SPARROW Posts

Sarah Moon’s “Sparrow”

And then there it is, our new, terrible silent routine. And to top it off, I have no birds and the world feels like a different kind of dark than it felt before. Mom isn’t perfect, but I miss her. I miss her picky neatness, I miss her bothering me about taking my nose out of a book and making a friend for once, I miss her getting on my case about my hair. I miss telling her about what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, asking her about work, listening to her carry on about Aunt Joan and whatever drama she’s gotten into. I miss her. There is a sadness I can’t shake, that’s not just from breakfast. There are no birds by the feeder. There aren’t pigeons cluttering the sidewalk as I go to school. I know, now, that last night’s dream was the last flight I’ll take. 

Sarah Moon‘s debut novel for young adults Sparrow is about a teenager of the same name who has a nervous breakdown. Sparrow is fourteen. She was whisked away to hospital from school after being discovered on the roof. Sparrow maintains she was bird watching as she has always been fascinated them fly. Sparrow lives with her mother, who is a single parent. Sparrow is named after the bird by her mother because she was “so small and brown, almost breakable, but so strong. Tiny but mighty…”. Few weeks later Sparrow is released in her mother’s care with the stipulation she takes her prescribed medication and visits a therapist regularly. So it is fixed that Sparrow attends regular sessions with Dr. Katz which are protected by doctor-patient confidentiality and even Sparrow’s mother cannot sit in upon the hour-long meetings. At first Sparrow refuses to speak to Dr. Katz but after weeks of therapy Sparrow begins to come around. It is probably listening to Dr. Katz playlist which begins to break the barriers for Sparrow. So much so she orders the very same songs/bands she heard during therapy for her listening pleasure at home. All through months of treatment and close questioning by her mother Sparrow is adamant that she was not trying to kill herself but just wanted to be with the birds. Probable reason for her being found alone on the roof ledge was she was devastated upon hearing of the tragic death of her favourite librarian, Mrs Wexler, in a traffic accident. Mrs. Wexler had been warm and welcoming to the shy and reserved Sparrow, encouraging the little girl to sit in the library any time she felt like it, read, participate in the book club etc. Mrs. Wexler offered the fragile little Sparrow a refuge from a world which constantly overwhelmed her.

Sparrow begins from the moment Sparrow is released from the hospital. She is portrayed as a very lonely girl who slowly opens out under Dr Katz’s patient guidance. By the end of the novel Sparrow finds the smallest steps like conversing with other girls of her age still a daunting task but at least she is doing it! It suddenly dawns upon her during the finale when she is running away from her responsibility that the feeling of being ready will never come. She has to muster courage. “I am not going to be ready. I’m going  to have to do this without being ready.” The ultimate epiphany is that the very same music that helped her in therapy is where she finally gets what she has been craving for — to fly away, for her limbs to go light. In fact Sarah Moon created her playlist for Sparrow on Spotify. In it are listed all the pieces of music referenced in the story.

Depression comes in many shades. With the recent suicides of two prominent people Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain within a week of each other has suddenly put the spotlight on mental health. These issues were always there and always discussed but the magnitude of this problem is unthinkable. To quote Dr Anirudh Kala, Clinical Director, Mind Plus:

Clinical depression is the commonest mental illness and it is true that life time prevalence of depression(which means how many people at one time or the other during their life time will suffer from it) is about 18-20% and many times it just comes out of the blue without any stress like any medical illness which Clinical Depression  actually is a medical illness. Both drugs and psychological treatment methods help and these help the best when used together.
However many well meaning but ill informed persons and some pop psychologists keep telling the person that the key to getting matter is to feel positive implying that the patient can if he willed to feel positive and get better, which is not true. You cannot will away your depression like you cannot will away your fever or your thyroid problem. And it makes the person worse because because he is told he can and he cant’. That is why the quip,’ Positivity is a scam.’
( In fact Dr Kala is also a debut author with his forthcoming collection of short stories The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness)

In Longreads essay “Surviving Depression” by Danielle Tcholakian written after the deaths of the Bourdain and Spade one of the sanest pieces of advice shared for those who battle depression every day as well as those around them is:

…the biggest lesson I’ve learned in wrestling with this illness for nearly 20 years. You can’t get out of it alone. It is also, confusingly, true that no one can save you — you’re always the one who has to do the work, who has to slog through the muddy darkness — but the eminently human kindnesses of friends and family along the way are what make the slog even remotely possible. And the truth is, you don’t have to do much of anything most of the time. Just be there. . . . Depression is a beast that swallows you whole and forces you to live inside it until you fight your way out — always with help, always with the others safely outside the beast who can pull you back. 

Writing about a teenager whose mental health is being questioned by everyone around her even though the teenager herself is under the impression that her reality makes perfect sense is probably not easy. Yet Sarah Moon’s undeniable wizardry is evident in her sensitive storytelling. Sparrow can be challenging even for an experienced author to create as it is a potential minefield if not handled well. It can fall apart easily. After Nathan Filer’s The Shock of Fall this is another great young adult novel to add to a school reading list. Perhaps to be read in conjunction with Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive which is not a young adult novel, nevertheless an excellent memoir about coming-to-terms with depression and easily accessible to readers of all ages.

Do read Sparrow. It is not always easy to read for it can be a challenge to read but it is time well spent.

Sarah Moon Sparrow Arthur A. Levine Books, An imprint of Scholastic Inc., New York, 2017. Hb. pp. 270 

21 June 2018

 

 

 

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom

Fish in a dwindling lake

( This was a review commissioned last year, but never published. So I am uploading it today on my blog. 26 June 2013)

Fish in a Dwindling Lake is a collection of short stories written by well-known Tamil writer, Ambai. It consists of short stories and four long stories. Interestingly the short stories are merely titled as “Journey”, but the longer stories stick to the motif of the journey. The narrator is usually a universal “she”, who is never given a name, probably making it easier to discuss various positions and responsibilities of women. To bracket them as merely as a wife, mistress or a reliable widowed aunt would be doing injustice to the characters created. They do occupy these socially defined and recognized spaces, but Ambai’s strength as a storyteller shines when she is able to describe their lives or an incident or a conversation or a journey that they undertake, but in a manner that shows these strong women have the quiet ability to question and make their choices and be at peace with them. For Bimla in the title story, “Journeys had become the symbols of her life. Journeys with objectives, journeys without; meaningful journeys, journeys made of necessity; journeys which were planned, but never happened; journeys which broke all decisions; journeys which had become rituals.” The stories raise questions about human relationships, sexuality of a woman and the fact that there is nothing wrong in discussing it or being aware of it. In “Journey 5”, Gomati Ammal invites her childhood friend, now a renowned professor, to move in with her after she is widowed. They belonged to the same village near Tirunelveli, but belonged to different castes. Plus, her family was paying for his education. She pleaded with him when they were young to elope and get married, but he refused and married a classmate of hers. But once she was widowed and her children were settled abroad, she wrote to the professor, “I have lived all these years in accordance with your wish. Now at least let me be with you?” So they worked out a convenient arrangement where he visits her twice a month. “He is never asked at home, why and where he is going. Neither does she say anything when she sees me. After all she is a woman who studied with me, isn’t she? Isn’t she my friend?” Using the personal pronoun or naming the protagonist instantly distances the reader from the experiences of the character, although there is an instant recognition and empathy with her. But with a character in the third person it is possible to share minute details that usually remain confined to a woman’s domain, but strike a universal chord, as the pregnant girl in “Journey 4” says ironically, “only a wife knows what goes on inside a house”.

These stories were first published in Tamil by Kalachuvadu. The publisher, Kannan Sundaram says that the English edition has “translated and published all the stories in the Kalachuvadu edition in the same order of stories with the same title. The first story in the Kalachuvadu edition has not been included as it was included in another collection of Ambai stories in English earlier –In the Forest a Deer.” For the translator Lakshmi Holmstrom, “The current collection of eleven short stories translated from Tamil; it showcases Ambai’s technical skills at her mature best. Her style can be elegant, witty and lyrical by turns. … Some of her short stories work through ironic juxtaposition of incidents, or through repetition of images, as in poems. The longer stories, on the other hand, while still using the repeated symbol or motif, are intricately constructed, moving back and forth in time almost cinematically, interweaving different kind of texts and narratives.”

Ambai is the nom de plume of C. S. Lakshmi, a renowned feminist, who established SPARROW (Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women). So it is probably possible for Ambai to jot down these varied instances in a woman’s life since she is immersed in these stories 24×7. In an email to me after the publication of this anthology, she said that for a storyteller “stories are all around one. We must just open ourselves to them.” Hence, the title story “Fish in a Dwindling Lake” is about Kumud, her relationship with her extended clan and friends. But it also works beautifully by tracking the life of Kumud, who quietly and steadily, as happens with women, adapt and survive since the instinct for self-preservation is extremely strong. So like the fish in a shrinking lake, she may have to struggle to survive but will always find sufficient oxygen to live. This is an anthology worth reading.

Ambai “Fish in a Dwindling Lake”, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom. Penguin Books India, 2012. Pb, Rs. 250 pp. 150