The Weekly Dose: A life told through the body
If accidents, illness, growing up and growing old were to be considered the milestones of a lifetime, what would life’s journey look like?
When someone recommends a book to me, one of two things happens: I promptly forget the title, or their effusive fervour is not contagious enough for me to find my own copy. So, I do realise the odds I am up against as I write this column, urging you to read the memoirs of Shanta Gokhale - One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body.
If you’ve never heard of her and are about to close this tab, waitaminute. Here’s a staid introduction: over her lifetime, she has been an English lecturer, sub-editor of a women’s magazine, a PR executive with a pharma company, author of Marathi novels, translator of plays, chronicler of modern theatre, culture critic, columnist and recipient of the Sangeet Natak Academy Award. None of these descriptions is as gripping as the way she describes her days; I can’t remember the last time I finished a 250-something-page book in one night, and an afternoon.
If you’re still reluctant to browse the bylanes of Gokhale’s memories, know that she too was reluctant to pen them down. Until she came across a Buddhist teacher’s writings, which inspired the framework for her autobiography: “I was being told to look at the body, organ by organ, accepting it for what it was. The end to which this was meant to lead was not the end I was interested in. I did not want to contemplate the body in order to detach myself from it. I would never want to do that. I loved my body too much for what it had given me and for what it had not. However, the idea of looking at the body and its life not as incidental to mine but central to it, excited me.”
All reading is a quest to identify with the author; by placing her mortality front and centre, Gokhale immediately establishes common ground with all human readers. If accidents, illness, growing up and growing old were to be considered the milestones of a lifetime, what would life’s journey look like? These aren’t the cantankerous ramblings and whinings of an elderly woman about her many aches and pains. In an evolved age where the mind assumes supremacy over the body (or so we like to think), Gokhale reminds us about how all our talk of free will is limited by our mortal coils.
Neither does she attempt to evoke sympathy or horror with details of what her body has gone through, nor does she normalise pain. Instead, she chooses the middle-path: “In the process of putting my body out there in plain view, I will also be keeping faith with my belief in transparency.”
The ink with which she penned her memoirs must have been laced with droll humour. Referring to the fleshy little knob at the back of the mouth, she suggests: “You might consider calling the uvula your throat dangler or your throat thingy if you don’t want to call it vulva by mistake. Just a suggestion. Because whenever I need to talk about the uvula, I have to stop myself from saying vulva.”
I am tempted to include excerpt after excerpt, but shan’t, because I want you to read the book itself. You may identify with her childhood wisdom: “You lost your tonsils, you got ice cream. You got to keep your adenoid, you didn’t get ice cream. Life is basically pretty fair.” You may have had a similar birds-and-bees talk as her mother did with her: “The sperm is like a little tadpole. Don’t ask me right now how it gets to the egg. It does.” But perhaps only Gokhale has experienced a situation where she unexpectedly began menstruating at a picnic, and her friends stepped up: one provided a towel, another washed her garments in a nearby stream, while others contributed handkerchiefs to fashion a wad and a jockstrap - “my first precious experience of sisterhood.”
The book is a record of an age of healthcare long gone when fevers were “a common occurrence which called for nothing more than a bottle of the sickly aniseed-smelling syrup that the doctor’s compounder concocted for you.” When a husband - informed that his wife has gone into labour - could and would say: “Carry on. Take a cab. I’ll see you later”. When homoeopaths were invited to tackle a stubborn temperature: “The doctor came home and spent an hour with Mother taking down her medical history. That in itself was a comforting change from allopaths who came, examined her cursorily and prescribed paracetamol.”
Few of us will escape being misdiagnosed at least once in our lifetimes; Gokhale records her tribulations with equal parts fury and restraint. Nor does she spare her own ignorance: it is only after her fracture is set by a doctor does she discover that he, in fact, isn’t one. Those who are inveterate procrastinators of seeking medical help will understand Gokhale’s mortification when she finally has her ominous lump examined by a surgeon, who wonders aloud how a well-educated person could have ignored it for so long.
I do not know Gokhale, but bumped into her once, recognising her from the photograph which accompanied her decade-long column in a Mumbai tabloid. Much like the shoe-shop owner in the book, who peered at her because he couldn’t shake off the feeling that he knows her from somewhere, then admitted he had never read her work (I have, and am an admirer).
I introduced myself, and mentioned my tenuous connections with her - she knew my grandmother while growing up in Shivaji Park, and my grandfather when they were both journalists in the same group of publications. Her voice quavered - a condition developed late in life, which she refused to have medically investigated, and for which she hypothesised her own cause. But she posed the most direct, perceptive question a stranger has ever asked me: “When you were a child, could you pronounce your name (Mrigank)?”
It brought a smile to my face then, as her book brought countless smiles to my face now. As it will to yours. Go on. Don’t wait. Read it.