For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘India

Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, 228 pp.

Fasting FeastingThe title drew me in. (Also, I’ll admit, the Booker Prize Finalist sticker on the cover.) The title made me think this book would have some rich theological insight hidden inside, even if it never mentioned God. Fasting and feasting are such rich concepts for contemplation. The book did follow its title with interwoven threads of deprivation and abundance, although it did not capture my heart and mind as much as I had hoped.

The story is told in two parts, from two central characters. The first part takes place in India, and focuses on Uma, the eldest sister of an aspiring middle-class family. Uma is a bit slow-witted and physically clumsy, but she has dreams for her life. However, at every turn, her parents thwart her aspirations and turn her into a servant in the household. Her prospects for marriage crumble, and she is denied even the simplest pleasures. She is not alone. Nearly all the women in the story are bound in service to men, their own dreams unsupported and unsustained.

The second part takes place in the United States, and focuses on Arun, the youngest child and only boy in the family. The family (especially Uma) sacrifices everything so that Arun can succeed, achieve and prosper. While it seems that he has everything, he longs desperately for affection. During his time in the United States, the land of plenty, he sees the elements of physical and emotional deprivation in American family life, even as he himself goes hungry rather than eat meat with the host family.

The novel is beautiful, intricate and run through with allusions to various kinds of fasting and feasting. At times, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me, like it was a morality tale or parable about abundance and deprivation, rather than a novel. Uma felt more like a real character about whom I cared than Arun did. I yearned for redemption in the story, but hunger won out over satisfaction for both Arun and Uma.

This is a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed, recognizing its merits while never quite falling under its spell.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, Knopf, 2013, 352 pp. (read as e-book)

ImageJhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake was one of the best, most memorable books I had read in a long time. I couldn’t wait for the chance to read her next novel, and The Lowland did not disappoint.

The novel follows the life of Subhash Mitra. It starts when he was a boy, growing up with his brother Udayan. Udayan is always the more adventurous, risk-taking brother. He goads Subhash into break rules, especially impatient with the strictures of class, caste and colonialism. As they grow up, they both seek out careers in science. Subhash moves to the United States for graduate school, just as Udayan becomes involved in a 1960’s radical movement whose suppression ends in tragedy. Subhash spends the rest of his life trying to make up for his brother’s loss, taking care of things in his brother’s place. Every relationship that belonged to his brother then belongs to him–their parents, Udayan’s girlfriend and more. The Lowland unfolds the story of Subhash and his relationships across the decades of his life.

I hesitate to say more because I don’t want to give the story away. It’s beautifully written prose, an intricately woven story, fascinating characters and compelling narrative. The first section, when Subhash and Udayan were boys, felt a little bit slow, but it’s worth reading on until they grow up. I’m already looking forward to Lahiri’s next book, and hope she has a long and fruitful career ahead.

 

The Case of the Missing Servant: Meet Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator, by Tarquin Hall, Simon & Schuster, 2009, 310 pp.

{270af1c9-7806-4ad4-8bee-ce9c429e92c9}Img100I don’t usually go for mystery novels, but someone talked me into this one based on the unique setting in modern India. In the end, I did enjoy the setting a great deal, but the “whodunit” plot did not draw me in. I think I generally like novels that emphasize character development over plot, which is why I don’t go in for mysteries too much.

The Case of the Missing Servant is the first in a series about Vish Puri, the top private investigator in India. We meet his wife and mother, and his staff, who all go by various nicknames like Handbrake (the chauffeur), Facecream (an undercover agent), Tubelight (a basic stakeout expert) and more. The primary case is about a household servant who goes missing, leading to the arrest of the master of the house for murder. There is also a secondary case involving a pre-marital investigation by a grandfather concerned about his daughter’s fiance. Puri goes to elaborate lengths to conduct secretive investigations, involving undercover staff, disguises, secret interviews and more. The setting in India adds a uniqueness and intrigue to the story, as he navigates the particulars of Indian culture and caste.

I have the second novel on my nightstand from the library as well, but I haven’t yet decided if I will read it. I enjoyed the setting, but the plot and the characters just didn’t do it for me. If you are a fan of whodunits, I recommend it–it’s just not my thing.

The Glass Palace, by Amitav Ghosh, Random House, 2000, 486 pp.

This novel had everything a good epic needs—fascinating characters, intertwined families followed across generations, travel across nations and regions, fortunes made and lost, war and the tragedy of war, love and passion, soldiers and civilians, rich and poor, politics, history and great storytelling. I enjoyed every minute of it.

The novel begins in 1885 in Burma, where we meet two orphaned children—Rajkumar, who is poor and alone and making his way in the world, and Dolly, who is an adopted by the queen of Burma to be a servant. The action begins when the British invade Burma and send the Royal Family into exile in India. Rajkumar vows to find Dolly, and 20 years later he does. They marry, and their extended circle of friends and family form the main characters of the novel.

The story itself takes place in what was then Malaya, Burma and India, and now comprises India, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Myanmar and even Thailand. The characters find themselves a part of history, from the British conquests and the teak trade, to the rubber plantations and indenture/slavery of Indian peasants, to the Indian Independence movement and the Japanese invasion in the Second World War. I know very little about the history of southeast Asia, so I was fascinated to learn about this history while I was reading the novel.

Ghosh’s characters were particularly interesting and unique, because all of the main characters had a tangled, unusual history of racial, ethnic and national identity. Rajkumar is Indian, but lived primarily in Burma. Dolly was Burmese, but the exile took her to India. Saya John, a mentor/parent to Rajkumar, is ethnically Chinese, but raised in a Catholic orphanage with a European education. In some circumstances, it is only their separation from their home country that allows them to overcome the prejudices of colonialism and caste to make their successful way in the world.

The novel itself was so rich, so dense, so full and complete that it is difficult to write about it in great detail. All I can say is, read it!

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I just learned about the traditional celebration of Holi in India. Where has this festival been my whole life?

I have a lifelong obsession with colors. I can’t describe it, except to say that I feel a spiritual and almost physical connection to the colors of the world. I crave color, need it, inhale its presence like the air I breathe and feel its absence as suffocation. More and brighter is always better. My desk is covered with colored folders, I only write in brightly-colored ink, I drape my body in colored scarves, I decorate my house in the brightest and most vibrant tones I can find.

And now I have learned that in India there is a festival dedicated to the celebration of color.

Holi arrives as winter is holding on to its last gasp and spring is breaking through, at the end of February and beginning of March. This year it falls on Monday, March 1. It is a celebration of life, of love, of the triumph of good over evil. (Unfortunately, there is a story of the burning of a disloyal woman in its mythological background, which does taint it. Why must religion always build holiness on the broken bodies and believed betrayals of women?)

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The people celebrate by buying or making large quantities of

powdered or liquid paints, and running through the streets throwing colors all over one another. Everyone, regardless of race, caste, class, sex, age or wealth participates in the melee. At the end of the celebration, every body and building is smeared with hues of purple, red, orange, green and blue, and the signs of class and race are covered over in bright colors.

Just looking at the pictures is a feast for the eyes. My vision of heaven would look a lot like that amazing mess of colors. I want to go there some day, to celebrate an orgy of color in the streets.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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