The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman

Long long ago, on a splendid blog far far away, I promised I’d join Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder challenge. Read Harder aims to get us out of our reading bubble and boldly explore strange new worlds; for me, that might be a novel about war, or prescriptive non-fiction on becoming rich, or a book about religion…I’ve discovered that the trick is to use what you like as a springboard for the new stuff. I will never, never, never warm to chick lit or pop philosophy or macho heroes, but I’d certainly look for an #ownvoices book set in Oceania, and I might just give a book of manga a shot.

I began with the first challenge in #ReadHarder, to read an epistolary novel or collection of letters. This was possibly the easiest challenge ever, for it gives me the chance to tell you about a book I LOVED.  Padma Venkatraman’s middle-grade novel The Bridge Home is one of those books on behalf which I’d evangelize tirelessly. It’s beautiful and moving and deals with tough topics with exceptional finesse, and if you’re not profoundly stirred at the end of your read, well, I suggest therapy.

TBH is set in the city of Chennai, in southern India, and details the experiences of eleven-year-old Viji, who, along with her developmentally disabled sister Rukku, runs away from her abusive alcoholic father. Viji must find a home safe from predatory men, and figure out how the sisters can earn a living. The girls meet two other homeless children Muthu and Arul, who teach them to scavenge for sellable scraps in the city’s enormous garbage dump. The four children become fast friends and make a home together on an abandoned bridge, but it’s a precarious existence—a single piece of bad luck might upend everything.

Meticulously detailed settings, believable and likable characters, unsentimental portrayals of poverty and deprivation, and a healthy dose of humor all come together to make an eye-wateringly good read. And I loved that it’s set in (one of) my hometowns–Chennai!

And yes, TBH is an epistolary novel–it’s written in the form of letters  from Viji to Rukku. This book was published in Feb. 2019, and I’ll bet one of my kidneys it’ll pick up a bunch of awards, for diversity and for overall excellence, and hence I’m covered for task #22–to read a children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009.

I loved this book so much that I interviewed the author for The Rumpus, and she had a lot of interesting things to say about poverty, India, and the intersection of stories and science. Here’s an excerpt:

The Rumpus: You lived in India when you were the same age as the characters in the novel. Did you know children like them? If you did, I think this sort of social interaction between classes/castes in India would have been quite unusual, especially back in the 1980s?

Padma Venkatraman: It was unusual. I was born into a wealthy Brahmin family, but my parents separated (which was highly unusual). After that, unlike any other South Asian American author I’ve met, I experienced economic hardship firsthand. But it was nothing like the dire poverty I saw around me.

Despite our fraught monetary situation, my mother volunteered to help at schools for children who had much less than we did. At one such school, I quickly became good friends with a boy called Nagabushan. I had a sort of childish crush on him—I really admired how deftly he could throw clay and shape a vase on his father’s wheel. Years later, I realized that he came from the Dalit community and would have been considered “untouchable.” Viji’s character is inspired by a friend who is Roma, who once sheltered in a graveyard and scrounged through trash, and asked if I’d write her story.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

 

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

Whatever planet rules kidlit featuring South Asian history must be on the ascendant; no sooner did I finish Ahimsa, about India’s independence struggle, than I heard about The Night Diary, which provides a child’s-eye view of the partition of newly independent India. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the Indian subcontinent, you’ll have heard of the 1947 Partition (with a capital P), when 14 million people were displaced as British administrators pencilled a line carving up India on the eve of the region’s independence from British rule. Hindus and Sikhs from the newly created state of Pakistan migrated to India, while Muslims from India went northwest to Pakistan; most estimates have over a million lives lost during this exchange.

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July 14, 1947 is a special day–Nisha and her twin brother Amil have just turned twelve. Their beloved family retainer Kazi gifted Nisha a silk-and-sequin-covered diary, with thick unlined paper that Nisha likes way better than lined.  Nisha decides that night is the best time to write in her diary, as “that way, no one will ask me any questions.” Oh, and the name Nisha means night. See what Hiranandani did there…

Nisha is smart, studious, silent, and surrounded by love. Her mother died giving birth to the siblings, but Nisha’s Papa, a doctor at Mirpur Khas City Hospital, her grandma Dadi, her brother and Kazi all live together in harmony with their surroundings and each other. Nisha knows their family is a little different, for her father is Hindu and Mama was Muslim, but overall it’s as happy and secure a childhood as can be. And while Papa is always busy and sometimes a bit distant, Kazi is both mother and father; through his solid, unconditional love and tutelage, shy, introverted Nisha finds she can express herself through cooking for those she loves.

But “sometimes the world as you know it just decides to become something else.” (That sentence, oh;  The Night Diary, narrated in the form of diary entries addressed to Nisha’s deceased mother, is full of sentences that make your heart hurt for Nisha.) India is to be divided into two separate countries–and Mirpur Khas will be in Pakistan. Papa, worried about the family’s safety,  keeps the children out of school, but then a gang breaks into their house, and Kazi is attacked and injured. Very quickly, the children learn that grown-ups don’t have all the answers and that adults can be scared too.  They also learn all about the awful necessity of taking a side–Hindu or Muslim. Heartsick, Nisha writes, “Me, Amil, Papa, Dadi, and Kazi. That’s it. That’s the only side I know how to be on.”

Papa talks of moving to the new India, but all Nisha wants is the old one–the one that was her home. When on August 14, 1947, the ground she’s standing on is India no more, the family packs their belongings,  planning to cross the border by train. It’s wrenching, leaving behind almost everything for the unknown people who’ll occupy their home, but it’s unbearable that they must go without Kazi, who, as a Muslim, must stay in Pakistan… Then news arrives that the  people are being slaughtered on the border trains (in both directions). As rioters draw closer to Mirpur Khas, the family flees on foot, planning to stop at Nisha’s mother’s (estranged) brother’s house, and then make their way to India.

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Nisha now has to grow up in a hurry; Dadi warns her that she must cover herself with a shawl, and not trust strange men. After walking fifteen miles a day, the family sleeps in the open, with a fire to keep animals away.  Food is scarce, water even scarcer, and tempers fray as the stress of survival eats away at the family. As always, the question of her mixed Hindu-Muslim parentage hangs over Nisha; will people always hate one half of her?

The refugee life is one where the ordinary seems like a fairy tale. “Nothing was real. We didn’t have neighbors. We didn’t have a home. It was in-between living.”  In their time of crisis, everything non-essential is gradually pared away until all that’s left is the fear they will die of starvation/dehydration, or be murdered by rioters, before making it to Rashid Uncle’s house. Will they reach India with their family unit–and their faith in humanity– intact?

One of The Night Diary’s most noteworthy accomplishments lies in the way it subtly encourages young readers to connect this slice of history to contemporary events. In Hiranandani’s hands, the Partition isn’t just something that happened in a remote part of South Asia long ago, but a terrible lesson on how quickly things can go to pieces among people who’ve lived in amity for centuries. The diary format provides a peculiarly intimate and intense account of Nisha’s life, thus enabling middle-graders to understand the experience of refugees all over the world today.  And silent, not-so-brave Nisha’s journey to courage will stay with the younger set even if some forget the specifics of the politics of this particular story.

The Night Diary is built around the author’s own family history–Veera Hiranandani (who happens to be half Jewish and half Hindu) based the story on her father, who, with his parents and siblings, travelled across the border from Mirpur Khas to Jodhpur in India. As she writes in her Author’s Note, “My father’s family made the journey safely, but lost their home […]and had to start over in an unfamiliar place as refugees. I wanted to understand more about what my relatives went through which is a big reason why I wrote this book.” And yes, Hiranandani provides a nuanced take on the political aspects–there’s no blaming  any side or people or religion. “All those in power wanted peaceful relations between the groups, but disagreed on the best way to make that happen.” If you’re looking to introduce your middle grader to this slice of history about India’s struggle with British colonial rule, you couldn’t do better than to begin with Ahimsa and then go on to The Night Diary. 

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The Night Diary was published March 2018 by Dial Books. My thanks to the author and the publisher for the review copy!

 

 

 

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

I’ve been an avid Mitali Perkins reader for over a dozen years now, and it never fails to thrill me when she has a new book out. And what a book she’s written in You Bring the Distant Near! (Don’t take my word for it–the book was nominated for the National Book Award this year.)  Perkins crafts positive, uplifting, yet realistic stories that immerse the reader in carefully-detailed worlds of her creation; YBtDN is all that and more. When was the last time you read a novel with a black Bengali mixed race family? Never, I bet.

Discontented, prejudiced, fearful Ranee Das moves from London with her two teen daughters in tow to join her engineer husband, who’s moved to New York for a new job. Seventeen-year-old Tara is a born star, adapting to life in seventies America by modeling herself after Marcia Brady (of The Brady Bunch), while fifteen-year-old Sonia is the girl who can’t stop reading, who gets straight As in the gifted program, and who wears oversized T-shirts with feminist slogans. You go, Sonia! Ranee is the kind of person who believes her girls should only hang out with kids from “good families” (aka Bengali or white folks), who’s mad at her husband for sending money home to his ailing mother, and who zealously guards her girls’ “reputation”. But the sisters have each other’s backs; Sonia wrangles Tara a drama audition at school, while Tara coaxes their mother to let Sonia visit the library sans chaperonage. Gradually, Ranee (and Sonia and Tara) learn to reconcile their cultural inheritances (they’re Bengali Hindus from Bangladesh)  with the demands of America–specifically New York, which insists on erasing boundaries while creating new, dangerous yet rewarding spaces.

Just when Ranee is able to relax  and let go of her hang-ups (she clings on to racial prejudice though), tragedy strikes, and the Das women find themselves bargaining from a position of powerlessness. But America in the late 1970 provides room to experiment and grow, and soon, the girls strike their own paths, even if it’s far from what their parents ever imagined. Tara wants to act, and Sonia to write, even though “good Bengali daughters have three options after high school: go to college and study engineering, go to college and study medicine, or if they’re pretty but terrible in school [..], marry an engineer or a doctor.” And as though specializing in the creative arts wasn’t enough, Sonia goes on to adopt Christianity–and to fall in love with a black boy from Louisiana.

We’re just halfway into the novel, and there’s already so much to unpack about race, feminism, immigration, and Bengali history and culture. The next generation brings yet more elements to the mix–Sonia’s biracial daughter feels she’s not black enough for some, and not Bengali enough for others, while Tara’s daughter Anu, transported from contemporary Mumbai to attend high school with her cousin, undergoes severe culture shock. Meanwhile Ranee, who’s always maintained a certain distance from her adopted country, decides after 9/11 to immerse herself in the American experience–with, um, unexpected results.

These five women thus forge unique ways to work, pray, love and to be, and oh, I’m so enchanted with the clear-eyed hopefulness that Perkins brings to this vision of the choices available to women of color in America. Although marketed as a YA novel, YBtDN would work beautifully for middle grades as well–I can totally see a 13-year-old South Asian girl from New Jersey read this book and realize that she, too, can negotiate with parental expectations and the weight of tradition to open up her options. This is the novel you didn’t know you needed till you’ve read it.  And I have to mention that the (many) men in this novel are SO NICE. They are respectful and non-stalkerish and endlessly patient and kind and hot and funny and never mistake aggression for masculinity…

Is YBtDN’s happy vision of a society where class, race and religious divisions are rendered insignificant in the face of love and good intentions realistic? I don’t know, but how I’d like to believe it’s so–that all of us can learn from our diverse communities to be the best version of ourselves. Here’s to the cast of YBtDN–may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Always looking for a good murder, that’s me. Throw in a strong female lead, an unusual setting, respectful cultural detail, history by the bucketful, and impressive writing chops, and well, I’m happy as a pig in a midden. Sujata Massey’s The Widows of Malabar Hill (Soho Crime, 2018) is set in 1920s Bombay, and features a Zoroastrian (Parsi) female lawyer tracking a murderer, battling bigotry, and fighting for her female clients’ rights. Call me Porky.

It’s 1921, and Perveen Mistry, Bombay’s first woman solicitor, is finishing up a property contract in her office in Mistry House. But oh, her path to success has been rocky. Her father’s a lawyer too, which enabled her become the first woman to attend law school at Elphinstone College. But when she becomes the second-highest -scoring student after the first year, she’s made the target of terrible harassment and academic sabotage by the male students, who are resentful she’s showing them up. After many twists and turns, Perveen completes her law studies in Oxford, and returns to Bombay to help her father.

While many refuse to deal with a woman, Perveen’s gender finally becomes an asset when dealing with a particular set of clients–Muslim ladies who are purdahnashins (followers of strict Purdah laws), who live in a zenana and must avoid men who aren’t close family. A rich Muslim man Mr. Farid, with a valuable house in ultra-posh Malabar Hill, has just died, and his three widows (the titular ladies) have just signed away their monies to be donated to the family’s wakf. (Acc. to Wiki, a wakf is “an inalienable charitable endowment under Islamic law, which typically involves donating a building, plot of land or other assets for Muslim  religious or charitable purposes with no intention of reclaiming the assets. The donated assets may be held by a charitable trust.”)

Perveen suspects that the paperwork, handled by the household agent Mukhri, isn’t quite aboveboard, and decides to meet the Farid widows to ensure they haven’t been coerced into signing away their property. Mukhri turns out to be a sleazeball, and Perveen is justly worried for the wives’ fate. Even as she’s figuring out the best way to confront him, Mukhri turns up dead, stabbed in a particularly vicious manner. Whodunit? And will there be a real push by the (British) police to figure it out?

It’s a juicy mystery, but the real lure of this novel for me lies in Massey’s adept detailing of the socio-cultural context of the murder.  Here be Hindu, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Anglo-Indians, Jews, and the British, all boiling away furiously in the cauldron that is pre-independence Bombay. (Massey herself is German-Indian, was raised in Minnesota, and lives in Baltimore.) Each community has its own hierarchy, and its own markers of worth and respectability, but beware of making quick assumptions about liberation and progressiveness. The characters are complex individuals who are impossible to stereotype; while they are very much part of their religious and ethnic identities, they are much more than single stories. The British are colonizing India, but Perveen’s best friend is a queer English girl who is very willing to help Perveen. Parsis pride themselves on their progressiveness, but some rigidly sequester women during their menstrual cycles, to the extent of denying them the right to even clean themselves.  Muslim women might live in seclusion (voluntary or involuntary), but Muslim law allows widows to claim their dower against the husband’s estate even before the legacy distribution…

And oh, Massey’s research, and her attention to detail, are simply glorious.  For instance, we’re told Perveen has a golden-brown Swaine Adeney bridle leather briefcase, with her initials stamped in gold (it’s the case depicted on the book cover). Who can resist such specificity? I googled it, and yes, for a mere £1795 you can get Perveen’s case at Swaine Adeney Brigg, “individually created in [their] Cambridge workshop by a single craftsman”.  rac99tay_mediumAnd Perveen’s grandfather’s portrait hanging in Mistry House was done by one Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, who studied under Sargent. And indeed, this Poona-born Jewish painter, known for his portraits, married a Muslim lady, adopted Islam, and moved to Pakistan; check out tate.org.uk for more about him. And did you know that under Parsi law back then, adultery was defined as “a married man’s act with a married lady who is not a prostitute?” It wasn’t adultery, but mere fornication if the man had sex with a prostitute–and not considered to be sufficient cause for divorce, or even legal separation.  I could go on and on, but seriously: read the book.

And if you have the remotest connection to Bombay or Mumbai, you’ll loooove this book. The Widows… is an object lesson on how to perfectly balance a novel’s appeal between plot and setting.  “[The area called] Fort’s twenty square miles were once the East India Company’s original fortified settlement. Now the district was known for the High Court and the many law offices around it. Nestled alongside the British and Hindu and Muslim law offices were a significant number owned by […] Zoroastrians. Although Parsis accounted for just 6% of Bombay’s total inhabitants, they constituted one-third of its lawyers.” Here’s Perveen, buying sweets from Yazdani’s, an Irani bakery, before hailing a sunbonnetted rickshaw to Ballard Pier to greet the SS London. Here’s a mention of Lord Tata’s proposal for the development of Back Bay. One of the Farid widows was dowered with some not-so-useful swampland in Girangaon, where they’ve now built a mill or two or ten. There’s talk of Bombay’s Gothic architecture, and hey, Mistry House was designed by James Fuller, the  English architect who built the High Court. Queen’s Necklace, Chowpatty Beach…they’re all there, and how.

Perveen is based on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji, who was “the first female graduate from Bombay University, the first woman [of any race, I think!] to study law at Oxford University, the first female advocate in India, and the first woman to practice law in India and Britain.”  Wow. “Sorabji got involved in social and advisory work on behalf of the purdahnashins, women who were forbidden to communicate with the outside male world. In many cases, these women owned considerable property, yet had no access to the necessary legal expertise to defend it. Sorabji was given special permission to enter pleas on their behalf before British agents of Kathiawar and Indore principalities, but she was unable to defend them in court since, as a woman, she did not hold professional standing in the Indian legal system. Hoping to remedy this situation, Sorabji presented herself for the LLB examination of Bombay University in 1897 and the pleader’s examination of Allahabad High Court in 1899. Yet, despite her successes, Sorabji would not be recognised as a barrister until the law which barred women from practising was changed in 1923.”

I’ve blogged about Massey’s excellent Rei Shimura mysteries earlier, but I have to say, she’s really upped her game with Perveen Mistry, and I’ll be HUGELY upset if after creating such a magnificent set-up, Massey isn’t slogging away at a sequel. And while I’m dreaming, maybe Netflix could make it a series too? Subaltern Phryne Fisher FTW!

 

 

Ahimsa by Supriya Kelkar

I’ve searched many moons for a nuanced kid’s book that explains India’s struggle with British colonial rule prior to the country’s independence in 1947. Supriya Kelkar’s middle grade novel Ahimsa (Tu Books, 2017) is that book. It provides a lucid, thoughtful explanation of the ethos and evolution of India’s journey to self-governance–and acts as a welcome antidote to Empire defenders with their rallying cry of “But the railways!” Nope, dudes.

It’s 1942, and Gandhi, jailed by the British, has urged Indians to go on a strike to compel the British to “Quit India” already. Gandhi has asked for peaceful civil disobedience, based on the principle of ahimsa or non-violence, to never hurt anyone. Young Anjali, all fired with patriotism, decides to paint a large Q (short for “Quit India”) on the local British officer’s house. After all, the British won’t hang a ten-year-old girl…or will they? Anjali’s mother used to be the officer’s secretary, but then resigned. Or was she let go? It’s all very complicated, but one thing is clear to Anjali: her duty lies in fighting injustice, beginning with a little well-intentioned vandalism.

And then the Gandhian movement comes to Anjali’s backyard, when Anjali’s mother becomes a freedom fighter. Ma’s first step is to burn all their British-manufactured clothes. (Why? Because India’s raw cotton was exported, at pitiful rates, to Britain, whose mills processed it into cloth that was sold right back to the hapless Indians. The freedom fighters vowed to hand spin their own yarn on a spinning wheel, and have that yarn made into coarse cloth locally, rather than patronize mill-made British cloth; many activists burnt their British-made outfits as a gesture of rejection.) Ma’s gorgeous wedding sari, her father’s work clothes, Anjali’s dresses–even her beloved gold-embroidered Diwali outfits– are all gone. And Anjali’s father isn’t happy–maybe those clothes could have been donated to the poor?

Anjali is courageous, stubborn, intelligent, and most importantly, capable of critical thinking. Even as she’s protesting the indignity of British rule, which treats Indians as unfathomably inferior to whites, she gradually realizes that many Indians are just as culpable of cruelty to their own people. The caste system she’s never questioned (she’s upper caste) treats low caste people (called untouchables) inhumanely—just as horribly as the British treat Indians. And once sensitized to injustice, Anjali is forced to question her own attitudes–towards Muslims, towards the caste system and its deep roots in Hinduism, and even towards Gandhi, whose Hinduism-based approach to helping lower castes might have more than a whiff of condescension.

This can all seem a bit preachy, but Kelkar paces the novel beautifully, sans info-dumps–we learn about India and British colonial rule along with Anjali. Perfect reading for 7-14 age group. And the problem Anjali faces is a universal one–people resisting change when it results in the loss of their (unfair + unearned) privilege and power. It’s lovely to watch Anjali’s  speedy transformation from one of the NIMBY crowd to a principled fighter who does the right thing even when it’s hard physically, intellectually, and emotionally. And it’s equally satisfying to witness the journeys of the supporting characters. Take Ma, whose attempts at caste integration begin as well-meaning but insulting charity. But by reflecting, and listening to other perspectives, she moves from token gestures to genuine empathy.

Sometimes Ahimsa feels a bit like it’s ticking off boxes–Anjali’s best friend is a Muslim boy, she has a pet cow (who’d make the perfect emotional-support animal!), and she lives with an ultra-conservative great uncle who freely vocalizes on the dangers of women working outside the home, disrupting caste barriers etc. etc. Kelkar, however,  injects the plot with enough twists that it never feels predictable, and in all, she does a superb job of balancing historical detail with the honest-to-goodness confusion of a ten-year-old figuring out her role in a turbulent world. Ultimately, Anjali captures our hearts with her vulnerability, her compassion, and her determination to be the change she wishes to see. And we learn, along with Anjali, to never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.

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Kelkar was born and brought up in the Midwestern United States, and for readers unfamiliar with India’s freedom struggle, she’s included a helpful Author’s Note which provides a more detailed social and historical context for the events in the book. Fun aside: the author’s great-grandmother Anasuyabai Kale was a freedom fighter who worked with Gandhi. She “was imprisoned for civil disobedience, fought for women’s rights […]. After independence, [she] went on to become a two-term Congresswoman.” Woo-hoo!

 

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.