in transit | patricia j. mclean at elohi gadugi

Milepost 5

Mon­day, July 25th

Sleep past five am eludes me. I sit in the old white wing­back watch­ing the sky glow a lighter shade of grey as the moments slip past. Objects in the room take form, stacks of boxes, so many fewer now than yes­ter­day. We worked non­stop on Sun­day and my bones feel it, my knees and feet ache.

The loft is find­ing a shape under­neath the bur­den of our belong­ings. There is not quite yet a space for the couch com­ing tomor­row. So glad we didn’t get it last week.

Phone line is not con­nected yet so we don’t have the net. This is good. Instead of play­ing stu­pid games, I’m writ­ing. I need to write so bad and I have the draw­ing ache again. Some­times I need to have a pen­cil in my hand and be slop­ing across the page, lay­ing down lines as if there were a pur­pose to it.

On Sat­ur­day night with our refrig­er­a­tor still basi­cally bar­ren, we went urban for­ag­ing and found a Chi­nese restau­rant half a block away. Some of the best Chi­nese food I have had in Portland.

In the court­yard of the Stu­dios, a painter was busy at his easel as the light dimmed from after­noon to evening.

Rain this morn­ing loud enough to hear. I am happy that we will be able to hear it rain. Wind pushes at the leaves of the maple tree. It feels good to be home.

Bless You?

I think we should be mind­ful with lan­guage, to know what we are say­ing before we speak. Every­body knows that words are more pow­er­ful than sticks and stones despite the school­yard litany to the con­trary. Bones mend, and if you think that words can­not kill you, then the lessons of his­tory have been lost on you.

Leav­ing aside the deadly uses of lan­guage, what do we know about the words we use daily with­out think­ing? Words of greet­ing: Good Morn­ing, How are you, Have a nice day, Bless you.

Greet­ings and salu­ta­tions. Hello and to your health. Friendly, with mean­ing only so far as to say, I’m not going to pull out a knife and kill you actu­ally or metaphor­i­cally, and whether or not we mean to be friendly when we make the greet­ing is not the point. How often are we think­ing about  how much we would like the stranger or friend we are greet­ing to have a good morn­ing? How would we know what a good morn­ing would look like to them? How often do we really want to hear a report of someone’s con­di­tion when we query, how are you? Have a nice day– nice, not spec­tac­u­lar, nice as if that is the best we can hope for or are will­ing to con­fer upon another.

Bless you? Ah, now there’s a greet­ing, a salu­ta­tion that car­ries a lot of bag­gage. This one is doing more than say­ing, “I’m not going to kill you”. This one is an iden­ti­fier. It says, “I’m Chris­t­ian”. The per­son offer­ing the greet­ing may indeed want to con­fer the bless­ings of God upon the friend or stranger or they may just want to make a state­ment about their own identity.

I’m think­ing there are very many folk out there bring­ing down the bless­ings of God upon their fel­low human beings who have not really exam­ined the mean­ing of the word bless.  Lately, I’ve been study­ing French and read­ing French news on the net. Lots of these news sto­ries involve, as one would expect, events wherein per­sons meet with unex­pected death or are wounded, injured as a result of some calamity. Tuer, to kill. Mort, death. Blessé, injured. Interesting.

Look up the ety­mol­ogy of  that word, bless and you find that it is san­guine. All about blood and sac­ri­fice. To be blessed is to bleed in the cause of some­thing. A word like this is beau­ti­fully ambigu­ous. To be blessed by God could mean to be wounded by con­tact and that wound could be the sign of your state of grace. Holy wounds. Like the Mora­vians who became obsses­sively focused on the wounds of Jesus. Like stigmata.

But over time, as the expe­ri­ence of being human in the Eng­lish speak­ing world  becomes ever more removed from dan­ger, as death with­draws to a safer dis­tance, we lose con­tact with the san­guine ele­ment of blessing.

To invoke bless­ing becomes less about the blood of Jesus and the life of the spirit and more about remov­ing obsta­cles that stand between our­selves and what we want. And also about reveal­ing our own sanc­ti­mony.  Who stops to con­sider whether or not the recip­i­ent of the invo­ca­tion has any inter­est in the bless­ing? Like a spell being cast, an unso­licited prayer may be per­ceived as unau­tho­rized interference.


A man with a gun walks into a town hall ses­sion in a park­ing lot in Tuc­son, Ari­zona. He kills six peo­ple among them a judge, a child, a politician’s staffer, an elderly man, he seri­ously wounds a US Con­gress­woman. He is dri­ven by some ter­ri­ble cer­tainty,  or some incom­pre­hen­si­ble logic, or cog­ni­tive dys­func­tion, or insan­ity. Within hours, as the inves­ti­ga­tion unfolds, it becomes known that his behav­ior grew increas­ingly bizarre over the months pre­ced­ing this action. It is also appa­rant that he planned to kill the rep­re­sen­ta­tive. He took time to buy a gun, to buy ammu­ni­tion, to say good­bye on Facebook.

Will we find out that he was an unhappy child, that he suf­fered bul­ly­ing or other abuse? Or will we find out that he was quiet, a loner, or that he was pop­u­lar and out­go­ing? Will we find out that he was indis­tin­guish­able from thou­sands of other chil­dren and only grew into unrea­son as an adult? I’m not sure it mat­ters what we find out about him.

What we find out about our­selves is more impor­tant and has more poten­tial to impact our world, our coun­try, our com­mu­ni­ties. The man with the gun will be tried, judged, and sen­tenced. His power is spent, his day is done.

Has the event fright­ened peo­ple? Is that why we hear peo­ple voic­ing so much vio­lence as they describe what should be done to the shooter? Fear is often masked by bravado, hatred, vio­lence. So maybe that is what it is. Mil­lions of ter­ri­fied peo­ple. But I don’t think so. I really don’t. What I hear in their words is that they have iden­ti­fied their tar­get, just as the shooter iden­ti­fied his. There was some­thing wrong he thought he could make right by killing a par­tic­u­lar per­son in a very pub­lic and delib­er­ate way. He had his tar­get. Now he is the tar­get. He is the thing that can be destroyed in order to make things right again. There is some­thing pri­mal about this. A sac­ri­fice must be made.

We scent the air for blood. Our noses twitch­ing our hands reach­ing for the stones. Except that the rule of law stands between us and our blood­lust. All we can do, the most we can do is envi­sion the hor­ri­ble things that ought to be done to the shooter and seize the oppor­tu­nity to broad­cast our ulti­mate solu­tion. And for some, for many, the vision and the chant will elicit glee, for some the plea­sure will arouse.

A few, too few, will wit­ness this mob mad­ness with dis­may, despair­ing that human­ity will not ever rise above its baser instincts, that as a species, we will never learn how to rea­son. We hear Gandhi say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and then we pluck out eyes with greedy aban­don. Gandhi was wrong. The whole world is already blind. We are blind peo­ple grasp­ing at the blind eyes of our neigh­bors, grop­ing in dark­ness afraid of the intol­er­a­ble light just beyond our cave.

Wordstock — Portland, Oregon

We went to Word­stock today walk­ing the mile and a half there in a steady driz­zle. One umbrella between us, which I used because Duane has a hat. Just the one umbrella. I’ve lost too many of them to be trusted with one of my own. It really didn’t seem like that much of a rain, but we were damp by the time we got to the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter. There were not many attend­ing Word­stock. Not like in years past. Some­thing a lit­tle depress­ing about it this year. I don’t know when they started charg­ing for the event, but I think that has some­thing to do with the lower turnout.

We cruised the booths. I had a nice chat with a cou­ple of ven­dors. Duane and I went to our friend’s read­ing and there really wasn’t any­one else we were inter­ested in hear­ing until much later in the after­noon and even though we paid $7 to get in, we left to find some­thing to eat and go home. We talked about why Word­stock seemed so unsat­is­fy­ing this year. We fig­ured that most of the atten­dees were writ­ers or peo­ple involved in the pub­lish­ing indus­try in some way. The exhibitors were much the same–writers and pub­lish­ers. Noth­ing wrong with that. Except that some­thing is miss­ing. It isn’t cre­ative or excit­ing. It’s restric­tive, tra­di­tional, stodgy.

Port­land has a ten­dency to be stodgy in spite of all the young cre­atives every­one claims have moved here in droves, in spite all the tat­too par­lors and micro-brew pubs, at heart Port­land has always been the sort of city a lit­tle afraid to color out­side the lines. At least on the sur­face and it is on the sur­face where Word­stock takes place. What Port­land needs is an under­ground lit­er­ary fes­ti­val for all the fringe dwellers and mar­gin­alised folk, the ones who can’t afford the Writer’s Dojo or writ­ing jaunts to Prague with their favorite author. It should take place on the streets and in the cof­fee houses and small book­stores. It should take place in the tat­too par­lors and brew-pubs.

A proper lit­er­ary fes­ti­val would be a cel­e­bra­tion. It would be a recog­ni­tion of lan­guage as the pri­mary medium of cul­ture. It would explore the his­tory of story, the pol­i­tics and eco­nom­ics of lit­er­a­ture, the state of the pub­lish­ing indus­try, how lit­er­a­ture has been shaped by invention–the print­ing press, the inter­net. There would be dis­cus­sions on the impact of film on lit­er­a­ture, the search for authen­tic voice, and trans­la­tion. It would involve the­ater and mean­ing­ful workshops.

Peo­ple would read their work, sell it, trade it, give it away. We might come to under­stand that the tra­di­tion of word is an end­lessly evolv­ing cre­ative stream and we could walk away daz­zled by our own dreams, which is how it should be.

even the dandelions are beautiful

The cherry tree across the street is thickly bloom­ing. Heavy pink clus­ters wave in the slight breeze and con­trast against the lush green lawn dot­ted with dan­de­lions. Grape hyacinths edge along the base of the house. Trees all around are push­ing out new leaves. Tulips of red, yel­low, pink, pump­kin, pur­ple, black, white, striped and spot­ted, abundant–Spring in Portland.

In Powell’s the thin white girl, in a thin white dress, with thin brown hair sits bent over her work. Her right arm forms a tri­an­gle, bent at the elbow back toward her body and her back bent the way it is forms another tri­an­gle with her legs. In her pale skin the blue veins glow. On her shoul­der blade a tat­too is vis­i­ble through the gauzy mate­r­ial of her white cot­ton dress. She is all angles and transparency.

Book Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Baci­galupi
ISBN: 978–1-59780–157-7
Pub­lisher: Night Shade Books

Paolo Baci­galupi presents us with a dev­as­tat­ing vision of the world that could be should we allow the cor­po­ra­tions with their pro­duc­tion of GMOs to con­trol our food sup­ply as they seem dis­turbingly intent upon doing. He also reminds us that change and suf­fer­ing are con­stants in human existence.

Every­thing is under extreme ten­sion in Bacigalupi’s Thai­land city of Krung Thep. Sea­gates guard the city from inun­da­tion, but dur­ing the mon­soons must be aug­mented with coal-fired pumps, which add to the envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, which in turn has led to ris­ing ocean lev­els. Star­va­tion is held at bay with genet­i­cally mod­i­fied foods, which are sus­cep­ti­ble to toxic dis­eases. Every­thing cre­ated to solve one prob­lem cre­ates another.

So many mil­lions have died since the dis­ap­pear­ance of cheap energy and safe food crops that the departed must wait and wait and wait for suit­able bod­ies to rein­car­nate. They hang about wait­ing, some­times engag­ing in con­ver­sa­tion with the living.

And the ten­sion spring is the pri­mary power sup­ply for almost every­thing. Trains are pow­ered by them, but the vast major­ity of peo­ple travel no faster than a bicy­cle. A vehi­cle from the “expan­sion” era trav­els at speeds almost incom­pre­hen­si­ble for the peo­ple of Krung Thep and are as rare as snow leopards.

There are new beings in this world. Cheshire cats, genet­i­cally engi­neered as a birth­day gift to a mod­ern Alice, have sup­planted the domes­tic feline. There are new peo­ple, too. Peo­ple made of recom­bined DNA of ani­mals and humans to exhibit the obe­di­ence of dogs and the strength and speed of the swiftest and strongest of ani­mals. There are also flaws delib­er­ately engi­neered into these peo­ple. They can­not repro­duce and their cool­ing sys­tem is defi­cient caus­ing them to over­heat quickly.

But they are human in shape and thought and feel­ings. Most every­one regards them as less than human, with­out souls. It is the old argu­ment. That which has no soul is less than and can be cre­ated, exploited and dis­posed of with­out con­sid­er­a­tion, with­out karmic consequence.

Is this a story about the ten­sion between good and evil? It could be, but The Windup Girl is not that sim­ple. It is a story about choices and about the con­se­quence of choice. Ulti­mately, the char­ac­ters must make choices they can live with and in that way are all, includ­ing the windup girl her­self, exactly like the rest of us.

My rat­ing: 5.0 stars

Review: The Fourth Century

The Fourth Century

Title: The Fourth Cen­tury
Author: Édouard Glis­sant
Trans­la­tion: Betsy Wing.
ISBN: 0–8032-7083–6
Pub­lisher: Uni­ver­sity of Nebraska Press, 2001

All this wind…”

These are Papa Longoué’s first words in The Fourth Cen­tury by Édouard Glis­sant. The wind is a con­stant theme in the novel. It is a wind of enor­mous force, a hur­ri­cane which car­ries off his silent wife, Edmée, to her death. It is the wind of his­tory, of our own his­to­ries which if not known blows us all to our deaths, asleep. The Fourth Cen­tury awak­ens the dead and gives them voice. This is the African descen­dants’ his­tory of Mar­tinique. A his­tory not writ­ten, not exam­ined, triv­i­al­ized by the French colo­nial­ists who, as the con­querors, the ones in power, anni­hi­late the peo­ple they must con­trol by anni­hi­lat­ing their lan­guages and histories.

His­tory is writ­ten by the dom­i­nant cul­ture and is pri­mar­ily con­cerned with the bat­tles and vic­to­ries of the most pow­er­ful and wealthy in that cul­ture. The Fourth Cen­tury departs from that par­a­digm and presents the oral his­tory of the African descen­dants’ expe­ri­ence as slave, as maroon, as freed men and women, as toil­ers in the soil, as indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies seek­ing mean­ing and life on the island, while never quite able to for­get or remem­ber the “infi­nite coun­try” from which they were torn.

Glissant’s stream of con­scious­ness approach cre­ates a prose poem of a novel, beau­ti­ful from the begin­ning to the end. In many ways it is incom­pre­hen­si­ble for the non-African, non-Martinican, but what is glean­able, what is know­able, is so worth know­ing that what is unknow­able can only be mourned, not ignored. To read Glis­sant is to begin to scratch the back of the mir­ror, to see through the sliv­ers to another world.

My rat­ing: 5.0 stars

Book Review: Snow


Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
ISBN: 0–375-40697–2
Pub­lisher: Alfred A. Knopf
A novel about Turkey

Ka is a man on a jour­ney who does not know where his next step will take him. He is a poet who can no longer write poetry, an athe­ist no longer cer­tain of the absence of God, an observer inca­pable of see­ing. He has out­lived the rea­son for his exile, but has been so long away from Turkey that its cul­tural nuances escape him. Yet he has never learned the lan­guage of his adopted coun­try and has spent his years in exile recit­ing old poetry to small audi­ences of ex-patriots.

It is his mother’s funeral that brings him back to Turkey, but it is on an errand for a news­pa­per edi­tor that he trav­els to Kars. That, and love.

Kars is in East­ern Turkey, sit­u­ated at a height of 1750 feet. Its win­ters are harsh and long and it is often iso­lated by snow. In fact Kars is snow in Turk­ish and is a short­ened ver­sion of its orig­i­nal name, which meant snow-water for the ponds of water left by melt­ing snow. It is an ancient city on the path between Arme­nia and the rest of Turkey, For more than 900 years, it has been an inter­mit­tent bat­tle­ground for con­quer­ing armies of Kurds, Arme­ni­ans, Rus­sians and Turks. Pamuk fre­quently refers to the beau­ti­ful, empty, decay­ing Armen­ian build­ings, vis­i­ble reminders of one con­quer­ing wave. Men­tion­ing these build­ings is a con­tro­ver­sial act as Pamuk is one of those who main­tain the unpop­u­lar asser­tion that Armen­ian Turks met with geno­cide dur­ing the Crimean War at the hands of their Turk­ish countrymen.

West­ern­ers have a ten­dency to view the east as mys­te­ri­ous, as if there is a veil of cul­ture we can­not pen­e­trate. Par­muk uses the sub­stance of snow to sym­bol­ize that veil.

The snow of Kars enshrouds, iso­lates, mutes, silences. The veil at its most com­plete is a shroud that Islamic women wear to pro­tect them. But the impov­er­ished dead also wear shrouds to pro­tect them from gazes they can­not return, and from the earth which sur­rounds them. We refer to things we do not under­stand or mis­un­der­stand as being shrouded in mys­tery. The great­est, most shrouded mys­tery is that of God by what­ever name you use. The never-ending jour­ney is the one toward under­stand­ing. The agnos­tic / athe­ist mis­trusts the reli­gious who claim to have knowl­edge of the nature of deity.

Snow enshrouds Ka on his jour­ney to Kars and through­out his visit. The bus bring­ing Ka to Kars is the last one to arrive before the roads are closed due to the storm and though iso­la­tion due to storm may be an annual event in this remote city, it nev­er­the­less has the effect of sus­pend­ing the nor­mal cul­ture dur­ing Ka’s visit. Things hap­pen when daily life is inter­rupted, when travel is restricted and work slows or halts alto­gether, when peo­ple with time on their hands look for ways to fill the time. There is a kind of con­stant snow in Kars and the coun­try­side where unem­ploy­ment is high. Rest­less men sit in tea shops, sit at the feet of holy men, join the mil­i­tary, pon­der their unhappy plight and con­sider who is to blame.

In Turkey, the east meets the west and Islam meets Chris­tian­ity. Urban­ized Turks seem to have one foot in Europe while those fur­ther from Istan­bul are inclined to fear that Europe will erase their culture.

Ka had escaped to the west (Ger­many) as a young man flee­ing a crack­down on left­ist rad­i­cals. While at uni­ver­sity, he became an athe­ist which, in the eyes of many of his coun­try­men, marked him as an intel­lec­tual who has adopted the European/Western cul­ture and, more impor­tantly, as one who has rejected the Turkish/Middle East­ern culture.

The poet left his cre­ative well in Turkey and can­not be a poet in another land. In all his years of exile he has not been able to write a sin­gle poem.

Ka is a name the poet chose for him­self as a child. It is the pri­mary ini­tials of both his first and last names, which Ka dis­liked so much that he chose to use just the ini­tials. Ka rep­re­sents the life-force in ancient Egypt­ian reli­gion and whether or not Pamuk named his main char­ac­ter for this rea­son, I am left with the sense that he is describ­ing the life-force of Turkey as that of a flawed poet.

Pamuk’s Turkey is as ambiva­lent as Ka. Civi­cally sec­u­lar, it is also very much Islamic. Ele­ments in Turkey have tried to main­tain the sep­a­ra­tion between reli­gion and state that Atatürk insti­tuted as the first Pres­i­dent of Turkey. But a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tion in Turkey is not com­fort­able with this and con­stantly agi­tates for theo­cratic rule.

Ka’s reli­gious ambiva­lence is revealed as he weeps in the pres­ence of a holy man. He feels a yearn­ing for Allah, but only in the holy man’s pres­ence. Once out­side of the apart­ment, where the faith­ful and the trou­bled come to unbur­den their hearts, he returns to his nor­mal state of mind, re-entering, with some relief, the sec­u­lar civic struc­ture of Turkey. Though he is most com­fort­able in that sec­u­lar envi­ron­ment, he remains wist­ful. Not only does a part of him exist on a spir­i­tual level and his poetry flows out of that level, but it is pos­si­ble that even as he is puz­zled by them, he envies those who have no doubts.

Cen­tral to the plot is a the­atre of the absurd. A coup lit­er­ally staged by an aging itin­er­ant actor and the local mil­i­tary corps aided by the police and the ever-present and dis­trusted secret police. He rec­og­nizes that Ka, as a poet and erst­while reporter, is his best hope of immor­tal­ity. He orders the poet brought into audi­ence with him and uses him in his manip­u­la­tion of events.

Snow is dialec­tic and the cen­tral dia­logue occurs in a con­ver­sa­tion at the Hotel Asia arranged by Ka, from which he is absent. Blue, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary accom­pa­nied by a cho­rus of Islamic rad­i­cals, argues with an adamant athe­ist, and the Islamic fem­i­nist daugh­ter of the athe­ist. It is an Asian dia­logue: Does com­merce (social and eco­nomic) with the west con­tain the seeds of destruc­tion of Asian cul­ture. Does Turkey, by open­ing itself up to the ideas of the west, by embrac­ing what the west offers, risk los­ing its cul­ture, its unique iden­tity? Will it lose God in the process? If it does not embrace the West and the EU, will it become irrel­e­vant in the mod­ern world? Will Turkey sink deeper into poverty? These are ques­tions that burn under the sur­face, around which the dia­logue dances.

Though Ka is not in the Hotel Asia, he does become entan­gled in this con­ver­sa­tion because of the nature of the jour­nal­is­tic errand, which has brought him to Kars. It is a story of sui­cides of Islamic school­girls who have been for­bid­den to wear the scarf of the devout Mus­lim to school. What is the con­nec­tion between these sui­cides and the edict which has banned them from wear­ing the scarf? An edi­tor friend has asked Ka to make the jour­ney to Kars and report on the phenomenon.

No one seems to know the truth about the sui­cides and no one seems to want to know. The young women appear to be unknow­able. Their motives are hid­den by the bar­rier of death and the lack of knowl­edge even their fam­i­lies appear to have about them, as if they are ciphers. At least one of the girls has become idealized.

Con­versely, every­one in Kars knows why Ka is there. His every step, every inter­view is known. Peo­ple seek him out and tell him that he must not believe this one or that one.

Blue is a rebel, an Islamist, fiercely opposed to sec­u­lar gov­ern­ment. He is the lover of Kad­ife, a young woman whose actions may have inspired the sui­cides. A man like Blue helps the dis­af­fected to name who is at fault, what is at fault: the West, those who want to join the Euro­pean Union and the sec­u­lar state which orders that Mus­lim girls can­not wear scarves to school. Like every­one else with a point to make, Blue exploits the sui­cides. Though he is a wanted man in hid­ing, sus­pected of being behind ter­ror­ist attacks and assas­si­na­tions, he demands an audi­ence with Ka. Blue, in par­tic­u­lar, wants to set Ka straight about the rea­son for the sui­cides, though it becomes appar­ent that he, him­self, does not know.

Ka is also seek­ing love. He agrees to go to Kars not because he is intrigued by the story, but because he knows there is a recently divorced woman liv­ing there whom he knew at Uni­ver­sity. He remem­bers that she was very beau­ti­ful and although he was not inter­ested in her as a youth, he becomes obsessed with her almost before he even sees her again. He pur­sues his obses­sion through­out the story. He believes that she rep­re­sents his last chance at love, his last chance to avoid a lonely old age. He wants to bring her back to Ger­many to live with him. Ipek may sym­bol­ize Turkey and the hope­less­ness of a love affair with a coun­try you can no longer call home. Ka makes love to her, believes he does love her, is almost con­vinced that she will love him and that she will leave with him. Ipek is nom­i­nally west­ern­ized. Her sis­ter is Kad­ife (Blue’s lover). If Ipek sym­bol­izes Turkey lean­ing west­ward, Kad­ife sym­bol­izes Turkey lean­ing east­ward. Both women appear ratio­nal and thoughtful.

In Kars, Ka writes poem after poem. Thir­teen poems pour out of him almost whole. He is so focused on writ­ing these poems down that he is dis­tracted even occa­sion­ally from pur­su­ing the object of his desire. Ka is removed, he is the jour­nal­ist, the reporter, the observer. As an observer he is never com­pletely involved in the scene around him. This makes him the ulti­mate go-between, the medi­a­tor and nego­tia­tor for the actor who is pulling the strings of the coup. But no mat­ter how removed an observer believes him­self to be, he impacts what he observes, and this Ka does in tragic ways.

Parmuk’s prose as trans­lated by Mau­reen Freely is flaw­less, beau­ti­ful, hyp­notic. He ignites a desire to know more about Turkey, to know what can be unveiled while under­stand­ing that lan­guage itself is the ulti­mate shroud, the guardian and con­tainer of culture.

My rat­ing: 5.0 stars

Book Review

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Thrity Umri­gar
ISBN: 073946986X
William Mor­row
A novel of priv­i­lege and poverty, of love and betrayal.

I was on the MAX, where I spend a good bit of my time, near­ing my sta­tion, and I still had about five pages to go. I briefly con­sid­ered stay­ing on the train until I’d read those last few pages. I aban­doned that in favor of sit­ting on a bench in Hol­la­day Park, in the shade. There was no way I could wait until I got home. Break­ing the spell with the bike ride and din­ner just wasn’t an option. I had to know what choice Bhima would make.

Umri­gar sets her story of love and betrayal in Bom­bay (Mum­bai), India, a vast coastal city, in a coun­try that has been a cul­tural cross­roads for thou­sands of years. This por­trait of two Indian women is evoca­tive and mov­ing; writ­ten with grace, humil­ity, and com­pas­sion. Sera is a Parsi, descended from Per­sians who immi­grated to India a thou­sand years ago and have become a wealthy and pow­er­ful class. What mat­ters about her ser­vant, Bhima, is that she is not Parsi. She is a lower-caste Hindu woman whose cir­cum­stances have gone from poor to mis­er­able. Bhima is clearly the more sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter even though she often reacts to tur­moil by phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally attack­ing those she loves the most. She fears for them, and her fear causes her to pun­ish them, because she truly doesn’t know what else to do. She reacts like a trapped ani­mal, chew­ing at her own flesh to obtain freedom.

Umrigar’s novel deep­ened my under­tand­ing of oppres­sion and how very much prej­u­dice is a vehi­cle for cru­elty; an excuse for it. Deeply inter­nal­ized prej­u­dice dis­tances the abuser from the object of abuse and this is the case with the antag­o­nists in The Space Between Us. They can­not help know­ing that they are being cruel, but they believe it doesn’t mat­ter. And it doesn’t because they are the “rul­ing” class. Rul­ing in the sense that their priv­i­lege gives them power over the classes beneath them. A power so nearly absolute that it may as well be such. Cer­tainly the classes beneath them have a part in sup­port­ing the illu­sion of rel­a­tive intrin­sic worth. But their col­lu­sion is hardly vol­un­tary. It is how they sur­vive. They cling to the edge of life and any­thing can sever their hold.

Soci­etal taboos are among the tools the rul­ing classes use to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from oth­ers and sub­ju­gate the work­ers. Since being a poor sub­ject is gen­er­ally a mis­er­able way to live, poor sub­jects try to con­form to the osten­si­ble behav­ior of the rul­ing classes. But these efforts only suc­ceed in the poor bind­ing them­selves more cer­tainly into vir­tual slav­ery. Reject­ing the social taboo and refus­ing to define one­self by the terms of the rul­ing classes is a step sel­dom taken with­out edu­ca­tion. Igno­rance has a dead­en­ing effect on the accom­plish­ment of freedom.

Sera, the Parsi woman, wants to believe that she regards Bhima as no less human than her­self, but finds her­self unable to allow the ser­vant to sit on her fur­ni­ture or use her uten­sils to eat or drink. Yet, she does not see the con­tra­dic­tion in the fact that Bhima is the one who pre­pares the food the Parsi fam­ily eats and washes the uten­sils they eat it with. Nor does Sera fully rec­og­nize that pay­ing Bhima is not an act of generosity.

Though deves­tat­ing in its por­trayal of oppres­sion and exploita­tion, this is a story, not a dia­tribe. The Space Between Us is skill­fully and vividly ren­dered. Sim­ply, quite powerful.

My rat­ing: 5.0 stars

You can’t sleep here

The old woman is sleep­ing. Her eyes are closed and her chin sits on the top of her bun­dle of pos­ses­sions. Her hands dan­gle in her lap, arms rest on her thighs. She sits heav­ily on the blue metal bench. Her gray hair is neatly fash­ioned in a tight bun on the top of her head. The woman wears no makeup on her pale, slightly ruddy face. Her clothes have that washed-out no par­tic­u­lar color look and fit loosely over her large body.

The green plas­tic chair is the first thing I see as I approach the tran­sit sta­tion. It is over­turned and tied to the top of her cart. Every­thing and noth­ing gives her away as some­one who has nowhere to go. But mostly it is the cart or rather the pos­ses­sions in the cart, which I can’t actu­ally see. I can see sev­eral full plas­tic bags and some­thing large and dark blue. It could be a blan­ket or a sleep­ing bag folded up. Every­thing in the cart is as tidy as her hair. The cart is not a gro­cery store cart. It is the kind of two-wheeled cart one can buy to tote gro­ceries from the store.

This is what I see as I pass. I think how hard it is to just get enough sleep when you are home­less. You sleep in small frames of time never hav­ing enough to really recharge, to really give your body and your mind, par­tic­u­larly your mind, what it so needs to sur­vive. Thriv­ing is a wist­ful dream. Sleep depri­va­tion kills. Even this kind of sleep depri­va­tion short­ens your life even if you have a place to live and plenty of nutri­tional food and exer­cise and love. If you don’t have these things, there is no reserve and sleep depri­va­tion is more lethal.

While housed peo­ple are think­ing about how to have health­ier longer lives, the old woman just wants to sleep. And Christ, is that too much to ask? Appa­rantly so. As I board the train, I see two police, one on each side of her. I see her out­stretched hand holds some­thing. An iden­ti­fi­ca­tion? The train begins to move slowly out of the sta­tion and the woman stands up, begins push­ing her cart, moves away from the bench, from sleep. Weari­ness in her every lum­ber­ing step.

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