body memories; body knowledges

I spent a lovely weekend relaxing – well, somewhat – after completing another chapter draft early on Saturday morning. The book is taking shape as I write, and I’m excited to see it slowly coming together.

On today’s agenda: reviewing all my notes for another chapter, (re)thinking structure and organization, identifying relevant examples, ordering books from other library collections…. Today, in short, will be a day of sorting.

But, before that, some literary yumminess….

I’ve been reading Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us, the story of two women in India – an educated, upper middle class woman – Sera – and her servant, Bhima. The space between them is huge, yawning through all of their encounters. Bhima sits on the floor. Sera sits on a chair. Bhima lives in the slums, squatting on the ground of a communal toilet, rising early to fetch a day’s water. Sera lives in a comfortable home. But the space between them is also a shared space: the shared experiences of working together in Sera’s home for over two decades, the shared sorrows of unhappy – and for Sera, violent – marriages, the shared experiences of shattered dreams, of stories that might have been differently told…if only.

In the first half of the books (that’s as far as I’ve read, to this point), Bhima reflects on her only granddaughter Maya’s pregnancy and planned abortion. Maya is a college student in her late teens. She is not married and through her pregnancy, she has not only brought shame on her family, but she has dashed all of Bhima’s hopes and dreams. Every time Bhima looks at Maya, she is overcome by a complex range of emotions: rage, sorrow, love, desperation, resentment, affection… all of these tumble through her and she can hardly contain herself.

Sera knows all of this. Like Bhima, she has watched Maya grow, develop, mature. She has taken a close interest in the child. She has even supported Maya’s education so that Maya would not live the impoverished shanty life that Bhima is living. In this sense, Sera acts as a second grandmother, a fairy grandmother who grants the wish of education.

And it is Sera, too, who is called upon to find a good doctor willing to perform an abortion, Sera who has been asked to take Maya to her appointment. A fairy grandmother who, as a result of her social status, can guarantee Maya’s medical care and attention in a way that her own grandmother’s presence cannot. The space between them looms large.

In a beautiful passage, Sera reflects on the body, its memories and its knowledges. It’s worth sharing in full.

But you’re not doing this for Maya, she reminds herself. You’re doing this for old Bhima. The thought is immediately accompanied by a dull ache below her shoulder. It is a phantom pain, she knows, a psychosomatic ache, but still she feels the hurt. After all, it has been many years since the blow that made her arm swell and ache for days. On the other hand, who knows? Perhaps the body has its own memory system, like the invisible meridian lines those Chinese acupuncturists always talk about. Perhaps the body is unforgiving, perhaps every cell, every muscle and fragment of bone remembers each and every assault and attack. Maybe the pain of memory is encoded into our bone marrow and each remembered grievance swims in our bloodstream like a hard, black pebble. After all, the body, like God, moves in mysterious ways.

From the time she was in her teens, Sera has been fascinated by this paradox – how a body that we occupy, that we have worn like a coat from the moment of our birth – from before birth, even – is still a stranger to us. After all, almost everything we do in our lives is for the well-being of the body: we bathe daily, polish our teeth, groom our hair and fingernails; we work miserable jobs in order to feed and clothe it; we go to great lengths to protect it from pain and violence and harm. And yet the body remains a mystery, a book that we have never read. Sera plays with this irony, toys with it as if it were a puzzle: How, despite our lifelong preoccupation with our bodies, we have never met face-to-face with our kidneys, how we wouldn’t recognize our own liver in a row of livers, how we have never seen our own heart or brain. We know more about the depths of the ocean, are more acquainted with the far corners of outer space than with our own organs and muscles and bones. So perhaps there are no phantom pains after all; perhaps all pain is real; perhaps each long-ago blow lives on into eternity in some different permutation and shape; perhaps the body is this hypersensitive, revengeful entity, a ledger book, a warehouse of remembered slights and cruelties. (103-4)

Reference:

Umrigar, Thrity, The Space Between Us (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007)

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