Book Review – “Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience” By Anuradha Bhagwati

“Concealing my wounds in busyness and plans for the future hadn’t gotten me anywhere. The future had no patience for unresolved trauma.”

To call Anuradha Bhagwati’s Unbecoming a masterpiece is, to me, a feeble attempt at describing what this book really is because it is so much more than a piece of literature. Not nearly neat or pretty enough for the word, ‘memoir’, Unbecoming is messy and painful and devastatingly hopeful.

The book chronicles the life of Anuradha Bhagwati, a former United States Marine Captain. To put it simply, Unbecoming presents everything – mental illness, sexual assault, gender and queer identity, morality, war, politics, rage, violence, lust, fear, panic, pain, grief, guilt, apathy, fame, hypocrisy, redemption, love and hope – with radical honesty and breath-taking sincerity.

As I read this book, I was shaken; recognising myself in characters/people I didn’t particularly like and realising things about my own securely held beliefs is not a comfortable feeling (albeit a necessary one). It encouraged me, gently but firmly, to step out outside my worldview to digest what it means to serve your country. 

Despite being unable to put it down, many parts of this book nauseated me; made me feel anger and shame. Anger that things have been like this for so long and remain like this (i.e., brutal and bureaucratic). And shame that I could see myself in so many of the people who caused Anuradha harm, including herself.

Unbecoming examines what it truly means to scrutinise yourself and the world you live in – to dissect human ideas of morality and justice. Which is to say that entering the eternal vortex of self-examination is to damn yourself to moments of utter, boundless misery and self-loathing.

Anuradha writes with an honesty that is sharp; it twangs in your ears like tinnitus. The sting of her truth ripples through your skin. It is bitter and scalding and ripe with heartache.

You are brought into the twisted, dark, intricate and bureaucratic world of the American military complex, with its authoritarian enforcement of machoism and bro-culture. Anuradha talks boldly about the hypocrisies and outright violence (predominantly against women, people of colour and queer folx) that undermine the Marines’ seemingly pristine PR presence.

“I wondered about my place in this uniformed world, where there were enough written rules outlawing sex to make any human being repressed for a lifetime, and where few of those rules were ever enforced – at least, not when they challenged the men’s ability to get off. I wondered why these rules even existed, why laws evoking grand, poetic notions like good order and discipline prevailed in a world where everyone was breaking them with abandon. I wondered how secrets were kept, and for whose benefit.”

The starkness of this reality and its debilitating effect on Anuradha is made apparent throughout the book. Time and time again we watch (or read, more precisely) as Anuradha tries to return and re-return to the Marines, ready to try again. It feels like watching your friend go back to the same toxic ex. It is heart-breaking. And personal.

When all is said and done, reading Unbecoming is an exercise in listening – really listening. And being brave enough to re-think ideas about the military and the people who are a part of its ecosystem.

I felt honoured to have been invited into the vulnerability of these pages because took courage to write what’s on them. I can only imagine the hours spent sleeplessly searching for words to describe emotions that must’ve felt so beyond the realm of human language.

And yet here this book is. Keeping me company as I fight my own battles with depression and anxiety and guilt and trauma. Helping me makes sense of a world that seems determined to grow increasingly alien.

Anuradha Bhagwati makes one thing every clear – we’re all messy and too many things are broken – people, their pain, this planet – it is all aching, beating in unison in an oil-and-water mixture of agony and optimism. We are truly all we have.

Unbecoming is a study in defiance – defying the oppressive forces of the cruel powers that be, defying the oppressive forces of your own mind. It is a study in learning how to be remade; how to let people love you, how to heal and how to remake yourself; how to unbecome.

Yes, Unbecoming is a word, but it is also a sheer force – the sheer force of the desire for healing. And who of us could remain unmoved by that? 

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Alita is 22 and doesn't know who she is yet but it's all good because the rains are here and she's reading a really good book.
Alita Dharmaraj

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