India has finally become active with its own #MeToo movement. Recently, a post by writer and painter Amruta Patil showed up on my Facebook timeline. “Dear sisters in India,” she wrote, “we have absorbed so many stories; so many overdue primeval howls of pain in the last few days. It’s ok to take a break to look after yourself, look elsewhere for a while. ‘The world doesn’t revolve around human beings’ is an idea that has always brought me a lot of perspective and respite.”
Allegations against people both famous and relatively lesser-known have surfaced, and conversations about sexual harassment and appropriate behaviour has spread from Bollywood and media, through politics and college campuses, to people’s daily lives. This news leaves us with discomfort not just because our apparently infallible idols are being brought down, but also because so many women’s voices have been dismissed and stifled this whole time. Many people are unhappy. Many people are enraged. Most want justice.
Some perspective and respite are much needed. And for this, Anita Nair’s Eating Wasps is the perfect companion. While it doesn’t follow an overtly feminist agenda, it captures the lives of women in a satisfying and beautiful way. You can hold it up and be happy that there is still literature out there that easily passes the Bechdel Test. And also know that it doesn’t exist just to pass the Bechdel test.
Flawed and confused, like real people
The narrator of the book is a dead woman whose finger is picked up from the funeral pyre by an ex-lover who keeps it locked up in a cupboard. The story starts with her suicide: “On the day I killed myself, it was bright and clear. It was a Monday. A working day.” Sreelakshmi, when she was still alive, was an unmarried woman in her 30s who taught zoology and wrote Sahtiya Akademi award winning fiction. Nair describes her mysterious suicide in a way that suggests it was caused by a man. But this doesn’t make you groan. You uncover Sreelakshi bit by bit to discover a three-dimensional character, the injustices she faces, and the self-belief she exhibits in the wake of all disasters. Along with her own, she brings out the story of many other women.
The other protagonist is Urvashi, a woman also in her 30s, with a perfect marriage – so perfect that it lacks all chemistry and she finds herself only performing the role of a wife rather than feeling love for her husband. She joins a dating app on the advice of her friends and finds a married man she can talk to about her feelings. They have sexual chemistry, but soon their relationship is only dependent on sex and she stops feelings for him too. He doesn’t accept that she wants to withdraw from their relationship and stalks her, sending her threatening messages.
It’s a familiar story for many women trying to gain sexual liberation. Instead of portraying Urvashi as a character to pity, Nair lets her readers see her with all her faults. Ultimately all of the characters in the book are flawed and confused, and, like all human beings, are trying to find happiness. They aren’t elevated to a super-human status but Nair introduces a subtle discourse on how we view women and how we read them in literature.
Upon her suicide, Sreelakshmi realises the speculation her death has caused. She says, “An ordinary woman had become a legend, a tragic heroine, and it was the nature of my death that had turned me into someone extraordinary in their eyes.” This is exactly the kind of speculation Nair sidesteps throughout her novel by avoiding the elevation of her heroines to make them flawless. In a way, Eating Wasps gave me that much needed space to breathe in the world where I’m constantly enraged at the high standards set for women.
The reader is the winner
At the level of craft too, Nair excels at creating different portraits. There are multiple women, some who only appear for one chapter, and some who become recurring supporting characters in the story of Sreelakshmi and Urvashi. She blends caste, class, and religion with a surprising amount of ease. The narration has a simple linear structure, with occasional interruptions of back stories, and follows women on their journeys.
There’s Megha, a young school girl who rides with the person she calls Uncle to school every day, whose love she desires until she gets it. There’s Najma, whose ammi never forced her to wear a burkha or get married, who falls victim to an acid attack but refuses to hide her face and emerges a winner. There are many such characters who leave you with a sense of acute longing. You wish you knew them. You wish you could hear them. Perhaps a book like this, which gives an unvarnished glimpse into the lives we lead, will force us to listen, to be kinder, and to treat ourselves better. Highly readable and visceral, the novel reminds you that you are not alone, and that your feelings are not invalid.
Eating Wasps is a celebration of women unlike any other. It doesn’t have a politically charged agenda, but it calms you in the wake of all the fear and rage. Much of the novel is ultimately sad, even if it is determined not to be. It’s a simply told story of ordinary characters telling tales you’ve probably been reading all over the newspapers for a long time now. But Eating Wasps is the kind of book that makes you emerge as the winner. You read it, you breathe, and you relax. You can treat it like comfort food, or as your first glimpse into the struggles of women. Eating Wasps can mould itself to be your book. A friend who reminds you that there is still hope and that our voices matter.
Eating Wasps, Anita Nair, Westland.