Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

"Each night Pecola prayed for
blue eyes.
In her eleven years, no one had
ever noticed Pecola. But with blue
eyes, she thought, everything
would be different. She would be
so pretty that her parents would
stop fighting. Her father
would stop drinking. Her brother
would stop running away. If
only she could be beautiful.
If only people would look at her."

(Back Cover)

As you may have deduced from the introduction, this is a story about a young, lonely, black girl, Pecola Breedlove, from a small Midwestern town in the US, who wants blue eyes more than anything else in the world. She wants blue eyes not so much because she thinks they're beautiful, but because she hates her black skin and eyes which she thinks are ugly. She imagines that blue eyes is what it will take to make her popular and loved by her friends and family. This obession with having blue eyes, the family's poverty, being on the lower rung of the racial heirarchy,the lack of friends and her very low self-esteem all contribute to driving Pecola slowly insane and she slips into a fantasy world where she has bluer-than-blue eyes and is the prettiest girl in the world.

As I read this book, I thought we all have a little Pecola inside of us. Some of us, like her, think we are not pretty enough, with others it's an issue with weight. With some they think they are not rich enough or smart enough. Seems like we all have our own "blue eyes" that we keep hankering after. If only we would come to love ourselves as we are, imperfections and all, maybe we'd make life easier for ourselves?

In any case, who sets the standards for beauty? Who decides that white and not black is beautiful; that size 6 is nicer-looking than size 8? Why was 12-year old Pecola so filled with self-loathing only because of the colour of her skin? Isn't this what we are doing to our kids (especially our girls) today, too? If they are size 6 or over, we want to put them on a diet. We are creating a whole new generation of Pecolas without even being aware of it.

Toni Morrison's novel besides exploring issues of beauty, race, poverty, discrimination, abandonment, and so on, also educates one on the hardships suffered by African-American people in the 1940's. Toni Morrison is an African-American writer and she grew up in the 1940's so I'm sure the conditions facing black people as she describes them in her books are credible. In fact, the story of Pecola Breedlove is said to be that of one of Morrison's childhood friends.

This book won the Nobel Prize for Literature. ( I don't remember the year) and it is so deserving of the prize. Not only has Ms. Morrison written a novel with an achingly beautiful story, but the language, ahhh, each sentence is so beautifully constructed that I was gulping them down like it was my last meal.

This book will definitely go into my permenant collection. I know many of you will have read this book already , would love to hear your thoughts on it.

It's almost time for the Frankfurt Book Fair

Frankfurt Book Fair 2006

( This year the Frankfurt Book Fair will take place from 4 to 8 October)

As all of you who dabble in book fairs will know, the Frankfurt Book Fair is perhaps the granddaddy of all book fairs. Publishers from all over the world rush eagerly to Germany to hawk their latest offerings with India being no exception.

Perhaps in recognition of the thriving publishing industry in India and its contribution to the literary world, the organisers of the Frankfurt Book Fair this year have decided to name India as its "Guest of Honour". According to the "Outlook" magazine, this is the first time any country has been given this honour twice.

If you will go to you will be treated to some really nice e-cards celebrating India's participation. The one I have selected amused me thoroughly because of its "Bollywood" esh-style . It was designed (probably without realizing the mirth with which it would be viewed by yours truly) by German students of the University of Applied Sciences, department design, Wiesbaden. I think it's a really great way to spread the word, so, go on, use them as often as you can!

Some of the Indian authors slated to be present at the fair are: Amitav Ghosh, Pankaj Mishra, Shashi Tharoor, Mahasweta Devi, Altaf Tyrewala, Kiran Desai and many other authors (still to be announced) whose works are considered as milestones of modern Indian literature.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Radio Adaptation of Antonia Fraser's "Love And Louis IV" on BBC Radio 4

# Hardcover: 416 pages

# Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (24 Aug 2006)

# Genre: Biography/Historical

I would like to extend an invitation to all of you to join me in listening to the radio adaptation of Antonia Fraser's most recent historical novel, titled "Love and Louis XIV" on BBC's "Book of the Week" on Radio 4. I don't usually prefer "listening" to a book over "reading" it, but these five 20-min segments, abridged and read so beautifully, are just perfect for giving me a feel for a book. If I like the sound of it, it makes it easier for me to go buy a copy for myself. If you intend listening to the program do hurry for the BBC archives the program for only 7 days after the broadcast. Enjoy!


The book centres around the Sun King and his relationship with numerous and fascinating women. Naturally dividing into five parts, it concentrates on the King's mother, Anne of Austria, to whom he was devoted; his first important mistress, Louise de la Valliere, who bore him several illegitimate children; Athenais Marquise de Montespan, who acted as unofficial Queen of Versailles until her involvement in the affair of poisons, and of course Marie Therese, his wife; and Madame de Maintenon, governess to the illegitimate royal children. The fifth part concentrates on his relations in old age with his daughters, granddaughters and the wife of his grandson. It vividly bring to life the vast edifice of Louis XIV's court - the magnificence, artistic splendour, elaborate ritual and in some cases, absurdity and misery.

Friday, August 25, 2006

A Bollywood Offering: KANK

Those of you who know me well will know my penchant for Bollywood movies, so when "Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehana" (Never Say Goodbye) with its controversial theme of adultery was released last week, I was determined to go see it. Alas, EVERY show in EVERY picture hall in Bangalore was houseful, so I had to wait to return to Canada in order to go see it and I'm glad I did.

"Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehana" or KANK as we will affectionately call it, is one of the first Hindi (read that as Bollywood) movies to tackle the topic of adultery head on. I know some of you might wonder what the fuss is all about, adultery after all, is not that uncommon, its just that Bollywood creates mostly 'feel good' movies packed to the brim with family values and where good usually overcomes evil. By providing a fairy-tale ending for the erring lovers this film perhaps glorifies adultery,something that Bollywood and its large Indian following find hard to swallow.

While the movie itself was rather long (3 1/2 hours) and formulaic in some parts, it did manage to generate a lot of talk, both on TV chat shows and around office water coolers, about what course one's life should take should you happen to find your soulmate after you are married to someone else . Do you drop everything and grab him/her or do you unselfishly stay where you are?

The movie suggests that if you don't love your spouse, it doesn't make sense to stay with him/her, for you are keeping him/her from finding love/happiness with someone else. But a large chunk of the Indian public have a problem embracing that message believing it to be a very western concept. The reaction is not surprising considering that most marriages in India are still arranged by one's parents and this message of following your heart is an impossible dream for many Indians - love in a marriage, if it has a role, comes later.

The movie for all its flaws has had one of the largest box office openings ever, and you can credit that to the cursiosity factor,the star cast and the fabulous music (especially the Sufi rock song titled "Mitwa") together with its elaborate song/dance sequences.

If anyone reading this has seen KANK or plans to, do write in, I would love to hear from you!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Literary Mama ( A Literary Magazine)

Fellow blogger Gaijin Mama introduced me to "Literary Mama" a couple of months ago and I've been hooked ever since. Do take a look at it when you can and hope you enjoy the articles/stories as much as I have.

This will probably be my last post for a week or so - I have to concentrate on getting ready for our trip to Wales. We should be home (Canada) on the 25th. "See" you all then.

Happy Blogging until then!

A Life Less Ordinary by Baby Halder

# Paper/Hardback : 250pp, 2005
# Author/Editor : Baby Halder, Translated by Urvashi Butalia
# Publisher : Zubaan Books, New Delhi


From Maid to Bestselling Author -BBC

Grime Pays -TimesOnline

I bought this book for two reasons: its unusual author and also because I always try to support Zubaan ( a non-profit publishing group in India with women's issues as its focus). I call the author of this book unusual because Baby Halder, although she went to school as a girl, is largely illiterate. It was while working as a maidservant in illustrious Hindi writer Premchand's grandson's house that it was suggested she try her hand at writing stories as a cure for the endless time she spent brooding on her past. What transpired is an evocative memoir of Baby Halder's childhood and early adulthood. As Baby was growing up her father was seldom ever at home. The mother, after years of trying to function as a single parent with perilously low funds, abandoned the household when Baby was only 4 years old. The father did return but he could never be the involved parent that Baby needed in her life.

The father, perhaps sensing he couldn't be a good parent to Baby, had her married at 12 years to a 26 year old man they barely knew and who took perverse delight in ill-treating her. What follows is days and months of agonizing hardships for this little girl trying so hard to accept her adult responsibilities (she had her first child at the tender age of 14)

I would classify this very simply-told story as a "must read". If you can't buy it, do borrow it from the library or a friend, for this tale can easily be the story of millions of Indian women.

The publication of this book is truly a unique event because the tale has been told by someone who is not used to words or indeed, to writing, but by making the effort to tell her tale (she would write late into the night after all her chores were over) she has now provided a voice to the millions of other voiceless domestic servants in India.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

My Cochin Diary

As some of you will know, we recently visited Kerala, also known as, "God's Own Country". Its lush greenery and beautiful backwaters inspires this very fit epithet. The landing into Kerala provided some of the most breathtaking aerial scenery I have ever seen - I wanted it to go on and on, but sadly, after 10 mins we made our landing into Cochin airport which is the city we chose to spend our Kerala time.

Cochin has many things to recommend it: the scenery (which I have already spoken of), its synagogue (the oldest synagogue this side of the Atlantic), "Jew Street" or better known by its cute monicker "Loafer's Corner" - a beautiful narrow street with small antique shops lining both sides of the street. Cochin is also known for its glorious food, especially sea food, but, best of all, Cochin/Kerala is best known for "Kathakali" (there is a small mention of it in Arundathi Roy's ("God of Small Things") and Mohini Attam, dance traditions.

We were so privileged to be able to view these dance performances and I was especially taken up with "Kathakali" which involves an elaborate "dressing-up" procedure. It takes close to 3 hours just to apply the dancer's make-up and when the dancers came on stage I could see why the make-up is all important, after all, it is mainly through a whole host of facial expressions that the dancer conveys the story. (There is no speech or any other props in Kathakali). According to the compere of the show, Kathakali trainees need to practice their facial exercises for close to 12 hours a day! ( I guess this means they go to a special school) . The students also receive a special "Ayurvedic" massage which makes their limbs supple and flexible.

Kathakali is almost always performed by men, with men even taking on the roles of women in the dances. The picture below shows my daughter and myself with one of the Kathakali dancers (dressed as a woman). He (dressed as a She) was a young and extremely good-looking man (not that you can tell from the picture) *wink* and he gave us a spellbinding performance! Most of the Kathakali dances are based on Indian mythological stories.

Some of the pictures:

One of the numerous coconut palm trees in and around our hotel

Chinese Fishing Nets hung from teakwood and bamboo poles. It is said that Kublai Khan's traders introduced these nets to the local fisherfolk sometimes between 1350AD and 1450AD

View of the Hotel (Taj Malabar) pool that opens into the backwaters

A Kathakali Dancer applying his make-up before the performance (pic. courtesy Alan Little).

A Mohini Attam dancer.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Happy Independence Day, India! (15 August)

This is India's 59th year of Independence and I thought it appropriate to post this video which brings together a whole host of Indian musicians (some famous, some not so well known) playing the Indian national anthem "Jana Gana Mana" composed by Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Tribute to Enid Blyton , my favorite children's author

Growing up in India in the early '70's, we didn't have much by way of entertainment. There was no TV (we got our first one in the early part of 1980), there was no computer ofcourse, radio catered mainly to adults and I hadn't even heard of video games. The circus came to town only once a year and we were taken to the movies only once every three months, so, when I wasn't playing hopscotch, seven tiles and five stones with my friends, I had my little nose buried in what I thought was the best thing since paper was invented - an Enid Blyton book!

Now, being a British author, I am not sure what her appeal was to children across the Atlantic. I am hoping my American friends will share with me what they grew up reading, but for all of us in India, Enid Blyton was to us what JK Rowling is to kids today.

What was Enid Blyton's appeal?
I think it's her versatility. She had the ability to write mysteries, silly tales, boarding school sagas (my favorite), fantasy, adventure and even circus stories. There was something for everybody. When I was around five or so, her tales about Noddy pleased me no end; from five to ten, I was totally captivated by her mystery series like the "Famous Five" and the "Secret Seven", so much so, my friends and I had our own little mystery-solving club with our special password (shhh, you can't make me reveal it) and so on. From ten onwards I was devouring every word of her boarding school series
"Malory Towers", "St. Clares" and "The Naughtiest Girl", often wishing I was a boarder in some wonderful school in England rather than just an ordinary day scholar in a Bombay school. She really did make boarding school like the most heavenly place to be! Sadly, when I turned thirteen my heart started to make way for other authors, namely Carolyn Keene of "Nancy Drew" fame, also, I had started to read the occasional Jean Plaidy.
Ofcourse, in today's sensitive political climate, Enid Blyton may come across as culturally insensitive especially when she portrays non-British characters like Claudine, the French girl in the St. Clare's series who was vain and over emotional (a French stereotype, ne c'est pas?) or Zerelda, the American girl who had more interest in being a film star than in her studies, (unlike her British classmates). She also comes across as sexist because in all of the adventure stories, the girls prepare the food and the boys protect the girls, but I say "so what", after all, it didn't have so much to do with Enid Blyton as it had to do with the period she wrote in- she was simply a product of her time. And, ahhh yes, she has even been accused of racism, for making "golliwogs" (black-faced woolen dolls) the anti-hero in the much-loved Noddy books. Noddy books today no longer have any references to golliwogs, someone told me they've been replaced by white goblins instead!

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Had to share...

As any booklover will tell you, finding a new bookshop, especially one that seems to meet all your book needs, is akin to attaining nirvana! Well, I'm pleased to report that finding "Idiom Booksellers" on our recent trip to Cochin was a truly delightful surprise. We had just stepped off the ferry at Fort Cochin and was about to take a walk down "Jew Street" famous for its antique stores when I spied this little bookstore. I rushed inside and found that it seemed to specialize in travel and coffee-table books , however, it also had a very nice selection of Indian classics and a whole host of "Amar Chitra Kathas" ( unique to India, these comics illustrate historical and mythological tales from India's rich cultural heritage) which my daughters bought by the dozens. I loved everything about the shop, it's location (deep in the heart of Jewish Cochin), its charming facade (wish I had a picture to share), the collection of books, but best of all, I loved the little jute bag they packed the books in and the Saraswati (goddess of learning) bookmarks that they generously inserted in every book we purchased. Can't wait to go back there again!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Sevasadan (सेवासदन)

Category: Non-Fiction
Author: Munshi Premchand
Publisher: Oxford University Press (India)
Price: Rs 325
Translated by: Snehal Shingavi

Cover Photograph: "Lucknow Woman", Abbas Ali (1874)

One thing guaranteed to send me into raptures of delight in India (apart from visiting old stomping grounds,meeting old friends and family, ofcourse) is a visit to a bookshop for small local publications by Indian authors. In the past, the offering has been quite generous because India has a large number of English writers, but this year, with a whole crop of new translations of the old classics, I found the bookstores just bursting with reading delights - books that had previously been unavailable to me because they were written in one of India's 1000 different regional languages, were now waiting expectantly for me to take them off the shelf and into my suitcase.

One such book was Munshi Premchand's "Sevadasan". Munshi Premchand lived from 1880-1936. He was a schoolteacher and he is largely credited with being the initiator of realism in Indian fiction (before him, Indian fiction largely comprised of mythological tales and stories of the gods etc.) He also introduced the genre of the short story here in India. Premchand was a social reformer and a follower of Gandhi, so it is but natural that his books revolve around social issues of those times like, child marriages, widow remarriage, dowry issues, the caste system, colonialism and so on.

"Sevadasan" is a novel set in Varnasi, one of India's holiest cities and it examines the descent of one very beautiful Brahmin lady, Suman, from rich, doted-on daughter to prostitute. Suman's luck changed all because her father ( a highly-respected police inspector) succumbed to taking a bribe so that he could incur the dowry expenses for her wedding. He was sent to jail and after his wife spent all their earnings trying to have him released, Suman was sent to her uncle's house where she was ill-treated by his family. In India, especially in the early part of the 20th century, it was a herculian task trying to marry off a penniless girl, but Suman's uncle, Umanath, managed to find her a poor man, Gajadhar, to marry but Suman, who had been used to luxuries in her father's house, found it very hard to be the perfect wife to a poor man. Finally, her husband, dissatisfied with her as a wife, asked her to leave. Having nowhere to go, Suman becomes a tawai'if or courtesan.

Being a courtesan in those days was to have sunk to the lowest low. If a courtesan had siblings it is unlikely anyone would ever marry them because of their association to the courtesan, but, at the same time, courtesans effortlessly held sway over all the rich and powerful men of the village who would throng to their dance and song performances every night. Through "Sevadasan" Premchand exposes the double standards of the leaders of those days. Suman finally ends up in Sevasadan (House of Service) an educational institution set up by the social reformers of that time to house reformed courtesans.

This is my first exposure to Premchand's writing and I was absolutely enthralled by his ability to know and depict human nature so well. His character sketches are simply enchanting, even when the characters are not likeable. He was a writer with his finger on the pulse of everyday life in northern rural India and with his keen eye he observed how society's demands could make and break its people. "Sevadasan" besides being a very interesting read is also a vital document on the cultural history of that period. Interestingly enough, the book was supposed to have had the titillating title, "Bazar-e-Husn" or "Bazaar of Beauty", but given the senstive social climate of those days (1917) the publishers thought it was better to have the staid and uninspiring title of "Sevasadan" instead.

"Jaipur Woman" by Gobindram Oodeyram from inside flap of book. Courtesy