Two Indo-Canadian Tales of Transformation

Song of India by Mariellen Ward: I’ll admit to a jaundiced-verging-on-chrome  eye when reading travelogues about India. In my experience, such books either romanticize the country–it’s all Rajasthani palaces and IT fortresses–or they  condescend, wherein the writer, on the strengths of a few Indian friends and few Kingfishers too many, decides to explain the country to us ignorant folk. Ward’s book however, steers well away from such cliches; hence this review.

Song of India (2011) is a (self-published) collection of travel articles that appeared in a number of venues, including the Toronto Star. Ward, who lives in Toronto when she’s not traveling, combines a journalist’s eye for detail with an unapologetic passion for India, and the result is a splendidly personal account of the country’s transformation of her philosophy of life (and death). Ward’s experiences center around Yoga and spirituality, but her uplifting, informative  tales will appeal to Indophiles of all stripes. If, at times, I was skeptical about the ease of her travels–all hardship is self-imposed, and the author has apparently escaped (how?) diarrhea/sexual harassment/taxi drivers demanding five hundred rupees to reach the idli-stall round the corner–Ward herself acknowledges the magical quality of her relationship with the country.

The pieces could perhaps have been thematically arranged for a more cohesive read (the collection occasionally feels a tad scattershot), but Ward’s tensile prose, free of any hint of self-aggrandization, goes a long way in helping the reader overlook such minor flaws. After reading Song of India, you can’t help being glad for Ward for finding herself a happy place; would that all of us could. Ward conducts tours of India as well; on the basis of this book, I’d say you couldn’t find a better guide.

You can read more India-centric writing by Ward at her website.

***

Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee:  It’s the 1970s, and as the only brown girl in her small Manitoba town, Maya faces incomprehension, scorn, and occasional racial slurs  for her Indian heritage. Then her cousin Pinky arrives from India, and suddenly, being Indian is cool, for Pinky is beautiful and accomplished, and unapologetic about her ethnicity. Maya is delighted–until Pinky catches the eye of the boy Maya likes.

Obviously, serious intervention is called for.  Maya prays to the (Hindu) God Ganesh to change things around, and Ganesh answers her prayers, but the beware-of-getting-what-you-ask-for clause kicks in. How Maya gets  things sorted provides the note of suspense to the story.

In the main, I was charmed by Maya Running.  The novel is sharply-written and deeply-felt, and while Banerjee doesn’t sugar-coat issues of racism, she doesn’t let it bog the plot down either. The magic realism (for want of a better term) was an unexpected and welcome touch–works like this are often predictable, conforming to the cultural-conflict-solving “issue” book mold, and I was very glad that Banerjee injected something new and fun into this genre. My only real issue was with the pacing of the story.  Ganesh’s machinations begin only midway through the novel, and then everything moves very fast; I felt Banerjee could have explored Maya’s altered reality in more detail, rather than hurtling towards the climax.  Having said that, I was impressed with this book overall.  Banerjee, who grew up in Manitoba and now lives in the USA (presumably in warmer climes), writes for adults as well, and I’ll be trying those books soon.

You can read more about Banerjee at her site. And here’s an interview with her on this month’s Bookslut.

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10 responses to “Two Indo-Canadian Tales of Transformation

  1. Thank you for your insightful review of MAYA RUNNING. Unfortunately, the book has been out of print for a few years. But it’s available in libraries and I have several author copies available for school classes and so on. I’ll certainly look for a copy of SONG OF INDIA.

    You may enjoy my second novel for the same publisher (Wendy Lamb Books/Random House), LOOKING FOR BAPU, which is close to my heart. My new release for adults is a fun ghost story, HAUNTING JASMINE.

  2. Both of these books sound really interesting – I’ll be looking them up, thanks.

  3. Both sound interesting and enjoyable. I would definitely love to read them. thanks

  4. Thanks as always for your insightful reviews. I couldn’t agree with you more about India related travelogues, so its nice to read about one that steers away from the stereotypes. Two more for my out-of-control must read list!

  5. @ Anjali: If you ever need champions to get Maya… back into print, I’m in!

    @ Amy: Glad you like them!

    @ Nana: I hope you can get hold of at least one of these in Ghana!

    @ Kamini: Yes! I want to buy both these writers a large drink in gratitude for writing something about India that isn’t the usual stereotypical pap :)

  6. Do India-specific travelogues paint such a picture so consistently as the one you outlined?

    I must admit your “on the strengths of a few Indian friends and few Kingfishers too many, decides to explain the country to us ignorant folk” left me chuckling :-)

    For argument’s sake: How can Rajasthani palaces not make a romantic out of a travel writer? :-)

  7. Yes, edited by Pankaj Mishra. The contributors include a diverse group of (well known) writers- mostly westerners and a few Indians based in the west. Includes poetry and fiction.