Books: Eating Wasps
Author: Anita Nair
Award-winning and widely acclaimed writer Anita Nair is, in addition to being wonderfully prolific, a connoisseur of various literary forms. While she is best-known for her more serious novels (A Better Man, Mistress, Lessons in Forgetting), she has, in the course of a long fruitful career, published poetry (Malabar Mind), essays (Goodnight and God Bless), short stories (Satyr of the Subway and Eleven Other Stories, her very first book), crime fiction (A Cut-Like Wound and Chain of Custody, starring the memorable Inspector Gowda), historical fiction (Idris: Keeper of Light), romance (Alphabet Soup for Lovers, which is told from the point of view of a grumpy cook) and several wonderful children’s books, the most recent of which is the popular and highly entertaining Muezza and Baby Jaan: Stories from the Quran. She’d even written the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Lessons in Forgetting, which went on to win the National Award. And so, one automatically assumes that a new book from Anita Nair will, invariably, pack a surprise.
In her latest offering, Eating Wasps, Nair, however, returns to the terrain that her 2001 novel, Ladies Coupé, had mapped with such sensitivity and attention: the sisterhood. In the eponymous ladies coupé of the Kanyakumari Express, the 45-year-old income tax clerk, Akhila, became a centrifuge for the stories of her travelling companions, and through the intimately drawn stories of their diverse worlds, the inner lives of Indian women were recreated in evocative detail. In Eating Wasps, the writer Sreelakshmi provides the Akhila function, becoming a magnet for the stories of others.
The train compartment is traded in for a resort (in a delightfully inter-textual reference to her own 2007 novel Mistress, the resort is “Near the Nila”, run by her former protagonists Radha and Shyam, in Kerala.)
However, there isn’t just thematic synchronicity with Ladies Coupé. Structurally too, the cleverly looped narrative — ebbing away from and flowing back to Sreelakshmi in waves — introduces the stories of a whole cast of women, from various classes and backgrounds creating what Nair had called a sort-of “novel in parts” in Ladies Coupé. But naturally, Eating Wasps is the work of an artist who has diligently spent the last decade-and-a-half since it was published in the workshop, and it bears witness to how Nair’s writing has evolved. “On the day I killed myself, it was clear and bright. It was a Monday. A working day. 25 October 1965. A day just like every other day, except I was dead and the world ground to an abrupt halt as the news spread.
People everywhere, in homes and alleys, in tea shops and at the railway station, the court and the college hostel, Swami’s printing press and the King George market, those who knew me and those who didn’t, all looked at each other and then looked away. She is dead, they said. She killed herself. Is that true? There isn’t a suicide note. Was it a murder made to look like a suicide?
They tried to explain my death: She had an incurable disease. She was in love with a married man. She was in love with a man who dumped her. She was pregnant. She was depressed. Something humiliating happened at the college which led to this. The speculation was as dense as the grief.”
To begin a novel with the first-person account of a dead protagonist is a memorable move that, in the hands of a lesser writer, could go awfully wrong. But in Nair’s deft construction, Sreelakshmi, a young award-winning novelist who takes the Malayalam academy by storm through her honest writing about womanhood and sensual love, quickly becomes the novel’s living, breathing heart. Through Sreelakshmi — it would be a cruel spoiler to give away the how — we meet Urvashi, who’s unconventional relationship outside marriage has curdled to poison, and the child, Megha, who yearns for Prem Uncle’s love until she realises what the cost of that is. There is the courageous Najma, the iconic Brinda, the sly Rupa and the stoic Maya. My favourites, however, are the sisters, Molly and Theresa, whose differing versions of the complicated story of their life is executed with impeccable nuance. But through the lives of these women, one keeps yearning to see — and hear — the ghost, Sreelakshmi again, the writer whose share of the prose is so sharp and layered.
While several chapters are quite dark, on the whole the sombre note is countermanded by the breezy effortlessness of Nair’s writing and if the linearity of the plot takes away somewhat from the sophistication initially suggested by the framing of Sreelakshmi’s story, you don’t find yourself complaining. The perfect book to read as winter begins to leave, Eating Wasps is a feminist novel that, in the season of #MeToo, ultimately reminds us that however hard the contours of the individual story of pain, persecution or trauma might be, once it is out there, articulated and heard, in that space between the listener and the teller, the subject — and, by extension, the reader — can begin to heal.