Category Archives: India

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.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes

Most Hindus have a favorite god or ten, and chances are Ganesha will top the list. He’s worshiped as the remover of obstacles and the lord of beginnings, the god of intellect and wisdom, and he’s invoked as a patron of letters during writing sessions, and as the god of arts and sciences. And he’s particularly appealing to kids–he rides a mouse and is fond of sweets and has an elephant’s head, and has plenty of fun adventures. (Yes, theology is notably absent in my childhood memories of Ganesha.)

I requested Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth for review from Chronicle Books (Raincoast Books in Canada) because I liked Sanjay Patel’s previous book Ramayana–Divine Loophole. Patel is an animator at Pixar, and favors unvarnished text and clean-edged colorful illustrations that are utterly devoid of the soft-focus sentimentality that tends to permeate this sort of narrative. And yup, I asked for this book because I’ve been  searching for kidlit that explains religion without being all pompous and preachy and exceptionalist and smug and superior, and oh, panning for gold in my kitchen sink would have been a more productive quest by far. If you tend to answer your child’s questions about god(s) with a wary “Well, some people believe…”, you know what I’m talking about.

Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth is based on the myth in which Ganesha is asked (by Vyasa) to record the verses of the epic poem Mahabharata. When Ganesha’s pen breaks, the resourceful god breaks off his tusk and uses it as a stylus to keep writing.  There are a number of versions of this story–it’s not much of an exaggeration to state that each Hindu family cherishes its particular oral history of this myth; my preferred interpretation is the one where the tusk is said to symbolize that no sacrifice is too great in the pursuit of learning. Patel however changes some major plot points–this book is not a re-telling as much as a re-invention of the tale. Those looking to take offence will be amply satiated.

The young Ganesha, cruising with his magical mouse (“Mr. Mouse”) searching for sweets, finds a Super Jumbo Jawbreaker Laddoo. He pops the shiny blue treat into his mouth… and breaks his tusk. He tries to fix the tusk back on, but failing, hurls it away in frustration, whereupon it hits an old man walking past. That’s Vyasa the poet, and he asks if Ganesha will be his scribe for a special poem so long that “all the pens in this world would break before it was done.” Ganesha agrees to try out his tusk for the job.

(All book images from Sanjay Patel’s website Gheehappy.)

The tusk works great, so Ganesha sits down to record the Mahabharata, getting up only one hundred thousand verses later. And there’s still some laddoos waiting for him.

What a  sweet little story! I really enjoyed the ending (which reminded me of Max’s warm supper in Where the Wild Things Are) and the absence of a moral (well, “Don’t eat jawbreakers” doesn’t qualify IMO). The portrayal of the Ganesha as a child first and god second makes kids connect with the story in an elemental way–Ganesha is shown jumping rope, dancing to music, and ringing bells with his trunk.  The illustrations are superb–they’re drenched with color, and they beautifully reconcile traditional Indian motifs with computer-generated graphics. And while I did have context for the myth, my son has never heard of the Mahabharata, and he enjoyed the book because “it was scary when the tusk broke, but I like that the tusk helped him draw.”

Patel says the plot has been changed to “develop an original and, we hope, fun picture book” but I’m pretty sure many (Indian) readers will ask why he  didn’t stick to the original myth (the jawbreaker laddoo episode has been inserted purely to ramp up the entertainment quotient for kids). Well,  I understand the question and sympathize to some extent, but I personally think re-inventions and re-interpretations are true to the spirit of the religion–strict adherence to a text isn’t a characteristic of the Hindusim I know.  Look at this statue I found during a google image search for Ganesha:

That’s Ganesha with a computer, and his mouse is the computer mouse. I’ve seen statues of Ganesha playing cricket, strumming a guitar, holding a laptop and so on, and I think these are respectful yet fun, serving as an acknowledgement of Ganesha’s ubiquity in everyday Indian life. I’d recommend Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth to atheists, believers, the confused and the indifferent and oh yes, to all varieties of kids.

Note: For further reading on this topic, you’d probably do well to check out The Broken Tusk by the incomparable Uma Krishnaswami.  I haven’t read it (yet), but you can’t go wrong with her work.

Tears of Mehndi by Raminder Sidhu

Raminder Sidhu’s ambitious debut novel Tears of Mehndi (Caitlin Press, 2012) seeks to capture the story of the Indian Sikh community in Vancouver’s Little India over the past thirty-five years. The story begins in 1976, with a shocking racial incident—a small Sikh-owned grocery store is vandalized, with chocolate milk splashed everywhere; the graffiti reads “Hindu brest [sic] milk for free.” Now, this is a very cleverly crafted anecdote, doubly conveying the depth of ignorance faced by the Sikh community. But if there is racism without, there is oppression within. Although the Sikh religion regards the sexes as equal,
traditional gender roles dominate in a largely patriarchal community known to prize izzat (honor/reputation) very deeply. As ever, it is women (and their bodies) who bear the brunt of such fervor–there’s an over-riding imperative to produce male children, strictures to keep girls chaste and unworldly, and inevitably, so-called “honor” killings. The issue is compounded by the hostility of the outside world; for instance, believing that Canadian education is only for
those willing to integrate entirely and erase their cultural differences, some Sikh parents withdraw their daughters from high school.

There’s some first novel-itis going on, with Sidhu attempting to say *everything* about this community in 237 pages, and the unwieldy cast of characters (eight different first-person narrators!) meant I gave up keeping track of whose daughter was clandestinely meeting whom about halfway through the story. But Sidhu has considerable authorial strengths, notably including her unflinching gaze and her deep insider knowledge of Indian Sikhs, as revealed in anecdotes thrumming with life and honesty.

When oppression is seemingly bound to tradition, in a minority community already under siege from the outside world, dissent can seem perilously close to betrayal. In such an environment, community is everything; the universe is divided into Apnay Lok (our people) and the goray (white) outsiders. And within the community, battle lines are drawn not just around gender, but skin color, religion, degree of Westernization, and even old regional loyalties (for instance, a character remarks that she doesn’t like another woman who is from the other side of the river in Punjab, where women are said to be very cunning). Sidhu seems to say that our definitions of community define us; we progress as humans when we adopt affiliations beyond the ones we were born with.

(This review appears in the current issue of Herizons magazine.)

Bookslut interview with Sheela Chari

When Neela agrees to bring her veena (an Indian stringed instrument that is an older and much bulkier sister of a sitar) to her sixth grade Instruments Around the World unit in her Boston school, she’s chiefly worried about performing in public without embarrassing herself. But then Neela’s four-foot veena, packed in its special wheeled case, vanishes while she’s taking shelter from the rain during her walk back home from school. The veena has a history of disappearing and reappearing; could it be cursed? How can an eleven-year-old track it down, especially if it might have resurfaced in India? And does the dragon carving on the instrument mean something special?

Sheela Chari’s middle-grade (MG) novel Vanished (Disney Hyperion, 2011) is a rollicking mystery that seamlessly incorporates multicultural elements into the fast-paced plot. Vanished was chosen as the 2012 Children’s Literature Honor book by APALA, and was nominated for the 2012 Edgar Award. Chari, who was born in Bangalore and moved to America when she was three, lives in Boston with her family.

Here’s an excerpt from my interview with Chari on this month’s Bookslut.

***

“Before Vanished, my writing was generally literary, and without a lot of action. When I decided to work on a children’s mystery novel, I had to deal with a very clear story arc. Which was great for me! I learned how to structure my novel, how to space out clues, and how to make my chapter endings more urgent and page-turning. I was very conscious that a middle grade reader might get impatient with a lot of narrative and description. Essentially, I learned to read my writing like a reader, instead of as a writer alone. If I ever write an adult novel, I will apply a lot of what I learned to the writing of it as well.

[...]

I also wanted to create a certain kind of immigrant on paper — an Indian-American girl who was comfortable enough in her skin that the thought most immediate on her mind wasn’t “How do I fit in?” but “How do I solve this mystery?” A story about such a girl couldn’t focus on all that made her different.”

Check out the rest of the interview here.

***

Vanished was one of my favourite reads of the year, and I urge you to pick up a copy now! And visit do Chari’s website at http://www.sheelachari.com/

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.

 

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.

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.

.

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

Multicultural Kidlit Giveaway: A Lion’s Mane by Navjot Kaur

Update: Please scroll to the end for the giveaway winner’s details.

“As I went to pick up my son at the end of his second day in Kindergarten, he appeared at the exit door with his patka [turban] almost off his head. I thought to myself, they probably had Gym class. But that wasn’t the case. I was quickly informed that another Kindergartener had pulled my son’s patka off his head while he sat on the carpet in class. [...] I questioned whether it had been an action of curiosity? I hoped that the response would be positive but it was not. Bullying, in Kindergarten.

We came home and I held it together the whole way. Once we cuddled and I reassured him when he asked, “You going to tell [boy’s name] to say sorry to me?” I went into another room and cried. I’m not sure why I felt so defeated for that tiny moment but I did. But [...] I gained my strength and prepared next steps.”

Vancouver-based mother/teacher/writer Navjot Kaur’s next step was to write a picture book that explained the visible symbols of her Sikh culture, so children would understand why her son looked different. A Lion’s Mane  (Saffron Press, 2009) tells children about the significance of the dastaar (turban, likened to a lion’s mane in this book), the name Singh (lion), langar (the Sikh community kitchen that serves food to all) and other central tenets of Sikhism. Founded in 15th century India, Sikhism emphasizes service and justice, and abjures its followers from cutting their hair–hence the turban for males. (Post 9/11, Sikhs faced escalating hatred as they were often mistaken for Muslims. Nasty every way you look at it.)

Kaur’s book is notable for the intelligence of her approach; rather than merely explaining/extolling her faith, she has her young protagonist show us how Sikhism’s emphasis on the lion is echoed in other cultures. The book thus affirms the importance of preserving cultural identity while denying exceptionalism, and that’s winning strategy for those of us experiencing multiculturalism in our daily lives. (My son’s kindergarten class of 15 made-in-Canada kids includes four East Asians, one Egyptian, one Australian and one South Asian (him), so you can see why I think this book is important and urgent.) Reading about Richard the Lionheart, the Chinese Lion Dance and even lion rugs in ancient Iran, children learn that across cultures, lions have many  (positive) associations–regality, strength, courage, and really awesome roars. Show me a child who wouldn’t want to identify with that? And if one’s faith happens to require a mane-like length of cloth wound to create a turban, well, that’s a great way to mark an affiliation with Sikhism–and with other cultures around the world. What a positive, inclusive message.

The book is also visually lovely, with illustrations drenched in rich color.

The red turban waves across each page, unfolding different qualities associated with lions. The above illustration (click to enlarge) explains the significance of the mountain lion in Hopi culture, and the turban says “nobility” and “guidance”.

And one more, because it’s so cheerful.

Others thought the book was pretty great too–A Lion’s Mane won a Skipping Stones Honor Award in 2010.  The suggested reading age for this book is six, but the illustrations will appeal to the very young, while the text, which is fairly abstract, will suit nine and ten-year-olds. Those in multicultural surroundings will identify, while those in more homogenous environments will learn; I can’t decide which is the more important. In sum: this book ought to be read by kids of all spots and stripes.

You can buy this book for $18.50 here; a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Seva Canada, a charity that helps restore sight to blind children. The book is  eco-friendly, printed on kinder gentler recycled paper. And it’s  a hardback, so it’s handy to bop haters on their heads. I’m also giving away a copy of the book to readers of this blog; to enter, please leave a comment telling me you’d like a copy. The giveaway ends March 21,  is open to those with Canadian/US mailing addresses, and the winning comment will be picked by the reliably whimsical Random Number Generator.

If you are invested in kids, kidlit, and/or multiculturalism, do consider spreading the love about this book and giveaway. For the rest of Navjot Kaur’s story, and to read more about the genesis of the book, please visit her site here.

Update: Random number generator picked a commenter #5 as the winner; that’s Nupur! I’ll be emailing you shortly, Nupur, for your mailing address. Thank you to all those who entered–I read your comments with much admiration, and  I wish each of you could win a copy.

On the Outside Looking Indian by Rupinder Gill

Rupinder Gill’s memoir On the Outside Looking Indian  (McClelland & Stewart, 2011) deals with her experience  of growing up with strict Indian parents in mainstream white eighties Canada–and her subsequent attempt to re-invent that horror story. Gill’s immigrant parents, who lived in Kitchener, Ontario, refused to let their daughter(s) get a dog, participate in  sleepovers or summer camp, or take tennis and swimming lessons, due to a knotty combination of sexism, financial constraints, and the alienness of such activities with respect to their own cultural constructions of girlhood. “Indian girls don’t swim, because only a fool would think that learning a lifesaving skill is more important than keeping your body hidden forever,” says Gill wryly.

(A note: Gill’s working class parents moved from a farming community in rural Punjab to Canada and were hence unfamiliar with such childhood activities; affluent urban Indians might not have held such rigid attitudes. Gill’s book is very specifically set in the former context, and hence, while her memoir is indeed a universal story of outsiders trying to fit in, it is equally a very particular story of one family’s attempts to negotiate Canadian society while trying to validate their own (rural Punjabi Sikh) cultural norms.)

Gill’s childhood was thus filled with academic achievement, chores, and television, even as her peers were OUT HAVING FUN. On turning thirty, Gill decides that it’s not too late to live a second (ideal) childhood, and embarks upon a journey that includes not just swimming and tennis lessons, but sleepovers with other thirty-something friends (no, not like that), and even a trip to Disney World.

On the Outside… is an affectionate, mordant look at Gill’s parent’s prejudices as well as Gill’s own hang-ups, written in an endearingly self-deprecating voice. (The prose is adequate, though Gill favors the full forms of words in her dialogue. “I will really miss all of you so much.”  “I am happy to finally be here!”  It sounded rather awkward to my ear.)  Gill considers getting a dog, goes for tap-dancing lessons, and debates moving to New York. There’s not much about dating though; readers looking for romance are requested to glue the book into Eat, Pray, Love.  Yes, Gill writes with a welcome degree of self-awareness–and an even more welcome refusal to take all of this too seriously.

As a child, Gill understandably projects her issues with her parents to India itself, holding the country responsible for her deprivation. My chief gripe with this book is that Gill hasn’t quite shed that attitude in her adulthood; she seems to assume (often for the sake of humor, and not always successfully) that her parents’ attitudes were/are typical of all Indians, and her consequent stereotyping of India begins to grate.  In a later chapter,  she does mention that Indian cities operate differently, and that things have changed despite her parents’ desire “to still believe  that India is perpetually suspended in the culture of 1971 “, but that acknowledgement was too weak and came too late for my satisfaction. I also felt that the last chapter didn’t live up to the bite and verve of the rest of the book, dissolving instead into a soppy happy vision for Gill’s future children. But these misgivings apart, On the Outside… is a fresh,  intelligent and  (oh, thank you, goddess) funny contemporary take on territory that has been strip-mined by generations of immigrant writers.

I think The Walrus review by Emily Landau  that has been the subject of some debate got it mostly wrong.  Landau faults Gill for thinking “there is some Platonic ideal of a normal childhood, and is outraged that her parents — who, although stern and traditional, were loving and engaged — deprived her of this Elysian adolescence.”  Um, when you are an outsider trying to fit in, there indeed seems to exist a miraculously unremarkable “normal” ideal, and you would sacrifice your favorite family member or your favorite kidney to not stand out. Being penalized by society for being different means that you gaze at people who aren’t singled out with envy and longing for their happy lives. And: since when has the knowledge that your parents love you and are engaged with you ever consoled a teenager denied the opportunity to be popular and have fun? Of course parents will tell you it’s for your good and that you’ll thank them for it later while imposing a seven o’clock curfew…

And this brings me to my bigger point: I felt that Landau implied that Gill must be held to a different standard of behavior because of her ethnicity. Consider this:

“Always present, however, are notes of self-indulgent petulance and alarming disrespect toward both her culture and her parents.”

I found this quite infuriating.  If a “normal” Canadian dissed her cultural experiences as a teen, I bet a review wouldn’t call her “alarmingly disrespectful” for it. A reviewer wouldn’t wonder why a “normal” Canadian didn’t react with moderation, if, say, her mom didn’t allow her to attend a Hannah Montana concert when all her friends were going.  And anyway, how did Landau miss the obvious affection Gill has for her parents? Towards the end, Gill says, “When I was growing up, I had always wished they were more supportive, more understanding, that they might have said “I love you” just once. But now I knew that they had done what they could, and that it was time I did right by them, for they had had neither the childhoods nor the adulthood they might have wanted for themselves.” Not exactly disrespectful, that.

Landau adds: “The experience of a traditional Indian upbringing in a North American context offers rich territory for reflection, and certain moments, like Gill’s visit to India, or the jarring differences between the ironclad rule under which she was raised and her younger brother’s more lenient upbringing, beg for deeper insight. Instead, the cultural analysis is limited to broad strokes and crass generalizations. “Indian parents have a deathly fear of sexuality,” she gripes, in between calling her Punjabi “gibberish” and rolling her eyes at her mother’s traditional cooking. Her parents, meanwhile, are reduced to stock sitcom villains who have the gall to clothe her in non–brand name jeans. In attempting to illustrate the restraints imposed by her culture, Gill’s memoir only manages to expose her own narrow-mindedness.”

Hey, I like this book because it dares not to take the immigrant baggage seriously. It isn’t about Venerable Traditions or Preserving Your Culture or Respecting Indian Values. The Walrus review seems to view the deviation from such stereotypes as a shortcoming of this book; I think it’s one of its chief strengths. Immigrant writing isn’t just about subalterns reflecting on being the Other; we also chat about the fallout of non-brand name jeans on our teen selves.  Mainstream novels have been written about less.

When Maharajasaurs Walked the Earth

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is currently running an exhibition called “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts”. The museum recently hosted a tour for journalists and bloggers, which I attended. The AGO earned my eternal wow by allowing my three-year-old son to tag along, and no, it wasn’t a disaster. My husband, who accompanied me, introduced my son to the security guard with the warning that the nice man would give him a time-out if he touched the exhibits. It was a very necessary manoeuver, for the exhibition included a car, a carriage, and life-size wire models of an elephant and a horse, all of which begged little boys to climb right up and ride away.  But the threat worked, and the Maharaja items  survived unscathed.

Maharaja consists of over 200 objects, most of which were loaned by the V&A Museum in London. The exhibition takes you through the many trappings of Indian kingship,  from sceptres to spittoons, and several items  had been  painstakingly restored for this event–a king’s costume on display had been re-lined with silk. The crowd-pleasers included a silver carriage adorned with bulldogs and hounds, a Rolls-Royce, and a howdah on a mock elephant. And of course, bucketfuls of bling, including a belt with diamonds the size of new potatoes.

Carriage pic. from here

“These magnificent objects chronicle the many aspects of royal life and celebrate a legacy of cultural patronage by generations of maharajas, both in India and in Europe,” says the website. Maharaja essentially aims to present a glimpse of the lifestyle and splendors of the Indian kings in the eighteenth and nineteenth century,  and I think it succeeds in its mandate. As a collection of  royal objects, Maharaja is quite spectacular, and well-worth a visit.

The  loaded political questions such treasures pose regarding their acquisition and ownership were, however, mostly side-stepped. One of the items on display is Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s golden throne, and an elderly Indian gentleman could not quite contain his shock or ire upon seeing it.  (The throne, along with several other precious objects, was  “taken” by the British when they annexed Punjab in 1849.) Understandably, the AGO downplayed the knotty historical context, but in my opinion, such erasure did tip the exhibition in the direction of Orientalism.

Ranjit Singh's throne (wikipedia)

Soooo…I have mixed feeling about the issues herein. On the one hand, many of the kings were corrupt, good-for-nothing layabouts who were utterly divorced from reality and who cared little for the welfare of their subjects–the average Indian peasant’s lot probably didn’t change much when the British Empire took over. But equally, the deliberate humiliation of the kings of India at the hands of the British isn’t comfortable history. The  rights and responsibilities of the Maharajas were systematically diminished by the British until their power was reduced to material wealth and little else, and I was both aghast and saddened by the excesses they subsequently embraced–there was an air of desperation about it all. Yes, these maharajasaurs mostly had extinction coming, but oh, it must have been quite a show when they ruled their earth.

I should also mention that we were guided by an exceptionally nice museum employee Rachel,  who probably  knew more Indian history than the rest of us put together.  And Piali, the Maharaja community blogger, was a fund of fascinating historical trivia–that sales of Rolls-Royces tapered off during the Great Depression except in India, where the kings continued to buy new toys with glee, starving subjects be damned. The exhibition runs till April 3; do visit if you have an hour or two to spare. And don’t forget to sedate the kids.