Archive for the World 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 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 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.”

The Song of Kahunsha

Posted in Diaspora, India / Indian, World on February 2, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

The Song of Kahunsha
by Anosh Irani

Paperback, 308 pages, $19.95

Anchor Canada, Random House

When 10 year old Chamdi runs away from the orphanage, bits of glass from the spiked wall and the street get stuck in his feet. From that moment, I carried on with the shards stuck to my heart. We follow the idealistic Chamdi’s hopeless quest to find his father, and ending up starving on the streets of Bombay instead.

It is within a good writer’s power to bring to life what everyone has seen but no one has observed, and Anosh Irani is good. Extremes of social inquality and poverty are a sad and visible fact of urban life, and more so in the megapolis of Bombay. The Song of Kahunsha is a painful experience, and one that is guaranteed to refresh the conscience which has become inured to the plight of children forced to live and beg on the street.

Chamdi falls in with a young brother-sister duo who are planning a heist to escape from the poverty, filth, and the gangster Anand Bhai who controls a network of beggars by ruthlessly maiming them. Needless to say, the plan explodes in their faces, and Chamdi becomes embroiled in Anand Bhai’s part in the wave of communal violence that descends upon Bombay in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque.

The one thing that you cannot do with Irani’s offering is to hype it up. This is a text that does not lend itself to symbolism or mysterious interconnections. It is a realistic, straight-talking and incisive look at street children. The array of characters like the armless and legless Dabba, the fleabitten “Handsome” and the toy-boy Khilowna, and polio-ridden Sumdi himself are reminiscent of the Beggarmaster’s entourage in the incomparable Rohinton Mistry’s opus about Bombay, A Fine Balance.

Chamdi’s dreams are innocent and precious. He conjures Kahunsha – a place of magic and beauty, full of words that are positive, that can only soothe, never hurt, a place where people are of all colors…He will create a language that “does not have the word ‘No’ in it. Then his request for food will always have the desired outcome.” Who is to say to a boy who believes that imagination has the power to transform all things that his dreams are going to be squashed by the sordidness of reality?

UNICEF estimates that India has 11 million street children, the largest in the world. They are part of organized gangs, they beg and perform, clean trains, pick pockets, steal, or peddle drugs. They sell flowers or other small goods, work as ragpickers, at tea stalls, as porters, hawkers, for as long as 10 to 12 hours daily. There are ways to help them.

The Song of Kahunsha has been chosen as one of the five books that Canada Reads in 2007. Here is the author’s interview with the CBC. 

Snow Man

Posted in Translation, World on November 8, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

This novel tries to be too clever by half, and falls amazingly short. The narrator, a writer, writes in first person narrative about leaving his war-torn country and arrives in a Canadian university for a new position. The story ends in a snowstorm, in which the author dies. Between these two facts, one totally loses grip on this story.

For the narrator, everything in his new environment is strange, and he moves around in perpetual dislocation and alienation from everything and everyone around him. Is it the war back home or his personal traumas? Or is it the shock of having to leave home and flee as a refugee that has caused this fracture from reality? David Albahari [or is it the translator  Ellen Elias-Bursac?] has failed to draw an universal experience from this particular situation. This loss of meaning and reality could well be the ramblings of a lunatic instead of reflection on the tragedy of war.

There are page-long sentences, which totally lose the thread from beginning to end, and everything ends up looking like gibberish. And in places, it is vice-versa. A save-worthy quote from this untenable volume:

…I should have told him how much I despise the university… It’s not so much as the university as such, I thought, as it is the belief in education, in a system of learning that, supposedly, allows a person to see things more clearly than anyone can from outside that system; in other words, I hated faith in every system, especially faith in anyone preaching that there is nothing that can’t be learned, even writing, or any art form for that matter, as if writing, indeed any art form, is actually a science, a collection of definitions, equations and negations. I will go to the dean, I thought, and tell him that I cannot stay, not because of him, of course, I will make this clear, but because faith in education, especially when it is art that is being taught, implies a lack of faith in art itself, in the stuff from which art is made: from the void between words, from the silence between sounds, from white spaces between images.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Posted in World on September 24, 2006 by Ishrath Farhana

This was a strange one – I did not read it so much as inhaled it, desperately and frantically trying to move forward, skimming over huge swatches of prose, then retracing my path. Seldom have I been so gripped by so long and unwieldy a tale!

This story starts out normally enough with Toru Okada, a young lawyer who’s recently lost his job and then his cat, and finally his wife, Kumiko. Then it becomes progressively more complex and weird as his search for his wife leads him to encounters with a bizzare cast of characters. This includes two psychic sisters [one of whom is having spirit sex with him in his dreams] a teenage girl who is mentally unbalanced, a Japanese veteran who relives the horrors of war as he experienced them during Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, spirit healers and their clients, and the strange people who populate his dreams.

The book builds up Kumiko’s brother, Noburo Wataya as an utterly evil villian, but we hardly encounter him in person – Toru’s search for Kumiko puts him in direct conflict with her powerful brother – a conlict cast in moral terms, with Kumiko’s soul in the balance.

Murakami infuses ordinary events with portentousness, as if something important is being revealed in the subtext that I could not grasp the significance of. Whereas he meanders casually into the utterly bewildering things such as mystics and clairvoyants entering Toru’s dream/life, and how Toru begins to spend hours in meditation at the bottom of a well. The novel is glutted with the image of two: there is Toru and Kumiko, the couple, whose marriage goes unnoticably sour. There are the two sisters. Every person is divided into two – the self that the malevolent Toburo Wataya has a talent for sundering. And reality itself is two – the one that is apparent, and the “underworld” that is running beneath the placid surface of modern-day Tokyo.

This book is much like a zen painting, interesting from a perspective, but hardly an explanation for anything. Bizzare. Gripping.