Monthly Archives: July 2007

Storywallah by Sam Selvadurai (Editor)

storywallah2.gif Writers in English from South Asia(India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh) have found a niche in the contemporary literary scene. They have their own stories to tell regardless of which part of the world they have migrated to. Many live in the West, some straddle continents while others are content with living at home. Regardless, they share something that touches a familiar chord with South Asians across the world. That something is in the unique history and cultural aspects – the names of the characters, the locales(the dusty roads, the neighbourhood school, the smells, the roadside vendors, the colourful festivals and rituals), a colonial past, a conflict of tradition and modernity, a search for identity in a world of contradictory perceptions, the backdrop of religion and myth. This common thread binds most stories in English evolving from the region.

 

In story-wallah, editor Shyam Selvadurai(Sri Lanka) brings together a compendium of twenty six short stories from writers of the sub-continent – or connected to the sub-continent, by birth or through ancestors. It spans writers from different generations and of varying fame (from the very famous to the obscure). Not all the stories however rank in the same class. Kripal Singh’s “Jaspal” and Ginu Kamani’s “Just between Indians” seem quite trivial and can in no way be uttered in the same breath as some of the more profound pieces featured in the anthology. There are also a few oddballs that are not easily readable – Shani Mootoo’s “Out on Main Street’ due to a strong Carribean-Indian dialect first person narrative(although the story turns out to be quite funny once past the initial hurdle) and K.S. Maniam’s “Haunting the Tiger” due to an abstract theme and the seamless blending of past and present.

The rest of the lot are highly engaging, mostly enjoyable, and a few have the rare distinction of taking the reader beyond the everyday through great storytelling. In this top echeleon lie Salman Rushdie’s “The Courter”, Rohinton Mistry’s “The Collectors” and Romesh Gunesekara’s “Captives”.

Rushdie’s “The Courter” is a story of love transcending language, nationalities and mere physical longing – between their elderly ayah(maid) and an old east-European immigrant who’s the porter of their tenement in London. There’s also the underlying immigrant theme, with the family trying to get a grip on English living, and an undercurrent of racial disharmony, though not as strong as in Hanif Kureishie’s “We’re not Jews”(also a part of story-wallah).

“The Collectors” is a gem, the story of the friendship between a disillusioned doctor and a introverted young boy the age of his own spoilt child. In him he sees all that his own son is not, becomes protective and tries to infuse in him the philatelic hobby. It’s also a growing up story of the boy and a glimpse of the social and political times through the observent eyes of the writer. The setting of this story is a Parsi residential colony in Bombay – the source of a series of shorts from Mistry published under a different title – Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag, also published under the alternative title Tales from Firozsha Baag.

Romesh Gunesekara’s “Captives” tells the story of a hotel manager in desolate Sri Lankan jungles tending to the first guests of his hotel, a young, amorous American couple. Gunesekara’s narrative creates a haunting and poetic effect through the interaction of his characters – among ruins, myth, desires and isolation.

 

This review would be incomplete and unfair without the mention of a few other pieces that stand out as top-notch works – both in their literary quality and uniqueness of their themes. Anita Desai’s “Winterscape”, a story of generational differences and cultural gaps, Michael Ondaatje’s “The passion of Lalla” – a poignant yet humourous tale of a whimsical and buoyant woman with little regard for conventions and a penchant for gambling and liquor, Farida Karodia’s “Crossmatch” – an episode of expatriate Indian families in South Africa and their match-making adventure on behalf of their iconoclastic modern children, touching upon the often recurring theme of generational divide and culture clashes.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s “This Blessed House” is quite well known through her Pulitzer prize winning short story collection “The Interpreter of Maladies”, an example of well crafted fiction from the new generation of authors of Indian origin writing in English. It carries the theme of cultural identity of Indian Americans like most of her other works. Monica Ali’s “Dinner with Dr. Azad” is actually an excerpt from her novel “Brick Lane”, but surprisingly comes off quite complete as a short story.

 

The anthology, although omitting some prominent writers like Kushwant Singh and Ruskin Bond, manages to create a fairly successful concoction of the works of subcontinent authors dispersed across the globe and spanning generations.

 

© 2007 mystic-wanderer

 

Tibet, key to Asia by Amaury de Riencourt

Title: Roof of the World Tibet, Key to Asia Author: Amaury de Riencourt Read: June 2007

Map of Tibet thanks to savetibet.org

mapoftibet.gifI have always been intrigued by Buddhism. When I first visited Sikkim, I had a chance to visit the Rumtek monastery and was immediately in awe of it. The land too held a spell on me and it has always been hard to return to the humdrum of mundane existence from Sikkim. The visits were short, only a few days, but held for me the promise of longer sojourns and the possibility of long term stay in my later years. Searching for information on Sikkim on the internet, I came across a reference to this particular book. There was also an excerpt which immediately piqued my interest. The book is no longer in print, and I acquired a copy from Amazon.com, the 1950 hardcover first edition published in the US by Rinehart and Co. The pages are worn out, so it needs delicate handling(I ruffled a couple of pages before becoming more cautious).

The book itself is a travelogue but strays into the political history and religious practices of Tibet – which is probably inevitable given how deeply Buddhism is intertwined in every aspect of Tibetan life. It starts with the author’s journey from Sikkim, where he enters Tibet through the Nathu-La pass. He journeys on mule back (Tibet had no automobiles or motor-able roads at that time) across several Tibetan cities to reach Lasha, the capital city – where he spends several months. Geographical descriptions of the landscape intersperse with the distinctive characters of the cities that he passes through. Culture and food habits, initially repulsive, gradually grow on him. Buttered tea, which Tibetans consume by gallons and is a great social lubricator, sounds nice, but once you find out it’s ingredients you may not want to taste it, regardless how it might affect your palate. Here’s the recipe from the author:

“tea, which is grown in China and carried to Tibet in brick-shape, is mixed with a soda that is found on the banks of rivers or margins of lakes. The mixture is thrown into a huge cauldron and tepid water is poured over it. The whole lot is then boiled. Salt and rancid butter, several years old if possible, soon joins this boiling soup and the buttered tea is churned. Very often, the flavor enhanced with the addition of yak dung.”

Tibet also has(or used to have) extremely filthy cities, with little or no sewage systems – a stark contrast to the breathtakingly beautiful sceneries of the isolated lands. The author in general is enamored by the friendly disposition of the Tibetans and their happy, child-like nature, their colorful rituals and customs. He feels that Tibetan farmers are much better off financially than their counterparts in India, China and elsewhere in Asia, although the country is technologically backward and lives in the feudal middle-ages.

It is important to keep in mind that very few Westerners had traveled to Tibet during the time of de Riencourt’s odyssey. Tibet was largely a mysterious land hidden in the clouds of the high Himalayan plateaus. De Riencourt’s account of Tibet’s geo-political history comprises the second phase of the book – and it is surprisingly comprehensive, spanning the timeframe from the pre-Buddha era to the time before the Chinese invasion in 1950. De Riencourt’s concern about Communist China’s dominion proved valid. He finds it surprising that such a strategically important land should be thus neglected by Western powers, as he notes in his epilogue:

“Tibet is now caught between the two great currents sweeping across Asia: the Marxist flood from the north and the east, and Gandhi’s mystical democracy from the west and the south. Tibet has become a border country, standing on the colossal frontier dividing two worlds.
Can the Western powers ignore the dramatic possibility of Tibet being invaded by the Communists? Can they now understand the terrifying implications of selfishly abandoning, of delivering, almost, this fabulous country to the most ruthless and destructive tyranny that has ever existed?”

The last and final phase of the book delves into occult and mystical practices of Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a precursor to this in a chapter entitled “The Wheel of Existence” wherein the author distinguishes western religions(Christianity and Islam specifically) to their Oriental counterparts(Hinduism and Buddhism), and talks about the roots of Buddhism and the significance of karma. The basic evil is suffering, which is caused by ignorance, leading to desire, producing action(karma). One is not free from one’s actions unless free from ignorance. Desire causes rebirths, which is how the Wheel of Existence keeps revolving, enmeshing one in one’s karma, the Wheel symbolizing the world of the senses.

 

In a private conversation with the Rinpoche of the Dragon Monastery(Duk Ralung), deReincourt hears a first hand account of the wonders of Tibetan Yoga – instantly drying an ice-cold wet blanket with the heat generated from one’s body and transfering one’s consciousness to another body being some of the miraculous acts. However, the Rinpoche notes that these are mere “illusions of the sangaric world” — the final goal being the transendence of the world of phenomenon to ultimate reality(nirvana), and he rightly notes:

“Such transcendental illumination cannot be communicated, it can only be experienced.”

This treatise, although not a literary masterpiece, is certainly a fascinating read for anyone interested in Tibet and Buddhism, and mildly interesting to probably everyone.

 

© 2007 mystic-wanderer

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Title: The Da Vinci Code Author: Dan Brown Read: June 2007

The movie (2006, directed by Ron Howard) was what prompted me to read this book in the first place. I wouldn’t exactly classify it as a literary gem, but it would be unfair to take credit away from where it is indeed successful: as an excellent thriller it certainly keeps you on the edge. Not so the film though. The screenplay relies too much on literally following the book, running into lags that affects the pace. An adaptation more suited for the film medium could produce a better result on celluloid and make it a gripping suspense thriller a la successful runaway/fugitive movies(The Fugitive, Bourne series to name a few).

It’s an entierly plot based novel, where the two-dimensional principal characters run through great odds in a short span of time(which is why they are breathless and so is the reader) to discover the true meaning of a hidden message left behind by a dead man who happens to be one of the principal character’s grandfather and the “grandmaster” of a secret society (a cult, if you will) desperate to retain the mystery behind the “holy grail”. Are you out of breath yet? Add to that an old British Royal historian and grail researcher whom one would least suspect to be the villain, a one-track French cop who discovers he’s chasing the wrong horse and suddenly finds his bearings in the end, a psychotic monk and an over-zealous bishop and you’ve got a round-up of the main cast involved in a frantic run through Paris and the French countryside and later, England. Phew!

You’ll come across interesting facets of history and pseudo-history of Christianity that may prompt you to dig deeper if you take the writing too seriously. As for me, this single dose has been enough to keep me from seeing/reading anything related to “Holy Grail/Priory of Sion/Knights Templar/Leonardo Da Vinci/Secret Societies etc.” published/made before or after for quite a while.

Some caveats to those who haven’t experienced “The Da Vinci Code” yet:
-Read the book before the movie (try to avoid the movie, if you can)
-Just read it as you would a Ludlum, Archer or Tom Clancy and don’t take things too seriously.

Read. Enjoy. Forget.

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Title: The Hungry Tide Author: Amitav Ghosh Read: April 2007

hungry_tide_l2.png A young Indian American marine biologist, Pia, travels to the Sunderbans to study the Orcaella dolphin. She encounters Kanai, a successful translator, who is visiting his aunt Nilima, a social activist running a hospital in the delta. Nilima passes on a legacy to Kanai, her deceased husband Nirmal’s diary that he had left behind for Kanai. The diary documents Nirmal’s experience in Morichjhapi during the controversial refugee evacuation program undertaken by the West Bengal government.

Pia discovers interesting facts about the dolphin species that inhabits the Sunderban waters. She is aided by Fokir, a fisherman with deep intuitive knowledge of the surrounding ecology. Pia, Fokir and Kanai undertake a monumental field trip, one that ends with Fokir’s death and transforms the lives of the other two.

In the backdrop of folklore and recent political history, Ghosh carves out a tale that’s vivid in the narrative details of characters and environs but restrained in the aspects of political opinion. His handling of facets from marine biology to regional myth is masterly.

Reading this novel was an enriching experience.