Category Archives: India

The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise

The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise

Biblioasis, Emeryville, Ontario, 2011

From my TBR pile.

I had never heard of Clark Blaise before seeing this book nominated for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller prize.  It turns out Blaise founded the postgraduate Creative Writing Program at Concordia University, served as the Director of the International Writing Program at Iowa from 1990 to 1998, and is the President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story.  He is married to author Bharati Mukherjee and has spent time traveling in India.

The Meagre Tarmac is a novel made of linked stories strung together like an assortment of beads, exploring the places where tradition, culture and change meet.  First and second generation Indo-Americans face intimate struggles of immigration and identity, trying to find home.  What do they cling to and what do they leave behind?

Initially it was difficult for me to accept stories of East Indians written by a white North American, but I believe Blaise’s connections through family and travel bring truth and compassion to his writing.  He is a master story-teller, this is a beautiful collection and I will search out more of his work.

9 Comments

Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge6, GillerPrize, Immigration, India, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

behind the beautiful forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Random House, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my local library.

Since I have spent several months reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,  I thought I should read something about present day India.  Katherine Boo’s superb study of life in a Mumbai undercity, like Rushdie’s novel, took my breath away.

Following Abdul, a young garbage sorter, his family and the families and individuals that live in Annawadi, a half acre slum made up of garbage dumps, thrown together shacks and a large sewage pond, Boo spent more then three years living behind the concrete wall that hides this place and its people from the eyes of those traveling to and from the Mumbai airport. Abdul and those around him dream of better lives and, with sweat and ingenuity, begin to gain and edge, only to be thwarted by a corrupt police force and justice system.

     The idea was to get terrified prisoners to pay everything they had, and everything they could secure from a moneylender, to stop a false criminal charge from being recorded.  Beatings, though outlawed in the human rights code, were practical, as they increased the price that detainees would pay for their release. The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood.  Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.  From page 107.

Through observation, with insight and a gentle hand, Ms. Boo brings this place and its people to life.  Their desperately hard work, their desires and their failures are reported with clarity and without judgement.  This is a brilliant piece of journalism.

What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too.  In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament.  Poor people didn’t unite; they competed furiously among themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional.  And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large.  The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.  The politicians held forth on the middle class. the poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.  From page 237.

There is a wonderful interview with Katherine Boo here.

2 Comments

Filed under Culture, Economics, India, Journalism, Nonfiction, Society, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children By Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Childrenby Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006 (original published in 1981)

From my TBR pile.  Winner of the Booker Prize and the Booker of Booker Prize.  I read this  novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  It has been wonderful reading along with others.  My thoughts on the first sections of this novel can be found here, here and here.

Book Three brings the story full circle.  Saleem, having lost most of his family in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, finds himself in 1971 amidst the  fight for an independent Bangladesh.   Throughout this section Rushdie makes a strong argument for the role that politics, graft, collusion and warfare played in the shaping of this part of the world.  Saleem is forced into the army, witnesses atrocities and runs away.  He looses his memory, his friends die, he regains his memory, he marries and has a son, but not really.   Like Saleem himself his son, Aadam Sinai, is not really who he appears to be. And he is born at a time of great upheaval, just like his father and the rest of  Midnight’s Children.

This final part of Midnight’s Children  moves away from magic and brings history into focus.  Places and events from the beginning of the novel are mirrored towards the end.  I found it difficult, this last section, mainly because the novel loses the many of the elements  that enticed me in the beginning, Saleem’s family’s history and the mythical and magical histories of India and Pakistan.  I found myself enveloped in politics, particularly Rushdie’s scathing depiction of Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay and their declared  State of Emergency.  I know some of this history.  I started skimming parts of  Book Three and not giving it the attention it deserved.   I  do understand Rushdie’s point,  I just need a break from this kind of historical fiction.

I think it was a certain scene of a pile of bodies that threw me off.  I am tired of war, of human failings and our ability to hate the “other”. What feeds our perverse need for destruction?

I did love this book and someday I will revisit  Midnight’s Children and give Book Three the attention it deserves.  The film adaptation, written by Salman Rushdie and directed by Deepa Mehta, is supposed to be released in October.  I am looking forward to it.

I want to thank the organizers of this read-along.  It has been a great experience.

5 Comments

Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Pakistan, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children – Book Two, Part B by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Childrenby Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006 (original published in 1981)

From my TBR pile.  Winner of the Booker Prize and the Booker of Booker’s Prize.  I am reading this  novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  It is wonderful sharing thoughts.

The second part of Book Two focuses on exile and migration, on war and politics, both in the insular world of Saleem Sinai  and the larger world of India and Pakistan.  The Midnight’s Children Conference suffers from the same divisiveness that shatters the sub-continent.

     …..Children, however magical, are not immune to their parents; and as the prejudices and world-views of adults began to take over their minds, I found children from Maharashtra loathing Gujaratis, and fair-skinned northerners reviling Dravidian “blackies”; there were religious rivalries; and class entered our councils.  The rich children turned up their noses at being in such lowly company; Brahmins began to feel uneasy at permitting their thoughts to touch the thoughts of untouchables; while, among the low-born, the pressures of poverty and Communism were becoming evident…and, on top of all this, there were clashes of personality, and a hundred squalling rows which are unavoidable in a parliament composed entirely of half-grown brats.  From page 292.

The world mirrored in the thoughts and actions of children.   I greatly admire Rushdie’s ability to focus in on Saleem’s story and then move out, as if with a camera, to capture all that is happening in and around the Indian subcontinent.  Saleem’s  family contains love and betrayal, eventually even murder.    Saleem lives within this drama as he grows into an awkward young man.  The family is exiled to Pakistan and Saleem finds himself witness to revolution,  followed shortly by war.

     Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human.  Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpot…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied that I— even I—had dreamed.  from page 333.

And then there are endings.  In the final chapters of Book Two,  in a conflict that seems a farce,  Saleem looses many members of his family.

     I am trying to stop being mystified.  Important to concentrate on good hard facts.  But which facts?  One week before mu eighteenth birthday, on August 8th, did Pakistani troops in civilian clothing cross the cease-fire line in Kashmir  and infiltrate the Indian sector, or did they not?  In Delhi, Prime Minister Shastri announced “massive infiltration…to subvert the state:; but here is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, with his riposte:  “We categorically deny any involvement in the rising against tyranny by the indigenous people of Kashmir”.  From page 387.

Saleem’s rants about the sheer insanity of the Indo-Pakistani war bring to mind the politics and propaganda that infuse all wars.  They also remind me that Kashmir is still in suffering a territorial dispute, between Pakistan, India and China.

So on to Book Three and the wrap up of our read-along.  I can’t wait to see what my co-readers have to say about the rest of Midnight’s Children.

4 Comments

Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Book Two

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006

From my TBR pile.

I am reading this wonderful novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  Heartfelt thanks to them for allowing others to join in.

We are reading Book Two in two parts, the first up section to the chapter titled The Kolynos Kid.  Our hero,  Saleem Sinai, writes his history, reads it to his plump and beloved Padma, all the time echoing events that rumble through the turbulent mix of cultures and religions that was India in the mid-decades of the twentieth century.  And we are slowly introduced to Saleem’s special talent, his ability to read the minds of all of his country’s  Midnight’s Children.

     Let me sum up: at a crucial point in the history of our child-nation, at a time when Five Year Plans were being drawn up and elections were approaching and language marchers were fighting over Bombay, a nine-year-old boy named Saleem Sinai acquired a miraculous gift.  despite the many vital uses to which his abilities could have been put to use by his impoverished, underdeveloped country, he chose to conceal his talents, frittering them away on inconsequential voyeurism and petty cheating.  This behavior – not, I confess, the behavior of a hero – was the direct result of a confusion in his mind, which inevitably muddled up morality – the desire to do what is right – and popularity – the rather more dubious desire to do what is approved of.  Fearing parental ostracism, he suppressed the news of his transformation;  seeking parental congratulations, he abused his talents at school.  This flaw in his character can partially be excused on the grounds of his tender years; but only partially.  Confused thinking was to bedevil much of his career.

I can be quite tough in my self-judgements when I choose.  from page 196.

As I read this vast  novel I am continually receiving questioning looks from Mr G.  It is because I am giggling to myself or making odd appreciative noises at Rushdie choice of words.   Saleem’s childhood is a mash-up of old and new, a perfect mirror for his young country.  I can not wait to see what happens to him and the rest of Midnight’s Children.

     So among the midnight children were infants with powers of transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry…but two of us were born on the stroke of midnight.  Saleem and Shiva, Shiva and Saleem, nose and knees and knees and nose…to Shiva, the hour had given the gifts of war (of Rama, who could draw the undrawable bow, of Arjuna and Bhima; the ancient prowess of Kurus and Pandavas united, unstoppable in him!)…and to me, the greatest talent of all – the ability to look into the hearts and minds of men.  From page 229.

Reading Midnight’s Children reminds me of a wonderful production of the Mahabharata directed by Peter Brooks that I saw years ago.  It has been released on DVD.  See it if you can.

9 Comments

Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Book 1

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006

From my TBR pile.

I am taking part in a read-along organized by Mrs B, Arti andMeredith.  We are taking four months to read the book that won the Booker of Booker’s prize twice.    After reading Book One, I wanted to jump ahead and continue reading but decided to take the time to digest the first section.

In our den we have several wall hangings, presents from a friend who visited India and Nepal.  They are made up of pieces of cloth and imbedded with bits of mirrors.  When the sun hits them they bounce light all over the room.

Midnight’s Children is a book made of words like bits of  mirror, reflecting the time before and after India gained independence from Britain and was partitioned into the states of India, West and East Pakistan.  The story is told by Saleem Sinai.  Each evening he writes his scattered thoughts and reads them to a woman he works with, Padma, who is illiterate and seems a bit grumpy and slow-witted.  It is Padma who helps bring Saleem’s thoughts into focus as he recalls his family history from the time before he was born.

Midnight’s Children reminds me of a twisted version of 1000 and One Nights, a comparison I’m sure the author is tired of,  and I love it.  Rushdie’s mix of tumbling language, history and magical realism is like looking through a kaleidoscope, where the image is split into a thousand parts but somehow comes together beautifully.

Book One covers the story of Saleem’s family up until the time of his birth, August 15th, 1947, which is also the exact time of the creation of the independent State of India.  By telling his story Saleem also tells of India’s struggles for independence, the bigotry between classes and religions and the lasting impact of the British Raj.  All this is told with grace,  humor and a burning coal of anger at its core.  Anger at the thick-headed greed of politicians, thieves and governments.

I find it difficult expressing  my admiration for Salman Rushdie’s abilities with language, with story-telling.  I can not wait to move on to Book Two.

11 Comments

Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Read-Along, Salman Rushdie, TBR Double Dare

The Inheritance of Loss By Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Grove Press, New York, 2006

From my own TBR pile. This novel won the 2006 Man Booker Prize and was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize.  I read this book for Orange July.  Desai begins her novel with a poem by Jorge Luis Borges.  It’s themes wind throughout The Inheritance of Loss.

BOAST OF QUIETNESS
Writings of light assault the darkness, more prodigous than meteors.
The tall unknowable city takes over the countryside.
Sure of my life and death, I observe the ambitious
and would like to understand them.
Their day is greedy as a lariat in the air.
Their night is a rest from the rage within steel, quick to attack.
They speak of humanity.
My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty.
They speak of homeland.
My homeland is the rythym of a guitar, a few portraits, an old sword,
the willow grove’s visible prayer as evening falls.
Time is living me.
More silent than my shadow, I pass through the loftily covetous multitude.
They are indispensible, singular, worthy of tomorrow.
My name is someone and anyone.
I walk slowly, like one who comes from so far away
he doesn’t expect to arrive.

JORGE LUIS BORGES

Recently orphaned, Sai arrives at her Grandfather’s isolated house, nestled at the foot of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the Himalayas.  The cook fusses over, feeds her and cares for her and her Grandfather, an embittered retired Judge.  But Cook is distracted, thinking of his son, Biju, an illegal immigrant finding work in one restaurant after another deep in  New York City.

There are many others involved in this story, all of them portrayed with great humor and compassion.

Sai and cook trudged down the long path that traveled thin and black as a rat snake up and down the hills, and the cook showed her the landmarks of her new home, pointed out the houses and told her who lived where.  There was Uncle Potty, of course, their nearest neighbor, who had bought his land from the judge years ago, a gentleman farmer and a drunk; and his friend Father Booty of the Swiss dairy, who spent each evening drinking with Uncle Potty…Opposite the hen house, so they could get their eggs easily, lived a pair of Afghan princesses whose father had gone to Brighton on holiday and returned to find the British had seated someone else on his throne….

And finally there was Noni (Nonita), who lived with her sister Lola (Lalita) in a rose-covered cottage maned Mon Ami.  When Lola’s husband had died of a heart attack, Noni, the spinster, had moved in with her sister, the widow.  They lived on his pension, but still they needed more money, what with endless repairs being done to the house, the price of everything rising in the bazaar, and the wages of their maid, sweeper, watchman, and gardener.  From page 47.

The novel jumps between continents, between time periods and between peoples’ stories to unveil their personal and political histories.  It rushes, portraying the desires of those who wish to come to the United States and prosper, in a way that is unnerving. It shows that this dream can be a nightmare.   Then The Inheritance of Loss suddenly slows, stepping in to a forest below the Himalayas where you can feel the humid air and hear the rustle of leaves.  It is quite rich and beautifully written,  packed with humor and the excitement and terror that fills our world.  At times it is almost too much and I would have to stop reading, take a break, but I always went back for more.

Desai’s writing has inspired me to find out more about the geography and political history of this area of India.  I normally read with an atlas nearby but The Inheritance of Loss has me digging deeper. I want to read more history, both ancient and modern.   I would also like to read more fiction based in Bengal and Nepal.  Any Suggestions?

Other reviews:

Caribousmom

Musings

Shelf Life

The Book Lady’s Blog

The Magic Lasso

14 Comments

Filed under Booker, India, LiteraryFiction, OrangePrize, Review