A Year in Reading: Jenny Bhatt

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On December 23, 2019, I wrote these
sentences in my private journal: “Shore up your strength for 2020. You’re going
to need it in ways you can’t even imagine right now.” I had recently gotten
engaged, was in the process of packing up my life after almost six years in
India to move back to the US, and had two book releases coming up. With such
imminent beginnings, I had in mind a hopeful sort of rebirth or regeneration
that comes from new possibilities and experiences. 2020, of course, had plans
of its own for the world.

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For almost a decade now, I’ve set
myself an annual intention. This is a single word that I internalize throughout
the year so that, beyond the particular goals I’m hoping to accomplish, it
infuses everything I do as a theme, mood, and emotion. What started as a
private journal practice of meditating on that intention word to understand its
many meanings became, from 2016-on, a series of reflections shared on social
media with friends and readers. For 2020, given what I had imagined the year would
entail, my word-of-the-year choice had been “renewal.”

Confined to a mostly indoor existence, much of the renewal I had expected would come from going to new places and spending time with new people did not happen. My return to the US was a precarious two-day journey by air and road. My wedding was a 10-minute exchange of vows with my now-husband with our dog, a judge, and a hired photographer for company. My book release events were two 30-minute Zoom events attended by the few reader and writer friends who persevered despite technical glitches. Still, I am grateful to be among the fortunate ones because 2020 has proved to be a manifestation of Yhprum’s Law—“Things that should not work, work nevertheless.”

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Years ago, while traveling in Spain for work, a local tourist guide cornered me in the hotel bar after a long day and offered to take me to a bullfight. I scrunched my face, shook my head from side to side, and squeezed my shoulders up to my ears. He stroked those shoulders, saying there were life lessons to be learned from what some consider an inhumane spectacle. I scoffed in return. Then he told me this fascinating bit about how, in the thick of battle, the bull gathers his strength in one particular spot of the ring or arena. This process or place is called “querencia.” It’s where the bull becomes his most dangerous because he loses his fear and regains his power. This is why matadors try to keep the bulls moving—they don’t want the bulls to find that place of refuge or safety or stay in it too long. Hemingway has a more chilling description of this in Death in the Afternoon, if you care to look it up.

I now believe that 2020, for me, has been about the querencia kind of renewal. It has been about sheltering in a place of refuge to gather strength, create new rituals, and regain power. And, given these times of incalculable losses and immeasurable griefs, this renewal period is, in itself, no mean effort and no small privilege.

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Somehow, despite everything, I have
managed to do my usual amount of reading and a whole lot more writing this
year. Much of my reading was for book reviews or the Desi Books podcast that I started early in the
year to spotlight new books by writers of South Asian origin. Most of my
writing was part of the promotion cycle for my own books. As always, however,
the books that have rewired some of my inner circuitry are ones that I’ve
revisited.

A reread is always a different kind
of immersion than a first-read. Rediscovering familiar aspects of a book is a
welcome comfort because both anticipation and participation are more heightened
than in previous reading experience(s). Finding new meanings either missed the
first time or forgotten since then is like being blessed with unexpected gifts.
Gaining a deeper appreciation for the writer’s literary virtuosity is like
taking a free creative writing masterclass. And while it wasn’t easy this
particular year to burrow back into these old favorites, each one taught me
something new about my renewal intention.

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Jazz by Toni Morrison: The first time I read this book for a writing workshop over a decade ago, it frustrated me. There was so much going on with the switching points of view, the mysterious narrator, the retellings of certain events, the many digressions, the multiple climaxes, and more. Still, Morrison’s beautifully rhythmic prose and hauntingly precise language have always had me in thrall. This year, I taught an eight-week fiction workshop with Jazz as one of two main texts. The workshop participants who came to the book for the first time were likely as frustrated as I had once been. But those who persevered and read the entire novel were transformed at the end as happens to readers of any Morrison novel.

This time around, it was even more wrenching to read about racial violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the aftermath of protests and more violence across the country. The other theme that resonated deeply with this reread was that of migration. Almost all the main characters migrate to New York City from various parts of the country. They’re looking to escape troubled pasts and start fresh with healed identities. In describing how the rosy visions of their new beginnings quickly turn into grimy realities, Morrison hits the high notes and the low ones with a punchy percussiveness.

In the foreword, she writes: “Rather
than be about those characteristics [invention, improvisation, originality,
change], the novel would seek to become them.” Re-experiencing Morrison’s
singular accomplishment with Jazz,  I was reminded of how, even in nature,
transformation is not a beautiful process. A seed has to break its skin and
split open to be able to sprout. Inside its silky cocoon or shiny chrysalis,
the caterpillar has to disintegrate into an amorphous soup-like mess that then
fuels the cell growth for its metamorphosis into a butterfly. Always, something
has to die for something to be born in a renewal process. Like the seed yet to
germinate, we all carry the potential to sprout into something more fruitful.
Like the caterpillar yet to transform, we’re all walking around with tiny wings
tucked inside our bodies. It takes a lot of doing, being, and waiting to become
more of our real selves. Rereading Jazz
this year has reminded me of all this.

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Steering the Craft (2015 edition) by Ursula K. Le Guin: This is the second text I used for my writing workshop. As a craft book, it showcases Le Guin’s many virtues as a writer, mentor, and teacher. Her generous wisdom is delivered with wry humor, timeless examples, and practical exercises. On every page, her voice shimmers and flows with a literary passion that is immediately infectious and inspiring. Le Guin was a legend during her own time and had influenced at least three generations: her own and the two that came after. Yet, as Karen Joy Fowler has written in her foreword to Le Guin’s posthumously-published essay collection, No Time to Spare: “Le Guin is not the sort of sage who demands agreement and obeisance.”

Revisiting this craft book reminded
me of her literary activism and how she always believed in the abundant and
lasting power of storytelling to bring about real, tangible change. All her
fictional utopias and dystopias have been about imagining different possible
worlds. For many of us, this year has also been about holding fast to other
imagined possibilities.

Here’s one more bit that has stayed
with me after this rereading: “I’m not going to discuss writing as
self-expression, as therapy, or as a spiritual adventure. It can be these
things, but first of all—and in the end, too—it is an art, a craft, a making. And
that is the joy of it. To make something well is to give yourself to it, to
seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your
whole life. It’s worth it.”

Writer friends have shared how 2020
has been a highly distracting year at best and a harrowingly tragic one at
worst. Many of us are not religious and cannot turn to some higher force for
solace. For those of us who have been able to do so, surrendering ourselves to
the act and process of creating art has been a miracle in itself. Doing work
like this does not keep a deadly virus at bay to save precious lives. But
perhaps it has saved the one life most precious to us: our own. One day, if
we’re patient and focused enough in cultivating our little
gardens
,
the future might present itself to us as a whole new country. The real dawn
might be the one breaking from within.

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The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai: The main action of this 2006 Booker-winning novel is set during the 1986-1988 Gorkhaland movement in Kalimpong, which is part of the Darjeeling district and located on the banks of the Teesta River in Northeast India. However, the narrative reaches back into colonial times, extends to present-day New York, and jumps and cuts back and forth across both time and space boundaries.

Desai tackles many themes: post-colonialism, living between the past and the present, living between cultures and nationalities, the impact of westernization on a culture in search of its own identity, the loss of identity and how that sense of loss travels through generations, the displacement and assimilation challenges of immigrants, the vast differences across divides created by religions and castes and class, first love, human dignity, etc. These are not new preoccupations for writers of Indian origin. But Desai differs from, say, V. S. Naipaul’s “colonial neuroses” (as one of Desai’s characters labels Naipaul’s writing) or Jhumpa Lahiri’s nuanced cultural assimilation stories of Indian Americans. Instead, she shows a hard, clear-eyed skepticism about the ability of the once-colonized to shake off their long-lasting cultural heritage and legacies as they try to recreate their identities or emigrate to new countries and assimilate new ones.

For all these various sadnesses, the novel isn’t gloomy. Desai often weaves irony and satire into the tragic. Her evocative, rhythmic prose has a living, malleable energy of its own so that, even when she’s describing something ugly or violent, we are not left ravaged but richer.

I recall some interviews with Desai where she described her writing process as that of creating an entire haystack before she can find the needles within. She had to pare this novel down from a 1500-page draft. Recalling this has been a bit reassuring for me as I’ve felt like I’ve been building haystacks with all the book promotion-related writing—whether interviews or essays—I’ve been doing. There’s enough material there to make for an entire third book if I can but find the needles therein.

In a year like this, more than ever before, I also needed to be reminded of what this story’s assorted cast of characters collectively represents: immigration as a creative act in itself; a nation trying to pull itself together with humanity, dignity, meaning, and pride; and how losing something to gain another isn’t always a bad thing.

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All this 2020 reading and writing has helped me understand beginnings and endings and renewal and loss differently. I am ending the year with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy because of its global pandemic plot point. The second book in the trilogy, The Year of the Flood, includes this statement: “What am I living for and what am I dying for are the same question.” I mull over these questions of a raison d’être and a raison de mourir, as the French would say. I wonder if it is possible to give the same response, unequivocally and unambiguously, to them. I suppose that, if such a single response to both questions is possible, it could well be my existential purpose. So I choose “purpose” as my 2021 intention, meditation, and word-of-the-year. And, dear reader, may that sense of purpose be instilled in all that we do in the coming year: the books we read, the lives we lead, and the world that we become.

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But Let Us Cultivate Our Garden

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“But let us cultivate our garden.” —Candide by Voltaire (1759), translated by Theo Cuffe (2009)

1.
The first real garden I grew on my own was in 1996, when I was in my mid-20s. I had graduated as an engineer and started working at a pneumatics manufacturer in the British Midlands. My one-bedroom rental was in an old semi-detached two-story house where the local council authorities had converted each floor into a separate flat and sold off to private owners. Each flat had a small, equally sectioned area of the backyard. From my upstairs kitchen and bathroom windows, I could see the entire backyard with its two neatly fenced-off plots.

I would have probably left my patch of fenced-off grass alone, but the married couple I was renting from had made its maintenance one of the lease conditions. They also had family living down that same street to keep an eye on things.

On weekends and late summer evenings, I had noted neighbors up and down my street tending to their own gardens, both front and back, enjoying the brief nice weather as much as possible. Trying not to stare as I searched unsuccessfully for brown faces like mine, I would scurry past on red-gold evenings with my grocery-filled backpack. Often, they would be conversing across hedges and fences about plants or pests. A wisp of a breeze would tug slightly at their old gardening clothes and send snatches of their chatter—filled with exotic-sounding technical jargon—my way. On the odd occasion when one of them stopped to smile and wave, it felt as if I had interrupted something very private.

Gardening had never been of interest to a bookish, indoor sort like me. Growing up in Mumbai, there had never been anything to tend for besides the few potted plants on apartment balconies. But I was in a new part of England after several years of a mostly cloistered university life, so I knew nobody. My long workdays at the new job were difficult, and on weekends, I collapsed into comas of reading and television watching. This was the time before home computers or mobile phones were ubiquitous in all homes. And British Telecom reigned supreme with their absurd landline rates, both domestic and international, so that long chats with friends or family were out of the question. Still, it wasn’t so much a sense of loneliness as a sense of a growing desert inside. Much like the garden plot lying useless, I felt vast spaces within me going fallow too.

2.
The “garden” is a recurring motif in Voltaire’s novella Candide. It shows up throughout the story in various settings and symbolic themes, which is why there are still several differing interpretations of this particular Voltairean philosophy. The story is about a naive young man who travels the world, gets into all kinds of awful difficulties (e.g. rape, disemboweling), tries to dust off every horror with the optimistic maxim from his mentor, Pangloss, that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” and finally concludes that we can only (and we must) “cultivate our own garden.”

The garden at the very end of the story, where this line also occurs, provides the most commonly accepted interpretation. Candide and all the main characters set to work together on a bit of land, each taking responsibility for a specific task. The catalyst is another character, a Turk, whom they meet just before. This Turk tells them about his own garden and how he tends to it with his four children, doing simple work and not minding external affairs. Their main objective, he says, is to keep free of the three great evils: boredom, vice, and poverty.

Scholars continue to debate what Voltaire was saying with this ending. Was he advocating a passive retreat and isolation from society or an active contribution to it? Was he suggesting we lose all hope by giving up on the idea that “everything happens for the best”?

When Voltaire completed and published Candide, he was living in exile on his estate in Ferney, a town on the French side of the Franco-Swiss border. Within this country retreat, he designed and cultivated an actual garden where he could, as he had written in another book, The Age of Louis XIV, enjoy “affable manners, simple living, and the culture of the mind.” Of course, this was also the time when he took on religious fanaticism and torture as his main causes, fighting for those who had been convicted—wrongly as he saw it—in the name of religion. In his brilliant 2005 essay on Voltaire’s garden, Adam Gopnik writes:
It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally.
Gopnik goes on to confirm that, with Candide, Voltaire was really writing against optimal thinking of the kind that sees everything tending toward the best in the end. And, importantly, Voltaire was against the “flight from failed optimism into faith.” Gopnik also clarified the key phrase:
It was a garden with a principle. It represented what he saw as a new, French ideal of domestic happiness, windows wide and doors open,“simplicity” itself. … By “garden” Voltaire meant a garden, not a field—not the land and task to which we are chained by nature but the better place we build by love. The force of that last great injunction, “we must cultivate our garden,” is that our responsibility is local, and concentrated on immediate action. … Voltaire was a gardener and believed in gardens, even if other people were gardening them. His residual optimism lies in that alone.
Gopnik gave his interpretation and analysis in a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Trump era. Today, we have few, if any, physical or psychical gates or boundaries from the world at large. It comes at us from all sides like, as Virginia Woolf famously wrote once, “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms” (possibly, had she been writing that today, she would have added strong qualifiers for the speed at which this happens). So the “windows wide and doors open” aspect of Voltaire’s garden is no longer a promise of that metaphorical domestic bliss because these windows and doors have been blown off entirely. The careful cultivation of this personal garden to allow a life of deep, emotionally rich meaning is a much harder prospect for any would-be, modern-day Voltaire.

3.
And yet it was tempting for me to try just that sort of Voltairean endeavor with my little English garden back in 1996. I asked a couple of coworkers for advice on how to manage this 5-foot-by-3-foot bit of earth I was now responsible for. They made it sound simple enough: Buy seed packets at the local B&Q DIY store, aerate the soil (an elderly co-worker came by one evening to show me how to make both vertical and horizontal furrows and even loaned me his precious rake), place seeds in well-spaced rows at regular intervals and depths, cover up with fertilized topsoil, water as needed, and remove weeds when they appear.

In early spring, I planted vegetables—runner beans along a handmade wire trellis, cabbage, courgette (zucchini), cucumber, tomato, carrot, lettuce—and looked forward to sustaining myself on freshly tossed salads throughout the summer. Along one long fence edge, I scattered flower seeds three layers deep for irises, crocuses, lavender, chrysanthemums, sweet pea, daffodils, asters, zinnias, delphiniums, violets, dahlias, daisies, carnations, geraniums, nasturtiums, gladioli, larkspur, and more.

At first, I was too self-conscious, worried that everyone would see how I knew nothing. The tall widow in the flat below me would sit on her kitchen doorstep after supper, her short blue-rinsed hair in tight curlers. She would watch me planting, weeding, and watering through the smoke rings of her after-supper cigarette. We rarely spoke and, after that one cigarette, she would retreat indoors and lock her several door latches with loud, definitive clicks and clacks.

Eventually, I grew to love that solitude, silence, and space and even looked forward to it as my daily highlight. That I was taking care of things and making them grow felt more than productive—it felt both purposeful and grown up. And as my own gardening vocabulary grew from the books the local garden center had advised me to buy, I would whisper some of those new words while bending over the saplings—as if sprinkling them with sacred mantras to help them thrive.

4.
Diane Ackerman wrote an entire book about her garden, Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden. Taking us through how her upstate New York garden fares through the four seasons, Ackerman muses philosophically and lyrically on many aspects of life, growth, and death. Her opening is beautiful:
I plan my garden as I wish I could plan my life, with islands of surprise, color, and scent. A seductive aspect of gardening is how many rituals it requires. … By definition, the garden’s errands can never be finished and its time-keeping reminds us of an order older and one more complete than our own. … Gardeners have unique preferences, which tend to reflect dramas in their personal lives but they all share a love of natural beauty and a passion to create order, however briefly, from chaos. The garden becomes a frame for their vision of life. … Nurturing, decisive, interfering, cajoling, gardeners are eternal optimists who trust the ways of nature and believe passionately in the idea of improvement. As the gnarled, twisted branches of apple trees have taught them, beauty can spring in the most unlikely places. Patience, hard work, and a clever plan usually lead to success: private worlds of color, scent, and astonishing beauty. Small wonder, a gardener plans her garden as she wishes she could plan her life.
In her journals, May Sarton praised the slowness and patience that gardening requires: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” She also wrote of how it is a metaphor for life: “The garden is growth and change and that means loss as well as constant new treasures to make up for a few disasters.” And the “good” kind of death: “In the garden the door is always open into the “holy”—growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle, and in the garden we are never far away from death, the fertilizing, good, creative death.”

Virginia Woolf used gardens in fiction (the most well-known example: “Kew Gardens”) as metaphors for different aspects of life, relationships, and more. She even wrote in a little separate shed-like room in her garden at Monk’s House, her weekend home in Sussex. Though her husband, Leonard Woolf, did much of the cultivating and tending, there’s a lovely throwaway sentence in her diaries that summarizes the joys she got from gardens: “Wind enough outside; within sunny and sheltered; & weeding all day to finish the beds in a queer sort of enthusiasm which made me say this is happiness.”

5.
Happiness also came through in my garden. By late spring and early summer, the weekend and late-evening hours spent taking care of all that life teeming its way through the rich loam paid off more than I had imagined. On the vegetable side, the dense, lush crop was too much for one person, and I gave most of it away to neighbors and coworkers to avoid spoilage. On the flower side, the countless upstanding blooms were all mixed into a riotously colored palette, wafting ripe and heady scents, and sheltering an entire ecosystem of small insects.

Yes, a lot of this had to do with that perfect confluence of natural elements—weather, water, soil, seed, ecology—and helpful and neighborly friends. But, as it had been for Ackerman and Sarton and Woolf, my garden had also been a way to make some order from chaos, find some grace through growth and change, and create an enthusiasm of my own.

In the next two decades, I went on to buy (and sell) homes of my own as I moved across several different states in the U.S. Each house had a decent-sized backyard where I hoped to replicate that first gardening success. But the careful, patient cultivation of those spaces had to be outsourced while I invested almost all my time and energy in the cultivation of my professional career. And while that career did bloom and grow, it never had quite the same effortless magic and satisfaction as that physical garden.

6.
In my 40th year, I came across Andy Weir’s online-published novel, The Martian.

Mark Watney is a NASA astronaut who gets left on Mars and is presumed dead. After his initial shock and panic, Watney decides to “science the shit out of” the disaster of being left alone on an uninhabitable terrain with practically no life resources. The most important thing he has to do is figure out how to sustain himself while waiting to make contact with NASA so they know he’s still alive and can rescue him. As a botanist, he cultivates a potato garden with ingenuity, hard work, and patience. He goes to great lengths and works diligently, all the while knowing that it may never matter in the end if he can’t get back to earth. Still, at one point, he has 400 healthy potato plants that buy him a whole lot more waiting time.

Now, while Watney’s fictional solution to potato gardening on Mars is complex, it isn’t entirely technically sound—from the use of human feces (without composting for months) as fertilizer to turning the rocket’s hydrazine fuel into water to all the other unpredictable accidents along the way. Still, let’s move past all that to the key message his garden cultivation gives us—or what it gave me at a major turning point in my career and life.

I had finally gotten around to admitting to myself, after decades, that I had hit stony ground and needed to transplant myself into new soil. I knew what kind of garden, metaphorically speaking, I wanted to cultivate. I had, in fact, been attempting to work at it all my life with scraps of free time here and there and a bit of nourishment from a writing workshop now and then. But the writing work often ran to weed quickly and the long fallow periods in between each new sprouting certainly did not help.

Like Candide and his cohorts, I decided to focus my most essential occupation on the local/personal and immediate. I told myself that, even if it involved starting with something as boring as potatoes in a difficult Mars-like environment, as Watney had done, then I would do that.

I have been cultivating my “literary” garden for six years now. There have been seeds that did not germinate and crops both good and bad. The lessons of my first garden are with me always: tend constantly; accept that everything has its season; ensure good fences; leave no stones unturned; know that weeds can, sometimes, be wildflowers too; and appreciate that the occasional strong breezes create strong trees.

The last bit of conversation in Candide is between Candide and his mentor, Pangloss. Pangloss reminds his mentee that he would not be sitting in that garden and enjoying its fruits if he had not gone through his many troubles before. As much as Voltaire intended Pangloss to be a satirical, laughable caricature of old-fashioned optimism, this is ancient, true wisdom. All of us finally arrive at the gardens we are meant to cultivate after a “concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds.”

In literary works around the world, gardens have been portrayed as places of trysts, romance, sex, contemplation, escape, solace, possibilities, and more. They evoke a wide range of metaphoric images, represent our many connections with nature, and bring a richer language into play. Voltaire’s garden, I’ve always believed, is not the typical Edenic kind requiring expulsion at some stage. Instead, it wholeheartedly advocates a complete focus on its cultivation and a rightful enjoyment of its pleasures.

Image: Flickr/hardwarehank