The self-help book is a curious thing: it seeks to be relatable and contemporary, while at the same time carrying a veneer of authority, trying to convince its readers that it does hold the answers to problems they are facing. For a writer of this kind of book, it’s easy to slip into the role of a young, fresh-off-the-boat teacher: someone barely older than her students who is trying to show them both how much of a peer she is, while also reminding them that hey, she’s above them and knows things they can’t even begin to imagine.
You can understand why that would turn out to be messy. But Arathi Menon does a brilliant job. Her memoir, Leaving Home with Half a Fridge, is a refreshingly honest, heartfelt and, at times, hilarious account of going through the ordeal of a divorce.
Menon starts right at the beginning: skating lightly over the depressing years of her marriage to when she began to contemplate getting the divorce (dropping the ‘D word’ as she puts it), the year of separation, the legal procedure (complete with searching for the right lawyer), the depression afterwards, reactions from family and friends and finally, pulling herself out of the slump and learning to live for herself. It’s a comprehensive account, with no attempt to sugar-coat anything—either her actions of those of her social circle.
In the book, Menon makes a special effort to talk about the effects of divorce in a (largely) socially conservative country like India, where the stigma of being a ‘divorcee’ has real and unwelcome effects, including moral lectures from ‘twerps’, ostracising from family events and the slow dropping off of people once considered friends. Menon describes it thus:
“When you are single it means you haven’t met the right person, but being divorced means you made a big mistake. It’s as humiliating as a wardrobe malfunction: when you walk you can hear the shocked ‘Oooos’ following you, reminding you what a moron you have been.”
She recounts instances where she was deliberately ignored in family settings, or was the recipient of snide remarks and undue gossip at gatherings.
Through it all, she says, her parents stood resolute and strong by her side, providing her the support she needed. Though times were hard, she confesses, she got through them with the help of friends, her parents, and, above all, herself. In the ‘balance sheet’ she provides near the close of the book, she lays out her losses, but also the surprising gains, one of which includes “Trusting my strength, for when push came to shove, I stood.”
The ‘ex’ is a hovering presence in the book, his effects on her life not downplayed, but also not made the spectacle of much drama and (potentially vicarious) entertainment. Menon never goes into detail about what exactly went wrong, or reveal personal anecdotes that might paint him in a very bad light. If anything, she is supremely harsh on herself, not hiding the petty things she said and did in the “angry” phase of the separation. But again, this just serves to make her seem more relatable; she is no saint, who rose above a broken marriage with inhuman ability. She went through her share of bitterness and regret, but has emerged stronger for it. To quote her, she is no longer “trapped in a social web, caught in a cage of unhappiness, mediocrity and resignation”. Though the time spent with her ex is something she will never get back, it was not all doom and gloom and taught her much that she continues to carry forward.
This is a great book for anyone going through heartbreak of any kind, facing the end of a long-term, committed relationship.
Menon reminds her readers that though it’s sometimes hard and it seems like the pain will never end, you have to hold on to the knowledge that it will, that someday it will be a faint “bruise” that will remind you that hey, you’ve been through the worst, and you have survived. And you owe yourself some love for that.