The fire is in the book

Donna Miscolta

March 22, 2017

She hurt a man’s ego and there was a war and terrible carnage.

This is Sayantani Dasgupta's nutshell recap of the Hindu story of Draupadi, a girl made of fire, in her book of essays Fire Girl: Essays of India, America, and the In-Between. Draupadi, considered a feminist icon, didn't hesitate to speak her mind, so the miffed male unleashed the forces at his disposal and pretty much wrecked the world.

It's a story. But stories carry truth. And if we fail to heed them, we may find ourselves on the brink of catastrophe if, say, for instance, the commander-in-chief of our country should happen to have a tremendous ego and thin skin.

Fire Girl was released in June 2016 by Two Sylvias Press, founded by local Northwest poets Annette Spaulding-Convy and Kelli Russell Agodon on the belief that “great writing is good for the world.” Dasgupta gives us fifteen thoughtful and observant essays that are indeed good for the world. On one level they may be about the physiology of snakes, the hottie badass of a Bollywood movie, or the goddesses of Hindu mythology. On a deeper level they reflect on the necessity of feminism, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and abuse, and the consequences of ignorance.

Dasgupta didn't write these essays as a warning against Trump, though in her opening essay, she does reference the reptilian brain, which she tells us is responsible for, among other things, xenophobia and rage. The reptilian brain is the source of a child’s tantrums. When (if) a person matures, the gray matter of the human brain takes over, its two hemispheres — the logical and systematic left and the intuitive, imaginative, and emotional right — framing and dominating the smaller reptilian portion.

Dasgupta refers to her own reptilian brain when she succumbs to the aggressive coaxings of snake men she encounters in the streets of New Delhi as she makes her way to work. Donate to the snake goddess in exchange for a blessing by Manasa, the mother of snakes, they urge, surrounding Dasgupta and holding a snake to her face.

As she gives up her bus fare with a shaky hand, Dasgupta asks herself, “Is the need to please inbuilt in women?” having noted earlier that submitting to stronger members of one’s own species is also a reptilian brain impulse. The reptilian brain is also where the fight-or-flight impulse resides, one that Dasgupta has had to exercise too many times in her life to thwart sexual harassment or worse. Even goddesses have been subject to such assault as in the case of Durga, the mother goddess, who was dragged by the hair in front of a crowd by a man who attempted to strip off her clothes in order to humiliate her.

A secular Hindu, Dasgupta regards the mythologies and superstitions of her country with a wary and sometimes wry eye. But she is also sensitive to criticism about them. She finds herself defending Durga to her university students in Moscow, Idaho who are repulsed by Durga’s appearance and call her “scary.”

It was as if I had allowed a beloved family member to be disrobed in front of a mob, and I was a mute bystander, a mere witness to relentless judgment and scrutiny of her person.

Blinking back tears, she resolves to learn more about Durga and in the process “considers words such as contexts and perspectives.”

Throughout these essays, Dasgupta shows us the importance of seeing the other side, even when it means letting go of her sense of superiority, whether due to her excellent education or the particular status of hailing from a third-world country of hardship and poverty.

Dasgupta comes from a family that loves books and values education. She confesses that her erudite grandfather passed on his sense of superiority to her.

His unwavering faith in himself imparted to him a god-complex. He didn’t take kindly to criticism and handed down to his children and grandchildren the same superiority complex.

Yet the superiority complex can be dismantled if one is like Dasgupta, ready to experience new worlds whether in books or in real life. She writes that her early perceptions of a rural and poor America gained at age seven when she read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn vanished amid the seemingly antiseptic cityscape of Moscow, Idaho and its hale residents. Of her white University of Idaho classmates, she thinks, “What could these squeaky clean people know of the human condition, of actual adversity?” But as she reads and listens to their stories of “urban poverty and violence, alcoholism and drug addiction, forest fires and logging accidents, dysfunctional families and intergenerational conflict,” she acknowledges that it was she who has lived a life of privilege, having gone to good schools and raised to believe in herself. “It was my classmates’ essays that broke my back and brought me to my knees,” she writes.

She finds that this empathy and reflection are not always reciprocated. As a teaching assistant for a religious studies professor at UI, she is amazed that a young woman scornfully dismisses a Central African creation myth while proclaiming the Christian seven-day creation story as the only one that makes sense. When Dasgupta attends Sunday church service at the invitation of a Christian friend, she is appalled when the pastor equates Islam with cancer and appalled further still when no one in the congregation flinches.

She writes, “I could imagine this herd-like atmosphere in a religious gathering in India, all of whose citizens have not yet been guaranteed free and easy access to education, which is why religion often steps in to explain the world.” Or, one might add, a presidential candidate in this country steps in to declare his love for the poorly educated.

Dasgupta references Dr. Stuart Firestein who designed a class called Ignorance: A Science Course. He hoped that making students aware of where their ignorance lay would help them to ask better questions, which would lead to better answers. Dasgupta tries to dislodge ignorance in her classroom with the readings she assigns, such as Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa.” She often instructs her students to leave the classroom and walk around for ten minutes counting the number of times they encounter their favorite color. It’s a way for them to see the normally unseen.

This is what Dasgupta, a skillful storyteller, is showing us in these essays: listening to stories is as important as telling them. She shows us how to see the overlooked and understand the unfamiliar. And we are touched by her reverence for books and how they bind her to her family and the world.

“It’s only recently that I have learned that Twenty Thousand Leagues was also my father’s favorite book when he was a child….When I asked Baba for his favorite parts, he said, “The submarine and the science.” How telling that he became an engineer. I wonder if Captain Nemo’s passion for the Nautilus influenced my father’s career path. I also wonder if Verne could have imagined that nearly a hundred years after he wrote his masterpiece, his words would have such an impact on a father and daughter far, far away in India.”

How telling that the one Hindu ritual, Dasgupta, the secular Hindu, clings to is this: after dropping a book or notebook or pen, she picks it up, touches it to her head and heart, and asks for its forgiveness.

Books in this review:
  • Fire Girl
    by Sayantani Dasgupta

    June 16, 2016
    260 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Donna Miscolta is the author of the story collection Hola and Goodbye (Carolina Wren Press, 2016) and the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced (Signal 8 Press, 2011). Follow her on Facebook or visit her website.

Follow Donna Miscolta on Twitter: @DonnaMiscolta

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