Thursday, January 21, 2010

"An Ex-Mas Feast" from "Say You Were One of Them" by Uwem Akpan

  • Hardcover: 368 pages

  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (Jun 9 2008)

  • Language: English
"Say You Are One of Them" by Uwem Akpan (a former Jesuit Priest) is a short story collection (picked by Oprah for her book club) that pays tribute to the wisdom and resilience of children, even in the face of the most agonizing circumstances.

All the stories in this collection can be read as stand-alone stories and because they are all so stunning, revealing and heartbreaking I feel like they deserve to be written about individually rather than together, so I here I go with a few thoughts on the first story and a link to where you can read the story for yourself:

"An Ex-Mas Feast", about a very young child prostitute and set in a slum in Nairobi, can be a tough story to read and if you're feeling particularly fragile it is, perhaps, not a story you will want to read. It's about tough situations and people just trying to do their best with the rotten cards they've been dealt. Although the lives of these protagonists and their stories will leave you shaking your head, Akpan makes no judgement on his characters and neither must you. Although this is a short story, Akpan manages to bring up several important issues like the importance of education in finding a way out of poverty, hunger, survival, family bonds and the importance of family especially at festival time.

To read the full story in the New Yorker, please go here

For an indepth review of this particular story please go here

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Twice Born by Leela Soma

  • Paperback: 272 pages

  • Publisher: You Write On (8 Dec 2008)

  • Language English

Oft late, there has been a surge of books that claim to strike at the heart of the Indian immigrant experience and many of them do, like Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth", Manju Kapur's "The Immigrant", Bharati Mukherjee's "Desirable Daughters" etc. But most of these novels are set either in the US or in England, so when I heard about Indo-Scot writer Leela Soma's novel set both in Glasgow and Chennai (Madras), I knew it was going to be unusual and different because I don't think I've ever read the experiences of an Indian immigrant in Glasgow before!

The central characters, Ram and Sita, are brought together by their families in what is commonly known as an "arranged marriage" in India. Although Sita is a well educated, independent young woman who longs to fall in love, she allows herself to be talked into marriage with Ram a young medic based in Glasgow because she knows that is what is expected of her.

I thought Soma captured very well the painful familial expectations that all of us growing up in India have experienced.
Unfortunately for the couple they have nothing in common. Ram is a fastidious and earnest young man who has a hard time showing his emotions. Sita is a vivacious, intelligent, chatty and emotional young lady who simply cannot understand why Ram cannot be more demonstrative, caring or expressive.

Unlike some of the other books with immigration as a theme, Sita doesn't have major problems adjusting to her new life in Glasgow. After all, she is a convent-educated young girl steeped in an English education that was primed and prepared for Cambridge"..
.an Indian in every outward way, but with the thoughts and aspirations of a liberally-educated middle class westerner." What she cannot come to terms with is having a marriage devoid of romance. Sita and Ram soon get caught up in their separate lives but continue to be bound together by duty, familial and societal expectations, their daughter Uma and other cultural trappings.

Soma carefully unravels the story of this stifling, but moving marriage. She does so without melodrama and with careful attention to the couple’s mundane moments of tenderness. Both characters are extremely likable but both have their flaws and I found it impossible to take sides. The two are ably supported by a chorus of other great characters like BB, the resident old gossip; Lata, Sita's best friend and confidante; Eileen, a wee Scottish lass who marries a Muslim doctor only to regret it and Neil, Sita's paramour.

Beyond the marriage and family, this novel deals with the momentous themes of love and belonging, it is also an examination of immigration, identity, walking the tightrope between two distinct cultures and so on. Most immigrants inhabit an in-between space that is a little difficult to describe, but Leela, being an immigrant herself has ably captured and given life to that space when she says (and I paraphrase), An immigrant's affection for his or her adopted country and its people ranges from highs to lows. On days when homesickness prevails nothing seems right with the city...on the other hand, the sheer freedom of being able to live life away from the watchful eyes of society and family back home can be exhilarating!

I thought Soma very ably introduces her readers to Glasgow, a city many of us are not so familiar with and I thought her idea of introducing colloquial Scottish phrases through the book helped steep the narrative in local flavour. The history and anthropological buffs amongst us will be quite impressed at how the Scots and the people of Madras influenced each other.
Much of the story is set against the political landscape of Sccotland from the 1970's to the present day and that makes for interesting reading too.

This is a story of immigration in the late '70's (1979) to be precise and having emigrated from India to Canada in 2001 I found it very interesting to compare Sita's immigration experience with mine. I think it's so much easier today...for one thing, staying in touch with the home country is a cinch because of the internet, also, one never has to crave for home food or cooking supplies as almost every neighborhood has its own ethnic stores, not to mention cable television companies that beam programmes from India right into your living room. Sita had to wait weeks to make a "trunk-call" when she wanted to speak to her parents...however, I think it made for a more determined assimilation into one's adopted culture. Today, many immigrants continue to live exactly as they did at home. They don't feel the need to assimilate and many are not encouraged to. Good thing? Bad thing? I guess only time will tell.

Do pick up a copy (available from Amazon and Book Depository) and treat yourself to this delightful read!

To read an interview with Leela Soma, please go here

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

Category: Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Bond Street Books
ISBN: 978-0-385-66530-8 (0-385-66530-X)

Pub Date: February 10, 2009
Price: $29.95

The Bible tells us Jesus Christ gave up his life for humankind and indeed, being prepared to give up one's life has become the greatest expression of love between lovers, a parent and child and sometimes even best friends. Having said that, however, I'd like to ask you this: what is the biggest sacrifice you would make, not for a friend, a lover or even a family member, but for a stranger, someone you don't know, someone you will gain nothing from?

Now that's a tough one, isn't it?

Some people are driven to altruistic lengths to help a stranger in need. Many will donate money and time, or both. Some will make radical donations of a healthy kidney or liver to to people in need. Buddhists are well known for a ritual where they take on other people's sufferings, but all these actions, wonderful as they are, are usually premeditated and the giver has had time for prepare himself or herself for this sacrificial gift. Would we be as giving if we're taken by surprise and with an urgency that leaves no room for thinking or planning?

"Little Bee" is the story of two such strangers and how their fates intertwine one fateful summer's day in Nigeria. The central theme of the story examines how despite deep-seated convictions, life unfairly places a disproportionate emphasis on the decisions we make in split seconds.

Other prominent themes in the book include asylum seekers, the state of detention centers in the UK and issues a challenge to its readers to ponder why the word "refugee" has become such an ugly word in today's parlance. For instance, why is it that in late 60's and even early '70's defectors from the then USSR, or other European communists state were cheered on and even celebrated as heroes, but today we balk at having to share our resources with their countrymen. Why do we treat refugees as criminals, locking them away until their cases can be heard? Why do their cases take so long to hear?

The novel is a bittersweet one and told in two voices (the two main female protagonists that we spoke of earlier in the review). This works well because the two women are from opposite sides of the great class divide and by hearing both their voices the reader gets a dual perspective instead of just one. About the characters, I am not sure I could be friends with any of them in real life, but they made for great character studies!

So, to summarize, this is a novel that is sad and yet funny; serious and yet light-hearted; heavy and yet it's only a wisp of a novel...overall a lovely reading experience!

This novel is called "The Other Hand" in the UK and in India and the rest of the sub-continent. Anyone know why novels are sometimes given different titles in different parts of the world?