Strange and unsatisfying: A review of ‘Homeless’ by K. Vaishali

Readers get almost no chance to look at the world the narrator inhabits through a lens that is not inflected by uncertainty and fuzziness of distress.

Published : Sep 21, 2023 11:00 IST - 7 MINS READ

 Getty Images/iStockphoto

 Getty Images/iStockphoto

The subtitle of K. Vaishali’s Homeless, jointly produced by Simon and Schuster and Yoda Press, tells one that it is a memoir of “growing up lesbian and dyslexic in India”. It struck this reviewer as soon as she began to read that it is also, unavoidably, a book about anxiety written by an anxious person. Now, this is not a criticism, but it is worth noting how this mental posture, one that this reviewer is no stranger to, shapes the voice and content of this life narrative.

Homeless: Growing Up Lesbian and Dyslexic in India
By K. Vaishali
Simon & Schuster-Yoda Press
Pages: 240
Price: Rs.499

Written in a conversational, run-along-with-me-while-I-follow-this-train-of-thought style, Homeless is an incredibly inward-looking work, a piece of writing that is breathlessly in its own head and gives readers almost no chance to look around and outside at the world the narrator inhabits through a lens that is not inflected by the uncertainty and fuzziness of distress. This is both the defining strength and the main trouble one faces while making one’s way through the book.

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Centred around a period when Vaishali was in her twenties and doing her best to navigate a series of small and large disasters and self-propelled transitions—figuring out her love life as a lesbian in an India where the law against “unnatural sex”, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, was still in effect; coming out to her emotionally unavailable mother who literally kept score of the help she extended to her daughter; understanding her late diagnosis of dyslexia; and attempting a reboot in a women’s hostel in the University of Hyderabad as she gave postgraduate education a second go—Homeless is adapted from diaries and written with enough distance to allow Vaishali to layer a good deal of circumspection and analysis over the storytelling. The writer’s glimmering moments of showing are necessarily wedged between large stretches of telling.

Scenes from her early days in the hostel flow immediately into memories and post hoc analysis of receiving therapy from an ignorant and homophobic counsellor who communicated his thoughts to her mother: “He told her I was suicidal and she scolded me for it… she said I couldn’t commit suicide as long as I was living in her house…. I couldn’t get myself to trust psychiatrists and counsellors after that.”

These sentences, with their blank, front-facing cleanness, are always shocking when they follow gentle, expectant narration: “I left the Warden’s office and roamed around until I found a tea stall.” This is certainly the desired effect. Why should a reader feel settled and easy in a story that is so earnestly about unsettledness and displacement even within one’s own self?

After a while, this pattern begins to make sense. The interlacing of brief strands of presentness that are preoccupied with poverty and survival; the acutely painful past, suffused as it is with emotional and physical violence (her semi-estranged family) and heartbreak (her clandestine high school girlfriend); and the extensive paragraphs of analysis that veer from the deeply personal to the societal and structural allow the reader to feel the extensive fissuring of a worried and itinerant mind and body living its life out always in fear of the worst possible outcomes.

Pointed structural critique

The structural critique is particularly pointed and gives the memoir much of its cultural heft. Homeless reveals the interiority of what being mediated, being subject to the clashing narratives of the world actually feels like.

While Vaishali’s homosexuality has her militating against the lengths she has to go to to hide herself from the women around her, she also feels at odds with what it means to be an acceptable, political queer within the norms of her community.

“The writer’s glimmering moments of showing are necessarily wedged between large stretches of telling.”

Her dominant-caste upbringing and her enforced poverty make her question the ways in which privilege plays out, and her dyslexia colours this question with an added complexity: the insight that social advantages and disadvantages are often invisible, embedded in unclear perception, and reliant on politics and accommodation systems that draw meaning exclusively from identity labels. Homeless is able to explore this mediation—this endless decentring of the self from its axis by the social systems that attach meaning to it—so fruitfully because Vaishali is aware of her marginal non-normative standpoint. The narrative is a relentless turnstile of explanations for her life, behaviour, and experiences, a search not only for physical homes but for a reparative consistency of meaning that can bring the fragments of herself to something resembling wholeness and secure privacy.

Despite its political acuity and narrative questing, however, Homeless remains a strange, unsatisfying book. For one, it lacks pace, momentum, really any sense of propulsion. If it moves quickly, one can ascribe it to the overly large typeface. Themes might be the intellectual meat of a story but are not what make the narrative move even if they give it coherence or resolve. One has a vague feeling of wanting to know how things come to a head with her family and her (now) ex-girlfriend Bhavya, but once these threads are tied up, a little over halfway through the book, the concerns actually get repetitive.

One-dimensional tell mode

Moreover, one misses the aesthetic elements of a richly constructed textual world. Sights, sounds, and smells work to invoke a world for the reader. They do not constitute ornamentation as much as they do requisite world building, and Homeless does little to conjure, or show, and slips frequently into a more one-dimensional tell mode. After a few chapters, one finds oneself feeling like one is in a great, very conversational relationship with a new friend, learning about their life, and casually psychoanalysing them a little. They even talk like one’s friends, as if they have been imbibing some therapy-speak and cannot quite say what they want to say without it, in the language of “toxicity” and “stability”, “nurture” and “violence”.

To be fair, Vaishali is honest, early on, about how her dyslexia stands between her and descriptive prose: “I generally hate writing that tries to paint a picture like we are living in the 16th century without high-resolution pictures and film. If I wanted to perceive the visual beauty of fruits and trees, I’d watch a documentary or an art house film in 4K resolution, not read a book when reading one is so difficult for me. I prefer books that describe the beating heart, but such books are rare.”

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So the question that follows then is, Does Homeless have a beating heart?

Without a doubt, simply because of the sheer physical and mental effort that one knows the writer put herself through to find coherence in her years of homelessness, the answer is a resounding yes. Although distressing and difficult to read, Homeless’ intensity suggests that the job sometimes, in fact, may just be to listen, to let someone else’s story wash over one in its nitty-gritty, and to observe and appreciate the act of sharing by being attentive and respectful.

And yet, I struggled to truly feel as I read. Homeless has a problem of lazy-and-literal-expectation setting that is less the fault of the author and owes more to a lack of editorial imagination.

“Homeless has a problem of lazy-and-literal-expectation setting that is less the fault of the author and owes more to a lack of editorial imagination. ”

From the minor proofing errors, odd abbreviations, and off-key stretches of audience-less explanations (does any reader need to be told what a dating app is or how economic liberalisation played out in India?) that the book is littered with, to the bombastic praise from Jerry Pinto and Parvati Sharma that is reproduced not once but twice on the object of the book, to the frankly garish and unattractive cover, the work betrays the publishers’ misplaced conviction that a swaddling of contemporary cultural references and identity politics is more valuable than finesse and thoughtful book-building. It is as though one’s reactions are being discursively programmed into one even before one knows what the writer really wants to say, as if it would be wrong to struggle with this loosely wrought and insufficiently edited story or, god forbid, to have one’s own personal experience of it.

Dakshayini Suresh is a feminist writer and educator based in Bengaluru.

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