Finding Comfort in Stories and Fellowship
There is a call that comes in every morning. We talk, with headphones plugged in while I water the plants. Two sisters from two cities reeling from a pandemic as her city, Delhi, now suffers even more than mine.
Our conversations continue as the tiny threat with a huge stranglehold enters our home and a countdown begins. It evokes a childhood song: “Ten green bottles hanging on the wall”. The bottles fall one by one until there are no green bottles left.
Amid swab testing and sealed buildings, we send each other WhatsApp. There is only one condition: they must be scandalous. Like that of a distant cousin who warns, “the Russians did an autopsy and discovered that it (Covid) is not a virus but a bacterium mutated by radiation.”
We’ve been largely separated for a year and a half, but stay connected through our daily calls, a little solace as we sit in the middle of two separate battlefields.
Our celebrations, even at the best of times, have never been about dancing the night away, fueled by alcohol. Instead, we like to laze around together, on beaches and beds across countries. Periods of loud chatter interspersed with silence where we both disappear into the pages of our respective books.
Last week a package arrived. It contained a book. Location by Jhumpa Lahiri. I had told my sister about it a few days ago. As a surprise, she ordered a copy for me. Fortunately, even Amazon, which has stopped shipping all non-essentials, considers books to be an essential commodity.
In the late afternoon, sitting by the window, the curtains drawn against the scorching sun that seems capable of scratching the skin but not hot enough to kill viruses, I read. Books are more than pages with typed words that can be opened at will; they are transmutable. If temples and mosques can be turned into fortresses in order to shoot poison arrows from their turrets, then why can’t my books be stacked to form a bunker where I can feel safe? Just for a moment.
I decide to make a list, for people like me, who, in good times and bad, take comfort in books. If most books are about oceans, these anthologies and novels are
lagoons built. Short enough to hold our distracted attention. Deep enough to stay submerged.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
I first read Kelly Link’s news in sci-fi magazines online. This book, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize 2016, begins with the disturbing Summer People. Fran caught the flu. Her father sprays her with a plant sprayer and asks her to make sure the beds are made for “Summer people”. There are magic potions delivered by foxes, ghost boyfriends, and pocket universes and yet his stories seem realistic due to his immense talent.
Men without women by
This book stayed with me for a few years. It has pencil marks and a coffee stain. I read the stories in random order, although I read Drive My Car more often than the others. The news is linked by a down-to-earth melancholy.
“You are a pastel-colored Persian rug, and loneliness is a stain of Bordeaux wine that will not come out,” writes Murakami in the last eponymous tale. There are stories of betrayed men stuck in a molar tooth, endlessly trapping it; men wasting away for love; men disentangle themselves because they are all men without women.
Florida By Lauren Groff
The images in these well-crafted stories are so powerful that it almost feels like your hair is frizzy when you are submerged in the humid Florida sun. Groff has hidden reptiles, sinkholes, and often runaway relatives. The writing is bright, and the stories have an underlying layer of a sense of quiet hopelessness, which most women will find very familiar.
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Empathy runs through all of Alice Munro’s stories. His writing is precise, modest and searing in its clarity. In Wenlock Edge, a student is invited by a rich man to dinner and is asked to read aloud naked. In Free Radicals, a dying woman claims to be her husband’s first wife with a poisonous tale to topple her murderous intruder. Munro, a 2013 Nobel Laureate, juxtaposes the irony of what she does in relation to a novelist, in another story titled Fiction. The protagonist, Joyce buys a book and feels disappointed when she finds out it’s an anthology. “A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the authority of the book, making the author look like someone who clings to the doors of literature, rather than settling safely inside… ”
Localization by Jhumpa LahirI
Interpreters of Maladies will remain a favorite, but this seems like the right book
for our uncertain time. A sense of isolation that is the zeitgeist of our time, underscored by a line in the book that is both a demonstration of privilege and its burden. “Loneliness: it has become my job… Yet it torments me, it weighs on me even though I know it so well.
Written first in Italian and translated by Lahiri herself, it follows an unnamed woman navigating a nameless landscape.
I call my sister after I finish Whereabouts to give her a quick overview of the book. “Get a copy too,” I told him.
“Am I going to like it?” You know who I am. I like a lot of details, place names, descriptions.
The conversation continues as we move from books to grim news and hilarious anecdotes. As siblings can. Writers can only write about things they cannot say to those around them unless they are packaged in fiction form.
We are not demonstrative. My sister and me. Hugs are given with care and jibs are our version of kisses.
Yet in most of the stories I write, two devoted sisters always stare at me from a stack of printed pages.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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