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Eating Wasps by Anita Nair is like her mom’s aviyal, says reviewer Vijayalakshmi Harish. A perfect combination of tastes, “tangy, spicy, with just a hint of sweetness and each bite will leave you longing for more.”
“Ghosts and writers are more alike than you think. We can be what you want us to be. We can hear your thoughts even if you don’t tell us. We can read the silences and shape your stories as if they happened to us. And I was both: a ghost and a writer,” – Quote from Eating Wasps
Eating Wasps made me a book adulterer. I’m a serial monogamist when it comes to books – never picking up a book without finishing the one I am currently reading. I was already reading another book when I noticed that my pre-ordered copy of Eating Wasps had been downloaded.
“I’ll just take a peek,” I thought, and before I knew it, I was reading it the whole day, through my breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then staying up late to read it, because I just could not put it down. That is how powerful the storytelling is here.
The story begins with the suicide of a writer – Sreelakshmi. Without delving into the how or why of the tragedy, and with the slightest implication that a man is involved in it, the book introduces us to the sutradhar, Sreelakshmi’s ghost, who is our constant companion through the rest of this book.
Decades after her death, a piece of Sreelakshmi’s mortal remains, a finger bone, is found by a frightened child from the secret compartment in an antique cupboard, in a resort by the river Nila. From this point, a series of events ensure that the bone is passed from one female resident of the resort to another, and Sreelakshmi, the ghost and the writer, absorbs their stories and narrates them to us. The structure then is similar to the author’s other much loved work, Ladies Coupé.
The cast of characters is sprawling. There is of course, Sreelakshmi, the much lauded writer, whose presence even death has not erased – but why did her life take such a tragic turn?
Urvashi, the journalist, is in some ways Sreelakshmi’s mortal, current day counterpart. It is obvious from the very beginning that Urvashi is running from someone. Why she is afraid, and how she saves herself are revealed slowly.
There is the six-year old Megha, whose truly heartbreaking story is all too familiar. Reading it is an excruciating experience, because at each step, one can see how things could have been different, if only someone had truly paid attention.
Najma, whose mother never insisted she wear a burqa, also has a powerful story, and even though it is extremely sad, one leaves it feeling triumphant.
The story of Molly and Theresa – sisters and rivals, takes an intimate look into how men turn women against each other, and use that to their advantage.
Then there is Brinda, the badminton prodigy, whose story raises questions about achievement, success and satisfaction.
The stories of Rupa, the diplomat’s unappreciated wife and her perplexing moral dilemma; and Liliana, a woman crucified by and on the run from the social media, also fit in perfectly within the framework of the book’s exploration of womanhood today.
Maya’s story is an unsentimental, and yet sensitive exploration of motherhood. Instead of glorifying what it means to be a mother, it shines the spotlight on a mother’s internal struggles.
The women in these stories are from diverse walks of life. There are children, mothers, adultresses and prodigies. They are from different religions, castes and social classes. They have individual voices and personalities. What ties them together is that they are all choice makers and consequence facers. Anita Nair, through Sreelakshmi, immerses us in their stories completely, so that we feel what they feel, we think what they think.
While it does not claim to be a feminist text, the book becomes one through its depiction of issues like sexual abuse, acid attacks, body image issues, double standards of society etc. The way the book discusses female desires – sexual and otherwise, is truly refreshing. Each story can be regarded from many different perspectives, and in placing the stories of these modern day women against the background of Sreelakshmi’s story, Anita Nair forces us to examine if and how things have changed for women. Like its protagonists, the book too, is complex and layered.
What I love about this book is that it frees its women from the need to be ‘likeable’. These women are all deeply and realistically flawed. They attempt literally and figuratively to ‘eat wasps’. Sometimes they lack the foresight to know that they may get hurt, sometimes they take the risk, eyes open. But they never, ever apologize; they never shrink with guilt or shame. They live without regret.
When pop-culture in general is obsessed with giving us ‘strong female characters’, which are usually women with so-called masculine traits, Anita Nair redefines strength and gives us women who are not afraid to be vulnerable; not afraid to own their emotions. This is truly refreshing, because it makes these women relatable. And like real life, there are no easy, convenient solutions to their problems. I can easily slip into the skin of any of them –partly the reason why this book is so difficult to put down.
The other reason of course, is the atmospheric, addictive writing. Each word flows into the next, and the reader is simply borne along.
Eating Wasps then, is like my amma’s aviyal. Usually, aviyal isn’t a compliment –it is used to refer to something that is a hodge-podge; a mess. But when I say that this book is like my amma’s aviyal, I mean something else entirely. Like her aviyal, it is the perfect combination of tastes –it is tangy, spicy, with just a hint of sweetness and each bite will leave you longing for more.
A version of this was first published here.
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Top image via Pixabay and book cover via Amazon
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