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The Elena Ferrante I recognised

I came upon Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels quite late, when the translations of all four novels in the quartet had been published. I binge-read them. I drank them in like iced water on a hot day and, drinking too quickly, soon got a headache. Innumerable things big and small within the pages – incidents, images, single phrases – evoked that aching rush of feelings, a mix of “shaking my head” recognition, love and rage, which is how the best fiction works. Hadn’t one lived so much of this? The scruffy beloved dolls of childhood; the first experience of reading Little Women; the first time Lila writes a story. The fierce friendship of bold little girls in a world defined and controlled by men. As they grow up, their instinctive awareness of the need to strategise constantly, to camouflage their intelligence and reveal only flashes of it: “How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.” On being a woman Ferrante’s epic saga contains everything about being a thinking, feeling, independent woman in the twentieth century: relationships, motherhood, the writing life, the life of work, sexual harassment, politics, sexism in the academy, the search for identity, choices. Disappointment, sometimes despair, but also compassion, solidarity and survival. Here, for instance, is the silent rage of the neighbourhood women: “As a child I imagined tiny, almost invisible animals that arrived in the neighbourhood at night, they came from the ponds, from the abandoned train cars beyond the embankment, from the stinking grasses called fetienti, from the frogs, the salamanders, the flies, the rocks, the dust, and entered the water and the food and the air, making our mothers, our grandmothers as angry as starving dogs.” And here is Lenu’s unforgettable description of Lila’s marriage: “The condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.” Here is Lila’s resilience, her struggle to make and remake her identity even in the midst of brutal circumstances: designing shoes that other men will sell; designing a shop from which other men will profit; using black tape and paste to cut up her own photographic image in a brilliant act of disfigurement that symbolises not only her rage at being turned into an object, but also her unknowability, and the impossibility of reducing her to any one thing. And here is Lenu’s discipline, her intellectual growth, her struggle to escape the environment into which she had been born (“We had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood.”), to find her way through higher education, marriage, motherhood and writing, discovering her own narrative and herself as she retells the story of her friend’s wilful act of disappearance. In the novels, Lila and Lenu were both born in August 1944. I felt a small pang of emotion when I saw, in the index of The Story of a New Name, the mention of this detail. My mind took these fragments – a month, a year – and transported me to the Bombay neighbourhood of Matunga. My mother had been born in 1944. It was a time when India had not yet gained freedom from colonial rule. Growing up in that great commercial city, among immigrant families from the South, my mother was the first woman to graduate in her family. On the face of it, there is little to connect the lives of two fictional girls in a novel set in an impoverished, crime-ridden, deeply patriarchal neighbourhood in Naples with the life of my mother as I imagined her, a well-behaved little girl growing up in fifties’ India, in a comfortable middle-class family in Matunga, with braided hair, wearing a long pavadai, walking to the nearby South Indian Education Society school with her friends. Making connections But fiction makes unfathomable connections, and never in straight lines. I remember vividly an incident involving my mother and our neighbour’s child. We lived in Calcutta then, in a modern apartment building facing the lake. Our neighbours on the same floor were a family with two small children, a boy and a girl. Both fathers travelled constantly, leaving the mothers to raise the children. The women became close friends and the doors between the apartments remained open all day. One evening, our neighbours’ toddler cut her fingers while playing in their kitchen. As she screamed in pain, her mother was paralysed with fear. My mother ran in, with us behind her, saw what had happened, grabbed the child, called to my sister and me to come along, pushed all of us into the car – me, my sister, our neighbour, their little boy – and rushed us to the doctor. I asked my mother about that incident many years later. I had always known that she was capable and efficient, that she knew what to do in emergencies. People came to her for advice. But for a split second, before she whisked us into the car, my fear had been: what if she forgets to take us with her? My mother laughed: “How could I forget my children? I would sooner forget my eyes or my hands!” I thought of these words when I read about Lenu taking her little girls with her, one child holding her hand, a baby sleeping in a pram, as she attends demonstrations, lectures and events. Long descriptions of men arguing about politics, and suddenly the voices fade away as Lenu, urged by Lila (“Think what it means to have a small child”) goes to help a young woman manage a crying baby. A long family lunch in Naples with a local strongman shouting wildly, and in the midst of it all, Lenu shooting a reassuring glance at her little daughter, knowing Dede is frightened by the shouting. Has anyone written about motherhood in the way that Ferrante has? About how, even in the world of ideas and politics, one must always keep an eye on the children, for they must be dressed, fed, sent to school, and looked after. “Sooner forget my eyes or my hands.” Perhaps I am a bad reader. I knew Ferrante wrote under a pseudonym, but I never really obsessed over who she could be in ‘real’ life. The novels, which contain the “bare and throbbing heart” that Lenu describes, are more ‘real’ than any investigative report about royalty payments and real estate.