Archive for the Historical/Biographical Category

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Posted in Action / Thriller, Current Affairs, Debut, Diaspora, Dictators, Espionage, Farce, Historical/Biographical, Humor, Military, Mystery, Nobel Prize, Pakistan, Presidents, Satire, South Asian, Terrorism, World with tags , on August 3, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

A Case of Exploding Mangoes
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Publisher: Random House
Price: $29.95

Many people compare A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif to Catch 22, but I don’t recall enjoying Heller as much as Hanif. There are far too many pages where I was snorting and cackling and laughing till my sides ached. To desi readers, the cultural perspective lends exquisite piquancy to this tale of Who killed President Zia ul Haq? Twenty years to the date, it is still anyone’s guess why Pak One fell from the sky that summer, and Hanif steps forward with a multi-starring cast of possible assassins, with their own reasons to hate the dictator.

Underofficer Ali Shigri, the son of the revered and much-decorated, late Colonel Shigri, is our main narrator. He doesn’t believe that the colonel, found hanging by his bedsheet from the ceiling fan, has committed suicide. But he is in worse trouble when his roomate and best friend, Obaidullah goes missing, and he is hauled into interrogation into a Mughal dungeon by Major Kiyani of the dreaded ISI.

The most  engaging parts of the book are undoubtedly those that depict Zia, whose years of power have left him “fattened, chubby-cheeked and marinating in his own paranoia.” His piety is a chilling contrast with his violence, much like the opposing directions of his slightly cockeyed gaze. The man who breaks down during his prayers is the same despot whose prisons are full of dissenters. His frequent consultations of the Quran for meaning doesn’t mean he won’t order the stoning of a blind rape victim for adultery.  Was he a pious Muslim controlling what he saw as Pakistan’s moral decay, or an opportunistic leader who manipulated Islam to remain in power?

However Hanif also presents Zia sympathetically. There is something childlike about his need for attention from the First Lady, and his dependence on his ambitious and treacherous inner circle. His security chief “has done such a good job of conducting him  through the milling crowds, General Zia had started to think of himself as a man of the people.” America had made him into a hero in their proxy war against the Soviets, one of the 10 men standing as a bulwark between Communist expansion and the free world, so that he fancies himself as a receipient for the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for the slightly henpecked husband, squabbling with his wife. And how can you really hate a President who is forced to prop his chin on the national flag while having a taciturn doctor giving him a rectal exam?

Hanif makes brilliant sketches of the coterie surrounding General Zia. The information minister is “a devious bastard with a fake MBA, making his fortune by ordering useless books that never arrive for military libraries.” Military officers are the kind of men “who pick up a phone and a bomb goes off in a crowded bazaar.” And famously, The only person who voiced his thoughts was General Akhtar, a former middle-weight boxer, a clean shaven man of tribal origins, who was packed with so much dignity that he could have been born in any country in any of the five continents and he still would have become a general. His ability to carry himself with martial grace and his talent for sucking up to superiors was so legendary that according to a joke popular in the trenches, he could wipe out a whole enemy unit by kissing their asses.”

Mohammed Hanif exploded on the literary scene suddenly, putting Pakistan on the map, and the deceased dictator firmly into our collective consciousness. By now we have all heard about how he trained as an Air Force pilot, pounded the beat as a journalist, then moved to London to become the head of BBC’s Urdu Service. However, nothing one can say about Mohammed Hanif beats what Hanif has to say about himself, “Once upon a time, when I was 18…

If a book can make a wave, A Case of Exploding Mangoes has been creating turbulence ever since it arrived. It is not being published in Pakistan, where it may have ruffled a few feathers. Of course, there are omnious parallels with the present situation in the country – the war in Afghanistan, Americans running all over the place and another General as President. The powers-that-be do not like to be reminded of their blatant hypocrisy or deep-rooted insecurities. It has also made it to the Man Bookers Longlist this year, and I am rooting for this book.

Then there is that intriguing first line, “there is an ancient saying that when lovers fall out, a plane goes down.” I was reminded of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s words about Pakistan’s souring love affair with America. They have  been  rendered immortally by Noor Jahan here:

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.

The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Posted in Espionage, French Resistance, Historical/Biographical, India / Indian, Noor Inayat Khan, Southeast Asia, Sufi, Women, World, World War II on January 13, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

  
Format: Trade Paperback, 592 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada, Random House

The best review that you will get for this book is from Amar, and he hasn’t even read it yet.

“Damn it!” he raves.

Damn it – when we can celebrate the likes of the Jhansi Ki Rani as national heroines, pretend that the Lakshmi Sahgals of the INA were part of something worthwhile, and more recently hail as inspirational a various assortment of female odd-bags from disastrous leaders to long-legged beauty queens to weird nuns to dead astronauts, one thing becomes obvious. For a desh which some call the motherland, and which many would like to praise as Devi, we are kind of short on heroines.

Oh we have plenty of filmi ones, glamorous sexy and ravishing they all are too, but we want real women, real heroines, who were not only beautiful but brave, resourceful, and intelligent, the type to fight against tyranny and oppression, the type who would risk their necks for their cause if need be, a woman to admire and adore and draw inspiration from, that’s what we want! On second thoughts, maybe we don’t want real women after all, we want a super woman.Luckily I have managed to find just such a woman. I present for your consideration Miss Noor Inayat Khan

For the rest of the rant, fact and mytholygical portrait of Noor Inayat Khan, read here.

Shauna Singh Baldwin’s second novel is about Noor, an insightful masterpiece about the  unknown and uncelebrated beauty, who went into the heart of Nazi occupied France as a spy for the Allied forces.

Baldwin has revealed not only the beautiful SOE agent who dies in Dachau, but a carefully sketched potrait of a very complex personality. It delves into the cross cultural currents that shaped Noor, her itinerant court-musician fahter who founded a Sufi order, her American mother, her life in France. Baldwin explores Noor’s hybridity, and grants her, a Muslim, a Jewish love of her life, Armand Rivkin. There are constraints upon Noor’s life and love – those of society, religion, and expected norms of feminine propriety. 

Through her birth, her various heritages, her upbringing, her convictions, her love, her divided conscience, her sacrifice to a cause of Nazi occupied France whilst being a colonial of the British occupied India,  The Tiger Claw is the story of a woman who defies any attempt to classify her.  It was nominated for the 2004 Giller Prize.

Baldwin says,  “read it as a great adventure story, or as a comparison of colonialisms. Read it as a demonstration of Noor’s progress along the Sufi path searching for her beloved, as the tale of a woman trying to resist every effort to define and classify her, or as the tale of how a woman can do a great job and end up saving France from Fascism while being a believing Muslim wearing a headscarf — oh yes, in France. Read it as a story of how an ordinary radio operator — only a cut above a typist — became crucial to the successful invasion of Europe to save the continent from the Thousand-Year-Riech. Read it as a tale of love and betrayal, an allegory for our times, or a tale that says we must love so deeply and fiercely that love will outlive our bodies. Read it in many ways.”

When We Were Gods

Posted in Ancient Egypt, Cleopatra, Historical/Biographical, Julius Ceasar, Marcus Antonius, Roman Empire on July 3, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

For the past three days, Colin Falconer’s epic narration of Cleopatra’s life has engrossed and enchanted me. It is an oft-speculated and oft-recounted tale, but Falconer weaves history with very real character portraits which give drama and tension to the story.

The book takes one back to the days of the Roman Empire at the height of its power and imperial conquests, when none dared to stand against the vast legions of Rome. Yet this was the time when Egypt was reborn with the ascension of Cleopatra VII with the death of her father Ptolemy IV, the Piper, the Bastard. These different worlds are destined to clash in a climactic struggle.

The image that everyone has of her as a harlot and a rebel is unjust when compared to the rich tapestry that Falconer weaves of this woman with great intellect, cunning, and loyalty. The young queen with an ugly family history, she lives in a snake pit surrounded by enemies ready to strike at any time. Whether it is her sister or her brothers, Cleopatra must compete not only for the throne, but also for survival.

Amid the intrigues of the court, the reader watches her grow into her famous role. Alone in a world of deception, she proves to be made of steel. She assumes the throne immediately after her father’s death, defying the tradition of women consorts and male rulers. She further defies tradition by becoming the Queen of Egypt instead of the king’s consort.

She learns to manipulate the masses of Lower Egypt by “becoming” the goddess Isis. Her transformations, although artificial, sweep the reader away with a colorful visions of divinity reincarnated.

Her political policies also begin to fully develop when, with the help of a Sicilian merchant, she smuggles herself into Roman-occupied Egypt. Her goal is to seduce Caesar into reinstating her birthright. She gets more then what she bargains for when she finds herself falling in love with this much older man. When she gives birth to the son and heir for Caesar, she dreams not only of the preservation of Egypt, but the beginning of a dynasty that will be the ruler of both Egypt and Rome.

With Caesar’s assasination, her future is once again in turmoil, and she casts her lot with Marc Antony, the dissolute general of Caesar’s legions, and lives out history to its inevitable tragic end.

It Does Not Die

Posted in Autobiography, Historical/Biographical, India / Indian on May 27, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

This one was recommended to me by an old flame – recently catching up after a decade, almost, and surprising each other with how we have moved on, moved away, had children and settled into domesticity.

The protagonists are two real life scholars and famous figures in their own spheres. Orientalist Mircea Eliade comes to study with Dr. Narendra Sen, he falls in love with his beautiful daughter and poet, Maitreyi. When the family gets wind of their blossoming feelings for each other, they send him away in short shrift. Mircea pines and leaves for his native Romania, where he writes Bengal Nights, immediately popular and bringing to him wealth and fame. For 40 long years, the erotic fantasy, charged with overtones of racial prejudice and a secure sense of imperialism, it was the only version of their story that was available.

Forty years later, Maitreyi comes across this colonial fantasy of the inscrutable India encountered within the prepubescent female, and sets the record straight with a candid examination of her 16 year old self who was overcome with ardor for the young Eliade. With great moral integrity, she talks of their relationship, which lasted a few months. She is incensed with the libelious use of her name in Mircea’s book, and appeals for truth and honesty, and refutes that their love was culminated. As a grandmother of 54, puts the episode in its perspective.

Ginu Kamanni’s detailed and passionate piece A Terrible Hurt is a must read for a finer appreciation of the characters’ milieu and why Maitreyi Devi’s Na Hanyate transcends the label A Romance. Life carries us on, and away. Curcumstances change, take turns, but relationships hold value. What one is together, lives on, it does not die.