh and more than few tears from men and women alike. The myth of ‘having it all toegether,’ come what may, has been busted. This is what true inspiration is all about.

Two books that I read and re read in the past few months reiterates this.

Brene Brown, in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

Elizabeth Lesser continues in ‘Broken Open’

“had I neever stumbled down the mountain of my ideals, had my ego not been humbled by loss, and my heart not broken open by pain, I would not have discovered the secret treasure that lies waiting for each one of us at the bottom of our most difficult times.”

Read and then tell your story. It will make you free and make some others open up as well. For, healing happens when you share yourself.