December 30, 2007

Benazir - A Voice Silenced.

she's begotten
she's labored
she's oppressed
she's traded
she's violated

she cries
she pleads
she reveals
she debates
she protests

She isn't mute or a mutant;
Quite the intelligent being.
Why then the silence?
Not for lack of a voice
or for want of a cause.
Soundless those cries
of an identity undefined.
Who is she,
and why won't she be heard?
Does she pose a threat
as the voice of reason
in a world gone astray?

December 19, 2007

Ayan Hirsi Ali - A Controversial Voice for the Women of Islam?

Women of Islam, you have nothing to lose but your silence, and a world to enlighten!

I read Ayan Hirsi Ali's write up in the New York Times a couple of days ago, and much to my chagrin, I agreed with her on many points. Here is a woman who has lost credibility with the public because of her contradictory statements regarding her past. Despite being an ex member of parliament in Netherlands, and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, for most Ayan still remains under doubt. Having read her book The Infidel and knowing that she is now a part of a conservative think tank make us even more wary of her stances and her writings. Those of us in academia feel she lacks credence, as there is very little to document or prove what she says to be true. The ordinary man feels she is just a vocal minority making her claim to a few moments of fame, worried she may not get another chance. Those with Anti American feelings see her as a mouth piece for the USA, venting hatred against Islam. This list could be endless as there is so much flak against the controversial Ms Ali.

However, there is one thing that stands steadfast in her favor: that she is the one Muslim woman to have a view point about how she and other women in her community be treated. Credible or otherwise, she certainly speaks up when need be, even if it's under immense duress and fearful threats !

There have been the likes of Benazir Bhutto, Wafa Sultan, Laleh Sadigh, Shirin Ebadi, and Taslima, Nasreen, whose opinions get heard. But how is it that we only hear the voices of these few female celebrities out of our Islamic world. Where are the voices of the ordinary Islamic women? Mukhtaran Bibi's was perhaps one ordinary female voice we heard; a saddened and soulful Mukhtaran Bibi who apparently is not heard as often any more. There are some collective voices heard protesting out of Iran , but by and large the female world and its voices are unidentifiable and unheard! Are they even there, and if so why are they forever quiet? Are they mute, or muted? Do they want a voice or have they resigned to being spoken for?

We may not agree with, or believe what Ms Hirsi Ali says, but at least we know she has a voice that she makes heard when she pleases. But as for the rest of them, can we hear what they have to say? Will they please speak up for themselves. Why must we always hear them through our male counterparts? It's not that our women lack the ability or the expertise to articulate their thought; afterall, they come from the gene pool of Ai'shas, and Nurjahans! Why then the silence?

December 06, 2007

Isabel Allende's "Portrait in Sepia" - A Self-Discovery in Part (s)?

A 'sepia' portrait no doubt! Isabel Allende once again rakes up a history to bring focus to a blurry present; this time to the identity of Aurora De Valle, alias Lai Ming, the photographer protagonist of Allende's 2001 novel Portrait in Sepia, originally written in Spanish and translated into English by Margaret Sayers.

Allende's last novel that I read, My Invented Country, was an amazing journey into nostalgia, however, this time even though Allende's heroine embarks on a journey into her past, the revelations that it brings are certainly not nostalgic. It is a flagellation of sorts that tears up the protagonist in more ways than one. Does that make the novel a tragedy? Well, that's for you to read and figure out...

Aurora's journey of self realization takes her across continents: China, USA, and Chile, and it is to Allende's credit that she weaves a historical/social context around each of these settings. For instance, China Town in California, the home of Aurora's maternal grandparents, is also the setting for flesh trade and child prostitution. Chile, where Aurora grows into womanhood, is embroiled in military aggression against Peru and Bolivia; suffering and death are a permanent backdrop in Aurora's canvas.

As for the title of the novel, one which piqued me no end... 'sepia' apparently is a "brassy antique color-effect, characteristic of old photographs". It is therefore, no wonder, that Allende titled Aurora's voyage of self discovery as a Portrait in Sepia. Given Aurora's passion for photography combined with her dire need to find herself, the title becomes a perfect fit. Were it a painting instead of a novel, the yellowish brown tone, the sepia, would intensify as Aurora delved deeper into her past; after all it's our heritage, our past , that lends hue, color, and dimension to our present. Also, a sepia portrait holds a mysterious, old-world charm, and I think in this novel that was Allende's intention, "because things are so ambiguous in that sense, so delicate and so unfocused...You don't have to decide anything. Things just are, and you somehow float or ... you are just there. In a very, very delicate form", quite like a portrait in sepia.

Isabel Allende's Portrait in Sepia reads like any decent historical romance, and it will, perhaps, not make it into the category of 'Great Literature', but anyone who enjoys reading will not regret having picked this one up.

November 30, 2007

"Love in the Time of Cholera" - An Entertainer, but one Lacking Heart.

Quite the disappointment for those who have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel of the same name. However, the movie by itself was pretty entertaining though it did not fulfill screenwriter Newell's goal of 'adapting a beloved novel into a story that will work well on the big screen."

I went into the movie hall to experience the magical realism of a Marquez creation but alas what wrapped me instead was the languorous charm of a sensual tale of unrequited love. The picturesque 19th century Colombia becomes an ideal setting for the audience to lose focus and get involved with the array of characters, most of who are caricatures and did not need any deciphering. Once I had set aside my expectation of the film, I enjoyed it a lot more. Once in a while we do like to see sentimental love stories that tug at our heart strings. Here was one such movie that made me feel for both the lover who was a loser, as also for the husband who lacked the lure to be a lover. The femme fatal that aroused such longings, both lecherous and loving, is an implausible heroine whose actions defy causality, and thus it is no surprise that she considers it her prerogative to be fickle in matters of the heart. Given this delectable cast of actors and a master director at the helm I could not but enjoy the 12o+ minutes of sheer sentimentality and sexuality without cause.

Mr. Marquez's novel told a story of an obsessive and heartbreaking love that defied the finiteness of life. It magically suspended the readers disbelief so that he willingly and empathetically joined the protagonist in sitting out his entire life waiting for his love to return to him. Newell's adaptation, though entertaining and visually captivating did not carry its audience the way the novel did; it was a far cry from Marquez's heartrending masterpiece.

November 12, 2007

The Pain Behind a Grain

A cut, an abrasion,
a wound, an infection;
sure sources of pain, but
a hurt that goes away-
mere temporal discomforts.

Alas, they're not all the same
The pain behind the grain
appears like it's here to stay.

Can it go away?
Not if public apathy stays.
Those pangs of hunger,
bleeding ulcers create.
Those horrifying statistics
do humanity decimate.

Click the link to clear your conscience.
Perhaps word power may make the difference.

November 08, 2007

"Genghis Khan and the Makings of the Modern World" by Jack Weatherford

Jack Weatherford's Gengis Khan and the Making of the Modern World changed my perspective on Gengis Khan, a historical figure I had thus far recognized only as a barbarian, a plunderer, and a rapist.

Weatherford's novel belongs in the genre of revisionist history, a genre I'm not widely read in, yet one that I've always been wary of. Revisionists often look at events in a modern day perspective, in the light of which historical events get misrepresented and take on meanings that might never have been! However, that is ammunition for another post. Weatherford's book was first published in 2004, and though it piqued my curiosity, I put off reading it primarily because it was revisionist in nature. Nevertheless, I followed the media reports on it which were very complimentary and stated that Weatherford's research in and about Mongolia prior to writing this book, had been very comprehensive despite the challenging conditions under which it was done. The novel reflects that undeterred effort of the author in unravelling and tracing the history of an unusual leader coming out of Asia, and who until recently had been relegated to the back benches of world history. Genghis Khan was a leader no less than an Alexander, yet historians of the time never admitted to that. Weatherford's book challenges that stand; Gengis Khan, through this book gets his due as a remarkably modern leader, a visionary who paved the way for globalization by intoducing "paper money, primacy of the state over the church, freedom of religion, diplomatic immunity, and international law", all of which was done by a man who lead his people on horseback and at a time when the rest of world was in a state of political infancy.

The book presents an engaging almost alluring picture of the Khan who "did not feel that he had been as successful in peace as he had been in war". He thrived on war and mastered the art of statesmanship; yet, he failed as a father since he "had not built a working relationship among his own sons nor trained them to replace him." However, Weatherford's revisionism may have been at the cost of historical accuracy at some points in the book. For instance, the use of gunpowder for the invasion of Baghdad is a fact that could be challenged in that there is no proof to document that. Weatherford, set out to research Mongolia, and perhaps the charisma of Genghis Khan mesmerized him to such an extent that he couldn't but help romanticize the icon that was Chinggis Khan. Needless to say, the readers will thank Weatherford for that since it makes for a riveting read. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the greatest statesman the world has produced, was 'fascinated' by Genghis Khan who was "without doubt, the greatest military genius and leader in History" and "Alexander and Ceasar seem petty before him".

I was drawn to this book because growing up I had read stories about Genghis Khan, outside of my history book, most of which made me hate him. That lead me to wonder what would lure a reader to this book; especially someone who had had limited or no exposure to the exploits of Genghis Khan? Well, the book seems to have done remarkably well, and I would attribute that to the story like quality of this book. It is history spun as a yarn, and it's told in a way that has the reader wanting to turn that next page to find out what happened to Gengis's wife who was kidnapped, or then to his son of doubtful lineage who decided to speak up against him in the 'Khuriltai'. Weatherford has masterfully colored the history of a voiceless people, the Mongolians, who despite their rough terrains and simple lifestyles, have inherited a rich heritage, which not having proved gainful for them, has certainly put the rest of the world on a fast track toward globalization.

November 01, 2007

The Latino Lure

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago, but this time it is posted as a tribute to a people that I have come to respect and love:

Perhaps El Salvadorean...
Honduran, Cuban, maybe Dominican?
A striker, a pitcher, a mid fielder, a goalie
Those are my goals ever so truly.
Ronaldo and Sosa are my heroes eternal.
Baseball and soccer, none other that's certain.
Bachata, Merengue, Salsa, and Punta
Anything 'll do as long as its fiesta.
Mira! Snazzy wheels blaring Spanish tunes!
Pronto, those lovely Latinas do croon.
Seldom we shop at a Stop & Shop,
Bodegas are the more likely stops.
Enrolled in college, one course at a time;
graduating in
four years; now that'd be a crime.
Skimpy tank tops on hour glass figures
Low slung jeans that couldn't possibly go lower.
Streaked and dyed; a brunnette turns blonde.
Blue grey or green, colored lenses as add ons.
A teeny meeny stiletto with pretty white toes
Catches attention, as clip-clop it goes.
Oscar De La Renta or Dolce Gabbana
Fragrance that'd carry from here to Havana.
Bodies so lithe with a grace so natural
Easy on the eye could do damage collateral.
Charmingly laid back, yet with an air to please
Fashionably dressed, carry their crease with ease.
The ever so endearing kiss on the cheek;
if you had it your way, their lips you'd seek.
Latino hearts in NJ are the warmest I'm told
If ever you find one, there's your pot of gold!

October 25, 2007

Celebrating Heritage?

September 15 to October 15 is the designated period to celebrate the heritage of yet another ethnic minority in the United States. Why are we compelled to celebrate things that we have yet to be comfortable with? Why does heritage make us look backwards while we consciously evade the here and now. Earlier in the year we also celebrate the Black Heritage Month, that over the years has become but a lip-service ritual in the name of tolerance and equality.

Heritage is a continuum, one that connects the past with the present; we cannot therefore celebrate it by glorifying merely the past of a people. For instance, slavery is as much a part of the American heritage, as is entrepreneurship; the glory of desegregation is a part of our young heritage as is the embarrassing Japanese American Internment. The tragedy of 9/11 has become embedded in our heritage along with the united healing that followed this catastrophe. A people's heritage is a work in progress and makes for mixed emotions, and it is insincere, unfair, perhaps impossible to present or celebrate it in entirety, so why even make these naive attempts!

A friend's mother wrote the following piece after she witnessed one such attempt to celebrate her heritage:

"In the 80's we talk about a raising tide of mediocrity. Now what we have is a tsunami. This is in response to the exhibit in commemoration of Hispanic Heritage Month at Cumberland County Library.

Hispanic cultures are not a can of Vitarroz or Goya products. We are the result of the Latin expansion in what now we call Europe, we are eight centuries of Arabic domination; we are the magnificent body of knowledge translated by the Jewish. We are the African influences. We are the heritage of the Mayas, Aztecs, Incans and Tainos among others. We are Indian languages still spoken in our times and European influences too. One of the most powerful influences is the Spanish language we all share. We are the Golden Age of literature. We are Cervantes, the picarest novel. We are Lope de Vega and Calderon de la Barca with his glorious "Life is a Dream" We are Luis de Góngora, Tirso de Molina, We are Duque de Rivas and Gustavo Adolfo Becquer. We are Benito Perez Galdos and Unamuno. We are Antonio Machado. We are Pio Baroja and Garcia Lorca We are "Facundo" and "Martín Fierro" and La Avellaneda. Do you know her poem "Al Partir" bring tears to my eyes every time I read it? We are Issacs's "Maria" What about "Doña Barbara"?. Yes, we are "Doña Barbara". We are Jose Marti one of my role models. We are Eugenio Maria de Hostos and Lola Rodríguez de Tío. We are the great Mexican novel "El Zarco" and the great Colombian writer Garcia Marquez. We are from the left and from the right. Librarians from Cumberland County Library we are not a can of Goya products. We are Francisco Goya the great painter consider the father of modern art. We are the magic realism of Isabell Allende and the feelings of Julia de Burgos and the passion of Nicolas Guillén. We are the music of Beny More and Tito Puente. We are Celia Cruz. We are salsa, merengue, bachata and tango. We are La Celestina and "Viaje a la Semilla" of Alejo Carpentier. We are regeton and contemporary writers such as Hijuelos or Cisneros who are part now of the United States literature.

Does Che Guevara have space in our culture? Yes. For many of us he was a terrorist, a mass murder and opportunist who executed many people. We do not want the library to become a center for communist propaganda. We want the library to be a sanctuary of ideas. All ideas. Do not remove the picture of Che. I do not want censorship in the United States. Let the trust come out. Display books about him from all points of view. I do not have problem talking about him. I have a problem displaying his picture without an explanation. Yes, we consume rice and beans, pastels, arepas or tequila but we create beauty for the world to enjoy and the library is the place to find it. We are not a can of Vitarroz or a picture of a terrorist without an explanation. He is an enemy of free markets. He is an enemy because his ideas are still alive. Do you want firing squads executing Americans because they like Ben Franklin? That is exactly the ideas Che will bring to the United States. We do not want that and we do not want a library to represent us with a bottle of tequila."

R. Hernandez

October 13, 2007

Man Booker Prize for Mohsin Hamid of 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' fame?

Mohsin Hamid is short listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007, the UK’s annual celebration of the finest in fiction! Look out for the winner on Tuesday.

I read Hamid's 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' earlier on this summer, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Here's the post on it from the archives:

June 25, 2007

Janissary Debriefed by Mohsin Hamid in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" ?

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an enchanting monologue that strips the east-west divide to its barest. Mohsin Hamid has written a very engaging piece of literature that captures the essence of what it means to be a Muslim in the USA in this current day and age. It is to be noted that Hamid wrote the first draft of this novel while living in London, a few months before the September 11 tragedy.

There are two outstanding things about this novel: its language and its structure. The language of the novel makes it come alive, and some of the images that Hamid conjures are remarkable. For instance, the one about recruitment time on the Princeton campus where "Princeton raised her skirt for the corporate recruiters ... and showed them some skin... I was something special. I was a perfect breast... tan, succulent, seemingly defiant of gravity...". What a rousing description that is! Hamid certainly has a way with words to capture a readers imagination into willing submission. Hamid's narration of the story, a monologue, is another stroke of genius where the reader is lead up alleys to explore and experience the illustrious past of this mellow sounding, yet eerie narrator, Changez; also the chief protagonist of the novel. The fact that: the monologue is taking place in a small cafe in Lahore, the narrator is a bearded Pakistani educated at Princeton and a one time resident and lover of New York, and the listener is a fidgety and nervous American visitor, lends a sense of uncertainty and suspense to the entire proceeding, which is but a few hours long. The reader is at edge by the end of the novel wondering whether the narrator, a Janisarry of sorts, is a predator or the prey.

Mohsin Hamid may have gotten lucky with the timing of this novel, the subject of which is instant fodder for an Islamophobic world. What he intended the protagonist to be, would be interesting to know because Changez the chief protagonist of the novel appears rather fickle and rash for all his academic and corporate astuteness. The turning point in the novel seems all too sudden and implausible in the light of who Changez is. It is this that made me wonder about the changes, if any, Hamid may have made in the novel to accommodate the September 11 tragedy. Did the author bring about changes such that he could ride upon the hysteria of a post 9/11 world?

The title is pretty well chosen in that Changez is perceived a 'fundamentalist' in more ways than one. Also, the reader is compelled to revisit the meaning of the word 'fundamental', and what it constitutes to be a 'fundamentalist', and there is plenty of enlightenment to be gained by this search; the findings of which may be scary. One of which may be that the world has a large number of non-Muslim fundamentalists, many of who are not 'reluctant'!

Mohsin Hamid has repeatedly been asked whether this novel is autobiographical; a question I believe shows blatant disrespect to Art. This query, it is argued, carries some credence because there are many similarities between the author and the chief protagonist Changez: both are Pakistani, are Princeton alumni, have worked in corporate America, and are disillusioned by what's currently happening in the USA. However, Hamid's ending of the novel would put to rest all such questions; it's an ending that opens up a whole new horizon just as the curtains are coming down.

A compelling read that took me less than three hours to read.

October 09, 2007

Save the Environment !

endangered species, acid rain, weather changes, temperature gains
why is nature all a muck? It isn't the way it used to be
Ronald saw it coming, Carter warnings threw; Gore took the reins
meant to fix it too; will he, won't he? That the future'll see.

In the meanwhile...
Save the environment !

October 07, 2007

The Deepak Chopra Effect ?

How and why do readers get attracted to titles like ' The Power of Positive Thinking', 'How to Stop Worrying and Start Living', "How to Win Friends and Influence People", "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success"...!?

Recently, I came across Robin Sharma's inspirational novel The Monk who Sold His Ferrari , and that got me thinking. Why has this genre of inspirational writing become so popular and so hard to resist in the recent years? What makes the likes of Deepak Chopra, Robin Sharma, and Norman Vincent Peale into icons of the reader world overnight? Given that their writing does not have the lure of fiction, what is it about their writing that draws hordes of people to buy their books?

Not wanting to replace a novel on my 'to read' list by one of the aforementioned inspirational novels, I decided to read " Top 200 Secrets of Success and the Pillars of Self Mastery" a short piece in the same genre, and written by Robin Sharma, the author of The Monk who Sold His Ferrari. I could have put all of the 26 pages of the article here, but decided otherwise, since many among the 200 'secrets' are actually truths you already know, or else wisdom that you've heard often enough to be able to say it backwards; what is even worse is that some of those 'secrets' are repeated more than once in the 26 pages.

" Soak in a warm bath at the end of a productive day..." is one of the 'secrets' in this article, which makes me wonder whether these 'secrets of success' are aimed only at those who have the luxury of a tub in their bathrooms.

"Read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey..." is yet another secret Mr. Sharma shares with us, and that makes me wonder if this is how these writers promote and ensure the sales of each others books. There are a couple of others, like James Allen and Dennis Wholey, Mr. Sharma recommends you read, to ensure your 'success' and 'self mastery'.

There are many more of these 'secrets' that I'd like to draw your attention to, if only for some comic relief, but that would be attributing importance to a piece that doesn't inspire literary respect. In fact, a serious reader would be appalled at the sheer presumptuousness of the content of this piece, and at the audacity of the writer for having penned it.

I wonder whether to read The Monk who Sold his Ferrari...

October 01, 2007

'Dosa' Claims New York's "Best Street Food" Award!


Thiru Kumar, 'Dosa Man,' presents one of his delicious spicy, potato-filled pancakes.

Thiru Kumar, 'Dosa Man,' presents one of his delicious spicy, potato-filled pancakes.

Bragging rights for New York's top sidewalk chef went to Thiru Kumar last night for his street cart's vegan Indian food delights.

Known as the "Dosa Man," Kumar, 39, won the top prize, The Silver Vendy Cup, in the third annual Vendy Awards held in Manhattan's Tompkins Square Park.

Kumar serves up dosas - spicy, potato-filled pancakes - among other veggie concoctions at Washington Square South and Sullivan St. in the West Village.

"I made a lot of vegans happy today," the Sri Lanka native said while noting his large following among college students. "There is even a dosa fan club at NYU."

Manning his street cart for six years, Kumar has been dubbed the "Susan Lucci of the Vendys" because he's been a finalist three times.

The event raises money for the Street Vendor Project, a nonprofit organization that supports the city's more than 10,000 sidewalk chefs.

Hundreds of New Yorkers paid $60 to eat - and vote - for their favorite streetcorner cooks.

September 26, 2007

Farewell Summer for I Feel the Fall - A Sonnet

Chipmunks'n squirrels run a race
hoarding nuts at a tizzy pace.
hues ripen, pastels clip
slowly the mercury dips.

Birds retire to warmer places
autumn sombre-summer embraces.
a hot-cuppa coffee calls

unrelenting, mercury falls.

Daytime wanes as nights extend;

green to sleep, does orange send.

Bodies do to quilts commit

mercilessly, mercury plummets.

All puny pawns and puppets, acting but to nature's bid!

Questionable then is history's worth, that writes what MAN did!

September 16, 2007

Naeem Murr's "A Perfect Man" - Is There One?

Naeem Murr's "A Perfect Man" may be an affirmation by the author that this, much- sought-after 'perfect' being, doesn't exist. The novel centerspreads, highlights, and near celebrates the frailty of man; almost as if saying there is no way a man can be perfect because then, he'd be god, and 'life' would cease to happen. Isn't it the foibles and the shortcomings of man that make up what we call life? The rage, the vendetta, the jealousy, and the betrayal, are but some of the colorful etchings of man on the landscape of life as he prances his way through it, and Murr takes us through the many prancings of men in the 1950s in Pisgah, a small town on the Missourie River. Raj(ive) Travers, a half Indian man, happens to be one of those men. The novel is a coming-of-age story of Rajive and his two friends Annie and Lew who live in Pisgah, a small town, that on the surface appears mute and placid, but has repeatedly proved vulnerable and has many brutal skeletons to hide.

Raj's identity is what intrigues the reader at the outset; what is a British-accented, black male, who is not a 'negro', doing in the back waters of Missourie in the 1950s? This is the hook that Mr. Murr throws at the reader, and the hook is obviously sharp and strong as it carries the reader through the first half of the book with a quiet ease. However, it is more than just luring and colorful charcterization that sustains the reader's interest; Naeem Murr's writing has a poetic quality about it that lulls the reader into an easy rhythm that is hard to break out of. His writing is both lyrical and evocative even though the unfolding of the plot is slow and deliberate, almost like that of a suspense novel. It's as if the author is letting go of an engripped reader bit by bit, without releasing the tension.

Mr Murr has laid out a plethora of flawed characters each of who is almost likable because he is so real. Pisgah becomes the stage where human frailty is laid bare but rarely accompanied with blame or judgement. There is the father who abandons his young son, another who is a voyeur and preys even on his teenage daughter, a priest who is a drunkard, a woman who loves one man yet sleeps with another, and men at large who condone lewd and abusive behavior. Naeem Murr's novel casts an indulgent eye on all of them and lets life happen; there is rape, racism, infidelity, brutality, suicide, and depravity of the worst kind, yet it is all so acceptable and so normal in Pisgah.

"The Perfect Man" is a strange but compelling read that unfolds with unexpected twists and turns and makes for some engrossed reading. As you might have guessed, I really enjoyed this read, especially the epistolary exchange between Annie and Raj toward the end of the book which made me ponder on the title. Who is Murr's "Perfect Man", or is he a chimera, an eternal work- in- progress? Is he perhaps the evolved, tested, and tried Rajive of the M.I.T fame who we see at the end of the novel?

"No matter how great an is condemmed to live and find its ultimate expression through indiduals, character". These words of Murr may help us answer the question...perhaps.

September 11, 2007

Thrity Umrigar's "The Space Between us" Has the Reader Falling Through.

Ms. Umrigar's "The Space Between Us" left too large a space between reality and fiction for the reader to suspend his disbelief and lose himself in the book. The novel is about the life and relationships of and between two older women at opposite ends of the economic spectrum in Mumbai, a metropolitan city in Western India.

Through the life experiences of these two women Thrity umrigar tries to highlight the plight of women in India regardless of and despite their economic status. The oppression of women and their secondary status in a 'progressive' India seems to be the theme of the novel; a theme that loses punch due to the pervasive and unending gloom that engulfs the story. There is no respite whatsoever!

The two main female characters, Bheema and Sera, though survivors in a male-dominated world, are not convincing, and very often the reader has to take the narrators word to believe in their strength and fortitude. The male characters follow in the same pattern and are stereotypical male chauvanists, some covert and others wearing their male pride on their sleeve. Maya, the young pregnant daughter of Bheema, the servant woman in Sera Dubash's household, is perhaps the only character who stands ground, and only because Ms. Umrigar did not have much to do with her! Maya the character is sidelined by the author; yet, it is she who leaves a lasting impact on the reader.

To be fair to the writer, "The Space Between Us" was well received by the public when it was published in 2005. However, I chose to read it for the lack of having anything better to read. If that is not the case with you, then, you may perhaps want to pass this one.

September 02, 2007

Sania Mirza - Tennis Player does India Proud.

Sania Mirza reached the third round of the US Open where she lost to the world sixth seed Chakvetadze of Russia, but not before she proved her mettle both as a classy tennis player ranked 26th in the world and as a gutsy woman who will not dwindle under social pressures.

Ms. Mirza is undoubtedly one of a kind, in that she is the first female Indian to have made it in the first 50 of the WTA rankings and also the only Muslim woman to represent a country in international tennis. This sprightly young star who believes, "You have to find a way to win,"comes from Hyderabad, a city with a Muslim population large enough to make Urdu a second language in that Indian city. Sania enjoys immense celebrity status in India, more so in Hyderabad where she grew up and now resides. She has personal security guards that move with her anywhere she goes, and this is perhaps why she loves NY so much where this 20 year old can still shop incognito.

Over the last few years, Sania Mirza has been the focus of the Indian community, and it's partly because she openly professes: "Not everyone is perfect and just because I wear a miniskirt or just because I'm wearing pants or whatever it is doesn't make me a bad Muslim,...As long as I believe in God and I have my faith, I think that's good.". There were those in the community who censured her for her outspokenness, her dress code, and her participation in world tennis, but then there were also those who staunchly supported Sania as a great role model for Indian Muslim girls, who reportedly are still under represented in sports around the country. Ms. Mirza has faced accolades and brickbats like you can't imagine, but she still sports the same impish grin along with the 'I don't care' swagger that mark her for who she is : a female athlete ready to compete globally.

All credit is due to young Mirza for having stood her ground through some testing times in a world so clearly divided along religious lines, but something is also to be said about the country and its citizens that bore and bred a Sania Mirza. The fact that she has come thus far in the tennis world implies an inherent support for her and what she does from within the family, the community, and the country. Ms. Mirza's family, the Indian Muslim community, and Indians in general; you are truly deserving of credit for a job well done!

Well done Sania! Well done India!

August 30, 2007

"Tolstoy Lied " by Rachel Kadish - Chic Lit Redeemed?

Rachel Kadish's novel, Tolstoy Lied proved to be quite an eye opener for me. Kadish describes it as " an existential romantic comedy... a book about love, and how a thinking woman (an American Literature professor) finds it and metabolizes it and struggles with it and nearly loses it and learns how much work happiness really takes". It certainly made me rethink the 'chic lit' genre. I was reluctant to pick up this novel because of how it was classified, and yet, I am now glad I picked it. In fact, I am now pondering over my dislike and near disdain for this genre. What is so wrong about chic lit that articulates the contemporary woman's plight: her choices, her dilemmas, her daily routine? Why is the woman's story less worthy of literature than that of her male counterpart?

The eye-catching title is an allusion to the opening lines from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina that refer to 'happiness' , a concept that both Ms. Kadish and her protagonist Tracy Faber, a Literature professor, delve upon and agonize over. Rachel Kadish, a Princetonian with a Masters Degree in writing from NYU professes "there in the first line (of Anna Karenina) staring the reader in the face, is a lie. Nothing against Tolstoy. I'm an admirer. I simply happen to believe he's responsible for the most widely quoted whopper in world literature: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Literary types swoon over that line ...but have they considered the philosophy they are embracing?"

Reading this novel made me ponder on this as well; the human obsession with sorrow and how that translates into art. Why is literature in general driven by tragedy and suffering? Why can't happiness be fodder for great writing?? It is ironic that human beings spend a major part of their lives in the pursuit of happiness, and yet when they produce art, which apparently imitates life, it is only the tragic and the sorrowful parts of life that become worthwhile subjects for man's creative outpourings. Literature, in general,has a soft corner for suffering, yet in real life, man mourns his sorrows and celebrates happiness. Does that mean that literature falsifies life? Is it, in the most part, masochistic outpouring, or then a cathartic outlet for troubled and tormented minds? That's somewhat similar to what plagues the protagonist in the novel, and she decides to research it, and takes the reader with her on this fortuitous journey; one that I quite enjoyed.

If you have a literary bent of mind, yet are not irrationally averse to chic lit (hehe), and don't mind indulging in a bit of romance, this is a novel that'll entertain while it shakes up and probes into some age old traditions in Literature.

August 26, 2007

"Female bar ban 'should carry on'" - An unfair outcome?

Female bar ban 'should carry on'
By Jyotsna Singh
BBC News, Delhi

The government in the Indian capital, Delhi, has said a ban on women serving alcohol should continue because of the negative attitude and behaviour of men.

Last year, the Delhi high court struck down parts of a 92-year-old law that prohibited women from serving alcohol in bars and restaurants.

The ruling was welcomed by several aspiring female bartenders as well as India's Hotel Association.

But before the ban could be withdrawn, the case was back in the courts.

'Rogue city'

And this time, the Supreme Court is due to rule on the issue.

The Delhi government argues that the city's men cannot hold their drink and that is why it is unsafe to allow women bartenders in pubs and restaurants.

The government cited several examples, including the killing of the model Jessica Lal, in 1999.

She was shot dead by a group of men at a restaurant after she allegedly refused to serve them drinks.

Delhi has a very high crime rate, but not many are buying the government's argument in this context.

"The men in this city are as good or bad as men anywhere else in the world. There are female bartenders everywhere in the world so the government's argument does not seem justified," said social commentator Kamna Prasad.

Lifestyle commentator Suhel Seth held similar views.

"I think it is silly - this is a government which can't basically enforce law and order and wants to create gender division by saying that Delhi men can't hold their drinks. It defeats logic and intelligence," he said.

The government is supporting a public-interest petition filed by five concerned Delhi residents in the Supreme Court last year who want the ban on female bartenders to continue.

The petitioners have said Delhi is a "rogue city", and not mature enough to have pubs and bars with women bartenders.

Story from BBC NEWS: Published: 2007/08/22 16:47:37 GMT © BBC MMVII

How is it that in a democratic country like India the victim gets slapped with a 'ban' and the wrongdoer goes about his life unaffected? The next thing you know is that the woman in India is forced to go into purdah to hide her body so that a frustrated and desperate male does not physically assault her!

August 23, 2007

Juan de Recacoechea's "American VISA"

A Bolivian struggle to make it to 'the land of opportunities. Mario Alvarez the chief protagonist takes the reader through the colorful and 'happening' streets of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, where Mario anxiously awaits his American visa that'll enable him to join his son in Miami.

I have lotus to thank for recommending this novel, a translation, which was a major bestseller in Bolivia, and one that has also been made into a movie. It took me a while to finish this one not because it lacked the lure but that I couldn't devote enough time to it as I was travelling outside of the country; Mario's ordeal became even more poignant as a result. Without meaning to sound conceited, I have to admit that international travel with a US passport works like a charm, and it's no wonder that Mario's quest for an "American visa' was a life determining one for him. The reader will have to read the novel to find out just how this quest defined Mario, or if it did at all.

July 31, 2007

Jose Saramago's "Blindness" - An Eye-Opener?

What happens when a group of idividuals suddenly go blind, and that is just the beginning of the problem; this 'white blindness' is extremely contagious, and within days there are hundreds more who get infected by it! Those in power, take desperate measures to contain this epidemic; alas, it's only a matter of time before the entire city and perhaps a whole country is under seige in Portugese writer Jose Saramago's novel 'Blindness'.

Jose Saramago is a Nobel Laureate, the first ever from Portugal, who received attention in the USA only after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. However, he's recognized as one of the greatest literary voices writing out of Europe today. 'Blindness' was originally written in Portugese and translated into English by Giovanni Pontiero. The setting of the novel is unknown; it could be just any city, in any country in the second half of the twentieth century, and this is perhaps what lends universality to any underlying theme that Saramago may have had in mind. Many readers and critics have drawn parrallels between this novel and Camus 'The Plague'; both deal with an epidemic that afflicts an area, and how the residents thereafter cope with their changed circumstances. However, Saramago's depiction of the epidemic has a poignance and depth that brings home the horror and the helplessness of the victims in a way that Camus plague doesn't. The 'white blindness' drags in the reader, feet and soul, into it's bog like claustrophobia. The squalor, the stench, the shit-laden corridors are as real for the reader as they are for the blinded who are living those conditions.

In addition to the realism of Saramago, it is also his writing style that makes him so unique. There is absolute fluidity so far as the construction of the novel is concerned. There are no quotation marks or paragraph indentations to prepare the reader for dialogues. At the outset the reader is clouded in a maze of sentences trying to figure out dialogues from narrative. This possibly was a perfect fit for the metaphor of "Blindness' that Saramago may have had in mind; all boundaries and distinctions, be they those of sight or of language, were to be fading and mingling into one another. The lack of clarity may have been a purposeful ploy of this master writer. Just as the onset of blindness caused individuals to seek solace and meaning in the collective, so would the uniformity of the language structure force the reader to find his own meaning to this novel set in an undefined location. To quote Preto- Rodas on Saramago's extraordinary style, "Gone are the usual distinctions involving narrative, description, and dialogue. . . . The result . . . is unsettling as the reader opens to pages filled with lines of unbroken print. One may even lose one's way in the absence of capital letters, punctuation marks, and paragraph indentation."

There is so much a reader can make of this novel that it could fill up pages; there are a string of questions that one would like to ask of Saramago to figure out what he intended the novel to convey. It is credit to his craftsmanship that these unanswered questions only serve to enhance reader interest and to make 'Blindness' a gripping read. There are several profound lines in the novel that the reader often interprets as the author's voice surfacing, but alas, Saramago gives no definitive or qualifying narrative that could pin him down. He simply provides a vision into a world descending into anarchy due to an inexplicable physical epidemic, and where a small group of people coping with this changed situation.

It's noteworthy that Saramago begins this novel with an epigram to blindness that reads :
"If you can see, look. If you can look, observe".

However, 'see', 'look', or 'observe'; read it you must! A classic no doubt!

July 26, 2007

Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly"

What a disturbing movie! Iranian Kurdish director, Bahman Ghobadi's stark presentation of a land and people torn apart physically and emotionally by war brings the bile up my throat even as I think about the movie. 'Turtles Can Fly' ( watch the trailer) is definitely not a movie for the faint of heart.

'Turtles Can Fly' won several awards for Iranian Kurdish director Ghobadi after it was released in 2005, and deservedly so. It is a movie that would shake up the coldest of cold hearts as the camera zooms in on the tons and tons of war remnants which are now the home of orphaned children; a tank, a missile launcher are some of the war memorablia providing shelter for the 12 and 15 year olds who look forward to their daily routine of cleaning ot landmines from fields in Kurdistan. Each live landmine they put into their baskets, that they so uncomplainingly carry on their young backs, means an additional 15 cents for them! If it's an American landmine it fetches an even higher price; possibly the reason these children, especially their leader 'Satellite', loves America! Their starved and crippled light-weight bodies make them perfect fits for their job, that of finding, defusing, and collecting landmines; something many of them do with uncanny dexterity, even with their mouths since many of them have no arms!

Despite the sombre theme of the movie, its rendition is not all serious. The movie has some light hearted moments that provoke spontaneous laughter for which you are immediately ridden with guilt; 'how can I be laughing in a situation like this!' Satellite, the chief protagonist brings in most of the laughs as do his young assistants, all of who are crippled orphans, victims of a war they have embraced as a normal state of being. Their life, though war ravaged to the viewer, appears quite busy and meaningful to them, as they go about cheerfully earning their livelihood with no expectations of a helping hand; yet, there's not a negative bone in any of them save in the 15 year old girl Agrin who is so obviously a victim of depression, probably due to all that she's been through. All of these youngsters carry their physical and emotional handicaps with such ease and frankness that it makes the viewer uneasy, to say the least. Ghobadi juxtaposes the innocence and energy of these Kurdish orphans living in a war-torn Iraq with the cold blooded hostilities of war, but the violence and gore is to be felt more than it is to be seen in the movie. Regardless of which side you may be on, an Iraqi or a westerner, Ghobadi has you eating out of his hand so far as this movie is concerned. When Satellite's first in command, the 13 year old one legged Pasheo, uses his limp leg as a toy gun to go 'bam' bam' in order to distract and entertain a two year old who is crying, is a scene that marks Ghobadi's mastery in wrenching the deepest emotions out of the coldest hearts.

As for the title, 'Turtles can Fly', you can make what you want out of it; however, this is one explanation that helps me out of my gloom and guilt of having lived safe and away while the Iraq War raged: something as slow as a turtle and with a reach that barely keeps it above the ground, can still find it in himself to rise above all limitations to give meaning to his life and to the lives of those around him. Turtles CAN fly!

July 23, 2007

Eric B. Martin's "The Virgin's Guide to Mexico" - Studying A Role Reversal?

Eric B. Martin', in his novel "The Virgin's Guide to Mexico" tries to capture the 'south of the border' experience through his 17 year old, part-Mexican, Harvard-bound heroine, Alma Price. She is born to a rich American father and a Mexican mother whose past is shrouded in mystery. A 'not-so-good-looking but intelligent girl,' Alma ventures to cross the border disguised as a boy and without the knowledge of her parents to explore her roots in Mexico; specifically a grandfather who she is not sure is even alive. It is this journey of Alma into and through Mexico, and the pursuit of her by her parents that constitutes the storyline of the novel.

The storyline is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel even though it often lacks depth. Eric Martin could have done a lot more in terms of the plot given that he had an interesting array of characters at his disposal. For example Hermelinda, the Mexican mother of Alma, remains an enigma to the very last; why she plays down her past never becomes clear! Similarly, the family dynamics within the Price household are left hazy since Martin underexposes the interactions between Alma and her family. It is only in Mexico that Alma really fructifies in the reader's imagination. In fact the story moves at a much faster pace and with zest only after Alma is in the heart of Mexico, striving to fit into the alien but more open Mexican lifestyle. The dual point-of-view narrative that Martin uses, with both Alma and Hermelinda trying to tell their story, doesn't make it any easier for the reader who is already a trifle weary.

Despite all the above, I enjoyed reading the novel mainly because of the lively cast of characters that Martin provides us with once Alma enters Mexico; Dean, Lee, the transvestite, the prostitutes. Alma's interactions with all these characters makes for some sprightly reading. Also, having pondered over the title, I found new respect for this novel despite it's various shortcomings. Martin has 'virginized' his novel in more ways than one; Alma, his heroine is a 'virgin' embarking on her 'virgin' venture, sans parents, sans itinerary, into a world that's 'virgin' not just to her but to most Americans who only hear of border crossings from Mexico into USA; however, this crossing is 'virgin' in that it's an American Alma crossing over into land south of the border!' For any American reading this novel , the journey of Alma would be a first, and definitely traumatic since the roles of 'native' and 'immigrant' would now be reversed; an ill equipped American desperately trying to survive in a foreign land, among a people so obviously different, and where the ground rules of social interaction are completely unknown to her. Alma truly does need a 'guide' to figure out the mysteries of Mexico!

Finding out whether Alma succeeds or otherwise would be contingent on you reading the book, which I recommend you do only if you don't have a better book on your list.

July 11, 2007

"Shalimar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie has been making news recently with his knighthood being questioned by Muslims across the world who believe that he misrepresents Islam in his writings. Well, his novel, "Shalimar the Clown" wouldn't help redeem his tarnished image in the Muslim world; if anything it probably made him more unpopular. The novel is set primarily in Kashmir, a long disputed territory between Pakistan and India; also, one of the most picturesque places in the world that I happen to have visited twice. Released in 2005, "Shalimar the Clown" did not make any waves in the literary world and understandably so.

The novel is weighed down by its long drawn out descriptions that makes the reader's interest sag. Rushdie's descriptions of Los Angeles and Pachigam were empty and dead. For example LA as a "decentered promiscuous sprawl of this giant invertebrate blob, this jellyfish of concrete and light" makes it seem like Rushdie held his paintbrush too long and too hard. His language distances the reader from the very places that Rushdie wants the reader to embrace and understand. Pachigam, a pastoral paradise apparently, has no concrete image to offer of itself, so the reader is always on shaky grounds, and thus his disbelief is seldom suspended. The reader never loses himself in the story!

The plot spans through three decades, and human emotions like jealousy, revenge, hatred, and love make for an intricate storyline that switches between the past and the present. The two main characters to house both the past and the present are Shalimar the Clown, a rope artist in a local circus of a small village in Kashmir, and Max Ophuls, a one time US Ambassador to India. "We are all brothers and sisters here,...There is no Hindu-Muslim issue." claims Abdullah, Shalimar's father, leader of a Felliniesque band of traveling players, and this pretty much is the underlying conflict in the entire novel. The rest of the story basically questions this proclamation. Kashmir was home to both Hindus and Muslims before the 90's, and the two communities lived in harmony and even shared a bonhomie that was marvelled at by Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan. Then came the 90's with the devious and bloody insurgencies on both sides of the Indo Pak border, the Kargill stand-off, and many such hate based initiatives, and the 'Kashmiriyat' of Kashmir was put to test. Rushdie's novel explores the impact of the 90's on the sensibilities of Kashmiris who all of a sudden faced an onslaught of religious fundamentalism and nationalistic propaganda in their idyllic paradise within the heart of the Himalayas.

Here is a novel that held tremendous potential, but Salman Rushdie failed to tap it. If he were to have done so he would have brought the ethnic strife in Kashmir on to center stage for the world to see. He could have achived what Khaled Hosseini did with his 'The Kite Runner' and "A Thousand Splendid Suns"for Afghanistan; placed Kashmir on the world map! Alas, Mr. Rushdie, with his unconvincing protagonist 'Shalimar', a clown turned 'terrorist' who is unable to be the reader's 'knight'-in-armor and sweep the reader off his feet!

"Shalimar the Clown" need not be on your 'to read' list, unless of course you are curious about Kashmir, and even then you may perhaps be better off going here!

July 09, 2007

Lal Masjid Appeals!

Will you raze me to the ground?

Send shrapnel through my body

in which you reverence found.

Will you taint my sacred soul

gushing rivers of brethren blood

to let insanity take its toll?

Where does that heart reside

That once flowed fulsome faith?

What prompts those tongues

to desecrate a divine domain?

Who so historically myopic

to not let past prevent?

When will you learn

It’s not me you destroy or defend;

It’s but your humanity within

That seeks but self credence.

July 02, 2007

Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss"- The Sisyphean Task in an Indian Context?

" Could fulfillment ever be felt as deeply as loss?...Slowly, painstakingly, like ants, men would make their paths and civilization and their wars once again, only to have it wash away again..." A bleak world view amid a beauteous but smoldering setting.

Kiran Desai at thirty five is perhaps the youngest recipient of the Booker Prize with only one other novel preceding "The Inheritance of Loss". This novel took her some seven years to research and write as its story straddles between three countries: Great Britain, United States of America, and India. Ms. Desai currently resides in Brooklyn, New York, and cites her FMA from Columbia as a formative experience in her writing career. Ms. Desai left India when she was eight, lived in Great Britain for a very short time, and then moved to Massachusetts, USA where she finished her high school and the rest of her formal education. All this time her father remained in India, and she would visit him frequently. Her mother, Anita Desai, a writer herself, provided Ms. Desai with an environment that lent itself to creativity; that could perhaps explain how the character of the tree climbing hermit was born in her first novel. Also this could be why Desai, in only her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss has displayed such an elan of objectivity wherein she holds up a mirror to our conflict ridden world and lets the reader choose the reflection he wants to see in it!

The Inheritance of Loss made for some engrossing reading with its rich and poetic language, its wide range of characters entwined neatly in a complex plot line, but narrated with the ease and dexterity of a master writer. Sai, the chief protagonist holds the center stage with an apparent misanthrope for a grandfather, also her only living relative. Sai's love interest is her young and frustrated Nepalese math tutor who is unable to guage his real feelings for Sai, and in the frenzy of nationalistic propaganda, accuses her of being "like slaves...running after the West, embarrassing yourself. It's because of people like you we never get anywhere." Despite its sombre tone, the novel does provide for some comic relief with characters such as Lola and Noni, the pathetic and delusional remnants of the British Raj. There is also the melodramatic cook without a name, perhaps to bring home his insignificance in the Indian caste ladder, who lightens the atmosphere at the most unexpected moments in the story: in the midst of a terrorist take over of their bungalow where he pleads with the terrorist and turns on his ever ready faucets since "he knew instinctively how to cry", and readily admits, "I am a fool' at the terrorists reckoning. The cook has a son, Biju, an illegal immigrant in the USA, who is extremely homesick while struggling to make a near decent life in the US, only to find his "heart always in another place." The Judge, another pivotal character to the plot, is an abusive husband, a tyrant of a master, and a reluctant and cold grandfather, who in 1986, still diplays behaviour disorders resulting from his humiliation during the British Raj . Finally, there is Sai, the central character in the novel who has recently finished high school where she received a typically British colonial education and who "could speak no other language but English...could not eat with her hands; could not squat down on the ground...had never been to a temple...left a Bollwood film so exhausted...used paper to clean her botom", and she becomes the readers guide into Desai's India in "The Inheritance of Loss".

Desai's colorful cast of characters takes the reader through a medley of themes: the after effects of colonialsm, the ills of capitalism, the downside of globalization, immigration - the family and morale breaker, the myth of multiculturalism... just to name a few. As the novel progresses, the author surreptiously has the reader share the chief protagonist's understanding of life: it " wasn't single in its purpose...Never again would she think there was but one narrative and that narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own mean little happiness and live safely within it."

The novel with a title like "The Inheritance of Loss", could well have sunk into despondency and pessimism but for its tantalizing plot and the colorful characterization. All the characters have suffered in some major way, and though survivors of sorts, carry bleeding wounds that need healing. It is to Ms. Desai's credit that the novel reads with zest despite its hurting cast. She leaves it to the reader to decide what mood he wants to walk away with; "The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with a luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent." What 'truth' is made 'apparent' here, is again for each reader to figure out for himself.

A thought provoking saga of beings who 'hurt' horribly but don't give up 'living', and the reader walks away wondering why!

June 22, 2007

Elif Shafak's "The Bastard of Istanbul" A Search for Identity.

"The Bastard of Istanbul", an interesting read, no doubt! A title that intrigues and a setting that is of contemporary interest were perhaps two reasons for picking up the book. Turkey has been in the news for various reasons in the past few years. It is a country trying to establish it's real identity amid the market furore of globalization and the fast build up of religious fervor around the world. While the EU beckoned with the lure of a promising economy, Turkey was battling with a sudden growth of Islamization within the country. "On the one hand there are the ones who want Turkey to join the EU, democratise further and become an open society," says Shafak, but on the other "are the ones who want to keep Turkey as an insular, xenophobic, nationalistic, enclosed society". It wasn't surprising then that writers such as Pamuk and Shafak began spinning tales around this turmoil, and thus "The Bastard of Istanbul" was born.

The story of two young lives: one a Turkish Muslim living in Istanbul who is clueless about the identity of her father, a 'bastard' in a social sense, and the other an Armenian American who has travelled to Istanbul from San Francisco to trace her roots, a bastard in terms of her national identity. Both carry a painful past that they want to confront and resolve, and this leads to the touchy subject of the "Armenian qustion" that many in Turkey are still not ready to discuss. Shafak in an interview said, "They can't talk about 1915... ours is a society with collective amnesia. We haven't come to grips with our past, nor have we recognized how bitter the Armenians are because their grief goes unacknowledged. I would like Armenians to forgive and forget one day, too, but we Turks need to remember first".

This novel got Elif Shafak into some real hot waters and she became yet another writer to join sixty others, including Orhan Pamuk, who have been charged for defamation and misrepresentation under Turkey's Criminal Code. Shafak was shocked and "didn't think a work of fiction would get me branded a traitor to my country". Why is Art under so much pressure? Since when did a work of fiction come under such scrutiny for historical legitimacy and be charged for ethical or criminal misconduct? A baffled Shafak claims, " I am a novelist. When I write, I don't calculate the consequences of what I'm writing. I just surround myself with the story." Apparently the charges have cited defamatory language used by one of the characters, such as 'Turkish butchers' that 'slaughtered the Armenians like sheep', as a prime reason for the charges. How this character's expostulations translate into Shafak being charged as a traitor is beyond logic!

The female characters that abound in this novel are varied, complex, and often shocking; they shatter some stereotypes that we have built about women residing in Muslim countries. Along with a gripping story, and enticing charcterization, the novel offers an inside view of Turkish culture with a focus on the aromas and recipes of Turkey's ancient cuisine. The reader feels like he's returning from Istanbul after turning that last page.

June 20, 2007

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" By Khaled Hosseini- # 1 on NY Times Bestseller list

A gripping story! It is near impossible to put the book down once you begin reading it. Khaled Hosseini's new novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns is bound to be a top pick this summer, and not without reason. Mr Hosseini is a natural storyteller. He may not have an intricate plot to lay out, or dynamic characters to manipulate, but he sure has a knack for weaving a web around the reader; a web that tightens and envelops as the story unfolds.

The title could be suggestive as the author admits, "I went into this with a bit more of a mission than the first novel." He may have gone the Shakespeare route and spun a pun on the unsuspecting reader in the title itself. Is the novel really about the many splendid 'suns' that rose and set over Afghanistan in the last some years as the title suggests, or is there perhaps a pun intended in the title 'splendid suns'; Mr Hosseini is in fact making a sarcastic dig at the 'splendid s"o"ns' of Afghanistan, who in the name of religion inflicted heinous inhuman crimes against their own. These 'splendid' sons, first the Mujahideens and then the Taliban, eventually became models of male despotism and transformed Afghanistan into a theocracy where its women were pitted into an inferno of servitude, shame, and illiteracy.

The novel spans across a 30 year panorama that lays out, evocatively, the history of a war torn Afghanistan. It is on this canvas that Mr. Hosseini paints the story of two quite ordinary women who struggle to survive in a battle zone, amid starvation, human depravation, and world apathy. The two meet, in unusually contrived circumstances; grow, despite and due to their challenging environment, and eventually become, 'splendid' daughters of Afghanistan to bring about a constructive change in their own lives, and in the social fabric of their beloved war ravaged country.

The novel is a work of fiction, but Khaled Hosseini's has definitely placed Afghanistan and its ordeal on the world map, and has perhaps proved himself a 'splendid sun' for Afghanistan.

June 16, 2007

The American Place Theater Presents Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner"

I remember reading The Kite Runner a couple of years ago, and then buying a second copy to mail to my father, living some ten thousand miles away, as a must-read. The Kite Runner was perhaps the first novel I read that was set in Afghanistan, the cultural ambiance of which fascinated me no end; the family dynamics, the male domination, the willing serfdom, and the passive acceptance of violence and aggression as a way of life had me spellbound. I am told Hosseini, at first, had submitted the manuscript of The Kite Runner as a short story. Apparently, the story made such an impact that publishers encouraged him to expand the story into a novel; that he sure did because the Kite Runner is 400+ pages long and spans over three generations.

The reason I'm pondering on a novel I read three years ago is because I revisited it today when I watched Ariyan Moayed do a verbatim theatrical adaptation of it for The American Place Theater - Literature to Life series. The solo performance was superb in that it brought the story alive. Ariyan Moayed, the solo performer, gave each of the five characters he played a distinct life of his own. His mastery of the bodily adjustments he made to suit individual characters was remarkable. For example, when playing Hassan, the servant boy, Ariyan was slightly bent over but with eager wide-eyed looks eager to please his master at any cost. Then for playing Amir, the rich but cowardly son of a powerful Pashtun landlord, Ariyan adopted jerky body movements that so aptly portrayed Amir's indecisiveness especially during trying and stressful situations. Indeed, Ariyan Moayed brought the novel to life in his rendition of but the first seventy pages of the novel, and it will be credit to him if the sale of the novel suddenly skyrockets in the tri state area since I saw bus loads of high school students at this performance.

Wynn Handman who adapted and directed this solo verbatim is a part of the American Place Theater group that aspires to make Literature closer to the lives of young Americans so that they are encouraged to read. It's a good first step, and what I saw today looks very promising, but a lot will depend on the kinds of novels that are picked for adaptation. For instance the fact that The Kite Runner was set in Afghanistan made for a lot of initial curiosity in the audience, and then of course Ariyan did the rest. The selection of novels will be crucial to the success of the Literature to Life project of The American Place Theater.

"The Kite Runner" is a heartrending story of friendship, guilt, and forgiveness that spans across two continents and three generations that lived through the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the American invasion of it, and then the horrifying Taliban ordeal that followed. The novel needs no recommending; the fact that it had been on the NYT bestseller list for two years and has sold some four million copies says it all.

*Khaled Hosseini's new book titled "A Thousand Splendid Suns" is out this month, and the reviews are promising.

June 12, 2007

Lake Peigneur - a man-made disaster yet again?

An old story, but another proof of man's tampering with nature.

An eleven foot freshwater lake, Lake Peigneur, transforms into the deepest salt water lake in Louisiana and changes the surrounding landscape as well; the environment paid the price for a multinational to drill for black gold.

Here is an unforgettable video of Lake Peigneur disappearing.

However, we still haven't learned our lesson, and there are plans to drill yet again!

June 09, 2007

"Black Girl /White Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates

I saw this book in the library and checked it out simply because it was by Joyce Carol Oates. I had heard that she was an acclaimed writer who had a unique and insightful way of dealing with interracial issues. I was curious to know more about this 'different' way of hers, having read many an American novel that dealt with the hackneyed theme of racial relations in this country.

The novel has an interesting narrative that takes the reader in and out of different time lines where certain events prompt the narrator to jump from one time line to another. Genna the narrator, the rich 'White girl' of the story, revisits her past when she was a freshman in an all girls liberal arts college established almost a century ago by her family. It was here that she met the other protagonist of the story, the 'Black girl' Minette who is also her roommate. Minette, who is the daughter of a minister, is at Schulyer College on an academic scholarship.This perhaps is the centerfold from where Genna embarks on her road to revelation. As the interaction between the two girls progresses so does Genna's understanding of her eventful past; a past that holds a father, a prominent lawyer who was an extreme liberal during the Vietnam war era, and a mother who is quite the flower child of the hippie cult. The story takes a tragic turn when Minette dies under mysterious circumstances and Genna is forced to drop out of college. This is in fact where the novel starts, with Genna trying to figure out what really happened to Minette Swift and whether she was in any way responsible for her death.

After this point Genna, no longer the pacifist, the listener or the appeaser, faces and recognizes some harsh truths about herself , her family, and about rich white liberal America. Genna's unraveling of the incidents surrounding Minette's death strips the veneer off of some racial issues of the time. What happens thereafter is rather unconvincing and not in keeping with Genna's character as developed thus far. The novel seems to go downhill in the second half, and makes you wonder why Oates would do this to her story. However, Ms. Oates does a splendid job of exposing the liberal hypocrisy of white America during the 70s, and the resultant guilt that sprung forth from it ; one that is alive in parts even today. To put it in Genna, the "White girl's" words, “I was the one to have saved her, yet I did not.”

I would hesitate to recommend this book to anyone who is either not familiar with American History, or anyone who has read at large about the black-white divide in the USA. If you belong to the former category, the interactions between Genna and Minette will seem illogical and repetitive, and you'll wonder why the writer spent so much time and so much detail on this part. On the other hand, if you've read avidly on the race issues in USA, this novel will not enlighten or deeply interest you in any way; unless you are focused on the credentials of the writer, a chaired Professor at Princeton University.

June 03, 2007

Cindy Sheehan Forsakes Allegiance?

Why is allegiance necessary? Who does one owe allegiance to? What does it mean to pledge allegiance? Is allegiance given with no strings attached or is there an underlying promise of benefits? In the light of Cindy Sheehan's recent resignation from being the 'Face' of the American anti-war movement, the word 'allegiance' gains a place under the spotlight. Many of us are familiar with Sheehan and her rise to fame after her much publicized protest against the Iraq War outside of Bush's ranch in Texas. We know about her irreparable loss, the death of her 20 year old son Casey, and about her courage and passion as a mother and as a vocal proponent for bringing our troops back from Iraq. After reading the contents of her resignation, I felt a sense of loss that I could not configure. It was definitely not a personal loss by any stretch of imagination; I had never heard of her until I saw her on TV, nor was her resignation a public loss, like at the death of Dr. King and John F. Kennedy. It was, perhaps, a loss of faith marked by a stellar incident; Sheehan's open letter of resignation. The loss of staunch faith the American people have in their identity as Americans who inhabit a 'land of the free', and take immense pride in it because it is 'the home of the brave'. Cindy Sheehan's words hit a bitter chord when she says, "The most devastating conclusion that I reached this morning, however, was that Casey did indeed die for nothing. His precious lifeblood drained out in a country far away from his family who loves him, killed by his own country which is beholden to and run by a war machine that even controls what we think. I have tried every since he died to make his sacrifice meaningful. Casey died for a country which cares more about who will be the next American Idol than how many people will be killed in the next few months while Democrats and Republicans play politics with human lives. It is so painful to me to know that I bought into this system for so many years and Casey paid the price for that allegiance. I failed my boy and that hurts the most."

Do we owe allegiance, and to whom? Do we pledge this allegiance in exchange for something, like Cindy Sheehan did; in the hope of "liberty and justice for all"!