Pushcart 2021 XLV: Sangamithra Iyer, “Governing Bodies” (nonfiction) from Kenyon Review #XLI/1

I do think our younger selves are always still a part of us, but like our memories, we can’t access them fully. This is also true for family history for many of us, where colonialism, war, migration or death have left those of us still living with only pieces of stories. “Governing Bodies” is a narrative formed by salvaging fragments, while acknowledging the losses. I was also exploring other kinds of split-selves from the elephant-headed Ganesha to colonized subjects under the British rule like my grandparents, as well as logging elephants who once roamed free. I was interested in this tension between subjugation and freedom, complacency and rebellion, and the moments when a suppressed self rises to the surface.

Sangamithra Iyer, Author Interview at Kenyon Review

Iyer covers a lot of ground in this essay – her grandfather’s life in Burma and India, her loss of her first language, her experience as a childhood immigrant to the US, her reactions to the legends of Ganesha and stories of prearranged marriages, her decision to continue vegetarianism outside of her upbringing – but the image that stays with me most is water. Flow. I’ve always been fond of the Lao Tzu idea that water, the softest of things, overcomes hardness with its flexibility, but Iyer has something different in mind: continuity. The self, maintaining its integrity over time and distance and changes.

But her life, and her grandfather’s life, is aligned with water in a more concrete sense. Grandfather was a civil engineer until he walked away from one way of life and became a water diviner – yes, the guys with sticks who find water – and activist with Gandhi in India. This decision is the backbone of the essay.

Iyer, too, became an engineer, but recounts her life in terms of water:

The Irrawaddy River in Burma is named after the mythical, multi-trunked, white elephant, Airavata, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word Iravat, “one who is produced from water.” My family history is a story produced from water. If I were to trace my grandfather’s engineering career, I’d follow it along the Irrawaddy River. If I were to trace mine, I’d follow it from streams in the Catskill Mountains through aqueducts and tunnels to New York City’s pipes and faucets. My experience is also in the Yosemite Valley—Sierra Nevada snowmelt that gravity carries to San Francisco. It is on rooftops and in rain barrels in Cameroon; in buckets in the Sanaga River.

I got a bit distracted (don’t I always) by a single sentence later in the piece: “Can you re-create a life—re-member a body—from the knowns and the unknowns?” Iyer was describing various ways her bodily truth – her first language, her early yoga training – was no longer accessible to her.  I was quite taken with that idea of re-membering the body’s memories, dismembered by time and change. However, I discovered that the etymology of “remember” is very different from that of “dismember”; the first comes from the Latin memor, mindful, and the second, from the Latin membrum, limb. I was disappointed to learn this; thinking of the words as related felt much more satisfying.

Iyer’s investigation into her grandfather’s life revealed other fascinating tidbits, such as the account, by a gentleman known as Elephant Bill, of training elephants to haul teak for commerce. This ties in with Ganesha, of course, and tangentially to her vegetarianism. Even here, I see water coursing around, getting into nooks and crannies that a hard, straight substance like iron would overlook.

In researching her grandfather’s life, she discovered his employment records indicated he was “permitted” to resign. We can say it was a different time, we can talk about how the world has changed, but when one man decides whether to permit another to resign, that means something else: in this case, colonialism. And again, she brings in the water metaphor:

But I wonder what his resignation letter—this document that signified his shift from engineer to activist, from civil servant to freedom fighter, from subject to rebel—said. Thatha, like all of us, was produced mostly of water. It wasn’t about resigning but rather about restoring flow—like water desiring to be undammed.

It’s a lovely essay, full of interesting events (her moment in school when she refused a hamburger; a yoga class where the child’s pose is eventually recalled; her childhood horror at the idea of an arranged marriage) that all work with this idea of flow, with the continuity of self even as the self changes, and the ability to find one’s course.

I think that may be why the editors of this volume chose this as the last piece. Literature will continue on. We will continue on. Even after a year of disruption and isolation, grief and loss, we are changed but we are still who we are. And there will be a next year, and a new volume to read. We will find our direction.

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Essay available online at Kenyon Review

Author interview available online at Kenyon Review

Editor’s note “Why We Chose It” available online at Kenyon Review