Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson: A personal memoir of lost loss, and the search for love.

Winterson says, ‘Adopted children are dislodged. My mother felt that the whole of life was a grand dislodgement. We both wanted to go home.’ A harrowing childhood of being locked in a coal-hole, punishment by means of sleeping on the front porch all night, undergoing exorcism for having an affair with a girl, and spending most of your life feeling like you didn’t belong. With sheer courage and honesty, Winterson in her personal memoir, talks about being adopted in a Pentecostal family bordering on religious fanaticism. Mrs Winterson, as the writer addresses her mother throughout the book, was suffering from depression, fighting demons of her own and waiting for the Apocalypse. She believed she was brought into the world to suffer. 

Mrs Winterson despised happiness, as the word in itself was tainted with sins. Perhaps, she didn’t know how happiness felt like so she stopped her daughter from pursuing it herself. Jeanette’s love for the written word was soon stamped and punched to the ground by her mother who burnt all her textbooks. It didn’t deter the author because she started memorizing the texts. How can her mother snatch the words that were now written in her soul?

The title of the book is taken from Mrs Winterson’s admonition upon finding out Jeanette’s affair with a girl. She retorts, ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’

But the author also talks of the way words saved her from herself. The more her mother tried to drown her, the more she felt liberated. The power of language, of stories, of escape, wasn’t lost to her. The first half of the book is a tale of a wounded childhood, of the desperate need to belong somewhere. It’s also filled with lessons learnt the hard way. The second half, according to me, was written hurriedly as if the author was trying to see how it ends. Winterson went on to becoming a successful author, falling in and out of love before finding the ‘one’. All her life, Winterson felt, she wasn’t loved. How could she? Her biological mother gave her up for adoption when she was six-weeks old, and she was brought up by a tyrant who couldn’t see her as human. 

The quest to find her biological mother, Ann, turns into a rigorous path as Winterson comes to a painful realization; she maybe be adopted but her identity is shaped by her upbringing. She feels as far away from her own mother as she did with Mrs Winterson.  She says, ‘ I notice that I hate Ann criticizing Mrs Winterson. She was a monster but she was my monster.’

Despite the violent childhood and a series of ‘lost loss’, this memoir ends with acceptance. It directs you to march ahead, to always seek love where ever you go. 

Identity: Beyond Borders

The anti-narcotics team had arrived. We were about to go through another rigorous round of security check. Sheru, one of the sniffer dogs, was sun-bathing when he heard his name being called, after which, he jumped excitedly and proceeded towards us. If you’re a fully functional human being with a heart, the sight of a dog in uniform will melt you. We took out our cell phones but were soon rebuked for doing so. This was serious business and Sheru had work to do. Walking in and around our luggage, which were quite a few, Sheru moved on to other passengers. At this point, we were getting late. We had to cross the Wagah Border by afternoon and we hadn’t even boarded the bus that would take us there. To add to our woes, it had started raining. Having grown up in India, watching parades being held on Independence Day at the Wagah Border, always seemed mystical—something out of a movie. Except this was real life, and this wasn’t a drill or an extended joke. My siblings and I had imagined a lot of things we’d be able to witness at the border. It was our first time, it was going be a historic moment for us all. Naturally, we were thrilled. The whole idea of crossing the border by foot is, in my opinion, a little hilarious and maybe unreal. How can a single man-made line divide entire countries? How can the fate of so many people be decided, depending on which side of the line you were in? I guess, my questions were about to be answered.

At one point of time, we were in the no-man’s land— that little space before you step into another country, not belonging to either India or Pakistan. A single step forward would put an official tag of which country I was standing in. It didn’t mean anything, it didn’t deter where I was from, it didn’t take away my roots. Standing there under the biting Amritsar rain, waiting to cross the border, it didn’t feel too magical or heroic. Instead, I was trying to absorb, to understand the seriousness of the situation. I was blown away by the high-rise walls, the beautiful golden dome that you see, with ‘India’s Line of Defense’ written in bold right at the center. In between dragging our luggage and getting anxious about just everything in general, we forgot that our crossing the border coincided with the lowering of the flags’ ceremony, a daily military practice, at the Attari-Wagah border, carried by both India and Pakistan’s security forces ever since 1959. There were people from both sides of the line, who had come with their friends & family, to witness the parade. There were the national flags of both the countries, dancing in the rain, looking at its people, and what had become of it. Despite the terrible weather, the stands were filling up fast. You could see colorful umbrellas forming a canopy at opposite ends, a kind of shield, a form of defiance. Humans have unwavering resilience when they put their mind to something. It was time for us to finally walk our way into another country, passports ready. My grandmother was given a wheelchair, chaperoned by one of the coolies who helped her cross the border at lightning fast speed. 

 It’s a joke in the family now; of us parading in the middle as we dragged our luggage to the other end while the crowd sat at both sides watching us march helplessly. 

I couldn’t stop noticing a woman in her late 50s, who was alone, carrying a dozen bags filled with fresh produce, a few belongings that she would be needing and sheer determination on her face. Maybe she was a vendor, making a living selling fruits & vegetables. She painstakingly tried lifting her heavy bags onto the trolleys right after crossing the border. To avoid a crowd, the security was tightened. The woman was struggling to assemble her belongings and she asked my brother for help. We were busy collecting our luggage to be put in trolleys so that we could proceed towards immigration. We looked back to see the woman give her blessings to my brother for his help, smiling, her eyes moist—forming wrinkles that made her look older. She waved at us and went her way. Did she belong to India or Pakistan? It didn’t matter, not at that moment. There were so many like us, wanting to see their relatives, with longing in their eyes & joy at seeing their loved ones after an unsparing journey. 

This wasn’t going to be the first and last time I was to experience human empathy in all its glory. Belonging to a family who suffered the aftermath of Partition, I know well enough, the limitless ways in which people have extended their support throughout. It’s times like these when humans surpass themselves, with only kindness and empathy as their deus ex machina

We may be divided, we may have forgotten true nationalism, but the kindness of our hearts cannot be bought, it cannot be traded or diminished. We may lose everything one day but empathy? It’s embedded in stone and it’s here to stay.