Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The truth about fiction

When novels become more than mere sheets of paper

By Aswathy Kumar

For a very long time I was never into books. Though I did read all the latest novels, I never understood what it was about a book that particularly appealed to a reader. For me they were mere pages with a few flowery words imprinted in them.
I tried my best to like books and made it a point to buy all the best sellers. Be it The Da Vinci Code, Paul Cohelo’s Alchemist or The Lord of the Rings series. But for some reason, I just couldn’t set my heart into any of it. I felt desperate! Was there something wrong with me? Was I stupid?  I knew I had to find what the problem was.
It was only much later that I realized that it was time I stopped listening to others and found out what it was that truly appealed to me. It was time to stop listening to my dad, my friends and my teachers and find out what it was, I really wanted.
I moved to Nairobi and received an opportunity to meet many interesting women from very different backgrounds and social upbringings. From Muslim women in Hijabs to struggling single working mothers, I interacted with the exploited labour class women in Nairobi and Somalian women who were victims of female circumcision. I met mothers fighting court cases for child support against abandoned fathers and women married to abusive husbands.
After listening to their hard hitting stories, I realized that it was time I came out from the fantasy world of super cops, goblins and make believe characters and delved into reality. I realized it was time I knew more about women and what they went through across the globe.
On one of my visits to the book shop, I picked out the book The Thousand Splendid Suns. It was about the lives of two Muslim women and I felt it was exactly what I was looking for. It will help me relive their suffering and help me understand their lives better. I couldn’t put it down, quite a refreshing change for someone who took months to finish a book.
In just a matter of few pages, the two main characters Mariam and Laila became a part of me. I felt for them, cried for them, prayed for them and felt the need to protect them. Every time Mariam experienced a blow from her husband, I felt it too, deep within my skin.  Every time Laila saw a hope to freedom, I hoped with her.
It’s after reading The Thousand Splendid Suns and other women interest’s fiction like Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood Of Flowers, Malika Oufkir’s La Prissonniere, Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us and many others that I realized that as a reader I wanted to read about the lives of other women in different parts of the world.
I wanted to read about characters that I could empathize with, about women I could laugh with, cry with; about women I could admire and feel for. I wanted to read not only about women I could identify with like the rebellious Saira in The Writing On My Forehead by Nafisa Haji but I also wanted to read about women who could inspire me like the courageous Malika Oufkir.
What was amazing was that most of these books were not autobiographies (except for La Prisonnere) and were mostly fiction. But even then the characters felt as real to me as anybody I met on a daily basis. The servant girl Bhima reminded me of the old maid who worked for my family in Delhi, the notorious Zeliha of The Bastard of Istanbul was almost exactly like a close friend of mine back in Kerala. Their stories were as real to me as any biography or any story that appeared on the morning newspaper. And I knew I had found what I was looking for. 


  1. Nice article ashwathy..I read thousand splendid suns about 2 years ago & i was so moved by the plight of the two ladies in that -- Mariam & Laila.I also wished that they could just be free & have a nice life for themselves. I always wished good for all the women in the world who suffer so much for different reasons. After moving here to UK we could see so many single mothers taking care of there children without any help from family or husband but strong in there mental aproach to life. I really thank God that we are in the lucky set of people who have not yet seen what suffering is all about. However what really pinches is that I cant do anything to help these women. I dont know if it is the guts that i lack or the capability to move out of the regular cycle of life to do something different. I liked the idea of you writing abt what you feel in this blog. Maybe this will lead me also somewhere :-).

  2. Hi Manjula, Thanks for you comments. And I can completely understand your helplessness. I used to feel it too. Every time I came across such women all I could do was simply listen to them and pen it down.I felt desperate. But then one day something happened and my perspective changed.
    I have a maid who has been working for me for the past three years. She has four kids and her husband abandoned her one day. For the past 6 months she has been fighting court cases against her husband for child support. When she told me I was like,' Do you think it's really going to work?' And she replied saying that she will never stop trying to get what she deserves. She really inspired me.And i realized that it was time I started trying.
    My first step was to sponsor her eldest daughter till she finishes her college. We got her out of the slum and put her in a good christian school and secondly I adopted a new policy, 'one month or less.' Basically if there is anything in my house that I haven't used for a month, I give it away for charity. I know it's a very small step. But if it makes atleast one person smile, I think a difference has been made.