May I call you Lisbeth? Your name was the subject of an argument once with a person I spoke to long distance (and since has become the person I speak to every day) and longed to impress.
I insisted, even though I didn’t know for sure, not really, that your name was “Lizbeth,” being Indian, every time I thought of “foreign” I defaulted to American pronunciations. He said “Leesbeth” because “that’s how they say it in Sweden.” And because he was European, I deferred to his opinion, but only in my head. Let the men not win so quickly, right? I feel like you’d agree, even if the next volume of your biography is being written by yet another man.
When you were Pippi
You and I go a long way back, Leesbeth. I knew you so well when you were Pippi Longstocking. Pippi was one of my favourite people when we were both nine. She was the strongest little girl in the world, living alone in Villekulla Cottage with a monkey called Mr Nelson and a horse. She went to school when she felt like it, had red braids that stuck out sideways and a face full of freckles and most importantly, had this life that seemed unreal if you examined it, but turned out to be true.
In your first introduction to Pippi, she says her father was in a shipwreck and was now the “fat white chief” of Canny Cannibal Islands. (Yes, so the books were a little racist.) I dismissed this, even at nine, as Pippi’s lies, and yes, she does lie a lot, but lo and behold, in book two, there’s daddy.
I liked Pippi’s way of liking and trusting everyone, I liked her generous spirit and her way of dismissing school and being so strong and capable, she was the little girl I longed to be. My copies of her three books are limp and ragdoll-like as testimony.
Which is why it took me some time to come to terms with you, Lisbeth. I didn’t like the idea of Pippi, awesome, strongest-little-girl-in-the-world Pippi turning into this ‒ this creature, a product of foster systems and sexual abuse, frankly misandrist and glum and Gothic. Not my friend Pippi! In fact, it was after the publication of the third volume of your biography that I even read you at all, and quite by accident.
When I read you
I had taken a cottage in the hills for a few weeks - voluntary exile to hammer out a book I had been trying to work on for months. There was no Internet access and no television, just a phone signal on the ground floor, expanses of mountain view and after a day of dutifully writing, I couldn’t bring myself to read the “duty books” I brought with me.
You must know “duty books.” They’re books that you buy because they’ll improve you in some way, educate you about the fate of the world, but more often than not they sit on your shelves for years, spines as unbent as ever, until you decide to take them on a long journey. The idea being that once you’re left with nothing else, you have to read them.
I wanted to read something to match the flutter in my stomach coming from the beginnings of a new romance, my long distance who schooled me in Leesbeth-isms. In the cottage bookshelves sat The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I didn’t put down till three am, my heart thump-thumping.
The dragon tattoo
I have a dragon tattoo too, by the way. It represents a folly of youth, a small curled up dragon ‒ like a seahorse with wings ‒ sits on my left hip. At the time it was supposed to be my totem, my fire and brimstone amulet, my ward against evil. As time went by though, I forgot about it, except maybe when I caught sight of it in a shower or something, then I’d think, “Oh yeah, I have a tattoo.”
And then I read about yours and it was like my dragon popped off my skin and came to life, breathing flames. You are an unlikely role model, Lisbeth. You’re grumpy and damaged and have criminal tendencies. Let’s admit it: your black clothes and pierced skin probably doesn’t help.
But then. I watched you tackle corruption and sexual harassment, I watched you wield mace like an automatic weapon, I watched you hack into computers like you were gate crashing a party with the popular kids, I watched as you took no prisoners, and yet, stayed vulnerable sometimes.
I watched, and I know you’re Swedish, but here’s the beauty of books: I recast you with brown skin and brown eyes, and I put you in a crowded bus, and I imagined you standing there, looking impatient, but not doing that thing we all do, crossing our arms over our bosom and hoping no one notices.
I imagined the steel toed tips of your boots itching to kick the balls of the first man who dared to assume your body belonged to him. I took a little bit of you into me, Lisbeth, and I carried it through Delhi when I returned from the hills.
I am proud to be of the Clan of The Dragon Tattoo.
Yours in anticipation of more adventures
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of three books with her fourth, Before And Then After, a collection of short stories out in April.