New Yorker recently carried a piece on Barbara Pym and the new spinster. Reading the piece made me nostalgic and took me back to the days of my youth.
I was a voracious and indiscriminating reader then. I used to read anything that I could lay my hands on from newspapers to bills to books to magazines. I am guilty of even bringing my book hidden in a towel into the shower because I couldn’t bear to quit and my mother insisted that I take a shower. Local public libraries in India were nothing to write then about especially for English literature. Fortunately for me, there was an excellent local lending library for supplying me with endless reading material from Enid Blyton onward to Henry James. Combined with my father’s outstanding library of classical literature, I could read Thoreau, Frost, Eliot, Woolf, Joyce, Greene or James as my mood dictated. A friend’s uncle was a communist advocate for the blind and his library became my source of all books of that persuasion.
Pym was not my father’s selection. To his credit, his library had Austen. He used to bring to me to British Council and American Consulate libraries. I was allowed to visit them on my own about high school when I was trusted enough to take a bus. Later I learned that those institutions were vehicles of imperialism but then, they gave me much needed addition to my reading collection. I wanted to live there. Their air-conditioned spaces opened doors to whole new worlds for me. I would devise ingenious (what I thought then) ways of selecting books to read. A favorite was to browse the carts that the library staff used for restocking. Most times the staff were not readers themselves. Once when I was reading Dickens’s David Copperfield, a staff member wanted to know if it was all about copper mines.
I found Pym’s Excellent Women in one such cart browsing adventure.
The New Yorker article reminded me of how I loved her work and what a different life it presented to me from that of my mother and the other women around me. Pym opened an entirely different world to me. A world of London and Oxford bedsits and meals of beans and eggs and genteel poverty which seemed like a fair price to pay for independence. Solitary walks and solitary meals did not seem sad to me but exciting. Never had half a tin of baked beans and a boiled egg seemed so exotic to anyone. They were exotic to me, a girl raised in a sheltered Tamil Brahmin family which never used canned food nor ate eggs. I had no words then, but I think I found the idea of a meal that didn’t require much cooking liberating. I grew up in a society in which women spent most of their days in the kitchen cooking for their families.
I knew only one spinster in my real life. It was my father’s aunt, my grand aunt, an educator too educated to be married. Really! she had missed her window to marry because she was getting degree after degree. Feared and pitied at the same time by the entire clan but much beloved to me. She passed away when I was in my seventh grade (I think) but by then I could tell she was kindred spirit. Unlike Pym’s heroines, she was not poor, but like Pym’s heroines, my grand aunt enjoyed her solitary life even in the middle of the bustle of our large family.
Here is to spinsters, grand aunts, and kindred spirits who treat singleness as identity and not an absence. Even when they are coupled.
PS: I came around to enjoy the joys of cooking elaborate meals even just for myself and friends and family. My mother, grand mothers and aunts obviously instilled the value of good food which I cannot live without.