Indians in USA in the 1970s. The original caption to this photograph dated November 7, 1973, reads, “Exotic women and food from India at the International Fair festival.”
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Review: Getting There by Manjula Padmanabhan – books reviews

368pp, 399 rupees; Hachette

By Manjula Padmanabhan Get there, as it turns out, is this great literary secret. It has been around for 20 years. But I didn’t know it existed until it was republished this year. Since then, I have learned that this rewarding book about a young woman adrift in the world is deeply loved by its few readers, who are mostly writers and publishers.

Its literary readership is not indicative of its universal appeal. I’ve been recommending it to all kinds of readers, especially now that we don’t feel tied down as the pandemic rages. I read it as in some kind of trance. And when I finished in the middle of one night, I sat in silence for a long time, stunned by his wisdom and how he articulated parts of my own incomprehensible feelings.

How to get there: a young woman’s search for love, truth and weight loss, is a kind of travel memoir about a woman in her twenties who tries to escape the clumsiness of her life and her body. It recounts about a year in Padmanabhan’s life in the late 1970s when he traveled west, first to the United States and then to Europe, where he lived with mostly strangers. This is not a crazy adventure story. It is the opposite, ordinary even in recklessness. It is a deliberation about life, choices and desire. The story itself, of going with the flow, is exciting, indecipherable.

Opens in Bombay, where Manju is a freelance illustrator. Her life is the life of independent young women anywhere. She lives in rented accommodation, she has a boyfriend she has no intention of marrying (or marrying anyone), and she is trying to lose weight.

She is convinced, as women are often incorrectly, that her body is the main cause of all her problems:

“Yes, I was inconsiderate, incompetent, and self-indulgent. He was fat, after all. I was a person whose fuel intake exceeded the needs of his body. Fat stored as unsightly wads of meat was the physical expression of the black money released into the body’s efficient fuel economy. Time is also a type of fuel, except that it cannot be stored. Yet I could feel the rolls of unused hours in unsightly heaps on the sunken belly of my days. In the time it took my fellow illustrators to complete an entire book, I could finish a small drawing. I couldn’t force myself to produce anything if I wasn’t in the mood and getting in the mood could take hours or days of laziness waiting for inspiration to dawning.

By controlling what you eat, you hope to change the course of your entire life. She goes to a diet clinic, marches on site for 45 minutes twice a day. During this time, she befriends two Dutch backpackers who are visiting the paid guesthouse where she lives and accepts their invitation to visit the Netherlands.

But how does a twenty-something Indian woman in the 1970s accomplish that? In the same way that women navigate their circumstances to achieve any kind of freedom at any time and place. This is not a book limited by the time in which your events took place. The way to do anything is to step up and do it.

So she plans to extend her planned trip to the United States, where she will go with her boyfriend to visit her sister. Anyone who has been through periods of dieting inactivity will recognize the huge void of constant hunger that follows fast diets. With the added discomfort of his secret intrigues, he binges on America (there is no better place in the world than the United States to fill your feelings with its glorious junk food): “As long as my mind was occupied with food, I couldn’t think. I ate continuously. “

Get there It’s especially powerful in the way that Padmanabhan freely expresses unpopular travel preferences (at least among Indians). In New York, I didn’t want to do touristy things. “They thought it was strange that he had traveled half the world just to sleep. They wanted me to be awake, window shopping, touring museums, and getting my money’s worth with my ticket.

I said I was getting my money’s worth by watching TV … ‘For me, watching TV was the same as going to see the Taj in India.’

In Europe, she is adrift. Spend some time with an old friend in Germany; this is her trick, she had told her family that she was going to help her friend who had just had a baby. He then lives with strangers in a kommune lifestyle – community where people choose to live together as a community, in this case two couples. And then he heads to Holland where he lives with one of his Dutch friends in their family home with a variety of members and pets. A lot happens these months, but it’s anticlimactic in the way travel usually is: nothing happens, nothing out of the ordinary for young people hanging out. Traveling is uncomfortable, so is sex, which is why the twenties in general are terrible. Unable to be productive, she sinks into a depression but continues to drift.

Author Manjula Padmanabhan

Author Manjula Padmanabhan (Courtesy of the editor)

Books on the female experience as told through often self-critical female protagonists who take control of their lives and acknowledge their flaws have been especially popular since the 1990s. Helen Fielding did just that in her 1996 novel. Bridget Jones Diary. What is it Get there was compared to when it was first published in 2000. A few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, pray, love: a woman’s search for everything in Italy, India and Indonesia addressed the void of women and the spiritual quest to fill that void through food in Rome, inner peace in an ashram, and love in Bali. Get there now compare to Eat Pray Love – but in reality it is the opposite and not only because the protagonist travels in the other direction. Padmanabhan tries to get away from the fullness of herself and her life. And in this escapist search she finds equanimity in her self-awareness.

In the past decade, a number of millennial writers (such as Sally Rooney, the Irish novelist, whom they call “Salinger of the Snapchat generation”) have explored the self-awareness of twenty-something years. Recently, a piece in The New Yorker He pointed out the problem with this literature where self-awareness is treated as the “finish line, not a starting point” because the real work of self-improvement – comes long after reflection.

This is where Padmanabhan is more successful than any other writer who has read on the subject. He wrote the book 20 years after the events unfolded and had time to reflect on them. The upshot is that early in the book, by intellectually justifying his choices rather than facing the complexity of his inner life, he is aware that he was trying to “establish an orderly theoretical system into which the messy real world refused to fit. . ” But Get there it’s about getting there, it builds up, even while providing the adrenaline rush of irresponsible young life, a reckoning: a confrontation with the inescapability of the self and the ease with which it can be coped.

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