Posts Tagged ‘indian lit’

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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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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