Archive for the Literary fiction Category

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. 


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.

A Long Way Down

Posted in Literary fiction on February 15, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

This is the first book I read by Nick Hornby, and it was a complete pleasure. If you’re sick of life and on the roof of a tall building, there are two ways down. The short way down is over the edge. The long way down is by the stairs or elevator and back into the living world.

Martin, former morning talk-show host is there through a series of bad decisions including sleeping with a minor and has lost his family and job.  When he goes to the roof of Topper’s House on New Year’s Eve to kill himself, he finds that this particular building is a popular spot for jumpers and New Year’s Eve is a popular time for suicide. Pretty soon, he is joined by three other would-be suicides.

Maureen is a middle-aged Catholic woman saddled with a son who is in a persistent vegetative state. Although she is devout and proper and considers suicide a sin, she is worn out by the burden of her son and the guilt over considering him a burden.  Jess is a depressive in her late-teens, obsessed over an ex-boyfriend, and her thoughts of suicide come to her almost on a whim. Finally, JJ is a former rock musician of minor note who’s now a pizza delivery guy. His band has [ha] disbanded, and he has simultaneously been dumped by his girlfriend.

Winding up on the roof at the same time, the distraction ruins the moment completely. In spite of coming from  completely different backgrounds and situations, a tenuous bond is formed between them. They may not like each other, but they are now linked, and the bulk of the book deals with their misadventures as they try to decide whether their lives can be rebuilt or if suicide is still inevitable.

The story is less about happy or sad endings or any sort of ending. In real life we do not talk about happiness without tears, joy without grief. And so is this book, about four people trying to bring themselves back from the brink. It is not what you’d expect, but it’s completely real.

An Equal Music

Posted in Literary fiction, Music, Romance on February 11, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

The painting on the cover is Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld by Il Padovino. It is the most gorgeous one from a series of wonderful covers that have graced this novel. And particularly apt as well, for the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is a parable of love, lost and almost restored by the power of music.

Michael is second violinist in The Maggiore, a string quartet, where he still feels like an interloper for having replaced one of the founding members six years earlier. He teaches mediocre students, feels guilty about his non-relationship with his father, is bored of his girlfriend, worries about how he will cope when the legal owner of his precious Tononi violin dies, and is racked by the memory of his estranged love, the talented pianist Julia McNicholl, whose remembrance is entangled in the very music he hears, plays, and breathes – Bach, Haydn, Beethoven.

A concert and other random events brings Julia back into his life and Michael summons all his energy in an effort to resurrect their relationship once more. But Julia is married now, a mother, and she carries the secret burden of hearing loss, that will preclude the possibility of a love affair based on music-making. Nevertheless the two struggle awkwardly to find a new way of loving one another and communicating through music, even bringing Julia into Michael’s group for a performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, but their efforts inevitably fail when Michael presses Julia for more commitment than she is able.

Vikram Seth, who once said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” spectacularly succeeds in conjuring up particular spaces through aural cues, and not through descriptions of their appearance. Thus Michael’s home town of Rochdale is represented by a lark’s song, his Bayswater flat by its surprising silence, London parks by pigeons “cooing fatly” and Venice by the music of Vivaldi, played by Julia and Michael in the composer’s church. Music is more than a professional interest for them – they make sense of their surroundings through sound and music. This sonic relationship with the world was at once delicious and refreshing.

Seth also succeeds in representing the fragile and delicate relations of a chamber music ensemble, whose members are often as antagonistic as they are empathetic.

A strange composite being we are, not ourselves any more but the Maggiore, composed of so many disjunct parts: chairs, stands, music, bows, instruments, musicians–sitting, standing, shifting, sounding–all to produce these complex vibrations that jog the inner ear, and through them the grey mass that says: joy; love; sorrow; beauty. And above us here in the apse the strange figure of a naked man surrounded by thorns and aspiring towards a grail of light, in front of us 540 half-seen beings intent on 540 different webs of sensation and cerebration and emotion, and through us the spirit of someone scribbling away in 1772 with the sharpened feather of a bird.

Though this is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read, a working knowledge of classical music would have enhanced the experience greatly. The inner ear hears the strains of Beethoven, Schubert, Bach and Vivaldi. The inner eye evokes the mood of fall – a dying fall. There is a companion CD performed by Philippe Honoré, featuring all the pieces of music that are mentioned in the book, which is bound to deepen all the magic and mood of the book. Seth credits Honoré as the inspiration behind the novel in the epigraph,

Perhaps this could have stayed unstated.
Had our words turned to other things
In the grey park, the rain abated,
Life would have quickened other strings.
I list your gifts in this creation:
Pen, paper, ink and inspiration,
Peace to the heart with touch or word,
Ease to the soul with note and chord.
How did that walk, those winter hours,
Occasion this? No lightning came;
Nor did I sense, when touched by flame,
Our story lit with borrowed powers –
Rather, by what our spirits burned,
Embered in words, to us returned.

This is an interview with Vikram Seth about An Equal Music in the January Magazine.