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Archive for October, 2013

purple hibiscus

If you are into that kind of thing, reading can be a habit where fate seems to dictate who, what, where, how, and if you read. Unless you know what you are looking for, what makes your fingers pull out a specific book by an unknown author, from rows of books whose covers have been specifically designed to draw you in, and whose titles have been deliberately chosen to sound intriguing? Would you have picked that very book if it was on a higher shelf? If the cover was a different color?

It is so delightful when a book selected serendipitously  proves an enjoyable read. It does not happen very often.

In the case of Purple Hibiscus (2004), my eyes would’ve likely not strayed to it if the author had a different name. Let me explain. Some time ago, I watched a TED Talk: The danger of a single story by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie is a beautiful woman, and I was impressed by how articulate she sounded.

I need no convincing about the importance of diverse stories. As someone who depends on books to convey images of people and places, I am always aware how much is left unrepresented, and how much can never really be represented. No matter how much I read about another part of my own country, I know I will only get a part of the picture, but the real scene, evolving, changing, and complex, will always remain elusive. And so, yes, there is danger in learning your lessons, or forming an opinion based on just one story.

However, as I was listening to Adichie talk, I realized that she was also talking about something very different than what I had in mind. She speaks about visiting her poor domestic help as an eight-year old:

Then one Saturday we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

While I was thinking more about the danger of a single perspective, Adichie speaks here about the danger of knowing just a single dimension, poverty in this case. I’ll admit I am a little confused. While her talk was extraordinary and powerful, I wasn’t sure how or if this little snippet belonged there. After all, surely people are more complex and have more to them than just ‘rich’, ‘poor’, or ‘can make beautiful raffia baskets’.

While I was pondering about if I had misunderstood what was obviously a very successful talk, doing the rounds on social media sites, I got another chance to raid my neighbor’s bookshelf. My eyes went past the title ‘Purple Hibiscus’ (I don’t generally pick up dreamy titles like that), but went back to the book when my brain registered the author’s name after a second’s delay. While listening to her talk, I had noticed Adichie’s (first?) name Chimamanda, and it stuck because it looked close to ‘Chinmayananda’ (an Indian name), but on closer look was distinctly African.

Adichie might not forgive me for comparing a country and a continent above.

…I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in  “India, Africa, and other countries.

That’s how Adichie’s book came to rest on my own book shelf for a few weeks. I enjoyed the book, and I am glad my book-fate brought us together.

Purple Hibiscus is not the delicate romance its title might imply to some. On the contrary, it deals with themes that are sensitive, disturbing and often unexpected. The story is told in the voice of 15-year old Kambili Achike, who lives a privileged life with her mother, father and older brother. Her father, Eugene, a wealthy, successful and influential businessman, is staunchly Christian, and despises the native “ungodly” traditions of the Igbo people; so much so that he only speaks in Igbo in the frenzy of anger. He does not visit his father who has refused to convert, and worries that his children (Kambili and her brother) might get influenced by their grandfather’s heathen life. Eugene somehow conveys an impression of intelligence, and is undoubtedly compassionate and generous. But he is also fanatically oppressive, brutally violent and abusive, causing Kambili’s mother to have at least two miscarriages.

While one major theme throughout the book is certainly the link between religion and persecution, another important subject is colonial influence and the divide between the traditionalists and the tradition-rejecting, English-speaking Nigerians (like Eugene, only Eugene, in fact), and the general exclusion of ethnic practices.

Purple Hibiscus is also a strange coming of age story, in which Kambili learns to laugh and to cry. Kambili and other brother, Jaja, have a rigidly structured life, and a timetable for every day of the week. Kambili lives her sombre, Christian life unquestioningly, always seeking her father’s approval, always eager to prove her loyalty to him. Every time Eugene bestows an approving smile upon her brother, she wishes she had done what her brother had, and it was her Eugene was pleased with. Kambili loves and admires her father. She is proud of him and secretly terrorized by him.

When Kambili and Jaja stay with Eugene’s aunt and her children for a few days, they are shocked by their aunt’s exuberance and open warmth. Kambili wonders how her aunt “laughs so easily” and realizes that she has never heard herself laugh. As Kambili  slowly emerges out of her cocoon, Jaja rebels openly, but quietly. Life changes for everyone.

I loved Adichie’s writing. It was clean and unfussy, peppered with Igbo phrases that I sometimes looked up. I did smile when Jaja inquires of his grandfather,”Papa-Nnukwu, are you well? How is your body?”. How is your body is a rather peculiar way of asking ‘How is your health?’. Interestingly (to me at least), the Tamil way of talking about health is very similar. We say “odamba pathukko” or “look after your body” to mean “take care of your health”. I noticed another striking similarity when Eugene asks Kambili to do well at school, “Read well”. That’s how we Tamil folks do it too.

I read Chinua Achebe Things Fall Apart a lifetime ago and reading this made me want to read Achebe again.

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The Hour Past Midnight
The Hour Past Midnight (2009) is the English translation of Irandaam Jaamathin Kadai, originally published in Tamil . I was unfamiliar with the author, Tamil poet Salma, whose extraordinary life and struggle against subjugation have been chronicled in the eponymous film, Salma, which premiered at the Sundance festival this year. I borrowed the book from a neighbor who has been kind enough to open up her bookshelves to me. I am especially grateful, because this book, which seems to be a gift from the author herself to my neighbor, is apparently out of print. I am fortunate that I got to read a book that I would have otherwise been ignorant about, or would have been unavailable to me in any case.

The Hour Past Midnight is a women-centered novel set in a conservative Muslim business community in rural Tamil Nadu. Most of the men are away in Singapore, Sri Lanka, or even Saudi Arabia, visiting their home town every few years to marry, procreate, or marry again, bringing gold, sweets and imported Lux soaps. The girls are allowed to go to school until they hit puberty, at which point they are forced to stay indoors,  away from the eyes of men who are not family. They also graduate from wearing the traditional blouse and long skirt (paavaadai), to a paavaadai – daavani (a piece of cloth, much like a dupatta, which is draped over the blouse). The girls are now deemed ready for marriage, often to much older men, always arranged, often to maintain kinship or retain property within the  extended family. The daavani now gives way to the saree.

And so the story follows Rabia, Zohra, Rahima, Madina, Amina, Firdaus, Fatima, Nuramma, Khadija, Farida, Saura, Sherifa, Mumtaz, Nafiza, Sainu, Wahida, and a handful of men – their brothers, husbands, and sons, as they participate in the complex rituals of fasting, feasting, and praying in the holy month of Ramzaan. There are young girls, older girls of ‘marriageable’ age, young divorcees, young widows, young wives, young mothers, older mothers, mothers-in-law and grandmothers.  The story follows the younger girls as they try to make sense of the often stifling world they live in, and hesitantly ask often forbidden questions; older girls as the begin to accept the rules of the community, or in some cases decide to flagrantly break them, and older women who perpetuate the subjugation.

The busy narrative weaves the lives of the women together , but the sheer number of characters makes it difficult to keep track of who is who and I often found myself flipping pages to see if Shainu was Mumtaz’s mother-in-law or Madina’s mother. A family tree at the beginning of the story would have been helpful.

Also, a little more detail on the year(s) in which the story is set would have provided more context to it. Salma does repeatedly mention the ethnic riots in Sri Lanka, but since the riots have a long and protracted history, the reader is left uncertain if the year is 1953, 1958, 1977, 1983 or as recent as 2006 (unlikely). The village setting is timeless, and rural life is often unencumbered by technology, and there are little clues in the every day lives of the people.

The story has a Tamil Muslim atmosphere, which is both unique and universal. I think that many can identify with Ismail who…

…knew his mother and Amina [his wife] didn’t get on. Most certainly this was not Amina’s fault but his mother’s. She could not endure it that Amina enjoyed the happiness she herself never experienced.

This bitterness and the resulting feud is neither Tamil nor Muslim, but perhaps Ismail’s realization is especially perceptive.

Some of the practices Salma describes are surprisingly familiar, and being Tamil myself, I can relate to Rabia, whose aunt tells her that…

A girl should not be lying down at lamp-lighting time.

My own mother has rebuked me thus on countless occasions.

The language is peculiar too. The translator, Lakshmi Holmstrom, who has considerable experience in translating Tamil fiction into English, has tried to maintain the unique Tamil flavor, which I presume the original is brimming with. For instance, what may seem to some as an awkwardly constructed phase – “lamp-lighting” time, is actually the literal translation of “villaku ethra netram“, which in colloquial Tamil means “the time at which lamps are lit” – at dusk. But sometimes, I wondered if some of the meaning was not quite lost in translation. Take the many times characters begin their dialogue with “that is..”, as in…

That is, I want to ask you something…

That is, how many husbands can a woman have?

That is, I’ve decided to wear a davani from tomorrow…

“That is” is, again, a translation of “adhu vandhu” (I’m guessing), which is used as something of a filler in colloquial Tamil. Though there is no perfect translation, I am unsure if “that is” means anything to the non-Tamil reader. Also, consider this exchange:

“…See if I don’t find the same bridegroom for the two of you and see you both married.” Rahims teased Rabia.

“Go on, Periamma,” said [Rabia], covering her face shyly.

The “go on” here is not an invitation to continue the banter and the teasing. It is a literal translation of “ponga” which is used to politely and playfully ask someone to “just stop it”. Rabia is actually shyly asking her aunt to stop teasing her, and not go on with it. The novel is also peppered with a lot of Tamil words, which I didn’t have to stop to think about, but I can’t say the same for others. The book made me realize the thin line between maintaining the cultural tone and feel, and being unintelligible or even misleading.

I enjoyed the story. I particularly appreciated the characters, whom Salma paints as neither black or white, but a very human grey. Even as she highlights the suffocation that her women experience, some quietly protesting, others welcoming it and even imposing it on their kin, she portrays the community, the lives and marriage as the way they usually are – a mixed bag. Salma also examines how women come to have beliefs, especially those that are generally considered to be repressive, and perpetuate them to posterity.

I recommend the book to fellow Tamils and those interested in regional lives. I wish I get a chance to read the Tamil original.

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A to Z Bookish Survey

I’ve had enough of vultures feasting on corpses (read here and here). And so, I am game for some bookish fun. Here is a survey that’s been doing the rounds whichI noticed on Niranjana’s blog. 

Author you’ve read the most books from: Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie and Herge in that order.

Best sequel ever: Maus, Vol. 2: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman.

Currently reading: The Hour Past Midnight by Tamil poet Salma (this is the English translation of the Tamil Irandam Jaamathin Kadhaigal)

Drink of choice while reading: Nothing, really. Maybe water. I do like to munch while I read though.

E-reader or physical book? I don’t own an e-reader and am not tempted in the least to buy one. I love books, not files. I love the idea of using books as decor. They become part of my home. The one thing I do think is nice in an e-reader is the ability to search for a passage or a word. Sometimes I want to go back to a specific part of the book and wish I could just look up a word. 

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School: Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre. I was charmed by the gruff, dark and mysterious and troubled Mr. Rochester. Cynical, lonely, strange and loving – I did not know what a Byronic hero was when I was twelve, but I found him utterly captivating.

Glad you gave this book a chance: Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan by Alan Booth. I picked it up at a moving away sale.

Hidden gem book: The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, and Fréderic Lemercier.

Important moment in your reading life: Becoming a member of a Honolulu public library. Until then, the only way I could get my hands on books were by buying them. I didn’t always find the books I wanted and didn’t always like the books I bought. This was before the days of literary blogging and online communities of book lovers. Visiting the library for the first time, I was like a kid in a candy store. I read many, many, many books that year. I couldn’t believe everything was free and unlimited. This experience really increased the breadth of my reading experience and I am grateful for it.

Just finished: Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh.

Kind of books you won’t read: Cancer memoirs because I don’t have the courage. Also, spiritual/new age books.

Longest book you’ve read: I read the original and unabridged Ponniyin Selvan in Tamil a good 16 years ago for a school project. I read all the books in the series back-to-back and, boy, was each book hefty.

Major book hangover because of: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch.

Number of bookcases you own: Half? I have some books in boxes, and some on a few shelves here and there. I usually only buy books that serve as reference – cooking guides, field guides, design guides and so on. 

One book you’ve read multiple times: The Non-Designer’s Design and Type Books by Robin P. Williams.

Preferred place to read: Anywhere. The bed. The couch. The subway. The train.

Quote that inspires you/gives you all the feels from a book you’ve read:

Me: Oh, Mom, I thought you were sleeping.

Mom: I don’t know if I am or not.

From  Tangles : A story about Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me by Sarah Leavitt,

Reading regret: Not being able to finish reading some books, like Lucky by Alice Sebold, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Palestine by Joe Sacco. I would have liked to read them, but couldn’t, mostly because I borrowed more books than I had time for and never got around to borrowing them again. However, I don’t regret not finishing books because I didn’t like them or get them, despite trying really hard, like Catch-22  and Slaughterhouse Five. Many years ago, I used to think that I had to like and read them because they were classics. I don’t try too hard anymore. Life is too short.

Series you started and need to finish: The Death Note. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. There’s another series that I haven’t started yet, but would like to finish – The Buddha series by Osamu Tezuka.

Three Five of your all-time favorite books: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande, Tangles : A story about Alzheimer’s, my mother, and me by Sarah Leavitt, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir by Elizabeth Mccracken, and Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe by Jane Goodall. This list change every day.

Unapologetic fangirl for: Like Nupur said, I am not the fangirl type. 

Very excited for this release: Don’t follow releases much. 

Worst bookish habit: I can’t enjoy my food if I am not also reading. And so, I feel the urge to eat something whenever I am reading. It does not do good things for my body.

X Marks The Spot (Start at the top left of your shelf and pick the 27th book): My bookshelf is elsewhere, so I am going to pick the 27th book on my virtual bookshelf, which is Singular Intimacies: Becoming a Doctor at Bellevue by Danielle Ofri.

Your latest book purchase: Cave Art: The First Paintings from Tulika Publishers (for my little boy).

ZZZ-snatcher book (last book that kept you up WAY late): Gone Girl.

Play along! I’d love to learn about your bookish life.

 

 

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Such a Long Journey

 

I am tempted to  summarize my thoughts about Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey with his own words – quite a bit of a journey, but that would both be highly unoriginal and oversimplified, if not completely untrue. There is much that I enjoyed about the book and little that I can honestly kick up a fuss about.

Such a Long Journey (1991) is set in the early 1970s and its characters are overwhelmingly and colorfully Parsi and middle-class. The protagonist, Gustad Noble, is a middle-aged bank employee whose life, if not quite beset by tragedy, has been singularly unsatisfactory. He works hard to achieve respectability despite struggling to manage the needs of his family (a wife and three kids) on his small income. Already embittered by his circumstances, Gustad’s frustrations are aggravated by his eldest son who refuses to join the prestigious IIT and instead elects to pursue a lowly arts degree; by what he perceives as betrayal by one of his closest friends; by his daughter’s persistent sickness which weighs heavily on the family’s finances; by the suffering of his ailing colleague and office clown; and a host of other everyday problems, including his building’s wall being used as an open toilet. There are many, many characters: colleagues, neighbors, friends, community members, some eccentric, some pitiable,  and some mysterious. Although Mistry takes the time to develop Gustad’s character and explore his past, his weaknesses, his thoughts and actions, I felt that he could have delved more deeply into some other (non-minor) characters and their motivations.

Politics, both local and national, provide a backdrop of unrest and disquiet, and Mistry’s characters frequently criticize the Shiv Sena, and the policies of Indira Gandhi and her “car manufacturer” son, RAW (India’s intelligence agency), and deplore the (East-Pakistan) refugee situation and the resulting mandatory refugee tax. Mistry pretends prescience when a vengeful character declares a thinly veiled threat:

I may collect my payment tomorrow, or next year, or after ten years. From whoever is responsible. If it’s the car manufacturer, he will have to pay. Lots of possibilities – his car might explode, for instance. He also likes to fly aeroplanes, so: bhoom, crash, the end…Mummy herself has many enemies. Makes more and more every day, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu. Any one of them could do it.

The “car manufacturer” died in air crash in 1980, and “mummy”, of course, was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984.

India’s unsuccessful war with China, and its ongoing war with Pakistan are also a frequent topic of office banter. Mistry seems to presume a fair amount of knowledge of the politics of the Indian subcontinent. For those unfamiliar with it, some homework is definitely called for.

Mistry excels at capturing the everyday difficulties of the common man, the dynamics between the various members of the Noble family, as well as their interaction with others, as does he shine at depicting the close-knit Parsi community and its practices. I enjoyed his description of the clinical setting and methods of traditional bonesetters; but had mixed feelings towards the “black magic” that is employed by Noble’s wife  to try to manage their wayward son. While the concept, in an Indian context, is not quite alien to me, I was mildly disturbed by the use of nail clippings and lizard tails to ward off the evil eye.

But for me, the segment that provoked most thought was the debate around the traditional Parsi system of disposing off the dead – The Tower of Silence – a flat open air auditorium with three concentric circles, where dead men, women and children are left to be consumed by vultures, and their bones bleached by the sun. Parsis, traditionally, are averse to cremation, burial, or submergence because they consider fire, land and water to be sacred, and corpses to be unclean. However, the ancient ritual is often incongruous with glamorous luxury high rises. Vultures scattering titbits and body parts on million rupee balconies do nothing to endear the practice to city dwellers. Moreover, traditionally, scavenging birds consumed the body in a matter of hours. With the  dwindling vulture population, this process is often protracted and bodies lie decomposing on the tower, and raising quite a stink. Aviaries to breed vultures, and solar reflectors to accelerate the decomposition notwithstanding, this subject continues to evoke a raging debate between the orthodox, or “vulturists” as Mistry calls them, and the reformists.

Gustad Noble’s is a long journey, from troubled to accepting, from bitter to considerate, and though a tad slow, I found Mistry’s drama to be engaging and rich in details.

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Train to Pakistan

15 August 1947 marked the divisive moment when Pakistan in the North-west , and Pakistan in the far East which later became Bangladesh, were separated from India. It was a botched up surgical operation. India’s arms were chopped off without any anaesthetic, and streams of blood swamped the land of the five rivers known as Punjab.

Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, first published in 1956, is a grim account of Mano Majra, a tiny, fictional, predominantly Sikh and Muslim village located somewhere on the border between the newly torn India, and the newly born Pakistan. As the harrowing birthing culminates in arguably unprecedented hostility and wanton slaughter, Mano Majrans continue to go about their lives in relative peace. Their bubble bursts rudely when a train full of dead Sikhs mysteriously arrives at the local station. Although the incident in shrouded in secrecy, the villagers know why they are asked to contribute kerosene oil (to burn the corpses) and see plenty of evidence of massacres. As throbbing mobs enter the village, gushing hate and sowing revenge, Mano Majrans are torn between loyalty towards their erstwhile Muslim neighbors, vengeful payback and self-preservation, and their entire world is in danger of brutal annihilation. Khushwant Singh’s description of the explosive atmosphere and the spiralling terror is masterful. I was impressed with his writing. A passage of particular interest is his exceptionally skilled narration of the Indian monsoon – four pages of poetry on paper, the only segment in the entire book that is not distressing.

I happened to pick up the anniversary edition of the book, published in 2007, fifty years after it was originally published. This edition includes photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White, a pioneering photojournalist, who chronicled the Partition in her stark, black and white pictures of death and suffering.

The division of India into two separate nations – based on religious differences – blew fanaticism to such heat that great caravans of desperate, terror-stricken refugees began to crawl along the inadequate roads, millions of them, Hindus and Sikhs to India. Muslims to Pakistan. They had almost no defences against the hazards that beset them – famine, cholera, gangsters, and exhaustion. Thousands on thousands perished. This inhumanity was described as an “exchange of population”.

– Margaret Bourke-White

If her pictures of streets littered with corpses in various stages of decay, and venues of vultures, some heavy with food and roosting on roofs, other flocks pecking at the corpses, does not inspire horror and misery, I don’t know what will.

The only conclusion that we can draw from the experience of Partition in 1947 is that such things must never happen again.

“Never again” is a sentiment voiced over and over again in the wake of such man-made disasters, genocides, massacres, and terrorism. And yet, pictures like Bourke-White’s are not things of the past. Tells you a lot about people.

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