Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant coverThis book caught my fancy, not just because it was the chosen book of the month, with my Book Club. I had more than a hunch, there sat a good book in my kindle waiting to be read, having bought it over six months ago. I read Vasudha Chandana Gulati’s review, someone whose opinion on books I dearly value, and quickly bought it. Her review had certainly done justice to the book, and here I am, airing my own.

After arriving at the end of the book, I just sat and looked at Eleanor, sitting across me, and said, “Well done you!” Surreal eh! She had been with me for three days, and I with her. We had bonded. 

I have loved the narrative, as is obvious. I only ever review a book that has me, by the balls, so to speak. It had me from the second chapter, and I quote a paragraph (among many that had me grinning, or thoughtful, and stirred) :

“He pulled at the collar of his shirt, as though trying to free his enormous Adam’s apple from its constraints. He had the look of a gazelle or an impala, one of those boring beige animals with large, round eyes on the sides of its face. The kind of animal that always gets eaten by the leopard in the end.”

This is an example of how Eleanor constantly thinks, judges, analyses people around her, a lot of it is all at face value. It is a novel replete with humouristic metaphors, personifications and similes. Not to say that the book needs to be studied, but Eleanor, as a character, is definitely worth a closer look- reminding us of how we live after all, repeatedly through her plain-as-day wisdom, in your face too. She’s full yet she’s broken, and devises a way of living through daily machinations with unerring regularity- timing herself, feeding herself with the exact same food, and drinking Vodka, plenty of it: predictable, honest and robotic almost. This is what lends her a sense of peace. It is what she needs. Why you wonder? Is this who she is? Or is this what her experiences have rendered her- a being with almost no wants, and one who is ‘completely fine’? She not only appears OCD, but autistic in a way, saying it out like it is. Often I’m told, I’m a bit like that. But is she? Am I?

Therein lies the rub.

Eleanor describes a favourite plant she calls Polly : “My beautiful Polly, prosaically described as a parrot plant, sometimes referred to as a Congo cockatoo plant, but always known to me, in her full Latinate glory as Impatiens niamniamensis. I say it out loud, often…..It’s like kissing, the ‘m’s forcing your lips together…. She came with me from my childhood bedroom, survived the foster placements and children’s homes and, like me, she’s still here. I’ve looked after her, tended to her, picked her up and repotted her when she was dropped or thrown. She likes light, and she’s thirsty. …I talk to her sometimes; I’m not ashamed to admit it. When the silence and the aloneness press down and around me, crushing me, carving through me, like ice, I need to speak aloud sometimes, if only for proof of life.”

The loneliness, admittedly, comes to her in waves. The story gradually builds up a character with deep-seated fears, lurking in the abyss of her being. It is some strongly negative experiences that have worked on her psyche, alluded to occasionally. Through her growing years in a variety of foster homes, she teaches herself to be fine, completely fine.

She buries the Before, in the cavern of her being, and shuts the door on the darkness. It does not bother her at all during the life in which we meet her, until Sammy, a character who falls by the road, is introduced, and this is how she and Raymond strike up an unlikely friendship, willy nilly. 

In the meantime, early in the book, Eleanor falls in love with a musician- and builds a life around him, never having actually met him. When her mind’s creation, meets reality – the world crashes around her. It is only then that, with the help of Raymond-from-work, does she arise- and is forced to confront those demons that had lain dormant. Now begins her journey, with a therapist, whom she starts off by dismissing. Eventually, she is made to walk through her past, delve into it- and emerge as someone more normal and far lighter, having shed the weight of compressed grief.

Never finer, in the After, Eleanor embraces this newness, with glee, and Raymond, a true friend, watches and applauds. So does the reader, beaming happily, with tears escaping the corner of one’s eyes every once in a while. It is Raymond- clumsy smoker, unkempt for the better part, with terrible table manners, with whom Eleanor’s unwilling relationship turns into a life-altering one. He saves her from self-destruction.

As one has known, not all is ever lost. If there’s even one who believes in us, and loves us, it is enough to bring us back from the dead, as it were.

Honeyman says of Raymond,

“I think there are a lot of Raymonds in the world – ordinary, kind, decent men who don’t often get featured in fiction”

 She is a fine storyteller, weaving it all like an expert, yet this is her debut novel. She has breathed life into idiosyncratic Eleanor, making us fall in love with her. It is certainly worth a read.

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A Forever Mid-Lifer

“Yes, I’d love some.” Said the fifty-something. She looked all right, quite stuffed actually but did not refuse the offering. This yes was to a kulfi, the quintessential feel-good Indian ice cream, which is unrefusable. You get it! I do.

Hang on, these didn’t look like friends- they were way too young. She stood out, although in a nice, nice way. I was curious and more. You would be too, undoubtedly. What was this group? I shifted my stool closer to theirs, in, what I considered, a subtle attempt to eavesdrop. “Tch, tch”, my mom would’ve said, “not good habit beta!” But I am a writer, I making a living out of eavesdropping, and honestly, what else would I do? This is something I’m adept at – it’s ‘The Art of listening without’. Have you tried it- and not got caught? So far i’ve been getting away, but i’m sure you’ve tried it and everyone knew you were eavesdropping. Now, what i’ve done is cultivated this, and boy, am i good at it! I’m around if ever you wanna take this up a notch.

Crowd listeners

 

I’m a mid-lifer – you know in my mid-thirties, and have already tried my luck, or hand, if you will, at various professions. You might ask, what they were, now that I have taken up property in the land of ‘all ears’. The thing is, baking, singing, writing screenplays, managing a day-care centre- all of this had an expiry date, apart from the singing, which I still do, for friends and at private gatherings. You may’ve heard me and not known it’s me.

  • The day-care Centre was a disaster from the word go. The little ones bawled, and I would read on, unperturbed. Within a week, two sets of parents removed their kids, and I was left with only 8 kids, who made their way to a ‘more caring environment’. I have to admit, I wasn’t heartbroken.
  • Screenplays : i cannot write fiction. After two rejections, I could tell this was a cul-de-sac. I turned around.
  • I found my calling pretty soon thereafter. I realized that my ears could become my ears, and vice versa, without much ado. It was like someone created a new being, with a brand new set of twin organs. I thought it a brilliant idea to cash in on this hitherto undiscovered talent. I am learning much, about so much.

ResPect

So you know how vital the respect factor is- like it’s imperative to lead a life with a decent level of self-esteem.

I could write a thesis on How to Forge Ahead with or without Talent. I don’t think it’s difficult to build talent, once you decide what your calling should be (so it’s mostly minus genius, and one teaches oneself anything one puts one’s mind to, clever eh!?)

Look at me, here I am, in a café,  tuning in to a conversation, because as i see it,  these are young folk eating out of the hand of a lady who’s got what it takes. The Mid-lifer is saying something about feeling free, letting go, about being in the moment – all stuff  open to misinterpretation, isn’t it!? Were I twenty-something, I would relate this advice to prohibited stuff. Your guess is as good as mine.

The young audience is agape. It’s a hip group, yet listening with rapt attention. I have observed (very often, especially when i speak 😉 listening skills are on the wane, but this one’s got it right. I am getting drawn in too. That’s what’s transpiring, am forgetting to take notes, mental or otherwise, to put to good use, to tweak and twist in my next article.

She has their respect, that she clearly does. You would too, were you here by my side, eavesdropping. I’ve heard enough; now those notes.

  • Don’t worry about success (when did I last hear that!)

(Luckily she stopped at that!)

  • Pay attention to details….God lies in the details, in the small stuff. People might say, don’t sweat the small stuff, I would say, sweat it. Be courteous; be attentive to the small people- coz they go on to become the Big People.
  • Small gestures for your own – folk that matter to you- like making an impromptu call, writing a letter (who does either anymore?), drop in on neighbours with a dish, or without.
  • CODE Word : JLT – just like that : talking about yourself and your life- engaging a person, communicating one way or another- ‘hey what’s on your mind, you’ve got that look? Share.’ You talk, they talk. That’s how it works.
  • Change a routine week- doing date nights just like that, driving off. A lot of ‘Just Like That’s’ become the foundation for healthy, long-lasting relationships. Makes sense.
  • Money is not God, but pretty close to One. Don’t misuse it, don’t abuse it- never take it for granted. If it comes easy- it goes easy. Ask the businessman, ask the 9-5 posh MNC gentleman, ask the guy on the street. Today : it comes, and it goes, in the blink of an eye.
  • Get the money-earning out of the way.

How’d it go with your Education? Mine was sad: tests, sorry results. Exams : sadder results, and i managed to scrape through. But i’m smart, and i know it. It’s my home that made me believe in myself, in my capabilities, in me. The school- college routine was mandatory, and in a worldly sense, we must all adhere to the routine. I’m sure you’ve been there, done that, right? I still don’t know how it helped, but i enjoyed the peer interaction, and it made the burden of the years of getting ‘educated’ , bearable.

You can forego it for the nextgen- home-school the kids. Tough call? Yes. You can do far better if you’re ready to listen, and to give of yourself; yep, tis hard work but the rewards, if you’re that kinda person, are astounding, and deeply satisfying. But hey, an international school will do just as well, if you’re busy chasing the big bucks! (Sarcasm? Think so.)

  • Education : lifelong

Borrowing money : a no-no.

  • Look ahead, always.
  • If you are constantly saying sorry, there is something amiss. You need to Forgive Yourself for your mistakes…and there’ll be more. But you know what to do – move on, rectify, forgive, learn, move on.
  • Low self-esteem : sagging confidence makes you are more likely to commit either the same errors, or similar ones. It’s an awfully sticky cycle. Go overhaul or get a new cycle, or perhaps something on four wheels
  • Laughter is king. Laugh a little everyday, and carry the mirth of it with you as baggage, nothing else.
  • Laughter

 

 

 

I had heard enough for one day. She wasn’t delivering a sermon, because all of the above was injected with a number of jokes about one or the other, and how obsessed one moron was with money- or the girl keen on repeating mistakes with her boyfriend etc. It was all very congenial, but it got me thinking. I went home and thought I’d start afresh.

This lady and her ‘friends’ got me thinking.

Meeting

But before leaving the arena, I asked the pretty lady at the bar what that was about, and a large grin appeared on her face. This was a teacher at the nearby college, and arrived once a week, with a group of students to refresh it all. It was clearly working!

AFRESH

Now I’m kicked. What did I really, really want? Well, money for one, plentiful.

To : travel, travel, travel and photograph every nook, every corner of planet Earth.

No marriage, no kids, no routine.

There have been solitary evenings, when I’ve nursed many a foamy beer, but not nearly enough.

  • Discipline : YES!
  • Love food so: cookery classes/girlfriend? Nah. Just the classes.
  • Love photography : classes and save the planet from mobile photography. Do the real thing. Yay!
  • Document my travels : Journal writing cannot be learnt, so perhaps find a girlfriend? Find myself a Ghost writer? Be the ghost myself? Friend in need- Jumbo writes well, can ask him. What would you have me do? What would you do?

So just write, and we’ll see. Pass it around for feedback, go easy on self-critique, and receive in abundance.

It all ties in nicely. This way I can remain a permanent mid-lifer. The secret, I reckon, lies in being a learner forever.

images-12 copy

I turn to the Mid-Lifer in my head. I see her agog with a joie de vivre, despite the aging bones, and a sagging chin. Her attitude, that’s just it. Embracing the moment, and being gleeful in the small joys that life throws up, every now and then.

I think my Mid-lifer journey’s begun. What about yours? Go for it.

I begin by interacting with strangers, and they begin poker-faced, and then warm up, and we end up laughing uproariously about this and that. It’s perfect. Try it, worst case scenario, you’ll be seen as queer, and that’s good, anything other than normal is brilliant!

….. a podcaster is what I shall be for now!

Out with Lanterns by Alisha Kirpalani (a book review)

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This is a beautiful piece of work that, strangely enough, resonated with my own life story- the eternal need to write, and be read. My life, as it were, has caught me by surprise repeatedly, just as Karin’s does in Out with the Lanterns. My internal existence, I believed, rested heavily on my writing, and my dancing feet, believing them to define me. The protagonist of Out with the Lanterns, is also someone who is passionate about writing and dancing, which took the wind out of me for starters. Does she know me?

Alisha’s writing is exquisite- her mastery over the language, tantalizing as she enfolds authenticity of emotion, in every passage, and each email exchange between writer Aksh, and Karin. It is engaging, and keeps you riveted. You are swept up in the labyrinth she creates and lose yourself in this brave world of Karin. The lady is vulnerable, quirky, humourous and bright. The writer Aksh, pitted against Raoul, the hubby are excellently etched characters, complementing Karin’s longing for life itself. Encompassing two distinct worlds, Alisha is able to carry us back and forth, cleverly exploiting the gifts of the modern world- letters on a screen. She nails the bridge that links and brings it all together, with great dexterity. The catch line describes perfectly what this novel aspires to: ‘A discovery of life, love and everything in between’.

It is possible for a tale such as this to transpire- an inexplicable love, that captures your heart, and becomes the trigger for unraveling and unburdening that which may have sat like an Albatross around your neck. Her use of literary references are again, timely, and clever. Once its job is done, it is no longer needed, this relationship which develops and takes on a life of its own.

Alisha manages the complexities of relationships with great maturity and compassion. There is something really quirky and fulfilling about the exchanges between the famous author, and the wannabe author. I fell for these hook, line and sinker, chuckling to myself, even as i realized the dangers of the territory the two were exploring. I suddenly wished to find one such in my own barren land.

I read the book in two sittings, as I turned page after page to delve deeper into the psyche of both Karin and Aksh. Will they, won’t they?

To not present any spoilers, I would like to say that Alisha’s conclusion of the story she has woven is on point, and to my heart and mind there could have been no other. So it’s a winner of a book all the way, because endings are like closures, and if one is left hanging, a strange after-taste disallows the feeling of satisfaction needed after a good read. This one was perfect.

 

A Unique Writer’s Retreat

In the mountains of Kumaon   (HWR – Himalayan Writing Retreat)  at Sona Pani  

Some days are like that, they just take off on a positive note. 29th March was one of those days, when the heart soared, and one just knew that it was going to be a fine, strong day. “Taking off for Sona Pani” I announced – there was a sweet ring to it. The journey from Kathgodam up the hills, and then some down, and then up again had me reeling. The air got fresher as we sailed from hill to hill. I blessed my driver Shafik, for being the quiet sort, as I truly needed the silence outside of me to still the raging insides . The sunny mountains, the unadulterated air and then arriving at the Himalayan resort run by a most adorable couple Ashish and Deepa, was smooth enough. I was mistakenly dropped off by the kitchen entrance, and was quite charmed by the rather unconventional entry door. The aromas pushed their way into my nostrils and I suddenly found myself in an area thronged by folk that were chitter-chattering away. It was like a scene out of a Bengali movie- no one bothered with me, and I took it all in. Then Ashish, the host, found me, and I was asked to join in for lunch. Alas, I had already stopped by a café recommended by our mentor Chetan Mahajan, called I ❤ café. I regretted having stuffed my face with penne pasta. Anyway, i was shown my large new chamber, after i was made to descend to it. I was hungry for aloneness and views of the faraway mountains, lush trees and rhododendrons met my vision. I was elated. Alone, for the very first time, in a resort that sang to me, and a room that was all mine to litter, and a balcony with two chairs, both mine to choose from, and nothing more than undulating forests all around. Bliss.

The next twenty-four hours were just as expected- very quiet, very musical, as I could hear but birdsongs tearing through the air around, readings, writings and an exciting evening. I went up for tea at about six thirty and found the *‘jatra’ had assembled in the dining room. They were about to begin a thing called BED, a spoof on Ted Talks. BED stood for Beyond Entertainment and Design. Every person in that room had to speak for five minutes on what kept them awake at night. I didn’t feel up to it, because I slept well, and there was very little that kept me awake I believed. Yet when I was asked to, it seemed I needed at least twenty minutes to toss it all out there. There was stuff that could well keep me awake at night, and should, yet I played a trick with myself; I’d become an expert at pushing it all down, into myself, so deep, so damn deep that I magically made it all disappear. That evening, it came up from Nowhere one would say. That Nowhere place was a real place, and with very real needs. I was forced to address those needs, and I slept a little badly that night. I suppose being alone in a forestry resort can be a bit daunting for a city girl like me, who was habituated to people around most of the time. The pleasure of being alone, well, it took on an altered colour at night, and wasn’t as attractive as by day. I was engulfed by city fears, those that frighten little children: what if there’s a monster hiding in the bush? What if ghosts of the past lurk and lie low by day, and come out at night to frighten lone women at night, especially those from the city who should know better than to travel alone? What if there’s a leopard just waiting for fresh city meat? What if…..so I kept a lamp on all night.

Haunted till I passed out, exhausted by the mind’s running.

Morning broke at five am, and I switched off the lamp I had left burning. I was alive and uneaten. That was good. It was also my birthday, and I felt a bit younger, as is my wont, every year on 3oth march. I had survived another year, unharmed mostly. I can’t seem to accept that I might actually be ageing. So I don’t.

Breakfast was ceremonial with much on offer. I pigged out. I re-met all the beautiful people of the previous evening, who were immersed, as it appeared to me, in the previous nights banter. I went for a long walk thereafter, and photographed all that I observed. The air around seemed to be awash with magic. I was bewitched.

Later I spent the day reading and writing in my room, then in the balcony, then back in my room, then back in the other chair in my balcony. The network was pretty shaky, yet people I care for, were able to reach me and wish me; my family and friends wanted me to have a happy day, and I assured them that I couldn’t be any happier, and I’d die if I were. They seem convinced that I was quite okay out there somewhere. The book I read had me in its grips, and I forgot to grab lunch. Then at thirty past two my tummy growled. I rushed up and partook of the most delectable fare. Ashish and Deepa sure know how to pamper their guests.

Evening set in and my writing partners materialised, and so did I, and we acquainted ourselves with each other very formally, to start with. I could already sense that this HWR was going to be fun, despite the apparent air of correctness. If you ask me what I sensed, I would not know how to quite explain it, call it sixth sense. They all seemed well read, well spoken and good-looking as well. I secretly hoped we turned out to be friends, not just co-writers in that moment – wayfarers, drifting from one wonderful event to another. Well, what did I know! I smiled way too much after a couple of red wines (glasses). Then I was laughing, and everyone else seemed to be laughing along. The rightness had all but dissipated. All was good.

The workshop, the following morning, began with a short, guided meditation conducted by the very soft-spoken psychologist, Vandita Dubey, who co-hosted this eventful day that was about to unfurl upon us. She guided our consciousness from top to toe with her mellifluous tones, and we were smitten. The weather was unbelievably pleasant and in keeping with the rhythm we desired. It was nigh impossible to then do a writing exercise, yet we achieved the impossible, and each of us wrote of ourselves. We had to bring out the character of a personality, using any means. We wrote, and wrote. We shared, we smiled and we peeked a little into each other’s worlds, rife with imagination we learnt. Thereafter we moved to our writing quarters, downhill, in one of the many rooms that the Himalayan Resort generously threw open.

Chetan gave us all handouts with the program of the two days in print, sprinkled with humour and superb quotes, one among them being : “Description begins in the writer’s imagination but should finish in the reader’s”…my favourite. He then handheld us through the day, telling us about some of the more basic errors writers make. He showed us some short videos of interviews with well-known writers, who spoke lucidly about how less is more, and how we often use simple words unconsciously and repeatedly. We all were rather taken aback at the list of words that Chetan kindly shared with us, since we were all party to over-usage of many a terminology that should be banished as soon as it appeared in our minds. We did laugh over it, even as we were sensitized to this aspect of writing, imperative to help improve, vital to bettering the quality of our creative insights. He shared with us some software links that would be helpful in being able to bring into focus these very pitfalls- such as Scrivener and Hemingway- using one of his own writings to showcase their capabilities. We were duly impressed and quickly aspired to acquiring them all, adding to our own little collection of writing tools. I have none so far, and the green and red lines that MS Word throws up are already a bane in my writer’s existence. I wonder, I wonder.

We were made to undertake another writing exercise using our sensory perceptions, and then reading them out loud. It was exceedingly interesting to note how each of us brought a different light to the table, how each of us carried our distinct sensibilities and personalities into our written expressions. Nothing new, one might say, yet in a small gathering of aspiring writers, as we began to see each other in the light of our writings, a sense of intimacy grew. It was as if the small group that we were, were sharing secrets with one another, shutting out the rest of the world. It worked to our advantage, because as the day wore on, our expressions got stronger and more open. Every exercise became a means of self-expression, a surrender to the task at hand, which were no more than ten – twenty minutes at the most. We were seven in number, including Chetan himself. We all surprised ourselves by what we could achieve, by all that could be possibly expressed under directives that were explicit. When asked to be someone else- we were innovative, we were creative and we were humorous, above all.

On the second day of the workshop, we began again with a meditative exercise, guided by Vandita again, who asked us to become the mountain- to reach high above us, to rise up to kiss the skies, even as we held fast onto the earth which held us in its bosom. It was a delightful fifteen minutes, and kick started the day, energizing us.

We were then asked to create an ambience- make the place the hero of the piece to be written. Again, we rode the waves of creativity- again we emerged with some superb pieces, and as we read them out loud, we applauded each one on its unique qualities. We could all write, that had become increasingly clearer with every new essay.

We later discussed the publishing business, and the whys and wherefores of it all, since Chetan is a published author. His ‘Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail’ is a Penguin book. He made known the pitfalls of bad editing, especially by publishers. He handed us a ‘take home’ task, which was to edit either a piece that we had written during the workshop, or an earlier one. That was exciting, because editing is among the most vital components of good writing. Everyone may know it, but not everyone is capable of good editing. That apart, during the two and a half days of the workshop, we learnt to be present, to gather ourselves in order to write within a given mandate, to expel our inhibitions and to just let flow. It was all made possible, as we rolled from one level of comfort to the next.

The environment was a massive aid, and a compelling partner in our endeavour to learn and grow, given the motive that had led us all to this Himalayan resort. The ambience was nurturing, and Chetan fostered this core purpose in so many ways, chief among them being non-judgmental mentoring. At the very close of this wonderful chapter of HWR, he helped us voice and formulate clear goals for our writing career, and beseeched us to put them down, more for ourselves than for anyone else.

May we follow our hearts along with our goals, irrevocably. Amen.

This post of mine is dedicated to –

  1. Renu, the young charming poet; engaging prose-writer, gifted with funny bones and an effortless eloquence;
  2. Charu , our shy yet fluent blogger-to-be, vocal yet discreet, surprised continually by her own talents.
  3. Sapna, our petite blogger par excellence, mystic poetic demeanour, a woman of many merits and a distinct flavourful voice.
  4. Vikram, the discerning naval flyer, with a warm and pleasant exterior, and a soft, emotional palate of creative ideas.
  5. Vandita, the lady with the dulcet tones, she lulled and carried us to a place of peace          and quiet, an excellent guide and partner. Writes well too, with accompanying hedgings .
  6. Kamalini (why the hell not me?), driven to impatience of a creative sort, hungry to experience whatever is out there to be experienced, verbose.
  7. Chetan, the mentor par excellence, with a booming personality, candid and open, but reticent to critique harshly, could condense methodically, a lot of takeaways in a mere 2.5 days. Has an eye and a ear for the odd and infrequent.

To look at more pictures on the HWR Page, this is the link : www.himalayanwritingretreat.com/#gallery