Author tackles love, passion, appearance and reality in India
Meeting Montreal writer Merrily Weisbord the other day was a celebration, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at our table.
No alcohol, coffee, tea, cake or even bread—only a tape recorder, notebook and some papers were laid out at Mamie Clafouti, a charming bakery on St. Denis.
Though she had yet to take her daily swim, Weisbord was buoyant and full of joyful energy as I told her how much I loved reading her critically acclaimed The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship With Kamala Das (McGill Queen’s University Press, 278 pages, $32.95).
This fascinating memoir of her 10-year friendship with South Indian poet-essayist-short-story writer
Kamala Das is a terrific read: informative, intimate, full of surprises and a triumph of friendship, trust and humanity.
Not that she needed more accolades for the book, published in 2010 a year after Das died. It has been recognized as a finely crafted work of literary non-fiction. It has the twists and turns of a fast-paced novel, but reveals much about India today, with the complex personality of one of its most beloved writers, and Weisbord’s reflections as she discovers the many layers of the writer and her life in far-off Kerala.
It was chosen as a finalist by the Writer’s Trust Non-Fiction Prize (2010), Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction (2011),
Quebec Writers’ Federation Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-Fiction (2011)
and the CBC’s Canada Reads: True Stories Top 40. Having put 10 years into research and writing, and by her reckoning countless rewrites and refinements, Weisbord is delighted with the way it was received.
“I was totally blown away, totally thrilled, happy, relieved,” she said.
The 278-page book reads at times like a thriller, with some incredible revelations about how a high-caste Indian woman from a privileged background is forced by her father into a marriage at age 15 because she flunked an exam.
The story reveals much about appearances and realities in India, love and passion, and one woman’s thirst to live life to the fullest.
In a society where tensions between Hindus and Muslims remain ever present, Das does the unthinkable at a mature age, in pursuit of love, and converts to Islam only to learn later of the deception that lies behind it all.
Yet we wonder about Das and her motives.
Is life a canvas for her boundless imagination?
It all started when Weisbord, looking for a new and different literary experience, decided to write a travel book intertwined with her relationship with India’s most famous literary figure.
An enjoyable aspect of the book is Das visiting the family’s Laurentian retreat, Weisbord Acres, in Prévost, and how the Love Queen of Malabar interacts with the extended family and even gets Merrily to secure more protection for herself in her common-law relationship with Arnie Gelbart.
A host of family pictures adds a visual element to the prose. It is laced with excerpts from Das’s writing and numerous tape-recorded comments from Das and Weisbord family members. The reader becomes part of the family.
“The first book I wrote was The Strangest Dream, which was to discover why people, who I thought were good people, like my parents, had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s. I really needed to know that because I lived through the Cold War and the demonization of Communists and I knew that wasn’t true of my parents and wanted to understand.
“My next book was Our Future Selves: Love, Life, Sex, and Aging, and I wanted to understand what it would be like to get older.
“I went to such people as Linus Pauling, Betty Friedan, as well as my dad and my aunts, to understand how to age in a healthy, curious and lively way, to enjoy life.”
Weisbord was 46 at the time.
With her veterinarian-daughter Kim Kachanoff, she wrote a book called Dogs With Jobs, which resulted in a five-year TV series.
When her three daughters became independent, Weisbord suddenly felt the desire “to fly out of myself and into a larger world.” She feared that if she “stayed put, conformity and familiarity would close around me like a shell.”
She conceived the book as a joint effort, but Das declined.
“When she said, ‘It’s your book,’ my heart sank. She said to me, ‘Be sharp as a knife,’ and I decided to publish everything she told me that was relevant to understand her life and work.”
Das did not hold back about being raped by her first husband, who preferred men as sexual partners, and was not above using her to seduce his superiors to advance his career. In so doing, the book exposes the complexity, duplicity, and dog-eat-dog world that co-exists alongside the spirituality of Indian society. But it is equally fascinating to read Weisbord’s thoughts and observations as the relationship develops.
She credits Philip Cercone, executive director of McGill-Queen’s University Press, with having the “guts” to take on a book such as hers in the literary-non-fiction genre, which faces major marketing challenges.
The gamble paid off big time, and its success helped Weisbord obtain another Canada Council grant to enable her to write her next book.
All she’ll say about it is the working title: “Blessed.”