Tag Archives: Books

Entrepreneurial Mother Unlocks Kulture

Who else can know a child’s needs better than a mom. And it takes a strong woman to go beyond and fulfill the gaps, irrespective of the circumstances.

Putting aside the pandemic we are facing, it is still International Women’s Month! India Currents would like to tell the story of one such strong Indian American mother, Akruti Babaria, who recognized the importance of conveying Indian traditions and culture to her child and she knew she had to be the one to start a venture to accomplish the feat.

Kulture Khazana is an online portal that unlocks Indian cultural treasures for children using different interactive mediums. From online content, workshops, newsletters, seminars to children’s books – the portal is a one stop destination for every Indian mother who seeks to impart her culture to her kids.

Established in February 2018, the journey was not a cakewalk for the mom-entrepreneur, who had to travel halfway across the globe to find the right sources for her endeavour.

“It was when I started to speak to my 3 year old son about Indian culture, did I realize the lack of resources around us in the US. I wanted him to learn about our values and traditions and could not find any authentic source here. I had to travel all the way to India to purchase nearly 400 books, back then for the purpose. The journey and the realization paved the way to curate something that can be beneficial not just for my son but for every kid in the US,” said Akruti Babaria, who left her full-time job to pursue this venture.

Right after its establishment, the portal was well received by all Indian American parents who were eagerly in search for a repository that offers them the right resources, especially books that do not highlight any violence but convey the needed context in an appropriate way based on the aptitude of a kid. Surprisingly, even the local libraries welcomed the cultural materials and were more than happy to display the collection. 

Akruti storytelling at her local library

Though the initial acceptance helped Akruti to establish her endeavor across the community, finding feasible partners for the business was a challenging task.

“It required lots of research, meetings and effort to find genuine partners to do business with. We needed people who share the same passion for children’s literature. Though at first I used to work with distributors, now over the years I have been able to establish direct contacts with publishers and authors, which has helped the process to be more smooth and effective.” 

Not just limiting the scope to online content, Akruti understood the need to be innovative and went on to explore new avenues to spread awareness on Indian culture. A unique approach of mixing storytelling with activities and movements, she was able to find new ways to engage the kids in learning about their culture.

“I wanted to do something which is not monotonous and kids should find it interesting rather than preachy. The interactive workshops and seminars gives an all-rounded experience for kids with lots of activities and fun learning exercises. It’s been well received and many schools and organizations like children’s museums, libraries, literary communities, temples, and grocery chain stores have come forward to organize such events. Surprisingly, even the non-Indian communities have shown interest and attend these workshops in large numbers to learn more about Indian culture and global diversity,” 

Akruti using different mediums to teach culture

Currently, she has also been approached by the school district of Texas to create a cultural kit as part of the curriculum for 2020 with special focus on spreading awareness about culture and diversity for students and on how teachers should plan to include the framework within the curriculum.

Akruti also conducts professional development seminars for educators on how to interpret culture in a classroom. She feels that if the kids are knowledgeable about diversity and inclusion at such a young age, then they grow up to become open-minded individuals. Most of the organizations have workshops on inclusion as part of team building exercises and Akruti asserts that if these cultural values are taught to them right from childhood then there is no need to retrain them in future. 

The dancer cum MBA graduate is all set to enter a new phase as she plans to author a book for kids about spices. Writing poems and collating learning exercises for the weekly newsletters of her portal, she is already on the move creating new experiences for children through a mother’s lens. 

Akruti call outs to the wonderful women out there for International Women’s month, “Come what may, always follow your passion. Regain your confidence and find your girl gang, who is always there to give an hi-five, to support, advise and even criticize. You just have to step out and you will realize that there is a whole community of women out there who are always ready to support each other.”

Suchithra Pillai comes with over a decade’s experience in the field of journalism, exploring and writing about people, issues, and community stories for many leading publications in India and the United States. In her spare time, you would either find her scribbling down some thoughts in the paper trying to find a rhyme or story out of small things or expressing her love for dance on stage.

Edited by Assistant Editor, Srishti Prabha.

Raising a Feminist Family

Have I raised my daughters to be feminists? An honest midlife self-appraisal.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Congreso Futuro 2020

Impressed by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk “We should all be feminists,” I picked up the tiny purple book with the intriguing title, Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. Eager to understand feminism in the twenty-first century from this articulate young woman who possesses an enviable clarity of thought, I planned to ask my daughters to read the book once I was done. 

As a lifelong bookworm who turns to the written word for knowledge and guidance, I had picked up “What to expect when you’re expecting,” during my pregnancy. Considerate colleagues gave me the sequel, “What to expect the first year,” at my baby shower. I referred to the book constantly. Like a child reading a mystery novel, I occasionally jumped ahead to read up on the next developmental milestone.

At my daughter’s first birthday celebration in India, seeing the book in my purse, a good friend joked – “You NRI’s bring up children by reading books.” 

I found her comment condescending but she had made an astute observation. Being far from home and lacking guidance from parents, I felt bereft. She, on the other hand, was raising her children in India in close proximity to her extended family.

To me, books had come to my aid when humans had failed.

*****

More than two decades after that conversation, I look fondly at my two daughters. In a few months, the older one will leave home in pursuit of higher education and the younger one will hurtle towards the end of her teens. 

Motherhood has been the most transformative experience of my life and the opportunity to raise two daughters has been a gift and a privilege. 

Adichie’s book is a long, thoughtful response response to a friend’s question about how to raise her newborn daughter feminist. I wondered if I had raised my daughters to be feminists? Would I find myself too outdated to understand this manifesto? I desperately hoped it wasn’t too late to make amends. 

“The solid unbending belief that you start off with. What is your premise? Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only.” Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.”

Adichie’s first feminist tool seemed familiar. Not vaguely, but intimately.   

By this measure, I have always been a feminist. Perhaps I was born feminist. Although the word ‘feminist’ came into my vocabulary only after spoken and written language became my primary mode of communication, the inner knowing that “I matter’ must have been poured into my veins and set into my bones at the time of my creation. 

Born between two boys, I was the only girl child, brought up with great affection by egalitarian parents. Despite having a level playing field within the home, I was not immune to the rampant sexism that existed outside. I retaliated by waving the flag of gender equality, fighting for fairness, and arguing for justice at every opportunity. 

During the school years, my brothers and I were expected to wash our respective uniforms, polish our shoes, and keep our designated cupboards clean. But everytime my mother asked me for help around the house, I would protest. 

“You are asking me to do this because I am a girl,” I would pout.

“I am asking you because you are better at it,” she would patiently reply. 

“In life, you will find that the person who does a better job will be assigned more work, even in an office.” 

A part of me agreed with her. But I would have none of her rational explanations. Despite her college education, my mother was a housewife by choice. What did she know about work and career? 

I was academically oriented, bold, and outspoken. Unlike my mother who was content to stay home, I planned to study, get a job, and make my own money. I did not consider my mother a feminist, because feminism to me meant independence, financial security and power. Little did I know then that the seeds to my conviction about equality of the sexes were actually planted and nurtured by my mother’s parenting style.

*****

So much about the world has changed since my childhood. With women becoming astronauts and scientists, doctors and bus drivers, I wondered if Adichie’s suggestions were even necessary. But reading this simply-written, heartfelt manifesto brought forth many self-limiting biases and belief-systems that are coded into our DNA through social conditioning and serve as barriers to women’s’ achievements even to this day.  

In time for International Women’s Day, I thought of using Adichie’s list as an appraisal tool to evaluate myself. I was undoubtedly a feminist, but had I done enough to raise my girls to be feminists?

Of the fifteen suggestions, I scored well in 9. I am particularly proud of encouraging my girls to read. Regarding marriage – they know that marriage may be a part of their life but it is not to be counted as their greatest achievement. Through my own career choices, independence, and pursuit of interests outside prescribed gender roles, they have seen a working model of some of Adichie’s suggestions. 

But I have to admit that I have failed in a few areas. Even though we talk about boys and romance, open conversations about sex have been difficult; attributed more to my own cultural conditioning than to the oft-repeated excuse that such information is easily available these days. 

And there are suggestions about appearance, identity, likeability – important points that I am unable to assess at this point. Much of how my daughters find their way through the maze of conflicting messages and peer pressure depends on their ability to think for themselves, something only time will tell.

I think back to my mother’s unerring sense of fairness and transparent style of parenting. Unaware that the dictionary defines ‘feminist’ as a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, she had instilled in me the core belief that my life is valuable and my choices are valid, even if they veered away from socially accepted constructs.

Parenting is a uniquely personal journey. We undertake it with optimism and a combination of tools – some that we come equipped with, some we borrow from our own parents, and others we learn – from books, from society, from our own experiences.  

The thing that makes this journey incredibly interesting, if not always rewarding, is what Adichie says in the initial pages of her book, “You might do all the things I suggest, and she will still turn out to be different from what you hoped, because sometimes life just does its thing. What matters is that you try. And always trust your instincts above all else, because you will be guided by your love for your child.”

The best we can do is try. I know my mother did. So do I. My hope is that my daughters do the same when they have children. It doesn’t matter if they are raising girls or boys, I know without doubt that their journey will be interesting, and they will be richer for the experience.

Ranjani Rao, a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, and former resident of USA, now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir.  Connect with her on Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog


Artwork by Feminist Sravya Atalluri.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni with Vandana Kumar

Spending too much time in reality? Come escape with one of the most popular and talented storytellers of our time – Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

Divakaruni is the author of over 18 books, including Mistress of Spices, which was the 2009 pick for One Book One Community: San Mateo County Reads, and the bestselling The Palace of Illusions. She is considered one of the Twenty Most Influential Global Indian Women and oftentimes writes about the Indian experience, contemporary America, women, immigration, history, myth, family, and the joys and challenges of living in a multicultural world.

Her new novel, The Forest of Enchantments, promises to be as exceptional as the rest of her work. It’s a retelling of Ramayana, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. The traditional Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the legendary prince of the Kosala Kingdom. Divakaruni retells the story from his wife Sita’s perspective.

Already know well the story of Rama? You won’t be disappointed by Divakaruni’s exquisite poetic prose in her retelling. Unfamiliar with the story of Rama? Divarkaruni’s exceptional storytelling will draw you in and not let you go.

Divakaruni will be in conversation with Vandana Kumar, who, as a new immigrant, co-founded India Currents magazine in 1987. Fully digital today, India Currents has the largest following among Indians in the United States.

Date And Time

Tue, November 5, 2019

7:30 PM – 8:30 PM PST

Location

Kepler’s Books

1010 El Camino Real

Menlo Park, CA 94025

Tickets here

Masterful Debut Novel

Madhuri Vijay’s debut novel – The Far Field – is many things all at once. A tale that spans from Bangalore to Kashmir, a tale that hints at the dark clouds of mental illness, of love lost and unrequited and the protagonist’s attempt to be honest about her own role in the story. 

The novel spins on the relationship that the protagonist Shalini shares with her mother –   “Somebody once described my mother as a strong woman,” she says without fuss. The vignettes she paints about her mother are where she is at her best  – “My mother, with her lightning tongue and her small collection of idols on a shelf in the kitchen. My mother, with her stubborn refusal to admit the existence of meat or other faiths, who crossed the street when we passed a halal butcher with his row of skinned goats, their flanks pink and shiny as burn scars.”  

Her father, a successful business executive, looks on at the world with pragmatism and confidence.

In the previous quote, the admission that her mother crossed the street at the sight of a halal butcher’s stall takes on new meaning as the novel progresses. A Muslim – Bashir Ahmed, enters their house selling Kashmiri kurtas and shawls, carrying a cloth bundle on his shioulders. He tries to eke out a living far from his home in Kashmir by walking from door to door selling his wares on the streets of Bangalore. 

“I was six the first time he came, and I still remember it. How my mother had not ceased moving even for a second, all week….How she had intense surges of laughter at nothing. How she cooked, a pile of vessels growing dangerously high in the sink, but how, at the same time, she claimed never to be hungry….When the bell rang that afternoon, I was in the living room.” The afternoon visits start then, and soon, Bashir Ahmed is the teller of tall tales about his land that leave mother and daughter listening with mouths agape.

With his arrival, the strife in Kashmir enters their lives in faraway Bangalore – during one of Bashir Ahmed’s visits, her father happens to be home sick and launches into a tirade that will sound similar to what many Hindus might have heard right in their homes. “These poor Pandits leaving their houses and running away in the middle of the night, because they might be killed for being Hindu! It’s sheer madness, and these militants sound like animals.” And, the verbal lynching goes on.  To this, Bashir responds saying, “It is very sad about the Pandits, janaab. But that is happening in the Valley. In my area (in the mountains) no Hindus are being killed.” After a while, Bashir Ahmed stops coming to their house, for reasons that are explained later.

When Shalini becomes an adult, she leaves in search of the vendor Bashir Ahmed in the mountains in Kashmir and a whole set of characters appear. Army soldiers who rule Kashmiri towns with impunity, men and women who grieve the disappearance of loved ones, tiny offices where grieving mothers file petitions to the government, and the harsh conditions in which they eke out a living.  Soon Shalini’s life starts to intersect in complicated ways with Bashir Ahmed’s family, and her choices start to matter in their lives as well.

The author has tried to marry the political to the personal, and for some reason, the political side of the equation did not carry with it the urgency that the personal did for me. Two themes that she repeats at opportune times in the novel when she comments on the choices made by characters in her novel stayed with mel. Never be a coward. Do something, anything – is advice that her mother first spouts and other characters in the novel spout this too at other times. Along with this, comes another piece of advice that seems to have been drawn from the Bhagavad Gita – without action, what is there to life but to wait to die? A question that hangs with great significance in the context of the novel and one that seems to reach every reader.

The tautness with which she draws the characters of her parents, Bashir Ahmed and herself does not somehow extend to the characters living in the mountains in faraway Kashmir. However, in the lines of the plot, she masterfully manages  to carry a certain tension that lasts till the last page of the novel. A twist at the very end only amplifies this tension.

A masterful debut novel and a must read!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing editor of India Currents magazine.

 

Coming Round The Mountain

“That was the age of inkwells and penholders with nibs that could be replaced. The fountain pen had only recently been invented, and it made quite a mess; biros, or ballpoint pens, were still in the future. What an antiquated lot we were! But then, Dickens wrote all his novels with a quill pen, and so did other great authors, and I was already something of a bookworm, reading Dickens and Stevenson and even Agatha Christie and P G Wodehouse.

There was no television in those days and, of course, no computers, but we could go to the cinema once a month. Everyone read comics—Batman and Superman and Green Lantern—but not many were reading books. We had to borrow one from the library every week, but these books usually went unread. I suppose it’s much the same today.”

It was 1947, and 13-year old Ruskin Bond was studying at a British public school—the Bishop Cotton School, Simla. In the wake of Independence, it’s the year when life was about to change quite dramatically for everyone. 

“It had been a momentous year—a year full of incident, of friendships won and lost, of memorable hockey and football matches, of tunnels and canings, of the coming of Independence, Partition and of the school in turmoil.”

To mark his 85th birthday, Bond launched this third part of his bestselling memoir Coming Round the Mountain. The book chronicles episodes of Bond’s days at boarding school, complete with visits to the tuck shop, pillow fights in dormitories, compulsory early morning PT, sticky lumpy rice, masters in academic gowns, short haircuts, floggings and canings, and grace before meals. 

Previous books in the series include Looking for the Rainbow‘ and Till the Clouds Roll By. The first describes the two years (1941-42) Bond spent with his father when he was nine years old. His father, Flt Lt A A Bond, served in the RAF during World War II. A happy time for Bond, it however ended abruptly with the loss of his father during the war. The incident left quite an impression on him as a young boy (“Do wars solve anything, or do they just lead to more wars?”). The second book elaborates further on the sudden change in Bond’s circumstances, and the effort he had to make to adjust to a new and very different life with his mother and stepfather. His closest friends at the time were a Muslim, a Parsi and a Christian. Each were completely uninterested in each other’s regional backgrounds, and friendship and loyalty were all that mattered to them—as was eating jalebis and figuring out how to beat their rival team, The Lawrence School, Sanawar, in a hockey match.

Against this innocent backdrop, the reader gets to perceive India’s independence from the children’s point of view. In pre-Independence days, writes Bond, there was a lot of uncertainty. Some of their foreign teachers were going back to their countries, and rumours were rife that all English-medium schools would be closing down. In a poignant scene, Bond talks to his friend Azhar who belongs to Peshawar, about the country being cut into two. “People are different, I suppose—unless they love each other. Friends must remain friends,” responds a naïve Bond. 

On the 15th of August, 1947, the students are treated to laddoos, halwa and samosas, along with a flag-raising ceremony and the singing of the national anthem. The changes that followed were “fast and frightening”—comprising everything from maps to postage stamps and railway timetables. Bond further recalls some of the horrors of Partition, particularly in Simla:

“There was a riot in Lower Bazaar, and another in Chhota Simla, the area close to our school. One of the school bearers failed to turn up for work one morning; his mutilated body was found in a gully near the bazaar. Another fled to Kalka to see if his family was all right; he did not return.”

As parents of students from what is now Pakistan got increasingly worried about their children’s safety, it was decided that the Muslim children would be evacuated—roughly one-third of the school’s strength. A few army trucks were provided by the government and manned by Indian and British soldiers. The convoy left at midnight. Bond tearfully bids goodbye to his friend Azhar, hoping to see him again.

A collector’s edition, the book has lovely illustrations by Mihir Joglekar. An evocative trip down memory lane, it’s a must-have for every Bond fan!

‘Coming Round the Mountain’ by Ruskin Bond. Publisher: Puffin Books

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. You can read all her published work on www.nehakirpal.wordpress.com

Some Libraries Offer U.S. Passport Services

Just in time for summer vacation planning, the Santa Clara County Library District (SCCLD) is adding passport services to the long list of reasons
to visit the library. Starting April 2 at the Milpitas Library and April 3 at the Cupertino Library, new passport acceptance facility offices will be open to the public during specified hours. Pre-book an appointment now at www.sccl.org/passport

“Our libraries provide high value to the community,” stated County Supervisor and library Joint Powers
Authority board member, Joe Simitian. “Bringing passport services to the Cupertino and Milpitas
libraries is just another example of how we are always focused on providing important and relevant
services to our residents.”

The new Passport Acceptance Facilities will assist patrons to obtain first-time passports for adults and
children, renewals for passports issued before the applicant was 16 years of age, renewals for expired
passports issued more than 15 years ago, replacements for lost, stolen, or damaged passports, and
provide passport photo services. An SCCLD library card is not required for the passport services,
although one is recommended to utilize all of the travel-related information available from the library.

“Customer service is a cornerstone of the Library District,” according to County Supervisor and
Chairman of the library Joint Powers Authority Board, Mike Wasserman. “There are few places that
offer a welcoming space, resources for lifelong learning, and extended open hours. Planning your travel
and applying for a passport at the library is a natural fit. I’m very happy to bring this level of customer
service to our residents.”

To book an appointment, go to www.sccl.org/passport and select a time and location. Cupertino’s
service will be offered Tuesdays and Thursdays between 1-7 pm and Wednesdays, Fridays and
Saturdays from 11 am to 4 pm. Milpitas’s service will be available Mondays and Wednesdays 1-7 pm
and Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 am to 4 pm.

Once submitted, passport applications typically take between four to six weeks to be processed, with the
option of paying a $60 expedite fee to cut that time down by two weeks. Passports will be mailed
directly to the applicant by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs.
SCCLD has many free resources on travel, cultures, international food, and Rosetta Stone to learn
another language. For a sample of SCCLD’s digital and hard copy tour guides:

 

The Great Game

The political science journal Foreign Affairs calls Tournament of Shadows a “tour de force,” while Kirkus Reviews describes it as “swashbuckling.” Universally, it seems that reviewers are drawn to this book’s adventurous tone and its mind-boggling scope. As an historical treatment of the “Great Game”—the battle for influence over South and Central Asia by Russian (then Soviet) and British (then American) powers—Tournament of Shadows is a remarkable achievement thick with validating reference and analytical context. As a curl-up-by-the-fireside escapist read, this non-fiction account of the adventures of Western and Asian explorers covers 200 years of real-life Indiana Jones escapades. This combination of political science and romantic yarn is quite a feat.

Rife with scholarly content which sometimes slows the narrative, the book tells a grand sweeping tale of European interest in the lands just north of India, primarily Tibet and Afghanistan. It begins with a chapter evocatively titled, “The Horse Doctor,” about William Moorcroft, a veterinarian of the early 1800s sent to these unexplored and mysterious lands to seek out new horse breeds for the British Indian army. Moorcroft’s tale, like so many in the book, warrants a Hollywood big-screen telling. It is replete with episodes of bravery, treachery, disguise, espionage, deception, being sold into slavery, and escaping from captivity.

The stories of the “pundits” are equally as cinematically riveting. These Indian spies were sent into Tibet posing as religious pilgrims. They practiced walking with an evenly spaced gait, which did not change even while climbing, and marked their steps using specially rigged prayer wheels, resulting in surreptitious and remarkably accurate maps of a region officially forbidden to outsiders. The adventures of mapping expeditions, repeated through two centuries and zestfully told, are of particular interest to the authors, who imbue the cartographic sciences with nobility and sublime poetry—“Maps are to exploration what scriptures are to theology: the font of authority for ascertaining truths distantly glimpsed.”

The scope of this book is nothing short of awe-inspiring: from the treks of Moorcroft and the pundits to the seduction into Christianity of the Sikh prince Duleep Singh; from backroom deal-making between the Dalai Llama and various Western powers to a secret society formed by Teddy Roosevelt’s sons and wealthy Americans; from the selling of Russian slaves on the Afghan market to Nehru’s entry into the church of Theosophy; and from the Nazi search for an imaginary Aryan motherland to the Chinese invasion of Tibet and incursions on the Indian frontier. If this tome suffers from anything, it is of too grand a vision and too thorough a telling.

If nothing else, Tournament of Shadows is a treatise on the attitudes of Western empires of the last two centuries, an important subject at a time when the modern American empire stretches its powers to the same lands on which the Great Game was once played.

Raywat Deonandan is the author of the award-winning book, Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999).

A Jewel in a Sparkling Connection

I was a teenager when I first read V.S. Naipaul’s A House For Mr. Biswas. That was 17 years ago. It was an assigned book in my Toronto high school English class. Ours was a program of rare multicultural outlook, thanks to my teacher, Anne Carrier. You see, back in 1984 it was unheard of to be exposed to Asian or Caribbean literature in a North American high school, an oversight which still seems trivial to white or non-immigrant Americans and Canadians today. But make no mistake, then as now, there is inherent value in an enriched global reading list. Written in 1961, Biswas was an unanticipated treasure of validation, a fresh alien gem atop the well-thumbed Faulkners, Salingers, and Twains.

My family had immigrated from Guyana 15 years earlier during a time when Asian Indian culture was mysterious enough to the mainstream. Indo-Caribbean language, history, and behavior were yet years away from entering the awareness of the general public, and would prove a near impossibility to explain or to describe to friends and teachers. As any immigrant child will attest, there are few things more isolating than cultural loneliness. It serves as an impenetrable barrier that separates one from friends and colleagues, and compels both a heightened closeness and subtle resentment towards family members, ironically the only people who truly share the condition.

So the discovery of Indo-Caribbean literature at such an impressionable age was doubly important. I recall well the awe, nervousness, and excitement elicited from Biswas’s opening pages. It was set in Trinidad, mere miles from my birthplace of Guyana! Its major characters were Indians descended from indentured servants, the same as me and mine! The book’s cadence of angst and subdued anger—an alternation that ripples through all post-colonial societies, yet is missing from most American literature—kept beat with the displacement in my own heart. And, most interesting, the rhythm and tonality of the characters’ speech was the singsong Caribbean patois with which I had grown up. You see, that way of talking was a source of shame to many early immigrants; Jamaican cool was yet to reach North America and give public resonance to the Caribbean modality. To have discovered its usage within the pages of a book validated by no less than the Toronto Board of Education was to truly realize personal cultural arrival.

A drawing of 'A House for Mr. Biswas'
A drawing of ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’

The book itself tells a simple story. It begins with the emergence into this world of Mohun Biswas, “six-fingered and born in the wrong way,” foreshadowing the bad luck he would have and cause. A poor journalist turned civil servant, Biswas lives a brief humorous life punctuated by battles with his in-laws and a strained relationship with his writer son, the essence of his angst symbolized by his quest for a house of his own. Naipaul’s genius is in elevating the seemingly mundane and comedic to themes of timeless importance, injecting his writing with subtle imagery and allegory. His hated in-laws the Tulsis, for example, live in a home called “Hanuman House.” That Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god is Naipaul’s sly intimation of the house’s more zoological or chaotic nature.

The allegory of Biswas is an inspiring one. Mohun Biswas is compelled toward a rebellious nature through various cultural traditions for which he has little patience. Biswas is at the bottom rung of society because of his work, family history, and poorness. He is further at the bottom of the pecking order in his extended family, kept there by the weighty demands of his culture. But a modern hero infected with frequent emotional outbursts, his aspirations are never quelled. After enduring a beating by an in-law, Biswas declares, “I am going to get a job on my own. And I am going to get my own house too. I am finished with this.” The goal of any descendant of indentured servants has yet to be better or more simply stated.

In many ways, Biswas is the Indian-Caribbean archetype, a man from an ancient cultural tradition of castes and unnavigable religions whose sudden proximity to the world of Western modernity fills him with hope for more. His behavior is sometimes reprehensible, but his predicament is one with which so many of us, particularly Indians caught up in a new world, can relate. His quest for a house of his own mirrors well the quest of colonized peoples for a nation and an identity of their own. To appreciate the plight of Biswas is to understand the history of his nation and that of the entire Indian-Caribbean milieu: a people uniquely positioned between the rich traditions of the East and the commercial demands and promises of the West, yet tragically benefiting from neither.

East Indian Coolies in Trinidad
East Indian Coolies in Trinidad

V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, taking his place among literary immortals like Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, and Rabindranath Tagore. They say he was honored “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” Certainly, A House for Mr. Biswas is but one jewel in the sparkling collection of the life’s work that earned him the award, as it slyly tells of Indian-Caribbean emotional history within the modern dynamic of cultural collisions.

It is generally agreed that the story of Biswas is largely autobiographical, with Biswas’s writer son being Naipaul’s literary avatar. Hence Biswas is likely the tome for which this great writer will be most fondly remembered throughout the ages. For those unfamiliar with his books, Biswas is an excellent beginning point. It was certainly mine, and started me on a marvellous path of literary adventure and self-discovery.

Raywat Deonandan is the author of Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999). www.deonandan.com.

Love In A Time Of War

ANIL’S GHOST by Michael Ondaatje. Alfred A. Knopf. 312 pp. $25.

Anil Tissera has many enigmatic qualities as the protagonist in Ondaatje’s first novel since The English Patient. Since my parents gave me the same first name, the most salient enigma for me was that Tissera is female while I am not. So, I went to hear Ondaatje read from the book primarily to have my question about the name answered. I need not have bothered. The explanation, an important clue to her character, is in the book. Without giving away the answer let me say that Ondaatje who emigrated from his native Sri Lanka to Canada, has come up with another clear winner, a tale of love in a time of war.

Tissera, a forensic pathologist by trade, is sent to Sri Lanka by an international agency to investigate human rights abuses. She is in many ways a sensitive female alter ego for Ondaatje himself. Both are Sri Lankan by birth; both emigrated at a young age to the West, Tissera to the U.S., Ondaatje to Canada. Tissera returns as an outsider who knows many things local intimately but is unwilling to accept all the norms and values of a culture to which she has a natural claim. Ondaatje returns as the writer researching his story and characters. He lives Anil’s naiveté and expertise, her enthusiasm and fear. To compare their experiences, one fictitious another real, is to go through a brain-warping juxtaposition of the writer and his alter ego.

The book appealed to me at different levels. Up front it is bound to invoke the themes of The English Patient. War, in this case the civil war, in Sri Lanka is the backdrop. There is love but it is all messed up with the bloody and often senseless carnage. Bombs blow up without notice. People disappear. And no one appears to be able to offer solace. In the end each is left to find one’s own peace. This is as haunting as it gets and it may be too much for some readers.

Ondaatje, born in Sri Lanka of mixed Sri Lankan and Dutch heritage, moved to Canada while still in his teens and made Toronto his home. Anil lets him go back not just physically but spiritually and in that it is a first for the author. His earlier books have had little to do with Sri Lanka. The only thing that carries over from his other books is his style. If Ondaatje’s work were music it would probably sound like jazz. Although his narrative is more accessible than the Rushdiesque flights of fantasy, his story-telling does jump scales. At his Toronto reading he confessed that his novels are seldom written from the beginning to the end. The vignette that opens the book and tells of a young Tissera searching for bones in the jungles of Guatemala came to him half way through the book. Writing, he says, is an exploration, and some of it is as much a revelation to him as it is to the character or the reader.

In The English Patient style, there are several main characters. I like this feature of Ondaatje novels. It cuts across the grain of popular mainstream culture in which Hollywood (or Bollywood for that matter) tries to pour all stories into a boy-meets-girl mould. The love interest is the main story and everything else is relegated to the background. (The wildly successful English Patient the moviesuffered this fate by having its four main book characters reduced to two main movie characters.) There are many ghosts in Anil’s story. There is Sarath, a forty-something local anthropologist who has lost his wife through neglect and war; Gamini, the doctor and brother to Sarath, who must conduct meatball surgery in twenty-four-hour shifts and look the other way when inexplicable wounds show up at the hospital; there is Ananda the unhappy artist whose wife disappeared. Ananda, once a renowned painter of Buddha’s eyes, an honour bestowed only on a chosen few, now searches for his lost wife in the faces of the missing that he is commissioned to reconstruct. Another haunting character is the great teacher-philosopher Palipana who is part sage, part intellectual and part a power-wielding autocrat. But by the time we meet him he is near the end of his journey living in the forest with a teenaged orphaned niece. Now nearly blind, a man who never lost a showdown, is negotiating the final stages of his exit. Ondaatje lets us meet each in depth and there is a profound sense of loss when we are parted.

The plot revolves around a victim, nicknamed the Sailor, whose bones have been found and need to be identified to see if human rights abuses took place. To people familiar with the excesses of the Sri Lankan civil war, this is no cliff hanger. No big deal. Abuses are common on both sides or rather on all sides. To bring home the point, Ondaatje injects a lesson from the European holocaust that “to name Sailor is to name them all.” Thus, it is a big deal and in the end a rather heavy price is paid.

At another level, Anil’s Ghost succeeds as few other books have in telling a story set in the third world in the voice of an insider-outsider. Although English writers from South Asia have made a big splash in the last twenty-five years by winning the highest awards, few have offered new insights about South Asia in particular and the third world in general. Naipaul’s lens is, by his own admission, western in its perspective. Rushdie’s and Seth’s stories are largely about the middle class. Other writers dwell on the poverty, squalor and social injustices. Ondaatje, a writer who researches his characters and topics with the zeal of a graduate student defending a doctoral dissertation, gives us a feel for this far away place and its problems without dismissing it all as vagaries of the third world. Neither do his subjects lecture each other on how things are done in the West. Anil’s Ghost tells us about the fight for human rights at a human level. It is a masterly work that should find a prominent place on history’s bookshelves.

Anil Verma lives and teaches in Toronto.