Wednesday, January 1, 2014

House of Mirth and Memoirs of a Hippie Girl

What strikes me is the parallels of House of Mirth and Memoirs of a Hippie Girl.

Not the styles of writing, but the lives. A young woman born to wealth in New York City in the late 1800s and a woman born to immigrants and middle class Toronto in the mid 1950s have the same binds.
Whether the turn of the century or 1970s, they are each scrabbling to make enough to eat, borrowing. These two women are moving from the grace of one person who lets them stay at their house to another. In both, men around are doing high cash deals, pick up, and drop, women at their indulgence. The women form uneasy alliances. The women are without parental support, fledged early. They both want to live with the freedom of movement as a man has, but in one case she is stormed by a crowd and called a prostitute and police need to do crowd control, and the other, for going out after 9:00 pm, midnight even, is considered a bought woman as well. Recorded with a sharp eye, different countries, and, in some sense, different eras.
One more generation on, are we any further? Can men freely wear what they like? Can women and men talk in public without raising some version of a scarlet letter? Progress perhaps. Men still command higher incomes. And how much do well-meaning women and men still warn women not to walk alone, go out after certain hours, rather than making it practice to demand that all people can wear what they like and it not signify invitation to being harassed to walk at any time of the day?
The book wanders around India, or rather, the white hippie sub-culture, the yogis and posers, the underground. Like Wharton, whether noticing the monks chasing the raiding monkeys in the Himalayas, or describing the scene as the group drops LSD to see the Taj Mahal, there’s a detail of space and textures. Who are the servants? They are given room and board and no more, are slaves sleeping in the kitchen or on the door stoop, which is how middle class can afford servants. There are almost 2 pages of encountering how people in India bathe without electricity or hot running water. p. 102-103,
"Chandra knocked on my door and led me to a concrete stall with a single tap that was knee-high from the ground and a drain in the floor: I guessed this was the bathing room. There was a little wooden stool covered by a clean towel, and several buckets of steaming hot water. I was invited to undress discretely in a corner of the room curtained off for the purpose. When I stepped out, Chandra gestured for me to sit on the stool It occurred to me that she had probably been up for over an hour to supervise the boiling of the water. Even the suburbs of Bombay has no such luxury as hot water, so I knew the water would be heated on the pathetic little stove, a propane burner in the kitchen.[...]
It felt odd and a bit discomfiting at first to have someone wash me from head to toe but it also felt luxurious, and when I finally surrendered, I discovered that I enjoyed this Indian way of bathing. I felt so babied, so pampered. For me it was doubly delicious after 3 months of self-bathing, self-nurturing and self-pitying [of being in jail with ticks and illness]. I felt mothered, loved and nurtured for the first time in a long time. Part of me wanted to stay forever with this delightful family."
It was a fascinating journey to go in on of times and places that were ephemeral and distinct from life in mainstream Canada. Seeing her thought processes as new developments came to her teenage life as she made her way were interesting. We read the whole aloud over a week or so.

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