It’s been hard of late to be a person, and to reckon with the immensity of the world. You know that you read and write because that is the only way you can slowly inch forward. Last week you read Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup, and revisited Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea. In some ways, they feel like sister texts, though they are vastly different. The wildness in both, mostly. The thing that you can’t stop thinking about is the question of nomenclature in both texts—Swarup’s critique of colonialist renaming of places and peoples; the way Antoinette is made Bertha. You keep thinking of the way cruelty is renamed and euphemised and whitened over, and how unrewarding all this thinking, this work of ravelling can feel. You’re thinking of your own in-betweenness in so many affairs, and how it can’t possibly be such a bad thing. You met an old friend yesterday, and the only thing that held you together was the sweet, sticky syrup of nostalgia. She seemed so sure that the world was as she saw it. You spoke to your brother later. He, too, seems so sure that the world is as he sees it. Swarup writes,
“Girija Prasad is adamant on creating his own map of the archipelago. It is a portrait created with the same earnestness he pours into sketching his wife. It is his engagement with the memories, curiosities and emotions the landscape evokes. The map may look like that of the Andamans, but it is equally the artist’s portrait of himself.”
What baffles you is the fact that there is a universal map of the world, and then the personal, innumerable “memories, curiosities and emotions” that places evoke in us as we move through it—that these maps coexist. How do we manage to do anything at all? How is it a surprise that we hurt so often?
Antoinette’s husband (Rochester, but unnamed by Rhys) says, “Reality might disconcert her, bewilder her, hurt her, but it would not be reality. It would be only a mistake, a misfortune, a wrong path taken, her fixed ideas would never change.” She tries to defend herself. She says that her half-brother “tells lies about us and he is sure that you will believe him and not listen to the other side,” to which Rochester asks, “Is there another side?” and to which Antoinette replies, “There is always the other side, always.” He tells her that he feels as though the place, Coulibri, is conspiring against him, that it is his enemy. She tells him, “You are quite mistaken. It is not for you and not for me. It has nothing to do with either of us. That is why you are afraid of it, because it is something else.” You cannot stop thinking of all those with power that kill the things they fear because those things are “something else”, something they do not understand, something that their language does not have a name for.
On a walk with Girija Prasad, Chanda Devi is drawn to a withering palm. He tells her that the tree only flowers once in its lifetime, after which it dies. It expends so much energy into reproducing that the process “saps life away from the tree once it flowers”. This unsettles her. She strokes its bark, and the tree asks her why she speaks to trees, and if she knows why she sought out this particular tree in its final moments. Then the tree tells her, “We are the same. You are one of us. (...) Some spirits bridge the gap between different worlds through love. It keeps us all together.” You think, immediately, of Yeong-hye from The Vegetarian. Antoinette as well. Mad women, all of them. You marvel at their love, and their rage.
A friend unspools, tired of holding it in, on a beloved group chat. She says, “I’m stuck in this situation and others are not and this is just making an island out of me (...)” To this, another friend says, “You don’t have to be an island. We can be an archipelago.” How wonderful and tender! In an interview with Soup, Ranjit Hoskote speaks of his love for the archipelago, and says,
“To me, the ocean and the archipelago are twinned, compelling metaphors, powerful images that speak of how we might lead our lives. The ocean, which is mapped by voyages rather than borders, is a space of possibility, encounter, exchange, and confluence. The archipelago – a garland of islands, each distinct yet all connected – embodies the way in which different yet related cultural forms can enjoy adjacency, dialogue, the ability to interact through translation, and the gift of transmuting one another. (...) The archipelago invites us to think of life, of creativity, as a montage or assemblage, which is defined as much by the individuality of its components as by the interrelationships and cross-references through which it is elaborated.”
You are so grateful for the larger ocean of friendship (especially in these dour days) and for the archipelago you’ve been kindly absorbed into. You are grateful for art—each encounter is a conversation, an exploration, a revelation. You are grateful for this poem that came to you last year like a prayer. It is in such remarkable company. (You hope that this will have been the last time you’ve titled a thing “To Insanity”.) You are grateful, finally, for these women from the series “I Set The Moon On Fire Because She Wouldn’t Wake Up” by Vietnamese artist Mai Ta, whose work you have fallen entirely in love with (via).
In Latitudes of Longing, Plato asks Thapa, “Have you ever witnessed a sunset that fills you with a sense of peace and beauty, though the rest of your life is far from it?” “Not yet,” says Thapa. “If you haven’t seen one yet,” says Plato, “there is hope for you. There is something still left to discover.”