Manjula Padmanabhan’s ‘Getting There’ is supposed to be a romp on the wild side as the author gazes back fondly on her ‘spiritual quest’ to find love, truth, and her identity. Mostly, though it is a chronicle of unconventional choices made by those rare individuals who can afford to get away with partnering with the devil within. It all began for Padmanabhan, when she decided to shed a few spare kilos by visiting a diet clinic and had an epiphany which prompted her to undertake a quest to lose the baggage she was lugging around like dead weight instead. Two Dutch men showing up at her lodgings to meet a bidi seller turned Guru gives her the impetus to follow her reckless impulses to sever the serpentine ties of familial/ societal expectations, and journey to the other end of the globe.
The search for whatever it is that propels this Quixotic mission sees Padmanabhan cheat on her sweet if bland boyfriend, lie through her teeth to all her loved ones and inconvenience or hurt more than a few of those who cross her path. Written with disarming candour, the author makes no bones about her selfish self – indulgences, sexual conquests and privilege which leaves her free to do exactly as she pleases, rationalizing or brushing aside the inconvenient pangs of conscience.
Amusing and awkward in parts, ‘Getting There’ is most engrossing and yet an uncomfortable pall hangs over it, as it is hard to shake the feeling that the narrator’s personal journey was made possible on account of the freedom she enjoys to go where her wayward will takes her which is something that others hailing from this neck of the woods would give an arm and leg for even in these supposedly evolved times, let alone in the 70s where this tale is set. And the narrator uses it mainly to follow through on largely idiosyncratic whims which includes traipsing across the U.S.A and Europe mostly at other people’s expense, getting high, abandoning her diet, sleeping a lot and working a little.
Getting back to the existential angst at the root of this epic search for the self, the narrator with bravura chutzpah makes it clear that she cannot abide societal norms which dictate that a woman can never be fulfilled if she fails to get married to a suitable man and dutifully trot out children. Naturally, she is judged by her own brother, exasperated roommate and a breathtakingly jingoistic NRI type. Padmanabhan, of course, is shamed by their words but it is also water off a duck’s back and you can’t help but applaud the fierceness which sees her so committed to doing her own thing.
A self – proclaimed feminist and one who is committed to being truthful as well as not inflicting hurt, the narrator with admirable bravery, lays bare the cracks and fissures in her own philosophy and principles by revealing the many times she thought nothing of throwing another woman under the bus while in pursuit of passion, lying to get her way or shrugging aside the pain she is causing others. Like the unforgiving lens that confronted her in the dietician’s clinic, Padmanabhan does a striptease to reveal her psyche, warts and all in its naked glory and it is impossible to look away.
This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.