My Thaatha’s favourite English word is “sufficient”. It is almost always uttered around meal-times, when he is inspecting my plate (or on fancy occasions, a banana leaf sprinkled with water). “You have a sufficient quantity of food?” “The salt is sufficient?” “You have sufficient sugar in your tea?”
When Thaatha and I speak on the phone there is inevitably a question about what I ate for breakfast, what I will eat for lunch. My memories of life in Thiruvananthapuram always pivot rhythmically around meals. My days were divided into eating, bursting at the seams post-mealtime, and little windows to digest in between.
It was an odd detail of my life to rediscover in Krupa Ge’s What We Know About Her, but Ge’s book gives space to mealtimes. As the protagonist Yamuna spends more and more time with her family, she feels as though she is always eating. “Our meals together simply punctuated an otherwise aimless day,” she writes.
Yamuna is in conflict with most of her family – she is stealing letters from her Thaatha as she visits him in Benares, and is as determined to keep her ancestral home as her mother is to give it away. The protagonist’s almost obsessive relationship with the house unfurls slowly as we get acquainted with her.
A life through letters
Yamuna’s captivation by the past is bewildering to her mother (and initially to the reader), but it seems to be the starting point of all her obsessions. Her love for Carnatic music leads her to write her PhD on early twentieth-century music in Tamil Nadu. Research for her PhD leads her to investigate the fascinating figure of Lalitha – her grand-aunt and renowned artiste. Captivated by Lalitha, she scavenges through her family’s history, parsing letters exchanged between the women in her family.
The secrecy that shrouds these letters intensify her fixation. Yet, What We Know About Her is not a mystery novel, despite its suggestive name. The sense of mystery is scrambled by a sense of aimlessness and mundanity. Interspersed with its coffee breaks (our narrator is almost always sipping a beverage), the conflict is diffused.
South Asian literature is often foregrounded with descriptions of food; it tends to contextualise stories in terms of setting. The kitchen is, of course, also a deeply gendered space. Ge allows this space to deliver its embedded issues of gender, caste and religion.
Yet, parcelled into everyday objects, they take their time to truly reckon with the reader because of the nonchalance of their presence. The rhythm of the everyday is not disturbed by the gravity of these subjects, because they are woven into its routine and daily conversation.
Yamuna describes the subtle language of caste enquiry through seemingly innocuous questions. She argues about reservations and the Citizenship Amendment Act over drinks. She simmers in quiet rage at a restaurant table as she listens to the pointed remarks of a gossipy sexist aunty. The occasionally tense, occasionally illuminating dialogue between older and newer generations mirror our protagonist’s attempt to tie the past to the present. Her uncertainty about when to talk back to older people reflects her dialogue with history – not knowing when to confront its injustices, when to let it go.
Through Lalitha and her letters we see a glimpse of the female artist, contending with competing forces of familial duty and personal ambition. World War 2 is waged in the backdrop of Lalitha’s letters, bleeding into her contemplations. The first observation she makes about her groom-to-be is that his moustache resembles Hitler’s.
Her obsession with Herr Führer is a mystery to the rest of her family. She seems to turn him into an emblem of destructive male power, of men trying to play god. Within the violence of a world constructed by men, she tries to locate the role of women. Life inside the four walls of a house sometimes seems eclipsed by the outside world, other times it seems more real.
“Have women ever stopped drawing kolams because of how cruel life is? Women have woven sarees, written poems of love and separation as wars raged between kingdoms,” Lalitha writes in one of her letters. The characters in Ge’s book are constantly slipping between worlds – the outside and inside world, the political and the personal ––sometimes suspended somewhere in between.
Even their language suffers this hybrid existence – “A Telugu existence into whose nooks and crannies Tamil had entered. Telugu was the language of love and hate inside the walls of our home. Tamil was the language of our world.”
When I visited my father’s family in the South in recent times, some of their customs shocked me. The taboos around menstruation, the veneration of the Brahmin caste, the gendered roles and duties everyone unquestioningly assumed. But perhaps I should revise some of my assumptions, redact the word “unquestioning”. The tolerance for orthodoxy seems to shrink with every new generation.
My father’s generation is already more rebellious; I glimpsed snatches of my aunts and cousins in Yamuna’s occasional brazenness. And even the less explicitly defiant characters of the book waged their private rebellions. Yamuna’s grandmother scoffed when her husband accused her of being occupied by nothing but her family, revealing the places she would go when he was at work, the money she earned through her own means. “Men like to think only they can live uninterrupted private lives,” she would laugh.
“When we hear stories of a nine-year-old married, or thirteen-year-old made in-charge of a household, we think of them a certain way. Like my grandmother and Lalithamma. I knew both women. It’s not all ‘oh poor dear’, you know?” Yamuna’s mother observes.
When I think of how my life will be chronicled by future generations, I suspect (and hope) that some aspects of our lives will be deemed regressive in the same manner we regard those before us. Yet I also hope that the women in my life are not painted as victims, but in the rich shades Krupa Ge affords to her characters.
Books about the past often trace history teleologically – the sequence of events leading to a definite conclusion. Although her protagonist seems to seek a resolution, Krupa Ge is not afraid to withhold the clarity of one from her. Describing the past, Yamuna’s Thaatha says, “But it was never always horrible or always rosy, you do not just walk around as the sum total of your problems all the time, do you? Time moves you along, and you forget about your problems when you eat a good meal or crack a great joke.”
What we choose to notice in our act of recollection does not have to limit itself to momentous events. History, according to Krupa Ge, is not a mystery to be unlocked or a problem to be neatly resolved. Perhaps, she seems to suggest, we should occasionally treat it like my Thaatha would – enquiring what one has eaten for breakfast. Like the memories of a departed loved one, a faithful depiction of history can be as much about the mealtimes and silly jokes as it is the actual events of one’s life.
What We Know About Her, Krupa Ge, Context.
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