Reading Alice Munro

I’ve been reading Alice Munro’s short stories, and I’ve been crying.

I don’t know why I picked up Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You – if I’m going to be honest, I choose the books I read because of the colours on the cover. They must not be startling, and if they are, they must be startling in a way that packages startling neatly (but it is rare that I enjoy reading these books more than looking at them). The colours must designate a calmness to the image of me reading the book; if this calm is not promised, there is not much else that can be.

I liked different things about Alice Munro’s books. I liked how they were stacked between the shelves like a sighing testament to where stories come from, how they pass through you, and where they lie still. I liked that they were all of approximately the same length, because their uniformity said that she was never jarred when she wrote – that there was a sameness in everything she saw that let her make stories of stories of nothing of everything of stories.

When I was younger, I was excited about phenomenon, and the possibility of writing about strange, unique things. I have come to realise that the best things to write about are ordinary things. The best words to use are common words, sentences rarely peppered with one word I don’t usually use, consecutive stories doused with one word that is suddenly tender for reasons I don’t know, and don’t want to know.

I read Alice Munro and cry now. I read her because the colours of her book covers promised a calmness that she delivers. Words sometimes tell you a story, and sometimes require you to perceive a story, and her words lie in place where both of these things happen. A review on the back suggested that I read only one story a day, because they stay with you, and haunt you. I did this for the first few days, and then I fell. I fell in, into stories about children who built boats, and women who ran away; stories about professors and book shop owners, and tricks that are played by no one, that change one person’s life in retrospect.

I do not regret falling in. Falling is forgetting the words, forgetting the faces – walking through words to a place where there are none, when the room you are in begins to fade out, and a different kind of light from a different place lets you read the markings on a page. Alice Munro took me from her writing to the place that I begin writing from. This is a place where you must not contemplate writing in, because it is hopeless. But you must breathe its air, you must be here, because this is the place where the words become independent from you once again, and you can write when you realise that you can only borrow, and return.

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1

May I live one life

A South American dancer

Another

A mother

One life a student

One powerful

One creative

One happy

Sustaining

I’m writing differently now. When I first got to college, I remember how I would agonise over the first sentence of any piece. It had to make an impact, it had to be different than anyone else’s first sentence, it had to make whoever was reading it remember that I had written it.

For a long time, much of my writing would ramble. It would be flowing, then it would bubble and gurgle, and suddenly it was spilling all over itself. I was excited about writing; I was excited about explaining everything that I was thinking, every process of thought, every connection had to be written down. If anything was remaining or left behind in my mind, I hadn’t written authentically; I hadn’t been honest.

So when I went to college and was a part of serious writing classes for the first time, I couldn’t ramble. I had to contain myself, I had to contain the words that struggled to burst onto the screen through my fingertips – I had to structure, and acknowledge a reader other than myself, someone who cared about what was on the paper, not what was left behind.

I wasn’t unhappy doing this, but it also meant that writing was now difficult for the first time – it did not flow anymore, and I knew that a writing assignment announced in class meant that I would go back to hostel and sit at my desk for an hour, figuring out the best way to begin a piece. When I did find that beginning, the agonising was always worth it.

But I also began doing something else. Instead of coming to a piece with the intention of opening something, I was now coming to it with the intention of closing it – of structuring it perfectly, of feeling around for its paragraphs, of tying the piece up so that I could put it away, and disengage.

Over the last few months, I’ve tried to undo that. It takes consciously telling myself not to decide what the writing will be, before it is, letting it go where it wants to go. This is not easy in the beginning. I hated the things I wrote, and was sometimes embarrassed about posting them on the blog. I kept at it, because I had to find a way to open with writing, again.

To some extent, I think it has worked. When I open MS Word, I am not terrified anymore. The whiteness is not intimidating, and does not demand that I fill it, then leave it alone. I’m starting to see each piece as a part of a process, not a part of a place that will keep it. My stories are beginning to leak into each other, and some days, I actually stop writing before I have finished all that I want to say.

I don’t know how this is going to work. But my writing is stretching, spreading its arms and yawning and laughing. It is not crouching somewhere, hugging its knees; it is not compact anymore, and I am less scared than I used to be. It is learning how to sustain itself.

She Was Not Polite

The short girl just stood there with her hair falling over her eyes. She shifted from foot to foot, and squirmed endlessly as her teacher unloosed shaft after shaft from memory and accumulated grievance. Her classmates stood around, their lunchtime football match featuring a bedraggled butta quite forgotten. One boy picked up the butta and chucked it at her in an experimental sort of way. It bounced off her head, and then hit the teacher in the nose. Miss Ramamani stopped in mid-flow, her mouth now opening and closing wordlessly, and goggled at her and at her by-now shamefaced parents, as if this were all their fault.

It all began three fortnights ago, when Miss Ramamani had stormed into Rani’s sister’s class, and declared, “There is a girl in the fifth standard who has just informed me that I (and here, her palm swooped emotionally to her heart), am STUPID”. The class had gasped and looked at each other excitedly, and Nayana sunk into her seat, for she knew, then, that it had to have been her sister.

You see, Rani was always doing things like that. Nayana remembered how Rani had said to their mother after her very first day of kindergarten, “My teacher didn’t know anything about it, so I had to tell her!” Another time, Rani got into a bad fight with a boy from her class, and when he had said, “But Geeta Ma’am said it”, she had replied, “So what! As if she knows anything!”

Their parents tried talking to her. They tried to explain that sometimes teachers were wrong, and that there are teachers who are wrong and will never admit it. “And when you encounter a teacher like that”, their mother had said, “You must still be polite”. But Rani was not polite. She was opinionated, and loud, and most importantly, she was not in the least afraid of telling people exactly what she thought.

After the Stupid Incident, Miss Ramamani had called Rani to the staffroom, and had said to her, “If this kind of behaviour continues, I don’t know what I am going to do with you”. Unfortunately, Rani smiled when she heard this. It was a delighted smile that had flitted across her mouth, and settled into the corners of her face, and when she tried sucking in her cheeks to look solemn, the effect was rather terrifying, and quite, quite, unsuccessful.

Reports Day had come and gone, and Rani’s teachers all said the same thing to her mother, “She’s an extremely intelligent child…”, and then Rani’s mother would smile hesitantly, because she knew that there was always a ‘but’, and she was right, because then they would add, “But she needs to be more disciplined. We are all having trouble with that”.

If you ask Nayana, she will tell you that they had another conversation with Rani after Reports Day. But Rani had only answered that the teachers were stupid, and the classes were boring, and did you know that they punished one boy by making him stand in the dustbin? They’re all crazy!
If you ask Nayana’s parents, they will tell you that they secretly agreed.

Of course, her parents weren’t actually there to meet Rani’s teachers when the Butta Incident occurred. And for years after they will wish that they hadn’t been there. You see, they were only there to drop off Nayana’s costume for the play, when an exasperated woman had flown out of a nearby classroom.

Then, they heard her announce to the staffroom, “I have had it with Rani! I don’t know what I’m going to do!” Rani’s parents looked at each other, then braved a roomful of wrath, taking a few steps in. There they all were, perched like birds on the edge of their seats. Some were old, blinking owls, others were crows with curious noses, and Rani’s parents nervously introduced themselves.

I know that you’re wondering about what Rani did, but what she did is not important. Some say that she pretended that she didn’t have her English textbook, and said that she would be reading Oliver Twist instead. Others say that she stood in front of the dustbin when Miss Ramamani asked a boy to stand in it. When she was threatened with dustbin time, as well, she is said to have first dropped her English textbook in, then stepped in over it. There are many stories. In some, the butta hits Miss Ramamani in the face, but Rani’s classmates were busy playing football with the butta. Maybe there were two buttas. Maybe there were none.

I hear that Rani became a writer. Maybe she’ll tell you the story one day.

A Christmas Story

When there are too many women in your family – not in number, but it seems that way, doesn’t it? – you learn to become a little like each of them. One day, you are waiting for the airport bus with your boyfriend, and he tells you that you are stubborn. You protest, because over the years you have come to think of ‘stubborn’ as a synonym for ‘my mother’, and you tell your boyfriend how she is inherently incapable of apology; how even when you both know that she is in the wrong, you are always the first one to attempt reconciliation. You watch as a ridiculous smile dances across his face, because you are also the first to make peace when the two of you fight. When you want to kiss his shameless grin away, hold back. You are at a bus stop. Spend the bus journey holding three fingers of your left hand in your right. This is the number of times your mother has apologised. Frown to yourself when you realise that if you had to pick, those wouldn’t have been the three times you’d have used them.

You are around words a lot these days. In class the other day, you suddenly discovered that you have always associated certain words with particular moments. You can’t remember which word inspired this discovery, but the image is still fresh in your mind – a young girl has walked into a roomful of people that she has never met, who know each other. This is one word. You still can’t remember what it was. ‘Apology’ is your mother’s palm on the handle of your bedroom door, her feet venturing in slowly. She never leans in, although her kurti does. Her hand doesn’t leave the handle through the apology. You know that she has sighed outside the door, because she is biting her lower lip in a tired fashion. She is very tall when she apologises. The kurti is always the red one. In the plane, think about how you will tell her about the weird man who looked at you pointedly when his hat fell near your feet. You picked it up. You hate him. You hate him.

It is Christmas time. You have gone back home for the holidays, promising everyone that you will bring back the Christmas cake that gave your classroom a wonderfully festive feel last year, when you opened the box and the whiskey shot its way up everyone’s noses. You are sitting at the dining table in your grandfather’s house now. Your grandmother died three and a half years ago, and you’re beginning to remember even the not so nice things. Like the time you and your brother had a fight with her, and loudly wondered whether all her aches and pains were not sometimes a little put on. You’re a horrible person. When you realised that she had been coming down the stairs and overheard you, you were not even sorry. She used to say that she loved you the most in the world, and sometimes you think that you felt the same way about her. You were in the tenth standard the year she died, and the last conversation she had with you was about how much you were studying. When you got upset, she asked you to play the piano for her, and you refused. The next night, you play Ave Maria on the electric piano in your room, and cry, and cry, and cry. For weeks, you play it till your fingers become numb and forget the notes.

There have been many storytellers in your life. Your mother made you a book when you were five or six-years-old. She painted a butterfly on the cover, and tied the pages together with ribbon. What was the story called? Something and the Butterfly? You don’t know. She reads you Narnia, your brother and yourself curled towards her on one of her shoulders each, your small hands holding the big book open on her stomach. When she is reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she makes you guess what the soft, cold, white thing in the wardrobe is. You guess ‘bird’ twice, and you’re completely in awe of her when she finally tells you that it is snow. This is the safest you have ever felt in your life. This is the safest you will ever feel. The yellow curtains in the room tickle the headboard of the bed. When you move houses, you take the curtains with you, and they go into your mother’s room. And when you came home yesterday, you saw that she had changed all the curtains in the house. She asked whether you weren’t glad that she’d gotten rid of the old ones that were always collecting dust. You are not glad. You must ask her where she kept the yellow ones, but you’re already afraid that they’ve already changed.

You’re back from lunch now. They’re sitting around you, making nankhatais. You asked your mother what she did with the yellow curtains and she said that she gave them to the girl who works in your house, who wakes you up on Sunday mornings, cleaning your room with an aggressive enthusiasm. Your brother heard the exchange, and told you, “Mama’s joking”, and you turned to her hopefully. You watch as she looks from one of you to the other, and says, more aware now, “But the seams were coming out, and they’re so old, and”. Her voice becomes light when she realises something too late. You are upset. You say, “But we’ve had them for years”. She never asks. Your grandmother was the same way. Your grandfather used to buy fancy linen on his trips to Europe. When he’d ask your grandmother about it years later, he would learn that she had gifted it to someone on their wedding day. They went for all those weddings together.

Something has changed. You used to be terrified of traditions dying out. You got very emotional about setting up the tree, and making all the Christmas sweets, in the pork-smelling house. You wanted everyone to sit at the table together, and listen to Christmas carols. Today, you unplugged the music system, and plugged in your laptop. You didn’t wonder why your aunt is shut up in a bedroom, and didn’t protest when your grandfather went up to take his afternoon nap. When he asks later, you won’t promise to go for midnight mass.

You think about when you’re older, and when you’ll have a family of your own. You’ll have the most beautiful children, who want to sit around the dining table and make Christmas sweets, while you cut pork in the kitchen – that reminds you: you must talk to your mother about how she makes it. You must at least glimpse the recipe. You must make sure that things can be the same one day.

The Husband Stitch – Responding to Machado

It is difficult not to channel Carmen Maria Machado after reading her.

For a while I have not written. Before the Diwali break I decided not to write for the twenty days, and not to feel guilty about it. I do not regret this decision, but getting back into the habit of writing is difficult. I let myself read and watch Game of Thrones, and sleep too late and wake up too late, and loved every bit of it. But then college started and I missed this thing I love to do, and Carmen Maria Machado held my hand understandingly and said, “Here, write like this”, and I channelled her calmly and wrote.

You must read The Husband Stitch quietly, in your head, mumbling half the words to yourself, and then you must read it out loud, to a roommate or an entire class, or a beautiful imagined person who sits cross-legged and alternates his glance between your mouth and his wrist. And now you have two stories, not one.

Maybe it is because I am woman (and how scary that word is, because I should be taller and my back straighter and my bust larger, and my hair, darker than black), but I did get what she was saying. And maybe there is a male equivalent to ribbons, but no one has written of whatever that would be, and so we shan’t talk about it yet.

I get it.

I understand her when she says, “It is not a secret; it is just mine”. I cannot explain this, and it needn’t be explained.

But one tries to explain it, the first time. After it ended, I remember just holding my phone to my face, feeling like I had read something that reminded me of nothing, and yet it was so familiar, so ordinary – it is like a smell that you remember as a child, that will suddenly accost you, years later, mid-sentence, when you find yourself surrounded by it.

And then we talked about the piece in class, and I said something without really thinking about what I was trying to say, and it suddenly all made sense. This material of mystery that the story (or stories) seem to be so intricately woven from, are unwound gently when you open your mouth to talk about it.

In the time I spent happily channelling Machado, I was also aware of what I was writing about, not just how I was writing. When you read The Husband Stitch, you acknowledge the fact that the stories are in the past, but you also can’t help feeling like it wouldn’t have made a difference if she had been telling them in the present. The style, the rhythms, the comfort with which she writes, allow for certain types of stories – the kind that one often wants to write about, but is scared that the story is too every-day, and yet you know, somewhere, that you want to write about it nevertheless, for some reason. Maybe everything is just about telling stories.

We sat in class, debating, and raising our voices about what the end meant, and what could have happened, and maybe she re-attached her head after she closes the story, and maybe she knew, or maybe she didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The way I see it, the story is about telling stories, about how storytelling and the lives we live within our stories are the only real ones.

And when the ribbon is untied and her head falls off, it seemed to me the most eloquent bow that was ever taken after a performance.

Read the piece here — http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/The-Husband-Stitch

Nightmares

The bat is eating my brother in the attic of our house. I’m begging myself to wake up, but I cannot. Soon, my brother is only a mass of flesh, held to a corner of the ceiling by flapping wings. I am standing at the door, tears falling down my face, completely helpless. The bat and I know that he’s dead, but it won’t stop chewing at him, and I start to scream.

The street outside my father’s house has been turned into an open-air parking lot, and it is filled with black SUVs. I am crouched behind one of the cars, terrified but thrilled, because I feel exactly like I have always imagined I would feel, if I were a cop on a dangerous assignment. Suddenly, I notice that there is a pack of Dobermans in the parking lot, and that they’re looking for me.

I’m in the Hunger Games. We’re at a little beach, in the final phase of the games. I recognise a competitor as a nerdy boy from school. We both seem to be swimming to the same wall, to escape each other, and suddenly I realise that one of us doesn’t have legs, but I can’t tell which one of us it is. Then I am in the forest on the beach, and I realise that there are only two of us left, a senior of mine that I never liked, and I. The trees are tall and lanky, like the boy, and I find that if I push down on my knees, I can jump till the canopy. I know that I’m going to have to kill him, but I feel no fear. I tear him apart, limb by limb. I don’t feel guilty, only proud.

We’re standing on a thin strip of land in the middle of the ocean. There’s no way to escape, only time. Suddenly, there’s bright green grass all around me. I’m running from the waves, but they’re too powerful. I know that I’m going to drown. I have never felt like terror like this before. I am safe, but only till the waves crash over me.

It is only a second. I am walking down the corridor in my grandparents’ house, and a banshee flies out of the last room as I am going to pass by it. Her movement isn’t smooth. It is like her feet drag the floor with them as they move, and she scratches her way out. But it is so fast. I am facing her now, and her screeches so assertively, that for a minute I am aware that all the people who are downstairs, who would protect me from her, are probably also terrified.

I’m dying. I am in my grandparents’ neighbourhood, near the park we used to play in, lying slumped on the street. I feel my soul leave my body, but I’m not ready to die. I’m going higher and higher, and I turn to an orange speck in the sky and beg it to let me live. It says okay, but we both know that we’re only fooling ourselves.

We’re all on an island. There are swimming pools everywhere, with huge water-slides. There are too many people in the pool, and the slides are all vertical. I’m clinging to the side of one. People are throwing water balloons at each other from either ends of the slide. Everyone’s dying, people are falling onto each other. Suddenly, there’s no water at the bottom in the pool. I can see the cement floor.

I’m in a canoe, in an underground passageway. There are familiar strangers in the boat with me. Everything is a rusty red, including ourselves. When we reach the place the boat must dock, they all get up, and have somewhere to go. I don’t know what I’m doing there, so I begin to walk around. There are rooms everywhere, connected by strings of wood. As I walk by the rooms, I can see people sitting on the floor, talking, people having sex, people looking at a lamp, and the long hair of a woman, as it falls down her back. Then I’m back in the canoe, and it’s full of marbles, and again it’s moving toward the place with hanging rooms, that I have just left. The water level in the passage is rising, and I’m scared we’re going to drown, because the canal is too narrow, and my head’s almost touching the roof. I jump out of the canoe, and swim towards the ledge where I got off the first time. I know then that everyone else has drowned.