The last month has been a stern and worried cleanup, possibly triggered by the death of my friend’s parent to COVID. I haven’t jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon, I was always tidy. This has been an emotional cleanup with books as a metaphor for my mind.

First I read Last Chance Saloon again, a book that I must have sensed that I’d need to grow into since I didn’t read it again but followed its author into her entire bibliography, finding other favorites along that way. I found insight, inspiration & even guidance in her other books. Yes, she writes books that are found in the section called ChickLit. But ‘Watermelon’ showed me strong women get hurt by men too & embodied what it looked like to rise above that. ‘Anybody Out There’ gave meaning to the sometimes inexplicable path to healing. And if it hadn’t been for ‘Rachel’s Holiday’, I would never have recognised the aftermath of a nicotine addiction and the manipulation & escapism that are par for every addict’s course. I loved the characters in these stories and their adventures became my lessons, the kind that I didn’t have the fortune to receive from an older sibling or relatable mentor. Re-reading Last Chance Saloon let me see exactly which wounds felt exposed in this story but also showed me how much I’d healed & was able to turn the page. Some of the reviews of the book are unsympathetic to the character in an abusive relationship. I’m now at a place where I can see that this comes partly from ignorance & mostly from a vague fear that this could happen to anyone. Because it does happen to anyone, not just weak/spineless women. Shaming is an attempt to deflect onto someone else’s issues because it feels to painful to face one’s own.

In the past few years I’ve been reading books that I loved as a child, then as a teenager. Many of them are bringing up ‘insights’. But more likely, they’re helping me process long buried memories & emotions from the times I first read them. And by that, I seem to be up to my 20s now. It felt right to pick up my first Marian Keyes again. It prised loose a number of things. For one, I rediscovered blogging. I’ve been writing for Instagram engagement for a couple of years and reposting to my blogs. But writing in the Compose screen of a blog – that’s an unparalleled feeling for me. I guess it’s akin to some writers who say they prefer writing pen to paper. Sans the character limit, without an eye on the engagement stats, there are entire worlds of me that come up and say “I exist!”. These are the worlds that I got to explore in the safety of anonymity as IdeaSmith when I first began blogging.

Propelled by this, I picked up another Marian Keyes that I’ve avoided after the first read – This Charming Man. I read this in March 2008. I was on a very rare-for-me holiday visiting a family home in rural Tamil Nadu. After being relentlessly independent my whole adult life, I’d fallen prey to the comfort zone of the rat race. I was also returning to a family vacation after many years. I took this book along as my vacation read. It was disturbing but I finished it. A year later, I would fall into a relationship that would end badly for the same reason (even if he wasn’t charming). It’s like Keyes foretold some of my futures.

Since I was untangling my past via books, I couldn’t any more ignore a certain stack that has been nagging me from the back for years. Books that I associate with people who hurt me deeply. Books from the ex. A book from an ex friend who love-bombed me then implied that I was unstable & ghosted me. Books with inscriptions carrying words that sound hollow, sentiments that seem fake now. It’s a very upsetting sight.

I haven’t been able to bring myself to dispose of them. So much of the last few years has been about coping with people exploiting my tragedies. Shaming about the failed relationship, bullying over lies spread by ex friends. Each of those strands of poison have grown tentacles & threatened to strangle me at every turn. Sending these books out into the world felt like I’d be giving them even more ammunition to hurt me. I could not bring myself to tear or burn a book, no matter how horrible the associated memories. In the last decade, I’ve had to learn to do and be a lot of things I never thought myself capable of. But I always knew that if I made myself a person who tears a book, I’d hate myself forever. When I do that, I consign myself to the same hell of violence that these people belong in. None of them are worth that.

So I’ve lived with the festering wounds between these pages, hiding them at the back of my bookshelf, scattering them across different stacks so as to space out the negative energy (sort of), leaking some of my hurt in a line in my poem Paper Plane (“A page from a book that was a gift from someone you don’t want to remember”).

Some time ago, I spoke to a friend and explained this. And immediately she said, “Just send them to me.” I breathed a big sigh of relief. Finally the poison would be away from me and disposed off safely. Still, I delayed sending them to her. At first I thought I’d scribble over the inscriptions so her kids wouldn’t inadvertently chance upon something they shouldn’t. Then I thought how nice it would be to paint over the inscription instead so they’d have a pretty book (even if it was slightly mutilated by this). And in this, I’ve struggled so much.

Painting used to come really easy to me, honest. Before I wanted to be a writer, before I was even noticed as a performer, I found my home in colour & art. I was frequently in trouble for scribbling all over my notebooks or drawing when I was supposed to be answering questions. I once won an art competition whose judges called my work innovative as I sweated buckets for my messy colouring beyond the lines. When I fell into an abusive relationship, by happy chance I also discovered fabric paints. And for two years through assault, violence & body-shaming, I turned out teeshirts, kurtas & shirts intricately hand-painted & good enough for people to stop me on the road and ask where they could buy one.

But yesterday, I was a mess. Buoyed by the energy of the Keyes’ re-reading, I decided to tackle the pile and set up my art station, paintboxes, brushes, everything. And nothing. The inscriptions leered back at me, laughing at what a fool I’d been to think they were true. Then the words took shape & I found myself wondering if maybe things had not been so bad. Almost immediately I’d hear the jeering, the cruel barbs and taste the blood flowing down my face. On the page, my brushes only left weak streaks that muddied the white but didn’t hide the writing. I tried, again and again. My hands shook and my eyes blurred. Once upon a time, my rule-breaking techniques, my line-breaching colouring were my artistic superpowers. Now with my confidence gone, I felt riddled with holes. The paint was leaking and the inscriptions were rubbing salt into those wounds.

I realised I couldn’t send this on to my friend. It felt filthy and wrong, as if I was parceling my vomit and pretending it was a gift. With a lot of shame I messaged her an apology for my delay. As I said that, I realised what I needed to do. I couldn’t have her hiding the poison for me. I had to heal myself. And healing, like cleaning, is messy. So I took the smudgy streaked books and I put them in the discard pile, where they will be sold to some anonymous reader who may notice that there are words under the messy watercolours. They may try to decipher or not, they may assign meanings & build fictional stories about the messages passed in that undecipherable inscription. But that’ll be their stories to make and tell. Nothing to do with me. It’s not poison I’m sending out into the world. It’s material for other stories.

In the night, as I picked up ‘This Charming Man’ again, I found myself shallow-breathing again. It hurt to read, like when one has eaten something nasty or when there’s a needle left inside the dress you’re wearing and it’s sticking right into you. This book was probably written when Keyes was wading through depression. It makes a valient effort to be her usual buoyant writing self, with self-deprecating humour & startlingly honest confessions. But the men are monsters, the women are laughing so they don’t cry and the entire story is cast with a pall of sleazy too-bright gloom. It’s the way hospital lights look in a gory film. It also reminded me of the dark years after my engagement ended, as I blundered about trying to cope, putting on the bravest face I could summon and still attracting so much venom. Like flies to an open wound, is how I think of it.

I am not going to finish reading this book. I don’t have to. I know this is not reality or even a comedic take on it. It’s an open wound and right now, I’m not a fly drawn to it. Because I adore Marian Keyes (through her word), I feel like I should hold on to this book even if I don’t read it. It is my way of showing support for the harder times of someone I care about. The books are a metaphor for my emotional state, after all.

When I woke up today, I felt able to paint again.

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