The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I. Night 

It’s a short, two page night. In an old court that would once have served for both sports and dances, I think about the times that have been, the time as is now. Our little rebellions of knowing each other’s names. To know one name is to reveal a part of one’s identity. In a world determined to thwart individuality, the first rebellion begins with a name.

II. Shopping

A chair, a table, a lamp. I see the scene playing in my mind’s eye. I hear the violin, I see dust-coloured realities, I hear the silence, and I hear the static continuity of existence.

“I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed.”

I must stay as quiet as possible, as far away from touch. No warmth, no small talk. Everything that was once me, is now no more.

When I walk out, I see Nick washing the car. Handsome, attractive Nick. Rita and Cora talk about him. Even in a world like this, there is an eye candy. Praise be.

I walk with Ofglen today, to buy the food. I must take care to not be too chatty. I am tempted. My red clothes and white are like a signal for distress, but around are only the Guardians, who just last week shot a Martha based on suspicion. Their doubt was law, their assumption was a witness. “Nothing is safer than dead.” I believe our President thinks like that now. I believe these people, these goodfellas and the wise men, everyone conspired to create this hell.

We walk everyday through shops and young Guardians who touch us with their eyes only, through the heart of Gilead, where I am cared for, protected, ensured nutrition and sleep and daily exercise and free time to achieve the goal I was to achieve – Birthing.

We went to the Wall, so see who those dead bodies hanging. Luke wasn’t at the Wall today. Perhaps he is alive. She too, wherever she is. Perhaps they both got away. My mind wanders, it rises in limited protests.

Ordinary, said Aunt Lydia, is what you are used to. It may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.

You know what the funny thing is? It is always the bad guys who do this crazy things and keep doing it till its the new normal. The good guys give up faster.

III. Night

“From a distance, it looks like peace.”

From the distance of time, I think of life with Luke and Moira as a peaceful, normal, ordinary time. Then it was trouble and chaos, turmoil and breakdowns.

What I do with the Commander, would that count as rape or date? Words of my childhood, date. I tell myself the stories of my life. These stories, and my versions of these stories are my only anchor. Someone might listen and someone might know, then. Head to head, telepathy…words from the past. Like the smokes and the wines. Like the clothes and the cultural shrines. We made a choice.

Did we have any?

IV. Waiting Room

It’s a beautiful May day. That used to be a phrase, a phrase to send for help. M’aidez. Help me. From Luke’s bag of factoid. I didn’t say good bye to him, did I? Here we say, Under His Eye. Like he was a Big Brother, our protector. Who was HE? Who were they? No one knew. We knew of the Commandos, of the Marthas and the Wives. Who was their boss? Everyone has one boss, just like all of humanity might just has one common father – Adam.

The smell of kitchens – the smell of civilisation. They cannot alter it. They can borrow from it, they may want to change it. But even they know little of the past before the past. They can create a new future, not a new past. Familiarity. Baked bread. Motherhood. Domesticity.

I go to my room. This space, whatever it is, that must be mine if I live in it, alone. Unlike back then, when a man or another would have shared it with me. Just affairs.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. A scratch in the wood of the cupboard.
Hope. Faith. Belief.
Who was here before me?

In the gaps of stories.

Whatever is going on is usual. Something was usual then, this is usual now.

The doctor tells me he could get me pregnant. This ordeal would be done with. He slides his fingers and tells me no one would have to know it was not the Commander’s. Not even the Wife.

Escape. To my world, fast-forwarded. Eight, she must be. Where was Luke?

V. Nap

It was her fault. We chant in unison, Her Fault. Her Fault. Her Fault.

She led them on. She led them on. She led them on.

Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson. Teach her a lesson.

That’s how women transfer ownership. From protector to abuser.

Yes, I am a slut. I am a slut. I am a slut.

Afternoons are difficult. The mind roams where the body cannot. The mind builds what the hands cannot. The mind conspired against the body. Psychosomatic.

VI. Household

I think the problem began when everyone got sick of news. That’s how they could be secret – because people had had enough of these horror stories being read out to them every day. So we lit a cigarette. I wasn’t Offred them. I wasn’t even Ofluke, although he was my husband. I was me, my unspeakable name, which might have not been a great deal then, but makes all the difference now.

We are driving away now. Across the border. BEFORE THEY CLOSE IT DOWN. Luke is driving. He’s singing.

Even his singing worries me. We’ve been warned to not look too happy.

Now we are in the sitting room. He is the only man in a room full of women. But he has the word. Language, how we squandered it once. In lies and deceit. Now, we must make do with the words they allow us to use. These words, they make. They craft them so they can mean what they wish it to mean, when they wish it to mean. Alternative Languages. Aunt Lydia called us a ‘naughty puss’. That’s all we were. Grabbed by the pussy and cordoned in this town, or whatever it was, to do that which God has blessed us to. Be Fruitful, and multiply and replenish the earth.

We try. In the Ceremony. He fucks me. To reproduce. Eyes closed, me propped up against the Wife. Can this be counted as sex? What was it like to make love? To be able to freely make love? To not be told who I could sleep with? Girl, boy, both? Night, day?

Close your eyes and think of America. And England and India and France maybe.

VIII. Night

I was with child once. Luke’s child. He would sometimes keep his hand on my belly and we would dream of a future together. Nobody dies from the lack of sex. It’s the lack of love we die from. At night, I can hope. I make up possible endings for Luke’s story. He escapes. He doesn’t. He fights, he gives in. In my head, I still hold onto Hope.

VIII. Birth Day

It used to mean candies and balloons and games and presents. Now it means chanting and prayers and sorority. Ofwarren is going to give birth today. There is something close to joy around. There will be celebrations after. For the Wives only.

We don’t know the sex of the baby. What would be the point of knowing, anyway? You can’t have them taken out. You can’t have them taken out; whatever it is must be carried to term. They tell us what to do with our bodies. OUR BODIES, NOT THEIRS. The next children would not know of any other way to live. THIS MIGHT BE THE NEW NORMAL. Revolt? How? They had the guns.

My mother fought against this. Maybe my daughter would too. I had to comply. And then she would perhaps also say to her daughter, like my mother told me.

You young people don’t appreciate things. You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get where you are. Look at him, slicing up the carrots. Don’t you know how many women’s lives, how many women’s bodies, the tanks had to roll over just to get that far?

Every alternate generation will repeat that.

You’re reading chapter-numbers in an automated voice, in your head. Like you are counting floors to the top in an elevator. Or advancing levels in a video game. Robotic. There was a time, I think, when people tried to build artificial intelligence. But then they just changed the law.

But there are some things you can still depend on. Alliances, for one. And for the truth: For every rule there is an exception. Rebellions are built out of these exceptions.

Then I went to the Commander’s private chambers. To do something wild you’ll imagine. Well, it was wild to play Scrabble, then. Context is all. That night, I didn’t kiss him like I meant. That’s all he wanted.

IX. Night

Borrowed thoughts in borrowed clothes. You can think clearly only with your clothes on. Without them, I was me again. Not a part of this. “It is easy to invent a humanity.” It is easy to think like them in their clothes. In my own skin, I am a rebel.

X. Soul Scrolls

I meet the Commander regularly now. I thought he might be toying, some cat-and-mouse routine, but now I think that his motives and desires weren’t obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.

He wanted to be understood. That is a human need. Not mechanic. That cannot be programmed or set within rules. To want is to have a weakness. To need is to be human. And as an Outside Woman, I have an interest in the Commander.

In the outside world, the world is stagnant. The coastal areas are being rested. We overused them. We destroyed them. Milked them dry. And maybe that’s what will happen with us, once our child-bearing days are behind us. We will be rested.

How did this start? When the army declared a state of emergency, after the Congress was machine-gunned. They blamed the Islamic fanatics for it. They had to blame someone.

So now we carry Identipasses. We are a number now. A unique identification number. Social security and legal peril – two birds with one stone. They could render it invalid whenever they want. Like the time I got fired and my bank account wouldn’t work. This number is not valid ma’am. That’s ridiculous, I said.. It must be, I’ve got thousands in my account. I just got the statement two days ago. Try it again.

My money was mine no longer. That’s how you bring an age to an end. You take away the basis of its economy. You demonetize.

One and One and One and One – that’s how you take their rights away. You don’t tell them that it will make four.

XI. Night

Now my hunger is increasing. Nick and I stare at each other, under the darkness. From one balcony to another. Sex is rebellion, always. It was in 1984, it is today.

XII. Jezebel’s

First, the Wife tells me I could use Nick to get pregnant. That I should use him. Then she offers me a cigarette. Then the Commander takes me out one night.

Wikipedia says, “According to the Hebrew Bible, Jezebel incited her husband King Ahab to abandon the worship of Yahweh and encourage worship of the deities Baal and Asherah instead. Jezebel persecuted the prophets of Yahweh, and fabricated evidence of blasphemy against an innocent landowner who refused to sell his property to King Ahab, causing the landowner to be put to death. For these transgressions against the God and people of Israel, Jezebel met a gruesome death – thrown out of a window by members of her own court retinue, and the flesh of her corpse eaten by stray dogs.

Jezebel became associated with false prophets. In some interpretations, her dressing in finery and putting on makeup, led to the association of the use of cosmetics with “painted women” or prostitutes.”

Jezebel’s is a hotel. The Commander takes me there, for a ‘night out’. I wear flashy clothes and put on cheap, old makeup. Tacky. Make-believe normalcy exists within these walls. Everyone does what they want. The old way of life, filtered and diluted, exists here.

I meet Moira there and hear her story. I see that this is the inevitable exception. But she’s different. No swashbuckling heroism. I need her to have that. In this rule, under this dictatorship, where not even bodily functions are entirely democratic.

XIII. Night

The seventh night. The God should have finished his work by now. Maybe it’s time to leave? It’s dark, I slip out of the back door and into Nick’s small room across the lawn. I need that baby to save me from unbecoming.
We quote from movies from before, corny, gay banter that reveals nothing of oneself. Shallow words.

XIV. Salvaging

Salvaging. They call it that. They call death and punishment, salvaging. Rescue from where? This hell we created?
I don’t want a rescue now. I meet Nick every now and then. I have found a reason to be here. One tiny, flimsy reason. Truly amazing, what people can get used to as long as there are a few discussions.

There is a new Ofglen. She isn’t part of any underground black market. I make a mistake. What is she is an Eye? I think about pain. I don’t want pain. I want to keep on living, in any form. Our activism was so shallow, we could sit behind a computer desk and save our skin, while proclaiming our beliefs. We didn’t have to comply.

XV. Night

That last night, before the dawn of the new day, I was taken by two Eyes. Into the Mayday Underground. Was I being Salvaged?

Present Notes to The Handmaid’s Tale

There is a special irony in reading a book like The Handmaid’s Tale during the inauguration of the 45th President of the USA and then seeing the week’s events unfold under the new President. Women’s rights took a hit, environment took a hit, immigration took a hit, humanity took a hit. It’s not 2195. It’s 2017.

While 1984 may be the obvious reference point for the world right now, hitting No. 1 on Amazon, it is the Handmaid’s Tale, in its near extirpation of rights and freedom, that reads the smaller signs of impending totalitarianism. Unwoman, Eye, Guardian, Red Centre, the inability for a woman to access her own money, the law that deemed all second marriages and unmarried couples as illegal – the law makes your personal decisions for you.

Offred made it to the Mayday Underground. There was a rescue service waiting for her. We have to make one ourselves, so that if we fail to protect our rights, our freedom, our culture of independence and tolerance, that tomorrow, someone may use the practices we put into place right now to escape from a world that might be too harsh for them to bear, a world which we will have left them.

Favourite Quote

Recommended Age:  Clearly above 21. But everyone above 21.

Final Verdict: 📚📚📚📚📚 – Buy a hardback and show it off in your bookshelf! And then wait for a signed anniversary edition and buy that too

This book was bought from the Prithvi Bookstore.

You can buy the book here.

Sakhi is a student of literature, an aspiring writer and partner at www.purplepencilproject.com. She has a degree in journalism and is pursuing her masters from Mithibai, Mumbai. 



*Feature Image Courtesy: Blastr.

Prakruti Maniar is editor and partner of Purple Pencil Project. She loves all things language and literature, and is committed to bringing non-English Indian and world literature to the mainstream.

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