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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!

 

Rosemarked by Livia Blackburne

I posted a grand total of 3 book reviews on this blog last year, and hey, all the books were by brown women! I’m going to continue with that demographic trend for 2018, so here’s the first of my BIPOC women authors for the year–Livia Blackburne, author of the YA novel Rosemarked. From her site: “I was born in Taiwan, raised in Albuqurque, and spent my twenties in Boston, where I earned an A.B. in Biochemical Sciences from Harvard and PhD in cognitive neuroscience from MIT.” After graduating, Blackburne switched to writing full-time. STEAM, yawl, not STEM.

Seventeen-year-old Zivah is a healer, equally adept at blending herbs and at extracting iocane-style venom from spiders/snakes/scorpions. Zivah is of the Dara people, who’ve been colonized by the Amparan empire. The Dara must pay taxes to the empire, and house and feed any battalions of the Imperial Army passing through. As with all Empire types, the soldiers wear “arrogance like mantles over their shoulders”, and far too many look at her in a way that makes her “want to scrub their gazes off [her] skin”.

The head of the forces stationed at Dara, Commander Arxa is arrogant but not creepy, and when his soldiers fall ill, Zivah willingly helps out–it’s her duty as a healer. The soldiers have caught the Rose plague, a horrible disease which usually leads to death. Survivors either develop immunity (they are recognized by their umber scars, and known as the umbertouched) or house the disease for a few years till their death. The latter are known as the rosemarked, and are instantly recognized by their blood-red rash, and are banished from society as they are contagious. (I think Blackburne modeled the rose plague on leprosy–consider the fear of contagion, visible marks, the long incubation period, and the existence of rosemarked isolation colonies. It’s all fascinating, and her world-building and the details of the disease are very painstakingly done.)

Zivah cures Arxa, but catches the disease and is rosemarked. Damn. Arxa, however, offers Zivah a place in the rosemarked compound in Ampara, where she can continue her healer studies. She could research the origins of the disease, find a way to slow its spread, and maybe even concoct a cure for the rosemarked.

Meanwhile! Eighteen-year-old Dineas is an umbertouched rebel attempting guerilla warfare against the Empire from his home of Monyar, near Zivah’s hometown Dara. Dineas holds Dara in contempt for surrendering peacefully to the Empire–they should have fought, right? The leader of the rebel forces however suggests an alliance with the Dara. Zivah will take Dineas along with her to Ampara, where she’ll introduce him to Arxa as an amnesiac fighter. Dineas will join the Amparan army,  spy on their plans, and report back to the rebel leader in Monyar. Zivah will be living in Arxa’s house with his rosemarked daughter–yet more opportunities for spying.

To make Dineas’s role truly convincing, Zivah will concoct a herb+venom drug to give him amnesia, and another to temporarily return his memory. The returned memory will include the new memories Dineas has made after taking the initial forgetfulness shot. He’ll lose his memory again organically by the next morning. (Dr. Blackburne’s cogsci background is coming in handy after all; there’s talk of muscle memory and the like. ) Then there’s a third potion to permanently return his memory.

This is all getting a bit fiddly–Dineas glugging potion after potion, remembering and forgetting and remembering endlessly. Blackburne grounds her story  by focusing on her characters’ emotions rather than on plot mechanics. She sets up imaginative conflicts centering around Amnesiac Dineas (hereafter known as AD) versus Original Dineas (OD). AD’s loyalties lie with Empire, while OD is all about defeating them. OD is moody, complex, and resentful of his dependence on Zivah and her potions, while AD is an easy-going chap who falls in love with her…

The love story, while easily anticipated (girl, 17, and boy, 18! in a YA novel!) is nicely done, because their attraction is truly inconvenient, even dangerous, for them both; Blackburne is very good at showing how they fall in love despite themselves. If these two have a Happily Ever After, they’ll really have earned it.

Will they have a HEA? So….I picked up Rosemarked without knowing it was the first of of a duology. I HATE waiting for sequels but it turns out that Umbertouched is out this year, so the anticipation isn’t too dire. Also,  Rosemarked is Blackburne’s third book, so I plan to read her earlier work during the wait.

Finally: there is so much dross in the YA novel world that I’m truly grateful for this thoughtful, carefully plotted work that respects a reader’s intelligence. The characters are well-realized, with minimal emphasis on their looks, and much is made of their resourcefulness and stoicism. The triangle-free romance actually moves the plot along. The conflict between margin and empire, colonizer and the colonized, is a time-honored one, and provides a solid setting and context for this story. And there’s so much in this book that resonates with the state of the world today. Living in a world where you’re visibly marked by your skin as an outsider, check. The powerlessness of the marginalized in the face of state-funded armed might, check. The machinations of the powerful to preserve their wealth and power at the cost of the poor and the powerless, check. Power grabbed and held through betrayal, spin and lies, check. Blaming all woes on outsiders, check. Female vulnerability–and female resourcefulness, check. Hopefully, Umbertouched will hold out some cheer for those of us whose ancestors battled empires–and won.

Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

In 2010, intrepid young London journalist Monisha Rajesh decided to travel around India on 80 trains, mostly because she could. As a 9-year-old, Rajesh had lived briefly in India when her parents, both Indian doctors, had moved from Sheffield to Chennai in 1991; the family fled back to England two years later. Now older and wiser, and wanting a re-do of her relationship with India, Rajesh decides to explore the country over the course of 80 train journeys; the number pays homage to Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. Rajesh’s Passepartout for the journey is a cute Norwegian photographer dude friend. I know what you’re thinking: Will this friend provide benefits? You gutter-minds, buy the book to find out.

 

See, my favorite newspaper is The Guardian, and I follow Very British Problems on Facebook, and my best beloved author is probably Richmal Crompton. There’s a certain British sense of humor that sets me a-quiver, and that humor formula–which I believe can be approximated to (intelligent puns + extravagant Wodehousian similes ) X healthy dose of self-deprecation–is showcased in all its glory in this book. Rajesh is funny as heck, and despite her admitted partiality for Chetan Bhagat novels, you’re in good hands. Here’s a sunburnt Passepartout, who’s “adopted a cowboy swagger to prevent his inflamed skin from rubbing against his trousers although the desired effect was less James Dean and more piles sufferer. The surface of his skin had come to resemble patches of tissue paper, which had now started to flake off around the seats like an early spring flurry of snow.” About her pilgrimage to find the finest cup of tea, “…travelling to Assam felt to me what a trip to Colombia must mean to Charlie Sheen.” She’s particularly skilled at describing the quirks of the people she meets on her journeys–here’s Pradeep, “…who thrived on gathering useless trivia. His specialist interest was cash points [ATMs], but this also extended to enquiring about rucksack straps, our blood types, the expiry dates on English breakfast condiments, and star signs. At one point, he tried to scratch a mole off my right ankle, insisting it was dirt.” And her detailed descriptions of falling victim to Delhi Belly and her subsequent bouts of diarrhea on the Bhopal Shatabdi Express aren’t for everyone, but by god, they are magnificently chronicled.

Moreover, Rajesh is an outsider-insider, which is of course a decided bonus for a travel writer–she has a depth of understanding originating in lived experience, as well as a keen nose for the new and the odd. But for her ‘satiably curious fellow travelers, the least of her outsiderish-ness is her British passport, or even her twenty-something single woman traveller status. Nope, the real issue is that she’s so hard to slot. Monisha…now that sounds North Indian, but she doesn’t look like one, and her last name, Rajesh, could be from any part of India, could be Hindu or Christian. Such ambiguity is maddening for the average Indian, who would like to pinpoint your ancestral village to, say, a mere five centuries ago. Add to this the lack of mummy-daddy or brother-sister in the vicinity, the absence of a color-coded excel sheet for the 80 journeys, and throw in a male companion who’s neither brother nor husband, and you have a first-class enigma huddled in a tatkal second-class coach from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

Rajesh doesn’t gloss over India’s unhappy bits–there’s the overabundance of creepy predatory men, the racism, the xenophobia, the shadism, the cockroaches, the crowds, the public performance of bathroom ablutions, and oh, the sheer anarchy.  In one instance, her bus’s “headlamps failed and the driver opted to drive in the blind spot of the car ahead, using its headlamps to guide him, while ploughing oncoming drivers off the road.” Sounds about right. Equally, Rajesh is quick to note the warmth of the people, and the kindness of strangers, who gladly share their meals with her, sacrifice their comforts to keep her safe, and arrange warm receptions at the remotest destinations, all without any expectation of return favors. And of course, there’s India’s over-the-top scenic beauty, from the northern Himalayas to the ocean at Kanyakumari. In all, Rajesh provides a real insight into how rewarding–and maddening!–the country can be.

The conflict in the narrative (apart from Rajesh’s struggles to get a grip on India) is provided by the great divider–religion! Passepartout turns out to be a militant atheist, while Rajesh considers her mild affiliation with Hinduism to be a product (and talisman) of family and culture. Depending on how you look at it, India is  the worst or best country in which to hash out this sort of disagreement, and after one temple too many, Passepartout turns into an ass, partout, and the two go their separate ways. Do they get back together? Do they finally…like I said, read the book.

I have two gripes with Around India… First, even toddlers know that when you have a Dora and her Boots, you NEED a map. Less than a 100 pages in, I lost track of which train they were on and where they were headed, and there was no map, index or appendix to ease the pain. To fulfill the 80-train constraint, Rajesh and her companion zigzag back and forth across India, doubling back to a familiar place and then plunging off again, and after a point, the chatter about a train originating in Barmer, boarding at Bikaner and heading to Kalka might as well have been the BART from Tatooine with a stop at Loompaland before heading to Mylapore. The publishers ponied up for illustrations of monkeys and and samosas and Thums-up soda at the beginning of each chapter, but apparently couldn’t stretch to an informational subtitle. This book is begging for an appendix detailing the name of the train, origin and destination, and the particular segment of Rajesh’s journey, and while its lack thereof didn’t quite derail my reading experience, after finishing the book, I have a very hazy idea of the routes travelled. And I grew up in India.

My other issue is that while Rajesh is a whiz at describing her adventures, she can be incredibly irritating when pronouncing generalities to explain India. “If you give an Indian a chance he will take it.” There’s an authoritativeness about her opinions that seems misplaced at best, coming as it does from someone, um,  not-so-seasoned about India. “In addition to their penchant for arguing, Indians love a good monologue…” Hmmm. “A country’s greatness cannot be measured by its size, but the standard of living of every individual.” Get me on the rush hour local out of this clichéland, quick. And consider this: “When I had just left university, I did a work experience stint at a magazine in Delhi. Initially they gave me copy to proofread, but as soon as I started to pick out archaisms and anything else that was incorrect, they looked put out. They ignored my changes and gradually stopped giving me work.” While I have scant respect for India’s mainstream media, would you *really* expect a bunch of cynical, seasoned journalists to thank a young amateur for pointing out that their writing didn’t meet her standards?

But on the whole, I liked this book A LOT, and recommend it wholeheartedly for those interested in travel writing and/or India. And while I didn’t exactly feel inspired to click on to indianrail.gov.in, the book left me awash in nostalgia as I read about passengers whipping out balaclavas when the temperature hit 65 F, about Rajesh being addressed as “Aunty” by a random child, the inquisition into her father’s name (a thinly-veiled attempt to find out one’s caste), about feeding Marie biscuits to a stray dog…and about her dawning realization of the impossibility of forming a single-line queue in India. Plus ça change, etc. My edition was published by Roli Books and sourced from India, but a new $10 edition is available in the USA. Check it out!