Archive for the Canada eh? Category

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.


Oryx and Crake

Posted in Canada eh?, SF on September 27, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Every science fiction author tries his hand at the theme of catastrophe – The Day Afters, as they are known to the initiatiates. Atwood does it inimitably chillingly. Doff your hats folks, you are in the presence of greatness. Margaret Atwood has woven a cautionary tale of a world that could well be tomorrow morning’s headlines.

Snowman sleeps in a tree by night and wanders through a wasteland and his botched memory by day. He might be the only human left on our devastated planet watching over a new crop of genetically engineered “children” – humanoid creatures called the Children of Crake. Jimmy the Snowman’s recollections piece the story of how Crake wiped out mankind with a toxin concealed in a drug for sex-enhancement, and let loose a batch of genetically modified humanoids as inheritors of the earth.

Without some restraint, without some imposition of common sense it is all too likely that a devastating epidemic will be launched as part of a Spring Break biotech aphrodisiac or new wrinkle free facial. When genetics research is being privately funded by the mass sales of irresistibly appealing pharmaceuticals and therapeutic biotechnology, anything is possible.

Oryx and Crake demonstrates the power of individuals to impose their own values, standards, biases and whims upon the future of a whole race and planet. It reminds one of the first atomic bomb test, when they thought there was a 20% or more chance that the first bomb test would ignite and burn away the atmosphere. They figured it was worth the risk. That’s the kind of arrogance that self-determined greed can bare.


Posted in Canada eh? on September 25, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Douglas Adams says in The Salmon of Doubt that “every country has a distinct personality… and Canada is an intelligent 35 year old woman.”  When I read that, I thought Canada is an intelligent, 35 year old woman, and she is Margaret Atwood. So much is Atwood steeped in the literature of this country, that I have often felt that the whole edifice of Canadian literaure is supported between Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Someone once called Atwood’s books “reportage from our premier front line correspondent in the war between the sexes.”

In Bluebeard’s Egg, there is a short story by Atwood called Uglypuss which has managed to stick in my mind, though I was less than sympathetic to the characters when I read it. The story describes a single incident – Joel’s refusal to be at home when Becka asks to meet him. Joel is unenthused by the prospect of meeting Becka, and what will degenerate into a slinging match with her need for commitment, so he grabs his coat and heads out to a diner, eyes the women available, and feels somewhat clever for having avoided the unpleasant visit. He does not want a monogamous relationship and attempts to escape from Becka.

Every move to encircle him, pin him down, force him into a corner, only makes him more desperate to escape. She never came right out and said so, but what she wanted was permanence, commitment, monogamy, the works. Forty years of the same thing night after night was a long time to contemplate.

There are hints in the story as to why their relationship did not work out.

In recent years, he’s come to realize that the kind of woman that ought to turn him on – left-leaning intellectual women who can hold up their end of a debate, who believe in fifty-fifty, who can be good pals – aren’t the kind that actually do. He’s not ashamed of this discovery, as he would have been once. He prefers women who are soft-spoken and who don’t live all the time in their heads, who don’t take everything with deadly seriousness. What he needs is someone who won’t argue about whether he’s too macho, whether he should or shouldn’t encourage the capitalists by using under-arm deodorant, whether the personal is political or the political is personal, whether he’s anti-Semitic, anti-female, anti-anything. Someone who won’t argue.

He is referring to debates he had with Becka, which, ironically, he taught her to be able to engage in, and it is clear that he cannot hold his own, that Becka has challenged his politics.

Early on, he thought they’d been engaging in a dialogue, out of which, sooner or later, a consensus would emerge. He thought they’d been involved in a process of mutual adjustment and counter-adjustment. But viewed from here and now, it was never a dialogue. It was merely a degrading squabble.

Becka is at his home, “waited for an hour and a half, pacing, reading his magazines, surrounded by a space that used to be hers and still felt like it.”

Today she thought she still loved him, and love conquers all, doesn’t it? Where there’s love there’s hope. Maybe they could get it back, together.

However, she is outraged by his evasive tactics, anticipates with accuracy everything he has done – even the fact that he must be considering picking up one of the diner’s floozies, which he is doing that very moment – and feels a great rage swamp over her. He has manufactured an ending to the relationship by saying that “People came to the end of what they had to say to one another”. She feels that she has not come to the end of what she has to say, but maybe

She should never have called him. She should know by now that over is over, that when it says The End at the end of a book it means there isn’t any more; which she can never quite believe

She shreds the couch, and then sees Uglypuss – an old, half-blind, cat. It is the only thing he seems to care about, “his kidnapped child, the one he wouldn’t let her have.” She grabs the cat and puts it in a sack, quieting its frantic struggles with shoe-polish fumes. She ties the sack and throws it in one of the myriad garbage bins outside the restaurants and slams the lid.

The story ends with Joel rummaging frantically in garbage bins in the street calling out for Uglypuss, thinking that he needs perspective, that he was reacting to a trivial thing, that this was Becka’s attempt to control him again. Not once does he think of losing Becka, only his cat.

Is this a psychotic, vindictive woman? She has just walked away after kidnapping her boyfriend’s aged cat, subduing it with toxic fumes and depositing it semi-dead in an airless bag in a dumpster. But you can see how much the heart bleeds. 

Tonight she feels dingy, old. Soon she will start getting into firming cream; she will start worrying about her eyelids. Beginning again is supposed to be exciting, a challenge. Beginning again is fine as an idea, but what with? She’s used it all up; she’s used up.

I used to be a good person, she thinks, “I am a good person, aren’t I?” And now? Now that she’s done it – they have their answers more emphatically than if they had actually met.