Saturday, September 29, 2007


The sun glinted on the moss-green water. The only sounds were of the oar on the water and the occasional bird caw. It was a long while since she had known this kind of serenity. Her mind emptied out, no niggling task to disturb it. No nagging ringtone, or the ping of the email. This was her time of cleansing her soul, washing out all the dark dinginess that had tainted it through the year. Her two weeks of complete ‘selfness’, where she was just with herself, her books, the water below and the sky above. And that delicious food, the unfamiliar vegetables – raw banana, yam, tapioca; the unpolished rice that was so healthy. She looked towards the shore she was passing. The coir-making looked tedious, but the lives out there seemed idyllic to her city eyes. The lush verdant green, the sloping tiled roofs, the washing hung out to dry; all spoke of a slow daily unchanging routine. She dreamt of that slowness, of savouring the moment, the words in front of her, the wind in her hair and the sunlight on her face. She wished this could be her world, somehow. That she could belong to one of those tiled roof houses, sit on the verandah and stare at the water as long as she liked.

Her eyes scanned the shore on the other side and she saw a young girl sitting under a tree. There was a vast expanse behind her and far beyond she could see another of those sloping tiled roofs. The young girl was wearing a skirt, a western style skirt. She was writing on a blue inland letter. She hadn’t seen one of those in ages. And the young girl was frowning, biting her pen, not looking too pleased.

She wasn’t too pleased. The sun beat down relentlessly. The flies were annoying. Even the sweetness of the mangoes did not pacify her. She had run away from the house after breakfast to sit near the kaayal. Soon her mother would be calling out to her to take her bath. Ammini would draw the water from the well for her. And if she wanted, though her mother would disapprove, she could get it heated up in the big brass cauldron in the bathroom. She disliked the bathroom, the hamam soap that came with it and the fact that she would have to use the water sparingly. The big house depressed her. There were dark grubby corners, the floor was rough and she had to sleep on a coir mat on the floor. The fan was a table fan and it was never enough to beat the heat. The rice she would have for lunch was not the white clean rice she was used to but the reddish one. There would be fish, always fish and all the horrid bones that came with it. She was writing all this down. To her father. Complaining. Telling him this was not how she wanted to spend her summer holiday. She had to be careful with the letter though. The last time she wrote a letter to her dad, her mother’s uncle had snatched it from her hand, proudly reading her English to his mother. Imagine, he would tell his mother, his grand-niece wrote and spoke English so well. Imagine him reading out this letter she was writing. It would break his heart.

She looked up towards the water. She saw one of those boats with a roof over it. She had never been in one of those. She always got to the house on a small boat. And she was always terrified of falling into the water in one of those. The boat with the roof seemed big and capable and completely safe. She could see a lady in there. Seemed like someone from far away, city-bred. Fair and slim. She was wearing one of those stylishly light cotton pants that came up to her calves. She looked like she was having a good time. She watched the boat slowly drift away. And wished she was her, that lady in the boat, watching the shore disappearing, moving away from this stiflingly slow world.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Life Before Man

Margaret Atwood

It’s ‘70s Canada. It’s a marriage that is not really one, at least not a good one. Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje (pronounced Lashia) are the characters that people it. Not one of them is particularly likeable. Elizabeth is scheming, manipulative and damaged by a nasty childhood. Nate is insipid, a bit of a loser and it’s difficult to see the attraction he holds for the women. Lesje is the most attractive of the lot – with her multi-religious East European background and her almost nerdish fascination for dinosaurs (a time before man), there is a refreshing un-worldliness about her. Yet even she turns nagging, conventional by the end.

Life Before Man is a series of short episodes stretching through a time period of 3 years. It is a sharp and tight portrait of 3 people and their relationship with each other. It is a picture of Elizabeth and Nate’s rotten marriage, of her savagery arising out of a painful past that includes suicides of her mother and sister, an ogre-aunt and most recently her ex-lover’s suicide as well. Of unambitious Nate who has given up a career in law to hand craft toys and of his desire for the dreamy paleontologist Lesje who he sees as an ethereal innocent. Of Lesje’s introduction to the adult world of love and hard relationships and her realization that maturity is really ‘the point where you think you’ve blown your life’.

There is hardness and brittleness and vulnerability and cruelty and hopelessness in all of them. They are real in a way very few characters are in fiction. With a precision in language and structure, Atwood has created an intensely insightful novel that takes an extremely un-euphemistic look at people and how they live their lives.