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.

Come, Before Evening Falls by Manjul Bajaj

Come, Before Evening Falls takes place in the village of Kaala Saand in Punjab in 1910, and features characters belong to the Jat(t) community, an agrarian sect with a long tradition of working in the armed forces. I was agreeably surprised by this novel setting—most contemporary Indian writing in English is remorselessly urban, as is media reportage; it’s all too easy to forget that seven in every 10 Indians live in a village. Bajaj writes about the period knowledgeably and with affection, and the book gives a real feel for village life a century ago. I’ve learnt a recipe for a poultice involving charred garlic in mustard oil on a half-baked roti, and I also now know how to make a cowpat; let my knowledge never require translation into action, Lord.  Seriously: Bajaj has done some impressive research, and this reader is the richer for it.

Of course, none of this would count if the story didn’t grab me.

Jugni is eighteen, beautiful, and possessed of a calm good sense that flies in the face of her feelings for Raakha, the new school teacher. For Raakha is the bastard son of a second wife, landless and poor, while Jugni is rooted deep in her prosperous family and community. But the deadest fly in this rustic stew is gotra, the Hindu custom of assigning patrilineal clans at birth. Those with the same gotra, like Jugni and Raakha, are considered siblings, even if there isn’t a single shared ancestor over the past twenty generations. (Yes, it’s whack, especially considering the culture welcomes  other consanguineous marriages.)  But gotra laws were considered immutable, and the village would view Jugni and Raakha’s love as incest. Will this relationship die unrealized, caught in a stasis between love and honor? Not if the headstrong Raakha has his way.

Bajaj’s touch is painterly when describing the minutiae of her characters’ lives; when the canvas broadens to include, say, riffs on the British government, or the nature of human kind, she’s much less assured. But there’s some top quality writing here, and the author’s passion and sincerity shine right through, invigorating potential clichés at every turn. The burden of family honor has traditionally (and unreasonably) been placed upon womenfolk in such narratives, but Bajaj subverts that notion; Jugni realizes that honor isn’t gendered, but is simply “what we each owed our own deepest soul.” Jugni and Raakha are utterly convincing, strongly defined and beautifully fleshed in, and Jugni in particular is charming, child-like yet possessed of a surprising maturity. And oh, the secondary characters aren’t half-bad either.

Now for the (minor) bad stuff. I had two issues with this book. One, Bajaj isn’t as disciplined in describing Raakha’s romantic feelings as she is with Jugni’s, so some of the writing (in his POV) veers into romance novel territory. “He had tried his damndest to stay out of her way, to let it not come to this, but the further he had tried to retreat, the clearer her voice had grown in his head.” And on Jugni’s eyes: “If he could just sit and gaze into them uninterrupted he would be redeemed.” Ooogh.

My other nit is with this book is the mixing of Punjabi and English. (Wait, it’s not the nit you expect.) Now, the characters obviously speak in Punjabi, and, equally obviously, Bajaj is trying to impart the flavor of the language in her writing. All good; I don’t mind Punjabi words peppering the text though I don’t speak the language, and I don’t even have a problem with the Hinglish (Pinglish?)spoken by the characters. “I’ll buy you sliver toe-rings at the mela [fair], I promise, and I’ll always steal the best ambis [young mangoes] for you,” says a young cousin. But then, I came across “According to the boys, Tau [uncle] was only satthyao-ing…” The last word makes a gerund of the Hindi word Satthya, meaning to go senile, by adding the English “ing”. Now, this portmanteau word is very clearly Bajaj speaking, for none of the boys could coin such a word–they wouldn’t know how to. The intrusive authorial voice all but broke the spell of the book for me; I saw the author sitting with a Macbook at a Barista typing that line. Get me back to Kaala Saand village and the cowpats, I cried, and Bajaj did, but it was a close thing. As I said earlier, it’s just a nit, but this work is otherwise so strong that the nits might as well be clothed in neon. Please change this when the book goes into reprint, please, please.

UPDATE: A note from the author informs me that the “satthyao-ing” is gone from the second edition.  And that the book is now available on Kindle:  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007VXRT3K  Buy it, y’all!

Writers Against Racism: Uma Krishnaswami

Uma Krishnaswami is the India-born, New Mexico-based author of several widely-praised children’s books (Chachaji’s Cup, The Broken Tusk ).  She talks about how racism has impacted her writing:

“A long time ago, I left a writing group in tears when someone in the group suggested I assume a pseudonym and write stories about “regular” kids. As if my name, and the South Asian kids in my stories were, you know, irregular! And I had to wonder, when I began to submit work to publishers in the early 90’s, whether there was some rule that people from my part of the world could only be shown as illiterate and barefoot-and far away.”

This interview is part of Amy Bowllan’s excellent blog series “Writers Against Racism” on School Library Journal.  Other South Asian YA authors Bowllan has interviewed include Neesha Meminger (whose YA book I’m currently reviewing), Mitali Perkins, and Rukhsana Khan.

You can read the complete author interview here on Bowllan’s Blog.

Trust Me by Rajashree

File:Trust Me Book Cover.jpgTrust Me  marries one of India’s greatest national obsessions, Bollywood cinema (the other of course is cricket), with the tested chick-lit formula.  It’s a marketer’s dream, whispers my long-dormant inner MBA; my inner reviewer is busy gagging,  recalling that other sure-fire winner, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination. 

Interestingly enough, Trust Me’s author Rajashree is identified solely by her first name.  The only other mononymous (thank you, Ms. Internet) female author I can think of is Colette

Let’s get it out of the way–Rajashree is no Colette.  The subject is indeed the same– the exploration of female sexuality in a masculine world–but Rajashree uses a trident where Colette  wields a tuning fork.  Trust Me‘s plot is perfunctory at best.  A  small-town girl Parvati moves to the big city, has a disastrous romance and consequently swears off men. She leaves her advertising career to assist on the sets of a Bollywood film. Enter the tall, fair, and handsome hero Rahul, who just might be the One. Can they work it out?

Since this book has a hot red cover with a grown-up Powerpuff Girl gazing saucily over her shoulder, the answer is glaringly clear.  And yet, there is much to like about this tale of love and longing in Bollywood. The innocent-meets-rake formula, so loved by romance writers,  fills me with fear and loathing (see my earlier post on Mills and Boon romances for more this subject).  I am so grateful that the “biggest-selling Indian chick lit novel”  does not fetishize the heroine’s purity. Parvati is no virgin; in fact, we find out in the first chapter that she has recently had an abortion. The romance genre usually demands that the heroines tend to be younger, shorter, poorer, dumber and less sexually experienced than the alpha-male; thank you, Rajashree, for confounding almost every element of this miserable equation. Protesting against his character having to strut shirtless, fully aware of his precarious toe-hold in the industry, concerned about his looks, and all of twenty years old, Rahul, rather than Parvati, is clearly the babe in the (Bolly)wood.

Rajashree is a film-maker based in Mumbai, and Trust Me incorporates several cinematic devices, including wonderful sound effects (two characters run into each other with a “dhapak”), carefully visualized settings, and much much more. All of which work very well indeed with the story. More importantly, Rajashree brings an insider’s look at Bollywood.  While India’s film industry offers all-too-obvious fodder for satire, Rajashree manages to caricature the process without ridiculing those who find meaning in it. A tricky balance indeed, and one that she strikes with just the right note of bemused detachment. I’m inclined to laugh along with the author when she describes how a particularly goofy dance sequence featuring a buffalo and a mostly-naked heroine successfully tips the distribution rights to the film. We trust Rajashree to poke fun of the film industry without making us feel mean-spirited.

The chick-lit aspects of this book, however, constitute its weakest link . It’s like Rajashree switched the jet fuel for Enfamil when she moves the story away from the Bollywood sets. There is no real exploration of the complexities of the relationship or the sexual tension between Parvati and Rahul. The characters never move beyond whether the heroine should trust the hero or not–that’s the the issue at the first meeting, and at their final blow-up. The romance is consequently flatter than a dosa.  

My other grouse is with the scenes featuring Parvati and her friends. The heroine’s friends are a pillar of the chick-lit genre, serving to demonstrate that the protagonist has a life beyond her feelings for the hero. Parvati’s interactions with her friends remind me of those high-school days when we’d earnestly analyze one another based on Cheiro’s handy palmistry reckoner.  Parvati’s girlfriends exist solely to explain her romantic choices to the reader; there isn’t a single original aspect to their personalities or existence. I wish the leopard reputedly roaming around Film City had swallowed these characters the instant of their creation. 

In sum, Trust Me is not frothy enough to work as a chick-lit novel nor deep enough to succeed as a literary work, and thus ends up falling between the two stools.  But now that she’s got the first book out of the way, Rajashree will hopefully hunker down to really write, and I’ll be first in the line for that novel.

A Quiz on Indian Literature

The Guardian features a quiz on the literature of the subcontinent to mark the occasion of 60 years of India’s independence from British rule. It’s an elegant mix ranging from the unmistakable to the unguessable. Sample questions include:

Who said “the ironic proposition that India’s best writing since independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear”?

and

The uncle of the two central characters Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize-winning The God of Small Children runs which kind of business?

You can take the quiz here.

I scored 10 out of a possible 12, earning a badhai (congratulations).  Do check out the quiz to find whether you earn the title of Guru-ji of Indian lit.

Review: Filming by Tabish Khair

This review of Tabish Khair’s Filming appears in the Asian Review of Books.

0330419226.jpgTABISH KHAIR‘s FILMING is set in India’s film industry when the business wasn’t yet Bollywood but just Bombay — back when Britain’s rule of the Indian subcontinent was drawing to an end, in the late nineteen forties. The novel’s narrator is a young Indian scholar based in present-day Denmark who decides to interview an obscure writer, Rizwan Hussein “Batin” for his PhD thesis. Batin, who was a film script writer in India a half-century ago, has since published a few short story collections and his limited oeuvre ended in 1973. He lives in Copenhagen; the interview ought to be a lazy student’s dream.

But Batin’s tale is complex and puzzling, with stories that dodge and weave around one another. It all begins in 1929 with the story of a traveling Bioscope exhibitor Hari, his partner Durga, and their young son Ashok, who make their living showing films in small villages. When they chance to meet a rich land-owner who is fascinated by films, a partnership is struck, and the Rajkunwar film studio is born in Bombay — at a price an unsuspecting Durga discovers too late.

The next story Batin recounts is that of Bombay actor Saleem Lahori’s rise to fame against the backdrop of Bombay’s slums. The two threads merge when Saleem becomes part of the Rajkunwar circle, and falls in love with Durga.

But there’s a greater drama being played out on the political stage — the partition of the region into the nation states of Pakistan and India, which forces Indian Muslims to have to choose whether to stay in India or move to Pakistan. The film industry has never bothered much about religion; Hindus and Muslims have co-existed peacefully for decades. But the violence of the subcontinent’s partition–over half a million dead and several million more displaced — makes it impossible not to choose sides. Saleem, who has always thought of himself as an actor and an Indian, opts to remain in Bombay with Durga — at great personal risk from Hindu fundamentalists.

But what, as the student repeatedly asks his host, does this story have to do with Batin’s life? For Batin, as has been well-documented, opted to move to Pakistan before leaving for Denmark.

The answer is tantalizingly revealed in the final pages of this multi-layered, intricately plotted novel, but hints abound in the narrative. Every reader knows the pleasure in finishing a suspenseful book and immediately beginning it again to discover the artful clues missed on the initial read. FILMING isn’t a whodunit or a thriller, but made me go back for a second read just the same. This novel will delight those with an interest in the Indian film industry or in Indian history — or, indeed, in a tale skillfully crafted and craftily told.

Reviews: The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf, Fireproof by Raj Kamal Jha

The two reviews were originally published in the Asian Review of Books.

The Peacock Throne and Fireproof

Two recent novels pose very different answers to the same question: how does a writer attempt to make sense out of an act of senseless violence? One approach, perhaps, could be to scrutinize the scene in the deepest detail, so as to construct a plausible how and why of the event. When the sum of the facts seems inadequate, illumination might lie in examining the minutiae of the setting; the personal can, after all, convey the political with an intensity an overview of history could never achieve.

SUJIT SARAF, in his novel THE PEACOCK THRONE, provides a worm’s eye view of the political machinations surrounding India’s communal riots over the past twenty-odd years. The novel takes as its starting point the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the subsequent slaughter of members of the Sikh community by angry Hindus in the city of Delhi. Told from the viewpoint of Gopal Pandey, a tea-seller of minimal agency, THE PEACOCK THRONE encompasses the major political upheavals of the last two decades, including the destruction of the Babri Masjid (mosque) in 1992 by Hindu fundamentalists, and the ensuing religious violence.While rich shop-owners and political leaders slug it out for political power in India’s capital, Gopal, the tragic everyman figure, is exploited hopelessly even as he fights to earn a modest livelihood selling tea from his makeshift stall. Gopal possesses below-average intelligence, and his condition is further exacerbated by his myopic vision. His scratched and clouded glasses (which serve as a somewhat obvious metaphor for his obliviousness to the political chicanery around him) do not help much.

THE PEACOCK THRONE is a novel of Old rather than New Delhi, and communal politics rather than the booming Indian economy determine a person’s fate. No information technology companies or multinationals here; family businesses hawk their sweets and saris cheek-by-jowl with brothels in the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk. The book’s title refers to the seat of power of the former Indian empire, and it is this symbolic power that the residents of Old Delhi continue to fight for, over 750 pages of (very) detailed description.

While I admire Saraf’s painstaking depiction of the seamy side of Delhi life, the welter of detail can overwhelm the story. The author explains the convolutions and compromises of local Indian politics (and the role of religion in the same) in a depth few fiction writers have attempted before, but it is likely to be a long haul for the reader who does not have a prior interest in the subject. Furthermore, the narrative is relentlessly depressing — none of the characters earns our respect or affection, and while we feel sorry for Gopal, he is sometimes too much of a caricature of the common man for any real sympathy from the reader.

Ultimately, though, THE PEACOCK THRONE is a praise-worthy attempt to examine the social and religious violence pulsing below modern India’s effort to cast itself as a shiny happy economic superpower. Those who’ve formed their opinion of India based primarily on, say, Thomas Friedman’s relentlessly chirpy NYT column, should be chained to their La-Z-Boys and made to read this book.

A writer might also choose to explain the inexplicable by viewing the event through the lens of fantasy. The seemingly implausible sometimes demands an authorial intervention in the form of allegory and magic realism, which might perhaps lead to a more accurate understanding than the facts could ever hope to engender. RAJ KAMAL JHA takes the latter route in his novel FIREPROOF, which deals with India’s 2002 religious riots, in which over a thousand people (most of them Muslims) were murdered in the state of Gujarat.FIREPROOF begins with the birth of a child, when another everyman, Mr. Jay, is presented with his baby at the hospital the day after the Ahmedabad riots. The infant has no recognizable human features apart from its eyes. Even as Jay deals with the shock, he sees a message “Help me” on the window of a room in the neighboring ward, and glimpses an unknown woman’s figure. The woman subsequently gets in touch with Jay, promising to help him with the baby while his wife recovers in the hospital, and sends him to meet a dwarf named Bright Shirt, who will presumably explain all.

Meanwhile, the city of Ahmedabad is on fire, and the murdered insist on telling their tales. Even as the dead refuse to be nameless and faceless, interjecting their life-stories in the midst of Jay’s narrative, voices of inanimate objects (a book, a towel and so on) relate their eye-witness accounts of the violence. The carnage of the riots is ultimately encapsulated in three tales of rape, murder, and arson respectively.

How do people who have been living together peacefully for centuries suddenly ignore all other identities and bonds to focus on religion alone? Who exactly is complicit, who is culpable — and where does the distinction lie? FIREPROOF poses some searing questions, and provides some thought-provoking answers, especially in the climax of the novel, when the unexpected connection between the characters (real, dead, and inanimate) and the slaughter of the preceding days is finally revealed.

Jha is a courageous, confident writer who isn’t scared of taking risks with his narrative, and FIREPROOF, with its unconventional storyline and refusal to delineate fact and fiction succeeds brilliantly — for the most part. A narrative so dependant on whimsy calls for agile prose, but Jha’s writing undermines the passion of this fanciful tale. Economy is clearly not a quality the author aspires to, but how about a distinction between lushness and prolixity? There is, for instance, a scene where the narrator, Jay, is watching a television show of a man devouring insects. The author not only mentions that the insects “writhed, squirmed, crawled” but goes on to say: “Beetles, crickets, flies, cockroaches, ladybugs, spiders, dragonflies, caterpillars, insects I couldn’t name, red, white, green, yellow, black, monochrome, dichromatic, spotted, speckled, striped, banded…”

And a description of Bright Shirt’s shirt: “…blue and red and green and yellow and white and black, stripes, checks, triangles, circles, swirls, ellipses, straight lines, curls.”

This book would soar so much higher if not for the leaden tails of modifiers weighing down the narrative every few pages; all too often, my eye would skim a series of endless descriptions in search of the elusive thread of the plot.

THE PEACOCK THRONE and FIREPROOF are both important novels, seeking to explore the nature of evil and the petty reasons that accrete to give birth to monstrous acts of violence. The most obvious thread tying these two novels for me, however, was the most banal — these books, with a bit of judicious editing, could have halved their respective sizes, and thus doubled their impact. I might not revisit these novels again, but I’m certainly glad to have known them.

Opal Mehta, one year later.

It’s been a year since I read Kaavya Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life.” I still have my review copy, a.k.a my retirement plan–I’m hoping it’ll fetch me a chunk of cash on Ebay in a few decades…  Here’s my review of the book (published before the plagiarism scandal struck) from the Asian Review of Books .

KAAVYA VISWANATHAN, the author of HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD AND GOT A LIFE is nineteen; she began writing this book at seventeen.

I’m intrigued by young authors. Part of the intrigue is pure envy at the success of those so young, but much stems from curiosity. I left high school when the iPod was but a glint in Steve Jobs’s keen eye, and the world of present-day teens is less familiar to me than, say, the Hobbits’ Shire. So, just what are seventeen-year-olds thinking and doing nowadays?

Opal Mehta has but one ambition — to get a Harvard education, towards which she and her parents have been planning since her birth. Their strategy HOWGIH (“How Opal Will Get Into Harvard”) covers every possible admission requirement. At seventeen, Opal has a flawless academic record, she’s performed at Carnegie Hall, she volunteers at the local hospital, and she even took welding classes to appear well-rounded. Opal’s interview with Harvard’s dean of admissions, however, exposes a hitherto unsuspected character flaw in our applicant — Opal doesn’t know how to have fun.

Opal gets another shot at admission — if she can prove she’s more than the sum of her grades. So the Mehtas gamely set about planning HOWGAL (“How Opal Will Get A Life”), a money-is-no-object strategy guaranteeing social cachet to its follower. HOWGAL incorporates slang flash-cards, reconnaissance missions to the mall, binders with neatly indexed topics including “Curling Irons, How to Use” and “Mixing Music, the Art of,” and endless revisions of teen magazines and television shows — all to find out what’s “cool”.

“Cool”, it turns out, is defined by brands. This story takes brands very seriously — and how could it not, for Harvard is, of course, the biggest brand of them all. This (hopelessly outdated) reviewer has thus learnt that lip gloss comes with names like Kiss Me, Then Try To Leave, that haircuts from a gentleman named Frederic Fekkai are extremely desirable, and that jeans aren’t just bought off the rack during a sale at the Gap, but have designer tags such as Seven, Habitual, Earl Jeans, and, rather improbably, Citizens of Humanity.

HOWGAL works; Harriet the Spy meets the Shopaholic in a New Jersey suburb as the made-over Opal becomes popular, especially with the boys in her class. And rather predictably (for this is a Miraculous Transformation story, after all), a crisis forces Opal to examine what she really wants, who she really is, and who her real friends are.

It’s all terribly unrealistic, and not just because the Indian-American community Opal belongs to is portrayed as a kind of “super-model” minority — the parents tend to be surgeons, and their offspring slide out of their mothers’ wombs onto the honor roll. But the shortcomings of this book, for the most part, are the shortcomings of its genre (chick-lit for the teenage soul); it would be mean-spirited to single out Viswanathan for criticism. HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD AND GOT A LIFE is a raspberry sorbet of a novel — colorful, crisp, rather insubstantial but oh-so-delicious, to be devoured in one gulp in an afternoon at the beach.

Teenage writers aren’t read for their complex plots or the quality of their prose — such skills usually improve with age. We read young authors to know what their experiences are, and what’s going on in a secretive society sealed to those outside that age. I’m therefore rooting for Viswanathan — hers is a book is set squarely in the author’s world, a book that works because of, rather than despite, the author’s lack of years.Kaavya Viswanathan got a $500,000 advance, got a two-book deal, got into Harvard, and now, it turns out she writes a delectable tale.

As if I needed more reason for envy.

My envy seems singularly misplaced now, but when I wrote the piece–ah well!  She seemed to have the world at her Manolos…

The Brave New World of Young Adult Books

Enid Blyton–>Carolyn Keene–>Agatha Christie/P.G. Wodehouse–>Ayn Rand –>Sidney Sheldon. 

Show me a person who’s followed that reading trajectory, and I’ll show you a middle-class, English-educated, child-of-the-seventies Indian. 

I moved straight from children’s books to adult fiction.  Young Adult books–works specifically written for readers between twelve and eighteen–were absent from my literary world. I did read ‘cross-over’ authors like Gerald Durrell and James Herriot and Tolkien, but the only books I recall being blurbed as suitable for teens are the miserable Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series. 

When I was around twelve, I began on my parents’ book collection. My mother judged the suitability of a  book solely by the extent of its sexual content; I was allowed, for instance, to read Aldous Huxley and Leon Uris, but not Philip Roth. (The floodgates opened when I read Rage of Angels at fourteen.)

I discovered Young Adult literature when I was in college, with Anne of Green Gables. I loved Anne Shirley (and still do), but sometimes, reading Lucy Maud was like sucking on an Everlasting Gobstopper of pure maple syrup. Where were characters who spent their summer vacations gazing at the bathroom mirror and feeling misunderstood? Teens who wondered about periods and puberty rather than the purple glories of a sunrise? The mean girls who made Lord of the Flies look like Noddy’s adventures with his Toyland pals? 

I’ve since realized there’s a planet of YA literature out there, dealing with real-life issues, written by authors who never underestimate or patronize their young readers. The knowledge of course comes too late for me; how I wish I’d known about these books when I was thirteen, instead of spending my time dreaming about George Michael and our future daughter Ayn…   Some of the best YA novels I’ve read over the past fifteen years include Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series, Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword, and Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea.  

For a great list of YA ‘coming-of-age’ titles, check out Colleen Mondor’s YA blog  Chasing Ray.  Her comprehensive list is divided into helpful categories such as “Mysteries/Thrillers That Include Characters Coming-of-Age” and “Books GLBT YAs Will Identify With Strongly”. The list includes old faves like Little Women and modern classics such as His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, and most important: excludes excrescences like the Sweet Valley High series. Also featured in the list are some multi-cultural works such as Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier. 

I can’t, alas, think of names to add to the list of South Asian YA authors.  I’ve read Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, Bapsi Sidhwa’s An American Brat and Ardeshir Vakil’s Beach Boy, all of which deal with coming-of-age themes,  but none of them were written specifically for a YA audience. If you have suggestions for South Asian YA-themed authors/books, do write in!

Family Matters: Vikram Seth’s “Two Lives”

I bought Vikram Seth’s Two Lives at Benjamin Books yesterday. There was a single copy in stock–a perfect hardback, on sale for $7.99. I’m still immoderately thrilled with my bargain, feeling as though I’ve pulled off something clever.

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I first read Two Lives a year ago, and upon re-reading it this morning, came across a sentence I’d missed earlier. 

In Berne, I stayed with an Indian diplomat, who was my mother’s brother’s wife’s brother’s wife’s father, and therefore ‘family’ in the Indian sense.

I shut the book, nodded, and said “Kalpana’s father.” I knew the corresponding relative in my own family. 

I keep going back to Seth’s work for this thrill of recognition, and the subsequent reflection that his words often prompt. “‘Family’ in the Indian sense” makes me question just how I distinguish between acquaintances and relatives.  What, exactly, is the extent of my extended family? Where do others–my Canadian friends, for instance–draw the line?

I’ve long admired Seth as a prose stylist, believing his writing ought to be cast in bronze as a model of elegance and economy.  But many books featuring prose just as clean and subtle, with settings I’m just as intimate with, fail to move me the way Seth’s work does. I think it’s because the central preoccupation of much of Seth’s writing is family. His understanding of the conflicting emotions parents and siblings evoke, and his descriptions of how relationships simultaneously succour and burden make me warm to his work in a way, say, Pankaj Mishra’s fiction doesn’t. Mishra is a fine prose stylist, and a superb non-fiction writer, but I found The Romantics to be one of those distant bloodless novels that leave me cold. If you’re part of a “bread-and-circuses” Indian family (is there any other sort?), Seth’s work is immediately,  urgently familiar.      

In a July 2006 interview with Danuta Kean, Seth says,

“There is always either a family or a surrogate family, friend or a string quartet, as in An Equal Music, that acts as a family. I like the feeling of family. It may be something stronger still: the way that work and life is organised in India hasn’t changed so much as in the West. Here people are so mobile in terms of which city they work in and how short their holidays are – especially in America. If you are an American in a long-term relationship, either you are with your family for one week at Christmas or Thanksgiving or you are with your partner’s family. The whole thing is so fraught. When do grandparents meet their grandchildren? Let alone parents see their children once they have grown up and moved away? How can families survive under those circumstances?”

For those who haven’t read it yet: Two Lives is a biography of Seth’s great-uncle Shanti and his wife Henny, a German Jew. The couple married in 1951; in 1969, seventeen-year old Vikram Seth came to stay with them in England for his studies. The book is based on Seth’s memories of the couple, interviews with Shanti before his death, and letters and papers Henny left behind. 

Two Lives is summarized on the inside front cover as “the story of the century and of a love affair across a racial divide,” but the book is much more than the blurb suggests.  It’s not a page-turner like A Suitable Boy, and doesn’t showcase Seth’s command of the language as The Golden Gate does, but the depth of feeling and introspection makes Two Lives the most rewarding of Seth’s books for me.