Archive for the India 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.


The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Posted in Amitav Ghosh, Current Affairs, Diaspora, India, India / Indian, Literary fiction, Southeast Asia, World on February 13, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

Ganga flows, tamed by Shiva’s locks, across northen India. Where Shiva’s jata ends, Ganga erupts out of the fringes and empties into the Bay of Bengal. 

The river delta creates a vast archipelago of islands, the Sundarbans, where mangrove jungles grow quickly on land not reclaimed by the tide. The tidal surge from the sea can cover three hundred kilometers, constantly reshaping or devouring islands, with just the tops of the jungles often visible at high tide.

It is home to the Bengal tiger, huge crocodiles, sharks, snakes, impenetrable forests – and a few people trying to scratch out a living. I did not know much about the Tide Country, but after having read The Hungry Tide, I find it imposible to forget. It is a compelling story, full of ideas and no easy answers. 

Piyali Roy is an American scientist who has come to study the rare Irrawaddy dolphin which lives in the rivers of the tide country. Kanai is the owner of a successful translation business in Delhi and comes to the island of Lusibari. He is being summoned by his aunt, Nilima because of a package left to Kanai by her late husband, Nirmal, which has just been found some 20 years after his death.

Nirmal and Nilima came to the Sundarbans when his revolutionary ideas became too dangerous in Calcutta. Nilima founded a cooperative which brought help, medicine, and ultimately a hospital to Lusibari, while Nirmal spent his career as headmaster of the local school.

For a short time while Kanai was visiting his aunt and uncle as a youngster, a young woman named Kusum passed through their lives. The package now left to Kanai contains an account of the events at the end of Nirmal’s life, which revolved around Kusum, her son Fokir, and the catastrophic struggle of the dispossessed to form a new society on the island of Morichjhãpi.

Of Morichjhapi, Lotus Reads says,

Morijhapi forms the most powerful backdrop to events and issues addressed in the novel. Morijhapi was declared a protected area by the Union government as part of Project Tiger launched in 1973 to preserve and protect the dwindling number of tigers in Indian forests. In 1978, the island was taken over by a group of poor and defenceless Bangladeshi refugees, seeking to set up an egalitarian world, free of maladies of class, caste, religion and poverty that had plagued them till date. But it was not to be. Clashes ensued between the State and the settlers. The Left Front government of West Bengal was determined to evict the human inhabitants in favour of its animal populace, which finally resulted in a police shoot out that killed scores of these helpless settlers and forced the rest to flee the island. The memories and memoirs of Morijhapi form a haunting prelude to the novel.

Piya is a woman used to the solitude and rigors of the life of a scientist working in the field. Piya often works in areas where she knows neither the customs nor the language, and can survive for days on just energy bars and Ovaltine as she studies river dolphins, and here she falls into the company of Fokir, who is fishing for crabs with his son. Fokir brings Piya to Lusibari, where the paths of Piya, Kanai, and Fokir all merge.

Ghosh creates a setting where everyone is on an even footing. The hostile environment erases all societal strata because everyone is an equal in the struggle to survive. This is a life Kanai doesn’t understand. In the Sundarbans, his wealth, servants, and pride have no value. While he feels himself to be superior to Fokir, on the river he needs Fokir’s skills to provide for his survival. Piya, who feels closest to the animals she studies, needs Kanai’s translation skills and Fokir’s local knowledge of the river and wildlife for her to do her research.

At the center of all these relationships is Fokir, perhaps the truest soul in the novel. He’s an illiterate man, but possesses more knowledge of the river and its wildlife than all the outsiders who don’t understand him.

Piya feels an affinity for Fokir and his life which matches the rhythms of his environment. Kanai, attracted to Piya and envious of Fokir, decides to accompany them on a trip up the river to study the dolphins. The three of them embark on a trip into the heart of the tide country which will bring lasting change to all of their lives. 

The book has been reviewed here by Qalandar at Mount Helicon.

Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

Posted in Diaspora, India on October 30, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

It has been one week since I finished reading Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami, and somehow I keep avoiding picking up another book. I am reluctant of diluting the experience, reluctant to bid adieu to Paaji and Bibiji, Leela, Nimmo. I am still mulling over how politics and history cut a swathe thorugh individual lives. I am looking with fresh curiosity at those of us who left Desh – that common denominator of immigrants from the Subcontinent.

In June 1985, Air India Flight 182 enroute from Toronto to Delhi exploded, killing all 329 passengers aboard. 15 years later in 2000, two Canadian Sikhs were charged with planting the bomb. Five years later, in 2005, they were aquitted due to lack of evidence. The release of this book coincided with the ongoing testimonies by family members of those on the doomed flight.

It has been suggested that Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? is a fictionalized account of the bombing of Flight 182 – it is not true. It is rather a story with the feel of a slice taken from the continuum of history. To begin somewhere, it begins in 1928 with Sharanjit Kaur’s childhood. Greedy, grasping, and endearing little Sharan, with more beauty than it is good to be blessed with for someone of her poor station. Sharanjit, who “steals her sister’s fate” by marrying the man who was intended for her, and moves to Vancouver.

The village and the family that she left behind disappear quietly from the map that suddenly sprouts new borders, new divisions, new countries. It is the Partition of the Desh into violent and arbitrary borders and one of the most tragic uprooting and flight of peoples across the land – peoples who half a century later have not managed to assimilate completely into societies. Racked by guilt, finding Kanwar or any of her surviving children becomes Sharanjit’s holy grail. To find them, and somehow make it up for “stealing” Paaji and living the safe and prosperous life her sister was supposed to live in Canada.

Bibiji and Paaji’s house is “open house” for all new Punjabi immigrants, and there is a stream of them coming through and staying put until they find their feet. When Paaji buys her an extravagant new house, the Taj Mahal, Bibiji rents out her old house to the Bhats. Enter Leela Bhat, the half white – half high-caste Brahmin, wife of Balu Bhat, the Bhats from Bangalore. It is Leela who carries an address scrawled hurriedly by a Delhi cabbie, Satpal. You are going to Vancouver, madam. My wife has an aunt in Vancouver, and if you ever find her… and thus Bibiji is reunited with her neice, Nimmo.

The story sweeps along, twisting the individual strands of these three women into love, neighborliness, sacrifice and tragedy for more than half a century. Nimmo is a mass of unresolved, troubled memories. She thinks she remembers Kanwar hiding her in a bharoli of corn when the mobs come banging on the door in the middle of the night. Her most secret memory is of the terror in her hiding spot, of hearing her mother’s wail as she is raped, and the smell of lavender soap from her mother’s feet as she dangles at the end of a duptta. Soap that Sharan coveted as a child,  that she has presumably sent her sister all the way from distant Canada. The childless Bibiji lands into Nimmo’s life like a whirlwind, and when Nimmo has gotten used to her small kindnesses, used to being in her debt, asks to adopt a son. The brooding and sensitive older son Jasbeer is sent away “to a better life, better prospects” from the straitened circumstances of Satpal and Nimmo. “It’s like sending him to a posh boarding school,” the parents comfort each other.

From there, the conditions are fertile to drive the sullen young Jasbeer into rebelling against authority and later, to fall under the influence of Dr. Randhwa, a proponent of an independent Punjabi state of Khalistan, with tragic consequences. Paaji and Bibiji are caught smack in the middle of Operation Bluestar, where soldiers stormed the Golden Temple to capture the radical Sant Bhindranwale. In the brutal assault lasted the entire night, civilian losses were esitmated to be in the thousands. Soon after, Indira Gandhi is shot by two Sikh bodyguards, unleashing a mania of revenge killings of Sikhs in the following days. Badami has exposed a dark chapter of India’s history.

In an interview with CBC radio, Badami reveals a bit about the dedication that the novel carries “To the man on the bridge at Modinagar”. She recalls that when travelling with her husband by bus to Delhi, “we witnessed how growing outrage manifests against the Sikhs. We saw a man being thrown over a bridge into a dry riverbed; he had been set on fire. By the time we reached Delhi it was like a war zone where many Sikhs had been murdered.”

Badami fails to draw a convincing connection between the violence against Sikhs in India and the act of bombing of AI Flight 182, if there is indeed a clear connection. I also have a contention that she has failed at some level to capture the trauma of the Sikhs abroad at the regime’s suppression and reprisals. Paaji’s benevolent and pacifist mantra of “live and let live” and “separation is a bad thing” was not a popular attitude, but there could have been more empathy towards Dr. Randhwa’s point of view without dismissing it all as self-aggrandizing hot air.

However, she breathes compassion and humanity into all her characters. This novel is fluid, moving seamlessly from cause to effect, action to reaction, incident by incident, individual to individual. It encompasses the immigrant experience in Canada. Bibiji from poor roots, who manages to live the American dream because of her hard work and perspicacity. Leela from a rich background who gives up security, ancestral home, and sense of belonging to come to a place where she will be a salesperson at the Bay for the rest of her life. You will have often encountered Paaji – there is nothing quite like a proud Sardar with a turban, pot-belly and all, to remind you of home in Pardes.

This is a story that had to be told, and Badami tells it with extraordinary compassion and humor.

Bombay Time

Posted in India on October 10, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

The Parsi residents of Wadia Baug, an apartment building examine their bonds with each other as well as their love-hate relationship with the city of their birth. Parsis are a small ethnic minority, whose relative affluence and Western orientation makes them stand out in a city of mass poverty.

Now the son of Jimmy Kanga, the resident success, is getting married and all the neighbors are invited. As each of the guest’s disparate, poignant stories unfold we follow the slow dissolution of Rusi and Coomi Bilimoria’s marriage, the fatal betrayal suffered by Rusi’s friend, Soli Contractor, the rise of Jimmy Kanga, and the sad case of the reclusive Tehmi Engineer. Above all, the novel gives us a sense of how this close knit Parsi community copes with individual struggles through humor, hope and courage. Umrigar dramatizes missed chances, lost opportunities, the disappointments of these ageing Parsi parents. A brilliant character study.

The Last Song of Dusk

Posted in India on October 7, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

On the day Anuradha Patwardhan was leaving Udaipur to marry a man she had not even met… dozens of peacocks came to the railway station to bid her farewell with cries. For when Anuradha sings, even the moon listens.

Vardhman Gandharva, the boy who flew a kite so high that it stayed up for a week, and took lanterns, bits and bobs and even a chair up with it to the sky.

Divi Bai, Vardhman’s stepmother, so evil that she threw her twin sister to the crocodiles when she was 5 years old. Divi Bai’s foul-talking parrot Zenobia.

The Gandharva’s precocious and precious son Mohan, who inherited his mother’s gift of the Song, and wanted a violin for his 2nd birthday.

When Mohan falls from the window to his death, the happy couple’s life comes apart at the seams. Anuradha finds that her lineage of the Song is a healing and a solace, but Vardhman retreats into a shell of silence.

Built upon the foundations of heartbreak and tragedy, the sentient house, Dariya Mahal, watches lives play out among its lush confines. The pond in the courtyard where the goldfish never die. Where Vardhman brings Anuradha to start anew. And Anuradha brings with her a 14 years old orphan, the cat-blooded beauty, Nandini.

Nandini walks on water and eats weaver-birds, because there is a woman on her mother’s side who mated with a leopard. She is devious, sensational, the artist who paints the essence of people, and media darling. She is the barefoot, beedi-smoking little girl who witnessed her parents’ horrendous violence towards each other, and was raped by an oily relative after their death. She is the depraved lover of famous artist Khalil Murrata and his rich patroness, the lesbian Libya Dass. And leopard lover.

There is Shloka, the Gandharva’s disturbingly silent child, who was born in the wings of a storm and through a terrible promise made to Dariya Mahal that this child would be sent away when the time was right.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s narrative is rife with enchantment, and at every turn, it reveals a deeper truths – that there are very small mercies that life hands out. There is something in everyone that is their strength and salvation, that will allow them to bear everything that Fate socks out. It is a tale of friendships and sacrifices, told with gentleness and candor. That love is enough and not enough, and what begins after love has ceased is knowledge and divine eloquence.

NO! I’m not going anywhere! You can’t send me ANY place – do you understand? It was ludicrously incongruous: the big voice of a small boy. He knew what happened to people when they had to go and live with strangers. Nandini had told him all about it. The tearability and breakability of people.

Anuradha sighed.

What could she tell him in the circumstances? Was there any rational explanation for this? Maybe he was the last song of dusk. He would carry the Story everyone else had lived. No matter where he would go now, the Story would be the same, even if the characters differed in color or height or cadence of speech. What would distinguish it from all other stories would be the bravura of its sadness, the humility of its joy, the subtlety of its fury.

Ladies Coupe

Posted in India on October 5, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

Akhila – 45, single, income-tax clerk. The tween who took up the role of provider when her father died. A woman who has never been allowed to live her own life – until the day she gets herself a one-way ticket to the seaside town of Kanyakumari. In the intimate atmosphere of the Ladies Coupe, Akhila asks the five women the question that has been haunting her. Can a woman be happy on her own, or does she need a man to feel complete?

It’s in this compartment that five women of different ages and backgrounds come together, sharing private moments, and each one’s story casts a perspective on the question in the theme. Each woman has been a victim of male domination of some sort. Each has struggled to establish her identity. Some failed, some succeeded and some managed to stay afloat.

Janaki is an elderly, and recounts the years of ups and downs with her husband whom she has known since she was a baby. Her lesson is that while she could have made it alone, she’d rather have had the companionship of her husband and friend, and she does.

Sheela is the teen voice, and talks of the death of her grandmother, Ammumma. Ammumma is a spirited old matriarch, who’s ruled her children with an iron fist. When she is dying of cervical cancer, she is misunderstood and considered insane by all her brood except Sheela. It is Sheela, the 13 year old, who understands why Ammumma applies talcum powder and make up so carefully, why she overeats, and the intention behind her strict rules.

Margaret Shanti, a chemistry teacher, is married to the principal of the school she teaches in. Hers is a love match that grows into the realization that her handsome husband is a sadistic control freak, who takes perverse pleasure in breaking people’s spirits with humiliating remarks or [in case of his students] callous punishments. He coaxes Margaret into aborting their first pregn ancy, opening the floodgates of resentment and friction. Finally, Margaret exacts revenge by coaxing him to eating more, giving up his diet-conscious lifestyle until he is obese and loses both his shape and razor-edged sarcasm.

Prabha Devi is a 40 years old matron from a wealthy background, and married at 18. During a trip to New York with her husband, she cultivated the look, style and confidence of the Western women. Bac home, her high heels and flirtatious confidence attracted the wrong kind of attention from a husband’s friend who makes advances at her. Prabha Devi is terrified at the repercussions and retreats into a shell, dutifully waiting for her husband and giving birth to babies. Life goes back to being dull. One day she decides to change herself again now that her children are grown up. She learns to swim, and regains her confidence.

Mariakolanthu, a poor village-woman now talks of her life, rife with injustice. She is employed by the Chettiar to take care of his grandson. She grows up, taking care of the baby and forms a bond with Sujatha Akka, the mother. When Mariakolanthu is raped by the Chettiar’s son and gets pregnant, all atempts to abort the baby prove futile and a boy is born. She hates the baby and refuses to nurse him.

Mariakolanthu’s story has a stronger feminist take from all the other women we have heard so far. It explores the lesbian affair of two foreign nurses Maria works for, and subsequently her lesbian relationship with Sujatha Akka. It deals with the crushing injustices of poverty and rape. Even though she is poor and lower class, Maria is the strongest woman in this book. Her experience has left her free from both physical and emotional dependence on men. To Akhila’s question, she seems to say, yes women are completely able to b e happy by themselves – whatever men can do, women can do better.