Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Grasshopper's Pilgrimage

For Manju.

I don't want to call this a book review: I'm not reviewing Manjushree's book A Grasshopper Pilgrimage, as much as I'm writing about how the book has affected me. I am also heavily biased: I love this woman, and like with all love, my vision is fixed on the things that uplift my soul, that reach into a part of me that life otherwise will just pass by. Is that why love is such a necessity? It brings those parts of your soul alive that otherwise lie uncharted, unmapped, undiscovered, it makes you notice things about yourself, and in a very Jerry McGuire way, it completes you.

A Grasshopper's Pilgrimage is a love-story: the love between a woman and a mountain. There is so much in the book that is metaphorical, so much that is symbolic, that at the end it is no longer the woman and the mountain, it is you and me, it is that boy and that girl, it is her and he.

There have been several books that have become transcribed in my subconscious, Midnight's Children being one of them. This book also did the same, maybe because it came at a time when I was tiring of my direction-less search for emotional identity, for the meaning of spirituality as it applied to me, for my connect with the purpose of my existence.

Gopika, the novel's lead character, is both relate-able and a revelation. First on, the author deserves a kudos for writing a genre that has been classified as 'fiction-spiritual', a first of sorts. The search for the physical and tangible itself is so confusing, that the thought of a woman who wants that thing that sets her soul afire, is both brave and foolhardy.

There are several instances when Gopika speaks out to the reader, when she spoke out to me, the medium of typed words on paper dissolving with the frankness of her thoughts, with the weight of her questions. We're all screws in the big machine of life, she says. Just screws. Turning clock-wise and anti clock-wise, part in destiny, part in our own efforts.

Her parents, her sister, Sujatha her friend in Bombay, her grandmother and her lover - these have all been beautifully detailed, fleshed out so that you almost feel them breathing down your neck, you can hear their opinions as you prepare yourself to make the decisions that Gopika made. They even word the same doubts, the same questions that arise in your head as you read Gopika's seemingly unshakable faith in her search for something she doesn't know, but can only feel.

And yet, these characters remain inspiring, because the reader wants to read about people he/she has not experienced. Gopika's parents are communists who don't believe in religion: a perfect backdrop explanation for a young woman who is so easily able to separate religion and spirituality. Her grandparents are adorable and taxing at the same go: but her grandmum is a jewel, one who eventually returns to tell Gopika her path is not all that different from others. That she dishes out advice on how to best achieve an orgasm, and makes food that is a balm for a wanderer's soul, is among the facets of this myriad and wonderful character. Fareed is adorable - a man who loves Gopika with his soul, who holds on and keeps his distance, not out of habit or circumstance, but out of understanding, out of respect. There is none of the teenage-ish trappings of a relationship, there is none of the struggles that make the early ground of an affair. There is the mating of two evolved beings, you're allowed a sneak into a love where two souls come prepared, come aware, come confident.

Gopika's life is not elitist - she struggles with love and money and despair and direction - including all of us in her challenges - it is different because she's trying to put a finger on what drives her, who drives her. Gopika is astoundingly trusting of others ofcourse: and you wonder if she has no fear to begin with, or if that is a requisite for this indescribable fountain of knowledge and love that she is looking for. A couple of places in the book, my mum popped up in my head, muttering about how late it was in the night, about the generalisations of the hippies and the god-men that most of us have been fed upon.

Her love-making is both erotic and poignant, her conversations like the millions you have everyday, or eavesdrop upon. Her infatuations are spiritual, her disillusions are real. There is a beautiful sense of the place when she talks about her beloved mountain, it is almost as if you can feel the sand grains and tar below your feet too. It is also guarded against pop-spirituality: against fasting and penance and the trappings of religion. She is a bohemian spirit - and there are no drugs or smoking or medication that she uses to get here. Her inhibitions have not been shed under duress or a wannabe state of mind, there simply don't exist for the same reasons as they do for us.

There is much dry wit and humour through the book, delightful sketches of holy men on the roadside, of the rigours of an American visa, of frequent load shedding, both electricity induced and emotional. This sort of forms a backbone of Gopika's life: her sarcasm for herself and others, a gentle ribbing that lightens a sombre mission.

There is no grandiose word-work here: no intellectual word play, no perception-altering philosophy. There is plenty of food for thought and plenty of questions that come in once the book is over. Isn't that half the work done? That once you put the book down, it leaves you with questions that are beyond the marketing yardsticks of 'shelf-life'?

What struck me the most was how simple life can be when you know what you want - no, not simple in the sense that everything falls in its place, that it definitely doesn't, not even with Gopika - but maybe it's like this: you've got blinkered vision set on your goal. And one of Gopika's greatest teachings is this: this goal is achievable, you've neared the destination by the very virtue of realising you're headed that way.

They say the artist bleeds his soul into every creation, they say the first book is always autobiographical. Manju has been brave enough to say her book is almost completely autobiographical (70 per cent, if you must have exacts). It makes you wonder at the courage this woman has to strip her soul and her search, leave it hands of unknown readers who can construe whatever they will, who might just look at her wanderings as trampling. And then you realise, she is Gopika, and the inhibitions that hold you back, have already been faced, labelled and set aside for another day's lessons, by her.


Grasshopper said...
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maidinmalaysia said...

w-o-w. nino's mum.
have to get the book, now

Anonymous said...

ditto M-i-M

Nino's Mum said...

MinM, preeti: try here -

dipali said...

Yes, I loved the book. And the way you've articulated your response to it.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nino's mum, the way you have written about the book, really makes the reader want to get it!

I will look for it.

Best wishes,

Rain Drops... said...


I dont know by what name should I address you seem to be a complete stanger to me...and yet not we share a similar feeling for the journey that Gopika had from Mumbai to Tiru...

I finished the book today morning...and must say...what a revelation...A nice book is one which leaves you with many questions to ponder on...this is one of them...a must read for all the "screws"...

Mathias said...
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