A Literary Guide to Surviving a Separation

First Person

A Literary Guide to Surviving a Separation

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

I

am sitting in a cosy corner of Sakley’s Mountain Café with a copy of Paula Hawkins’ psychological thriller The Girl on the Train on my lap. The letters of the title, cleverly designed to mimic the shakiness of reading on a moving train, float in front of me, but I double-check to see that it is not because of my glass of warm mulled wine. The tagline is a captivating, “You don’t know her. But she knows you.”

Around me, voices are raised in fervent discussion. I gather that two or three of the people in our book club enjoyed the thriller, while an equal number didn’t. “We should totally avoid these New York Times lists, man. So overrated,” complains one. “I bet authors pay to get their books on it.” Discussion ensues on whether this is actually true. “It wasn’t that bad ya,” counters another. “The movie should be better.”

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I catch snatches of the conversation. Today I am silent; I have no opinion to share. I pick up a copy of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions, which is lying on the table, and randomly open a page.

“You could also call it waking,” Krishna continues. “Or intermission, as one scene in a play ends and the next hasn’t yet begun.”
I am struck by the relevance of those words. My life too is at an intermission. I’m stuck in that space between marriage and divorce, between being uprooted and settling down – that space where an old life hasn’t entirely ended and a new one hasn’t fully begun. My intermission has come at the age of 35, and I am just waking from a dream that has been brilliantly happy and nightmarish in equal parts. And through this trying phase, my most important respite has been this exercise with these women gathered around me, armed with their intensively researched book lists and their endearing enthusiasm.

A few months ago, I took two important decisions that would change the course of my life. I decided that I’d been unhappy in my marriage of 14 years for far too long and told my then husband that I wanted out. I had been brought up to believe that marriage was for keeps but I was drained by the pressure of having to wear my game face for the sake of my children and the world. My friends and family suggested that I try self-help books, but I was saddled with intense heartbreak and melodrama. What good could a self-help book do, when I felt that I had been wrested of all control over my own life?

Around the same time, I also started the book club I had wanted for many years. I’ve been a voracious reader all my life, except during the times when the kids, smartphone addictions, and Game of Thrones began to consume most of my time. I longed to have a group with whom I could swap opinions and discuss plots and characters, but never had the motivation to actually start one. But a chance conversation with the mother of my son’s friend changed that. We put together a WhatsApp group, added a few other mamas in the mid-30s, and gave ourselves a formal – although a rather unimaginative – name. Between the Lines. Little did I know then that this group and the literature that we read, would become my saviour and help put me back in charge of my life.

***

The first title our group chose was Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind, a book-club favourite. I, who carried around the air of a refined reader with sophisticated tastes, cringed at the thought of discussing popular fiction. But I had to adhere to the choice of the club.

I started reading it with no real expectations – only to discover the unputdownable power of popular literature. At the centre of the book is a young woman grappling with personal turmoil and poverty in Nazi-occupied France. The world she knows is collapsing around her, and she is forced to dip into her reserves of strength.

I read like a maniac, drawn over and over again to books with female protagonists: My Feudal Lord, Nefertiti, Sarah’s Key. Each of those books spoke to me through passages that I felt were written exclusively for me.

Even if you aren’t a student of amateur psychology, you’d know that I related with the novel’s heroine. Reading about another’s despair and the undertone of hope that permeated the novel, gave me the courage to deal with my own situation. I aspired to be this resilient woman – fallible, real, but strong. “Sometimes life is a series of obstacles, a matter of putting one foot in front of the other,” says the narrator. “Sometimes, she realises suddenly, it is simply a matter of blind faith.” Just like the heroine, I unexpectedly had a moment of clarity about the path I had to follow.

The meetings too were just as enlightening and entertaining. When we gathered every three or four weeks, we must have appeared as charged as a kitty party group. Hearing different perspectives, diverging opinions, and taking a book apart helped me open my own mind. Of course we digressed from the book at hand, but those few hours, when all us were free of the lives we led, were therapeutic.

I read like a maniac, drawn over and over again to books with female protagonists: My Feudal Lord, Nefertiti, Sarah’s Key. Each of those books spoke to me through passages that I felt were written exclusively for me. I commiserated with Tatiana de Rosnay when she rues in Sarah’s Key, “How was it possible that entire lives could change, could be destroyed, and that streets and buildings remained the same.” And I couldn’t agree more with Jerry Pinto, when he writes in Em and the Big Hoom that, “I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to deal with the world. It seemed too big and demanding and there was no fixed syllabus.”

Line by line, paragraph by paragraph, the books helped me put my life back together.

During this period, I kept going back to Palace of Illusions, the saga of the enigmatic Draupadi. It brought alive the fiery, volcanic woman and gave voice to her suffering, her humiliation, and her need for vengeance. Most importantly, she was a character who created her own destiny, no matter how broken it left her in the end. And isn’t that what we all do? Make choices, forge our own paths, and then look back at the mess we create and try to make sense of.

Slowly, it became clear to me. Literature was a far greater, far more empowering form of therapy than a self-help book could ever be. The women in our club and the women protagonists I read about, walked the rough road with me and showed me, to quote Panchali, that “I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable – but I always was so, only I never knew it!” Recognising my troubles in those of the characters I read about (versus having a step-by-step plan of how to get better) helped me regain clarity and self-belief.

My intermission isn’t over yet. I’m still at a crossroads, and my future is uncertain. But I’ve got Indu Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife by my bedside right now. I am not sure I like the strong, scheming Noor Jahan, but I am certain of one thing – I will find something to identify with. I can almost feel the winds that blow across the Mughal empire as I read. And if nothing else, they hold the promise that all this will blow over and the other side of my story will be alright.

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