Doris Lessing’s Fifth Child

Doris Lessing’s Fifth Child has been under the knife enough to not need any more dissections but speculations sometimes seem to make sense or worse no sense of the book. Fifth Child is the story of a young couple, Harriet and David who found another, just like them. They knew they meant it, and that they had to have a big family. A big family with a mansion outside town, full of guests who stayed even after the holidays and children through its halls filling everyone’s hearts with joy. The fifth child changed everything for the couple, their family cracked, the house was empty and deserted.

“It’s either him or us,” David said. Harriet had her life going the way she’d hoped even when they found it difficult to make ends meet. Harriet got pregnant too quickly and after the fourth, the doctor had advised her to rest before she planned on having another child. And then she was pregnant again with their fifth child, Ben. Harriet grew suspicious about the foetus and was sure something was wrong with it, “She imagined pathetic botched creatures, horribly real to her, the products of a Great Dane or a borzoi with a little spaniel; a lion and a dog; a great cart house and a little donkey; a tiger and a goat”.

“I don’t want to kill the nasty little brute,” Harriet said to Dr Brett after telling how Ben was suffering from a milk infection and needed something for the diarrhoea. It surprised Dr Brett that Harriet was not breastfeeding her child. She showed him her bruised nipples, and he went silent only to say, “Naughty baby” that made Harriot laugh in astonishment. Lessing offers us an alternative perspective of what if Harriot is imagining her struggles? What if Ben isn’t a troll or a goblin but just an ugly baby? Dr Brett tells her it’s not abnormal to dislike the child, and he says that he sees it too often. In the binary of a good and bad mother, Lessing lets the reader decide if Harriet is a good or bad mother. Her four children were perfect, and the house was bustling with joy and happiness till Ben was born and she gave it all up to be Ben’s mother.

David and Harriet had given Ben up to an institute where he would have been cared for and they wouldn’t have to worry. Harriet found Ben in a straitjacket locked in a room, wearing soiled clothes and any longer there, he would have died. Harriet had the choice of saving Ben or letting him die and giving her family back the normalcy they’d lost. Harriet brought Ben back and dealt with his antics and ways, trained him to get by in the real world and successfully arrive into adulthood. Harriet’s struggle with Ben took most of her time and she slowly disappeared from the lives of all her other children. All the children ended up leaving home to stay with other relatives to get some distance from Ben. David had moved out of their room the night she brought him back. Something broke in their relationship that day.

We could classify fifth Child as horror fiction, a gothic novella and a newer classification, more popular among films “Gynaecological Gothic”. An experiential account of gestation, the horror of carrying an alien or goblin or monster as a child. A dark and grim experience of violence experienced by the mother, a victim and the world’s denial to see Ben for what he truly is in Harriet’s eyes, an ugly troll that she couldn’t have birthed. The popular short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman can arguably be a Gynaecological gothic.

Lessing is the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature and Margaret Atwood in her tribute writes “If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it.” Lessing left two children behind in the care of their father, her husband in Zimbabwe and moved to London to chase her literary prospects. Harriet’s experience with Ben and bringing him back from the institute seems to lie deeper in Lessing abandoning her children but these speculations have no footing. “It was an upsetting thing to write, it goes very deep into me somewhere,” said Lessing when talking about writing the Fifth Child.

 

About the Author: Vinay Kumar is a a freelance photographer & writer who drinks too much coffee.

Book Review – A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

Reminiscent of other novels by Orhan Pamuk and their lovely rendering of Istanbul, A Strangeness in my Mind, also pays homage to the city.

Seen mainly through the eyes of the character, Mevlut, who comes to Istanbul in 1969 at the age of 12, to live with his father, who sells yoghurt during the day and boza (a fermented drink) at night. He and his father are among the hundreds of villagers who migrated from remote villages to Istanbul in search of a better income and life.

Mevlut thoroughly enjoys it as a child there, looking wondrously into the city’s intricate streets and its inhabitants while accompanying his father on his rounds; picking up the nitty gritties of the job: the way to behave, the way to entice a customer to buy, the manner in which to extol your yoghurt or boza. Being in school presents a completely different set of challenges especially due to the class divide and him having to work after his school. Nonetheless, his time with his cousins and their mother, is something he looks forward to, particularly with Suleyman, who is always ready to give Mevlut the benefit of the doubt.

The novel weaves its way through the various main events that occur in Mevlut’s life such as him dropping out of school, or his marriage to Rayiha with its own twist, or his being robbed during one of his rounds selling boza among many others or his time selling ice cream or being a waiter.

A Strangeness in my Mind is a peculiar bildungsroman or a coming of age novel that traces Mevlut’s growth. Yet Pamuk plays with the narrative’s style deftly such that it is not a mere chronicler of life from birth to death.

Firstly, the narrative is not a straightforward first person narrative that Mevlut narrates rather different point of views of various colourful characters are interspersed together, giving the reader multiple perspectives.

Curiously, the novel does begin by typically noting Mevlut’s birth but then it jumps right into the middle by narrating the story of Mevlut’s tense elopement. It immediately puts the reader into the thick of things. And then once that is done, Pamuk slows it down and brings you to the present, describing Mevlut’s daily round of selling boza and how he is now a historic curiosity from the past. Then, the narrative whizzes back to his childhood and where his journey to Istanbul all started!

A Strangeness in my Mind is as much about Mevlut as it is about Istanbul. Through Mevlut, we view the city, how it was to his childlike eyes, and how he views it later, when it has mushroomed further into the hills, as more and more people swarm the city. Through his rounds while selling his yoghurt and boza and later only boza, we see the different sections of the city, its past and how people from different nationalities and sects live there or used to live there, now taken over by others. Particularly, the reader sees the magic and menace of Istanbul at night when the ‘strangeness’ in Mevlut’s mind is heightened, allowing him to indulge in his musings and letting his thoughts ramble unbridled. Perhaps this is the reason why he does not give up this fast fading and hence, quaint profession, refusing to (yet at times being attracted to) partake in the wealth and business that his cousins, Suleyman and Korkut, were able to accumulate; but that which always eluded him. Yet, Mevlut is content, happy to live among his own thoughts, with his beautiful Rahiya, his daughters and his beloved city.

The tone of the novel is tinged with unmistakable nostalgia for the days gone by, for the brisk business yoghurt and boza sellers could sustain in the city before the dairy and raki companies gained foothold, and for the city’s beauty itself.

Yet the story is not melancholic or wistful in its nostalgia. The narrative never condemns the city’s growth but merely states it as things that are inevitable since most cities have chosen a very capitalistic, vertical and the suspicious “development” route for their growth.

A Strangeness in my Mind thus captures the ephemerality of the idea of Istanbul and of human stability. The ending itself is a beautiful gift that Mevlut bestows onto the city that has nurtured him.

That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder if the story was told through a female perspective, how drastically different would it be? For one, the reader would not be able to see Istanbul’s public side and definitely not its streets at night since Istanbul’s norms would not allow girls to be in the boza selling profession or go out at “odd” hours. Though Mevlut’s eyes provide a subaltern glimpse into the city, which is vastly different to the more elite narrative of one of Pamuk’s other novels, The Museum of Innocence, the story still speaks from a privileged male perspective. We do see a different side of the city but that is very much based on gender and profession; unique as that may be, it makes for an interesting and creative topic of discussion among fellow readers.

Joe Sacco's Palestine Cover Image

Palestine by Joe Sacco

For years cartoonist Joe Sacco had been watching and reading the news of the Palestinian uprising. Are all Palestinians terrorists or victims? He would ask himself as he saw the news flashing across his TV screen. What about the average guy with routine concerns like food on the table for his family and getting to work on time. Where was that guy? Dissatisfied with the media’s portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Joe decided that he needed to see it for himself, from ground zero.

 

In the winter of 1991-1992, he made his way to the region and parked himself in Jerusalem. For two months, he crisscrossed across the borders between West Bank, Israel, and the Gaza Strip. He met labourers, refugees, ex-prisoners, soldiers, volunteers…all the different people who were a part of the fabric of this troubled region. He met children who had not seen any other way of life and geriatrics who had lived in peaceful times much before the 1948 Palestine War. His companion on this travel was his trusty notebook for his doodles, cartoons, and observations.

 

This notebook would later take the shape of Joe Sacco’s graphic memoir – Palestine.

 

The novel, both written and illustrated by Sacco, is divided into nine issues, each one divided into multiple chapters. The story is built through anecdotes that he gathers as he travels across the region. In towns like Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron in the West Bank, he visits market places, hospitals, schools and local homes. He meets Palestinians who have spent multiple terms in Ansar III, the largest detention centre in the world. He travels to the extreme west to the Gaza Strip where he spends a week in the Jabalia refugee camp and witnesses first-hand the living conditions.

 

While his witty remarks often elicit laughter, the underlying tone of empathy for the helpless situation is starkly evident. For instance, his visit to Nablus, where a milkman he encounters in the market insists on playing tour guide. He drags Joe to the local hospital and tows him from bed-to-bed, introducing him to the casualties and listing the details of their injuries. The patients are not all rebels. Many, including children, are wounded by army bullets that zipped into their homes or school compounds. The situation is grim, but the writer’s presentation of the hospital as a tourist spot and himself as a tourist makes one laugh out loud.

 

The author’s intent is not to trivialize the Palestinian situation. Sacco’s use of humour manages to evoke discomfort in the reader, engrossed in the story from the warmth and safety of her home.

A chapter on Sacco’s interaction with the detainees from Ansar III highlights the fact that incarceration was an accepted fate by Palestinian men at the time. The story of the prisoners brings out nuances of life inside a detention camp, many of which are astonishing. For instance, the formation of committees among the prisoners to oversee seemingly mundane tasks like the equitable distribution of tea. And, the organization of lectures by the prisoners on topics like Einstein, philosophy and split-up of the Soviet Union. As also, their strategies based on the careful study of the soldiers’ routines, such as planning contentious activities just before the weekend, when the officers are looking forward to heading home.

 

At the end of the two months, Sacco visits Tel Aviv, the capital of Israel, on the insistence of two tourists he meets in Jerusalem. They want him to see ‘their side of things’. During those few hours in Tel Aviv, the writer sees a different side of the region, meets people who remind him of people he meets in America and Europe. He concedes that yes there is an Israeli side of the story which he has neglected in this novel, but that calls for another trip. This trip was an exercise to uncover the Palestinian perspective, largely disregarded by popular media.

 

Sacco alternates between playing narrator and protagonist. As the narrator, he shares with the reader his reflections on the people, their situation and the policies that govern this region. He also includes nuggets from history to help understand how events have evolved to reach the current status quo. With regards to the other characters, he is matter-of-fact, presenting them without over-dramatization and allowing the reader to draw conclusions.

 

The illustrations are monochromatic, and Sacco strikes a balance between vacuity and busyness in every box. Some bits are filled with fine lines, squiggles and other patterns, which enhance the starkness to the blank bits in the box. His drawings acquaint the reader with a close-up view of a land that has primarily been seen only through the long-focus lenses of reporters.

 

‘Palestine’ drives home the power of stories – they engage and thus, affect. And they stay with the reader, much after the news has been relegated to the archives.

Image – Joe Sacco’s Palestine

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

Good books often give wings to the imagination of young writers, thus helping them to transport their readers to a world very different from the real, brutal world we live in. But sometimes, some stories, some real stories are pushed beneath the facts and informative pages of a history book—lost and hidden from the generations to come. Though we learn about these events and score good marks in a history paper, we fail to delve into the depths of the pages and dig out the dust-ridden, true stories still haunting the past of many such families who fell victim to those massacres.

 

Khushwant Singh was one such survivor of the horrendous Partition of India, 1947, born in Hadali, now in Pakistan. Not only an author, he was a lawyer, a diplomat, a journalist as well as a member of Parliament from 1980 to 1986. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974, which he returned as a sign of protest against the siege of Golden Temple by the Indian Army. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan in 2007. Singh died in 2014 at the age of ninety-nine years.

 

In his book “Train to Pakistan”, he weaves his own experience beautifully, into a story set in Mano Majra, a fictional village on the border of India and Pakistan, harbouring both Sikhs & Muslims peacefully for hundreds of generations. Then, with the murder of the local Hindu moneylender and the arrival of a train from Pakistan carrying the dead bodies of Sikhs, years and years of brotherhood falls apart and hostility brews between the Hindus and Muslims; forcing the latter to leave their lands, homes, cattle, and everything else behind and board a train to Pakistan.

 

Singh builds up all his characters with finesse and perfect detailing, sometimes using ordinary events of day-to-day lives to reflect the inner conflicts of his characters’ minds. For example, when the District Magistrate Hukum Chand notices two geckos fighting each other and falling on the bed, metaphorically representing the Hindus and Muslims at loggerheads, he jumps out of bed in fear and disgust; thus reflecting his guilt and moral conflict of not taking a stand for the good of the people even with so much power in hand. On the other hand, while the well-educated, social worker Iqbal Singh keeps on pondering whether to lay down his life for the greater good, the uneducated, rogue, gangster Juggut Singh, who has fallen in love with Nooran, a local Muslim girl, tries to redeem himself for all his past actions by sacrificing his own life and saving his fellow Muslim villagers from dreadful deaths; thus exposing another moral paradox of our society— Are learned men truly educated or do they always fall short of action in times of need?
Singh refuses to take any political side and instead, presents us the stark reality of the horrors of partition from a humane point of view. As we flip page after page, we realise that neither Sikhs nor Muslims were innocent! Men were killed on both sides, women were raped on both sides and children were orphaned on both sides. From the many gruesome & explicit accounts of murder, death, rape and torture, we, as readers realise with a heavy heart that it has always been the common people who have suffered and paid the price for the actions and decisions of those in power.

 

Train to Pakistan is a historical book which does not fail to impress the readers with its detailed and beautiful illustration of a dark age in our Indian History, while at the same time questions our religious bigotry, our society as well as the principles and morals of the decision-makers of our country.

 

In Conversation with a Neighbourhood Hero

Have you ever wondered how mysterious the game of life is? How something nice happens to you out of nowhere making you feel all charged up and excited. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. As I walked through the Church Street of Bengaluru hunting for food, my legs stopped involuntarily in front of this beautiful place. It had a long inviting rack of books put up on display, a sight too tempting to not yield to especially if you are a BookStalkist. The name on the board  read “Bookworm”.

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