The Perils Of Writing A Memoir (And the Joys)
I had accompanied a friend to a garage sale, the proceeds from which would go to a ‘Save the Cats’ charity. I was more than happy to buy some more useless stuff I didn’t need like a forest green box with a dragonfly frozen in mid-flight to save starving, helpless feline creatures.
Innocently prattling away with my friend, I browsed through the wares – a jumble of clothes, shoes, knick-knacks and the odd eccentricities of an individually curated sale when I felt someone’s eyes boring down on me.
I looked up and sure enough, across the room was a dapper young man, in a blue office shirt, mismatched with the green flecks in his eyes, staring intensely at me. I gave a hesitant smile while my brain screeched ‘Psycho, psycho, psycho’. Clearly, the warning system every woman has in her head was working efficiently in mine.
He took my quizzically stretched lips as an invitation and trooped over. We shook hands. He looked deep into my eyes and still holding the hand I had long stopped shaking, claimed with breathless certainty, ‘I know you.’ I gave an even more vague smile, ‘Umm, we met at …?’ ‘I read your book’. Ah, the penny droppeth.
One of the occupational hazards of writing a divorce memoir is that people do know you. They know how you broke the news of your divorce to your mother, why you cut holes in your Ex’s shirt, the odd sort of men you dated and which ones you kissed in that motley line-up, how you cried in cabs and even who got to keep the Marquis de Sade of your book collection.
A month after the book released, L called and asked me how I felt about ‘Hanging it all out’. Truthfully, till then I never thought about it. Perhaps, that’s why it was so effortless to be completely honest. I had written this memoir for the ‘me’ of six years ago, divorced, broke, unhappy without a guide on how to twist out of the tangled web I had woven. It took time, tears and patience but I had finally found the route to happiness and I wanted to shout it out from the highest rooftops with the loudest megaphone. I did just that, I wrote a book on how to survive a divorce happily.
The only thing I was a bit apprehensive about was reader responses for my suggestions were techniques which worked for me. Would it work as well for an unknown stranger of either sex? The mails I got a few months after the book release answered my question so emphatically, it was humbling.
Someone wrote in to say I had given her feelings words. Another man told me the book helped him understand his daughter’s divorce. An absolutely charming 18-year-old wrote he was not married nor divorced, neither did he have a girlfriend yet he loved the book. How much I laughed when I got a couple of mails stating this divorce book of mine helped their marriage.
There were many other mails of pain, fragility, frustration and the sheer vulnerability of being human, of having loved and lost. Those are their secrets, and I dare not say more but hold on with immense respect to the confidentiality between a writer and a reader.
My other nameless fear was how the family would react. Coming from a middle class family I was unsure how my quaffing down bottles of wine, dating random men, printing my insecurity, fears and loneliness in black and white would be viewed.
My doubts dissolved when my mother went to our ancestral house in Kerala, that 200-year-old tharavad where we all come from. There, the grand uncle who looks after the place was holding my book and he had even read it. He told my mother with affectionate amusement ‘She has her grandfather’s guts.’ I knew I didn’t need anybody’s approval after this blessing for the audacity of my genes.
People ask me, ‘Do you feel better after writing it? Was it therapeutic?’ I shake my head firmly, ‘No’. I couldn’t have written this book if I was unhappy, the reason it has so much hope is because it came from a place of reignited happiness, a place where a single flower in a graveyard bloomed.
What I got from narrating my story was so much more than happiness, I got my raison d’être. My memoir taught me to write, to understand the discipline and life of a writer. I had written this book for other people but in doing so I found my calling.
An excerpt from Leaving Home With Half A Fridge;
Chapter: The Wedding Album That Was More Resilient Than The Wedding
Seven hundred and fifty bright, shiny rectangular photographs, mounted on hard glossy cardboard, bound in expensive, ugly velvet stood testimony to the happiness a couple had shared one unforgettable day. Neither the happiness nor the couple would survive.
Wedding albums are expensive must-haves of a wedding. It’s fine if things go well and the mother can dandle her grandkid on the knee and say, ‘Look at your amma and achan before you were born’. Then it becomes worth the trouble.
If you’re like me and the marriage ended, luckily before that dandling grandkid came, you’re stuck with a 7 kg error that can be used as a small stool.
After the divorce, when I was going through the wedding album (occasionally, as we’ve seen, I’m a bit of a masochist) I remembered how I had fought with the Kerala photographer who was given the important task of capturing the event for posterity. He wanted me to do the cheesiest things. For instance, one of his demands was that I look out into the distance like a lovesick puppy. He explained that he would take this pose and Photoshop the Ex’s picture in front of my eyes so that a ‘Waiting for the lover’ effect was created. When I refused to do this, he wanted me to sit under a coconut tree, drawing hearts in the mud. Naturally, I didn’t oblige. With tears in his eyes he told my mum that I was the most difficult bride to shoot. I felt secretly pleased and every time I looked at him during the wedding and saw his tortured anguish, I‘d break into the most beatific bridal smile.
In the album, there is this picture of me wagging a finger at the Ex. It looks incongruous for it is not a normal wedding posture. It seems a bit angry and accusatory. I’m sure the photographer put that picture in to get back at me. I didn’t mind for we knew that the gesture was in jest. I was warning him not to cheat at ‘Word-building’. We had begun playing this game in the middle of the wedding as we were thoroughly bored with the rituals that seemed to go on for hours and hours. I think at the moment that this photo was captured, the Ex was trying to spell aardvark with a single ‘a’.
In that album, there are 250 pictures of us touching various people’s feet, mostly relatives, well-wishers and old friends. I can’t help thinking what happened to all those heartfelt blessings. Weren’t they enough to protect us? Why didn’t the goodwill showered on us form a shield and shelter us from the disastrous future we were going to have?
My friends stand in a group snap grinning ear-to-ear. Their tomboy, ‘I-will-never-marry’ best friend was finally tying the knot. I could see the mirth in their eyes, the gentle teasing smiles. As my eyes scan their faces, I remember each one’s reaction when I told them about the split.
As I flip the pages, the photo of the pujari, looking like a hairy orang-utan, makes me smile in spite of the tears that are flowing silently. He was the oddest creature. He had a battery operated fan, which would blow the puja smoke into our faces, and he would chant his mantras into a handheld loudspeaker, amplifying the already strange-sounding slokas. Every time he’d pause between the chants, we’d celebrate the silence with relief. I contemplated taking a microphone and going to inform him personally, and as loudly, ‘The marriage is off! We are dissolved now!’
Arathi Menon is the author of Leaving Home With Half A Fridge; How To Survive A Divorce Happily, a memoir published by Pan Macmillan. Currently, she is writing her second book and tweets between words at https://twitter.com/unopenedbottle