Journeys from Stereotypes to Prototypes

Reviewed by Jayanthi Manoj

Book: Guilt Trip and other Stories

Author: Lakshmi Kannan

Year: 2023

Pages: 236

Price: ₹ 395 INR

ISBN: 978-93-91125-74-5

Lakshmi Kannan's Guilt Trip and other Stories is an experience of food, emotions and relationships that make our everyday life. Less jargoned but treats with ample servings of the native flavours of Tamil and Kannada glossary, the 13 stories capture the innateness of the South-Indian sensibility. One can quickly relate with the ‘amma’ and ‘Patti’ of the Tamilian home space.

Kannan’s characters are closely real, simple and relatable. She handles the varied human expressions of care, guilt, jealousy, helplessness, loneliness and adventure with utmost authenticity. A woman who tries to tell what she needs can be seen as improper, but these stories navigate through the feminine terrains to find ways to voice it out. They are insightful and delve into the social behaviour that reflects the diverse worlds in which a woman is born into and the world which she creates as an evolved one.

The Guilt trips…

Guilt Trip… is a journey of characters that move from stereotypical characters who satisfy the kitchen roles to prototypes like young researchers and University Professors who find ways to balance the ladle and pen. The normalized role of women essentially is to cook and serve. This qualifying act is vividly discussed in ‘Dregs’. Sheila, “recalled her sisters-in-law in Tamil Nadu who slaved all day in a sooty kitchen, cooking elaborately for a large extended family” (56).

The drudgery of serving food is not because of the act of service but lack of value and affirmation that is due to a woman who eternally serves food in the household. Kannan clearly rips open the hierarchy and insensitivity that is normalised in this everyday ‘service-ritual’ that is religiously repeated without any consideration left for the women who slog in the kitchen. Sheila’s sisters-in-law went to bed half hungry. “Then they got up the next day to repeat the same work, cooked large meals, ate leftovers and went to bed hungry. The next day and the next… it was understood as a very normal thing for women” (57). Food has a prominent presence in this anthology highlighting subtly gender roles and gender non-conformity.

Sheila is a young researcher in a new land acing with her pen but pursued for the ladle. The male-colleagues did not come to check on her research themes, but on her kitchen. Dregs is a powerful symbol which signifies that a woman is a remnant of something left unworthy. Be it in Leeds or in her own hometown, Sheila is not questioned about her research pursuit, but she has to answer a lot of typical questions such as how would her husband manage food in her absence unmindful of the academic journey that she had voyaged to make it to the Leeds.

‘Dregs’ is a powerful meta story on the politics of cooking. Sheila is a prototype of a ‘thinking-woman’ who “…sleeps with monsters” as in Adrienne Rich’s ‘Snapshots of a daughter-in-law’ as opposed to the stereotype of ‘serving-woman’. Women’s place and role in the kitchen is an undercurrent theme that is recurrent in varied narratives in ‘The Colour Green’, ‘Ladies Watch’, ‘Kitchen fire’ and ‘VRS’ apart from ‘Dregs’. These stories are a wake-up call of changed roles of women who in spite of embracing their femineity can be women who start to think for themselves without the ‘guilt-trip’.

‘VRS’ is a voice call to empower the society that has to handle an empowered woman. An empowered woman is on a different realm, a separate genre, by herself as against the common given whom the world and household are familiar with. She is even part of the gossips among women who have not yet made their inner journey a celebration of sisterhood, and find ways to go by the heart's content.

Plating for food in the South Indian cuisine is more of serving. Serving food is a main ingredient in the Tamil cuisine. The ethos behind serving food is to serve the cooked food with love and care. It is believed it adds flavour to the food and the people who eat have the stomach and heart content. With family roles, many a time unconsciously ‘Serving’ has become a mark of ‘Servitude’. Women are designated to serve rather than be obliged to serve. Arundhati’s decision to go for a VRS is a backlash or a proactive response of a ‘thinking woman’ who no longer is willing to be exhausted in acts of servitude.

Arundhati is an answer to the kitchen politics, a proactive woman who stands up for herself and who echoes what Lakshmi Kannan has noted in the beautiful quotation of Maya Angelou, “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it, possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women”. That is so beautifully brought out in Arundhati's character wherein she, even directly tells her helper, Rooparani, to stash away a little food for themselves and should not serve it even if they had to fall short of food that's put on the table. When we defy a stereotype, we need a model, a prototype to follow. Arundhati without guilt is Kannan’s model of an empowered woman who stands up for herself. She decides that she would no longer be exploited for her goodness, goodwill and resources, including finance and food.

There is a strong message beneath the subtle stories that food need not be just delegated only to the womenfolk and can be a shared endeavour. Kannan brings out the beauty of the shared endeavour in ‘Kitchen Fire’ where there are instances of Padma and her husband Raghuraman in spite of her heavy schedule and his ailment seamlessly make it as an act of mutual-respect to honour each other’s need. There are days Padma makes time to make food for her sick husband amidst her precious work as a fellow in IIAS Shimla. There are times when Raghuraman helped her with dinner, made her tea after she had a tired day and was sensitive enough to warn her against Namakkal, Chengalpattu and Thittakudi who awaited a dinner invitation for home-food unmindful of Padma’s hectic schedule. Raghuraman becomes a prototype of an empowered man, evolved to be sensitive enough to respect and be emotionally available for an empowered woman as his wife unlike Arun in ‘VRS’. It has to be noted that Kannan's stories are not only exclusively rich with the female experience but also present men capable of respecting and reaching out to women with sensitivity such as Ragurahman in ‘Kitchen Fire’ and the well-dressed man in ‘As Dapper as They come’

The success of Guilt Trip… could be if every reader can take time to check on people, irrespective of the gender, who serve them food every day with a simple note of affection, “Did you eat?” It can be the man and woman in the kitchen, a family member or friend who waits on you to serve, a road-side dabbawalla, a hotel server or anyone, that would be an enhancement of the human spirit with an act of kindness and affirmation. Food represents the culture of a place and is also the emotion of a household.

Stories on women’s roles in ‘Addigai’, the girls’ adventures in ‘Guilt Trip’, woma(e)n’s day out in ‘Annapurna Bhavan’ are interesting reads on a woman’s mindscape. ‘Adiggai’ speaks about the zero tolerance for women who are seriously devoted to careers of their own or women who pursued higher studies. The conflict among the submitted self and the evolved is strongly reflected in ‘Adiggai’.

…And other Stories

Kannan’s collection also has a menu of other stories that surprises the reader with the soul’s journey and transience in ‘The Open Gate’ and ‘Floating Free’, aching for an apple and discovering the native flavour of ‘Guava’ in ‘’A’ for Apple’ and the love and value of the geriatric population in ‘Janaki turns a Blind Eye’

‘The Open Gate' has an ethereal essence, deep and gripping other-worldly insight. When the soul is ready to leave, nothing can stop it. The best is to prepare the way for it to comfortably leave the body of pain. The soul never dies, it only leaves… is the crux of the opening story of this collection. One can visualize the soul's passage to the next dimension through the gates as Mr. Subramanium wanted it to be open for a seamless journey.  As a show-but-don’t-tell narrator, Kannan states the voice of the soul. The song and gate are signs of getting ready. The song is a symbol of celebration of a life lived, and the gate is a symbol of transition to the next dimension. The soul lives, gets ready to live in another time space. The spiritual transcendence prompted by the comforting humming bird in ‘Floating Free’ is another instance of the transience of life.

Geriatric themes, abound in many of Kannan’s writings. She many a time touches upon the fear and loneliness of the old and sends a strong reminder to embrace the aged with love. Janaki is portrayed as an endearing one who has the power to stand with goodwill towards the young bride in 'Janaki turns a blind eye'. Hope permeates the story that otherwise captures with wry humour the plans to plunder the newly wed. ‘The Colour Green’ and ‘Ladies Watch’ unveils instances of insensitivity and thoughtlessness of the grown-up children towards their aging parents.

In Lakshmi Kanan’s collection the simple is no ordinary, but envelops layers of meanings which open up the varied roles of typecasts, stereotypes, prototypes with varies perspectives, ideas and customs. A recommended read to journey into our very own homes and identities where we struggle to be and become the best version, we are capable of.


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