When I tell them I don’t ever want to get married, my parents tell me two stories. The first one is about a distant relative. Like me, she never wanted to marry. So her parents and everyone else let her be. But when she reached her late 30s, she started regretting this. Everyone her age was married and had children. Their homes were never quiet and their lives were full of excitement. And so, in her 50s, she became a bitter woman who blamed her elders for her loneliness.
‘I might have said I didn’t want to get married but why did you have to listen to me?’—She apparently still asks. I have never met this woman but on some days, it is easier to believe the unhappiness and the angry loneliness that is supposed to be the moral of this story. On other days, I fight it with everything I have.
The second story is about an aunt I knew when I was six. She lived with us in Shimoga for a while. She was young, and had long hair that was always shiny and oiled. The room that she slept and ate in didn’t have much light. She kept the windows and curtains closed all the time, which upset my father greatly (what kind of a person doesn’t want fresh air?) Every time I passed by her room, I’d peek in to find her writing. My mother told me they were letters, my father said they were love stories.
He told me that she had refused marriage because reading too many romance novels had made her go mad. She wanted a man like the heroes in the books she’d read. She was proud, picky and arrogant. It was the first lesson my father taught me—don’t live in your own dream world, and don’t ever read romance novels.
She moved away and I forgot about her. The curtains in that room were never closed after that. Many years later, they found her a husband. He was old, like her, and wanted badly to be married, like her. A year after they were married, my father got the news that she had set herself on fire and died. He was called to identify the body. My mother asked my sister and me to sleep in her room that night. She was terrified—for her and for us.
The moral of the story is that when women read too much fiction, they go mad. And that if you marry too late or don’t marry at all—you will die horribly. The sister of a boy I was once seeing had told me very seriously, her eyes drilling into mine, that it’s true, women who read a lot go mad.
I live in two worlds. One is the world I currently live in. It is mine as much as it is others’. It is annoying but most of the time it is comforting. On days when the writing does not happen and reading is too much effort, I lie down and listen to the mixer going on and off in the kitchen and imagine the chillies inside which lose themselves to become chutney so forcibly, so easily. In this world, I suspect that my family wants me to be chutney even though I have only wanted to be chilli.
But then again, what can be more homelike than a whistling pressure cooker—especially on nights when the strangeness of the outside world is unbearable? Perhaps only my father watching TV9 with his hands permanently clutching the remote control because like all fathers, he is never satisfied with the volume.
The other is a world that I am living in my mind all the time. It has no one else. There are occasional doorbells but the silence in the kitchen is deafening. There is no pressure cooker but I romance the yellow walls of my home in furious and quiet ways. There are mice in my bathroom. It is far from perfect—but I am happy because I can finally tell myself, and others that I live alone.
In the first world, relatives come home all the time to ask me when I’m getting married, so I sit with my laptop in the bathroom for hours and emerge only after they’ve left. In these moments, I cannot wait to live alone but then I worry that I won’t make it alone; that like my mother says—at some point I will want the monotony of a sitting husband, walking children, and the evening noise of a regular family. And here I get stuck.
Deborah Levy’s living autobiographies (The Cost Of Living and Things I Don’t Want To Know) are a lesson in getting unstuck.
The Cost of Living starts with glorious interruptions. A young woman is reading at a bar when a man interrupts her. He starts chatting and she doesn’t seem to mind. But when she interrupts him to tell him a story, he says, ‘You talk a lot, don’t you?’
The story she is trying to tell him is from when she’d gone scuba-diving in Mexico. She was underwater for 20 minutes and when she’d resurfaced, there was a storm. She could have swum to the boat but she kept wondering why her husband, who was on the boat, didn’t come to get her out of the water. Her marriage was over but she was certain that it was really over when she too didn’t want to swim towards him.
‘My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown’
She moves to North London after she separates from her husband and begins a new life with her daughters. It’s perfect. She paints her bedroom walls yellow and decorates the windows with orange silk curtains. There is light and sky and a balcony.
When you dream about living alone, you become a collector of stories of women living alone. You collect them shyly, like a child collecting rainwater in small palms even as amused neighbours chuckle kindly. Sometimes all you want to do is hide in these women’s homes—watch them, and take notes. You come to associate the meaning of freedom with a few pictures of these women’s homes on Instagram—of huge windows and the birds that come there often, of strong, wooden dining tables with food for friends, of picture frames hung on rose-coloured walls, of them doing yoga by the window while their cats watch.
And in the back of my mind, when I scroll through these pictures, I am always asking—what did you have to pay to get here? Because maybe there is a cost to live that way, no? And if you are a woman, you have to pay double. Levy says, “Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”
And despite the price paid and the freedom won, what do you do when the yellow walls don’t make you as happy as you thought they would?
For Levy, they were driving her mad. (The orange silk curtains were like waking up to a rash)
And she admits without pause that there is a lot to do, a lot more to pay. There are various things to unpack, bills to pay. The pipes in the bathroom are clogged, there are strange birds who come to the balcony and stare, the bees in the living room buzz through the night and don’t seem to go away, the corridor outside looks like the one from ′The Shining’ and most importantly, there is no place to write.
I was taught to look for a man when these problems begin to appear. But Levy replaces the man with an electric bike and just like that, we are not stuck anymore. She rides the bike up and down the hill when she goes grocery shopping. She rents someone’s shed and makes it her writing shed. One evening, as she is riding up on her bike, a bag of oranges bursts and they roll down the hill. She parks her bike and runs after the oranges.
She learns to be kind to older, nosy women who live in the building, who make a fuss when she parks her bike at the entrance. ‘I am not as young as I used to be’, she says (to herself) and this disarms them, calms them. Maybe the surest sign of knowing that you’ve become independent is when you no longer feel the need to take pleasure from getting back at people who bother you.
When she has plumbing issues, I realise that I’ve been waiting for (and dreading) an answer that is going to come any moment now. I am half-expecting the story to be taken away from her, from me, and given to someone who can fix the pipes. A man.
But then suddenly Deborah Levy falls in love with the plunger instead of a plumber and I have an answer that I can defeat anything and everything with.
“What came up through the pipes after much excavation with the help of the master plunger was a thick, slimy knot of human hair. Plumbing was like archaeology. The hair was a human artefact, dredged up from the depths. The master plunger was an object of beauty and function. When the water ran freely down the plughole again, I whirled the clump of hair in lonely victory.”
I tell my 86-year-old grandmother that an electric bike and a plunger are both excellent substitutes for a husband but she already knows this. She was widowed when she was 28. She replaced him with a mad will to survive and to bring up her six children. She won.
A plunger is indeed a thing of magic. (Watch Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for more insights on this)
In Things I Don’t Want to Know, we see a 15-year-old Levy waiting to leave home on a Saturday morning. She wants to go to the nearby cafe with her black straw hat and write. Write what? She doesn’t know but she knows that she must leave home for it to happen. “It was very very urgent that I got out of my life,” she says, basing the desire to do this entirely on a vague idea of what writers behave like. “I had read books about poets and philosophers drinking espresso in French cafes while they wrote about how unhappy they were.”
But before she can get out of this life to be in her more real one, her mother tells her that she has to clean the insides of a washing machine which is swarming with bees because a pot of honey has toppled over and fallen in.
“While I was on my hands and knees, head stuck inside the washing machine, it occurred to me that this was how suicidal women poets ended their life, except they stuck their head into a gas oven.”
She manages to finish, and just as she is leaving, her mother tells her that she must also clean the oven. But Levy, exhausted by the wait, and by the desire to be elsewhere, hurries out to join herself in her other life. In this other life “...this sense of urgency accelerated. I had so little time. Time for what? I didn’t know but I was convinced there was another sort of life waiting for me and I had to work out what it was before I cleaned the oven. Holding a mug of scalding tea in my unstung hand, I made my way past the builders and bus drivers towards a Formica table to begin my impersonation of the writer’s life.”
She grabs some tissues and scribbles the word England many times.
“This action (scribbling) and also my costume (the black straw hat) were like being armed with an AK-47.”
I can’t begin to count the ways in which this can free young 15-year-old girls as also 30-year-old women who want to be writers more than anything else in the world. The image of a young girl imitating a writer is the bridge not only between Deborah Levy’s two lives but also my own two worlds.
The Cost of Living like a writer—a woman writer—is what separates one world from the other. And reading women writers has always brought me closer to it.
Which is why it is a thing of joy to finally be able to see the much older Levy writing in a small hotel room in Majorca (Things I Don’t Want to Know). She is just sitting down to write when she realises that the only available socket to charge her laptop is located above the basin, for a man’s electric razor. And here she says, “Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa.”
No one else and nothing else since that line has made me feel like more a writer.