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!

 

 

 

Toads and Diamonds by Heather Tomlinson

The library had Toads and Diamonds temptingly displayed on the YA shelf, reminding me I’d been planning to read it for three years now. I remember looking at the blogosphere reviews in 2010 and thinking it was *exactly* my thing. It’s a reworked fairy-tale (Perrault’s “The Fairies”)–a species of storytelling I’ve loved ever since I read the first Datlow & Windling anthology back when I was barely out of the egg. Moreover, Toads… is set in a world resembling the Indian subcontinent, and features two strong PoC heroines. And I’d  liked Tomlinson’s earlier novel Swan Maiden very much. So I checked out the book right then.

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Stepsisters Diribani and Tana work hard to eke a modest living after their father, a gem trader, was killed by bandits. Diribani is beautiful and gentle, while Tana is plain-spoken and  practical–and each has the other’s back. Life is difficult–not only are they suddenly poor, but their land has been colonised by the white-coated Believers, who scorn the natives, calling them dirt-eaters. The Believers venerate the One God, and require women to veil their faces, while the native religion (that Tana and Diribani observe) involves the worship of a dozen gods, has girls wearing their dowry on their person in the form of gold bangles, and abhors the consumption of meat. Although Tomlinson is deliberately reticent with many specifics (for instance, the girls are said to wear “dress wraps”), those familiar with Indian history will recognize the Mughal empire in 16th century-ish India. And while Tomlinson is careful with the details, she wisely does not make the accuracy of the setting a pillar of the book– Toads and Diamonds is driven by plot and by its strong characterizations.

When Diribani helps the goddess Naghali over at the sacred well, she’s granted a boon– precious stones and flowers drop from her lips when she speaks.  Then Tana in turn meets the goddess, but spews forth snakes and toads instead.  This is a really interesting development, for Tana wasn’t rude to Naghali–rather, the goddess grants each devotee the gift she deems fitting, one that’ll fulfill their innermost desires. Moreover, snakes are respected in this culture–not only are they viewed as emissaries of the goddess, but are valued for the practical purpose of pest control (each house has its own rat-muncher snake). I really enjoyed the way Tomlison calmly subverts the snakes/toads= ick trope in this book. Frogs are lucky! People worship snakes! Everyone wants a nice muscular ratter for their home like I want a Little Free Library for mine! The only downside to Tana’s gift is that some of  the snake slithering forth from her mouth are venomous. Oh, and that the Governor of their province hates the practise of snake worship, and has ordered their mass slaughter.

Diribani plans to use her riches to build hospitals and animal shelters and libraries and to hold art workshops (I love this utopian socialist-y Mughal kingdom, I do), but her step-mother advises caution–the greedy and all-out nasty Governor Alwar will undoubtedly exploit Diribani’s gift for his wicked ends once he hears about her powers. What are the sisters to do with their gifts?  Fate intervenes when the handsome Prince Zahid, younger son of the Emperor, gets accidentally involved in the fix. He decrees that Diribani will spend her time as the guest of the crown, with the ladies of the royal court at the city, while Tana will live near the sacred well so her snakes may be released in the wild.  Governor Alwar would love to kill Tana and cloister Diribani, but he can only nod and smile when the Prince issues his command. But he isn’t finished yet, oh no.

Diribani now embarks upon the long journey to the city with the Believers, learning more about their culture and in turn teaching them about hers, and hanging out with Zahid. (Tomlison deals with the religious aspects very gracefully–no simplistic dismissal of veiling or dowry bangles here–and we come to understand both sides better through Diribani’s eyes). Meanwhile Tana, unwilling to stay meekly in her secluded home, sets off on a pilgrimage to seek wisdom. The two girls grow and learn and understand the true value of their gifts.  And there’s a lovely ending that pulls it all together without resorting to any standard happily-ever-after devices.

Once the girls go their separate ways, Diribani’s story is much quieter than Tana’s. I felt Diribani’s storyline could use a bit more jump, and that Tana’s could have slowed down. Diribani’s journey is relatively uneventful, dealing with her gradual understanding (and widening appreciation) of the Believers , and hence is packed with description and inner monologue. By contrast, Tana rapidly goes through a series of hardships (she shovels cowdung, drags a handcart full of corpses, falls very ill etc. ), and is constantly on the move, so much so that I had trouble keeping track of her movements.  Although Tomlison paces her work carefully, alternating chapters for Diribani and Tana, the arrangement didn’t quite work for me–I think I’d rather have had more continuity in the read  for Tana’s storyline.  That said, these are very minor issues in a deftly-written, tightly-woven novel. Recommended for the setting, the telling, and for featuring a goddess with a fine sense of humour. Read it!

Books for young readers

Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras has been praised for bringing the “Edwardian age deliciously to life”, but even if you don’t give a damn for Edward or his age, you should read this book. Geras has captured the child’s eye-view of life as a time of vulnerability and miracles with remarkable accuracy, and the utterly convincing voice of the young narrator is nothing  short of magical.

Apricots at Midnight is the story of Aunt Pinny’s girlhood, encapsulated in the patches on her quilt. Aunt Pinny (that’s Penelope Sophia Pintle to you and me) was born in London back in 1904, and began to make the quilt when she was “old enough to hold a needle”, at about five or six.  Sixty-odd years later,  the quilt is now on the guest bed where young Laura sleeps when staying with her aunt while her parents are abroad. Pinny tells the child bedtime stories about the history of the quilt’s patches, and so we hear about Pinny’s mother getting delayed while picking her up from school, about a visit to a cousin in the country, about a meeting with an army Major. All ordinary stories, sans flash-bangs of plot twists and revelations, but so saturated with quiet beauty that you’ll close this book with an ache in your heart for what it means to be very young.  Get this for the sensitive/odd/bookish child in your life–she will hold it close and cherish it for ever and ever.

Oh, and do check out Geras’s website–what an interesting person she is! And she’s written over ninety books for children, teens and adults. Ninety. Ninety. Ninety.

Note:  The book seems to be out of print (WHY?), but you should move heaven and earth to find it. I picked mine up at my library’s bi-annual used book sale, and my heartfelt thanks to the DeRuyter/Diletti family (who wrote their name on the first page) for kindly donating their copy.

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When I heard about Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s children’s fantasy The Conch Bearer (2003), I was quite thrilled.  PoC characters! Indian setting! By an award-winning writer! Divakaruni has won the Pushcart Prize and the Pen Oakland award (amongst others) for her adult fictions, and while I’ve sometimes found myself at odds with her prose and her positions, I have complete faith in her storytelling abilities.

Twelve-year-old Anand works at a tea-stall in modern-day Calcutta, earning a few miserable rupees each day for his mother and younger sister. His father has gone missing in Dubai, and it’s fallen to Anand to support his family.  One day, Anand meets the mysterious grey-bearded Abadhyatta who tells him about a special valley in the Himalayas that houses a brotherhood of wizard healers, who take care of a magic conch. The conch,  stolen by its former Keeper Surabhanu has recently been retrieved, and now must be returned to the valley.  Abadhyatta asks Anand to accompany him on the journey home, as the conch seems to have a special affinity for him. Joining them is a young girl, Nisha.

But the conch has an energy that alerts Surabhanu of its presence when used.  And careful, merely saying the evil one’s name out loud attracts the finger of his attention that periodically sweeps across the city. The conch has a mind of its own and carries its own dangers within–for instance, when Anand holds it, he feels a moment of terrible rage when Abadhyatta takes it back. And when Abhyadatta  goes missing in the early part of their adventure, danger dogs the children along the way. There’s the ape Grishan who speaks half-human language wants the treasure for his master. There’s a mountain rains down boulders and doesn’t let them pass. The only source of help for Anand and Nisha  is a squirrel-like creature Nisha befriends.

Let me get it out of the way–Divakaruni is treading very familiar ground (much of it of the Middle Earth strata) in this book, and the plot feels very derivative at times. The big question: do the India elements juice up the story enough to make it seem fresh?

Divakaruni’s writing is very fluid, and all the technical aspects of the novel are top-notch, but I’d guess that this book will not hold adults who’ve read their  reasonable share of fantasy. As someone who’s had a surfeit of hero-coming-of-age-during-a-quest narratives, the book was too thin to tip me into praise. But The Conch Bearer was written for children, and I think ten-year-olds will, for the most part, dive in eagerly.

What I did find fascinating was the way Divakaruni roots her story in Indian myths–there are some clever intersections that I wish she’d explored in more detail. The squirrel-as-helper, for instance, is a well-loved character in the Ramayana, and I’ve always loved how this myth demonstrates that the humblest of animals deserves compassion and respect. The magic conch itself is said to trace its origins back to the Mahabharata. Divakaruni writes that the Aswini Kumars, physicians to the gods, gave the conch to their sons Nakul and Sahadev, the youngest of the five Pandavas of the Mahabharata. When the two brothers used the conch to bring back the dead at the Battle of Kurukshetra, the conch was taken away from them as punishment. Divakaruni has tapped into an immensely rich seam here, and how I wish she had done more with it.

Note: The Conch Bearer is the first part of a trilogy, but works just fine as a stand-alone novel.

Seeing Salman Rushdie talking Joseph Anton

It’s hard for me to overstate the eminent position Salman Rushdie holds in my reading of (postcolonial) literature, but I’ll give it a shot–my feelings on seeing him in person were akin to those of a Regency Romance convention beholding Jane Austen. I bought my battered 1982 Picador edition of Midnight’s Children second-hand,  back when I was a penniless high school student, and I’ve read over a dozen times and love it unequivocally despite having written two papers on it in grad school.

I’ve read all but one of Rushdie’s novels, and all his essay collections, and while I’ve followed his writing for over two decades, I’ve stayed triumphantly uninformed about his personal life.  But Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton is as much about the man as his writing, and heck yes! I wanted to know more about both.

The book’s main focus is Rushdie’s underground existence starting 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeni sentenced him to death for insulting Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses. When asked to assume another identity, Rushdie chose the name Joseph Anton, a combination of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov (his first choice Ajeeb Mamooli, which translates to strange everyman, was rejected by his police team as too-Asian).  But Rushdie also covers his schooldays (at Rugby) and university years, his love life, his relationship with family back in India and Pakistan, his friendships (many with noted writers), his son, and much more in this enormous book.

I was about halfway through Joseph Anton when I attended Rushdie’s talk  at the Lincoln Alexander Center in Hamilton last Friday, October 26.  The 334 pages I’d read had impressed and  frustrated  me in near-equal measure. Much of the time, I was indeed reading, as the jacket copy said, a work “of vital importance in its political insight and wisdom”, a story of “why literature matters”.  Moreover, there were thrilling (to me) revelations about the genesis of Midnight’s Children–Rushdie noting how he decided not to “write his book in cool Forsterian English. India was not cool. It was hot. It was hot and overcrowded and vulgar and loud and it needed a language to match that and he would try and find that language.” Oh, yes.  Other times, I was struck by Rushdie’s fascination with celebrity, and the pettiness of his long-cherished, carefully-nourished grudges.  In person, I imagined, Rushdie would be an entertaining if occasionally  infuriating amalgam of Gandalf the Wise and George Costanza insisting he paid for Elaine’s big salad.

Well, there was no sign of George on Friday night, which began with a reading from the book, followed by a Q&A with Charles Foran.  Rushdie obviously loves to talk–Foran sometimes (c)would interject a question when Rushdie paused for breath. Fortunately for the audience, Rushdie proved a wonderful speaker.  So very articulate,  always witty,  succumbing at times to the seduction of the sound-bite, yes, but often brilliant, occasionally moving (his honest pride at how his young son coped with his exile was lovely to watch)–he had the audience eating out of his hand.

Foran’s questions about Rushdie’s life and writing were mostly answered in the book, so I’m not going to describe that conversation here (read the book, folks!)  Rushdie then took questions from the audience. He spoke about his friendship with Christopher Hitchens and the literary games they’d invented along with other friends (btw, when he talks about friends, he’s referring to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan).  He spoke about his love for P.G.Wodehouse (yes!) and Monty Python and the Bombay film industry and his gossipy mom. Asked which books he most enjoyed writing, he mentioned Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Moor’s Last Sigh–the former written for his young son, and the latter because it was the first book he wrote while underground, proving (to himself) that despite everything, he still had it in him to write.

At the end of the event, my blood was zinging–I wanted to walk a picket line and defend Literature, hang out with writers and invent literary drinking games with clever sexual innuendos , and write a novel that would change the world.  I was brought back with a bump when the organizers announced that Rushdie would speed-sign books because there was a time constraint–he needed to catch a bus back to Toronto.  A bus, repeated Rushdie, sounding a tad bemused. Oh, damn, those budget cuts in publishing are getting quite serious.

And now seems a good time to set down my appreciation of Bryan Prince Bookseller  and  A Different Drummer Books (and IFOA) for making this evening happen–it’s not often an event of this magnitude occurs in my backyard. During the talk, there was a brief mention of how vital these stores are to fostering the literary culture in this region, and really, it can’t be said often enough–we need to cherish our indie bookstores. I feel freakin’ LUCKY to live minutes away from two of the best indies in Canada. May they live long and prosper.

And do click  here for a note by Rushdie in praise of indies.

Disclosure: Review copy of Joseph Anton from Random House and event ticket from Bryan Prince Booksellers.  Excessive emotion in this post solely mine.

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.

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Tell it to the Trees by Anita Rau Badami
Knopf Canada, 2011

A much shorter version of this review appears in Herizons magazine.

More than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton

Here you go, RyanMore than Love Letters (2005) by Rosy Thornton.

Twenty-four year old Margaret Hayton is a school teacher in Ipswich, and she’s an edgy (and infinitely more likeable)  Pollyanna for our age. Margaret directs her energy towards issues ranging from global warming to the placement of garbage bins on her street, and frequently writes her local MP Richard Slater to voice her concerns. Slater assumes that she’s a stereotypical old biddy (though Margaret’s letter protesting VAT on sanitary protection might have tipped him off differently), and dodges her requests until Margaret threatens to send her collection of his form replies to the Prime Minister, following which he agrees to meet her.

ZAP! Margaret’s  enthusiasm (and, um, her good looks) shock Slater out of his spin-centered existence into championing one of her causes–obtaining asylum for an Albanian refugee, Nasreen, who was forced to flee her home because of her inter-faith love affair.  Slater’s ideals, long gone to seed, sprout in Margaret’s sunny company, and the two gradually fall in love.

(Manly men: don’t be put off by the butterflies and hearts and love letters. Thornton, who teaches law at Cambridge, takes for her subject nothing less than immigration laws and domestic violence.  She  has much to say (all disturbing) about the marketing of her book,  whose original title, by the way, was Asylum. This cover is about as accurate having a David Lodge novel feature a gun and beer barrel propped up against a giant obelisk. Get out the, um, brown paper if you must.)

I’ve rarely read a novel where the personal combines quite so seamlessly with the overtly political.  Thornton’s delicacy of touch is especially impressive considering that More than Love Letters is an epistolary novel. We’ve all read books where it’s painfully obvious whom the heroine is addressing when writing to her  BFF “I was brushing my long chestnut-brown hair when my brother Jack phoned me from our father’s real-estate office.” MTLL never has you wondering why the characters seem compelled to quote Wikipedia entries at each other; the writing informs without ever veering into dreaded info-dump territory. We learn that Nasreen was forced to leave Albania as her brothers threaten her life for daring to love a man from a different faith, but Britain doesn’t recognize her as a legitimate candidate for asylum, and she’ll be deported unless Margaret and Richard manage to change the law. It’s only a day or two  after finishing the book that you realize that asylum laws in Britain circa 2005 have seeped into your mind despite yourself.

Perhaps what I relished most about MTLL was the humor and positivity steaming off each page.  Thornton’s fictional landscape has more than its fair share of grimness–there’s suicide and domestic violence, and the wicked often go unpunished–but after reading this book, you feel that it’s not a bad old world after all, and Thornton proves conclusively, you doomsters, that happy endings and intelligent writing aren’t incompatible.  Her characters are mostly pleasant and obliging, shouldering their burdens without whining, and they do the best they can (which is often pretty stupendous).  Thornton’s wit is pointed and yet very good-natured indeed–here’s Margaret’s Gran on her first brush with chick-lit.

“…I’m not sure they are my kind of thing. One has a picture of just the bottom half of a girl on the front cover, doing the hoovering in a miniskirt and stiletto heels, and she appears to have a half-empty wine bottle in one hand. I quite enjoyed the one she [Gran’s helper] brought me last week, but I find it such a distraction to be told in every chapter what shade of lipstick the heroine is wearing and the name of the shop where she bought her blouse.”

So, Gran is a kindly soul, who is obligated to her helper for supplying her with reading material as she has mobility issues, and who doesn’t like to criticize, but  her remarks are no less devastating for their gentleness.  Thornton is very very good as straining her opinions through the particularities of each character. And what characters they are–I took each one into my heart, and I dare you to find a more likeable heroine than Margaret in contemporary fiction.

And finally: I so love literary Britain–I grew up on Enid Blyton and her  kin, and it’s instant magic when a book refers to Mrs Danvers, Pooh Sticks,  Nevil Shute, and Mallory Towers. And when Rosy Thornton had Richard Slater quote John Thornton on Margaret Hay to Margaret Hayton’s dad, well, it was all very meta (or do I mean pomo?),  and *just* the kind of thing I chuckle over as I’m getting ready to sleep.

So as you can see, MTLL hit every sweet spot on my reading desiderata, and as god is my witness,  my first Rosy Thornton novel will not be my last. I hit my credit card for The Tapestry of Love earlier this week; you can borrow it from me if it’s not in the library, Ryan.

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?’

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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.

Miss Marple’s cleverer sister

A sad, sad, day six years ago, I finished reading everything Agatha Christie had published. Yes, even the Mary Westmacott weepies. Just as I resigned myself to  hanging around her grave waiting for a miracle, I discovered Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver mysteries.

book cover of   The Case of William Smith    (Miss Silver)  by  Patricia Wentworth

The Case of William Smith

It’s soon after WWII when we meet William Smith, second-in-command at Tattlecombe’s Toy Bazaar in London. Although William seems perfectly ordinary, down to his commonplace name, he suffers from amnesia. Life before 1942, when he woke up in a German hospital with a head wound, is a blank. William has, however, managed to pull it together. He carves quirky wooden animals for the toy shop, has scraped together the funds to buy a car, and is now in love with the new shop assistant, Katherine, who is beautiful and gentle and willing.

Then, an attempt is made on William’s life, and the only reason can be William’s missing past. Katherine decides to consult Miss Silver.

****

A retired governess turned private investigator, Miss Maud Silver  is first a lady, at least by her own definition, and then a detective. More British than a Beefeater’s elevenses, Miss Silver dresses drably, believes in breeding and restraint and God and King and good old-fashioned classism. She is clever, oh, preternaturally so, to the extent some police friends believe she hides her broomstick in the hall closet.

Miss Silver is most often compared to Christie’s Miss Marple–both are elderly unmarried British women whose innocuous appearance helps them gather information when more flamboyant characters might fail. But unlike Miss Marple, Miss Silver is a professional.  And while Miss Marple is shrewd, Miss Silver possesses a profound intelligence that her clients often find unsettling; Katherine, for instance, “feels the kind of panic which comes in dreams when you find yourself naked among the clothed.” Yes, Miss Silver could probably rotate a 3X3 matrix in her head while casting off stitches for a woolly jumper.

Tempering Miss Silver’s acuity is her sympathy for her clients. It’s a tad strained, reserved for those fulfilling Miss Silver’s ideas of morality and good behavior, but it’s there, and thank goodness for it, for I wouldn’t like these books as much otherwise.

Furthermore, while Miss Marple plays a lone hand, keeping everyone (including the reader) guessing till the end, Miss Silver works with her protagonists to solve the mystery, and we follow her thought process and actions through the story. Miss Marple’s modus operandi, in essence, is to draw a parallel with some village event—a murdered cabinet minister reminds her of the ne’er-do-well nephew of the fishmonger, and presto! she deduces the identity of the killer. Miss Silver relies on inductive reasoning; presented with a set of facts, she can isolate the possible outcomes with great precision. The suspense in a Wentworth isn’t as much to do with the crime already committed as with the one yet to take place–it’s important to find William Smith’s identity (and that of his would-be assassin) so as to prevent the next attempt on William’s life from succeeding. And to make sure William and Katherine live happily ever after. Every Miss Silver mystery has at its heart a romantic couple (not a romance necessarily). This couple must and will unite; under no circumstances will either party die or prove to be a villain, and if a crime was committed by either, it will have been in ignorance, and with no lasting ill-effects. (Such foreknowledge about the end has never diminished my enjoyment of the books–the romance triumphant is as much part of the series as Miss Silver’s velvet coatee, or the creepy brooch with the hair of her grandparents).

The chief issue I have with Wentworth is her all-too-evident dislike of ambitious women. Her heroines aren’t weak—most exhibit immense strength of character, toil without complaint, and show great loyalty to their loved ones—but they do not prize independence or success. A woman who deliberately plots  to advance her social/financial position through marriage or professional achievement is considered a dangerous unsettling force in Wentworth’s universe, for her ambition usually twists her femininity into something unwholesome.  While Miss Silver is indeed a professional, she is in it to serve Truth and Justice, and definitely not for the money, and you know she’s rather go hatless than advertise.  Modern-day readers who are impatient with such biases may find Wentworth’s heroines hard to digest. And the heroes are of course all tall dominating providers, but you’ve guessed that by now.

Wentworth’s prose, while lacking the depth and beauty of say, a late Sayers, is unfussy and clean, and does the job satisfactorily. Her plots aren’t as ingenious as Christie at her peak, and are sometimes overburdened with tedious detail, but keep me turning the pages.  I’ll stop the faint praise here to assert that the appeal of a Miss Silver mystery chiefly lies in Miss Silver. To watch that mind at work, to savor her critics’ reaction turn from scorn to fear, to smile over the small details of her physical appearance, to startle at and then appreciate her rare wit—these are the reasons I read these books over and over. Miss Silver is an institution, and somewhat to my own surprise, one I’ve grown fond of. And, if I might presume to guess, so might you.

***

Note: Patricia Wentworth wrote 32 Miss Silver mysteries, starting with Grey Mask (1928). There is very little information about her on the net;  a rather threadbare account of her life may be found at Wikipedia.

This post is my contribution to The Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour.

The karma of beige folk: The Bloodstone Papers by Glen Duncan

book cover of   The Bloodstone Papers   by  Glen DuncanA character in The Bloodstone Papers, upon hearing the news about the Darfur conflict:

Three layers of feeling: first, a  gauzy filament of distress and compassion; second, a richer stratum of satisfaction at discharging my duty to know what’s going on in the world; third, a fathomless bedrock of boredom and self-disgust, since the deep knowledge, the knowledge of myself is that I’m not going to do anything about it, not even write a letter to my MP. Not even open the email from Oxfam when it comes: Darfur: Humanitarian Disaster, though I’ll lack for weeks the integrity to delete it.

If you need further confirmation that the world is unfair, consider Glen Duncan. Here is a frighteningly talented writer, the sort who cuts through all our cherished stratagems to uncover the nasty truth–with seemingly no more effort than pitting an olive. His prose is otherworldly in its intelligence.  The plot, spectacular. And no-one I’ve talked to (including English professors and the will-work-for-books types) has heard of him. Taco Bell’s hot sauce has more fans on Facebook.

Glen Duncan

The Bloodstone Papers (2006) has two timelines here–one of the narrator, Owen, set in contemporary England, and the other of Owen’s parents in nineteen forties India, in the last days of the British Raj. Ross and Kate are Anglo-Indian (the term commonly used to refer to those who possess both Indian and British ancestry), and must face the giant question–what will become of them once Britain quits the country?  Of India, but not Indian, of Britain ( a near-mythical “home” to most), but denied the rights granted to whites, most Anglo-Indians are not in a happy place, and their fate often depends on their position on the beige shade card–a whiter shade of pale, and they can pass as European, get British passports, leave India.  Skin color is everything, and Owen/Duncan meticulously notes the  distinctions.  Owen’s  niece is nutmeg brown, his mother is papyrus-colored, a jeweller mocha. A man servant is Cherry Blossom dark tan shoe polish. Very white skin. Milky coffee coloring. An uncle is “an Anglo fair-skinned enough to be taken for an Englishman”. Duncan is Anglo-Indian himself,  and he details the cultural script of this community intimately; seldom can such a minute variation in melanin have signified so much to a people.

And as for our narrator: Too pale for acceptance by British South Asians, and too dark to be considered English, the “racially-tricky” Owen has always been an outsider. As a child, he was taunted by his (white) school-mates and mostly ignored by his teachers, and now, in post-9/11 security paranoia, he’s mistaken for Arab. His young niece finally pronounces him beige (“Like Hovis”); Owen has learnt to rub along with that.  At thirty-nine, he teaches at college part-time, works at a bar some evenings, and writes porn on the side for additional income.

Cynical, intelligent, and appallingly self-aware, Owen is saved from creepiness due to his honesty, and more vitally, his unfashionable love for his family. All his spare time is taken up helping Ross track  the man who betrayed him fifty years ago and consequently ruined his life. Amongst those betrayals is the theft of Ross’s cherished bloodstone ring, bequeathed to Ross by his mother, invested with memory and history and a bucket of filial guilt.  A spot of googling tells me that in gemstone lore, the bloodstone is a symbol of justice. Irony, what?

There is a glorious gloppy tangle of a plot, but more thrilling: Duncan takes on the big themes–love, death, fate, aging, sex, war–and proceeds to say something original and insightful about each. YES. I haven’t finished the book yet (this is the first time I’m blogging about a book before completion), but The Bloodstone Papers makes me evangelical about Duncan’s work. He’s published seven astounding novels; why isn’t  he a  Booker-listed, honorary-doctorated, papparazzi-trailing required-reading lit. god? Gottosay, though, I’m saddened but not surprised by his lack of fame.  We live in an age where a public largely indifferent to the art of reading pays homage to brand-name celebrity; getting recognition as an author, even of magnificent  novels is, you know, like getting blood from a stone.

Love, Pray, Eat (dessert): Lucky Everyday by Bapsy Jain

A beautiful twenty-something Indian chartered accountant teaches yoga to prisoners at a New York state penitentiary.

I knew I had to review Bapsy Jain’s Lucky Everyday when I heard the plot outline. The thing that’s always stuck in my craw about chick-lit is the consumerism displayed by the protagonists; the Shopaholic is but the most transparently-named member of her tribe. The idea of yoga (can we say anti-materialism here?) entwined with chick-lit was way too twisted intriguing to pass up.

Lucky Boyce has just emerged from a nasty divorce where her husband killed her successful jewelery export business and her self-esteem. She subsequently moves from Mumbai to New York, the scene of happier days when she was a successful single woman working for a top financial services firm in Manhattan. An old friend persuades Lucky to take her mind off her troubles by teaching yoga to help rehabilitate prisoners. In a Bollywood moment, Lucky wins over the skeptical convicts by performing a single-armed handstand.

But New York isn’t kind to Lucky this time round. A random mugging results in a serious wrist injury. The new firm she’s joined seems to encourage dodgy accounting practices. The nice guy she’d dumped for her former husband is now a married father of two. And when Lucky finds herself at the center of a criminal conspiracy, possibly facing a prison term, her name looks like a bad joke. But our protagonist sorts out most of her problems with her intelligence, some serious doodling skills, and of course, yoga. I have never practised yoga, and so am not quite sure what to make of a sentence like “Closing her eyes, she focused on a soft blue glow that appeared from the ajna chakra.” Suffice to say that yoga calms and de-stresses Lucky so she can focus on her true priorities. Lucky is aided in her quest for inner peace by the voice of her spiritual guru Shanti (duh, peace in Sanskrit).

The writing is occasionally OTT (as witnessed by the latter instance), but Lucky Everyday’s main weakness is its anemic characterizations. Lucky is nicely drawn, but the secondary characters are an indistinguishable lot–there is no real attempt to explore the impulses or ideologies that shape people’s behaviors. Still, the plot moves along briskly, and readers will definitely cheer Lucky in her fight against the patriarchy. And how bracing to find a protagonist who isn’t a South Asian subaltern finding western feminism (and hence her voice) in North America. Jain gives us a young Indian woman whose independence and self-confidence were forged in India, who is traveling West to find peace. Lucky Boyce is in fact an anti-Elizabeth Gilbert, loving, praying and eating her way to enlightenment in NYC…

Jain also provides much interesting incidental detail in the book, not the least of which is that Lucky is Zoroastrian, and her ex-husband a Hindu. As is often the case, the pressures of a mixed marriage weigh more heavily on the woman, and having a jerk for a husband does not help. While the break-up of Lucky’s marriage wasn’t detailed in any meaningful depth, I was sort of glad that Jain pushed her protagonist beyond standard gender politics. Lucky’s real struggle is to locate herself as a human being in the spiritual world.

If this is chick-lit, bring it on. Please.

(This review appears in Ego Magazine.)

Update: via email from the author, news that there’s a sequel in the works. And there just might be a film too!