July 30, 2009

A Hindu Temple in the USA

A friend and I visited a 'Mandir' (Hindu Temple) located near Princeton a few days ago and that lead to some very interesting discussions about religion: its place in a given culture, and its perception outside of its natural home. Given that my friend had never ventured into a Hindu Temple ever before, I was curious to know her reactions, and she agreed to let me post those, and here they are:

1. The inside (of the temple) setting was very informal, and contrary to what she had imagined. The few people in there were chatting and some were sitting in groups on the carpeted floor as that was the only available seating.

2. The statues had identical faces and expressions, yet each had a unique embellishment to set it apart like a musical instrument or a weapon. All the idols were light skinned, had European features, and some even had light eyes. They all looked serene, almost benign.

3. "It did seem strange to see people praying before those figures. In a Catholic church the people pray (often very intently) before statues of saints or Christ, but these statues represent real people that once lived and are remembered for some particular reasons. The statues in the temple were not representing anything real, which is why I asked you if they represent an idea. My very first thought when I saw them was these are the "false idols" we were always taught about as children in religion classes, and the people who worship them were the "pagans" we were supposed to feel sorry for, because they didn't know "God." I always thought it was silly to feel sorry for them. I was quite sure they were very satisfied with their gods who had as much meaning for them as mine did for me. I guess I never was the ideal Catholic student. I asked too many questions. Did you ever read Bless Me, Ultima? That Catholic church was the one I knew, and Ultima's religion was the one that made more sense to me."

Makes me wonder about my first reactions to the different places of worship I have entered for the very first time ...

July 24, 2009

U.N. Intervention vs Humanitarian Imperialism

United Nations Secretary General, Ban-Ki- Moon " ...resist those who turn our common effort to curb the worst atrocities in human history into a struggle over ideology, geography or economics...It is high time to turn the promise of the 'responsibility-to-protect' into practice."' (July 2009)

2005 UN World Summit adopted the “responsibility to protect,” known as R2P, which “formalized the notion that when a state proves unable or unwilling to protect its people, and crimes against humanity are perpetrated, the international community has an obligation to intervene—if necessary, and as a last resort, with military force.

... then how does one explain the continuing humanitarian crises in Dar-fur, Congo, and Iraq?

Does Noam Chomsky's explanation answer this...

Noam Chomsky : "The UN system doubtless suffers from severe defects. The most critical defect is the overwhelming role of the leading violators of Security Council resolutions. The most effective way to violate them is to veto them, a privilege of the permanent members. Since the UN fell out of its control forty years ago the United States is far in the lead in vetoing resolutions on a wide range of issues, its British ally is second, and no one else is even close. Nevertheless, despite these and other serious defects of the UN system, the current world order offers no preferable alternative than to vest the “responsibility to protect” in the United Nations... and the humanitarian imperialism” of the powerful states that claim the right to use force because they “believe it to be just,” all too regularly and predictably “perverting the administration of justice itself.

...does that mean that in order for the UN to be effective, it has to turn a blind eye to the apparent hegemony that is practiced by some countries because they happen to be the major resource providers for the UN?

Would this explanation suffice...

US Ambassador to UN, Susan Rice : "There will be more perpetrators...more victims. But we must work to ensure that there will also be more justice and fewer and fewer bystanders."

Do you see future UN interventions as necessary, viable, and justifiable?

July 16, 2009

Daphne Beal's "In the Land of no Right Angles" - Designed to Lack 'a' Perspective?

I picked up Daphne Beal's "In the Land of no Right Angles" simply because I happened to be at the local library without my 'to read' list. As always I fell prey to the newness of the setting, Nepal, a very small country perched in the Himalayan mountains.

The writer's sensuous descriptions of the various locales in the novel, especially Kathmandu and Jankat in Nepal were perhaps the high point for me. It was like a vicarious journey into this picturesque land which seemed untouched by the vagaries of the West except for the few adventure seeking tourists and mountaineers who come here. Alex, the protagonist in the novel, is one such visitor who comes back a second time only to say goodbye to the simple and kind people of a small Nepalese village, Jankat, that had hosted her for a few months while she was there working as student researcher. Her trek to and from Jankat makes for a vivid and captivating read. Ms. Beal has an innate ability to draw color, smell, sound, and texture into her writings in a way that transports the reader into her settings be it the seedy and dangerous red-light area in Mumbai, the crowded sweat-reeking streets of Calcutta, or then the pristine and alluring slopes of Jankat.

Given that the protagonist is a westerner, and a woman who travels East to this exotic land of Nepal and who “ wanted to come home different from what I’d been—bolder, wiser, happier”, the storyline was almost predictable for me as it followed a well trodden path - that of self dicovery for the protagonist, where she discovers a side to herself that she is reluctant to claim. This self discovery is made possible for Alex because of Maya, the 'other' woman in the story; a beautiful, young, and undaunted Nepali girl who is quite the enigma for Alex and also the reader unfortunately. The death of Maya's sibling haunts her, and all her actions are driven by this painful reality; however, most of her decisions are highly questionable as are the actions they result in. In the light of which, Alex's near obsession with Maya's well being becomes unjustifiable to the reader as it seems so obviously misplaced.

There are some other interesting characters in the novel like the young free spirited professor, Will, who practices sex as an art and charms native Nepalese girls and his research students to join him in his artistic endeavors. Then there is the Heathcliff like Karsan, who Alex has a soft corner for and eventually gets into a physical relationship with. But, like Maya, Karsan carries a lot of emotional baggage which to the reader remains unexplained and completely unnecessary, especially in the light of the ending. Which ultimately leads me to believe that this is perhaps what the writer meant for the reader to carry away : that there are 'no right angles'. Every perspective on the situation, no matter from what 'angle', has a flaw; there are ' no right angles'!

Ms. Beale's first novel, "In the Land of no Right Angles', despite all the questions it raises, is worth reading because it's summertime! If you are sitting at home, unable to vacation in a faraway place that you long to be in, this novel will give you wings!

July 14, 2009

Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" Captures Small Town America in the Early 1900

"An archeologist's eyes combine the view of the telescope and the view of the microscope. He reconstructs the very distant with the help of the very small. It was something of this method that I brought to a New Hampshire village. --Thornton Wilder, "A Preface for Our Town" [1938]

A simple tale simply told about life at it's simplest in a small village in New Hampshire, USA in the early 1900s. 'Simple' as this play seems, it sends the most profound and universal message: cherish the moment and live it like there were no tomorrow because death will and does end it all.

It took me less than two hours to read this play, at the end of which I stopped to reflect on the things I so verily take for granted; perhaps, exactly what Wilder hoped from his audience.

"Our Town" is a popular prescribed-text in American High Schools, and I would recommend it to anyone who is w(e)ary of long and dense writings.

July 13, 2009

"Anil's Ghost" by Michael Ondaatje - Documents Sri Lanka's Unsung Civil War.

Michael Ondaatje, better known for his Booker Prize winning novel "The English Patient" that was made into an Oscar Winning movie, believes ''Writing is a kind of archaeological act, ... In all my books there is a discovery of a story. You're unearthing and you're learning. The drama is to find out about the characters.''

Ondaatje's novel Anil's Ghost is in fact about an archaeological adventure undertaken by his protagonist Anil in the picturesque island nation of Sri Lanka, once the homeland of both Anil and the author. Anil, a forensic anthropologist, comes to Sri Lanka on an international human rights fact-finding mission to investigate possible war crimes committed in the Sri Lankan Civil War during the 1980s. Shortly into the novel, she unearths her first lead, a 'subject', which apparently is a displaced skeleton; possibly that of a tortured war victim in the 1980s. Collaborating with her on her humanitarian fact-finding mission is a native archaeologist Sarath who, as the reader finds out, also has some 'personal unearthing' to do as well. During the course of the novel, both Sarath and Anil discover closely guarded secrets of the Civil War as a result of their archaeological quest; just as they do secrets about themselves; ones that they've never admitted to, so far. Ondaatje's novel is as much about self discovery as it is about throwing light on the innumerable brutalities that went undocumented during the Sri Lankan Civil War; while Anil and Sarath, the archaeologists, open graves, Ondaatje, the writer, opens up their past to the reader with "a pen instead of a scalpel or blow torch...It's what the writer does with any character. On one level you're moving forward, but in the other, you're revealing the past."

This novel must have been special for Ondaatje since it is based in his native country of Sri Lanka that he left at the age of eight. In fact he shares this commonality with the protagonist Anil who "was a stranger but who had come from that country... who had been liberated by living in the West and was now in a country that was a male world.'' By having a female protagonist, Ondaatje gave himself "an extra pair of glasses" that "allowed (him) to see the place differently.'' Clearly, here is a novelist who wants to explore situations and identities with a plethora of lenses. However, at times, the lens is torturous, especially when focusing on the violence that became so commonplace in Sri Lanka during the 1980s.

A very intense read.

July 01, 2009

Life As We Knew It - Susan Beth Pfeffer's Compelling Read!

I have my colleague Liz to thank for recommending this young-adult piece of fiction, Life As We Knew It. She and I have discussed reading habits and reading strategies endlessly these past some years, and finally here is a piece which could lure even the most resistant reader. Ms Pfeffer has done a remarkable job of spinning a story around a catastrophic event that impacts the entire world, and she has done it with an ease and a simplicity which is both appealing though sometimes questionable. However, her tale is so captivating that it compels the reader to set aside his disbelief and go along with the flow of events as Ms. Pfeffer would have him do. As a reader, I felt like putty in the story teller's hand as she had me react exactly the way she would want. Now that is not something easy to do, and it is to the credit of the writer that she is able to anaesthicize the most alacritous of readers with her brilliant storytelling.

The earth's moon gets hit by a meteor and the moon is nudged closer to the earth, and therein lies all the action of Life As We Knew It, since the earth is now no longer how it used to be! Now it is upto the protagonist, Miranda, a young 14+ year old living in Pennsylvania to document her day to day life after this calamitous event. Written in the form of a diary, the account is simplistic as it is age appropriate, but it has the reader in its grip. Whether Miranda and her family survive this catastrophe, and if so how, is for each one to find out for himself, but here is a read worth undertaking as it is exciting and appears short because it is so compelling.

Having said that, I do have to admit that I had a few questions about the novel in hindsight. One of which I posted on this new writer's website, about the credibility of the story, and I am hoping to hear from Ms. Pfeffer about the same.
I have just posted her response to my questions in the 'comments'.