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Youth (Scenes from Provincial Life #2)- J.M. Coetzee : 8/52 ( Memoir)

A few years ago I went on a date with an aspiring writer. He was the stereotype. Tall, lanky, unshaven, badly dressed and smelling of stale cigarette smoke. He had that faraway look on his face while he spoke about the book he wanted to write. He then told me that he had just quit his job the previous day to focus on the book and was in no position to take what we had to more than just one date. I nodded. On the train back, I realized that if I had met him this way when I was 20,  I would have totally fallen for him. ‘Write me like one of your French girls’ I would have said to him. And he would have. And then dedicated the book to me. And thanked me in his Booker acceptance speech… I Google him once in a while to check whether he made it. He still hasn’t.

A few weeks ago another crush,again an aspiring writer who is going through the motions in a regular desk job, mentioned this book to me. ( Yeah. Looks I have a thing for aspiring writers. And not without good reason ) A book about a poet stuck in a dead end computer programming job at IBM and how he could totally relate to it. Though the crush itself didn’t last for more than a week, the book recommendation did.

A white confused South African who wants to escape his homeland,one he feels is not rightfully his, to become a poet in the land of the artists and writers. While he would love to go to France, he settles for England. And there, he is again forced to settle for less. He settles for a job that puts food on his table but eats away his creative soul. He settles for women who aren’t the muse he is desperately looking for. But that poet in him does not settle down. It flits from thought to thought, aimlessly drifting through the days and nights, summers and winters hoping that his dreams will somehow find him.

The prose is beautiful. It just moves from moment to moment, feeling to feeling in a rushed, haphazard way. It makes you feel helpless and while you keep hoping for something good to happen, you somehow know that nothing is going to happen.There are so many poets and authors referred to in the book, most of them whom I haven’t read or even heard of. Makes me want to try them, maybe I’ll start with Ezra Pound, our hero’s hero. While the political situation across the world in the early sixties isn’t the main backdrop, it is the undercurrent that drives the narration forward. I realized that  know so little about South Africa. There’s a touch of India too. Satyajit Ray makes an appearance and so does Indian curry. And it also appears that Indian computer programmers living abroad haven’t changed their habits over the decades.

‘”At 18 he might have been a poet. Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is a computer programmer, a 24year old computer programmer in a world where there are (yet) no 30 year old computer programmers. At 31 he is too old to be a programmer: one turns oneself into something else – some kind of businessman – or shoots oneself”

Words that hang heavy on me. Different contexts, same implication. Scary. Very scary.

Had this book not been labelled a ‘fictionalized memoir’, it would have made it to my dark and twisty shelves. But no. Our hero went on to win the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for literature. If Astrid or Caroline or Jacqueline Google him, they would know that he made it.

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Amen: The autobiography of a nun- Sister Jesme : 48/52

Turning water into whine

Blame me for expecting something explosive. This was nothing more than the long rant of a disgruntled employee. The fact that she was a nun is just an added bonus. As a saying goes, if there’s a devil residing in the roof of every normal household, there’s a devil residing in each rafter in a convent. A house full of women where everyone is everyone’s mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, the stuff Ekta Kapoor’s dreams are made of.  And the poor husband, Jesus Christ, looks at the drama from above helplessly, and shakes his head in despair. And no, divorcing him isn’t as easy as divorcing a human husband. A Convent, Hotel California. Same thing.

Sr. Jesme is a PhD in English, but this book reads like a ten year old’s What I Did During My Summer Vacation essay.It is written in present tense, a flashback while she’s on the train as a fugitive ,on the way to hand over her resignation. It just rambles on and on with one phase of her life flowing into the other without a pause.  There are too many references to Provincials and Generalities and church specific bureaucracy  without saying which one was which or whether they were the same person throughout the book. Almost ten words on every page were within quotes, like why should ‘ plus two’ be within quotes when referring to plus two students.

Sr. Jesme , or maybe she’s back to Memy now, paints herself as the goodiest of goody two shoes that ever walked the earth. Barring a single faltering when she’s alone in the room with a priest, she is goodness personified. She is a socialist who mingles with the lower strata of kitchen nuns freely, she is a liberal who watches movies and makes movies, she is so honest that she is the only one who stands up against capitation fee, she is the saviour of poor students, she’s so Jesuslike that she always shows the other cheek. She’s so everything that she actually deserves a YoSrJesmeSo set of jokes.

Agreed. The rot inside the church runs deep. You have corruption, sexual liaisons, petty jealousies, politics that will put our parliamentarians to shame, mind games , rampant sexism, racism and good old simple hate. She herself seems to have been victim to a ‘special love’ with another nun and almost succumbed to the advances of a priest. But I somehow am not able to bring myself to blindly believe her version of all the events in this book. Why would she be forced to take psychiatric treatment if there wasn’t something that made the rest of the congregation believe she needed help? There must be something more to that part of the story, especially that incident which was the breaking point which made her leave the congregation. But hey, who am I to judge. If she’s happy now, free from the shackles of the Convent, good for her. I must Google for some follow ups about her life.

Afternote: My sixth standard teacher had joined a convent and left, but before she became a full fledged nun. I wonder what regrets or relief runs through her mind till this day. Two of my classmates have become nuns. One I met after a few years and she was cheerful and happy. It was awkward, the confusion whether I should call her by name or call her Sister. The other one joined the more difficult Pentecostal nunnery, haven’t heard anything from her since the day she told me she’s becoming a nun. I hope she’s happy.

While a Sister Act-like Mary Clarence will be super cool, the  Catholic church should loosen up a bit and let nuns be human. They allow their priests to be anyway. Nuns like this one, may her tribe increase.