I wanted to know more about Indonesian history and its culture, through the lens of a local and went looking for a book which could help me understandI wanted to know more about Indonesian history and its culture, through the lens of a local and went looking for a book which could help me understand. Picking up Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan was still an impulsive decision, taken just before a flight to New Delhi.
The Plot of Beauty is a Wound
Eka Kurniawan is best known for his book Mantiger, which got a place in the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. However, Beauty is a wound is his first book. Translated into English by Annie Tucker, the book is about Dewi Ayu, a prostitute of mixed heritage – Dutch and Indonesian. Her family is cursed to be unhappy and Dewi Ayu comes back from the dead to correct this – for the happiness of her daughters. The book starts with a sixteen year Dewi who is a product of incest. Her parents were born to the same father – but with different mothers. Dewi is beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, sassy and obstinate.
Refusing to leave Indonesia during World War II, when most of the Dutch colonisers left in fear of being killed – Dewi instead wants to marry an old beggar. She wants to right a wrong done by her Dutch grandfather. She is soon widowed and sent to a camp by the Japanese soldiers where she survives through her grit and resourcefulness. At the same time, she realises the commodity that her body is and grows into a famous yet respected prostitute that every man in Halimunda wants to go to bed with.
It starts with the Second World War and covers many important events during this time – from the colonising of the country by the Dutch to the liberation of the country as well as of the anti-communist purging. I would call the book a ‘wandering’ novel – it spans across generations, genders and histories. Often it diverges into multiple story lines and introduces new characters, along with a detailed story of their background.
What I felt about Beauty is a Wound
You’d think that it is a sad little tale of a prostitute but it’s not. Dewi is anything but a sad heroine and the book is more about her daughters and many other characters important to the story line. It is in equal parts funny, grotesque and dark. The writing is simple and yet has layers. The book raises many questions while being absurd and uses Indonesian folk stories to the full, cleverly mired into the narrative. The Undead are extremely popular in Beauty is a Wound. They heavily feature in the narrative and stand as reminders of the horrific past. Like they say, your sins always come home to roost. And the ghosts in the book not only roost but eat, drink, curse and joke.
During the end, it can get a little tedious and it feels like the author is babbling. Albeit subtle, there are many questions posed in the background. There are questions on war, culture, colonialism, the politics of rape, freedom and most importantly the inherent weakness of man for female beauty. I am not sure if it was his intention but the novel brings home the truth of how female beauty is blamed by weak men. Who is the victim here though – is it the country or the women in the story ?
With heavy use of Indonesian folklore and magical realism, Beauty is a Wound is set like an Epic where what is good and what is evil can be very confusing and Beauty is not only a wound, it is also a weapon.
There is an extremely poignant moment in Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto when Imelda says this.
Because the sky is so high and the crow shat in yourThere is an extremely poignant moment in Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto when Imelda says this.
Because the sky is so high and the crow shat in your left eye.
I could tell you a lie but I don’t see why.
The world is a game and the game is a tie.
The tie is around your neck and they’ll string you high.
-Imelda Mendes, Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto
What looks like gibberish spoken by a manic depressive woman in the story, may just be the crux of this novel. The book, Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto, is a story of the Mendes family – Imelda (Em) and Augustine (The Big Hoom) Mendes, their daughter Susan and the son – the unnamed narrator of the story. They live in a one-bedroom flat in Mahim, Mumbai erstwhile Bombay. Imelda suffers from manic depression and their story circles around their mother’s affliction as well as the rock solid dependability of their father.
The narrator struggles to cope with her disease. At first, he attempts to understand the reason for her depression. He tries to piece together history – how his mother was brought up, how their parents met, and various experiences they had. All in order to understand. There must be a reason for the madness, no? When he fails at that, he progresses towards trying to make her feel better. He understands soon that his methods are vain. Sometimes it’s all too much for him – he’s just a kid after all. His feelings are natural – there is angst, hurt, self pity and a desire for normalcy. There is a frustration for the role reversal that he didn’t sign up for. He needed a mother – instead he is forced to take care of one. Quite frequently, he fights the thought of running away from it all. In those unthinking moments, he wonders whether he could end it all by killing her. There is also the fear of his father dying and leaving him to take of Em. And yet, the glue binding the story is the tremendous amount of love he feels for her, present somewhere in the background – subtle yet making its presence felt.
In spite of the madness, Imelda is a lovable character. She is smart and funny. The book has many moments which leave you smiling at her wit.
“Em made a full recovery. The growth was large but benign and in order to prevent any recurrence, they took out her ovaries as well. ‘Just call me the Female Eunuch,’ she laughed, as she pulled on her first beedi in three weeks.”
-From Em and the Big Hoom
However, you may also try to find some logic in her gibberish and think that there must be a back story to her depression, much like her son. There has to be some sad story in her past, you’d think. But there is none – much like all mental health patients. Sadly, understanding mental health issues is difficult with it not being in the mainstream.
You’d think that the story would be about Em and her madness, which it is but more than that – it is about the narrator and his coming of age in a strange sort of way. It feels like he’s letting it all out on paper – a catharsis of sorts. Em is a big part of the book but she doesn’t threaten to overwhelm us. At the end of it, you feel a strange sort of sadness for her – it doesn’t pain you. However, it’s still warm and fuzzy. A contradiction of sorts – can you be happily sad at the end of reading a book?
The title of the book – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – is no doubt, very attractive. Don’t we all wish we did not give a damn about the millionThe title of the book – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – is no doubt, very attractive. Don’t we all wish we did not give a damn about the million things that we obsess about, on a daily basis? We hope to be universally liked, find great work, have kind, gentle colleagues (and a cool boss, if you are in general a very optimistic person), and an understanding family that supports all that you do. A hundred other myriad things like world peace, zero pollution and an end to terrorism are also on our wish list. We want everything using the easiest of shortcuts. Don’t we want to reduce all the pain and effort?
We also wish sometimes that we didn’t have to keep trying to please people around us. It is difficult believing that people may like and accept you, the way you are. It is so hard that we pretend to be someone else, sometimes even end up doing things which may go against our chosen values in life, just to please people around. Sometimes we do that in the name of greater good, but by losing ourselves in the process. Wouldn’t you like to not give a f*ck sometimes?
Don’t be misled. The book is not about learning to stop caring about things in life or saying f*ck you to everybody and everything. It is about understanding what is actually important and to face things in life head on because problems never end. The key is to find the right problems to solve, understanding the values that are actually important and worth fighting for. We exist, to solve problems.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson is about understanding that there will always be problems in life. At the same time, one needs to realise the values that are actually worth caring about and saying goodbye to the ones that actually aren’t. There are no shortcuts, and it takes a lot of focused time and effort to achieve a particular goal.