There is one call that comes every morning. We talk, with headphones plugged in as I water the plants. Two sisters in two cities reeling from a pandemic though her city, Delhi, is now suffering even more than mine.
Our conversations continue as the minuscule menace with a ginormous chokehold enters our household and a countdown begins. It brings a childhood ditty to mind: ‘Ten green bottles hanging on the wall’. Bottles falling, one by one till there are no green bottles left.
Amid swab tests and sealed buildings, we send each other WhatsApp forwards. There is only one condition: they must be outrageous. Like the one from a distant cousin which warns, ‘Russians have done an autopsy and discovered that it (Covid) is not a virus but a bacteria mutated through radiation.’
We have been largely apart for the last year and a half but stay connected through our daily calls, a small comfort as we sit in the middle of two separate battlefields.
Our revelries, even in the best of times, have never been about dancing away the night, fuelled by alcohol. Instead, we like lazing together, on beaches and beds across countries. Periods of noisy chatter interspersed by silence when we both disappear into the pages of our respective books.
Last week, a parcel arrived. It contained a book. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri. I had mentioned it to my sister a few days ago. As a surprise, she ordered a copy for me. Luckily, even Amazon, which has stopped deliveries of all non-essentials, considers books an essential commodity.
Late afternoons, sitting by the window, curtains drawn against the blistering sun that seems capable of flaying 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 poisoned arrows from their turrets, then why can’t my books be stacked up to form a bunker where I can feel safe? Just for a while.
I decide to make a list, for people like me, who in good times and bad, take solace within books. If most books are oceans, then these anthologies and novels are
constructed lagoons. Short enough to hold our distracted attention. Deep enough to stay submerged.
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link
I first read Kelly Link’s short stories in online science fiction magazines. This book, a finalist for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, begins with the ominous Summer People. Fran has come down with the flu. Her father sprays her with a plant mister and asks her to ensure the beds are made for the ‘Summer people’. There are magical potions delivered by foxes, ghost boyfriends and pocket universes and yet her stories seem realistic because of her immense talent.
Men Without Women by
This book has stayed by my bedside for a few years. It has pencil marks and a coffee stain. I read the stories in random order, though I have read Drive My Car more often than the others. The short stories are linked by a matter-of-fact melancholy.
“You are a pastel-coloured Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bordeaux wine stain that won’t come out,” writes Murakami in the last eponymous tale. There are stories about men with betrayal stuck in a molar, picking at it incessantly; men wasting away for love; men unravelling because they are all men without women.
Florida By Lauren Groff
The imagery in these well-crafted stories is so powerful that you almost feel like your hair is frizzing up as you are submerged in Florida’s humid sunshine. Groff has lurking reptiles, sinkholes and, often, absconding parents. The writing is luminous and the stories have an underlying layer of a sense of quiet desperation, one that most women will find very familiar.
Too much happiness by Alice Munro
A thread that runs through all of Alice Munro’s stories is empathy. Her writing is precise, modest and searing in its clarity. In Wenlock Edge, a college student is invited by a wealthy man to dinner and asked to read aloud in the nude. In Free Radicals, a dying woman pretends to be her husband’s first wife with a poison-filled tale to subvert her murderous intruder. Munro, the winner of a Nobel prize in 2013, juxtaposes the irony of what she does as compared to a novelist, in another story called Fiction. The protagonist, Joyce purchases a book and feels let down when she discovers it’s an anthology. “A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside…”
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Interpreters of Maladies will remain a favorite, but this one seems the right book
for our uncertain period. A sense of isolation that is the zeitgeist of our times, underlined by a line from the book that is both a display of privilege and its burden. “Solitude: it’s become my trade…Yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of knowing it so well.”
Written first in Italian and translated by Lahiri herself, it follows a nameless woman navigating through a nameless landscape.
I call my sister after I finish Whereabouts to give her a quick breakdown of the book. ‘Get a copy too,’ I tell her.
‘Will I like it? You know how I am. I like lots of details, names of places, descriptions.’
The conversation continues as we drift from books to grim news and hilarious anecdotes. The way siblings can. Writers can only write about the things they can’t say to the people around them unless they are gift-wrapped in the form of fiction.
We are not demonstrative. My sister and I. Hugs are given gingerly and jibes are our version of kisses.
Yet within most of the stories I write, a pair of devoted sisters always stare back at me from a stack of printed pages.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
END OF ARTICLE