Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Emma Woodhouse

Romola Garai, Emma, BBC, 2009
Though it may seem that Emma Woodhouse has no mountains to get over, this is not entirely true. Emma is most hampered by her own willfulness which, as we learn, blinds her to the results of her actions. The story of her 21st year, as told by Jane Austen in the novel which bears her name published in 1815, brings Emma from her youthful sense of power to shame and humiliation, while opening her closed world to love and a stronger sense of other people’s realities.

Emma lives alone with her father in one of the better houses in Highbury, a village in Surrey. She has seen little of the world due to her father’s fearful temperament and his reluctance to leave home. Emma has just lost her best companion, her governess, who is really more of a friend. Neither her father nor her governess have tried to curb Emma’s spirit, though she is very well educated to filial duty and gentle-womanly manners.

Believing that her own efforts have helped her governess find a husband, Emma decides that the village curate must be in need of a wife. She befriends Harriet, only 17, hoping to educate the beautiful girl into the gentry. Harriet has become the beloved of a yoeman farmer, but under Emma’s influence, Harriet rejects him. Emma is certain that Harriet would make Mr. Eliot, the curate, a good wife. Emma’s good friend Mr. Knightley tries to warn her not to interfere in Harriet’s life, but Emma brushes off his advice.

The biddable Harriet falls in love with Mr. Eliot. Emma emphasizes to her all the ways he seems to care for Harriet, but is then horrified to find that Mr. Eliot’s attentions are actually directed towards herself. When she finds herself alone in a carriage with him after Christmas dinner, Emma rejects his advances. Mr. Eliot leaves town in a huff.

The gentry in Highbury seem to have little to do but visit and talk about each other, sharing letters and news. Jane Fairfax visits her old aunt, and Frank Churchill, who was adopted out of the village and into a wealthy family, also returns. Frank is lively and many think he might become attached to Emma. They plan dances together. Emma thinks Jane more accomplished than herself and does not befriend her.

With Frank away, Emma examines her feelings and finds she is not in love with him. She has quarreled with Mr. Knightley about him also. Mr. Knightley does not think Frank a good man. Emma is surprised to find that Harriet has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley for his kindness to her. Emma has compounded the unhappiness, encouraging her because she believed Harriet referred to Frank. The tangle of feelings in Highbury is finally unraveled to reveal that Frank and Jane Fairfax have been secretly engaged. Frank has been covering this up by toying with Emma. This duplicity is felt to be an outrage in the village.

Emma is fearful that Mr. Knightley might prefer Harriet to herself, realizing that she has been foolish. “The only source whence anything like consolation or composure could be drawn, was in the resolution of her own better conduct, and the hope that, however inferior in spirit and gaiety might be the following and every future winter of her life to the past, it would yet find her more rational, more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to regret when it were gone.”

When Mr. Knightley learns that Emma never loved Frank despite their flirtations in company, he reveals that Emma, with all her faults, is his dearest; that he has loved her since she was 13. Emma is transported, her happiness only marred by knowing Harriet’s feelings. She sends Harriet to her sister in London. There Harriet meets with her farmer, who proposes again. Harriet accepts and is married in September.

Emma’s father hates change and always rails against marriage. Emma thinks she cannot leave home while he is still alive. Considering this, Mr. Knightley suggests that he move in with Emma and her father, which is finally agreed to. Emma marries Mr. Knightley in October.

Jane Austen is careful to elaborate the feelings of her characters in delightfully specific language. She wraps up the stories of each of the important characters. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are suitably remorseful and their apologies are accepted.

Austen’s clear delineation of values makes her stories useful to us more than two hundred years after she wrote. A progressive, she mocks Emma’s pretensions and, through Mr. Knightley, shows that a person’s character is more important than his class. Lack of real feeling, money-seeking and egotism show up as false in characters that have as much life as those we admire. In fact it is quite astonishing how much Austen endears Emma to us, even though we know she is usually wrong! Emma’s sincere shame and growing self-knowledge contribute and we do not begrudge a happy resolution to her story. If you fall in love with Emma, I do not think there has been a better representation of her than Romola Garai’s in the 2009 BBC production of the novel, clips of which can be found on Youtube.

Leila Hosnani

Egyptian Coptic Woman
Leila Hosnani’s story is told in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian Quartet (published 1957-1960). We meet her through the eyes of the young diplomat Mountolive, who is visiting the beautiful farm Karm Abu Girg outside of Alexandria where Leila lives with her ailing husband and two grown sons. They are Christian Copts, very proud, who have been the “brains” of Egypt, doing much of the administrative work of the country.

Leila had been a brilliant student, had hoped to become a doctor. But for an Egyptian woman born between the two world wars, this not possible. Leila is obedient, pliant, and loyal. She marries into a family which her parents arrange for her. Her life must belong to Egypt. “Whether she was happy or unhappy she herself had never thought to consider. She was hungry, that was all, hungry for the world of books and meetings which lay forever outside this old house and the heavy charges of the land.”

Leila settles into the “rambling old-fashioned house built upon a network of lakes and embankments near Alexandria.” She subscribes to books and periodicals in the four languages she knows besides her native Arabic, and goes into the city of Alexandria for the occasional holiday. But she does not appreciate shallow society and becomes introspective.

Leila begins to live through her smooth and attractive son Nessim, who runs the family banking and shipping businesses. Her other son Narouz runs the farm as her much-older husband suffers from increasing muscular atrophy. Mountolive, a young British foreign service officer, is invited to stay on the farm for a summer to improve his Arabic. He and Leila ride out into the desert together at her husband’s suggestion. They have an affair. “Only I must not fall in love,” Leila tells Mountolive.

When Mountolive is posted to other countries, Leila begins a correspondence with him. With their difference in ages, she had not expected their affair to last, but distance frees them. “She kept pace with his growth in those long, well-written, ardent letters which betrayed only the hunger which is as poignant as anything the flesh is called upon to cure: the hunger for friendship, the fear of being forgotten.”

When Leila’s husband dies, she considers meeting Mountolive in Europe, but that summer she contracts smallpox, which “melted down the remains of her once celebrated beauty.” Leila buys heavy black veils and retires to a life in the summerhouse on the farm where she reads and writes with a tame snake for company. She tells Mountolive not to pity her and begs him to write as gaily as before.

In the third book of his quartet, entitled Mountolive, Durrell reveals the plot at the bottom of all of them, which Nessim has conceived for the sake of the Copts, together with the Armenians, Jews and Greeks in Egypt, as a defense against being engulfed by the Arab tide. He believes that the British have turned the Moslems against them and he has been aiding the Jews in their fight against the British in Palestine, providing arms. This is the basis for his marriage to Justine. He has many covers for this plot. Leila is finally told of it.

In the resolution of this complex tale, Mountolive comes back to Egypt as British ambassador. Leila, who has resisted seeing him, finally meets Mountolive to beg for Nessim’s life, as she is convinced that he has been found out and will suffer. This is humiliating for both of them. The British do prevail upon the Egyptian police, but Nessim has successfully bribed them. Nessim sends Leila to a family farm in Kenya, but Narouz will not leave. The Egyptian police come for him and assassinate him instead of Nessim.

We do not learn more of Leila, though the fortunes of the Hosnani family suffer and we must assume she shares in this. I have always been fascinated by the resignation and the dignity with which Leila conducts herself after her disfiguring illness. And in re-reading this book I finally came to see Durrell’s value. It is not just the lush language for which he is justly celebrated. Or the varieties of love which he describes, including all the cynicism which resulted from the wars when European nations were thrown into chaos with ramifications all over the world. It is also that he can flesh out the meaning and motives of characters with whom he is not naturally in sympathy. The Hosnani family is richly drawn.


Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson overcame the darkness of an early life to become a bright and shining light. She was born in 1914 to a family of artists in Helsinki, Finland. Her father was a sculptor in the classical tradition. Her mother illustrated magazines and accepted commissions for graphic designs, prompting Tove’s own early drawings. In the summers, the family left their crowded city apartment and went out to an island in the Finnish archipelago. It was difficult to get to, but they all loved the sea.

War darkened the close family life, however. Finland fought a civil war in 1918, affecting their father’s personality. The country was squeezed between Soviet Russia on one side and the growing Nazi presence on the other. Initially the Finns cooperated with the Nazis against a Soviet invasion, but then the bombing began. Tove’s younger brother served in the army during World War II. Tove’s letters reflect how dispiriting this time period was.

Tove went to art school, but abandoned it for work with tutor Sam Vanni. She regarded her painting as most important, but she also created a family she called the Moomintrolls, writing their stories and drawing them to sublimate her own feelings. The Moomintroll family had the personalities of Tove’s own family with added characters reflecting events in Tove’s life. Catastrophes happen in the books, but the family comes through, with tolerance for each other’s quirks.

In 1944 the Nazis were driven out, leaving a trail of destruction. Finland retained its independence, but lost some of its territory to the Soviets. After the war came a time of self-discovery for Tove. At 30, she was clear that she did not want a conventional family life, with children who might have to go to war. Art was the most important thing. Due to conflicts with her father, she found her own studio in the middle of Helsinki. She and her friends danced, talked and stayed up all night. Tove fell in love with Viveke Bandler, but the affair was secret and brief. Viveke was married and same-sex relationships were illegal in Finland at the time.

Tove published several children’s books about the Moomintroll family, leading to a request from a British publisher for a cartoon strip series about them. Beginning in 1954, a huge advertising campaign launched the strip which brought Tove money and fame. For seven years she produced six strips a week before becoming exhausted and handing the strip off to her younger brother Lars.

About this time, when Tove feared she was too busy to do fine art, she met and fell in love with the artist Tuulikki Pietila. Tuulikki had a studio near Tove’s. They could work separately and cross to each other’s place through a passage in the attic of the buildings. Longing for a simpler life, Tove and Tuulikki built a house on an island far out in the Finnish archipelago, Klovharu. Without plumbing or electricity, the house had windows on all four sides so they could watch storms roll in from any direction and boats approaching.

Tove began to write adult fiction, including The Summer Book, written in 1971, just after her mother’s death. The book shares the perceptions of a six-year-old and her grandmother who are spending a summer on an island. They are shaken by very specific natural events, and so is the reader.

Tove and Tuulikki took a trip around the world in 1971, collecting jazz records and spending time in New Orleans. Every summer they lived on their remote island until 1992 when their boat broke up in a storm. Tove had cancer in her last years and died in 2001.

I first met Tove Jansson through the wonderful Summer Book. I also read a profusely illustrated biography of her, Tove Jansson: Work and Love, by Tuula Karjalainen [2014]. Truly a creative sprite who always took time for delight and love, you can watch an hour-long BBC documentary on Tove here.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Meridian Hill

Alice Walker
Meridian, whose story is told in Alice Walker’s Meridian [published 1976], grows up in a small town in the South, where her mother, once a teacher, now sews prayer pillows and makes paper roses. Her father is a farmer with a serious interest in the native Americans who once lived and built burial mounds on the land he farms. He collects photographs and history books about them. Meridian likes being on the farm where her father grows fresh produce and, like her great grandmother, Feather Mae, and her father, loves the Sacred Serpent burial mound. When Meridian stands in the spiral of the serpent’s coiled tail, she experiences her spirit, her body dropping away.

Meridian has a boyfriend, and must drop out of school when she becomes pregnant at 15. She and her boyfriend marry, but it all happens to Meridian as if in a dream. It does not seem she is meant for this life. Her conventional husband moves on to greener pastures quickly. Meridian hears that volunteers are needed for a voter registration drive to begin in a house near her own. She sees lots of young people milling around the house, and the next day finds that it has been firebombed. “And so it was that one day in the middle of April in 1960, Meridian Hill became aware of the past and present of the larger world.” She is just 17.

Meridian volunteers and joins in the marches, sit-ins and vigils that make up the Movement. She gives her son away with a light heart, believing she has saved his young life, but it takes her a long time to tell her mother, a deeply Christian woman.

In the Movement, Meridian meets Truman Held and falls in love with him. She is also given a scholarship to Saxon College as her intellect is recognized. The women at Saxon are taught to be young ladies, but many of them go out and demonstrate, sometimes end up in jail. Meridian continues to see Truman, who is a “conquering prince,” vain and somewhat pretentious. Instead of returning Meridian’s love, Truman goes out with the white exchange students at college. When Meridian asks him what he sees in them, he tells her, “The read The New York Times.”

When Meridian does sleep with Truman finally, she becomes pregnant and has an abortion. Truman, who has gone back to Lynne, a white student, never knows. When he finally does come back to Meridian, she is angry. “It’s over,” she tells him.

At graduation, Meridian becomes ill, fainting and having blue-black spells. She lies sick for a month, thinking always of her mother and feeling guilty about how overburdened she was. She realizes “her mother’s and her grandmother’s extreme purity of life was compelled by necessity. They had not lived in an age of choice.” Finally a friend of her mother’s whispers to Meridian, “I forgive you,” and Meridian gets better.

After graduation, Meridian lives briefly in New York. Truman has married Lynne and they have a daughter, though they are separated. This daughter dies at six, and Meridian tries to comfort both of them. She goes back and forth from Truman’s light, bright artist studio where there are paintings of Meridian on every wall to Lynne’s dark basement apartment in the Village. Lynne is angry and bitter about her experiences, though she was happiest in the Movement in the South. Meridian, courteous and quiet, cannot listen to Lynne’s vituperation.

Meridian herself is living in small farming towns in Georgia. She is able, through her own courage and ambivalence, to perform extraordinary acts, though afterwards she falls into a fit and can’t move. For instance, in one small town where the swimming pool is closed after it was required to be integrated, a small boy drowns playing in a drainage ditch. Meridian, followed by townspeople, carries his bloated body into the mayor’s office and puts it on his desk. The drainage ditch is filled in. In return for her work, the little towns support Meridian, giving her a place to live and food. She continues to visit people, getting them to register to vote. Truman often visits her.

In 1968, Meridian is at Martin Luther King’s funeral. She has continued to ask herself the question she was asked as the Movement became increasingly militant: could you kill for the revolution? Meridian does not think she could. Visiting churches, Meridian finds they have changed. She had thought of them as reactionary, but now she fins them places of respect and pride. She loves the old songs, and decides her place is not among the “real revolutionaries,” but to come forward with the songs they need to hear.

Having solved some of her questions, Meridian grows stronger. Though Truman wants to go back to their early love, Meridian tells him she has set him free. Resolute, owning nothing, she packs to move to another town. “Your ambivalence will always be deplored by people who consider themselves revolutionists, and your unorthodox behavior will cause traditionalists to gnash their teeth,” Truman tells her. When she leaves, he wonderes “if Meridian knew that the sentence of bearing the conflict in her own soul which she had imposed on herself – and lived through – must now be borne in terror by all the rest of them.”

Alice Walker has said she was thinking of Ruby Doris Smith-Robinson when writing the book. Ruby Doris was a powerful force in the Civil Rights Movement who died at age 25, having given all of herself to the fight. Many of the experiences depicted in the book are surely Alice Walker’s own and the questions and resolutions she describes show her own growth under fire.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Katie Rommely Nolan

Katie [center] in the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945
Though we see the rich life of the neighborhoods in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn [published 1943 by Betty White] through the eyes of Francie, it is her mother Katie who is the book’s dramatic center.

Katie Rommely is one of four daughters born to Austrian immigrants. Her mother, though illiterate, is full of the stories, myths and legends of the old country. Katie relies much on her mother’s wisdom, though her father is a curmudgeon who won’t allow English spoken in his house.

Katie does learn to read. She falls in love with John Nolan, a sweet Irish singer and dancer, stealing him away from her best friend. They spend their first year cleaning a Brooklyn schoolhouse together and having fun. But when Katie becomes pregnant first with Francie, and then with Cornelius (Neeley) it becomes clear that Johnny is not cut out to be a provider. He drinks with or without provocation. When he causes a ruckus trying to dry out, Katie turns to her sister Sissy for assistance. Sissy coaxes him back to health with sips of whiskey, but the Nolans move because Katie is too ashamed to stay in the neighborhood.

Katie finds work cleaning her own and two tenement buildings nearby. At her mother’s suggestion, she reads a page of the Bible and a page of Shakespeare to her children every night. She is determined that her children will do better than she has. The family lives from hand to mouth and some nights there is no food at all. At these times, Katie tries to make a game of it, telling the children they are explorers down to their last provisions. Katie allows them to throw away food also, knowing it gives Francie a feeling of luxury to pour her coffee down the drain. Some nights Johnny brings home lobster and caviar from his singing waiter jobs and Katie and Johnny talk the night away.

A piano is left in a house they are renting, so Katie gets her neighbors to teach her children and herself to play. As Francie develops a “bad case of growing up,” Katie answer’s Francie’s questions honestly. When a known rapist and murderer tries to get Francie in their entryway, she freezes, but Katie comes down the stairs with a gun and shoots him.

When Katie becomes pregnant again, Johnny loses himself, dying of pneumonia. Katie gives him a fine funeral, paid for with the insurance money. She does not know where to turn for money, but the children get odd jobs and this keeps them through her pregnancy. Little Laurie is born with the help of her sisters. Francie and Neeley graduate from eighth grade and Katie manages to give them a party at an ice cream parlor.

That summer, Francie begins full time work as a flower maker, then as a reader at a clipping service. She says she is two years older than she is, but she is so fast she is given the top job. When school starts, Katie insists Neeley go, but Francie continues working. Katie knows that Francie will succeed on her own, though Neeley needs more help. He is a good ragtime piano player by this time. When the clipping service fails, Francie works as a teletypist. They are no longer hungry and have money to spend, but Katie puts some of the money aside for Francie’s education.

Katie and McShane, a policeman, keep an eye on each other for years. When his wife dies and he quits the force, McShane asks Katie to marry him. Her youngest daughter Laurie will take his name, but he doesn’t expect to replace Johnny as Francie and Neeley’s father. Francie refuses to go to high school as she feels to old for it. Instead she qualifies for college and departs for Ann Arbor, while Katie, Neeley and little Laurie move into McShane’s big house. Katie will no longer need to clean houses.

“Smith’s achievement is to make [Katie’s] steely resolve, her fierce sense of reality, her struggle with her own character, not only comprehensible, but admirable,” said Robert Cornfield in a 1999 review of the book. Betty Smith told her daughter she is writing her childhood “as it should have been.” The ingredient which Smith lays on thick is love. Though poverty affects everything, the characters are loving and faithful to each other. Katie is sad she has learned Johnny is worthless, but she still loves him and fosters love of him in her children.

I myself came late to the reading of this book. The thickness of the relationships portrayed, the holidays, the songs people sang together, their pride combat the sadness, sordidness and dirt of the early immigrant melting pot. Telling it as straight as she can, Betty Smith’s prose builds rather than destroys. An aspirational story appropriate to the times.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Jill Ker Conway

Jill Ker Conway was born on a 32,000-acre sheep station in New South Wales, in 1934. Her parents were resourceful Australians with two sons before Jill arrived. When her father came in from the fields, “my mother’s conversation would be intense and serious, but before long my father’s way with words, puns, and storytelling would have her laughing. They would look out on their world with high good humor. They seemed content,” she writes in The Road From Coorain [1989].

For a brief time, the ranch prospered, entirely dependent on the amount of rain that fell. The family experienced World War II by listening to radio reports. Jill’s mother organized women into a Red Cross group. When Jill’s brothers were sent to school in town, Jill was taught from correspondence courses. Soon she was reading everything in sight, and her father needed her more as a station hand. Jill rode out with him every day, checking fences, mustering sheep, doing cleaning and maintenance. She became an expert in the year’s round of crutching and shearing of the sheep, hanging out in the sheds with the men as they processed and graded the wool.

Years of drought began to pile up, however. Jill’s father died in an accident in 1944 and it soon became clear that the family could not stay on the station. Jill and her mother moved to Sydney, where the boys were in school, leaving the sheep station to a manager. Slowly the years of privation were tempered by a comfortable life. Jill too went to a formal girls boarding school where the students bathed and changed before dinner into green velvet dresses. “I was as intellectually precocious as I was socially inept,” she writes.

Jill’s mother made good decisions about the sheep station, but she was turning in on herself. When Bob, Jill’s beloved eldest brother, died in a car accident, her other brother was sent out to the sheep station and Jill was left alone with her mother again. “My mother’s devotion to me, the self-denial which had sent her to work to educate me properly, her frequent references to the fact that I was her consolation for her past tragedies, weighed on me like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.”

Jill attended the University of Sydney, in love with history. Here too, she was at the top of her classes, though it surprised her how much history was taught as coming exclusively from Europe. Jill made friends, but in her head she heard her father: “Do something, Jill. Don’t just put in time on this earth.” She hoped, like her friends, to be accepted into the Australian Ministry of External Affairs. When her male friends were accepted and she was not, she was outraged. She abandoned Australia and applied for graduate study at Harvard. Leaving for America also solved the problem of her mother’s dependence on her.

In two subsequent memoirs, True North [1994] and A Woman’s Education [2001], Conway describes the success of her writing on American women reformers of the nineteenth century, particularly Jane Addams; her marriage to John Conway, a Canadian veteran and educator; and her growing interest in administration, culminating in her becoming the first woman president of Smith, a woman’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts, from 1975 to 1985.

Conway’s work was always groundbreaking and she describes how she felt about things very directly. At a time when many colleges were becoming co-educational, she writes: “It seems to me that the cozily domestic, introduced too early in youthful development had the effect of obliterating or muting civic and social responsibility. My nineteenth century feminist theorists about social evolution had all worried about where and how commercial society could instill social values that went beyond personal satisfaction and self-interest. I agreed with them that the development of the civic virtues tended to be slighted in exclusively commercial societies, and that leadership and the talent for action came from an education which did not take the paired couple as its social norm.”

Conway’s success is an engaging tale. She never forgot her mother, either. “She was the reason I’d never stopped trying to expand women’s opportunities.” But after ten years at Smith, she decided to begin writing these fine memoirs. She also taught classes at MIT and sat on many boards, one of which built the John and Jill Ker Conway residence for veterans in Washington, DC. The building opened in 2017, just before her death in June, 2018.

“Fearless and elegant,” Conway’s colleagues at Community Solutions called her. Conway surprised herself about how much she liked organizing and managing. She considered it her duty to listen, but then went ahead and made decisions in terms of her own large-minded vision. You can hear her in her own words here. I loved her conservative/radical political positions which I find very close to my own. I also appreciated her ability to parse complex issues and express them. She makes me take my own intellect more seriously and believe intellectual work might be worth the struggle.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

S. Tilottama

Arundhati Roy
Tilottama appears is The Ministry of Utmost Happiness [2017] by Arundhati Roy, which takes place mostly in Delhi, India. Tilo’s mother, a Syrian Christian from Kerala, has a child with a man of the “untouchable” caste. This child, Tilo, is placed in an orphanage, but then her mother comes back and adopts her, never letting on that she is Tilo's real mother. By the time Tilo studies architecture at Delhi University she is estranged from her family. “The complete absence of a desire to please, or to put someone at their ease, could, in a less vulnerable person, have been construed as arrogance. In her it came across as a kind of reckless aloneness. She gave the impression that she had somehow slipped off her leash,” says a friend.

While building sets for a play, Tilo meets three men, bonding in the momentous year of 1984. Tilo is in love with the quiet, gentle Musa, a Kashmiri who later becomes a rebel leader in Kashmir’s attempt at succession from India. The flamboyant Naga is from a diplomatic family and later a well-known journalist and television personality. The third man, Biplab, becomes a government official. He too is in love with Tilo: “The moment I saw her, a part of me walked out of my body and wrapped itself around her. And there it still remains.”

Tilo does not want to marry, so Musa goes back to Kashmir. He marries and has a daughter, but they are killed in the crossfire while watching a funeral. Musa, who is deeply committed to Kashmir’s freedom, goes underground. He asks Tilo to come to Kashmir. “They had always fitted together like pieces of an unsolved (and perhaps unsolvable) puzzle.” After a night spent together, he tells her “Someone will come for you … You’ll be traveling. I want you to see everything, know everything. You’ll be safe.”

Tilo travels around Kashmir for several weeks, handed off from person to person. She returns to the houseboat where Musa lives, but when he leaves, she is captured by a ruthless local policeman and known killer. She is interrogated, but, knowing Biplab is in town, she tells her would-be torturers to contact him. Biplab, whose name is recognized, sends Naga to find her. Tilo, shaking, is released, but not before her head is shaved.

At his own “funeral” the next day, Musa tells Tilo to return to Delhi, but to get married, if possible. Naga, who could have any woman, is besotted with Tilo. Naga’s mother is horrified when she hears they will marry. Tilo, whose skin is “more cafĂ© than au lait,” seems to Biplab, “utterly, unreachably alone, even at her own wedding. The insouciance was gone.” Tilo and Naga live on an upper floor of his parents’ home in the diplomatic enclave in Delhi, a perfect cover.

After 14 years of marriage, during which Tilo keeps in some touch with Musa, she leaves, renting a room from Biplab. Musa sends her notes and information in the false bottoms of fruit boxes from Kashmir. Tilo wonders “how to un-know certain things, certain specific things that she knew but did not wish to know.” She also spends time at the Jantar Mantar, a public square where political demonstrations go on at all times of the day and night.

One night, a baby is abandoned in the square and Tilo picks it up and takes it home. The police focus on this abduction and question Tilo’s downstairs neighbor. Tilo escapes to go and live in the cemetery establishment of a hejira named Anjum, taking the baby. After some time, a letter from the child’s mother surfaces: she is a Telugu woman, a Maoist, who was raped and knew she was about to be killed.

The cemetery, a refuge of outsiders, is a happy enclave with gardens and animals. Tilo begins a school for poor neighborhood children. Musa visits Tilo now and then. She knows that one day he will not return from Kashmir, and when he doesn’t she grieves deeply, but she is able to “visit him often enough through the crack in the door that the battered angels in the graveyard held open (illegally) for her.”

It is difficult to separate Tilo from her creator, Arundhati Roy. Many of the causes Roy publicizes after becoming an internationally-known author (for her first novel, The God of Small Things [1997]) are represented in some form or other in Tilo’s story. Roy wants to tell the stories of people, birds, animals, trees, dung beetles, who are marginalized and have no voice. She continues to live in the tumultuous country of India, fearless, direct and with little personal vanity. You can become acquainted with her here.