Archive for the Southeast Asia 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.

The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

Posted in Action / Thriller, Amitav Ghosh, India / Indian, Mystery, Science, SF, Southeast Asia, Supernatural, Suspense on February 7, 2008 by Ishrath Farhana

Let’s admit that the railroad incident was the creepiest thing I ever read. The lumps of clay shaped like rudimentary pigeons were also bizarre, and the rituals and secret worshippers of colonial India were entirely, chillingly, plausible. Yet that alone does not a great novel make, and how this book won the Arthur C Clarke award for SF is beyond me.

Sure, it has a great start, some interesting ideas, is fast paced, has a shadowy secret society, a conspiracy – but it is convoluted and confusing. By the last page, you have run smack into a brick wall.

Antar, a low-level data analyst comes upon the lost and battered I.D. card of a man he once knew, a man who vanished without a trace somewhere in the teeming excess of Calcutta. Strangely compelled, Antar initiates a search into the facts behind the disappearance of L. Murugan, and is drawn into a bizarre alternate history of medical science.

Leaping backward in time we join Murugan in Calcutta as he follows the twisted threads of science, counter-science and ritual, back a hundred years further to the laboratory of Ronald Ross, the British scientist who discovered how malaria is transmitted to humans. It seems the real-life Ross wasn’t trained in medicine, yet his independent research led to a Nobel prize.

Obsessed with the weird, fortuitous coincidences that led to Ross’ groundbreaking discovery, Murugan has stumbled upon evidence of an impossible ongoing experiment in controlled destiny, protected by a powerful unseen society that moves the world in secret and in silence. This shadowy cabal seeks to use the malaria virus in their schemes – to what end?

The atmosphere is surreal and Ghosh is a good writer, but The Calcutta Chromosome ends up as a mishmash of fever, delirium and some discovery, but I am not entirely certain of what.

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.”