I faced a little difficulty with this edition of the column. Not because I couldn’t find books to fit the criteria (there are always books!) but because, for the first time ever, I went through a reader’s block. Unlike a writer’s block, which leaves you demotivated and unable to string together a sentence without hitting the backspace button furiously, a reader’s block means you do want to read, but only a certain genre. Comfort reading, as it were, which for me is either detective novels or books about an idyllic English countryside. Regardless, I ploughed on, to get through my picks for this week — and I’m glad I did. Two memoirs, one novelised, and, by the end of it, I was ensconced in other people’s lives. As I hope you will be after you read them too.
I had a dream about Kolkata the day I bought The Epic City: The World on The Streets of Calcutta by Kushanava Choudhury. This is surprising, because I haven’t actually ever been to that city — the entire eastern part of India I am not acquainted with at all. But Choudhury’s prose, his meanderings through that city when he migrates there, a second-generation American, to reunite with the city of his youth and his family, his descriptions of crowded buses and teeming “addas”, they all lead to this book being called “the Maximum City for Calcutta.” Like Maximum City, The Epic City is full of little portraits of what makes Kolkata tick, as well as portraits of the city’s history, from the Bengal Famine to the Naxal movement. Unlike Maximum City, The Epic City is also the story of Choudhury’s relationships: to his family, to his wife, and the first year of their marriage, almost torn apart by the city.
Any quibbles I have are very minor: I wish he wouldn’t digress so much between paragraphs, it makes it hard to keep track of what’s going on; I wish he’d talk to more women than his wife and his grandmother, but, in the end, it all works, at least for me, a reader who has never been to that part of the world. I could almost be listening to Choudhury as he talked to me over a dinner table.
The news this month has been dominated by a single focus set of headlines: which powerful men have sexually harassed women. And not a moment too soon, either. I began to look for feminist books about rape culture and sexual harassment in general, and, as I expected, there was an embarrassment of riches. None that bounced out at me quite so hard as Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com and The Guardian US columnist. It’s a subject that every woman can relate to — hence the popularity of #MeToo — but not something we spend a lot of time thinking about, perhaps because it’s easier to shove it to the back of our brains, not spend too much energy contemplating our roles in society, why men assume we exist just for their pleasure. These are some of the insights I got while reading the book, and I highlighted my Kindle edition heavily, but halfway through I grew more and more depressed. Not because of Valenti’s writing, which stays upbeat and tells the stories in an offhand manner, but only because while reading her tales, I thought about my own, and a lifetime of rape culture memories will push down on your shoulders like nothing else. Read it, especially if you’re male.
“I will write a history of the world,” says Claudia Hampton. Admirable, but she says this as she lies dying in a nursing home. And so we’re sucked into the often shaky narrative that is Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, and which won the Booker in 1987.
Hampton weaves herself into the history, from the time she’s a little girl, competing with her brother Gordon, to growing up and falling in love, and, all the while, the story moves backward and forward, like you’re listening to an old lady rambling about her life. And such an old lady! Hampton is the ultimate unlikeable narrator, she’s selfish and unkind, and obsessed with her brother, and doesn’t care much about her illegitimate daughter, but even as you think you’d never be friends, you’re forced to admire her. The book takes its title from a “moon tiger” — an equivalent of the “kachhua chhaap”, or Tortoise brand mosquito repellent coils you see in India — as the author, a war correspondent and a historian, lies beside her lover to watch the ember at the end grow and fall. It’s life as it happens, sometimes sad, sometimes joyous, but all the while well-lived and isn’t that what we all want in the end?
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of five books, with the sixth, The One Who Swam With The Fishes, out now in bookstores; @reddymadhavan
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