A couple of days ago a friend and colleague of mine lost her father suddenly. It’s hard to know what to say when something like this happens. This kind of death carries a heavy grief, filled with so many what ifs and unanswered questions.
How you get through it depends on what you believe, I guess. Believing in an afterlife helps, or in some kind of divine logic. If you don’t have anything or anyone to give your grief up to — like God, or Jesus or the universe — then you might feel kind of stuck with the sadness for a while, struggling to process it.
Another friend recently went through a scare when her niece nearly died from a sudden illness. My friend and her family sat vigil in the hospital for days and nights on end. Even though her niece came through, my friend says that she feels a new kind of pain now, a deeper pain. There’s an anger and a shock when bad things happen to good people. Because even though we all know intellectually that good people suffer all the time, many of us still never think it will happen to us. It’s a loss of innocence, when we see how unfair life can be.
I haven’t been reading fiction over the past several years. A few books here and there. I took some deep dives into Infinite Jest, but still didn’t finish it. I read George Saunders stories. I read My Struggle (just the first book) by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Then a few months ago I joined the kind of book club where you actually read books (although I like the book club where you just drink wine too). The first book we read in Actual Book Club was The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. The second meeting, it was my turn to host.
I put some choices out to the group and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy got the most votes. I felt a certain hostess pressure. But when I finally sat down to start the book, I struggled to get through the opening chapters. The relationships were difficult to remember. I kept confusing the main characters, boy and girl twins, because their names didn’t correspond to my gender associations. The girl twin is Rahel and the boy twin is Esta. Typically, I associate girls’ names with ending in ‘a,’ so I kept thinking Esta was the girl; and the name Rahel, ending in ‘el,’ made me think of the masculine pronoun in Spanish.
I reread the first part like five times. And then I made myself a cheat sheet, which helped a bit.
The story jumps between the 1960s, when the twins are children, and the ‘90s, when they are adults becoming reacquainted with each other after a long separation. I was slogging through it, not getting into it, and then there was a kind of tipping point. At book club we decided it happens when the narrative starts to catch up to itself — when you finally start to see the events that have been hinted at and foreshadowed begin to unfold. I haven’t confirmed this, but it felt to me like the language got less fussy. I didn’t have to work as hard to understand, so I just started to flow with the story.
This also is the time in the book when Roy unleashes a very Knausgaard-ian-ly realistic, Lynch-ian-ly grotesque scene of child abuse that is so disturbing that I had to put the book down for a couple of days. There are several times when the writing is so visceral, and so barbaric, that it takes fortitude to read every word. You want to close your eyes like in the movies, but there is no way through it except through it.
Despite my resistance nearly all the way, I was in body-shaking sobs by the end. I felt like a stronger person for having allowed myself to mentally experience the brutal unfairness that Roy describes so vividly. She also applies that sensual realness to love scenes, which sort of balances the scales a bit.
[Spoiler alert] This book came out in 1998, but the police brutality theme is eerily current. My famous friend DeAnna and I were the only two to finish the book (which was no small feat, let me tell you) and we were both thunderstruck by about five pages toward the end when Roy dissects the rationale of the policeman beating Velutha to death. The way she describes the coldness of it and detachment of it – like the body attacking a disease — is chilling and terrifying.
There is very little justice in the world that Roy describes in The God of Small Things, and very little comfort. It just so happens that Roy recently announced she is working on a second novel. I might have to wait about 20 years to read the next one. Maybe by then I will have recovered.
But apparently, I hadn’t had enough of India, so I picked up a book that my dad had given me to read a long time ago.
Despite his reassurances that it would fly by, and despite other friends telling me how much they enjoyed it, I just hadn’t been able to get into Shantaram. But with India on the brain and emboldened by the slog through the first part of Small Things, I decided to try again. I gave myself a deadline. I would try to finish it in time to return it to my dad the next time I saw him, which gave me about 10 days to read 930 pages.
Shantaram is quasi-autobiographical (you don’t exactly know what’s real and what’s embellished, but you get the feeling that Gregory David Roberts knows a fair amount of what he speaks. And what is up with having three first names? It almost always sounds pretentious, right? Unless the person has three diminutive names, like Billy Joe Bob).
The narrator is an Australian fugitive who goes by the name Lindsay (later mostly called Lin or Linbaba). The story opens in the 1980s as Lin enters Bombay on fake papers. All we know is that Lin has recently escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving 20 years for armed robberies that he committed to feed his heroin habit.
Lin joins the local expat community, and falls in love with a woman named Karla, who, like all the non-Indian characters in the book, made her home in Bombay out of a desire to disappear. The expats Lin interacts with operate at varying levels of petty crime; and the Indians Lin interacts with range from slumdwellers to Mafia kingpins.
Like The God of Small Things, Shantaram depicts brutal suffering. Children sold as slaves, slumdwellers dying of cholera, paper-thin homes ripped through by fire and drowning in shit, starvation, rats the size of cats, malicious packs of street dogs, violence, soul-less sex, drugs, corruption and gruesome torture that seems to have no bottom, no end. It is all so unfair. The most unsettling part is that you can tell that the bad parts are real, because no one could make up the kind of cruelty that The Greg Pirate Roberts writes about.
Yet, intertwined with all the suffering, Lin experiences a different and cathartic kind of love. In particular, Lin’s guide, Prabakar “Prabu” Kharre, embodies the moral, noble heart of India. With his radiant, honest smile and his relentless optimism, Prabu insists on seeing the bright side. When tragedy strikes, Prabu says, you are very lucky, it wasn’t your house that burned down. You are blessed; it wasn’t you who died of Cholera. At first, Prabu’s approach might seem callous or selfish, but as Shantaram unfolds, we learn along with Lin, what Prabu has learned from a lifetime of inconceivable unfairness and unmerciful fate — the only way to survive is to purposely and intentionally insist upon seeing the light.
Faced with the weight of your grief, you can howl and scream, pound your fists, stomp your feet, curse the world, denounce God, give up hope, lash out, cut ties, gouge out your own heart, blame everyone you know, deny the truth, stuff down the parts you don’t want to remember, block out and numb out the things you don’t want to see or hear. You can rage, rage, rage, but none of it will change a damn thing.
On the surface, you could read Prabu’s character as a simplified stereotype, a goofy Uncle Tom type, smiling comically and getting cheap laughs from his broken English, as in the scene when he first approaches Lin:
“Good mornings, great sirs!” he greeted us. “Welcome in Bombay! You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn’t it?”
But throughout the book, Prabu is a constant reminder of goodness. His genuine care for Lin and others, his humor and spirit wash even the most heinous of realities with the soft light of compassion.
I don’t know why good people get sick. I don’t know why good people die. But I know that the only real weapon we have against suffering is love. Love can’t survive in a hardened heart; there’s no room for love when you are pumping venom or churning bitterness, blaming everyone else, carrying a big old chip on your shoulder. Love can’t survive in suffering. But also suffering can’t survive in love. And the thing about suffering is that it has an end — human bodies are built with an auto-shut-off safety function. When we reach a certain level of pain, we go numb. We can’t feel it anymore. But love is limitless. There is no end to how deep it can go. There is no ceiling. It just keeps getting more and more creative in how it grows. The more you feed it, the more surprising it is. And just as you can’t close your eyes and continue to read the book, the only way through is through. And until you actually get there, you have no idea the gifts waiting for you on the other side.
So, if you have a copy of Shantaram holding down a bunch of papers or propping open a very heavy door, all I can say is: It will fly by, I promise. I really enjoyed it.