Review: Getting There by Manjula Padmanabhan

Hindustan Times | BySaudamini Jain
Nov 11, 2020 04:09 PM IST

A deliberation on life, choices and desire, this travel memoir chronicles a year in the author’s life in the late 1970s when she travelled to America and Europe

368pp, Rs 399; Hachette
368pp, Rs 399; Hachette

Manjula Padmanabhan’s Getting There, as it turns out, is this great literary secret. It’s been around for 20 years. But I didn’t know it existed until it was republished this year. Since then, I’ve learned that this gratifying book about a young woman adrift in the world is deeply loved by its few readers who are largely writers and editors themselves.

Its literary readership is not indicative of its universal appeal. I’ve been recommending it to all kinds of readers, especially now when we’re feeling unmoored while the pandemic rages. I read it as if in some kind of a trance. And when I was done in the middle of one night, I sat quietly for a long time stunned by its wisdom and how it articulated parts of my own incomprehensible feelings.

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Getting There: A Young Woman’s Quest for Love, Truth and Weight Loss, is a kind of travel memoir about a 20-something woman trying to escape the awkwardness of her life and her body. It chronicles about a year in Padmanabhan’s life in the late 1970s when she travelled West, first to America and then Europe where she lived with mostly strangers. This isn’t some wild adventure story. It’s the opposite, ordinary even in recklessness. It’s a deliberation on life, choices and desire. The story itself — of going with the flow — is exciting, unputdownable.

It opens in Bombay where Manju is a freelance illustrator. Her life is the life of young independent women anywhere. She lives in a rented accommodation, has a boyfriend she has no intentions of marrying (or marrying anyone at all), and she is trying to lose weight.

She is convinced, as women often incorrectly are, that her body is the root cause of all her problems:

“Yes, I was inconsiderate, incompetent and self-indulgent. I was fat, after all. I was a person whose intake of fuel exceeded her body’s needs. Fat stored as unsightly wads of flesh was the physical expression of freed, black money in the body’s fuel efficient economy. Time is also a kind of fuel except that it can’t be stored. Nevertheless, I could feel the rolls of unused hours lying in unsightly heaps across the sagging belly of my days. In the time that it took my fellow illustrators to complete a whole book I might get one small drawing done. I could not force myself to produce anything if I wasn’t in the mood and getting into the mood might take hours or days of just lazying about, waiting for inspiration to dawn.”

By controlling what she eats, she hopes to change the course of her whole life. She goes to a diet clinic, marches on the spot for 45 minutes twice a day. In this time, she befriends two visiting Dutch backpackers at the paying guest house where she lives and takes up their invitation to visit Holland.

But how does a 20-something Indian woman pull that off in the 1970s? In the same way that women navigate their circumstances to achieve any kind of freedom anytime anywhere. This is not a book bound by the time in which its events unfolded. The way to do anything is to take the plunge and just do it.

So she plots to extend her planned trip to America where she’s going with her boyfriend to visit her sister. Anyone who has lived through fallow periods of dieting will recognize the gaping emptiness of constant hunger that follow crash diets. With the additional discomfort of her secret scheming, she binges in America (there is no better place in the world than the United States to stuff your feelings with their glorious junk food): “So long as my mind was stopped up with food, I couldn’t think. I ate continuously.”

Getting There is especially powerful in the way Padmanabhan freely expresses unpopular (at least among Indians) travel preferences. In New York, she didn’t want to do touristy things. “They thought it was bizarre that I had travelled halfway across the world just to sleep. They wanted me to be up and about, going window-shopping, museum-hopping and getting my money’s worth out of my ticket.

I said that I was getting my money’s worth by watching TV… ‘For me, watching the TV was the same as going to see the Taj in India’.”

In Europe, she drifts. She spends some time with an old friend in Germany — this is her ruse, she had told her family she was going to help out her friend who had just had a baby. Then she lives with strangers in a kommune — community style living where people choose to live together as a community, in this case two couples. And then she makes her way to Holland where she lives with one of her Dutch friends in his family home with assorted members and pets. A lot goes on in these months, but it is anticlimactic in the way that travel often is: nothing happens, nothing out of the ordinary for young people hanging out. Travel is awkward, so is sex, so are terrible twenties in general. She finds herself unable to be productive, drifts into a depression but continues to drift along.

Author Manjula Padmanabhan (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Manjula Padmanabhan (Courtesy the publisher)

Books about the female experience told through women protagonists who, often self-deprecating, take control of their lives and acknowledge their flaws, have been especially popular since the 90s. Helen Fielding did that in her 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s what Getting There was compared to when it was published first in 2000. A few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia addressed women’s emptiness and the spiritual quest to fill that vacuum through food in Rome, inner peace at an ashram and love in Bali. Getting There is now compared to Eat, Pray, Love — but it is in fact the opposite and not only because the protagonist travels in the other direction. Padmanabhan’s ia about getting away from the fullness of herself and her life. And in this escapist quest she finds equanimity in self-awareness.

In this last decade, several millennial writers (like Sally Rooney, the Irish novelist, who is called “Salinger of the Snapchat generation”) have explored 20-something self-awareness. Recently, a piece in The New Yorker pointed out the problem with this literature where self-awareness is treated as the “finish line, not a starting point” because the real work of the self — improvement — comes well after reflection.

This is where Padmanabhan succeeds more than any writer I have read on the subject. She wrote the book 20 years after its events unfolded and she had time to reflect upon them. The result is that in the beginning of the book as she justifies her choices intellectually rather than confronting the complexity of her inner life, she is aware that she was trying “to set up an orderly theoretical system into which the disorderly real world refused to fit.” But Getting There is about getting there, it builds up — even while providing the adrenaline rush of young irresponsible living — a reckoning: a confrontation with the inescapability of the self and the ease with which it can be faced.

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