368 pp, Rs 399; Hachette
As it turns out, Manjula Padmanabhan’s arrival is that great literary secret. It’s been around for 20 years. But I didn’t know it existed until it was released again this year. I have since learned that this delightful book, about a young woman floating in the world, is very much loved by its few readers, most of whom are writers and editors themselves.
Its literary readership is no indication of its universal appeal. I have recommended it to all types of readers, especially now when we are feeling unsettled during the pandemic. I read it like in a kind of trance. And when I finished in the middle of one night, I sat still for a long time, amazed by his wisdom and how it 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 memory about a 20 year old woman trying to escape the awkwardness of her life and body. It tells about a year in Padmanabhan’s life in the late 1970s as she traveled west, first to America and then to Europe, where she lived with mostly strangers. This is not a wild adventure story. It’s the opposite, usually even in ruthlessness. It is a reflection of life, choices, and desires. The story itself – going with the flow – is exciting and undeniable.
It opens in Bombay, where Manju works as a freelance illustrator. Her life is the life of young independent women everywhere. She lives in rented accommodation, has a boyfriend she doesn’t want to marry (or doesn’t want to marry anyone at all), and she is trying to lose weight.
She believes, as women often mistakenly do, that her body is the main cause of all her problems:
“Yes, I’ve been inconsiderate, incompetent, and forgiving. After all, I was fat. I was a person whose fuel consumption exceeded my body’s needs. Fat stored as unsightly bundles of meat was the physical expression of free black money in the body’s fuel-efficient economy. Time is also a type of fuel, except that it cannot be stored. Still, I could feel the unused hours lying in unsightly piles over the limp belly of my days. In the time it took my fellow illustrators to finish an entire book, I could have a small drawing made. I couldn’t force myself to produce anything if I wasn’t in the mood and it could take hours or days to get in the mood just waiting for inspiration to dawn. ”
By controlling what she eats, she hopes to change the course of her entire life. She goes to a diet clinic and walks for 45 minutes twice a day. During this time she befriends two Dutch backpackers in the paying guest house where she lives and accepts her invitation to Holland.
But how does a 20-year-old Indian woman manage it in the 1970s? Just as women control their circumstances in order to have any kind of freedom anytime, anywhere. This is not a book tied to the time its events played out. The way to do something is to take the plunge and just do it.
So she plans to extend her planned trip to America, where she and her boyfriend will visit her sister. Anyone who has lived through idle diets will recognize the gaping void of constant hunger that follows crash diets. With the added discomfort of her secret scheme, she grumbles in America (there is no better place in the world than the United States to fill your emotions with glorious junk food): “As long as my mind was preoccupied with food, I could do not think. I ate continuously. “
Getting here is particularly effective in the way Padmanabhan freely expresses unpopular (at least among Indians) travel preferences. She didn’t want to do tourist things in New York. “They thought it was bizarre that I had traveled half the world just to sleep. They wanted me to be up, window shopping, museum hopping, and get my money out of my ticket.
I said I get my money’s worth by watching TV … “For me, TV was the same as the Taj in India”.
In Europe she drifts. She spends some time with an old friend in Germany – that’s her trick, she told her family that she would help her friend who had just had a baby. Then she lives with strangers in a commune-community style where people live together as a community, in this case two couples. And then she makes her way to Holland, where she lives with one of her Dutch friends in his family home with various members and pets. There is a lot going on these months, but it’s anti-climactic in the way travel often is: nothing happens, nothing out of the ordinary for young people hanging out. Travel is awkward, sex too, terrible twenties in general. She is unable to be productive, falls into depression, but continues to drift.
Author Manjula Padmanabhan (Courtesy of the editor)
Books about the female experience, narrated by female protagonists who are often self-deprecating, take control of their lives, and acknowledge their mistakes, have been particularly popular since the 1990s. Helen Fielding did this in her 1996 novel Bridget Jones’ Diary. It’s what Getting There was like when compared to when it was first released in 2000. A few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love: A Woman’s Quest for Everything in Italy, India, and Indonesia dealt with the emptiness of women and the spiritual search for filling that vacuum through eating in Rome, inner peace in an ashram and love in Bali. Arrival is now compared to eating, praying, loving – but it is actually the opposite and not just because the protagonist is traveling in the other direction. Padmanabhan is, among other things, about breaking free from the fullness of yourself and your life. And in this escape she finds equanimity in self-knowledge.
Over the past decade, several millennial writers (such as Sally Rooney, the Irish writer dubbed “the salinger of the Snapchat generation”) have explored self-esteem. Recently, an article in The New Yorker pointed out the problem with this literature of treating self-awareness as a “finish line, not a starting point” because the real work of self-improvement comes well after reflection.
Here Padmanabhan succeeds more than any other writer I have read on the subject. She wrote the book 20 years after the events and had time to think about it. The result is that at the beginning of the book, since she justifies her decisions intellectually rather than facing the intricacies of her inner workings, she is aware that she has tried to “build an orderly theoretical system into which the disordered real world fits does not insert. “Getting there, however, is about getting there. It builds – even if it provokes the adrenaline rush of young, irresponsible people – a reckoning: a confrontation with the inevitability of the self and the ease with which it can be confronted.