Some scattered pieces of the self: Reflections on existence as women and with words.
For Celine, in Before Sunrise, some parts of her womanhood come from her grandmother. Some from Nina Simone – her tunes on tape and her tones in concert. Some others from a feeling that she’s a really old woman in a really young body. And she thinks she doesn’t understand love.
James Baldwin wrote that history is the present, it is contained in us, in the present. I watched his words flow from a pained mouth in another world that wasn’t mine. I saw what he said turn inward out, like a scaly scab in Shafak’s Bastard of Istanbul. I pick these words like discards for safekeeping and slowly turn to search for histories of my own present, determining my womanhood, and the energies it requires to defend itself. I take a walk, like Baldwin, like Celine, through some moments in memory.
When P married into the family, I was curious. My dream of a single independent woman was moving away from the amorphous. Someone I held close had pushed me away from their eyes and old conversations. Closer to a dusty dream because there was nothing else after (or so I thought). But more than ever, I was longing for it. I brushed off the dust, and found it lone – an absent primary male partner, walls to enclose my thoughts and movements, a kitchen small enough for everything to be within two steps away, music that beat the tappangu and then whistled on a violin, a balcony with life on one side, ash on the other and a certain freedom from excessive clothing.
It came with a cost. Weary conversations and energy. Anytime I let the dregs of this dream slip out of a mouth full of food, Amma would say, “You are absolutely not allowed to live alone. You can live in Bridgitines Hostel, like G.” G’s skin sagged with the weight of three late decades. She attended mass every morning and wore a cross around her neck on a gold chain. Because she didn’t have the man-given thali or the church-ordained chain. I remember feeling the weight of a thousand tears sitting on my chest. Loneliness was bearable, not this.
When T told me to read up Beauvoir, I was anxious. Not because of Beauvoir, or because of what it meant for my proposal, but for my abilities of seeing. As I read her however, something started to unfurl slowly, like parted lips in discovery. Suddenly I felt thankful for T. For pointing me here. She had said something about why I should read Beauvoir – “It’s not because they are existentialists that you should be reading them. It’s because the existentialists were the first to speak about experience.”
I now happen to know that all these things are pre-existing – experience, literature, words and their comfort, women and their selves. It’s just that sometimes, I do not have enough time to dwell on them myself and a reading here and a reading there helps. To see again, or to observe them in the way a woman in Paris thought of, in a time when distracting screens weren’t a thing. Maybe, she knew loneliness like I know now? Or maybe she craved it for there: she existed alone, by her own self.
Appa said yesterday that if I needed a Husband who always listened to me and I wasn’t willing to adjust, then I’d be divorced within a week. Like driving a car that doesn’t necessarily always have to end in an accident, I also realise that I wish Appa understood that marriages could possibly also be an equal exchange where the woman had a say. Sometimes his intense sexism just hurts like a rash in between your thighs. And when it hurts every time you walk, you realise that sometimes it’s just better to be alone.
When I ask P why she didn’t marry earlier, she tells me, “because I didn’t know myself, what I wanted to be.” The women I know who are in their thirties say that its when they really recognized themselves, who they were. I’m waiting, still. In Luster, Edie waits like me. She confronts her inescapable loneliness and finds Rebecca – white, unlike her, mostly sorted (unlike her), but there in the corners of everyday whiteness (very much unlike her) – still alone (like and unlike hers). Edie finds her art in the process of figuring out what this loneliness means for herself, for her art, for Rebecca.
Amma’s sister takes every chance to plan the next five years of my life for me. In the second year of PhD, we’ll start searching and find a boy for you, then by the time you have finished PhD you can get married. How to tell her I don’t know who I am, what I’m looking for and this journey of research is as much about the words around as it is about the worlds inside me? I want to show them that my worth is in myself, in relation to these words that unfurl before me, show me pink skies and blue expanses, bottomless and vast, these words I can use. Not in finding a man with a penis and a good job and no wife-beating habits. For Cheriamma, this amounts to failure. She makes a face while imagining a woman without a man. “Oru vele illa” No value. None. Whatsoever.
Edie in Luster removes a curtain behind her life, shows me what it means to exist alone, as alone as one can be in a city. Her fingers that mix paint on a palette creates for me the sadness that existing alone can make. It occupies space, like a person, until that person is your first friend, and first friend, everything else comes after, because your comfort is in being alone. Singularly alone. And therefore every other place is suffocating after a point, because you’ll never be yourself – not performing. The need to escape or for a few moments be independent of separation, sadness, the terrible loneliness that is life. I know this now, and I also know the failure that is brought by the lack of a marriage. But this little thing that Sheila Heti says in this interview is comforting again. “Only in our failures are we absolutely alone,” writes Heti. “Only in the pursuit of failure can a person really be free.” I like that idea of pursuing failure. It’s just such a relief.” It is, it really is. The idea of rock bottom means you only move upwards, but what if you’re just moving side to side? There’s just more of yourself to figure out. So I’ll take that failure Cheriamma, because it comes at the cost of my freedom and my freedom is terribly important to me.
Some days I wake up in cold sweats hoping I’ll never go back. I commit to memory all the lonely waits by bus stops and church benches and the tears in the arms of a friend a year old, but closer than a ten year relationship that erased itself in a phone call. These details find their way into my words, for writing is all I have now. It helps to form opinions this way, deforming oneself, observing the body turning away from spaces that demand love with none to give. I see this in Amma now. Her words pour forth in the conversations we have; huddled around her. She makes an effort to understand bisexuality and gay and lesbian identities. When the words reach her, her face is alien, but open. She doesn’t probe and for her silence regarding my choice not to attend daily rosary, I am most thankful. She has changed for us, because now after 50 years of life and half of it living with Appa, she has discovered that freedom and what it means for herself.
Like Fran Lebowitz says, Amma and I – we are full of opinions these days, except we still do not have the power. Amma is a lot more comfortable with this than I am. And this is where we separate. She is still unable to separate her love for teaching and her duty to provide. And we don’t let her. Amma says her dream was to be a PRO or a clerk at a telephone or post office. But now, she loves teaching her students for when they say she makes sense “it’s like they are gifting me the entire world and I cannot explain that happiness.” The same days she tells me this, she cries about her worn calf and tells us, she goes to work only for us. This is where my terror of entering marriage and creating a family lies. In one way or another, my greatgrandmother, Ammachi, my Mummy, and Amma have been sacrificing parts of their self to prove themselves worthy mothers at the cost of their own individual selves. Maybe it’s why they and I after them have wished to become nuns at a young, naive age. Because somewhere was the freedom of making your independence independent of men. Mummy says God sent her to Rome to possibly become a nun because after she would become Daddy’s wife, God knew she wouldn’t be travelling far. And by herself. Amma wishes she didn’t have to.
And I’m afraid I’ll forget that I want to, if I don’t risk a certain loneliness. If all these words and the many pictures they paint are what I have for company, then it’s a loneliness I’ll take. For Beauvoir also tells me, that’s what literature means to her: it shows you many lives, many perspectives, and you see all of them – all while you’re still you.
At the end of this, I’m still me, and my words and worlds are many. Edie and P, Beauvoir and Celine, they are all in me, as words. So is Baldwin. I shall walk now, exercise these words and find a way to tell you the stories I see, the stories that will become you. A woman who is not and still is, Amma and Mummy and Ammachi and mothers before her.