Was it necessary to read ‘An Unnecessary Woman’? About a woman in the twilight of her life, a product of rusted times? A woman from a foreign land, and of foreign blood? A woman who offered pursed whimpers amid teeth that reeked soupy yellow? One with a musty room and a flickering temper? A borderline linguist who made peace with the unspoken word? She was nothing more than a drifting sprinkle of dust in this swirling world of men and ambition.
May be, it wasn’t. It wasn’t necessary at all to read An Unnecessary Woman. But I read it. And I read her. And read her more. Every page. Every day.
Multiple times. In mornings and evenings. In transit and while stationed. Under dim lights. Beneath cloudy skies. I read her. And met her. And met myself. And loved her. And loved myself. Was she I? Not really. She, a septuagenarian and I, almost four decades late. She, a prisoner of Beiruti conservatism and I, a falcon of Indian liberalism. She, a broken rhapsody of relationships and I, a supple bounty of companionship.
And yet, she appeared familiar. Almost like the reflection in a broken mirror which makes up for the lost pieces by producing the remnant image, in sparkling, contrasting sharpness. She, Aaliya, was that remnant image. There, within the periphery of what was visible, she cloned me. She, a reluctant neighbor and I, an enthusiastic hermit. She, with a saber tongue and I, with an acerbic voice. She, with her back to the world and I, behind dark-black glasses. She, a passionate translator of Hamsun and Borges, Pessoa and Proust and I, a passionate reader of these great creators.
Crates, crates, boxes, and crates. The translated manuscripts have the two books, French and English, affixed to the side of the box for identification. Tolstoy, Gogol, and Hamsun; Calvino, Borges, Schulz, Nádas, Nooteboom; Kiš, Karasu, and Kafka; books of memory, disquiet, but not of laughter and forgetting.
Aaliya parades on lyrical comprehensions and deadpan jibes. She is fatally struck by the indifference settled on the eyes of the current generation towards the power of books. She chokes at the comatose sentiment emanating from most streets of the post-war Beirut – the thuds of inertia and acceptance that grinds the air in most homes of her beloved land. And I, well, don’t feel far removed. When random strangers in trains and uninvited visitors at home eye my book or the unruly stack of it with apparent incredulity (and gravely visible shock at times, not to mention the spurt of useless blah-blah aimed at me subsequently), I am swamped by the disdain that Aaliya writes with such flourish in her journal. When poisonous bugs of conservatism, fanaticism, prejudice and stereotypes keep eating at the foundation of the shining body of a nation we are proudly building, I give a muffled cry at the workmen not reading enough to squash them with permanent antidote. Aaliya and I are citizens of the reading world and would shiver if asked to step out of it unless the external world imbibed the ingredients of our present world.
Literature gives me life, and life kills me.
Was it necessary, then, to read ‘An Unnecessary Woman’? Yes. Indeed. Because our antidote is literature, and our dawn, possible.