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.