Expecting: Chitra Ramaswamy on pregnancy, metaphor, pain and joy
24th Jun 2016
But until Chitra Ramaswamy wrote Expecting, there were no books describing the experience of pregnancy from the inside. Here, she explains how pregnancy was nothing like she imagined, and how it prompted her to explore art, literature and family history...
I was 34 years old when I became pregnant. I had spent more than three decades walking around in my body, inhabiting my skin as unthinkingly as I had lived in my home as a child. The wallpaper so familiar I no longer felt the embossed ridges beneath my fingers (it was the eighties – textured walls were a thing), the smells so intimate they had long become indecipherable to my nose.
Then I got pregnant – not easily either, but that’s another story – and for nine months the home became hotel. Suddenly I had a longterm guest, this peculiar little character banging against the walls of my womb and demanding, well, everything from me: room service, 24/7 concierge, blood, organs, the lot. It was nothing like I imagined it would be.
Meanwhile, the rest of me was changing too. Not just my body but my perspective. Not just the stretching skin, mysterious rashes, nausea, quickening, glossy hair, hands on fire, fattening feet, monstrous hormones, bleeding gums, pelvic girdle pain, and, always, always the marvellous and relentless ballooning of my belly.
Other changes were less visible but no less powerful. A fascination with my family history, illness and death. A heightened awareness of the business of being alive that was not unlike falling in love. Joyous, but painful too because it carried within it, always, always the threat of loss.
It seemed the more the baby fattened inside my body, stubbornly and mysteriously becoming itself, the less I knew myself. And the more I wanted to know.It seemed the more the baby fattened inside my body, stubbornly and mysteriously becoming itself, the less I knew myself. And the more I wanted to know.
“The face / Went on shaping itself with love, as if I was ready,” wrote Sylvia Plath in her only play, Three Women, a remarkable account of three very different pregnancies.
This was not the pregnancy I had unwittingly imagined from the outside, the beatific and hermetically sealed state constructed by books, films, news, and a society bent on monitoring, controlling and misrepresenting it.
This was so much more weird, difficult and interesting than that. It was the curiously silenced story of how each and every one of us began.
I went looking for a book that might tell this tale in those oddly sanitised pregnancy and birth sections of shops. Where women – always straight, usually white, often pony-tailed – smile serenely from the covers of big, heavy authoritative books while stroking their big, heavy, authoritative ‘bumps’ (as they’re known in the disembodied language of pregnancy).
What did I find? A whole industry’s worth of manuals, month-to-month, week-to-week and even day-to-day guides, humorous books, pink books, frustrated books, fertility books, medical books, and the occasional feminist polemic.
What I didn’t find was a book that illuminated the experience from the inside, spilling the secrets of what it felt like to inhabit a pregnancy in the same way a foetus inhabits a body. A book that told the story of a woman’s pregnancy but also delved into some of the history and literature that had constructed it, or perhaps papered over it.
In the spirit of Toni Morrison, who famously said “if there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” I decided to do just that.
To write a book of nine chapters for the nine months of pregnancy and birth. A memoir of sorts that would also be a travelogue, a philosophical inquiry, an extended piece of nature writing where the gravid body stood in for the landscape.
The idea, at least, was born. The book, like the baby, took longer. In the end I started to write Expecting weeks after my son was born. Though I had tried to write it while I was pregnant I was too exhausted, too consumed by the thing itself to make sentences out of it.
Instead, while I was pregnant, I read books. Birth scenes in Anna Karenina, Ulysses, The Handmaid’s Tale and Beloved. The poetry of Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds and Muriel Rukeyser whose laconic poem, Islands, opens with the wonderfully fractious lines: ‘O for God’s sake / they are connected underneath’. The perfect metaphor for the pregnant state, which is one of both isolation and deep belonging.
I read and reread Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a masterpiece of nature writing and a love letter to the Cairngorms in the Scottish Highlands that has zilch to do with pregnancy but somehow become the overriding metaphor of those nine months. The pregnant body as living mountain: the mysterious insides that can never be truly revealed.
I watched All About My Mother by Pedro Almodovar and thought about how anyone can be a mother. Like my partner, who as a woman would be our child’s mother though the baby would not be birthed from her belly.
I watched Gone With The Wind for the millionth time in my life (what is it about that long, cruel, deeply dodgy film?) and realised how much of my misunderstanding of childbirth was born from that dark scene in Atlanta when Scarlett is forced to deliver Melanie’s baby amidst the death throes of the Old South. I wondered how on earth I would write the story of my own labour. I wondered how I would live it.
Expecting is a strange book, which seems appropriate for such a strange subject. Like most books – and indeed children – it started off as mine and then scooted off in its own direction.
I ended up telling the story of my mother’s birth in her grandmother’s house in Bangalore and my father’s arrival in London from that same southern Indian metropolis in autumn of 1967.
I ended up criss-crossing the world from a small curve of sand in the Maldives to a egg-shaped island off Mull in the Hebrides where I spectacularly lost the plot in my eighth month of pregnancy. And then ate a load of shellfish.
I ended up writing about a shark dive in the Firth of Forth, my mother’s breast cancer, and a mind-blowing nineteenth century painting by Gustave Courbet called The Origin of the World.
Expecting became a book about death as much as birth. It became a book about life.
Expecting by Chitra Ramaswamy is out now, published by Saraband