Category Archives: Books on the block

The streets and second-hand books.

The Subtle Rebel

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“I always thought eating was a ridiculous activity anyway. I’d get out of it myself if I could, though you’ve got to do it to stay alive, they tell me.”
Margaret Atwood, The Edible Woman

Often I get this irresistible urge to just run – run away – and there is no substantial reason. The kind of life I’ve been given is a blessing. I must not complain! But the urge is there just the same. In all the while that I have looked to reason this irrationality, I’ve only felt like running away some more. And then I found The Edible Woman.

This 1965 ‘pre-feminst’ novel by Margaret Atwood challenges gender stereotypes. A correlation is drawn between the protagonist losing her self and losing her appetite, all due to her engagement to an ultra-suave, chauvinist boyfriend Peter.

In a beautifully incorporated narrative, the author Margaret Atwood shifts from first person to third person as Marian, the protagonist loses her identity; and shifts back to the first person when Marian regains her sense of self.

Marian’s loss of appetite is a metaphor for her perception of herself as the prey, her fiancé as the hunter and also as a rebellion towards accepting the stereotype of being the perfect wife. She detests her passive being. She begins identifying herself with a piece of steak which is hunted or with the raw materials that are shaped into her fiance’s new flat.

If Marian’s loss of appetite is a metaphor for her hunger to find herself,  my running away is a metaphor for what?

As Marian struggles to find out what she wants, she meets Duncan, a man who defies every stereotype possible. His character is described as disjointed, unemotional, morose, mundane and gloomy – a complete contrast to Peter’s extravagant, genteel life.  Their affair is as vague as their conversations are and their meetings are usually in a laundromat and their affair reaches it’s climax in a cheap, sleazy lodge. But, the influence of Duncan’s subtle defiance finally tells Marian what is eating her – it’s Peter all along!

At this stage of the book,  I begin to wonder what fuels my urge to run. I was just beginning to strangely identify with Marian’s messy head, and she had found her solution?

When I paused to think, it struck me. I run away because there is a rebel sitting in my head. A rebel whose existence I do not want to acknowledge! It rebels against roles I need to play, things I need to do, ways in which I need to behave. It rebels against what I want people to think of me. Further, it’s rebelling against the conformist that I am. The thought seemed funny to me! I enjoy being this boring conformist. This rebel was forcing me to become an active being. Am I then running away from myself?

Marian’s struggle was easy to identify with because her body is rebelling for her, against the same things my mind is… in fact, most minds or bodies hate such constraints.

As Marian begins to regain her sense of self, she decides to make her conflict physical. She bakes a cake, shaped like a woman, with immense detail – the hair, the eyes, the lips – and feeds it to Peter saying, “This is what you really want.”

I can’t bake a cake to save my life, it doesn’t solve this inherent conflict either.

Even actually running does not help. I only end up with sore feet at the end of the day.

But, Marian resolving her conflict made me feel good about having that rebel sitting in my head. The conformist in me will not resolve my conflict, but The Edible Woman helped reason the irrationality.

That’s what you call a good book!

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That old book smell

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Nothing can smell better than an old battered book. What’s better? The smell of an old battered book from an equally old book collection – right off the streets!

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The old book store, in Mylapore, opposite the iconic Kamadhenu theatre is a treat to book lovers and students. On a mountain of books sits a woman busily throwing at her customers the books they want.

The piles of engineering textbooks can be slightly unnerving for a non-science person, but when the clutter is cut through, the variety of classics and comics this mountain spews at you is amazing.

This platform book shop was started by Alwar nearly 50 years ago, now an old, bearded, almost saint-like man. Today, his smart assistant Mary runs the shop . Perched atop the mountain, Mary first curses us for interrupting her during peak time. But as we wait and simply watch her in action, she warms up to us.

The rains in the city have ruined some of the books and given some others a brilliant odour. As I wait for our elusive subject to talk to us, I come across an ancient copy of The Awakening, a novel by Kate Chopin written in 1899. The novel itself was explosive in content for the time and age that it was published in.  This feminist classic was made more precious by the notes of a previous owner.

The old book shop wasn’t merely an experience of street shopping. The shop itself is a story waiting to be discovered – stories that the books tell of the hands they’ve passed and the lives they’ve seen.

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