Most Hallucinatory Book of The Year
SEA OF POPPIES by Amitav Ghosh. Picador September 2009. 560 pages. $15.
Some books are illuminating and some elucidating, but Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies is both illuminating and elucidating.
Reading and reviewing this book in the early months of 2009, I was moved by the delirious opiate of literary writing that transported me to distant shores. Although Ghosh plies the Queen’s English in a way that would make the Oxford English Dictionary proud, it is his use of the language in dictionaries ranging from Hobson-Jobson to a Laskari Dictionary, as well as his anthropological appreciation of subaltern lives, that gives the voiceless voice and infuses the novel with detailed observations of the human condition. In writing about migration in an astonishingly novel way, Ghosh brings newness to the world. Like the Ibis, which “was not a ship like any other,” Sea of Poppies is not a novel like any other. “In her inward reality she was a vehicle of transformation, traveling through the mists of illusion towards the elusive, ever-receding landfall that was Truth.”
Although by year-end the rush of reading Sea of Poppies has worn off, I look forward to the upcoming years bringing more “hits” of Ghosh’s dreamlike writing.
Rajesh C. Oza balances his life between family and friends, workshops and consulting, reading and writing, India and America.
Most Likely to Shatter Your Ideal Vision of India
THE WHITE TIGER by Aravind Adiga. New York: Free Press, October 2008. Paperback. 304 pages. $14.00.
India shining” is the metaphor that defines India as a an economic and technological success story in the 21st century. 24 of the 793 billionaires who made a Forbes list of the richest men in the world in 2009 were Indian. Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, a Booker prize winner in 2008, jolts us from this utopian vision to give us a reality check. A vast majority of people in India are still extremely poor, and lead wretched lives in what Adiga’s protagonist, Balram Halwai calls the “Darkness.” Some things remain immutable in society. For some, like the servant class, it is very difficult to get out of the “rooster coop” of abject poverty and servility. Balram is the son of a rickshaw puller in Laxmangarh, who goes to the big city, learns to drive a car and becomes a chauffeur. Adiga delineates Balram as an unscrupulous entrepreneur with street smarts who kills his unsuspecting master and makes off with the 7 lakh rupees that his employer was carrying to bribe corrupt officials in Delhi. The irony is that Balram starts a business with the stolen money and succeeds without ever being found out.
The novel unfolds as a series of letters written by Balram to the Chinese premier over seven nights in order to expose the real India. In telling his own rags-to-riches story, Balram depicts an unvarnished picture of how the majority of people live in India without basic amenities like drinking water, electricity, proper sewage, and affordable transportation. Indian democracy, Balram argues, is a sham. Religion, he reveals, is exploited to create an unbridgeable gulf between two Indias, the rich and the poor.
The White Tiger is a disturbing novel that exposes the dark side of the world’s largest democracy that is often gilded over by the nation’s economic growth and technological success. If we push the marginalized too far, Adiga seems to say, they will react with pent-up aggressiveness. Some may even murder to prove their manhood. It is a chilling message but Adiga delivers it without being didactic. The White Tiger wakes the reader from euphoria about India’s rapid entry into the league of distinguished nations.
Lakshmi Mani writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.
Most Likely To Remind You Of Your Marriage
2 STATES: THE STORY OF MY MARRIAGE by Chetan Bhagat. Rupa & Co. October 2009. 269 Pages. Rs 95
Love marriages around the world are simple: Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. They get married. In India, there are a few more steps.” In fact, in India, where any marriage, love or arranged, depends upon the matching of horoscopes, the pattern of the birth stars, and the dynamics between the individuals and the families, there are a lot more steps before a couple can tie the knot and live happily ever after.
Any Indian man or woman, who picks up 2 States, will be able to identify either with the whole story or with large parts of it. Inspired by this best-selling author’s own experiences and marriage, this witty and absorbing tale is about inter-community marriages in India. Krish and Ananya meet, fall in love and live-in at IIM Ahmedabad. The decision to get married is simple, but what’s really difficult is to be accepted and liked by each other’s family, a pre-condition that’s super-essential in any Indian marriage. Between the two, Krish and Ananya do everything, from making PowerPoint presentations to help the future father-in-law, cooking aloo-gobi to please a stuffy mom-in-law, doling out tuitions to bond with the future brother-in-law. And it’s just not the immediate family that needs to connect and like each other; the approval of aunts, uncles and cousins is just as important for the “love marriage.”
Everyone needs to love (or at least, put up with) each other before Krish and Ananya can enter into holy matrimony (if you’re married, you’ll definitely identify with this one!) Written in a simple and chatty manner, the story will definitely make you a fan.
Chandana Banerjee is an independent writer based in India.
Most Likely to Keep You Reading All Night and Call in Sick the Next Day so You Can Finish It
Book fanatics always look for that next “all night, can’t put it down book,” and Tania James’s Atlas of Unknowns is exactly that. James’ debut is one of grace and maturity, telling a story in which girls, and later women, find their strengths when they are on the verge of giving in to that which engulfs them. Each colorful character is unforgettable, deliciously fashioned, and fully determined. They stand up to deceit and desires, changeable relationships, and the nasty realities of the immigration process with self-confidence and a sense of humor.
This is a novel spiced with fascinating characters navigating unexpected opportunities while treading gently on precious associations. James keeps her finger on every detail, skillfully keeping the reader engaged in a literary game of chess. The depth of her insight and control of the plot exceed that expected of a first novel. James is without question an author to watch and to be read.
Atlas of Unknowns is a book to read, enjoy, and read again, even into the wee hours of the night.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago
Most Likely to be (Unfairly) Judged by its Cover
DREAMING IN HINDI by Katherine Russell Rich. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt July 2009. 384 pages. $26.
You do not judge a book by its cover, until you do. Not another down and out New Yorker’s navel gazing, solipsistic romp through India’s mysticism and exotica, I thought.
Dreaming in Hindi, much to my surprise and contrary to my pre-conceived notions about New York writers, was much less your typical introspective, me-me-me style memoir than a healthy marriage between popular science and travelogue.
Rich is a soul-searching borough dweller, travelling half way across the world chasing happiness, one so ephemeral it seems to elude all New Yorkers, who then write a book chronicling that very journey.
She invites us into the esoteric world of Second Language Acquisition, while also evocatively describing her ups and downs with learning Hindi at a foreign language institute in Rajasthan, India.
Factoid, courtesy Dreaming in Hindi: Did you know that an estimated 95% of second language learners fossilize? That after a point, try as you might, you may never get as fluent as a native speaker? Or that some researchers have found that a certain part of the brain lights up when people read Chinese but not English?
And so the award for “most likely to be judged (unfairly) by its cover” goes toDreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich.
Girija Sankar is a graduate student in Atlanta
Worst Indian Chick-lit Book of the Year
THE SARI SHOP WINDOW by Shobhan Bantwal. Kensington Publishing Corporation. September 2009. 352 pages. $15.
2009 was not a big year for Indian chick-lit in the U.S. That said, Shobhan Bantwal’s The Sari Shop Windowis definitely worthy of an award for Bad Chick-lit, and, trust me, this is not a redundancy. If the title or the aqua cover with the silk and sequins and beaded jewellery don’t tip one off, the first page launches us into “a quaint neighborhood smelling of pungent curry, sweet fried onions, ripe mangoes, incense, and masala chai.” The heroine, Anjali Kapadia, is a sweet and simple, yet ambitious and intelligent, barely married widow, and the hero a handsome yet interestingly scarred, tall, fair, gray-eyed gimpy-legged 42-year-old never married half-Gujarati millionaire, British accent and all, who makes her feel weak and fluttery. Really.
Millionaire Rishi Shah flies in to rescue the distressed damsel and make all her dreams come true. Bantwal masterfully eliminates the need for a denouement by not bothering to put in an actual “secret from Rishi’s past” that the back cover speaks of.
With every desi stereotype firmly adhered to in its 300-odd pages, The Sari Shop Window is so bad, it’s almost good. And the edition I read even came with its own discussion questions!
Sharda Krishnamurty writes from Carmel, Indiana.