Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey by Lopamudra Banerjee
Reviewed by Manan Kapoor
There is a sense of happiness in forgetting. But the acts of forgetting and remembering are inseparable. There can be no remembering without forgetting, and vice versa. The distance between the two is a language – the language of memory. And Lopa Banerjee uses the same language to recount her life. Her book, Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey, is a memoir and like every other memoir, it celebrates the act of remembering. Nostalgia burns throughout the book. ‘I am the burnt out candle, who knows not why she keeps returning to the old flames.’ she writes. The ‘old flames’ form an integral part of this book, memory plays an important role in her understanding of the world around her, of the city (Kolkata) that she left. Banerjee talks to the reader about her past, the regrets, her experiences, and at the same time, she reflects upon her spirituality, her femininity and her literary identity.
The memoir is divided into four parts and at various points one can easily notice the presence of the thinker in her writing but, at the same time, one can notice the nostalgia. Banerjee’s greatest achievement is that her work is not sentimental. In his book, The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk draws on Friedrich Schiller’s famous distinction between ‘naive’ poets-who write spontaneously, serenely, unselfconsciously- and ‘sentimental’ poets: those who are reflective, emotional, questioning, and alive to the artifice of the written word. Banerjee belongs to the second kind.
In her book, Banerjee has used prose-poetry and has chosen to walk on the thin line where poetry and prose meet. And her impeccable language makes the reading experience even better. Somehow, I have always felt that poetry is more nostalgic than prose. That the essence of a poem lies in something that has been lived, that the craft of poetry is closer to the heart than to the mind. Thwarted Escape is divided into four parts – Rhymes, Refrains, Footnotes and Memorabilia; Home and Migrant Trails; On Being a Mother, and Life; and Death: The Intersection. Through each part, Banerjee recounts her past and the memories of growing up. She talks of her childhood, of the death of her grandfather, her first love but as she recounts all these events in her life, she does so from a distance and doesn’t let the emotions overpower her narrative. She writes, “In my growing years, in all the years that followed, I’ve been touched and awakened at times; I’ve felt the light of desire melting me into a kiss of pure bliss. I’ve discovered how I trembled in love’s embrace.”
In the book, she talks about Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Taslima Nasrin. She has even included newspaper clippings of Nasrin. “I realize how [Virginia] Woolf, how Taslima [Nasrin], how Sylvia Plath, trapped and tangled in a women’s bodies, have suffered the heat and passion of their literary selves,” she writes. One can see why she relates to these specific writers. Banerjee talks about her childhood and growing up in a patriarchal middle-class family where she notices hypocrisy and insecurity among the females. There are echoes of goddesses around her, yet, she faced childhood abuse and violence.
“You have grown inside me as you have grown inside mothers, walking on tattered soil and dark, grimy streets. You have grown inside me, radiant and healthy, as they have grown inside the malnourished bodies of their mothers—cold, parched, starving infants. Together, all of us wake up in this world of crimson blood, umbilical cords and the flickering flame of infant shrieks, in the event of our childbirth.” she writes in the final section of the book. Even though the field of narratology does not delve into the gender of the writer and if Barthes’ words are to be believed, the work is independent of the writer, Banerjee makes sure that her gender and her femininity is visible. And it is so because only a woman and only a mother could have written what she has.
It a courageous memoir that is personal in every essence but, at the same time, it is a reflection of the socio-political conditions that the women, the migrants, the writers, and the mothers live in. Fraught with nostalgia and images from the past, Banerjee has rebuilt her world through her fine, poignant words. The book is a pleasure not just to read, but also reflect upon our lives. Unputdownable!
Manan Kapoor is the author of The Lamentations of the Sombre Sky. He is a Senior Review Editor at Jaggery and is currently pursuing a masters degree in Creative Writing and Literature at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.