Sunday, July 27, 2008

Summer Vacation

It's that time of the year again and we're off on our annual summer vacation...this time we're flying to India and from there to Thailand and Cambodia. See you all in September! Have a good August everyone!!!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Paying Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City by Hugh Miles

Trade Paperback: £10.99

Published 03/04/2008

Genre: Memoir, travel

An Abacus title

There's an old saying that goes like this: "Lucky in cards, unlucky in love", but Hugh Miles (freelance journalist and son of a British diplomat) manages to come up trumps in both, and in this part memoir, part travelogue he tells us of his love for Cairo, but specifically for a Cairene woman whom he later marries.

"Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City" , Miles recounts how he returned to Cairo after a short stint there as a freelance journalist because he wanted to get to know, Roda, an Egyptian woman. He started off as her card partner and end up as her partner for life.

Initially it was very difficult for Hugh and Roda to be alone (Egyptian society does not allow a man and a woman to socialize without a chaperon), so Roda organized card games at her home thus providing an Hugh and herself an opportunity to be hang out together, albeit with a group of other card players. As they played tarneeb (a form of bridge) about 3-4 nights a week at Roda's apartment, Miles became privy to the inside workings of Egyptian society, especially the lives of young women and the problems they face living in such a tightly-controlled society.

He regales us with the stories of the other tarneeb players:
Nadia, whose husband beats her just because he can; Reem, who is suffering from the effects of a botched plastic surgery operation; and, most memorably, Yosra, whose life is so intolerable with a sick father and dominating policeman brother and a non-existent love life that she anesthetizes herself all day with prescription drugs. It is through the lives of these women that Hugh Miles makes us aware of the huge problems that the fairer sex must face in Egypt.

While I liked the novel's intense local focus, conveying the daily rhythms of life in Cairo's various neighborhoods,
I think one of the book's main attractions is Miles' acute observations of Egyptian life,stresses and codes of conduct.... toxic stress arising from overpopulation and unemployment; severe religious control; repressive regime; torture prisons; rising prices; the refugee situation etc. ( desperate refugees and economic migrants continue to arrive from across Africa and Iraq. In January hundreds of thousands of Palestinians burst through the Gaza blockade, an event that could repeat itself at any time.)

Miles' book also functions as a window into the political, religious and cultural tensions under which women in Egypt live. Egyptian woman are burdened with preserving the honor of the family and as a result they have to keep their private lives hidden which results in an inordinate amount of stress, lies and deceit. To add to that, they face constant discrimination and sexual harassment both, in the work place and in their day-to-day lives.

Whether you're interested in Egypt from the point of view of traveling there or just as an observer of world cultures, this book is for pick up a copy when you can.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan and Love Marriage by V V Ganeshananthan

  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Company
  • Pub. Date: May 2008
  • 352pp

As those of you who read my blog on a regular basis will know, I am very partial to novels that explore the lives of the Indian diaspora. I am especially intrigued by those groups of people whose ancestors left the Motherland in the second half of the 19th century not to find cushy jobs in the software industry or the medical field as they do now, but who were put on ships to distant lands in droves by the British to work as indentured laborers on rubber plantations, roads, railway lines etc. - one such land is Malaysia. Many of the Indians in Malaysia first landed on its shores to work on Malaysia's rubber plantations or to serve as coolies. Most were from the South of India, from the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh and they toiled the plantations for a mere pittance.

The cast of characters in Preeta Samskaran's first book "Evening is the Whole Day" belong to one such Tamilian-Malaysian family. The patriarch, Tata, through sheer guts and opportunity rises from a lowly coolie to plantation owner. His new found wealth allows him to educate his children at the best possible schools and colleges and when he dies, Raja, his eldest son (an Oxford-educated lawyer) returns to Malaysia to look after his widowed mother and their property known simply as "Big House".

For some inexplicable reason, Raja, although he is a man of the world, is attracted to the very gauche, uneducated neighbor's daughter, Vasanthi. Maybe it was out of desire to rescue Vasanthi from her autocratic father and her mother-turned-aesthetic. Whatever his reasons, he lives to regret them because Vasanthi is simply not in his league and knowing that she's no match for him turns her into a bitter, resentful person. Despite the failings of their marriage the Rajasekharans have three children, Uma, Suresh and Aasha.

There are many reasons to enjoy "Evening is the Whole Day" - its atmospheric, lyrical writing; snapshots of Malaysian history and its multicultural population all trying to live together, sometimes succeeding but mostly failing; how class and race continue to permeate Malaysian society; but best of all, the "Evening is the Whole Day" is a novel of family secrets and family relationships.

Coming back to the narrative style, while I enjoyed Samarasan's approach to the story - beginning at the end and then shedding layer upon layer as we reach the beginning -
there were times I thought it bounced around from one time period to another just a little too much, also, she does tend to be rather liberal with the use of adjectives, adverbs and metaphors. However, I did like how she peppered the conversations with Tamil colloquialisms. Even though I am not a native Tamil speaker, I thought the approach worked extremely well for it steeps the narrative in a local flavor.

Finally, and most of you probably heard this on the news, there were recent protests by Tamilians in Malaysia for equal rights and so on . I think this book makes the most perfect companion read to that as it explores through its fictional characters the genesis of the Indian disgruntlement with the Malaysian government over marginalization of the Indian ethnic community in that country.

Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States to finish high school. She was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and had begun work on a dissertation on Gypsy music festivals in France when she left to complete her novel. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where an earlier version of Evening Is The Whole Day won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Novel Award. She also recently won the Asian American Writer's Workshop/Hyphen Magazine short-story award.


  • Category: Fiction - Literary
  • Format: Trade Paperback, 320 pages
  • On Sale: April 8, 2008
  • Price: $14.00
  • Publishers: Random House Canada

In keeping with the Indian diaspora theme, specifically, the Tamilian diaspora, here's another one for you to sink your eyes into, Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan's "Love Marriage". I am just halfway through the book and it's proving to be a delightful read.

A little background first:

In 1983 some young men from the Tamil Tigers group set up a landmine which killed 13 Sinhalese police officers in Jaffna. That incident on July 23, 1983 (aka Black July) had the ability to spark riots in Sri Lanka, the kind that its people had never seen before. There was shooting, looting, burning of houses, killing. The whole of Colombo looked like it was on fire. On the 24th night of the rioting the Sinhalese government declared a curfew but by then thousands upon thousands of Tamilians had lost their lives, homes, families and everything they owned.

When the situation calmed down somewhat, many of the Srilankan Tamils found their way to neighboring India from where they left for London or the US and from there many of them walked across the border to Canada where they were freely weclomed and given refugee status. As a result, Canada today has the largest Srilankan-Tamil diaspora outside of South Asia.

Ganeshananthan's story is set in Toronto where Yalini the narrator has returned (she was studying in the US) to look after her dying uncle who was a Tamil Tiger . She traces her family's roots and the conflicts they faced as ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and then in the West, through a series of marriages.

Most of the book has been written as a series of non-sequential vignettes which a reader is either going to love or hate...many pages have long blank spaces which I enjoyed filling with my imagination. :) The tone of the book is quiet, unusually so, especially when you consider the theme of the novel, but there is a strong undercurrent of emotion and the language is beguiling. There is an ensemble of characters...they slip in and out between the pages...some are directly known to our protagonist, others she meets through her parents' memories, but all contribute ultimately to telling us more about the lives of Tamilian-Srilankan diaspora and their lives in Sri Lanka and abroad.


2008 is the 25th anniversary of the Black July and the Canadian Tamil Congress have a series of programs to commemorate and remember the day. For more information, go here: Black July Events