Archive for April, 2008

Unccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Posted in Diaspora, India / Indian, Literary fiction, Short Stories, South Asian, Women on April 29, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

 

With this book, we become conscious that Jhumpa Lahiri is not an immigrant. She is a child of immigrants. In Unaccustomed Earth, she writes with simple grace about the burdens of these children – the weight of their ethnicity, and the weight of their immigrant parents’ dreams and expectations.

In “Only Goodness”, a stroy about a family trying to deal with their son’s alcoholism:

That’s the problem with this country,” her mother said. “Too many freedoms. Too much having fun. When we were young, life wasn’t always aout fun.”

Sudha pitied her mother, pitied her refusal to accomodate such an unpleasant and alien fact, her need to blame Amerca and its laws instead of her son… Her parents had been blind to the things that plagued their children: being teased at school for the color of their skin or for the funny things their mother occasionally put into their lunch boxes, potato curry sandwiches that tinted Wonderbread green. What could there possibly be to be unhappy about? her parents would have thought. “Depression” was a foeign word to them, an American thing. In their opinion their children were immune from the hardships and injustices they had left behind in India, as ifthe innoculations the pediatrician had given Sudha and Rahul when they were babies guaranteed them an existence free of suffering.

This is a book that will wind up on everyone’s summer reading list. Lahiri’s characters are familiar and endearing, and their stories will tug at your heartstrings.

Lahiri sometimes gets criticized for choosing the same milieu and the same class of Ivy League privileged Bengali families in the US. She responds to criticism about her Bengali-American centered subject matter:

 ‘Is that all you’ve got in there?’ I get asked the question all the time. It baffles me. Does John Updike get asked this question? Does Alice Munro? It’s the ethnic thing, that’s what it is. And my answer is always, yes, I will continue to write about this world, because it inspires me to write, and there’s nothing more important than that.

           Jhumpa Lahiri, reading for International Readings at Harbourfront, Toronto.

She read marvellously from “Hell-Heaven”, the 2nd story, and arguably the best one, from this beautiful collection. 

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The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Vishwanathan

Posted in Brahmin, Canada eh?, Caste Relations, Current Affairs, Debut, Diaspora, Historical/Biographical, India, India / Indian, Prejudice, Racism, Southeast Asia, Untouchability, Women, World with tags , on April 11, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

Hardcover, 640 pages

Random House Canada

Price: $34.95

In her debut novel, Vishwanathan tells the tale of Sivakami, a child bride in the 1950’s, and her early widowhood. She is married to Hanumanthrathnam – an astrologer with a reputation for healing, with an unconventional friendship with siddhas. Hanumantharathnam dies promptly on the date he predicted, leaving Sivakami to care for a daughter, Thangam, and their son, Vairum.  

Sivakami’s oddessey extends into several generations of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One expects The Toss of a Lemon to seize the issue of caste relations in its teeth, because there is simply so much to say about the recognition of caste injustice in Tamil Nadu, the formation of a Dravidian consciousness, the backlash against Brahmins. However,  Vishwanathan prefers the minute day to day activities of a Brahmin household and describes everything with rigorous and relentless domestic detail, and glides over the larger issues of the day, quite a feat in 600 odd pages.  

With Bapsi Sidhwa’s Water, we are sensitized to the plight of the widows, but one finds it extremely hard to feel sympathy for Sivakami because of her extreme orthodoxy. It is difficult to look upon her as a victim, because her caste and her harsh observance of its tenets gives her a sense of inviolable superiority over everyone.

From an anthropological point of view, this is a detailed day to day chronicle of Brahmin life. The most uncomfortable aspect is the whole idea of how every other thing “pollutes” you, how touching even her children during daylight hours pollutes Sivakami’s madi state, sipping chai from a cup will pollute you, putting lips to tumbler is polluting, the shadow of a lower caste person will pollute you, and if someone throws somethng as unchaste as a slipper at a Brahmin, he is positively uncasted.  

One does not know what a reader who is not from India will take away fom this book, but an Indian will struggle for  objectivity. A non Brahmin, and possibly Brahmins from our generation will have to contend with the distaste that the apparent racism-as-a-way-of-life that this book generates. Perhaps one will be forced to recall old indignites at Brahmin friends’ homes, where an aunt or a granny may have barred one from the kitchen.

It is a tough book to read, and bitter to swallow. However in the way it deals with such issues it is a book that simply does not live up to its promise. The promise of a fresh and exciting new voice to the firmament of Indian fiction. The promise of sinking one’s teeth into the touchy subject and pernicious continuity of caste injustice in India.