“I planned my death carefully, unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.”
These are the opening lines of Lady Oracle, an experience more than a book. While the same can be said about pretty much every work of Atwood, Lady Oracle would be my personal favourite because I happened to read it while going through a rather severe phase of existential crisis and the opening lines lit up something in me as I nodded in agreement.
The protagonist, Joan, is anything but the modern empowered woman the readers would mold themselves into. But that is exactly what makes her unique yet very relatable. She is a successful writer but incidentally, her most acclaimed work is an accident among a series of cheap writing she engages in for quick money. Ironically, her husband, the activist and visionary is hardly impressed by the success of her book which unintentionally stands for the very same ideals he does.
We get acquainted with young Joan and her difficult relationship with her mother through a series of flashbacks. But it is hardly an inspiring bildungsroman of the insecure caterpillar transforming into an enlightened butterfly. She is a simple woman who was once a child, a rebellious teenager who eventually grew up into someone who was wise enough to limit her desires to achievable material and emotional rewards. She values romantic love, but does not idolize it. She knows the importance of money, but does not ruthlessly pursue it.
Throughout the novel you expect a twist, a drastic transformation or a shocking revelation. Atwood leads the reader through this parody to the anticlimax which is the twist in a sense. That is the point where the reader understands the futility of fear, passion, desire, identity…everything that constitute the idea of existence and survival.
I wouldn’t say it is an easy or even an enjoyable reading experience as it requires some serious contemplation while reading to understand why the characters behave the way they do. There are parts which shake beliefs and ideals so violently that you are left questioning your choices and your stand in this otherwise shallow world. But it should definitely be in the list of a person who is passionate about literature since it is undeniably one of the best works of literature of contemporary times.
I read somewhere long ago that our lives are like an intertwined mass of colourful stories and that it would be difficult to pull out one piece of yarn and say, “This is my story and mine alone”. Other stories define us. While some of these other stories are of loved ones and people we meet along the journey of life, some are just possibilities laid out before us by brilliant minds like Jojo Moyes. I read Me Before You in 2016. Sometime after watching the much acclaimed movie adaptation. And each time in the past two years I sat down to write a review/reflection of the heart-wrenching story, something has always held me back. It always felt too soon. The book was a rare nectar that I had to savour as slowly as possible. I wasn’t ready to accept that it was over. I have often wondered why the heart is associated with love and grief and feelings in general when it is the brain where these are felt. The day I finished reading the last page of Me Before You, I understood why. It felt like an invisible hand had mercilessly and violently pulled out my heart from my chest, leaving behind, not emptiness, but vague memories of Lou and Will and a beautiful story that could have been.
The characterization is so meticulously planned out that the readers can literally see how each character is necessary to the story, complementing each other throughout. Lou is not your typical romance heroine. She is not ravishingly beautiful or successful. She is not brainy or shy. She isn’t rich. She is hardly anything that would have caught the attention of Will Traynor had he not been bound to a wheelchair. The only quality Lou finds worth mentioning in her resume is that she is ‘chatty’, which, ironically, is what gets her the job. Will, on the other hand, is everything you would expect in a romance hero. Handsome, rich, adventurous, sometimes grumpy and sarcastic. It is a tragic accident that brings the two together.
When Lou gets to know that Will is planning to go to Switzerland for assisted suicide, she wants nothing to do with the job. Not because she cares for him in particular, but because she doesn’t want to be a part of what she considers murder. In a futile attempt to change his mind, she plans vacations and various other things that would make him see the possibility of a life despite his disability and in the process, love blossoms between them as naturally as a drop of dew evaporates and becomes one with the air at sunrise. She opens up to him about her own tragedy which happened at the maze years ago. An accident just like his which has left her handicapped in some way. He simply tells her that she should not let that one thing define her. Ironically, he doesn’t change his decision. He makes it to Switzerland and Lou gets to be with him in his final moments. And it is only then that the reader understands that Will was trying to follow his own advice. Continuing to survive would have meant letting that one accident define his life and how he lived it. It also meant the lives of his loved ones would be defined by the same. He didn’t want that.
While the book has a heartbreaking end, it gives the readers moments of laughter and sometimes provokes thoughts. The other characters: Alicia, Treena, Lou’s parents and the many others have been crafted so beautifully that the story would not have been possible without their presence. More than a precious love story and an epic that narrates familial bonding and dignity of death, it is an ode to potential and a lesson in not letting ourselves be defined by tragedies and accidents.
I was barely two years old when I saw glitter. I do not mean metaphorically. That would take me another ten years, a few betrayals and disillusionment. I mean the powdery stuff that sticks to your clothes, hair…practically anything and refuses to leave like an illegal migrant that the government cannot get rid of because…cheap labour. It was somebody’s birthday party and instead of confetti they decided to fill balloons with glitter. It was a bad idea. It fell on the cake and the numerous other delicacies. Mom was furious because she had a tough time making my already messy hair look non-glittery again. But the point is, I fell in love with it. The idea of glitter. It reminded me of fairy dust. Of starlight. Of forgotten dreams. Music. Basically all the nice stuff. I wanted to own glittery things. Clothes, shoes, everything…sadly back in those days they didn’t really sell that many glittery stuff.
When I was a teenager (the early 2000s), the amount of glittery stuff in the market was overwhelming. It was sort of in. I could see celebrities with glittery eye-shadow and shoes and sometimes a dazzlingly glittery dress. I could have owned cheaper versions of them if I wanted to. I did. Want to. But did I have the guts to say it out loud? Obviously, no. Glitter, by then, was beginning to get associated with ‘girly’ and I lived through a generation which treated girly as a very negative thing, almost synonymous with ‘shallow’, ‘dumb’, ‘materialistic’ and a lot of other things that were not cool. I, like any teenager, wanted to be cool. So, I pretended that I hated glitter. Each time I saw something glittery in a shop, my heart would ache to own it but I would mutter something about how it burns my eyes and turn away. Glitter pens were an exception, though. You see, they came with the perfect excuse. They look good on greeting cards and cover page of assignments.
Now, at the age of 27, I own everything that can possibly be glittery. I have a glittery phone case, a semi-glittery laptop sleeve, a bunch of glittery shoes, glittery eye-shadow in a range of colours that I actually wear to work…in broad daylight, I stopped judging myself as ‘shallow’ for liking glitter. What changed me? It’s a who. Magnus Bane. A couple of years ago, I started reading The Mortal Instruments. Guess who’s the sassiest character? Magnus Bane. He’s the high warlock of Brooklyn, has lived through centuries of wars and revolutions, has loved and lost, has fought demons and misguided shadowhunters, has survived, has been a mentor an guide…in short has been awesome. But guess what he has not been? Ashamed. He does not judge himself through society’s perspective. He is too wise for that. He is not ashamed of who he falls in love with. He is not ashamed of being vulnerable. He is not ashamed of liking glitter and overdoing it by literally covering himself and all his possessions in it. And this is the high warlock of Brooklyn we’re talking about. If he could embrace his true self, so could I. Ever since I stopped judging myself, the society did too. In fact, I realized that society actually does not care enough to judge anyone. Not unless one shows their insecurities. And thanks to Magnus, I have learnt to nip any insecurity in the bud.
You said we are all weather.
Bound to the cycle of
joy, grief, boredom, solitude
and the many other moods and feelings
we probably never asked for.
I am simpler than most people.
I just keep fluctuating between
heat waves and snow storms.
I cannot differentiate between
the many shades of happiness.
I only know the anticipation.
And the storms that follow.
So, my dear, if we are all weather,
I am one which challenges Life.
I am the reason for death and extinction.
And you…you’re the wind
that somehow seeps through
and survives the storms…
When I first met Happiness,
she had a strong American accent
and used to irritate me by dragging words.
But then Happiness made me proud
at the end of the year
with her hard work and A+.
Happiness liked to think
that ‘onomatopoeia’ is a figure of speech.
But then Happiness is ready to learn
and writes wonderful Shakespearean sonnets.
Happiness sometimes has a messy ponytail
and uses ‘stuff’ when she can’t find
a suitable word.
But happiness made me believe in hope
with her beautiful short story.
Happiness arrives at the middle of the term
but manages to catch up without any fuss.
Happiness submits her homework on time
but makes a face when she hears the word ‘classic’.
Happiness often forgets to do his homework.
Sometimes Happiness is too lazy for homework.
Sometimes Happiness asks irrelevant questions
and never pays attention.
Happiness has a terrible handwriting.
Sometimes Happiness has a good handwriting
but it is neutralized by his terrible grammar.
Happiness often bunks my class.
Happiness sometimes needs extra classes.
Sometimes Happiness hopes that I would fall sick
so that he can escape from the dreaded ‘test’.
But Happiness gets worried
when I don’t show up for two days in a row.
Happiness loves me sometimes.
But most of the time Happiness just tolerates me.
I love Happiness sometimes
but most of the time I’m just concerned.
Between this Love and Tolerance and Concern,
I know that I cannot own Happiness.
Happiness is destined for great things
and I am just here to give that push.
But I do know that Happiness
will always remember me.
And that is the valuable gift
Happiness has unknowingly given me.
When asked to choose between pink and blue,
for the walls of my room,
I wondered why not both?
And on second thought,
I pointed at a can of green paint.
Bright, fluorescent, standing out…
And when that sweet neighbour asked me
which one of my parents I loved more,
I found it silly.
Of course, I loved both! Didn’t everyone?
But then I was not ready
to speak for everybody.
So, I just smiled and passed that question.
When I booked my first ticket
At the crowded railway station,
the ‘gender’ column made me wonder
whether everyone is either male or female.
But that didn’t make sense.
So I concluded that
only males and females are allowed to travel.
Others probably don’t.
I have been wondering ever since
about why choices always come in pairs.
Never less, never more.
Tea or coffee,
Barbie dolls or GI Joe’s,
Books or Kindle,
Poetry or prose,
War or peace,
Introvert or extrovert,
Happy or Sad,
Good or bad…
Sometimes I want to choose both.
Most of the time I prefer neither.
And it’s totally okay.
Because the best things in life
do not come in pairs.
Like that set of poster colours
I got on my thirteenth birthday.
Like that wagging tail of the pup
I fed on the street yesterday.
Like all those magical worlds and fictional characters
who made my childhood awesome
and continue to make adulthood tolerable.
The photographs from childhood
and memories of desserts and cakes.
Like the summer rains and winter sunshine
and the colours of spring and autumn.
The stars and the countless universes out there.
Like the melancholy that stays after a heartbreak heals.
So, it’s okay
to not choose
what is offered.
to neither fit in nor stand out.
It’s okay to be infinity
in a world of binaries.
I died but you’re fine,
said the tainted memory
of the long lost child.