By Bhaswati Ghosh
Title: Thwarted Escape
Author: Lopamudra Banerjee
Publisher: Authorspress, 2016
Distance and memory are uneasy twins. As one advances, the other gallops in an interminable contest of catch up. This fraught relationship is at the heart of Lopamudra Banerjee’s memoir. The tension begins with the book’s title itself – Thwarted Escape – an oxymoron if you will, yet one that makes sense as the reader starts journeying through its pages.
The book’s four sections – on childhood, womanhood, motherhood, and life and death – reminded me of flower arrangements – of their evanescence, their beauty. Banerjee, the florist, crafts delicate narratives as she pulls them towards a theme bunch. She uses the present tense to a delicious effect, pulling the reader into the immediacy, and hence, the momentariness of her experiences. The beauty results from her love of language – the carefree abandon with which words spill onto the page. Then there’s the fragrance running through the sections – the author’s constant introspection, a memoirist’s greatest tool. And often her biggest risk.
Along the way, the themes intersect as they do in life and lend wholeness to the book. Death makes an early appearance, almost as a foreboding of all that dies, not just the flesh. In “Rainy Sojourns”, a little girl unwittingly stumbles upon the concept of death as her grandfather passes away on a rain-soaked day. The events of the day as they unfolded float alongside the author’s grasp of it years later. To the reader, she is both the five-year-old and her older self as she employs a question-and-answer device to have conversation with herself.
My tiny body, weary of carefree playing with cousins in sheer joy of a rainy holiday, my stomach craving the salty yellow khichdi and fried eggs, reached a universe of sudden mourning and unexplained loss.
Turning the flashlight of enquiry inwards enables Banerjee to examine the wounds and warts that are an essential part of the human journey. In “The Story of an Old School: An Epiphany”, she shares the vulnerability of a child facing parental pressure to perform well in school. When the grade-four girl realizes her report card doesn’t match the result expected of her, she forges her rank from fourth to first to fulfill her dad’s expectations. The pain of the guilt and shame that follows underscores the harsh standards young children are supposed to meet in the Indian academic system. Of achieving excellence at all costs, even if the cost is a child’s inherent innocence and honesty.
This readiness to pull aside the curtains to some of the most vital scenes of her life helps Banerjee forge a fellowship with her reader. She voices her strong commitment to womanhood and feminism in chapters like “To Ravaged Nymphs”, “She: Durga, Draupadi, Sita and the Every Woman”, and “Writing the Woman’s Life.”
“To Ravaged Nymphs” narrates the author’s personal experiences of sexual abuse, both as a child and as a woman, with restrained sensitivity, while also reflecting her sense of outrage at the horrific gang rape of Nirbhaya, a young woman from Delhi. In “She: Durga, Draupadi…,” Banerjee scratches below the surface of two of the most popular Indian mythologies – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to read them from a feminist perspective, focusing on the treatment meted out to Sita and Draupadi, the central female characters in these texts.
Has the legend of Lord Rama’s take ever been retold? Did Sita ever tear open the facade of false righteousness and vain glory of heroism?
Banerjee continues to ask tough questions in “Writing the Woman’s Life”, where she turns her lens on the prejudices women writers keep facing. She writes with impassioned fervour of her admiration for Taslima Nasreen, the firebrand Bangladeshi writer in exile. Banerjee’s close reading of the exiled writer’s works is at once a tribute to her and a scathing diatribe against persecutions writers have to undergo for expressing their opinions. For a woman writer like Nasreen, the challenge multiplies, especially in the highly patriarchal environment of the Indian subcontinent. Banerjee’s compellingly argues how the feisty writer continues to rise above the controversies that constantly court her to produce thought-provoking, if provocative at times, writing. In doing so, she demonstrates her own defiance and non-conformity.
Thwarted Escape is a woman’s journey – not only through the alleys of memory – but also in the physical realm, from the East to the West. The narrative oscillates between the author’s life in Kolkata, India and cities in the US, where she moved post-marriage. Some of the book’s most tender parts are where the author is seen synthesizing her experiences of her home country with those of her adopted one. In doing so she realizes that despite her impulse to fly abroad, the escape from her old universe never actually happened on the emotional plane.
Through fear and abuse, death and loneliness, Banerjee finds her touchstone in love. Despite the shadow of melancholia and the treachery of distance she must fight, the light of that touchstone shines through the pages of her sensitively-written memoir.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. She is an Editor-at-Large at Cafe Dissensus. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.
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