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Book Review: In the Body of the World


To the precipice and back
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | New Delhi, July 18, 2013 13:46
Tags : In the Body of the World | Eve Ensler | Uterine cancer | Congo |

The distance between art and activism isn’t insignificant. On the face of it, they do inhabit two completely different spheres, but both can exercise great influence on human lives and thought.

Yet, there is a marked difference. True art often has no qualms about existing for its own sake – indeed it thrives in the idea of being enveloped in its own rarefied bubble. But activism, a pursuit of ideals that are aimed at changing the world into a better place, would be of no use at all if it were to fail to have any impact on its target audience.

It is amply evident that In the Body of the World, feminist playwright, author and constant envelope-pusher Eve Ensler’s intimate and candid account of her battle with uterine cancer, is both art and activism – may be a little more of the latter than the former, but it is both nonetheless.

This remarkable memoir directs the reader’s attention to the horrors that are unfolding for the women of the Congo in the form of an epidemic of sexual violence perpetrated by governments, corporations and militias even as it narrates with impressive acuity the process of the author’s treatment and eventual recovery.

Ensler tells her story with astonishing honesty and humour, focusing squarely on the life-altering, even spiritual, change that grave illness can bring about in the body and the soul of the afflicted human being. She writes: “Once you are diagnosed with cancer, time changes. It both speeds up insanely and stops altogether. It all happened fast. Seven months. Impressions. Scenes. Light beams. Scans.”

The narration is aptly urgent. The sentences are pithy, the chapters, called Scans, are brief and absolutely to the point, and the impact of each word and idea is enormous. For Ensler, the onset of cancer was both an unpleasant wake-up call and a marvellous opportunity to re-examine her connection, or the lack of it, with her body and the world.

In the Body of the World isn’t unlike a play – although Ensler has come to regard performance art as an inadequate salve for the wounds sustained by women around the world. It is a dramatic tale of a turnaround caused by much pain and a hint of panic, but it opens out to take in the entire world and the damage being caused to it by collective greed and myopia.

She writes: “For years I have been trying to find my way back to my body, and to the Earth. I guess you could say it has been a preoccupation. Although I have felt pleasure in both, the Earth and my body, it has been more as a visitor than as an inhabitant.”

And then, she goes further to throw light on her crisis: “Because I did not, could not, inhabit my body or the Earth, I could not feel or know their pain. I could not intuit their unwillingness or refusals, and I almost certainly never knew the boundaries of enough…” 

When the disease struck, it was the end of one life and the beginning of another. “My body,” Ensler points out, “was no longer an abstraction. There were men cutting into it and tubes coming out of it and bags and catheters draining it and needles bruising it and making it bleed.”

“Cancer threw me through the window of my disassociation into the center of my body’s crisis. The Congo threw me deep into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced the disease and what I felt was the beginning of the end,” she ruminates.

Amidst it all, Ensler gives the reader a peep into her life with characteristic lack of inhibition. She talks about the horrible abuses her father subjected her to, the intimidating remoteness of “my blond beauty-queen mother’, her own drug abuse as a high school student and her alcohol-induced promiscuity as an under-grad.

She holds nothing back and that is a quality that makes this book compelling reading. Eventually, like a true heroine, she emerges triumphant and discovers a second life. “Having cancer was the moment when I went as far as I could without being gone, and it was there, dangling on that edge, that I forced to let go of very thing that didn’t matter, to release the past and be burned down to essential matter. It was there I found my second wind.”

Searing but life-affirming, In the Body of the World is a fitting tribute to the women of the Congo, among whom Ensler has seen a “determination and a life force I had never witnessed”.


Author: Eve Ensler

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-8-184-00402-1

Pages: 220

Price: Rs. 199

Publisher: Random House India

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017