Tags like feminist pigeonhole a writer’s identity: Eating Wasps author Anita Nair
One cannot feel anxious in the company of Anita Nair. One cannot read out questions either, that one has written down, out of lack of adequate familiarity with her fresh literary voice. They arrive on your lips of their own accord, ready to deal with the wasps, ready to bite down on each one of them, just like the protagonist of Nair’s latest novel, Eating Wasps.
Consider Eating Wasps. Not altogether a curious title for a book, but it does unsettle you for a brief while. On the cover, a pair of full, blood-red lips close in on a bunch of spectral wasps frozen mid-flight. Inside, it is the story of a woman who bit down on a wasp as a child, her ghost now traversing the lives of a bunch of women whose hands her severed, long dead and preserved finger passes.
“What would you do if a wasp flew into your face? Are you the really brave sort? Would you just bite down on it? If you do, are you going to spit it out? Are you going to swallow it? Or are you just going to run when it comes to you?” Nair talks about the metaphor that forms the crux and cover, the problem and the resolution of her tale.
“That is the obvious [meaning] of the metaphor. The more nebulous, intangible, or the more metaphysical level of it is talking about conflicts — what do you do when you ar faced with a conflict that is probably of your own making. What do you do? Do you handle it? Do you run away from it? And if you were to handle it, how do you treat it? Put it out of your mind and go on with life? Or would you think if you were to spit it out you’re going to see the debris of what you did? Or are you going to allow the taste of it to stay in your mouth?”
Ladies Coupe, Mistress, and now Eating Wasps — for about two decades now, Nair has written about women: their worlds, their private lives, their relationships. The question about her take on feminism — which is not an ideology but a way of life it should be clear by now — is due now. But Nair says exclusivity limits her work.
“The only reason why I have resisted this tag of being the feminist author is because that pigeonholes my writing, which is not fair to what I do. I also write about men and the dynamics between men and women,” explains Nair.
“If you really want to tag me, call me a writer of the human condition, because it gives equal weightage to both men and women. As far as feminism goes, I feel that if a woman can start off by being who she is, that is the greatest feministic or feminist manifesto. It is not about having to prove that you are as good as a man, because biologically, men and women are different. To say that would be like a lion saying I’m as good as an elephant — but both are equally wonderful creatures.”
Indeed. For Nair is also the author of The Better Man (2000), which deals with the existentialism of a lonely retired man, and Idris: Keeper of the Light (2014), a novel about a 17th century Somalian trader in Malabar, a book that received acclaim across literary circles. She frequently engages with complex relationships between men and women in her writing, apart from having created one of the most praised central figures in recent Indian noir — Inspector Borei Gowda, who, I am almost tempted to mention, is a man. It is the sheer diversity of Nair’s work, and the range of worlds she encompasses that should caution one against attempting to categorise her. How does the shifting of genres happen?
“Once I have a story in my head and I have examined it, I think, ‘This is not suited for children’s fiction’, or ‘’This is not suited for crime’. The first time when I thought about the Inspector Gowda series, the first scene in my head, and I thought to myself: how is this going to work in literary fiction? It was just one of those thoughts that drove me to writing crime. I knew that I was going to write poetry, I knew that I was going to write literary fiction, but never, ever, in my life did I think I was going to write crime. But because the subject demanded to be treated in a different way, I started writing it so. I would call it noir, not potboiler crime fiction, because I bring in a lot of my style from my other work into this, which means the character is a lot more fleshed out, there are internal lines. It’s not just action and action,” she explains.
Eating Wasps is gripping, shocking, absurdly philosophical, and puts the author’s greatest gifts of writing at the forefront, but its the biggest strength yet is its unpredictability. Nair, writer of Alphabet Soup for Lovers (2016), bends genres with this one, throwing the short story and the novel in a pan to come up with a recipe that has not been whipped up much before. One talks about lessening attention spans and the advent of ‘more accessible’ forms of entertainment and enrichment — is the reader’s response finally determining forms of modern storytelling?
“As for me, it is the story that dictates the form that I take. I don’t think that with technology and decreasing attention spans, people are looking for a different format to read. All of us binge-watch. And a binge watch session is pretty much like reading a novel. If you look at shows like a House of Cards, or a Fauda, or a Mozart in the Jungle — all of it is heavy. If the younger generation is able to binge-watch these complicated stories, season after season, it isn’t really about accessibility, too. It is about how much something can grip the imagination,” Nair reasons.
Eating Wasps opens with a prologue by a dead writer’s ghost, and using her finger, preserved and stowed away in a cupboard, as a device to flit in and out of the stories of the women that follow. This story, based on the life of a writer in the 1960s who committed suicide, is told in the form of interior monologues, forming the central strand of the larger plot — a series of experiences of women of different ages and from different walks of life unspools therefrom.
And it is important for experiences that put the inner lives of women — their fallibility and humanity — out there. “It also gives anybody who is reading, a sense, a feeling that ‘I’m not alone’, ‘It’s perfectly alright to feel this way.”
“Ultimately, literature is a kind of living history that we’ve maintained. Much as you read historical accounts, information and data, you also need to know the warp and weft and weave of life, and for that I think, [fiction] is a great point of reference. In India, we somehow don’t want to acknowledge the inner lives of women, the flawed creatures that we are. Everything has to be painted in a kind of flippant, facetious way. It also opens up for discussion, for introspection, various things that are going on that none of us wants to acknowledge — otherwise it just stays in that space of ‘let’s not talk about it’, ‘let’s not touch it’. As if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. But the truth is, it does exist,” she says, prophetic as ever.
It is remarkable to see Nair not being able to resist the lure of telling stories. From an autistic man and his ageing mother she met on the plane and a sex scandal that affected her deeply — both of which have gone on to inspire her stories, to the various stories she chances upon in the middle of her work, the mind is a buzzing workshop for the former advertising professional. “I was working on Mistress, I was doing a lot of reading on Indian mythology. When I working on Idris, I was reading the Koran. So I then thought that there was something there that I could use and turn into a book for children,” she recalls. It is fitting then that she reads about four books at a time. “I have a book on the dining table, one by the bedside, one in my bag — that kind of thing.”
Among the contemporary voices that have inspired her is Perumal Murugan. “One of the books that moved me a lot very recently was Murugan’s Seasons of the Palm. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be talking about it. They seem to be talking about the other books — Poonachi and One Part Woman. But reading Seasons of the Palm is like reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — it’s that powerful. Read it if you haven’t,” Nair says.
“Then, Eleanor Oliphant is Fine is one of the biggest sellers in the UK today. I resented the book, but one day I had nothing to read, and I started reading it. It’s an incredible book. I also like Rose Tremain’s The Colour (2003). But one of the books that I go back to again and again to amuse myself is Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrien Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982). It’s very funny. It’s a whole series, starting from the Thatcher era, to (Tony) Blair’s time and WMD, and stuff like that . One of the most hilarious things I’ve read. I’ve sat with it in a plane and started laughing and couldn’t stop,” the author laughs away again.