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.

Random bookish stuff #3

I was unwell with a nasty fever/sinus infection last week. Nothing seemed to help–Sudafed, Acetaminophen, human sacrifice–and I ended up lying in bed and moaning, grateful that I didn’t owe someone a powerpoint presentation on new packaging strategies for an air freshener or something. When my forehead stopped trying to expel my eyes from my skull, I read an Angela Thirkell that cheered me up mightily. Pre-war British fiction  featuring  scones and stout boots and genteel cruelty and village bazaars  make, amongst other things,  for great convalescence reading, and Elizabeth Jane Howard, Wodehouse, Richmal Crompton and E.F.Benson are perennial favorites of mine. The one thing their books don’t have is a nice juicy murder, but they do contain plenty of back-stabbing and much character assassination.

Most of these authors are out of circulation, out of print, and out of fashion, but if, like me, you have an inexplicable predilection for their ilk, do check out Katrina’s CPR Book Ceilidh. Katrina (someone please give her a  medal) has undertaken the task of performing CPR on books and authors languishing unread, by posting links to reviews and generally championing their cause. A.J.Cronin! Mary de Morgan! Arnold Bennett! Do join the Ceilidh and add your favorite overlooked genius to this list.

***

Due to the aforementioned illness (call it a cold if you must),  all scheduled reviews have been pushed back a week. If you are an author waiting for a review: my apologies for this delay, and I’ll get them out double quick.

***

My blog reached a watershed of sorts over the weekend: 24000 spam comments. Is this normal? If not, why am I getting so spammed? What makes this peculiarly shameful is that I have only 1200 legit comments. Please consider commenting more often; you will be saved after the rapture.

***

Have you heard of Reena Virk? Virk was a fourteen-year-old South Asian girl from BC, Canada, who was murdered by a group of her peers.  From Wikipedia:

“On the evening of Friday November 14, 1997, Reena Virk was invited to a “party” by her friend near the Craigflower Bridge, west of the city of Victoria, British Columbia.

While at the bridge, it is claimed that teenagers drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. Virk was subsequently swarmed by a group later called the Shoreline Six. Witnesses said that one of the girls stubbed out a cigarette on Virk’s forehead, and that while seven or eight others stood by and watched, Virk was repeatedly hit, punched and kicked. She was found to have several cigarette burns on her skin, and apparently attempts were made to set her hair on fire. This first beating ended when one of the girls told the others to stop.

Virk managed to walk away, but was followed by two members of the original group, Ellard and Glowatski. The pair dragged Virk to the other side of the bridge, made her remove her shoes and jacket, and beat her a second time. It is believed that Ellard forced Virk’s head under the water and held it there with her foot until Virk stopped struggling.

Despite an alleged pact amongst the people involved not to “rat each other out,” by the following Monday, rumors of the alleged murder spread throughout Shoreline Secondary School, where Virk was a student. Several uninvolved students and teachers heard the rumors, but no one came forward to report it to the police. The rumors were confirmed eight days later, on November 22, 1997, when police using a helicopter found Virk’s partially clothed body washed ashore at the Gorge Inlet, a major waterway on Vancouver Island. Media sources indicated that Cst Chris Horsley of the Saanich Police was the officer who located Virk’s body.

The coroner ruled the death was by drowning. However, an autopsy later revealed that Virk had sustained significant injury, and that the head injuries were severe enough to have killed her if she had not been drowned. Virk was 14 years old.”

The Toronto Women’s Bookstore is hosting an event on 24 February about a new book on Reena Virk’s life and death, titled “Reena Virk: Critical Perspectives on a Canadian Murder“. The event description says “The murder of British Columbia teen Reena Virk shocked Canadians and inspired much commentary on bullying and “girl violence,” but the media coverage persistently ignored race and related issues. This collection brings together ten chapters by established and emerging scholars in order to grapple with the difficult and at times ugly implications of Reena Virk’s murder for Canadian national identity. The focus is on how race and racism intersect with relations of power such as gender, class, age, and sexuality within the Canadian national imaginary.”

This event runs from 6:30pm – 8:30pm, and I’m hoping to attend.  Do let me know if you plan to be there as well.

Two Indo-Canadian Tales of Transformation

Song of India by Mariellen Ward: I’ll admit to a jaundiced-verging-on-chrome  eye when reading travelogues about India. In my experience, such books either romanticize the country–it’s all Rajasthani palaces and IT fortresses–or they  condescend, wherein the writer, on the strengths of a few Indian friends and few Kingfishers too many, decides to explain the country to us ignorant folk. Ward’s book however, steers well away from such cliches; hence this review.

Song of India (2011) is a (self-published) collection of travel articles that appeared in a number of venues, including the Toronto Star. Ward, who lives in Toronto when she’s not traveling, combines a journalist’s eye for detail with an unapologetic passion for India, and the result is a splendidly personal account of the country’s transformation of her philosophy of life (and death). Ward’s experiences center around Yoga and spirituality, but her uplifting, informative  tales will appeal to Indophiles of all stripes. If, at times, I was skeptical about the ease of her travels–all hardship is self-imposed, and the author has apparently escaped (how?) diarrhea/sexual harassment/taxi drivers demanding five hundred rupees to reach the idli-stall round the corner–Ward herself acknowledges the magical quality of her relationship with the country.

The pieces could perhaps have been thematically arranged for a more cohesive read (the collection occasionally feels a tad scattershot), but Ward’s tensile prose, free of any hint of self-aggrandization, goes a long way in helping the reader overlook such minor flaws. After reading Song of India, you can’t help being glad for Ward for finding herself a happy place; would that all of us could. Ward conducts tours of India as well; on the basis of this book, I’d say you couldn’t find a better guide.

You can read more India-centric writing by Ward at her website.

***

Maya Running by Anjali Banerjee:  It’s the 1970s, and as the only brown girl in her small Manitoba town, Maya faces incomprehension, scorn, and occasional racial slurs  for her Indian heritage. Then her cousin Pinky arrives from India, and suddenly, being Indian is cool, for Pinky is beautiful and accomplished, and unapologetic about her ethnicity. Maya is delighted–until Pinky catches the eye of the boy Maya likes.

Obviously, serious intervention is called for.  Maya prays to the (Hindu) God Ganesh to change things around, and Ganesh answers her prayers, but the beware-of-getting-what-you-ask-for clause kicks in. How Maya gets  things sorted provides the note of suspense to the story.

In the main, I was charmed by Maya Running.  The novel is sharply-written and deeply-felt, and while Banerjee doesn’t sugar-coat issues of racism, she doesn’t let it bog the plot down either. The magic realism (for want of a better term) was an unexpected and welcome touch–works like this are often predictable, conforming to the cultural-conflict-solving “issue” book mold, and I was very glad that Banerjee injected something new and fun into this genre. My only real issue was with the pacing of the story.  Ganesh’s machinations begin only midway through the novel, and then everything moves very fast; I felt Banerjee could have explored Maya’s altered reality in more detail, rather than hurtling towards the climax.  Having said that, I was impressed with this book overall.  Banerjee, who grew up in Manitoba and now lives in the USA (presumably in warmer climes), writes for adults as well, and I’ll be trying those books soon.

You can read more about Banerjee at her site. And here’s an interview with her on this month’s Bookslut.

Jazz in Love by Neesha Meminger

It’s always interesting to see patterns emerge in a writer’s work. Neesha Meminger’s debut novel Shine, Coconut Moon offered a nuanced account of a seventeen-year-old Indian Sikh girl’s exploration of her identity; the catalyst for  Samar’s journey was post 9/11 America’s reaction to her color, race, ethnicity, and religion. In Jazz in Love, seventeen-year-old Jazz is figuring out who she is, but this time, the catalyst is her inner world–first, her hormones, and then, her (Indian Sikh) family. Jazz’s story is hence more universal and simultaneously, more particular than Samar’s.

Jazz, who’s formulated her romantic philosophy from the bodice-rippers she hides from her parents, is curious and a little scared when it comes to love. All she really wants is to experiment a bit to see what works for her, before she settles down. And every seventeen-year-old can relate to that. But Jazz’s conservative parents want to pair her up with a suitable boy so as to remove any opportunities for experimentation. Their respect for tradition runs very deep, and not just in opposition to American ways; I saw the central conflict more in terms of generational differences than immigrant-versus-American culture. This book could, with a few changes, have been set in modern-day India, for there isn’t really an “American” angle to the plot, other than the fact that “modern” is so often conflated with “westernized”.

The story is simple. When her parents catch Jazz hugging Jeeves, her best-friend-from-kindergarten-who-happens-to-be-male, they quickly fix her up with a “suitable” boy so as to pre-empt any romantic forays. But the suitable boy has a secret which makes him unsuitable–and which leaves Jazz free to sigh over Tyler, the one who makes her hormones froth and buzz. And Jeeves, meanwhile, morphs into hotness too.

It’s the standard love triangle, but the issues herein are quite particularly Sikh/Indian. Jeeves is Indian and Sikh too, but unsuitable because he’s not of Jazz’s caste; quelle horreur! Tyler is Indian, but from the Caribbean, so he’s apparently not considered “Indian” Indian by some. Meminger balances this emphasis on ethnic specifics with vivid details of Jazz’s emotional and sensual experiences. We’re with Jazz as she tries to fathom her impulses, and we’re there as she figures out that with freedom comes the possibility–no, certainty– of making mistakes.

Meminger is very good indeed at describing the madness of seventeen; she had me alternately wishing I were young and hot again, and then, thanking the pantheon that I’ll never have to revisit this part of my life. She’s also scarily at ease with teenspeak, and I had several LOL moments (see, I’m learning!), as when I read about bindi-bos (bindi-sporting bimbos), and when Jeeves suggests that a thirty-something man is old, and hence “not good with the internet.” Damn, is that what they think of us?

Jazz… isn’t quite as accomplished as Shine— some of the scenes had an explaining note to them, and, as might be expected from this genre, the plot follows a predictable path.  The ending, though, was entirely satisfactory, avoiding a neat resolution (and perhaps, in the process, setting up the possibility of a sequel?) And props to Jazz… for providing me a longed-for break from the self-conscious gravitas of much contemporary South Asian literature. This book rejoices in the sensual, it’s light-hearted and witty, and you can tell that the author had fun writing it. Not as much fun as I did reading it, Neesha!

Note: Neesha self-identifies as Canadian, so I’m counting this one towards the Canadian Book Challenge.

Kabir the Weaver-Poet by Jaya Madhavan

Like most Indian school children, I studied about Kabir the Saint; like all school children, I banished him from my brain post-exams. If prodded (at knife-point), I might have remembered him as the one who said it didn’t matter whether you were Hindu or Muslim, and cited the legend about mourners squabbling over religious dibs at his funeral (cremate or inter?) only to find that Kabir’s body had been magically replaced by easy-to-apportion flowers.

So really, I didn’t know anything about Kabir, until the folks at Tulika Books asked if I’d be interested in this book review.  Jaya Madhavan’s Kabir the Weaver-Poet has now rooted Kabir in my mind as a gadfly who delighted in offending fundamentalists of all stripes, a religious poet whose work showcases an earthy, entertaining wit, a mystic as much as a logician, and a non-conformist who really didn’t give a damn about public opinion.  He might be a saint, but he was quite the dude.

So, who was Kabir? Born circa the fourteenth century, he is generally regarded as “the first Indian saint to have harmonised Hinduism and Islam by preaching a universal path which both Hindus and Muslims could tread together.” Of unknown parentage, he was brought up in a Muslim household, and was a weaver by profession, which of course seems peculiarly apt given his predilection for amalgamating contradictory religious dogmas. His poetry exhorts people to discover God through simplicity and goodness while shunning the accoutrements  of organized religion; the latter earned him powerful enemies amongst the establishment, with nasty consequences. This story could unfold today, and not much would be different. Gulp.

Kabir… is aimed at the 12 years plus group, and Madhavan uses several interesting devices to hold her readers’ attention,  such as a story paced over twenty-four hours, an abundance of weaving metaphors, and multiple narrators including anthropomorphic weaving equipment–a thread, loom, spindle etc.  chat with each other about Kabir. And thankfully, the author’s account of this saint’s life is no hagiography.  Madhavan offers inventive factual explanations for miracles attributed to Kabir without diminishing his persona, and her rueful, animated narrative makes you wonder why Kabir courts trouble as he does (he advocates for vegetarianism at a market meat-stall), even as you admire his steadfastness. And Kabir’s poetry adds further zing to the story. “Take ten cows, differently colored, yet the milk is the same,” he says, thus offending Pundits and Mullahs in equal measure.

I felt a sense of impending doom along the narrative (the first chapter warns that Kabir might be in for a sticky end), and the last section, which features a vicious outbreak of communal violence, will disturb younger readers. But the essential truth of Kabir’s arguments shines forth for readers of all ages, as does the joy this man found in his eschewal of all that was narrow-minded and ugly. Madhavan’s portrayal ultimately had me remarking on Kabir’s sanity rather than his saintliness, and that’s perhaps the best compliment I could pay this beautifully-imagined account of one’s man campaign to change the world. And you know what? He did.*

END

*According to Wiki, Kabir’s “…writings have greatly influenced the Bhakti movement…Apart from having an important influence on Sikhism, Kabir’s legacy is today carried forward by the Kabir Panth (“Path of Kabir”), a religious community [whose] members, known as Kabir panthis, are estimated to be around 9,600,000.”

Kabir’s influence is felt in popular culture even today. Check out The Kabir Project, which describes contemporary film and music themed around Kabir’s philosophy. The films look absolutely fascinating; won’t someone send me a Region 1 DVD?

This review is part of the Kabir blogfest, organized by Tulika in association with the Kabir Project.  “You can also blog about Kabir, write about how you have been touched by his poetry or the stories around his life or write about how you have responded to him.” Please, do.

The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer

UPDATE: As you may have read, a few days ago, Taseer’s father Salman Taseer was assassinated for opposing Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. The gunman was a twenty-six year old religious fanatic. Aatish Taseer writes about his father’s death in this piece ‘The killer of my father, Salman Taseer, was showered with rose petals by fanatics. How could they do this?’

***
The protagonist of Aatish Taseer’s novel is a privileged, westernized young writer who comes to Delhi from London to revise his novel, and whose name is Aatish Taseer. Check, check, and CHECK; fact and fiction mesh tantalizingly in The Temple-Goers, and some readers will derive much pleasure in trying to prise them apart. But the more interesting feature of this blurring of truth and illusion is the sharp contrast it presents against the writer’s near-obsessive meticulousness in documenting his perceived reality.

But first, the story.

Aakash is a middle-class, high-caste gym trainer who aspires to the big time. When Aatish Taseer joins the same gym, the two men fall headlong into friendship, and something more. Aakash feels genuinely validated by a writer’s interest in his life, and besides, is eager to vicariously experience Tasser’s affluent lifestyle and to garner acquaintances amongst Taseer’s friends, who include prominent politicians and mediapersons. Aakash’s overfamiliarity is accepted by Taseer, who, in a typical instance of self-doubt, fears he might be holding on “to an imported idea of propriety.” Moreover, Aakash’s family history maps perfectly on to India’s socio-economic changes, and he seems to symbolize the “real” India Taseer wants to comprehend. The two men thus make use of each other for their own ends, but one is soon revealed to be considerably cannier than the other.

Taseer is an excellent observer, missing no detail in his chronicle of modern Delhi’s fault-lines, and his note-taking style works especially well in the first third of the novel, which focuses on the narrator’s attempts to understand middle-class Delhi. (In a key incident, Taseer dresses in Indian clothes for a visit to a Hindu temple, only to find that Aakash, who does not need to try, is in jeans and a T-shirt.) There are penetrating insights into Delhi’s rich and powerful, into gender imbalances and the sense of entitlement with which Delhi males belittle women, and most of all, into the city of Delhi itself. Here’s a description of a block of state-owned apartments: “In a country which couldn’t even standardize nuts and bolts, they were a rare achievement. Their squalor lay in their homogeneity and was not the Indian squalor, which was various and surprising.” Anyone who has been to Delhi is nodding appreciatively here.

But Taseer’s attention to detail results in digressions and asides being assigned the same significance as the essential parts of the story, and the result is an exhausting read. The author’s journalistic eye coupled with his over-weaning adherence to factual description results in the loss of a certain emotional warmth to the story — the reader is distanced further and further from the narrative, and inevitably questions the end towards which such hyper-observation is directed. The prologue mentions an interesting plot hook, but the incident in question takes place in the final sixth of the book, and may come too late for the reader, who has probably long lost patience with the narrator’s maddeningly-slow realization that he’s out of his depth in the India he seeks to grasp. In the final analysis, Taseer’s undeniable gifts as a writer don’t quite compensate for his lack of interest in the art of story-telling.

END

This review appears in The Asian Review of Books.