Sunday, September 25, 2005

Book Review: The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

When I heard that the setting for Amitav Ghosh's new novel, "Hungry Tide",was the elusive Sunderbans, off the eastern coast of India, I knew I just HAD to read the book. Swamps, marshes, bogs and mangroves, but especially mangroves, have always held a strange kind of fascination for me. The fact that they are so dark and foreboding with a kind of otherworldly, terrifying beauty is what draws me to them.

Upon reading the book I was pleased to find that the author has regaled us with beautiful scenic descriptions of the Sunderbans and shared tales of its fascinating history without feeling the pressure to romanticize it.

In the beginning the Sunderbans (pic. below) were nothing but forest. There were no people, no embankments, no fields. Just mud and mangrove. At high tide most of the land vanished under water. And everywhere you looked there were predators-tigers, crocodiles, sharks and leopards.
But in the time of the British Raj, a wealthy Scottish businessman, Sir Daniel Hamilton, looked at the Sunderbans and saw gold instead of mud; he realized that if he bought this land off the British, he could sell it to poor people cheaply so that they could have land to call their own. His proposal was a huge success and people came from all over Bengal to buy land in the mangroves. Life was tough and the man-eating Tigers and alligators made prey of 100's of people, but they fought back valiantly, and when the tides rose and water covered the land, they waited out the flood on stilt-mounted platforms.

Daniel Hamilton didn't make any money from this project. It was an altruistic, maybe even eccentric, move on his part for he had dreams of setting up an ideal community here: "He dreamed of a place where men and women could be farmers in the morning, poets in the afternoon, and carpenters in the evening." In other words, his intention was to create a mini Utopia.

There are three main characters in this story: Kanai,a sophisticated Delhi-based translator who is visiting the Sunderbans to collect a sealed notebook his departed uncle left him (the notebook is the vehicle that Ghosh uses to introduce to us the history of the island of Morichjhapi* which I will explain some more in a footnote)

Piya, an American born scientist of Indian descent who studies the endangered Irawaddy dolphin and,

Fokir a poor fisherman who despite being uneducated is chosen by Piya to be her guide because she trusts him implicitly and also because he knows the swamp like the back of his hand.

There is a some sexual tension between Kanai and Piya but nothing comes of it. What is beautifully expressed however, is the deep and unusual bond that is forged between Piya and the impoverished uneducated fisherman who saves her life.

Ghosh succeeds in whipping up quite the thriller with an exciting climax involving a cyclone, tigers etc. I do wish however, that his characters had had a little more---well---character! With the exception of the fisherman they seem so wooden and unemotional, and as for the dialogue, it falls positively flat a lot of the time. For example:

''So what happened after that?" Kanai said. ''Where did she go?"

''She didn't go anywhere, Kanai. She was killed."

''Killed?" said Kanai. ''How? What happened?"

See what I mean?

The most compelling character of the book is IMO, the Sunderbans herself---her islands that form the archipelago, the mangrove forests, the rivers, creeks, the soft clinging mud that you can't get away from are hostile and demand respect. Every year dozens and dozens of people perish in the embrace of that dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles. And oh, the tide, the hungry tide... "The tides reach as far as three hundred kilometres inland and every day thousands of acres of forest disappear underwater only to re-emerge hours later." And let's not forget the Bengal Tiger---the man-eating tigers of the Sunderbans are known and feared the world over. According to Ghosh, "The strange thing about the Sunderbans is that the tiger's presence is everywhere; you feel it all the time - it's like being in a haunted house, but you never see it. People say the moment you see the tiger it's the last thing you ever see."

Amitav Ghosh
has truly succeeded in immortalizing the Sunderbans in his book. I have no doubt that this book will generate a huge upswell of interest in the Sundarbans and its ecosystems. I, for one, would love to travel there sometime to see it.

*Morijhapi forms the most powerful backdrop to events and issues addressed in the novel. Morijhapi was declared a protected area by the Union government as part of Project Tiger launched in 1973 to preserve and protect the dwindling number of tigers in Indian forests. In 1978, the island was taken over by a group of poor and defenceless Bangladeshi refugees, seeking to set up an egalitarian world, free of maladies of class, caste, religion and poverty that had plagued them till date. But it was not to be. Clashes ensued between the State and the settlers. The Left Front government of West Bengal was determined to evict the human inhabitants in favour of its animal populace, which finally resulted in a police shoot out that killed scores of these helpless settlers and forced the rest to flee the island. The memories and memoirs of Morijhapi form a haunting prelude to the novel.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Book Review: Suburban Sahibs by S. Mitra Kalita

In relating the journey, trials and tribulations of three immigrant families from the heart of India to Edison, New Jersey, the author of "Suburban Sahibs", S. Mitra Kalita, pays tribute to the immigrant and their dogged pursuit of the American dream.

Personally, I can't think of anything harder than having to leave your home, family and all things known and familiar and to try to make your home in a distant land where everything is so...well... foreign. Immigrants as a whole must possess a genetic make-up that hungers for new challenges and adventure. Infact, I think there have been studies to show that populations with a higher degrees of immigrants ( eg. USA) tend to have more entrepreneurial and creative zeal, with their citizens generally displaying an unflappable optimisitc streak and high energy drives. When seen in medical terms, this condition can be termed as hypomania which is the 'high or creative' part of the bipolar disorder. Conversely,the nation with the lowest number of immigrants, eg. Japan, tend to have the least bipolar populations. If this study interests you, you might want to check this article out.

Anyhow, I digress----back to the book at hand.

S. Mitra Kalita follows the lives of three Indian families: The Patels, Sarmas and the Kotharis for one year (2000-2001). Each family can be pegged at different levels on the socio-economic scale, but no matter the level, they all have the same desires and dreams: to succeed and to be the best they can be even if it requires immense sacrifice. For some, the sacrifice might involve taking up a job for less than the minimum wage even though they were at the managerial level in their own countries. For others, it might involve sharing a one-bedroom apartment with 2 or 3 other families, and for the very unfortunate it could mean years of forced bachelorhood in America until you could save enough money to bring your family over.

Well, back to the three families:

The Kotharis were among the first wave of emigrants to arrive in New Jersey in the '70's and like their compatriots who arrived with them, they were financially secure and well educated. But because they had the dubious distinction of being the first successful and visible Indian immigrants, they were racially discriminated against and had to put up with the notorious "Dot Busters", a New Jersey gang who identified Indian women by the dot on their foreheads and harassed them. Prakash Kothari our first protagonist, is a born leader and he wastes no time becoming an influencial memeber of the Indian community. After having established a successful business he now wants to join politics because it is his belief that India is not well represented in the US government.

The name Patel is now synonymous with Motels or Inns because members of the Patel clan arrived in the US from Uganda (where they were forcibly removed after Idi Amin took over) and many of them bought motels to make a living. Most of them are very successful hoteliers now, but Harish Patel, the protagonist in "Suburban Sahibs", and also a part of the second and neglected wave of immigrants from the '80's (the extended family of the first wave) is struggling to stay afloat on a minimum wage. He longs so much to get a white-collar job in clerical, book-keeping or accounting positions, but he is constantly told that he is 'hard to understand' or has 'too heavy an accent'.

The third family, the Sarmas, arrived in the US on H1-B visas at a time (mid. '90's) when skilled technical labor was in high demand. For them there were jobs for the asking and more luxuries and privileges than their home country could give them, however, being on H1-B visas they were inextricably tied to the fortunes of the company they were working for---getting fired or quitting meant immediate deportation. Their temporary status makes planning for their future a Herculian task for the Sarmas.

In chronicling the story of these three immigrant families, Mitra (pictured right with her husband) not only shows us how coming to the US changes Indian families, but also, how the suburbs in America change to accomodate these immigrants.

From the book:

Middlesex County, New Jersey, is home to one of the largest Indian populations in the world outside India. Their mark on the region has been gradual but increasingly visible: auto-repair outlets named after "Deepa" and "Singh," a thriving commercial strip of sari stores and sweet shops, and valedictorians named Patel and Shah. The reception from long-time residents has not been entirely welcoming—Indian American shopkeepers regularly contend with vandalism. Yet, as Indians achieve economic success, their desire for political and social parity grows stronger and their acceptance in the U.S. is less of a question and more of a reality..."

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Book Review: The Hottest Day of the Year by Brinda Charry

I read this book in a day! The story is set in a really small town in Tamil Nadu, India, called, "Thiruninravur". Our protagonist, eleven-year-old Nithya, is sent from Bangalore to live with her Aunt and Uncle in this town for six months while her mother joins her father who is working in Kuwait. Having come from the noisy, bustling city of Bangalore, Nithya is bored out of her mind in this one-horse town. She dislikes the small-mindedness and inquisitiveness of the neighbors, the long, boring days with the "nothing to do" evenings (where even a tractor stepping over and crushing 2 bags full of chillies is such a spectacle that everyone leaves their homes to 'watch'), where men and women have well-defined roles with the women restricted to the home. Her only companion is twenty-year old Sudha who is employed by her aunt and Uncle to help with the house work.

THe main characters in this novel may not be that easy to relate to, but they are quite believable---Janaki, the aunt, is stoic to start with, keeping a very low profile, playing out her role of a young Indian widow just as society expects her to, but there is a streak of independence in her that refuses to be suppressed.

, the young house-help, who is a budding beauty. Her beauty and youth don't go unnoticed for long and soon she captures the attention of Sunder, her employer. Given her status, I am sure she feels privileged to share his bed, however, like all women, I am sure she thought that one day he would perhaps marry her. When things don't turn out as she expects, the story starts to reach its climax.

, our protagonist's uncle and Janaki's brother, performs his patriarchal duties by giving shelter to his widowed sister and to his niece. He does so uncomplainingly but detachedly. It is hard to know if he just 'used' Sudha for his own pleasure or if he really cared for her.

Nithya is our extraordinary
protagonist whom I have already introduced.

This was an easy uncomplicated read mainly due to the fact that it was narrated by an 11-year old. Even though it had some exciting twists and turns, the entire novel radiates a sense of dreamy languorous charm and oh, of incredible and not-able-to-move-a-limb heat.

This book would be a popular book club choice because there are a number of cultural issues that can be discussed at length: The role and treatment of widows in India, the Indian caste system and how it predetermines one's place in society, the pros and cons of living in a small town, suicide, the merits and demerits of a patriarchal society and many more.

A note about the author, Brinda Charry:

A native of Bangalore, India, Brinda Charry teaches "Writing and English" at Syracuse University in upstate New York, where she is pursuing her doctorate in English Lit.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Book Review: The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi

It is very hard to put "The Icarus Girl" into any one genre. With its otherwordly charaters it could perhaps be a ghost story, a fable or even fall in the horror category, but it so much more than that. It is also the story of an uncommon childhood, of cultural loss, and perhaps mental illness---of being so alone in the world that you invent a friend to help you cope with your confusions. Anyhow, I ramble---The Icarus Girl is the story of 8-year old Jessamy Harrison who, with her penchant for Shakepeare is the mental equivalent of a 12-year old, but emotionally, she is a lot younger than that. Jessamy is very fragile and it doesn't take much to overwhlem her, often resulting in her screaming endlessly for hours which results in her being sent home from school. Needless to say, she doesn't fit in with the kids at school and her parents decide to take her on a holiday to Nigeria to put her in touch with her roots ( I should mention here that Jessamy is bi-racial--- her mother is Nigerian and her dad, British).

While in Nigeria, she makes friends with a girl, about the same age as herself, called Titiola or Tilly-Tilly. Tilly-Tilly is everything Jess ever wanted in a friend, the only problem is, no one other than Jess can actually see Tilly-Tilly. So, who is she? An imaginary friend? An altar-ego? A ghost? Tilly-Tilly tells Jess that she is her twin (Jess supposedly lost her twin at childbirth), but is she really? At this point the author's exploration of Nigerian beliefs and rituals surrounding the death of a twin is captivating.

Tilly-Tilly seems the exact opposite of Jess. Where Jess is fragile, Tilly is strong and powerful. While Jess hates confrontations, Tilly-Tilly seems to thrive on them. With Tilly-Tilly in her life, Jess seems to spin out of control.

While the story itself is fascinating and the author's dive into the mind of an 8-year old, stunning, I am more fascinated with this young author's own story.
Helen Oyeyemi (pictured left), the 20-year old author, was born in Nigeria and emigrated to London when she was 4-years old. She was a lonely child and refused to make friends at school, preferring instead, to read Shakespeare and write Haiku in her bedroom. The only friend she had was Chimmy, a ghostly doppleganger, only she could see.

At the age of 13, Oyeyemi plunged into a vortex of despair and was eventually diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression. At 15, she attempted suicide with a drug overdose. Her psychiatrist thought that a visit to Nigeria might be just what she needed, and it seemed to do the trick. It was the best summer of her life and after that she devoted her time to serious writing and studying for her entrance exams into Cambridge. She completed writing "The Icarus Girl" when she was only 18 years old.

Reading about the author's tender years leads me to believe that this is a masked autobiography and a brilliantly written one at that. Oyeyemi does an absolutely splendid job of showing us the mind of a troubled child. Childhood can certainly be a magical time, but for many children childhood can be a very troubling time as well, a time where there are more questions than answers, more puzzlement than clarity. I'm glad the author doesn't romanticize childhood in this story, but tells it like she sees it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Book Review: Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet

"...when an auspicious day has been chosen, the corpse is carried on the back of a special bearer to the sky burial altar. Lamas come from the local monastery to send the spirit on its way and, as they chant the scriptures that release the soul from purgatory, the sky burial master blows a horn, lights the mulberry fire to summon the vultures, and dismembers the body, smashing the bones in an order prescribed by ritual. The body is dismembered in different ways, according to the cause of death, but, whichever way is chosen, the knife work must be flawless, otherwise demons will come to steal the spirit..."

Think you're reading a passage from a recent mystery or thriller novel? No, the passage is from Xinran's latest offering, a book titled "Sky Burial" and the passage is describing the title of the novel. A sky burial is a Tibetan riutal for the dead and non-Tibetans are not permitted to partake in it. So, when as a young girl in China, Xinran heard a rumour about a Chinese soldier in Tibet who had been fed to the vultures in this ritual, the tale both frightened and fascinated her. Several decades later Xinran met Shu Wen, a Chinese woman in Suzhou who had spent years searching for her missing husband Kejun, after he disappeared in Tibet. Their story would help unravel the legend of the Sky Burial.

Xinran met Shu Wen in 1994: “An old woman dressed in Tibetan clothing, smelling strongly of old leather, rancid milk and animal dung. Her grey hair hung in two untidy plaits, and her skin was lined and weather–beaten. Yet...her accent immediately confirmed to me that she was indeed Chinese.”

Shu Wen was a dermatologist and shortly after she married her surgeon sweetheart Kejun he elected to join the Chinese Army and travel to Tibet to care for the wounded Chinese soldiers there (this was in 1958 after mao sent in the Chinese army to Tibet on account of the growing strength of the Tibetan Independence Movement supported by the Dalai Lama). After 6 months she was informed by the Chinese government that Kejun had passed away but they didn't say when or how. With these questions left unanswered she found it very difficult to carry on with her life and vowed that she would travel to Tibet (she, too, would join the Chinese army) to find out if her husband was dead or alive.

Shortly after her arrival in Tibet she is separated from her contingent of Chinese soldiers during a skirmish and her only companion is a Tibetan woman named Zhuoma, who was rescued earlier by the Chinese soldiers. Zhuoma was an ideal companion because being Tibetan not only could she act as a guide to Wen, but she too was on a mission to find her lover. Cold, tired and hungry Shu Wen and Zhuoma are given shelter by a nomadic Tibetan family and she spends the next 30 or so years with them while continuing to look for Kejun and not having much luck.

It is through the lives of this nomadic family that the author Xinran shares with us the unique culture of the Tibetan people and how their everyday lives are so connected to the spiritual, so intertwined with Buddhism. Where prayer wheels, mani stones (boulders engraved with pictures and prayers), mantras (prayerful chants), Buddhist monastaries and lamas color the landscape just like cars and fancy buildings would color our scenery.

Their isolation from the rest of the world is also something to be amazed at...this was a land where where half a lead pencil was a monastery's most prized (and modern) possession, where people spent years looking for one another, weeks crossing a single mountain pass, where farmers sow their seeds and simply leave the fate of their crops to the heavens because there are no modern farming techniques.

Shu Wen spent close to 30 years in Tibet looking for her lost husband and because Tibet is so isolated from the rest of the world, she found that when she returned to China she missed the start and end of the Cultural Revolution in the '70's and Deng Xiaoping's "reform and opening" of the '80's The China she returns to is no longer identifyable as the China she left, and she also realized that she was also no longer staunchly Chinese as she once was---it is clear she left her heart in Tibet.

In conclusion, this novel is unique not just because of its story but also because it is rare to have the opportunity to see Tibet as it was in the 1950's through the eyes of a Chinese author and protagonist. If I do have a quibble with Xinran it would be over how she chose to portray the Chinese soldiers. She made them all out to be very courteous and soft-spoken towards the Tibetans when history has shown us that just the opposite is true. Anyway, the book has sparked a desire in me to learn more about Tibet, so much so I have picked as my next read, Patrick French's, "Tibet, Tibet".

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Book Review: The Girls by Lori Lansens

"I have never looked into my sister's eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to a beguiling moon. I've never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I've never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or solo walk. I've never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I've never done, but oh, how I've been loved. And, if such things were to be, I'd live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially."

So begins Lori Lansens's new novel, "The Girls" where the protagonists, Ruby and Rosie are conjoined twins, but more accurately, craniopagus twins because they are joined 'by a spot the size of a bread plate on the sides of their twin heads". Abandoned by their frightened teenage mother, they are adopted by the eccentric nurse who attended their birth, and her husband, a gentle immigrant butcher.

Although as conjoined twins they are destined to spend every moment of the day together, their personalities could not have been more different. Rosie enjoys sports and imagines herself quite the literary buff, while Ruby is a girlie-girl and enjoys being a couch potato, parking herself infront of the idiot box. It appears almost as if the twins took pains to be different in order to retain some sense of individuality. As the author pointed out in an interview:

"'s like the struggle for individuality is so profound and intense for conjoined twins because they're often perceived and treated as one person. They must struggle so fiercely that they choose different personalities..."

Physically, Ruby seems to have come out the winner in the looks department with a fair and flawless complexion a and deep cleft in her chin which people find irresistable, but she has weak limbs and is unable to walk and Rosie, the sturdier of the two, carries her around on her hip much like one would carry a little baby or a doll.

..."Ruby is my sister. And strangely, undeniably, my child..."

As a result of having to carry Ruby around, Rosie, who had symmetrical limbs when she was born, now displays a right leg which is a full three inches shorter than her left, her spine is compressed and her hip is crooked. The strain on her body is constant as she struggles to bear the growing sister's weight, but, as a conjoined twin who cannot be separated because they share a common blood supply, she has to bear it and she does so uncomplainingly.

"...there is some discomfort in our conjoinment. Ruby and I experience mild to severe neck, jaw and shoulder pain, for which we take physiotherapy three times a week. The strain on my body is constant, as I bear Ruby's weight, as I tote Ruby on my hip, as I struggle to turn Ruby over in our bed or perch on my stool beside the toilet for what seems like hours. (Ruby has a multitude of bowel and urinary tract problems). We are challenged, certainly and uncomfortable, sometimes, but neither Ruby nor I would describe our conjoinment as painful..."

Because of how their heads are fused the twins have never really set eyes on each other, except in mirror images and photographs, ofcourse, but yet they know each other's gestures as their own, through the movement of their muscles and bone. They love each other as they love themselves and hate that way, too!

When the book opens, the twins are almost thirty, and are the oldest living craniopagus twins in history. Since Rosie has a passion for reading and writing, she decides on a project: to write her autobiography on her life as a conjoined twin, but Ruby insists that because they are joined together the story cannot be that of Rosie only and that she HAS to be included which results in her writing some of the chapters, giving her unique perspective to their story. What results is a wonderful tale of two little girls fighting to live a normal life under highly extraordinary circumstances.

The subject of conjoined twins has been explored in literature before. Perhaps some of the most well-known among the books are, Edward Carey's novel, Alva and Irva which documents one sister's struggle to draw her twin out into the world, enticing her with a tiny model of their hometown and Ken Follett's thriller novel, "The Third Twin", published in 1997. In that novel, the protagonist must come to terms with whether his actions are determined by his shared DNA, or if his separate upbringing is responsible for his identity.

For more information about conjoined twins in general visit,