An idiot’s guide to dating Indians

If you have an India and an internet connection, you’ve probably seen Andrea Miller’s Huffington Post article “How to date an Indian (advice for a non-Indian)”  based on her relationship with a man from New Delhi. An excerpt:

Before getting to “how,” let’s start with “why.” There are obvious reasons one would want to date an Indian, such as how successful and professionally desirable they are. Indians dominate as engineers, doctors, lawyers, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. They make up a large proportion of our graduate students — just walk around the campuses of Harvard, Columbia or Stanford or and you will see these incredibly attractive brown people all over the place. Which leads to point number two. Indian people tend to be really good looking. According to Wikipedia*, “India holds the highest number of Miss World winners, only to be tied with Venezuela.” (*That feels a little like citing The National Enquirer but I am going to go with it.)

Most Indians are innately gracious, social creatures; they highly value friends and family and have a calendar filled with various holidays and occasions to celebrate, which they typically do with gusto. Those endless jubilant dance numbers in Bollywood movies pretty much channel the Indian soul. Moreover, Indian men love to dance. If for no other reason other than you want someone to dance with you (or without you for that matter), date an Indian.

Oh yea, I almost forgot to mention: one more big bonus when it comes to dating an Indian: communication with cabbies. Think I’m kidding? New Yorkers: Just imagine if you could stop a taxi during the 4pm transition time and your date could say, in Hindi, “Hey brother, will you please take us to Spring and 6th?” You’d find Laxmi did indeed smile upon you.

Read the full article here, and please, read the comments too.

I’m pretty amazed that The Huffington Post would provide a platform for such a piece. (Like all Huff. Post pieces, this one has reaction tabs to click on; why isn’t there an  “offensive crap”  category?) And I am amazed that the author of the piece is the CEO of a (hopefully, soon to be bankrupt) relationship advice site and magazine. This kind of writing would be problematic whatever the ethnicity of Miller’s partner. As commenter emj1983  says,

I’m just an undesirable [not!] and culture-less white guy, but I agree that this article is reductive, cringe-inducing, and condescending. If someone tried to “woo” me straight out of the gate by taking a superficial and homogenizing interest in my culture, I’m sure my (thick) skin would crawl. Humorous generalization can be a laugh riot if done well– in a non-cliche or particularly insightful way– but this really misses the mark.

It could have been funny or provocative if it had not employed so many cliched generalizations, or had done so with a self-parodying sensibility. The author is married to an Indian guy, and finds him and his cultural interests desirable, even charmingly different from her own– fine, great– but it was misguided to try and draw from her experience a bogus, predictable field theory of fool-proof Indian seduction strategies. Who would ever use this as a guide?

Writing a satirical send-up of any group’s generalized habits (Indians, white people, black people, whatever) requires a deeper, more nuanced perception of stereotypes, a fresh intelligence which provokes both thought and laughter. This article lacks that freshness.

And here’s an Indian-American woman’s perspective (commenter Amita Swadhin):

This is the most racist thing I’ve read in a long, long time. I’m shocked that you thought it appropriate to publish on Huffington Post. If you really believe you can make a generalization about a people that number well over a billion (if you count the diaspora), you are incredibly ignorant. This isn’t dating advice; it’s an example of how to take one’s own personal experience and apply it to an entire culture and ethnicity. I’m Indian-American, and I can safely say that a) my own experience differs greatly from what you’ve written above, and b) I would describe every aspect of my culture that you’ve arrogantly written about QUITE differently than you do.

And I am amazed that a number of people (including many many Indians) seem to find nothing wrong with this piece.  One (Indian) commenter says:

Andrea, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s a nicely written and funny article. As someone who moved to the United States in ’03 I totally understand a lot of things you wrote about.

For other people who disagree with her, RELAX. She shared her experience, thoughts, opinions, in a very nice manner. Disagreeing with her shouldn’t equate to blasting her and making a mockery of the person or their thoughts. Or else someone might stereotype Indians as having no sense of humor or tolerance!!

This is perilously close to being grateful that the article cited  “complimentary” stereotypes about Indians.  Wake up!  That the stereotyping in this case happens to be (mostly) positive is of little consequence; exoticizing a people in this manner is to make them the Other (versus “ordinary” people). A mindset that is ready to label a billion Indians “gracious, social creatures” is just as capable of labeling them smelly beasts.  Stereotyping  robs a person of his individuality; does it really matter if the mugger is smiling or spitting as he’s relieving  you of your valuables?

The sole positive thing about this idiotic article is the hilarious How to date… responses it has spawned. Too many to mention here, but  this calculated-to-offend-everyone-on-the-planet piece on The Awl, titled “How to date a white bitch (advice for the non-white dude)” is a MUST.

Miss Marple’s cleverer sister

A sad, sad, day six years ago, I finished reading everything Agatha Christie had published. Yes, even the Mary Westmacott weepies. Just as I resigned myself to  hanging around her grave waiting for a miracle, I discovered Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries.

book cover of   The Case of William Smith    (Miss Silver)  by  Patricia Wentworth

The Case of William Smith

It’s soon after WWII when we meet William Smith, second-in-command at Tattlecombe’s Toy Bazaar in London. Although William seems perfectly ordinary, down to his commonplace name, he suffers from amnesia. Life before 1942, when he woke up in a German hospital with a head wound, is a blank. William has, however, managed to pull it together. He carves quirky wooden animals for the toy shop, has scraped together the funds to buy a car, and is now in love with the new shop assistant, Katherine, who is beautiful and gentle and willing.

Then, an attempt is made on William’s life, and the only reason can be William’s missing past. Katherine decides to consult Miss Silver.


A retired governess turned private investigator, Miss Maud Silver  is first a lady, at least by her own definition, and then a detective. More British than a Beefeater’s elevenses, Miss Silver dresses drably, believes in breeding and restraint and God and King and good old-fashioned classism. She is clever, oh, preternaturally so, to the extent some police friends believe she hides her broomstick in the hall closet.

Miss Silver is most often compared to Christie’s Miss Marple–both are elderly unmarried British women whose innocuous appearance helps them gather information when more flamboyant characters might fail. But unlike Miss Marple, Miss Silver is a professional.  And while Miss Marple is shrewd, Miss Silver possesses a profound intelligence that her clients often find unsettling; Katherine, for instance, “feels the kind of panic which comes in dreams when you find yourself naked among the clothed.” Yes, Miss Silver could probably rotate a 3X3 matrix in her head while casting off stitches for a woolly jumper.

Tempering Miss Silver’s acuity is her sympathy for her clients. It’s a tad strained, reserved for those fulfilling Miss Silver’s ideas of morality and good behavior, but it’s there, and thank goodness for it, for I wouldn’t like these books as much otherwise.

Furthermore, while Miss Marple plays a lone hand, keeping everyone (including the reader) guessing till the end, Miss Silver works with her protagonists to solve the mystery, and we follow her thought process and actions through the story. Miss Marple’s modus operandi, in essence, is to draw a parallel with some village event—a murdered cabinet minister reminds her of the ne’er-do-well nephew of the fishmonger, and presto! she deduces the identity of the killer. Miss Silver relies on inductive reasoning; presented with a set of facts, she can isolate the possible outcomes with great precision. The suspense in a Wentworth isn’t as much to do with the crime already committed as with the one yet to take place–it’s important to find William Smith’s identity (and that of his would-be assassin) so as to prevent the next attempt on William’s life from succeeding. And to make sure William and Katherine live happily ever after. Every Miss Silver mystery has at its heart a romantic couple (not a romance necessarily). This couple must and will unite; under no circumstances will either party die or prove to be a villain, and if a crime was committed by either, it will have been in ignorance, and with no lasting ill-effects. (Such foreknowledge about the end has never diminished my enjoyment of the books–the romance triumphant is as much part of the series as Miss Silver’s velvet coatee, or the creepy brooch with the hair of her grandparents).

The chief issue I have with Wentworth is her all-too-evident dislike of ambitious women. Her heroines aren’t weak—most exhibit immense strength of character, toil without complaint, and show great loyalty to their loved ones—but they do not prize independence or success. A woman who deliberately plots  to advance her social/financial position through marriage or professional achievement is considered a dangerous unsettling force in Wentworth’s universe, for her ambition usually twists her femininity into something unwholesome.  While Miss Silver is indeed a professional, she is in it to serve Truth and Justice, and definitely not for the money, and you know she’s rather go hatless than advertise.  Modern-day readers who are impatient with such biases may find Wentworth’s heroines hard to digest. And the heroes are of course all tall dominating providers, but you’ve guessed that by now.

Wentworth’s prose, while lacking the depth and beauty of say, a late Sayers, is unfussy and clean, and does the job satisfactorily. Her plots aren’t as ingenious as Christie at her peak, and are sometimes overburdened with tedious detail, but keep me turning the pages.  I’ll stop the faint praise here to assert that the appeal of a Miss Silver mystery chiefly lies in Miss Silver. To watch that mind at work, to savor her critics’ reaction turn from scorn to fear, to smile over the small details of her physical appearance, to startle at and then appreciate her rare wit—these are the reasons I read these books over and over. Miss Silver is an institution, and somewhat to my own surprise, one I’ve grown fond of. And, if I might presume to guess, so might you.


Note: Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 Miss Silver mysteries, starting with Grey Mask (1928). There is very little information about her on the net;  a rather threadbare account of her life may be found at Wikipedia.

This post is my contribution to The Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour.

An antique treasure by Enid Blyton

Like many,  I find myself unable to sever my relationship with Enid Blyton long after quitting her books, and I’ve often wondered what it must have felt like to receive the drip-feed of her work (800 titles!)  in real time. Well, now I sort of know, for I recently purchased a first edition of  Five on a Secret Trail, the fifteenth in the Famous Five series.

(Image from

The book opens with a letter from Blyton to her fans, which I reproduce in its entirety below.

(Yes, I suck at photography.)

And just like Blyton said, the last page has an invitation to join the Famous Five Club.

The inside back flap of the dust jacket has an advertisement  for a Famous Five Card Game  “which is such fun to play!” Had I known about this game’s existence in my childhood, I’d have no doubt murdered for it.

Here is a picture of the game:

And a sample card.

The Danger Card!

(All card images from the Enid Blyton Society Site.)

And what of the book itself? If you so desire, here is a detailed review by a member of the Blyton society.  The reviewer is obviously devoted to Blyton, but admits,  “Looking at the plot of this book I had to conclude that about here (maybe earlier for some fans) a little repetitiveness enters the series.”

Factor in the British habit of understatement, and there you have it: Five on a Secret Trail is awful. No amount of nostalgia can counteract its essential mediocrity, for Blyton just doesn’t seem to give a damn about the story. Three of the four villains are so perfunctorily described that we don’t even see their faces. The book’s pace is snail-slow, and secret passages and trails and hidey-holes occur with monotonous regularity. As for the inevitable “treasure”–well, no-one seems to have known it was missing in the first place. Worst, the  meals seem to consist solely of ham sandwiches and raw tomatoes, and  I was outraged that dessert was “tinned pineapple on bread”. Without muffins and scones and clotted cream and trifle, the Blyton pill is hard to swallow.

As I’ve recounted in an earlier post, I have serious issues with Blyton’s positionality, but I am frankly delighted with my find, which I’ve armored in bubble-wrap and hidden away from stray children.  An explanation of this contradiction may be found in Amy Rosenberg’s excellent article on the Commonwealth countries’ problematic yet rich relationship with Blyton.  An excerpt:

…In a talk at Harvard in 2007, [Nigerian novelist] Adichie talked about growing up consuming Blyton’s tales of gallivanting white children. As a result, she said, it wasn’t until she countered Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that she realised novelists could write about black people too.

Kirsty Murray, a young-adult novelist from Melbourne, Australia, also felt stymied. “My problem with the British / European landscapes in Blyton’s work,” she says, “ is they had colonised my imagination so effectively that I felt nothing interesting could possibly happen in an Australian setting. Our ragged, sun-baked landscapes were so in contrast to Cherry Tree Farm, and our dry creeks so lustreless beside the babbling brooks of Blyton’s England, that I felt self-conscious about my country’s lack of twee charm.”

For the Indian novelist and poet Amit Chaudhuri, the unease came from a more direct feeling of humiliation. “I felt the same enchantment others did upon discovering travelling circuses, English villages, bobbies, seasides, picnics, bicycles, hams, scones, rashers of bacon, and pints of milk,” he says, “But I have to confess to a discomfort with that world even as I was reading about it – not a retrospective disquiet based on what I learnt about Blyton later, but something I encountered as a child: a slight sense of alienation in the midst of the immersion. I sensed a cruelty even as I was devouring the stories, and a contempt for countries far away from England.”

As an example, Chaudhuri proffers one of the few references in Blyton’s oeuvre to people from other cultures: in The Mystery of the Vanished Prince, the Five Find-Outers have just returned from holiday and are nicely tanned. Then they hear that Prince Bongawah is in town, visiting from a faraway land. Playing a joke on their local constable, the butt of many of their jokes, the Find-Outers dress one of their members up as the prince’s sister, Princess Bongawee, who struts about in colourful clothes and a headscarf and bosses people around. “She acts pampered and pushy,” Chaudhuri recalls, “and someone in the books says that people from that part of the world are just like that.”

The full text of the article can be found  here. Do read it, please.

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

Update:  My interview with Iyengar is up on July’s Bookslut.

When Sheena Iyengar emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing her new book, I almost said no. Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School, and The Art of Choosing presumably dealt with consumer choice; hadn’t I left the MBA business world precisely *not* to read texts of this kind? But Sheena had attached a link to her book’s trailer, and on viewing it, I realized the book dealt with a lot more than choosing Coke versus Pepsi. Here’s the (very slick, but don’t hold that against it) clip that made me read this book.

Iyengar is perhaps best known for her “jam study”, a ground-breaking experiment which proved that there’s such a thing as too much choice.  In very simple terms: we make better decisions when the number of options is limited; our decisions are less optimal when we are confronted with a number of choices. Here’s a clip explaining the study, if you are really interested.

(The first 2 minutes of the clip describe the study.)

The Art of Choosing, while encompassing Iyengar’s earlier research, deals with a lot more than behavioral economics. Iyengar uses examples from medicine, art, music, and even her parents’ marriage to show how we constantly engage (often unawares) in decision-making, and indeed,  how such decision-making defines and is defined by us. Iyengar, who was born in Canada to Sikh parents and who grew up in the Unites States, mines her personal life for her research, and what a rich seam it is. Her life choices– to study psychology at Stanford, to marry a man outside her religion, to use sighted language (words such as “see” and “view”) in her writing although she is blind, to name but a few—are at least as intriguing as her work.  After reading this book, I knew I had to interview her, and that piece will appear in Bookslut next month.

Iyengar promises that she will help us become better (choosier?) choosers, but the prescriptive part of this book is sketchy at best. The latter is perhaps a necessity; Iyengar makes the case that decision-making is an art, rather than a science. “[Choice] does not look the same to all eyes”… “we cannot take full measure of it.”  If you’re looking for a quick-fix solution to better decision-making (assuming such a thing can exist), this book isn’t for you.  What it is, though, is a fast-paced, juicy read, packed with lots of a-ha moments, bubbling over with dinner-party conversation pieces, not to mention scathing denouncements of the Great Hoax, aka  Branding. If you believe that choosing to pay $37 for Lancome Magique Matte soft-Matte Perfecting Mousse Makeup somehow makes you cooler than picking up a $8.99 Maybelline New York Dream Matte Mousse Foundation: READ THIS BOOK NOW!

Here’s  a link to Iyengar’s  website, and one to a recent profile in the  NYT.

When Sheena Iyengar emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in reviewing her new book, I almost said no. Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School, and her book, “The Art of Choosing” presumably dealt with consumer choice; hadn’t I left the MBA business world precisely *not* to read texts of that sort? But Sheena had attached a trailer for her book in her email, and upon viewing it, I realized that The Art of Choosing was about a  lot more than the Coke versus Pepsi. Here’s the clip that convinced me to say yes to The Art of Choosing.

Iyengar is perhaps best known for her “jam study”, an experiment which proved that there’s such a thing as too much choice. In very simple terms: Humans make better decisions when the number of options is kept to seven or under; confronted with more than seven choices, boredom and fatigue and confusion sets in, making our decisions less than optimal. But the book is about much more than behavioural economics. Iyengar uses examples from medicine, art, music, and even her parents’ marriage to show how humans constantly engage in decision-making. Iyengar, who was born in Toronto to Sikh parents and grew up in New Jersey, mines her personal life for her research, and what a rich seam it is. Her life choices– to study psychology at Stanford, to marry a man outside her religion, to use sighted language (words such as see and view) in her writing although she is visually disabled—are at least as intriguing as her research. (I immediately decided to interview her; the piece will be in Bookslut next month.)

The Art of Choosing emphasises the process of decision-making, and although Iyengar does promise to explain how we can become better (choosier?) choosers, the prescriptive part of the book is sketchy at best. The latter is perhaps a necessity; Iyengar makes the case that decision-making is an art, rather than a science. “[Choice] does not look the same to all eyes”…”we cannot take full measure of it.” If you’re looking for a quick-fix solution to better decision-making (assuming such a thing can exist); this book isn’t for you. But it’s a fast-paced, juicy read, packed with lots of a-ha moments, bubbling over with dinner party conversation pieces, not to mention scathing denouncements of the Great Hoax, aka  Branding. If you believe that paying $37 for Lancome Magique Matte soft-Matte Perfecting Mousse Makeup somehow makes you cooler than picking up a $ 8.99 Maybelline New York Dream Matte Mousse Foundation: READ THIS BOOK NOW!

Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi

Serving Crazy with Curry has one of those India-for-dummies covers. You know, spices! Dangly tinkly gold jewelry! A veil-draped golden-skinned, luscious-lipped woman! But when it comes to South Asian fiction, judge not a book by its appearance. The average publisher’s Pavlovian response upon hearing “India” and “woman writer” is to slap on this sort of empty exotica on the cover with scant  consideration for what lies beneath;  I usually just  read the book.

Serving Crazy With Curry By Amulya Malladi

Devi Veturi has lost yet another Silicon Valley job, is in debt, and can’t pay the rent.  She’s a serial failure when it comes to relationships, and she’s recently suffered a miscarriage. Devi decides to commit suicide, and she’d have succeeded if not for her mother Saroj walking into her apartment unannounced.

Devi’s family gathers around her in shock, but she refuses to explain her actions or speak a word.  Instead, she moves in with her parents and starts cooking, serving up a series of West-meets-India dishes such as rasam with puff pastry and Cajun prawn biryani. As the family waits for Devi to start talking, they begin to confront their own failures. Matters come to a head with Devi’s parents, who have been distant for years, while her sister’s married life begins to unravel. Even Devi’s grandmother Vasu isn’t spared the self-recrimination. Imagine the fallout when Devi gets around to speaking.

My main issue with Serving Crazy with Curry is that this book didn’t quite seem to know what it was. It’s written in a jaunty,  if occasionally labored, chick lit-ish tone  (“…Saroj watched, in wide-eyed horror, as her fridge and spice cabinet went from neat and tidy to something completely the opposite “), and borrows several elements from the genre. Chick-lit can be appealing–if the characterizations are detailed, if the stereotypes are kept to a minimum, if the predictable happy ending is served with panache, and, most vitally, if the author acknowledges the essential absurdity of the materialistic, self-obsessed heroines  dominating this genre. But Serving Crazy… takes itself seriously, seeking to explore themes such as the pressures of motherhood, the cultural scripts of Indian immigrants in America, and much more.  Malladi writes with sympathy and fluency, but doesn’t offer any new insights, and her prose is just not up to the task of providing the ballast these issues demand. And the mold for the secondary characters was cast a century ago. Melodramatic Indian mom looking to see her daughters happily settled. A distant father. The overachiever with an unhappy personal life. I mean, please.

There is a great story lurking in Serving Crazy…, but it’s not Devi’s. Vasu, Devi’s grandmother, was a doctor in the Indian armed forces;  how I wish Malladi had elaborated on this woman’s experience in a hyper-masculine institution. Vasu divorced her abusive husband at a time when most Indians believed that a divorced woman was the devil’s special friend. Vasu realized a forbidden love, and reckoned the social cost cheap in the process. Devi is just blah in comparison.

Furthermore, I questioned why, exactly, Devi found self-expression in cooking rather than any other medium.

“…There were no arguments here. This was sacred land. Her mind could wander on all sorts of possibilities here and she wouldn’t have to worry about where she ended up. Anything was possible and anything as acceptable, as long as she kept her mind confined to food and cooking.”

Substitute painting for cooking, and all this would still hold. Yes, Devi could have just as easily taken up bungee jumping or gotten a tattoo instead of turning to the kitchen, for there isn’t enough of a backstory to give her new passion enough credibility. Malladi’s explanation– that Devi had always been interested in cooking but Saroj didn’t like her kitchen messed up—sounded glib to me; after all, Devi has an apartment and kitchen of her own, and she hasn’t cared to cook there.

At the end of the book, Malladi includes an imagined conversation she has with the characters.

Amulya: I have to know, why the cooking?

Devi: I’d like to know as well. Since you wrote it in, why don’t you tell me?” [I wanted to kill Devi right here.  Just saying.]

Amulya: … I think you started cooking all that fusion cuisine because you wanted to do something that was different, yet you wanted to hold on to what was. You wouldn’t speak, so you used food as a communicating medium. You expressed your feelings though it, joy, fear, boredom, all of that.

Devi: You mean, since I stopped speaking as a result of my traumatic experience, I had to do something, and cooking was it?

Amulya: …the kitchen had always been Saroj’s domain and your trying to take that domain away from her was a subconscious effort on your part to tell her that you can control your life since you can control her kitchen…

I found the above damning–it’s almost a tacit admission that Malladi didn’t explain her characters’ motivations sufficiently in the text itself. And it still doesn’t tell us why she chose cooking rather than another medium; I’m left to believe that the author picked a hook she knew would be popular and easy-to-market. That said, the recipes (provided for the dishes Devi cooks) are interesting. I’m going to make Malladi’s apricot-ginger-mint chutney,  which I plan to have with baked brie. Sadly, I’m pretty sure the meal will be the best thing about this book.

Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi

Random House 2004

Genre: Fiction

A new Phantom

The Ghost Who Walks is now a…girl. Julie Walker dons the purple suit (with major alterations) for a stand-alone comic titled Race Against Death.

The Phantom, a girl? Die-hard fans, hold your horses, for it was Lee Falk himself who created the character. In this issue, Julie is the sister of Kit Walker, and she takes on the role of The Phantom when Kit is injured. And from the reviews  I’ve read, this spin-off is well thought out, pays homage to The Phantom’s  original premise, and is respectful of the story till now.  As a child, I was devoted to The Purple One (thank you, The  Illustrated Weekly of India),  and I’m truly relieved the spirit of the series hasn’t been tampered with. Best, the new comic apparently doesn’t wimp out just because Julie is , y’know, bootilicious; this Phantom too has, as the old jungle saying goes, ” the strength of ten tigers.”

The comic was released in Jan., but I heard about it only now via Colleen’s blog. A detailed review of this issue can be found here (link via Colleen).

The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

A queer brown mixed-race woman in apartheid-era South Africa befriends an oppressed  Indian  housewife.

Yes, no cause is left unturned in Shamim Sarif’s  The World Unseen.  But Sarif has a lightness of touch that has the story chugging along briskly;  you soon forget this one could be a text for  Oppression 101 as you follow the fraught courtship of  Amina and Miriam.

(The cover shows a scene from the film of this book; Amina and Miriam are played by  Sheetal Sheth and Lisa Ray respectively. )

Pretoria, 1952, is a place where it is ” an offense for Blacks to eat in the same place as Whites.” Amina, who is of Indian descent,  runs a restaurant that flouts this rule, for she holds herself answerable to no-one, not even her family or the authorities. Besides running a restaurant (in an illegal partnership with a Colored man), she drives a taxi, and works at odd jobs mostly involving manual labor. And she’s lesbian.

Before I get on with the story,  it might be useful to note that under apartheid, the  South African population was classified into four groups: Black, White, Indian, and Colored. The Colored group included people of mixed racial descent. (According to Wikipedia,  “these terms are capitalized to denote their legal definitions in South African law”; I use these terms in the latter  sense. )

Miriam left India to marry a South African Indian who has internalized  apartheid so deeply that he no longer questions it.  Omar runs a store in a small town outside Pretoria, follows the laws of the land implicitly, and is happy to toss in his own racial biases additionally, for instance telling  Miriam that Blacks “would steal anything.”  So in Omar, we have a person who is discriminated against due his color perpetuating the very same injustices against others.  IDIOT!!!

The couple have two children, and that, more than anything else, has Miriam reconciled to her husband’s unconcern for her well-being.  Then Miriam meets Amina, and realizes that she might have another shot at happiness. But the penalties for pursuing this relationship are very high, and besides, there are children to consider.

The World Unseen works as well as it does because of two factors: excellent characterization, and unobtrusive, elegant prose that builds up genuine suspense as to the lovers’ fate. And Sarif achieves the near-impossible by taking on a topic (apartheid) that has been covered by many writers, and presenting it with such passion that this system still shocks the reader.  We all know how cruel and senseless apartheid was, but Sarif also shows its essential batshit craziness. When a policemen tells Amina she’s breaking the law by seating Blacks and Whites together, she replies that there aren’t any Whites in the restaurant. Then Officer Stewart says,

“…This is an Indian area. And Colored. …That means no Blacks.”

“They work for me.”

“And that is fine by me,’ the policeman replied…”But they shouldn’t be eating with you. It’s illegal.”

The 2007 film of the novel was directed by Sarif herself. Incidentally, Omar is played by Parvin Dabas,  whom I last saw in Monsoon Wedding.  Here’s the UK trailer for the film (Sarif is British btw).

The World Unseen by Shamim Sarif

The Women’s Press Limited, 2001

Genre: Literary Fiction ***

Iam entering this review for the POC challenge, as well as the GLBT Reading Challenge.

Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness

Misbehaving clergymen and a disruptive Icelandic volcano have been dominating the headlines, and I just happen to have finished a novel featuring both–Under the Glacier, by the Nobel prize-winning Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness.

book cover of   Under the Glacier   by  Halldór Laxness

A young theologian is sent by his Bishop to investigate a priest who is reported to have lost his faith. Pastor Jon supposedly refuses to baptize infants or bury the dead or hold services, and Embi, as the Emissary of the Bishop is called, is told to journey to Snaefellsjokull  (the Snaefells Glacier,  which lies atop a volcano), listen without argument to pastor Jon and his associates,  note down everything that is relevant, and report back to the Bishop.  

Embi protests that he’s too young (twenty-five!)  and too ignorant for such a task, but he’s sent anyway.  Almost  immediately, he lands in a theatre of the absurd. The church is nailed shut and the Pastor is missing, off shoeing horses. At the parsonage, Embi is served a dinner of mouldy coffee and innumerable cakes by a woman who tells him about a “fairy ram” she once saw. The unhealthy-looking calf tethered outside the parsonage, we learn, lives on coffee and cake too.

At this point, you can either throw the book away, or, like Embi, attempt to listen without argument. I chose the latter path.  

As you might guess, there is little point in further describing the plot of such a  novel. Suffice to say that Embi meets a variety of characters (including the elusive pastor) with whom he has philosophical and religious discussions;  inevitably, his everyman views are rattled to the core. This book was written in the sixties, and reflects the ethos of an age when all long-rooted beliefs seemed ripe for questioning. Laxness, in essence, asks us to reconsider all we think of as normal,  including the “normal” structure of the novel form.

I’ve never met a book less easy to classify. If Under the Glacier was an animal, it’d be a  chimera–a lion with a goat’s head growing out of  its middle, and a serpent for a tail.   To call this book a fable is to name the serpent and ignore the other heads; to call it a critique of Christianity is to name the lion alone, and to call it a comic novel is to term the goat an ass.  But if you accept the right of this fabulous beast to exist, the co-existence of three heads, then this book makes sense, albeit on its own terms. 

Under the Glacier is a slippery, whimsical thing, almost impossible to get hold of–at times I felt I was reading the work of a genius, but equally, at other times, Laxness seemed to write like a preternaturally clever but naughty schoolboy.  (And sometimes, I figured Laxness was merely stoned.)  I think one of the most unsettling aspects of this  novel–more than the fairy ram, the woman who was turned into a fish, or the proposed resurrection of a corpse in the glacier–is Laxness’s absolute objectivity in handling his story. The book features two narratives–Embi’s written report to the Bishop, and his account of the adventures befalling him, and neither is designed to engender the reader’s comfort. Laxness’s creations simply do their thing, and we readers grope around, looking in vain for a familiar  hook upon which to hang our beliefs, for a character with whom we might feel a thrill of recognition. 

Now, my previous attempt at a Laxness was a notable failure, for Paradise Reclaimed drove to me to such anger and despair that I quit halfway. But I did finish Under the Glacier, right down to a shocking (and yet, in retrospect, not entirely unexpected) climax. This sort of text insists on being revisited; I have no doubt that book will convey something entirely new to me when I re-read it in a year or ten. Read it or skip it, at equal peril.

Under the Glacier by Halldor Laxness

Vintage 2005 (originally published as Christianity Under Glacier in 1968)

Genre: Literary question mark

Note: My edition of the book has an introduction by Susan Sontag, which I put off reading it till I’d had my say. I’ll update my review if my view should change dramatically post Sontag.

Archie Comics introduces first gay character; Shobhaa Dé Books; YA writing on bullying.

So, there’s a gay character on Archie Comics–the very blond, very blue-eyed Kevin Keller.  From the website:  “The introduction of Kevin is just about keeping the world of Archie Comics current and inclusive.” Late much?

The headline for the piece says “ARCHIE COMICS INTRODUCES FIRST OPENLY GAY CHARACTER”. Does this mean the series has gay characters who aren’t out yet? If I had to pick one, I’d go with Jughead…

Yes, all this would not be newsworthy in a just universe.


Via Bitch Media, a nice analysis of Penguin India’s proposed tie up with Shobhaa Dé for a new imprint, Shobhaa Dé  Books. 

Shobhaa Dé Books will focus on celebrity memoirs, guidebooks, biographies of famous figures in cinema and business, and cutting-edge mass-market fiction. The iconic Dé is seen by many as an innovative authority on Indian popular culture and all things glamorously desi. This self-branding as a pioneering rebel will no doubt be represented in what is to come on Dé’s imprint.

However, I have doubts about how gamechanging this new imprint will be, as Dé’s form of rebellion is based in shallow, individualist consumerism rather than a progressive ideology with a goal of widespread social change.

“It’s a great disservice to feminism and to South Asian women–who exist within a different power structure and have different parameters of ‘self-esteem’ and ’empowerment’–to formulate ‘feminism’ exclusively in terms of market-based consumerism, sexual license, and the sort of ‘power’ that one derives from these things.”

Even though it’s BOOKS, I could not be less excited were I hearing about a Paris Hilton meets MNC perfume.

What do you mean it’s out there?


From author Neesha Meminger’s blog, a piece on bullying that you should read. 

When I was growing up, we were all bullied – only then we called it racism, and our parents dared not name it for fear of any number of repercussions. 

In recent years, there have been more books by people of colour, LGBTQ writers, and working class authors than when I was coming up, but we have a long way to go. Part of empowering young people is to show them reflections of themselves as powerful, valuable, important members of their communities – no less deserving of privilege, love, wealth, dignity and respect than their peers. I know from experience that stories do that. Stories heal and mend and expand.

Neesha is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon, a YA novel dealing with a Sikh girl’s search for her identity in post 9/11 America.

For further reading on bullying, do check out this list of 35 YA novels that battle bullying on writer Mitali Perkins’s  blog.

The Evolution of Jane by Cathleen Schine

Very occasionally have I read a book that immediately set me off a quest to understand, in essence, how this author  came up with that idea. So it was with The Evolution of Jane.

I’d heard of but avoided this one till now as I’d assumed it was one of those Jane Austen books currently infesting our planet featuring Austen as detective or romantic heroine or spy or witch doctor.  Take the trouble to create an original heroine, why don’t you? Cathleen Schine’s novel is, however, a very different beast,  at whose heart lies an ingenious thesis that should thrill any academic’s soul.

The Evolution Of Jane

As a child, Jane Barlow Schwartz had a best friend/kindred spirit/twin soul in her cousin Martha Barlow. And one day, the friendship ended Just Like That. Jane has always been haunted by the absence of a good reason, and her inability to pinpoint the moment when the drift began. When the adult Jane visits the Galapagos Islands, she decides to  apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to her life so as to decode her own family tree, and to understand why she and Martha, despite sharing everything (even family)  in their childhood, evolved into two different species, as it were.

Nice, eh? So, where did Schine, who trained as a medieval historian, get her idea? Here’s a partial answer I found in an interview :

One of the most provocative aspects of The Evolution of Jane is the investigation of Charles Darwin’s writings. Jane frequently applies Darwinism to her own life—and the results often depress her. Do you believe Social Darwinism to be a reality—even if a highly unfair one? What role does it play in the context of human relationships? Why did you choose to write about friendship with Darwinism as a backdrop?

Social Darwinsim is like astrology, I think. It’s a pseudo scientific system based on a crude and wrongheaded reading of a subtle insight. Jane’s musings are based on Darwin’s thoughts and the ideas and controversies of evolutionary theorists who followed him, but they are used as metaphors, not as real explanations. I wasn’t interested in the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff, which is the heart of Social Darwinism. I wasn’t even interested in sexual selection. It wasn’t what the book was about. The book was about change, and that’s what evolution is about, really.

The rest of this interview is here.

Schine’s narrative sympathizes with and criticizes Jane simultaneously,  inviting us to share her genuine hurt at the loss of her friendship while making no excuses for her often self-willed ignorance; Jane is an interesting but not entirely appealing character. Despite her cleverness, the adult Jane thinks like a child, assuming that she is at the center of every event and incessantly questioning the place of everything else; the title refers at least in part to Jane’s need to grow up.

Now, I’m a sucker for a likeable protagonist; I want lead characters that I’d like to befriend.  (Of course I read and admire novels which don’t conform to this pattern, but it’s clear to me where my preferences lie, and I am old enough to be unapologetic about them. )  But the point of this book is much bigger than Jane–while the characterizations are excellent, the real hook is the evolution metaphor.  The central conceit could so easily seem strained, but Schine’s control of her material is faultless. The parallels  never seem forced, and whenever Jane pushes the argument indiscriminately, whenever her introspections turn narcissistic, one of the other characters calls her on it.  Schine possess the too-rare ability to distance herself from her writing–she anticipates our potential skepticism/intimidation at every turn, and she cares enough about her readers to avoid such reactions. We learn about Jane’s self-discovery and her discovery of Darwin’s theory in tandem, and the writing is so intelligent that both are equal pleasures. Here’s a typical passage:

“Cladistics is concerned only with that moment at which one group breaks away from its parent group…. Ancestors are tracked back through history, through prehistory. Cladisticians are not interested in genetics or populations in their environments or adaptation. They only look at ancestral lineage. Like WASPs from Philadelphia.”

“The shabby genteel school of evolutionary thought,” I said.

When we trace my family back, we begin like this: me.

And I loved, loved Schine’s oddball humor. Do you find it funny that Jane’s room-mate aboard the cruise ship is one Gloria Steinham (no relation)? And that Gloria’s parting gift to Jane is a pair of earrings possibly carved from solidified pigeon excrement? My husband, who knows his duty, always laughs at  the correct places, but he didn’t  move a muscle when I read those bits aloud. I suppose this book is not for everyone, but it could have been written just for me.

The Evolution of Jane By Cathleen Schine (author website )

Houghton Mifflin (October 1, 1998)

Genre: Literary Fiction


The lovely Ari of Reading in Color gave me this Beautiful Blogger Award.

Thank you, Ari! I’m not  sure I’m equipped to pass it on, but I’m very grateful indeed!