Tag Archives: India

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson

The library had Toads and Diamonds temptingly displayed on the YA shelf, reminding me I’d been planning to read it for three years now. I remember looking at the blogosphere reviews in 2010 and thinking it was *exactly* my thing. It’s a reworked fairy-tale (Perrault’s “The Fairies”)–a species of storytelling I’ve loved ever since I read the first Datlow & Windling anthology back when I was barely out of the egg. Moreover, Toads… is set in a world resembling the Indian subcontinent, and features two strong PoC heroines. And I’d  liked Tomlinson’s earlier novel Swan Maiden very much. So I checked out the book right then.

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Stepsisters Diribani and Tana work hard to eke a modest living after their father, a gem trader, was killed by bandits. Diribani is beautiful and gentle, while Tana is plain-spoken and  practical–and each has the other’s back. Life is difficult–not only are they suddenly poor, but their land has been colonised by the white-coated Believers, who scorn the natives, calling them dirt-eaters. The Believers venerate the One God, and require women to veil their faces, while the native religion (that Tana and Diribani observe) involves the worship of a dozen gods, has girls wearing their dowry on their person in the form of gold bangles, and abhors the consumption of meat. Although Tomlinson is deliberately reticent with many specifics (for instance, the girls are said to wear “dress wraps”), those familiar with Indian history will recognize the Mughal empire in 16th century-ish India. And while Tomlinson is careful with the details, she wisely does not make the accuracy of the setting a pillar of the book– Toads and Diamonds is driven by plot and by its strong characterizations.

When Diribani helps the goddess Naghali over at the sacred well, she’s granted a boon– precious stones and flowers drop from her lips when she speaks.  Then Tana in turn meets the goddess, but spews forth snakes and toads instead.  This is a really interesting development, for Tana wasn’t rude to Naghali–rather, the goddess grants each devotee the gift she deems fitting, one that’ll fulfill their innermost desires. Moreover, snakes are respected in this culture–not only are they viewed as emissaries of the goddess, but are valued for the practical purpose of pest control (each house has its own rat-muncher snake). I really enjoyed the way Tomlison calmly subverts the snakes/toads= ick trope in this book. Frogs are lucky! People worship snakes! Everyone wants a nice muscular ratter for their home like I want a Little Free Library for mine! The only downside to Tana’s gift is that some of  the snake slithering forth from her mouth are venomous. Oh, and that the Governor of their province hates the practise of snake worship, and has ordered their mass slaughter.

Diribani plans to use her riches to build hospitals and animal shelters and libraries and to hold art workshops (I love this utopian socialist-y Mughal kingdom, I do), but her step-mother advises caution–the greedy and all-out nasty Governor Alwar will undoubtedly exploit Diribani’s gift for his wicked ends once he hears about her powers. What are the sisters to do with their gifts?  Fate intervenes when the handsome Prince Zahid, younger son of the Emperor, gets accidentally involved in the fix. He decrees that Diribani will spend her time as the guest of the crown, with the ladies of the royal court at the city, while Tana will live near the sacred well so her snakes may be released in the wild.  Governor Alwar would love to kill Tana and cloister Diribani, but he can only nod and smile when the Prince issues his command. But he isn’t finished yet, oh no.

Diribani now embarks upon the long journey to the city with the Believers, learning more about their culture and in turn teaching them about hers, and hanging out with Zahid. (Tomlison deals with the religious aspects very gracefully–no simplistic dismissal of veiling or dowry bangles here–and we come to understand both sides better through Diribani’s eyes). Meanwhile Tana, unwilling to stay meekly in her secluded home, sets off on a pilgrimage to seek wisdom. The two girls grow and learn and understand the true value of their gifts.  And there’s a lovely ending that pulls it all together without resorting to any standard happily-ever-after devices.

Once the girls go their separate ways, Diribani’s story is much quieter than Tana’s. I felt Diribani’s storyline could use a bit more jump, and that Tana’s could have slowed down. Diribani’s journey is relatively uneventful, dealing with her gradual understanding (and widening appreciation) of the Believers , and hence is packed with description and inner monologue. By contrast, Tana rapidly goes through a series of hardships (she shovels cowdung, drags a handcart full of corpses, falls very ill etc. ), and is constantly on the move, so much so that I had trouble keeping track of her movements.  Although Tomlison paces her work carefully, alternating chapters for Diribani and Tana, the arrangement didn’t quite work for me–I think I’d rather have had more continuity in the read  for Tana’s storyline.  That said, these are very minor issues in a deftly-written, tightly-woven novel. Recommended for the setting, the telling, and for featuring a goddess with a fine sense of humour. Read it!

Moebius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways by Giti Thadani

The more I read about Giti Thadani, a scholar based in Berlin and New Delhi, the more intrigued I became. Thadani dropped out of high school (Convent of Jesus and Mary in New Delhi, y’all) when she was fifteen. She started India’s “first lesbian organization ‘Sakhi Collective’ way back in 1990″.  And she spent several years driving around India exploring temples and museums in order to understand the representations of the female divinity in ancient Indian culture. What’s not to like about her courage and commitment and her zero tolerance for bullshit?

Moebius Trip: Digressions  from India’s Highways  (Spinifex Press, 2007)  is a travelogue focusing on Thadani’s experiences as a solo female traveler in India, and on her discovery of female-centric iconography in Hindu temples. In the latter thread, Thadani considers religious semiotics, linguistics, architecture, and mythology.  She visits long-forgotten yogini temples and sites devoted to Matrika worship, deploring the kitsch that has invaded most of the better-known places of worship. She bludgeons apathetic museum curators into showing her long-neglected statues depicting lesbian relationships in Indian myth.  She ponders the histories that have been erased and the stories that have been appropriated over time to create contemporary (male-centric) religious practice in India.

This book was first published in 2003,  and much of its value lies in its commentary on the situation faced by women traveling alone in India. As a woman driver in India, Thadani must deal with “hordes of men, all trying to overtake so as to ascertain my gender.”  She meets men who help her change a wheel when her hands are too numb with cold, who go out of their way to help her locate hidden sites, and she also meets many idiots drunk on their masculinity. In one chilling episode, a truck deliberately makes her crash, and the truck driver boasts that the road belongs to men and he hence “had to” teach women drivers “their due lesson”. Public spaces in India have largely been taken over by men, as have most religious spaces (which have deliberately diminished and domesticated goddesses); we could debate endlessly about the causality here.

While I have nothing but unqualified admiration for the author, I must confess to mixed feelings towards this book.  Thadani is obviously deeply knowledgeable about the feminine in ancient Indian myth and culture, but her analysis in this book is mostly unanchored by documentation. She subverts many dominant narratives (which is great! I love it!) but often doesn’t cite a source. For instance, while summarizing the Ramayana,  she writes that “Rama never had children of his own”,  that “Sita remained virginal [...] in his company” and that when Sita was later exiled, she “parthenogenically produce[d] two male twins. ” Now, the popular version (of what is arguably India’s most famous epic) has Sita’s twins fathered the usual way by Rama. I’m eager to consider a new story, but without the source it’s speculation, innit? Another example:  while writing about British India, Thadani says that any large-scale migration was punishable under colonial law–”people could have their hands and feet cut off.” I’d love to know where she got that information (and if such a law was ever implemented, and what the consequences were). But again, there’s no further detail about that statement. One could argue that Moebius Trip doesn’t ever claim to be anything but a travelogue, but that doesn’t preclude attribution.  The book would have carried so much more weight if only Thadani had bothered to document her sources.

My frustration/fascination with Thadani’s work was perhaps keenest when considering her prose. Much of the writing is beautiful,  poetic in approach and intensity, seeking to articulate profound mysteries, making for opaque yet hypnotic reading.  There are lovely insights–I was very impressed, for instance, with her description of a hotelier in Kerala who was attempting  to “finesse his culture” through his presentation of local cuisine.  Some of the writing is quite academic in tone, and I found it heavy going. And some of it is just plain clunky–for instance, she writes about “marriage processions composed of people who seem to believe they have to compensate for the empty jar of arranged marriage mediocrity by blaring their bandbaaja.” What?! Writing about her hotel room, she says, “Mosquitoes are rampant, and the electric repellent does not work.[...] The food in the adjoining cafe is equally repellent…” Aaargh! How can the same person who notes that “Each cosmology has its own aesthetics of light” also claim “…when I am completely concentrated, I can cover these two hundred-odd kilometers in three hours”? 

Despite the above complaints, I do recommend this book–when it’s good, it’s very good. And for another viewpoint, do check out Marilyn’s thoughtful review here.

Thanks to Spinifex Press for sending me this book all the way from Australia! This review goes towards the Global Women of Color Challenge.

Canada Day Book Giveaway!

UPDATE: This giveaway is now closed.

It’s Canada Day on July 1, and along with a host of other Canada-based  bloggers, I’m giving away a Canada-themed book to mark the day. Huzzah!

I’m giving away the acclaimed YA novel Karma (2011), by Calgary-based author Cathy Ostlere. Karma is a 2012 Canadian Library Honour book, a 2012 Booklist Editor’s Choice, a 2012 South Asia Book Award, Highly Commended Book, and is shortlisted for the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Award.

About the book: Fifteen-year-old Maya and her father Amar arrive from their home in Canada into a seething moment in India’s history.  On October 31, 1984, the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two Sikh bodyguards, and the assassination leads to Sikh families being killed in retribution; Amar and Maya are Sikh. “Karma is the story of how a young woman, straddling two cultures and enduring personal loss, learns forgiveness, acceptance and love.”

Reviews: “With its sweeping, even soaring reach, this novel contains a range of earthly experiences and emotions as well: love and death, hatred and evil, joy and engulfing sorrow as perceived and experienced by its two beautifully drawn teen protagonists…” (from The Globe and Mail)

“In her YA debut, acclaimed adult author Ostlere offers a riveting, historically accurate coming-of age tale of gutsy survival, self-sacrifice, and love. Set during a six-week period, the novel in verse makes the most of its lyrical form with lines of dialogue that bounce back and forth in columns across the page and singularly beautiful metaphors and similes that convey potent detail and emotion.” (from Booklist)

If you’d like a spanking new copy of Karma–let me know in the comments! This giveaway runs from June 28 to July 1, and is open to US and Canadian residents. I’ll pick a winner on July 2 using Random Number Generator.

Do check out the other giveaways too! This Blog Hop is hosted by Aislynn of Stitch Read Cook, Chrystal of Snow Drop Dreams and Carmel of Rabid Reads. Please click on the linky to see the full list of participating blogs–I don’t know how to post the list here.

(All book-related information in this post is from the author’s website.)

Update: Thank you to all who entered this giveaway. The winner as picked by random.org was #15 — Shannon of Giraffe Days.

 

Small Acts of Amazing Courage by Gloria Whelan

I can’t remember when I was last as frustrated with a book as with Gloria Whelan’s Small Acts of Amazing Courage (2011), an MG novel set in British-ruled India. I don’t normally post negative blog reviews (what’s the point?), but this book is from Simon & Schuster, and Whelan is a well-established author who won the National Book Award for an earlier MG novel (also set in India). THESE PEOPLE SHOULD  HAVE KNOWN BETTER.

It’s 1918, and fifteen-year-old Rosalind, whose father is a Major in the British Army, lives in a small Indian town. Rosalind constantly  ventures beyond what’s expected of her, much to her parents’ chagrin–she befriends the locals, visits bazaars, and wonders aloud why India should be ruled by Britain. When her father discovers that Rosalind snuck away to attend a talk by Gandhi, he packs her off to England to live with her aunts. But here, as in India, Rosalind follows the dictates of her conscience rather than convention, with profound consequences.

The plot has rich potential, but oh, this book is written with little regard for either accuracy or tone.  Let’s start with accuracy. Rosalind’s friend Isha, daughter of Amina, is married to Aziz. These names cue that the family is Muslim; yet Whelan has Isha wear vermillion in the part in her hair and a red tikka (translated in the novel as “dot”) on her forehead–both strictly Hindu marriage markers. This faux-pas is the equivalent of a Calvinist wearing a kippah. Isha addresses her father as “Baap”, as in “Baap says he beats his servants”; this is idiomatically ludicrous. Isha is “singing her favorite raga, a song about two lovers who were separated by cruel parents.”  A raga is a series of musical notes; a song is set in a raga. There’s a whole host of lesser but equally irritating inaccuracies–for instance, Whelan talks about Rosalind’s father’s cyce (groom); that’s syce to me and you and Merriam-Webster.  Gopal is spelled Gopel… why?

When writing from the outside,  authors need to tread very carefully and examine the privileges and attitudes they inject (often unconsciously) into their work.  “How can kindness get you into so much trouble?” asks the blurb. Sure, Rosalind is kind–in a white-woman-saving the wretched natives fashion, rescuing a (low-caste, of course) baby sold to a beggar-master. The Indian characters are mostly denied agency, and presented as fearful and caste-oppressed. The usual clichés of Orientalist writing abound–there’s the faithful native retainer who  calls Rosalind “Missy Sahib”, and who is comically devoted to his British masters, with his turban toppling off (ha ha!) in his  zeal to clean his master’s house. There’s the enlightened British lady who’s set up an orphanage for Indian children, and her progressive  son who develops a sympathetic friendship with Rosalind.

In England, Rosalind meets a young Indian schoolboy Ravi, whose main function is to educate the white characters in this book. Ravi, perpetually hungry because his boarding school fare consists mainly of beef, helpfully explains to Rosalind, “It is the sacred cow I cannot touch.” (One would assume that  Rosalind, who has lived in India longer than Ravi, knew this already?) The dialogue featuring Ravi is didactic–and terribly heavy-handed.

[Ravi:] “My father is a solicitor, Miss Hartley [Rosalind's aunt]. He helped Gandhiji in his fight against the Rowlatt Act.”

“What is the Rowlatt Act?”

“It is a very unfair thing done by the British, Miss Hartley. It says you can imprison someone without a trial.”

“Your father is against the British Government!”

“No, ma’am. We Indians have all learned the blessings given to us by the British…I can still recite them: public health, law and order, schools, roads, irrigation works, bridges, telegraphs, and railways. But in the Rowlatt Act and in other things the British gave us injustice as well.”

Small Acts… often feels like an educational text perfunctorily disguised as a novel. Children are quick to spot this sort of thing, and I know I’d feel cheated if I were an MG reader. Rosalind is interesting, but the other characters feel rather flat, and the frequent info-dumps don’t help. There are dozens of writers (not just South Asian) who speak with power and authority about the Indian subcontinent, and who take the trouble to do their research; why on earth would anyone choose this book?

The more charitable reader might feel that Whelan writes with curious naiveté, expecting to carry her reader along despite the glaring issues raised by her narrative, but I’m so tired of making excuses for this sort of writing. Frankly, dear readers, Whelan and her editor don’t give a damn.

Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami

Tell it to the Trees begins with a richly suspenseful scene where thirteen-year-old Varsha Dharma discovers a frozen body outside her home in the town of Merrit’s Point, BC. Who is the dead woman? How did she arrive at her death? (And: what a solid opening hook.)

The Dharma family consists of the grandmother Akka, who came from India to Canada upon her marriage and the father Vikram, whose abuse drives his first wife to flee leaving behind their  young daughter Varsha. Vikram subsequently marries the docile Suman, and Varsha, who fears abandonment by this (new) mother as well, vows to keep the family together despite the fractures caused by the father’s violence.

Frustratingly, the impact of Badami’s valuable message about domestic abuse–the complicity of those who look away, the conspiracies of silence in abusive marriages and the resulting damage upon children, and violence in turn begetting violence—is diluted by her prose. One of the pleasures of reading an accomplished novel is the sense the author trusts us to meet her halfway, and compared to Badami’s prior work (three novels  including Tamarind Mem, which I liked very much, and The Hero’s Walk, which won the Regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize), this fourth novel often feels curiously heavy-handed and repetitive. For instance, Varsha remarks,  “Nothing makes him [her father] more heartbroken than to beat my naughtiness out of me…He is doing it for my own good, after all, he has no desire to see me turn into my mother.”  And a few pages later, “Poor Papa, it’s not his fault that he has to be hard with me sometimes. I know he’s worried I’ll turn out like my real mother.”

Furthermore, Tell it to the Trees breaks no new ground in analyzing the cultural scripts of South Asian immigrants, who often prioritize social status and family cohesion over personal happiness; instead, we are treated to elementary lessons on arranged marriages, dowry deaths and subjugated women, all in overwrought yet unsatisfying detail. Consider this paragraph where Suman describes her friend Lalli’s marriage.

“…Lalli was packed off with a dowry of five lakh rupees and two dozen gold bangles and a Godrej refrigerator and a motorbike for her husband, only to end up hanging from the rafters of her new home, the mehendi from her wedding still wet on her palms. Her in-laws wailed and beat their breasts and said that a mentally ill girl had been passed on to them without their knowledge, but the rumors that swept around the gullies were that her mother-in-law wanted more gold bangles and her father-in-law wanted an air conditioner and her new husband wanted a car instead of a scooter. When Lalli’s father refused to oblige, her in-laws strung her up like a criminal hung for murder. “

Upon reading this, I wrote “too easy” in the margin of my text.

Also contributing to my disenchantment was the dreaded explaining note (infesting so much immigrant writing) creeping in. “…to celebrate a  festival called Karva Chauth when prayers were sent up to the god Shiva…”  Surely we’ve passed the stage where readers must be told Karva Chauth is a festival? That Shiva is a god? (And doesn’t sending a prayer imply a god at the other end anyway?)

In all fairness, the scenes set in India (that so aggravated me ) comprise less than a fifth of the book, and Badami’s  descriptions are far more measured and sure-footed when the narrative takes place in Canada–she nails  the novel cruelty of a Canadian winter for the newly-arrived, for instance. And in the second half, when Badami stops educating the reader and gets on with storytelling, the book comes alive.  The characterization takes off,  the tension picks up, and the narrative acquires a satisfying momentum leading to a an emotionally charged, vibrant finish. When Varsha repudiates the impotency of childhood with a steely determination to prevail, it made me shiver.  Tell it to the Trees is  an adeptly plotted, beautifully structured work about an important issue, but in the final reckoning, I was unable to embrace it fully. Sigh.

***

Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Knopf Canada, 2011

A much shorter version of this review appears in Herizons magazine.

A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

I attended the World Literacy Canada reading at the Park Hyatt Toronto earlier this week to see these three authors.  There was a line-up, of the sort you’d expect to see at a samizdat store selling discounted iPads; literature isn’t dead, you doomsayers.

(L to R: Johnston, Bartleman, Mistry. Pic from worldlit.ca)

First on stage was James Bartleman, whom I’d never heard of prior to this event: the more fool I. Bartleman is a former career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Bangladesh, and Israel, so he must have been awfully good at his job. He was then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002-2007, and yes, I should have known this.

Bartleman talked about the background of his novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, about First Nations kids entering suicide pacts and killing themselves at age thirteen because their future lives seemed to be pointless. It was heart-breaking–I found myself tearing up, and I’m not a crier. The parents of these children were mostly survivors of residential schools, where they’d faced years of racial (and often, sexual) abuse.  Obviously, if you’d been plucked away from your parents at age six and then returned to them at sixteen, after undergoing ten years of barbaric treatment, you’d have little knowledge about how to provide a supportive atmosphere for your own children. And this isn’t comfortingly ancient history–according to Wikipedia, “the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996.” WTF. WTF.WTF.

I’m a little fearful of reading the novel–I think I’ll wait for the fall, by which time I’ll hopefully have gathered up my courage. Oh, and  Bartleman (who is a member of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation) has advocated for many years to build literacy in First Nations communities, and to date, he’s gathered over 2 million books for this initiative. Holy wow.

Next up was Wayne Johnston, who spoke about injecting fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance–and the consequences  of that decision when he began the publicity for his book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (which deals with the history of Newfoundland). I don’t know much about the subject, so I’ll just say that Johnston is an excellent raconteur with a fine repository of accents, and leave it there.

My blog giveaway winner Mayank and I were both madly excited to hear Rohinton Mistry, whom we count among the best writers in the world. (I spent twenty minutes with a flat-iron in Mistry’s honor before setting out to the event. No, nobody noticed.) Mistry read from his short work The Scream, which was originally available back in 2006 in a limited edition of 150 copies, and sold exclusively by World Literacy Canada to raise funds for them.  The original edition was priced at $500, and the proceeds went to literacy efforts in South Asia; the book is now available for $15.68 on Amazon for us cheapies.

Mistry’s intense, dramatic reading had me glued to my chair, but sadly (for me, that is), his session was confined to his book–he didn’t talk about his writing process, and there was no Q&A after, so I have no news or insight to offer about his work. He did however mention he was working on a new book, so we can all breathe easy and cross off Christmas presents for an upcoming year. I’d planned to buy The Scream and get it signed, but the booksellers ran out of copies, so I had to content myself with his signature on my program. Which I’ll treasure forevah!

And finally, a big shout-out to World Literacy Canada, for all their work in bring people and literature together, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. There was so much positive energy in that room that night, the sort of energy produced when you are having a good time and doing something good. That combination doesn’t occur often in my life; I can’t wait for next year’s Kama!

Breaking down the Indian roadside painter’s font

If you’ve been to India (updated: South Asia), you’ve been blinded bludgeoned by seen exuberant  colors and funky fonts on store signboards, slogans on the backs of commercial vehicles,  wall posters and paintings advertising films and political parties, and more. Most contemporary signage is computer-generated, but back in the day, by which I mean MY day, it was done by hand by street painters.

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HandpaintedType is a project headed by Hanif Kureshi (not the novelist) that aims to preserve the typography of Indian street painters. The site features different regional painters and their unique signature fonts, and gives you a break down of the font to boot. This, for instance, is the Delhi-based Painter Kafeel’s font.

And this is how it works:
And so we have:
( Click all images to embiggen.)
Needless to say,  Indian institutions (government and corporate) don’t seem to give a  damn  about such art forms; it’s fallen to individuals like Kureshi to save these fonts from extinction. If you live in India, you can help collect fonts (click on the contribute tab on the website for details) and send them to Kureshi to digitize.
All the pictures in this post appear on Handpainted Type. If you’d like to see more examples of Indian street art, check out the site’s gallery, or “The Street Wall Journal” on Kamini’s blog.
And the NYT has a slideshow of truck art in Pakistan  (via Sudeep).
And here’s yet more truck art from Pakistan’s Dawn.com (via Gaurav).

Hat tip: Zouch Magazine