I read, and greatly enjoyed, The Toss of a Lemon years ago. Now Padma Viswanathan is back, this time with a Giller Prize nomination, again with a bookI read, and greatly enjoyed, The Toss of a Lemon years ago. Now Padma Viswanathan is back, this time with a Giller Prize nomination, again with a book connected to India, but now one firmly grounded in Canada’s history and conflicted mixture of cultural obligations as well. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is every bit as complex and emotionally sensitive as one might expect from a literary award nominee. While it didn’t quite engender the same lasting sense of enjoyment that I seem to recall The Toss of a Lemon creating, it still manages to be a marvellous work of fiction.
Despite its title, I’d argue that The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is not, actually, about Ashwin Rao. He is the nominal protagonist and the first-person narrator for most of the book. And, true, Viswanathan spends a lot of time developing him as a character: the events of the book affect him, and we seem him coming to terms with his own losses. But over time, the story of Seth’s family overshadows Ashwin’s own narrative. Viswanathan shares details he couldn’t have access to—though, I suppose, there is an argument to be made that all of these details are actually part of a narrative Ashwin wrote, as part of his narrative therapy procedure, and do not actually reflect what happened. How’s that for an unreliable narrator?
Regardless, my point is that this book is about so much more than a single man working through his grief. Viswanathan’s careful creation of an Indian–Canadian psychologist who is looking to create a book of interviews and stories about those grieving over the Air India Disaster, when he himself lost a sister and niece and nephew in the disaster, is clever and heartwrenching to equal degrees. She fixates upon one of the most prominent and tragic events in recent Canadian history, yet she manages to capture the most human elements and reactions to it. Although the trial of the alleged perpetrators is ongoing in the background, it never takes the forefront—it is just setting, a way of establishing the atmosphere and tone in which Ashwin does his work.
As humans (sorry, aliens and robots who are reading this in the far future when my reviews are the only remaining corpus of human writing), we all have some kind of experience with grief. We know that grief has strange, unforeseeable and lasting effects on individuals. We handle it in different ways. Some people gather their grief close to their chests, hoarding it as if the feeling alone can somehow compensate them for their loss; others want to share and open up and form new connections as compensation for ones they will never feel again. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, provided your grieving process is right and healthy for you.
Ashwin isn’t interested in the grieving process, however, so much as he is interested in the aftermath of that process. With twenty years passed since the disaster, he wants to know how well families have “adjusted” to what happened. The immediate feelings of grief are gone—and what is left? This is the “ever after” of the book’s title: the harsh and inescapable truth that, when people die, we keep going. And like a ripple propagating forward through time after a time-traveller inadvertently steps on a butterfly, this grief has profound but subtle influences on the people it touches.
For me, the highlight of this book is not so much any individual’s portrayal as it is the way Viswanathan contrasts Indian and Canadian cultures. Ashwin, Seth, Venkat, and Lakshmi are all Indians who immigrated to Canada (though in Ashwin’s case, he then moved back to India)—they have a “Canadian experience” that has affected them, but they were essentially raised Indian. Seth and Lakshmi’s daughters, on the other hand, are Canadian by birth, Indian by heritage. Their conceptual framework is quite different—and they were so young when the disaster struck that their reactons differ in that respect as well. Viswanathan is sensitive to these differences in her characterization, making for a rich tapestry of human emotions and behaviours.
Ashwin draws parallels between the Air India Disaster and the Golden Temple massacre in India, where Indian military forces stormed a Sikh temple that was under the control of resistance forces. This led to massive fallout: Gandhi’s subsequent assassination at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards, and then mob-conducted pogroms against Sikh families in India to which the government and police turned a blind eye. Later in the book Ashwin continues to ruminate on the complicated, fragmented nature of Indian religious consciousness: how Britain divided its colonial possession along Hindu and Muslim lines, leaving the Sikhs out in the cold. Do the Sikhs “deserve” or “need” their own nation? Is it even right or reasonable to silo people by religious identity? Even though I am capable of comprehending and considering these questions from an abstract perspective, it’s impossible for me to understand them in the context that a character like Ashwin, who grew up in India, does. I was reminded, once again, of how my own life and upbringing and privilege to live in a “stable” and “boring” place like Thunder Bay, Canada has influenced my perception of what the world is like.
Of course, the Air India Disaster was not really an Indian disaster but a Canadian one, even if our government didn’t seem to take that point at the time. The victims were, by and large, Canadians—that they happened to be of Indian descent, on an Indian-owned airline, was beside the point. The perpetrators, too, were likely Canadian—albeit influenced by Indian–Sikh radical ideologies, sure. But as Viswanathan and my own Wikipedia-fuelled research indicate, it’s not like CSIS and the RCMP were totally ignorant of potential threats. They just didn’t act on them. Then, in the years that followed, a strange silence and reluctance to admit wrongdoing. Two decades before a trial.
That idea that the Air India disaster was not the Canadian government’s responsibility because the passengers were of Indian descent is the potent descendent of a much more overt and noxious colonialist streak that runs through our history. Viswanathan invokes the Komagata Maru incident, reminding us that Canada was very much “for white British subjects only” well into its time as sovereign country. I don’t know if it’s because of or in spite of our stereotypical reputation for politeness and fairness that we don’t want to talk about, acknowledge, or make amends towards those sorts of missteps in our past … despite our pretensions towards humility on the world stage, we are not so different from that country to our south (Canada’s sweater), and the close ties we maintained with mother Britain occasionally meant we were worse. The fact that, in 1985, these people didn’t receive better posthumous treatment because of their ethnicity and heritage speaks to the continued conflict within Canada about what it means to be Canadian, to be a citizen, to have “a Canadian culture.” That is a conflict that remains as-of-yet unresolved.
This is probably why the book is so affecting, why it’s so difficult to read despite being, on its surface, placid and perhaps even dull in its lack of events to punctuate its equilibrium. It evokes so many ideas, especially uncomfortable ones. I dragged my heels reading this—it’s a reasonable-length book, and I’m reading one that is arguably longer now in about the space of two days—but you need to take your time to let the feelings sink in.
I said earlier I didn’t enjoy this as much as Viswanathan’s first novel. That shouldn’t be taken as criticism of this one. Enjoyment probably isn’t the most appropriate term for a book like this. And they are different types of stories: one is a sprawling, multi-generational look at changing attitudes, while the other is a more constrained attempt to chart the vicissitudes of grief. It’s difficult to compare them or judge one against the other, so I don’t want to try. Both are probably worth reading, if this sort of fiction—Indian-Canadian, semi-historical, emotional and literary in tone and breadth—is what you’re in the mood for. It’s heavy; I should have gone for a definitely-lighter book afterwards but seem to have ended up with a similarly moving title instead. Such is life.
I don’t want to go into spoiler territory discussing the twist or the denouement that follows. Suffice it to say, I’m not sure I understand the impulse that led Viswanathan to do that—but I understand the sentiment behind those closing pages. We spend so much of our life at the mercy of chance events, of others’ actions, of unforeseen consequences that influence our own opportunities. There is an impulse in all of us to act, to move, which can either manifest itself as lashing out or as reaching out, depending on our emotional pique of the moment. Above all else, there is that fundamental and unshakeable truth: time marches on. We can’t go back. We can’t revisit loved ones long gone; we can’t undo mistakes—ours or others’.
Like Seth, heading along the beach and into the ocean, we have only one choice: do we walk or do we run into our future? Do we cower, or do we embrace it with open arms?
I saved this book for a weekend. I knew this was not something I wanted to read in bits and pieces of time snatched, sneaked, and cobbled together durI saved this book for a weekend. I knew this was not something I wanted to read in bits and pieces of time snatched, sneaked, and cobbled together during the commute to and from work or the hour before bed. My previous experiences with Jhumpa Lahiri’s sumptuous prose meant I would need a certain type of stillness in order to appreciate this book. I needed the luxury to linger over each page and absorb the words, rather than skim and skip as I might do with a different type of novel. So, the weekend before last, I sat down to enjoy this, not entirely sure what to expect in terms of story. Lahiri does not disappoint, though. The Lowland is magnificent in its breadth and depth.
The book spans most of the twentieth century and stretches tentatively into the twenty-first. It doesn’t concern itself with charting or documenting India’s tumultuous decades following Independence so much as it uses those events as a cultural backdrop. Only the Naxalite movement itself figures prominently in the story, whereas other significant events, such as the Emergency, are only mentioned. Much of the book takes place in the United States; again, however, major historical events are mere signposts, ways of keeping track of time, than elements of plot. The Lowland is relentlessly character driven in its story, much more so than almost any book I’ve read.
As such, the story defies easy summary. The term plot becomes quite basic—that which happens. And that which happens is, for the most part, the ordinary give-and-take of daily life, punctuated by those momentous events that shape and define our existence. Subhash returns to India following his brother’s death at the hands of overzealous, anti-communist police. He finds his parents mistreating Udayan’s widow, Gauri, who is pregnant with Udayan’s child. So he marries Gauri and takes her back with him to the United States, where they intend to raise the child as his own. It is a marriage of convenience, not of love, never of love so long as the spectre of Udayan hangs between them.
Through Subhash’s experiences in the United States, first as a bachelor and then as a husband, Lahiri creates an effective and poignant juxtaposition of two cultures. She presents much of Subhash’s experiences as decisions, moments where he must choose between the American way and the Indian way. For example, when his friendship with an American woman becomes something more, he feels that he has turned his back on his parents’ plans for a traditional, arranged marriage. Even after this romance flickers and fades away, there is a sense that Subhash has irrevocably changed. His decision to marry Gauri, certainly against the wishes of his parents, only confirms this transformation. No longer the calm and deferential son he was in youth, Subhash has become a more independent individual. Yet for all his adoption of certain American habits and perspectives, he still has deep roots in India. In this way, Lahiri subtly emphasizes the complexity of life as an immigrant, immersed and steeped in more than one culture.
She builds on this picture through Gauri’s own adaptation to living in the United States. At stake for Gauri is more than cultural confusion: hers is a crisis of identity. In India, she had been Udayan’s wife and then his widow. Until recently, her role had been clear: she would be a mother and a companion, and she wanted both of these things. Udayan’s death changed that, and she certainly wasn’t happy any more, but she still had a clarity of purpose. Moving to the United States dispels that clarity, and Gauri has the difficult task of reforming her identity as the wife of the brother of the father of her child. When this doesn’t work for her, she starts branching out and becoming her own person again, rediscovering her interest in study, in philosophy.
Gauri struggles to reconcile her desire for independence with motherhood. She finds living with Subhash uncomfortable, awkward, and the baby’s birth only intensifies this feeling. Ultimately, she is unable to truly embrace being Bela’s mother, and the consequences are heartbreaking. There is one significant series of events when Bela is a child, playing on the living room floor. Gauri finds they are out of milk. Telling Bela she is popping out to check the mail, Gauri goes out to the convenience store, returning as quickly as possible. She is nervous the entire time she does this and relieved when she finds Bela safe and unaltered—yet the thrill, the sense of satisfaction, soon motivates her to leave Bela alone again and again, often much longer than that. I can still remember feeling so shocked that she would do this. And then when Subhash discovers that Gauri is doing this….
In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy says, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Put simply, The Lowland is about an unhappy family. Gauri is a mother who resents the burdens of motherhood. Subhash loves Bela but is always reminded that he is not really her father—for though he raises her, she develops an independent and mercurial restlessness that is more like Udayan than anyone else. The tensions and disagreements eventually drive all three apart, Gauri leaving and Bela striking out on her own, with Subhash the one, true to his character, remaining at rest.
The Lowland eschews quotation marks or any other delimiter of dialogue, even an em-dash. Instead, dialogue must be inferred. Ordinarily this is a dealbreaker for me; I like the explicit, conventional signals and punctuation marks that have arisen to help the reader of the novel understand what’s going on. There is an exception to every rule, though, and in this case, the lack of delimited dialogue works. It helps that there is very little dialogue—more and maybe I would have had a harder time. This book is mostly description and narration; characters and people speak infrequently, adding to the dreamlike atmosphere of the story.
There’s a certain element of voyeurism to fiction, and particularly fiction like The Lowland. Readers are observing the lives of characters, people who are unaware of our presence or interest. But with this observation comes the ability to sympathize with and understand situations that we would never otherwise experience. I’ll never know what it feels like to nurse a child from my body or the complex interplay of emotions and hormones that accompany it. If I’m lucky, I’ll never experience the type of unrest and repression that Udayan fights unsuccessfully. Yet thanks to Lahiri’s skilful portrayal, I can see how these things change people and why they are driven to do things that they later regret—or celebrate.
Subhash and Gauri’s drama is not larger than life, not fantastical or incredible. Yet Lahiri unfolds it with a complexity and richness of detail that allows us to examine it from multiple angles, to sympathize with all those involved and lament that, sometimes, being human means not everything can have a happy ending. But we can’t stop reading, can’t tear ourselves away. We have to find out how it ends—though, true to real life, there is no proper, neat ending to The Lowland. Loose ends dangle. Here, as in reality, the story is never finished; only chapters come to close. No matter how bad it gets, how incredible it seems that a series of innocent choices has led to a state of abject unhappiness, there is always a reason to hope.
I don’t abandon books lightly, but it had to be done. If I hadn’t borrowed enough books from the library that I have to read about 1 per day to finishI don’t abandon books lightly, but it had to be done. If I hadn’t borrowed enough books from the library that I have to read about 1 per day to finish them before I move to England, I definitely would have finished this. I don’t think I would have liked it, mind you, but it’s not horrible enough to abandon.
I should have paid attention to Jeet Thayil’s biography. Poets-turned-novelist rarely work for me. Their emphasis of style over substance and urge to be “experimental” in that style often leave me shaking my head and looking around frantically for some kind of, any kind of plot. That’s definitely my experience with Narcopolis. The plot telescopes backwards through each character, moving from the main character (whose name I forget) to the eunuch prostitute Dimple to her Chinese opium mentor Mr. Lee and so on, swinging back around eventually (I hope).
This will work for some people, I’m sure, and since I haven’t finished it, I can’t really talk much about the story itself. Thayil seems to work hard to capture the atmosphere of the Bombay drug underworld, the mixture of brutal criminal enterprise with addict tourism. Along the way we get glimpses of politics and philosophy. It might be good—but I don’t really have the patience or the time, right now, to find out....more
**spoiler alert** Reading Family Matters after reading A Fine Balance is a little anticlimactic. A Fine Balance comes very close to my idea of a perfe**spoiler alert** Reading Family Matters after reading A Fine Balance is a little anticlimactic. A Fine Balance comes very close to my idea of a perfect novel, so I doubted that Rohinton Mistry would be able to deliver something of similar calibre a second time. There is just something about A Fine Balance that smashes that wall between reader and text, breaking down the barrier until the fiction becomes as close to truth as fiction can. It is a visceral, highly emotional experience—and it is utterly singular and impossible to replicate. While I might give another Mistry book five stars, he has set the standard high. Family Matters is an excellent book, but it doesn’t quite pack the same punch.
Like A Fine Balance, this novel is set in Mumbai (then Bombay, and the nationalistic name change is an important plot point). Whereas the former is set during The Emergency, this novel is more contemporary, set sometime in the 1990s (I believe; I didn’t catch an exact date). The right-wing and volatile Shiv Sena party is in power throughout the region, whipping up a nationalistic fervour at the expense of tolerance for India’s diverse religions and cultures. In the midst of these times of change, we follow an extended family: Nariman, who slowly succumbing to Parkinson’s; his two step-children, Jal and Coomy; his daughter, Roxana; and Roxana’s husband, Yezad, and their two children, Jehangir, and Murad. When Nariman falls and breaks his leg while walking, he faces four weeks of immobility and bed rest. Though he has always lived with Jal and Coomy since his wife died, Coomy finds herself unwilling to shoulder this burden, so she literally shows up at Roxana and Yezad’s doorstep with Nariman and without warning. Talk about pushy!
At its best, Family Matters is the intricate interplay of three generations. Nariman continually recalls intense memories of a doomed love affair with a non-Parsi girl, and how she continued to dog him even after his ill-fated arranged marriage to Jal and Coomy’s mother. He is a victim of the conservative bigotry of his parents and their friends, but he is not a shining husband to his new bride. Nariman carries around a lot of guilt, and it is interesting to see the contrast between the young man and the ailing one in the present day.
Jal, Coomy, Roxana, and Yezad all belong to the latest batch of “adults”, though with Jal and Coomy that is a term only loosely applied. After Coomy unilaterally decides to transfer Nariman’s care to Roxana and Yezad, we see the impact of caring for an older relative on the lifestyle and budget of a middle-class Indian family. Money becomes a real issue, and at times Yezad is sorely tempted to abandon the “Parsi honesty” that has made him beloved to his boss at Bombay Sporting Goods.
Their son, Jehangir, does more than contemplate. Always honest before, Jehangir overhears how his parents are tight for money and wonders how he can help. He crosses the line and accepts a 20-rupee bribe in his official capacity as Homework Monitor. It’s one of those pivotal points in the novel: as he is about to accept the bribe, I wanted to do something and make him stop, even though I knew he was going to do it. A lot of the novel is like that: moments where suddenly the narrative tilts and becomes very predictable, but in a car-crash-like manner.
We don’t learn all that much about Murad, Jehangir’s older brother. He is sort of the silent sibling, speaking up only when there needs to be a counterpoint to Jehangir’s insistent voice. I wish we had learned more about him and about what he was going through at that age, especially since he becomes a more important character in the novel’s quixotic epilogue.
The epilogue is definitely the part of Family Matters that gives me, as a reader, the most difficulty processing. Part of me wonders why it’s there. It skips forward five years, after a semi-satisfactory resolution that doesn’t leave me quite as despairing as A Fine Balance—and Mistry wrecks everything! Yezad has embraced his newfound faith in Zoroastrianism in an extreme way, butting heads with both his wife and the rebellious teenaged Murad. If I had to guess, I’d say that Mistry includes this epilogue as a reminder that happy endings don’t stay that way: no situation remains stable forever, and what might appear a happy ending could very well lead to further trouble down the road.
I kind of feel like I am rambling on and stirring up name soup without actually saying much. I am having difficulty reviewing this novel because the whole thing works so well together, but when I try to pick out one of the parts, the entire structure collapses on me. I can’t talk just about the way Yezad interacts with the political pressures on his boss or just about Jal and Coomy’s abominable behaviour regarding Nariman’s care. The book is aptly titled, because all of these events together create a story that is worth reading. The significance of Family Matters comes not from what Mistry has to say on any one topic, but the way each of those topics affects the members of this family.
Not everyone will invest in the characters in such a way that the experience becomes meaningful. I did, although I didn’t enjoy the portrayals of these people as much as I did the characters of A Fine Balance. Both novels, however, are incredibly intimate experiences. Moreover, I love the opportunity they give me to open my eyes and see a country and cultures that truly differ from my own views in so many different ways. (Yes, this is Mistry’s interpretation of India, and I am aware that doesn’t come without its own baggage. One advantage to reading A Fine Balance before Family Matters is that I recognized all the subtle digs he includes aimed at various critics of the former novel.) I don’t just read fiction about India for the novelty value: I do it because I could read hundreds of novels set in the Western world, and they would improve my vocabulary and my literary aptitude, but they would only reinforce my biases and beliefs. There is so much more out there—and at the same time, even families on the other side of the world struggle with issues I can recognize: the ailing elder and his lost love; deceit and desperation; trepidation over the changing times. Family Matters is strange and foreign but also comforting and familiar, and so while it is not quite sublime, it is definitely successful.
Hard to say whether this is the most famous Rushdie, but it’s certainly the one that got him into the most hot water. The Satanic Verses contains, inHard to say whether this is the most famous Rushdie, but it’s certainly the one that got him into the most hot water. The Satanic Verses contains, in part, an irreverent telling of the genesis of Islam as revealed by the prophet Mohammed (Mahound) retold through the visions of Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood superstar-turned-archangel. Yet, in that trademark way of his, Salman Rushdie manages to turn such irreverence into a kind of sacred worship all its own. Through plots both parallel and hopelessly entangled, Rushdie chronicles the falls from grace and redemptions of two men: both born in India, both actors, both somehow imbued with powers not of this Earth.
I’m very glad that I come to The Satanic Verses with other Rushdies under my belt. Its narrative is much less straightforward than either The Enchantress of Florence or Midnight’s Children. In this respect, it was more difficult to read and comprehend. Rushdie’s overall style remains the same, though. His characters are broad-strokes creatures viewed against the cardboard backing of a pinhole camera. They are caricatures, fantastical in description and dialogue, as Rushdie recreates the world ever so slightly as it is not. The narrative bifurcates and trifurcates, its branches diverging before looping around and returning to their origins—everything has its purpose, even if the purpose isn’t evident at first.
I’m becoming ambivalent about this whole "magical realism" as a genre thing. It seems like a construct of a Western tradition of literary criticism that is uncomfortable with anything less than stark delineations between realistic and fantastic literature. I don’t have enough experience with Indian literature (or entertainment in general) to say for sure, but the more I experience of it, the more it seems like this dichotomy between real/fantasy is mostly a Western thing. (We like our binaries.) Hence, when Rushdie infuses these unreal elements into a book that is otherwise grounded in modern society and conventions, he’s actually just emulating the great literature of India. This fact flies over the heads of most Western readers, though, and this is a shame. It makes the book seem more inscrutable than it has to be.
I won’t pretend to grok everything about The Satantic Verses from first page to last. This is a story that demands multiple readings of multiple types: long, lingering ones; quick, frantic ones; even, thoughtful ones … the complexity of the plot and nature of the narrative, with its multiple characters and layers of meaning, make this book more challenging than, say, a "beach read". I suspect that when I revisit it, I’ll be able to understand more, and give it a higher rating and sing its praises even more loudly.
As it is, the dualism between Gibreel and Saladin is one of the more obvious and most easily comprehensible of plots here. Gibreel the angel, Saladin the devil … and between them, the mysterious narrator, reluctant to reveal itself as God or Lucifer or Other, happy to remain aloof yet mischievous. Gibreel dreams of revelations to Mahound and the peasant girl Ayesha: for him, the transformation triggered by his fall from the airplane is a chance to realize what he has only portrayed on screen. Similarly, Saladin’s more diabolical countenance is linked to his careful, almost systematic attempts to eliminate any trace of personal character.
Of the two, it’s interesting to note that I found Saladin more fascinating. He turns his back on India and Indian culture, embracing with open arms "Englishness" as he perceives it. The root cause for this might be his relationship with his father. In a broader sense, Saladin’s choices seem to represent one of the many paths India faced in the twentieth century (and still, to some extent, faces today): to embrace an ersatz Englishness as the path to engagement with global (Western) civilization. (Gibreel, therefore, is the antithesis: he achieves success by embracing Indian culture, heritage, and mythology in an attempt to retrieve some of what was diminished by colonization.) As the book begins, Saladin is an established voice actor in England, his experience in removing traces of his native accent having furnished him with the talent to twist his voice into myriad others. He thinks that he has successfully divorced himself from his heritage, but a visit to India casts doubt on this. Thus, as he plummets to his certain doom alongside Gibreel, Saladin is a deflated man, forced to confront the fact that, ultimately, he has yet to find a place.
His transformation into a goat-like, devilish being only emphasizes this fact as Saladin’s friends and family turn from him. He loses his job. He is, technically, dead. And he only regains human form after he harnesses the power to hate: something Rushdie does not because he thinks hatred is good so much as he thinks it is a necessary component of the human condition. Saladin for so long had been repressing his hatred as part of an attempt to become as bland and unremarkable as possible (see also his lack of politics, his inability to have children, etc.) Hate is a strong emotion, and strong emotions are what Saladin needs to begin reconnecting with the world.
This thread of the necessity for connection and community runs throughout The Satanic Verses. What else is the creation of a new religion, a new god before all gods, or the declaration of a pilgrimage, but an acknowledgement of the need for common ties, for something that binds people together and provides identity? Mahound’s struggle for the recognition of Islam mirrors the struggle of the Black and Asian communities in London to find a worldview other than the one of thuggishness being fitted around them by others. Ayesha’s pilgrimage is a classic story of faith versus scepticism.
Layered atop this storytelling is Rushdie’s well-established talent for description and narration. His flair for manipulating the English language like a well-tuned musical instrument makes the book, though not easy to read, enjoyable to read. The Satantic Verses doesn’t quite approach the pinnacle atop which I’ve placed Midnight’s Children—to me, that is Rushdie at his best. However, it is certainly worth reading, as a work of art and a piece of incredibly multi-faceted storytelling.
This is probably the most depressing book I have ever read in my entire life. Not only is its chronicling of four lives bleak and without the slightesThis is probably the most depressing book I have ever read in my entire life. Not only is its chronicling of four lives bleak and without the slightest hint of hope or redemption, but it does this with a comprehensive scope and an unforgiving manner. Even re-reading it, knowing what was going to happen, did not mitigate my sadness. If anything, it amplified my emotions, because for all of the good things that happen in this book, the moments of joy, I knew how it was all going to go wrong. And this is not some adventure story or a romance where things get bad for a few hundred pages before the protagonists rise in the face of adversity. No, in A Fine Balance, everything goes to hell. And it doesn't get better.
I could spend several paragraphs discussing how this book is depressing. Suffice it to say, A Fine Balance is set in Mumbai, India. It covers over 30 years, from independence in 1947 to the Emergency of the 1970s. Rohinton Mistry follows four characters: two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash; the widow, Dina Dalal, who employs them in her apartment; and the college student, Maneck, rooming with the widow. These characters endure poverty, oppression, and abuse by those in power and those with power. The tailors, their relatives victims of caste violence in their village back home, arrive in Mumbai only to live in a slum that gets demolished, its slum-lord now in the pay of the government. But living on the streets is not an option, for during the Emergency police have broad discretion when it comes to "beautifying" the streets of the overcrowded, overpopulated city, and losing their residence is by far one of the lesser misfortunes that Ishvar and Om experience.
The Emergency happened before I was born, in a land far removed from me. It is nothing more than a name to me, a period in the recent history of a country related to mine by imperial ties and immigrant exchanges. So this book lacks the personal resonance it has for those who did live through this period, whether in India or abroad. And I haven't really ever experienced any of the hardships Mistry depicts here. Nevertheless, I can still appreciate A Fine Balance as a depiction of suffering during a time of turmoil and tyranny. And yeah, it is depressing, but I do not agree with those reviewers who find this a valid reason for panning the book. Mistry makes you feel sad for a reason.
While not perfect, Mistry's four protagonists are all good people. We learn this early in the book, for he recounts their past to us in a series of flashbacks so verbose as to transcend mere exposition and become true parts of the plot and narrative. Dina grows up under the thumb of her older brother, her dreams of becoming a doctor squashed by a patriarchal society. Instead she resorts to marriage as an escape, enjoys a happiness too rich to last long, and becomes a widow. For her, as with everyone, the question is how to make enough money to get by. Ishvar and Om come from a caste of tanners; their father made the defiant transition to tailoring and paid for the insolence with his life. They carry on in his tradition, but they have come to the city seeking work. Maneck has come to the city also looking for escape and edification; he is enrolled in a one-year college certification on air conditioners. He's not a very good student, but he is happy he has left his hometown, and with it his unsatisfying relationship with his father.
These are ordinary, everyday people. They do not invite the misfortune that befalls them. Why do bad things happen to good people? A Fine Balance is many things, but it is not theodicy. It is instead a look at the consequences of a certain zeitgeist present in India at the time of the emergency. We see it in the way that Ishvar, Om, Dina, and Maneck all become victims, yes, but this zeitgeist pervades the novel on every level. It is present in the attitudes of Mistry's minor characters, in the exclamations of approval from Mrs. Gupta and Nusswan regarding the Emergency and its effect on trade unions, in the derision of Beggarmaster and the guilty conscience of Sergeant Kesar. Just as ordinary people ignored the obvious injustices happening during the Holocaust, so too did ordinary people rationalize and justify the brutality and the injustices that occurred during the Emergency. Some, like Mrs. Gupta or Nusswan, do it for economic reasons, whether or not they believe such actions are truly justified—scarily enough, some do. Others, like Sergeant Kesar, care less about the political significance of their actions and more about the moral significance.
I like Sergeant Kesar. He is a very minor character, but he is an example of how Mistry manages to make the scope of his political themes so broad. There are plenty of stock characters in A Fine Balance, but for every goonda mindlessly enforcing the will of a landlord or minister, there is a Sergeant Kesar or an Ibrahim, an authority figure with a name and a face. These are antagonists or sometime-allies who, for one reason or another, are probably good people but have managed to end up in the wrong line of work at the wrong time. They struggle with their jobs, with the way they interact with people like Dina Dalal. This struggle is a poignant counterpoint to the innocent suffering of our four protagonists. The Emergency is not a monolithic movement of one group oppressing another. It is, Mistry shows us, a tumultuous period of conflict as one government tries to stay in power while elements subvert it for their own purposes.
That seems to fit with India, a country always in flux as a result of its vast population and rich history. Indira Gandhi's desecration of democracy destabilizes the country, but it is just another straw on the back of an already over-laden camel. From Ishvar and Om's backstory we learn of the deterioration of the caste system, and the resulting resistance from those, like the Thakur, who have power in the villages. From Maneck's childhood we see how urban development and expansion, commercialism and competition, are changing India's rural landscape and endangering some enterprises, like his father's general store. Dina's tale is more personal and more gendered, but it is also a story about family and independence. As she points out, independence is an illusion. We are all dependent on each other, especially in a city as big as Mumbai, and the culmination of the relationships of these four characters is an illustration of their interdependence. Ishvar and Om's detainment and disappearance profoundly affects Dina and Maneck, both personally and professionally; likewise, Dina's troubles with the landlord threaten Ishvar and Om's livelihood.
But I digress. In A Fine Balance, Mistry juxtaposes the turmoil of the Emergency with many other events occurring simultaneously to alter India's zeitgeist. The result is a snapshot of a country that has always fascinated me for its conflict and its contradictions. Mistry's descriptions of life in Mumbai, especially for the impoverished, are almost beyond my ability to grasp, so different are they from what I know. India is in that interesting zone between developing and developed nation (though I am aware such terminology is, as ever, controversial). Its economy is so huge, so rich, both real and with potential, yet its massive population faces problems of education, poverty, and health. It is a fascinating country with very real challenges, both now and in the 1970s when this novel takes place.
All this, of course, does not really address that central question: why so depressing? Why couldn't Mistry weave a thread of hope through his quilt of a story? In my opinion, Maneck's ultimate fate obviates any possible solace one might find in the tenuous equilibrium achieved by Dina, Ishvar, and Om. It is a grace note that manages to overpower the end of the book, cause shock and dismay, and colours anything that follows. I don't want to spoil it if you haven't read the book, but it is an action of such implicit nihilism that it is emblematic of the tone of A Fine Balance.
Simply put, if this book ended on a "happy" note, if Ishvar, Om, Dina, and Maneck emerged with little in way of complaint, then their suffering would have been meaningless. That is a major claim to make, I know. Other books involve characters who suffer greatly only to emerge triumphant and all the better for it, so what makes these ones different? It is both the nature and the degree of their suffering. Their experiences are so brutal, so dehumanizing, that any serious redemption would minimize them too much for the reader. In order to emerge from such experiences triumphantly, it would have to be through actions of their own doing, through some form of resistance that overcomes the adversity. This would contradict the sense of powerlessness that Mistry wants to communicate, the utter helplessness in the face of an implacable political climate created by corrupt politicians and police. Ishvar and Om are not, cannot be revolutionaries. Dina and Maneck cannot be subversives. So when they suffer and submit and then it is over … well, it cannot really be over, not until they are devastated. Mistry must administer a coup de grâce that finalizes the destruction he has plotted since page one.
This book is fiction, so it must have a beginning, middle, and end. But it is as close to being true as fiction can get, both in verisimilitude and in attitude. It is neither uplifting nor endearing but wearing. Even the most optimistic person would feel besieged by Mistry's careful and persistent erosion of everything good from the universe of A Fine Balance. And this holds up to repeated readings, because his depictions of characters both major and minor are just so vivid, so believable, so tortuously touching, that you cannot help but care about what happens to them, even when you know it will be nothing good.
And so, I am not sure what to say, except that this is one of my favourite books, and in my opinion, one of the best books ever written, period. There will always be those who disagree, who pick it up, trudge through fifty or a hundred or two hundred pages, and then declare it a waste, a wash, unimpressive or boring at best. I don't know how to respond to those people, or even if I should respond. All I can say is that few books have ever affected me so much as A Fine Balance. Many books have moved me; many have entertained me and charmed me and made me laugh and cry. But A Fine Balance has left an indelible mark upon me. It is a work of consummate skill. This book is fiction, so it must be false. But it is a sad, depressing book, because somewhere out there in the past and the present and, yes, the future, every single bit of it is, in some form, true.
Panchaali enters this world through a holy fire, an unwanted boon granted by the gods in addition to her brother, the child destined to kill their fatPanchaali enters this world through a holy fire, an unwanted boon granted by the gods in addition to her brother, the child destined to kill their father's greatest enemy. She marries the five Pandava brothers, the eldest of whom bets and loses his kingdom to their cousin. After twelve years of exile in the forest, the cousin refuses to return the kingdom, and the Pandavas go to war against the Kauravas. It is a story so epic that it has an epic name: the Mahabharata.
My reading of fiction involving Indian culture has been biased toward postcolonial works. This wasn't intentional; rather, I think it's because there are just so many well-known postcolonial authors, like Salman Rushdie. My experience with epics in general is sorely lacking. The Palace of Illusions is no substitute for the real Mahabharata, of course, but it's a good place to start. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has taken one of the fundamental pieces of Indian literature and focused on the story of Panchaali. Narrating the events from Panchaali's perspective, CBD explores Panchaali's role in the conflict between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The result is a moving tale of human tragedy which, according to CBD, gives us insight into a character who is significant in the Mahabharata but largely silent on her motives, thoughts, and feelings.
Hmm . . . a female author re-telling an epic from the perspective of a female character. That sounds familiar. It reminds me of Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Fortunately, The Palace of Illusions doesn't share Lavinia's stylistic shortcomings. I quite like the way CBD has written this book, for she warms up to Panchaali's voice as a person instead of trying to preserve any of the omniscient qualities of a more neutral narrator. A lot of what we hear is rumour or hearsay, filtered through Panchaali's own opinions and biases. I had to keep reminding myself that Panchaali is an unreliable narrator, that we don't really know if the Pandavas are as innocent as she makes them seem. (Well, OK, innocent isn't the right term. But she definitely wants us to think they are the righteous ones, even though some of her story belies this.) What would this story have been like from the point of view of Gandhari, mother of Duryodhan?
Since CBD embraces her first person narrator, the epic scope of the source material suddenly becomes more personal. This in turn leads to a good question: can one really distill the essence of something as long and convoluted as the Mahabharata in less than four hundred pages? Having not read the Mahabharata, I can't say for certain; however,, I suspect the answer is "no." One of the reasons mythology is beautiful is its enduring but flexible nature as a source material. What matters is not whether CBD distilled the entire epic into a novel but whether she remains true to the original's themes (something I'm not qualified to judge) and true to her own stated goal (which, thanks to her Author's Note, I can judge).
For the most part, The Palace of Illusions entrance me in the way only mythology can. Panchaali herself is literally a mythic character, as she was born from a fire; she associates with other mythical characters, like Krishna. She inhabits an India where magic is part of the quotidian fabric of life; people regularly interact with gods, who often bequeath boons, curses, or even powerful astras. Gods go around fathering children (poor Kunti!). Thanks to the Hindi concepts of dharma and reincarnation, however, the gods' often-capricious attitudes are much easier to understand than those of their eternal Greek counterparts. In particular, Panchaali ruminates a lot on the motives and loyalties of Krishna (whose divine status she denies until quite late in the book). All of the gods, Krishna included, seem to be aware that they are simply part of a narrative. As Vyasa puts it: "Why should I grieve any more at it than if I were watching a play?" Many of the characters are aware that they are, to some extent, merely actors in a play. And I love stories like that, stories that are self-aware without being self-conscious. It makes the story itself seem magical, fantastic instead of just fantasy. And it is an atmosphere and tone entirely suitable for an epic.
One thing about CBD's style did irk me. She glosses over a great many events that, to me, seem important. For example, after Panchaali's marriage to all five Pandavas, we get a brief explanation of how her marital situation works: she is married to each of the five brothers for a year, during which time she sleeps only with him, and the others don't touch her or speak to her in private. She mentions it several times, and once and a while she reflects upon it—but for something so central to her adult life, she takes it very much in stride. Considering that CBD is trying to explore Panchaali's feelings and motivations, I'm disappointed she did not include more detail on how this strange marriage affected the relations among the Pandavas and Panchaali. We only get vague details, like the fact that Arjun resents Panchaali for the situation, though it was his mother's doing. Sometimes it feels like we get a "digest" version of Panchaali's story, though CBD delves into incredible detail in other sections.
These narrative difficulties do not diminish the pathos CBD creates for Panchaali, the Pandavas, and even the Kauravas. Yes, it's silly that Yudhisthir loses his kingdom to Duryodhan in a game of dice, and then ends up betting Panchaali as well. It's silly that so many brothers, cousins, and old friends end up fighting each other because of vows, matters of honour, or prior obligations. But is that not one of the flaws of humans? In our hubris, we commit the greatest follies. Panchaali, humiliated by both her brothers and Dusassan, vows not to comb her hair until she "bathes in Kaurava blood," and it's safe to say that this ire contributes to the budding hostility between cousins. We are, at times, prideful, wrathful, vengeful, even as we can be compassionate, kind, and conciliatory.
I could spend a lot of time ruminating on why CBD chose the title The Palace of Illusions. Ultimately, I think it symbolizes the motif of mutability. Our personalities are complex, and our desires and convictions are evanescent. Krishna reminds Panchaali of this truth at the end:
. . . I asked, What if I forget?
He said, You probably will. Most of htem do. That's the beguiling trick the world plays on you. You'll suffer for it—or dream that you're suffering. But no matter. At the time of your death I'll remind you. That'll be enough.
We live, and while we live, we change so much. Past triumphs become regrets. We look back at our previous selves and shake our heads with wonder. We die, and our lives fold back in upon themselves. Was it real? Is this real? Do we go to heaven, reincarnate, or simply cease to exist? We are mutable, and like Panchaali's palace, always in flux.
I can't attest to how well The Palace of Illusions upholds the legacy of the Mahabharata. Regardless, it is a beautifully-written, moving story about Panchaali, the Pandavas, and the Kauravas. At times it doesn't go as deep into Panchaali's life as I would expect of a story narrated by and about her. But that's a minor quibble compared to the tragic story, one of personal and epic scope, unfolded against the landscape of an India where magic is commmonplace and gods walk among us.
**spoiler alert** It wasn't until the middle of the story that The Writing On My Forehead nearly broke my heart. And the scene that did it wasn't anyt**spoiler alert** It wasn't until the middle of the story that The Writing On My Forehead nearly broke my heart. And the scene that did it wasn't anything remarkable: it was when Saira decides to lie to her mother about playing Rizzo in her school's production of Grease. Prior to that, although I was enjoying the book, nothing had really moved me very emotionally. But then it hit me, the line that Saira was crossing, and I was touched.
Nafisa Haji creates a very personal microcosm around her narrator, but this does not prevent her from weaving a story of many layers. We get more than a glimpse at the intricacies of life in Saira's extended Indo-Pakistani Muslim family, the social contract that exists among family members and the obligations one has to fulfil as a result. Beyond her family, international events progress at their own pace; though Saira becomes a globetrotting journalist, the narrative is confined to Los Angeles, London, and Karachi and the events important to Saira and her family. The only international event to intrude is September 11, and that's because it indirectly affects Saira's life—and the life of her sister, Ameena.
Although not didactic by nature, Haji's novel is a useful reminder of the heterogeneity of Islam—both Saira and her slightly more conservative mother express concern when Ameena begins to wear a hijab, for instance. I liked that Haji chose not to present Saira's mother and family as villains pressuring Saira to marry out of a misguided sense of morality; they were just concerned parents who genuinely believed that this was the only way Saira would be happy. The characters of The Writing On My Forehead, from rebellious gay Mohsin to erudite Big Nanima, are dynamic and three-dimensional. Even Saira's mother eventually chooses to reconcile with her estranged half-siblings, partly due to Saira's influential journalism. This is not a book of paper-thin characters following strict moral codes; it's a sandstorm of the conflicting and corroborating moral decisions of an extended family.
Indeed, Haji demures from any specific themes of morality, choosing instead to talk about choice and destiny, culminating in perhaps the most poignant line in the entire book: "You won't understand this now, Saira. Later, perhaps. When you are older. When you learn that life is not only about the choices you make. That some of them will be made for you." At its core, The Writing On My Forehead is a chronicle of the push/pull, personal choice versus familial obligation, and a desperate desire to fulfil both.
The book is also about sisterhood: Saira and Ameena, Nanima and Big Nanima, Mummy and her two other sisters. There are parallels in the relationships of each of these categories, but they operate on a less explicit level than the book's other themes. Marriage came between Nanima and Big Nanima, as it almost comes between Saira and Ameena. Each of these sisters chooses a different lifestyle, one that appears to work for them, although the others don't always understand how this can be so. Isn't that always how it is, though?
The only problem with this book, in my opinion, is the narrative style. The majority of the story takes place during a flashback; that's fine, except that by the time we arrive back at the "present," I had begun to forget what the present was. Perhaps that's a compliment to Haji's ability to draw me into the story and the life of her character. Nonetheless, the flashback presents some difficulty. The first part of the book chronicles Saira's time as a child, up until her college years. Then it skips forward five years to a time just prior to the present. Haji does this in order to conceal the revelation that Saira's niece, Sakina, is actually her daughter, the result of an unintentional pregnancy adopted by Saira's infertile sister. I can tell that this twist is supposed to be eye-opening and shocking, particularly because it happens after Saira's sister is shot and her niece, only six years old, has to deal with her "mother's" death. Yet I think I would have preferred experiencing all of this linearly; instead of a five-year gap, I would have liked to know from the beginning that Sakina is Saira's child. There seems to be little reason to conceal this from us, beyond the pure shock value.
The Writing On My Forehead is a profound read, but not as moving as I usually expect from similar books. It made me think about culture, family, and duty. Aside from what's really a technical flaw, this book is quite good, so I won't hesitate to recommend it to those who are interested. ...more
This is my first book of the year, and it took me quite some time to get into it.
Few things annoy me more than when an author decides to ignore such aThis is my first book of the year, and it took me quite some time to get into it.
Few things annoy me more than when an author decides to ignore such a useful stylistic conventions as using quotation marks to offset dialogue! I like quotation marks. It makes the book easier to parse and gives me a clear idea of who is saying what. I discarded Blindness for similar reasons. Had I not been more favourably disposed to M.G. Vassanji after reading The Assassin's Song, I might have done the same thing.
I have an inkling as to why Vassanji chose this departure from the norm. By abandoning quotation marks—in effect, dialogue itself—everything everyone says comes to us via Vikram and is interpreted and filtered through Vikram. All of the characters speak in Vikram's voice, and his is the only voice in the book for that reason. Still, this was an annoying aspect of The In-Between World that did not encourage me to continue reading.
After about the first third of the book, the story picks up as Vikram moves into adulthood. It's painful. That can be a good thing—and I didn't expect a story of unmitigated happiness here. Vassanji is capturing the zeitgeist in the microcosm of an individual, and seldom is the zeitgeist a wholly good one. Vassanji is careful, however, to portray the bad and the good. It was a time of murder and corruption, but it was also a time of hope and inspiration.
As a depiction of Kenya in the late twentieth century, this book fails to yield the scope required for a detailed understanding of the political dynamics at work. However, the interactions between the characters, particularly between Vikram and his relations, give us an idea of the pressures the external world puts upon everyone in Nairobi. Nairobi is much like the main character: a nexus of European, particularly British worldviews with East African identity and cultures. And that portrayal of personal transformation, of a change of identity as Kenya comes of age and gains independence, is the most rewarding part of The In-Between World.
This book has a perfect title. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall describes precisely what it is about. Vikram is in-between everything and everyone. As an Indian born and raised in Kenya, he is neither an "African" nor an outsider. He is alien to his own country. Among his family, he can never seem to take sides in issues. And in Kenya at large, he becomes a power and money broker, not out of avarice but because he gets caught up in larger affairs.
It's this sense of "going with the flow" and powerlessness that prevents me from sympathizing with Vikram. He only takes responsibility for his actions at the end; that's why he's telling this story, I suppose. It's difficult to criticize this, since it's an intentional component of Vikram's characterization, yet it detracted from my enjoyment of the book. As much as the life of an Indian family in Kenya fascinated me, as much as I cringed at the tragedy of Deepa and Njoroge's love, Vikram's constant disavowal of responsibility looms over the narrative like an approaching storm cloud.
If I have to generalize (and you know I do), I'd say that this is a worthy book. My criticism is subjective, so I don't want to warn people away because I disliked the lack of quotation marks or the characterization of the narrator. There's something in this book that will appeal to everyone, even if few people will find everything about the book appealing. Am I so sure it was worth the Giller? No, but then again, it's probably a good thing that I don't have to decide these matters....more
I dug into The Years of Rice and Salt with much gusto, for its premise was an intriguing example of why alternate history can be so seductive. Yet almI dug into The Years of Rice and Salt with much gusto, for its premise was an intriguing example of why alternate history can be so seductive. Yet almost immediately, my expectations were completely torn apart and shoved in my face. Sometimes this can be good; other times it ruins a book completely. In this case, while I quite enjoyed some of the philosophical aspects of the book, it failed to sustain my interest for its 760 pages.
In this version of history, the Black Death decimates the white Christian population of Europe. The Holy Roman Empire vanishes. Columbus never makes his infamous "discovery" of the New World. The Renaissance never happens. Shakespeare is never born. Robinson takes the discoveries our history often attributes to dead, white, male Europeans and transfers them to Muslim and Buddhist Chinese and Middle Eastern men and women. Muslim alchemists invent calculus while trying to measure the speed of light; a Chinese fleet ordered to invade Japan gets blown off course and winds up, eventually, in North America.
Given the fact that the back cover copy promises "a look at history that could have been—one that stretches across centuries.... Through the eyes of soldiers and kings, explorers and philosophers, slaves and scholars," perhaps my expectations were too simple. Robinson uses reincarnation as a plot device to carry his characters across eras and around the world. Although the characters don't retain their memories of past lives (except for a few instances) while living a new one, this device forces the reader to interpret their actions as part of a great karmic cycle. This is particularly the case for the first part of the book, where the narration reinforces the idea that each life is a chance to "embrace the Buddha-nature" and move on to the next plane of existence. Later in the book, the emphasis shifts from the characters to the necessity for society as a whole to come to grips with its own existence and embrace peace before it's too late.
And therein lies my problem with the book. Although the reincarnation device was not what I expected, I tolerated it. This isn't the first book I've read with reincarnated main characters; it probably won't be the last. However, the narrative style of The Years of Rice and Salt is demonstrably inconsistent in a way I can't reconcile with any dramatic purpose.
In the first "book," each chapter is numbered but untitled but has a short snippet that described what would take place: Chapter 1, "Another journey west, Bold and Psin find an empty land; Temur is displeased, and the chapter has a stormy end." I liked those. Each chapter also ended with a fourth-wall-breaking remark, such as, "What happened in there we don't want to tell you, but the story won't make sense unless we do, so on to the next chapter. These things happened." I hated these; they were annoying, and I was glad when they stopped after the first book. So did the chapter descriptions though. In Book 2, the chapters had numbers and titles but no descriptions. In Book 3, the chapters had neither numbers nor titles. In Book 4, the chapters had titles but no numbers! And so on, changing apparently on whim, with neither rhyme nor reason. This irked me even more than the book's story—it distracted me from the story, which is a cardinal sin. Robinson's editor should have stepped in, either to standardize this practise or make sure there's an evident reason for it.
Suppose I'm just a complainer, though, who's way too obsessive over meaningless design decisions that don't actually pertain to the plot. Does The Years of Rice and Salt redeem itself in its story, in its heart-warming characters who struggle against centuries of adversity to advance the plight of humanity? Not really.
Reading this book, I was reminded of Umberto Eco, whose novels don't even try to pretend they're anything other than didactic philosophical treatises wrapped in a fiction taco shell. And I know some people find that unforgivable; I, on the other hand, don't mind it—if the author can pull it off. Robinson, at least in this book, falls short of the mark. He flirts with the concept of parallel history, chronicling the development of science in an order suspiciously similar to our own history's, just via Muslim and Chinese scientists. Oh, and there are airships, naturally. This flirtation undercuts the differences explored in the development of moral philosophy, governance, equality, power equity, etc. Once and a while we're treated to an interesting chapter in which one of the reincarnated characters shares a theory on the role of women in government or whatnot, but then we get page after page on the development of the law of universal gravitation (or later, smugly veiled references to relativity versus quantum mechanics).
I loved the sense of difference created on a macrocosmic level, watching China and Islam duke it out for control over the world. I liked how the indigenous peoples of North America actually prevent wholesale takeover of the continent by other of those two factions; indeed, their egalitarian style of government influences much of Europe and West Asia. For all of these broad strokes, however, Robinson neglects the minutiae of his characters' various lives. The detail he adds to the settings, many of which would be unfamiliar to Eurocentrically-educated readers like myself, doesn't quite compensate for this lack of characterization. Overall, The Years of Rice and Salt stretches itself too thin....more
This is not a book for everyone, in the sense that you must be receptive in order to read it, or else you'll want to put it down after the first 100 pThis is not a book for everyone, in the sense that you must be receptive in order to read it, or else you'll want to put it down after the first 100 pages (if that). It's a slow story, rich in details and dwelling on significant moments in the lives of its many characters. There's very little action and a lot of deliberation. It takes dedication and patience to see it through until the end. If you have that, however, then hopefully you enjoyed The Toss of a Lemon as much as I did.
Padma Viswanathan provides us with an intimate perspective in a culture that is foreign (at least to me). To those of us who have grown up in a society without castes, a society without child marriage, parts of the story may seem strange and even unconscionable. It challenges us to keep an open mind and remember that just because our society taught us something is moral or immoral does not automatically make it so.
I enjoyed watching the development of a single family over the course of sixty years and four generations. The events within the family parallelled and reacted to the events going on in India at the time, causing alliances to form and branches of the family to schism. With the exception of one father who marries into the family, Goli (whose antagonism seems just a little too enthusiastic), Viswanathan's family squabbles illustrate the tension between the "old" and "new" orders--the former wanting to preserve the traditions and values of the caste system, with the latter pushing for the abolishment of caste and replacing superstition with science and medicine. Some members of the family resist this transition while others embrace it wholeheartedly. With The Toss of a Lemon, it's not a matter of taking sides and deciding who is "right." Rather, I enjoyed watching what choices each character made.
Parts of the book are slow, and I didn't like every aspect of the story. One of the antagonists, Goli, didn't seem realistic all the time. Toward the end of the story, his role was marginalized (and to be honest, I liked it that way). Likewise, the pace of the story slows even further for the last 1/3 of the book until suddenly hitting the denouement, where everything wraps up in the blink of an eye. I knew this would happen because I was nearing the end of the numerous pages, even though I didn't want the story to end.
The Toss of a Lemon is an excellent piece of character driven fiction. It took a good chunk of time for me to read, but it was worth that time (unlike some books), and I appreciate how it educated me about another culture without insisting that I accept the culture in any particular light--Viswanathan presents historical events and her characters' lives in a very neutral way, allowing us to form our own opinions and remember that just because one is raised to believe something, that doesn't necessarily make it right or just. As the times change, so do the mores, and this will lead to conflict across generations. It's our actions during such times of conflict that test us as people. Seldom do you get to see three generations of a family interact in this manner, however, which is why The Toss of a Lemon earned my praise....more
**spoiler alert** I found Jhumpa Lahiri through her anthology Unaccustomed Earth, which was my #1 book of 2008. Almost a year and a half later, I retu**spoiler alert** I found Jhumpa Lahiri through her anthology Unaccustomed Earth, which was my #1 book of 2008. Almost a year and a half later, I return to Lahiri, this time in novel form. The Namesake has rough edges not visible in Lahiri's later efforts, but the same magic that so impressed me in her short stories is there even in this earlier novel.
This is a story that captivates because it becomes so personal. The birth and development of Gogol Ganguli, a second-generation Indian in the United States, fascinates me because I grew up in a household so different from the Bengali culture Lahiri depicts here. However, I can still identify with Gogol's struggle for self-identity—who can't? Not all of us change or names, but most of us, at least once in our lives, feel lost and unsure of who we are. It's this dual sense of the alien and the familiar that makes The Namesake compelling, at least for me: I can recognize truths about my own life because they're presented against a background that differs from my own.
Gogol does not struggle against his parents' attempt to enforce an "Indian" or "Bengali" identity so much as he struggles against more personal definitions of self, such as his name. As a child, he rejects his parents' attempts to give him an official "good name" of "Nikhil." Upon entering university, he changes his name to Nikhil to escape the connotations of his namesake, Nikolai Gogol. This becomes a recurring theme throughout Gogol's life, and a curious one: he rejects his parents' intervention, then succumbs to it, often once they regard it as folly. We see this again in his relationship with Moushumi. At first he dates very "American" women and resists his mother's attempts to fix him up with Moushumi. Later, after he meets Moushumi and marries her, his mother regrets her matchmaking when the relationship doesn't work out.
Most of the book focuses on Gogol's relationships with women. He never seems to have a close male friend, or even close platonic friendships with women. The only men who have a long term impact on Gogol's life are his namesake and his father: "the man who gave you his name, and the man who gave you your name." I like how Lahiri charts their influence on Gogol, from how he views his names to how he views his father. Yet her exclusive focus on Gogol's relationships seems so narrow. We never see his interactions with professors or roommates, beyond a few meagre lines of dialogue. We never meet his colleagues. Gogol exists with a buffer zone around him, upon which only girlfriends and family members impinge.
I appreciate the multiple perspectives Lahiri uses, delving at times into the minds of Gogol's mother, father, and Moushumi. Each of them carries their own conflicts and doubts, not just about Gogol but about their own lives. The contrast between Gogol's parents' lives and Gogol's own life is striking: a single generation changes so much. As Gogol's mother puts it:
She no longer wonders what it might have been like to do what her children have done, to fall in love first rather than years later, to deliberate over a period of months or years and not a single afternoon, which was the time it had taken for her and Ashoke to agree to wed.
It's these multiple perspectives that give a sense of meaning to each character's choices. Gogol and Moushumi perceive in each other a sameness, a shared background that promises the stability they think they crave. After marrying, Gogol thrives on that stability, but Moushumi quickly becomes unsatisfied. Endemic to The Namesake, connected to its motif of identity, is a look at the question we sometimes forget to ask: why do people act as they do? What motivates one couple to stay together while another couple breaks apart?
Lahiri makes no promises of a happy ending nor assurances that life will work out for the best. Instead, she portrays the mistakes and the memories of two generations with sometimes brutal honesty. Aside from a few setbacks, however, Gogol's life does seem a little uneventful. This is an artifact of Lahiri's focus on his relationships, because Gogol seldom makes many decisions about those until it's too late, at which time he drifts along in life until the next woman comes by. I feel like Lahiri could have done more here, could have explored more, if only she had given Gogol more difficulties.
The narrative style that worked so well for short stories, unfortunately, feels flatter when extended to novel-length. Lahiri writes as if in stream-of-consciousness, except in third person, present tense. Everything is description, with very little dialogue. This allows her to cover plenty of time in a short amount of pages, but it has the disadvantage of feeling more like plot summary than story. As I observe above, we're well acquainted with her characters' thoughts and feelings, but the events of their lives go past sometimes as a montage instead of actual scenes.
But there's a masterful sense of resolution to the ending, happy or not, that makes up for these narrative flaws. As Gogol's mother prepares to leave the house she's lived in for decades, Gogol rediscovers the Nikolai Gogol book his father gave him for his thirteenth birthday. Years after his father's death, he suddenly has the opportunity to get to know the man who named him, as well as the man whose name he bears (no matter what his passport says). It's a final redemption that serves as a powerful reminder: we can never go back and rectify the past, but we can always go forward and remake the future.
I can't be as effusive in my praise for The Namesake as Unaccustomed Earth. There is still much here to enjoy and to experience. Jhumpa Lahiri has a knack for putting to the page observations that ring true, regardless of the culture of one's upbringing. In doing so, she offers a window into other lives, other minds. We're all so different and diverse, so in our quest for identity, inevitably we find different answers. The questions, however, are always the same....more
Overall, the word I'd use to describe this book is "shallow." Clarke and Pohl, two big names in SF, have managed to take two interesting concepts (FerOverall, the word I'd use to describe this book is "shallow." Clarke and Pohl, two big names in SF, have managed to take two interesting concepts (Fermat's Last Theorem and alien sterilization of Earth) and turn them into a boring book. It's as if they said one day, "Well, we've succeeded at everything else in literature; now we have to succeed at writing a bad book!"
My major problem with the book is the lack of any consequences, or really, any conflict at all. At points the story threatens to inject a conflict--such as when Ranjit becomes an unwitting accomplice to pirates and subsequently spends two years being tortured in prison. For a moment, I thought that might produce some genuine unhappiness that could mar this otherwise oppressively upbeat book. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Even toward the end, tragedy loomed on at least three separate occasions, yet somehow everything turned out all right. It's not that I have a problem with happy endings; I loves me a good happy ending. But happiness without struggle against adversity is hollow. I've read much better science fiction than this--this book feels like it was written for a fourteen-year-old as a "My first science fiction novel"--it's patronizing.
Our "protagonist", if indeed we can call him that, Ranjit, stumbles through his life without ever having to make any important decisions. Everything just sort of falls serendipitously into place. Oh, and along the way he discovers a miraculously short proof to Fermat's Last Theorem. Meanwhile, alien overlords have sent alien minions to sterilize Earth of dangerous humanity. But it's OK, because the overlords change their minds and then the minions befriend humanity.
As with the possibilities of tragedy I mentioned above, the book tempts us with the prospect of a meaningful theme when it touches upon the dangerous nature of an EMP-like weapon controlled by "the Big Three"--Russia, China, and the United States. Will this lead to an Orwellian future in which these Big Three control the only military forces on the planet? And will first contact with an alien species ironically lead to all-out planetary war even as the countries of humanity approach global peace?
Nah. It's much easier to just tell us in an epilogue that everything worked out fine, and thirteen thousand years everything was still going fine.
I'd have to say that even The Da Vinci Code better integrated an esoteric academic subject than this book. I understand that not everyone loves math as much as me, so I tolerate the explanations of Fermat's Last Theorem. But it wasn't even interesting. It had no relevance to the plot, because there was no plot. And since this book had Arthur C. Clarke's name on the cover, this has been the cause of severe disappointment for me!...more
It's easy to review something you hate. Indeed, reviewing a bad book is enjoyable, because you feel free to tear it apart and vilify it as much as posIt's easy to review something you hate. Indeed, reviewing a bad book is enjoyable, because you feel free to tear it apart and vilify it as much as possible--your harshness is excused, justified by the poor quality of the book itself. Reviewing a good book is more difficult; you have to struggle to find something interesting to say or to come up with criticism. It is nearly impossible to review a great book with any amount of confidence, for then you feel the weight of having to do justice to something that, in your opinion, exceeds the excellence of sliced bread by a long measure.
That's how I feel about Midnight's Children. I began the book wanting to fall in love with it, anticipating it because I'd previously read other works by Salman Rushdie. Thus, I was already favourably predisposed toward the book. Yet at first, I thought it merited only four stars--I desperately desired to give it five, but the critic in me stubbornly demanded four. However, at some point during the last half of the book, my resistance melted, and I got it. I thought, This is good--not "good" in the sense of mediocre, but "good" in the sense of good storytelling and good writing and, crucially, good will. Try as I might, having finished the entire book, I am at a loss for criticism. What follows is an untempered, completely biased encomium of Midnight's Children. I make no apology for this.
Rushdie personifies the country of India in a single citizen, and tells its history allegorically through the autobiographical account of the narrator, Saleem Sinai. To borrow some phrasing from the book, India is Saleem and Saleem is India. The significance of this narrative framework was lost on me at first; the frame story of recounting one's autobiography seemed like a mere interesting plot device rather than a brilliant theme.
Saleem has taken narcissism and followed it to its extreme logical conclusion--i.e., he is so self-absorbed that he believes events in his life precipitated events in India's history. As he recounts his life story, he pronounces judgement upon his past self (whom he often refers to in the third person, a separate entity from the omnipresent, judgemental "I" of the unreliable narrator). It took some time for me to realize that this was Rushdie's way of generalizing the Indian collective consciousness at various key points during its history--Saleem's judgements weren't a statement about Saleem, but a statement about how Indians felt about India, how they saw themselves and their society, at that period in their history. With this in mind, the entire narrative-as-allegory fell into place, and I truly began to appreciate the masterpiece that Rushdie has created.
Rushdie's prose and style are second to none. He takes liberties with the English language the likes of which we haven't seen for the better part of a century. As with any good writer, his diction and syntax are just two more tools he uses expertly to create atmosphere and tone. Midnight's Children is packed full of one-sentence paragraphs consisting of semi-colon connected clauses. Commas become optional if they'll break the stream of consciousness. While ignoring (or at least stretching) such basic rules of grammar can be perilous, running the risk of making the story hard to follow, Rushdie never crosses the line.
In fact, the actual experience of reading Midnight's Children reminded me why I love prose so much, why reading is eminently superior to other forms of entertainment (I'm looking at you, television!). In the hands of an author like Salman Rushdie, words can transcend language, and prose becomes beautiful. While other authors can describe a scene in such a way that I feel present, that I can smell the smells and feel the textures, Rushdie wields a different sort of literary magic: his words evoke emotions, their euphony resonating with the soul and reminding us of the beauty of life itself. I savoured the words of Midnight's Children, each one dear to me because I knew I could only read it once--this is the type of book, of course, that requires many readings before one can truly get a handle on it, but the first time is always special. I can tell, without reading any other reviews, that many will reject Midnight's Children on the grounds that it is too difficult to read. That viewpoint is valid, but it represents a denial on the reader's part of a willingness to surrender themselves to the experience. Such people prefer lighter fare, books that are easier to digest or utterly linear in narrative. And there's nothing wrong with that per se, but it is their loss.
Many of the characters are at once complex and stock, deep and three-dimensional while still blatantly allegorical. In this way, Midnight's Children reminded me of Shakespeare, whose characters were often representative of abstract concepts or environs. Amina Sinai, who changed her name from Mumtaz Aziz in order to have children, is the mother of Saleem, and thus the mother of India--except that we quickly learn that Saleem is not Amina's biological child (yes, a changeling, he was switched at birth!)--so what implications does this have for India? Here Rushdie interweaves his favourite motifs of post-colonialism. Saleem has two possible biological fathers: Wee Willie Winkie, and impoverished street singer and performer, and William Methwold, an expatriate Brit who subsequently left India after it gained independence. This uncertainty mirrors the deep-seated identity crisis that India must have undergone shortly after becoming its own country--is it the byproduct of colonial Britain, or the creation of its own common people? By never answering the question for certain, Rushdie preserves the duality of this crisis (the answer, of course, is that India is both, and neither, but such a phenomenon would stretch Saleem-as-metaphor somewhat further than necessary). Saleem observes his tendency to "give birth" to parents in a sort of "reverse fertility", much like India struggles to find its own leaders and voice as its various internal ethnicities vie for power. Although Saleem himself is Muslim, he often refers to the Hindu mythology entwined with Indian culture, and at times he refers to himself as a buddha (not, however, a Buddha with a capital B!).
Religion figures prominently in Midnight's Children. Lack of religion is the motivating factor behind Saleem's grandfather's life, one which leads to his obsession with a perforated sheet, dooming Saleem and India to its fate. The partitioning of India, into Pakistan-and-India, and then Pakistan-and-India-with-states, is a response to the religious tension among India's people. Who is Muslim, who is Hindu? Who can have power, and who must be persecuted? Former friends become enemies, opposing generals moving their armies into battle against each other. And ultimately, no religion is safe from corruption by the humanity that drives it: Hindus and Muslims alike do terrible things, to their own people and to each other. India, like many countries in the world, unlike many countries in the world, was never One Big Happy Family, much like the Sinais struggled with their own dysfunctional unity.
The culture and history of India make it a perfect setting for magic realism in a way that is no longer true for places like Canada and the United States. This is the romance that has lured me into my love for fiction about India. Even now, when India is quickly modernizing, it's the duality of technologically-advanced cities alongside undeveloped rural villages that preserves India's vulnerability to magic (and perhaps to the optimism virus of the Rani of Cooch Naheen). The thousands of gods of the Hindu pantheon and the one-true-God of Islam coexist alongside the gods of technology, their religion enshrined and embedded in their culture far beyond what we experience in our increasingly secular countries. That is not to say that India is superior to other countries. But it goes a long way in explaining the attraction of India, its siren call to young, impressionable travellers who are looking for meaning in a world they have discovered, much to their discomfort, to be harsh and unforgiving.
In Midnight's Children, Rushdie captures the simultaneous states in which India exists throughout its history, much like a particle may actually exist in several states of quantum superposition, only to have is wavefunction collapse upon being observed. Yes, I just compared India to Schrödinger's Cat. You want to make something of it?...more
On the back cover of my edition, there's a blurb from The Globe and Mail that calls the book "timeless." That is the most accurate single-word evaluatOn the back cover of my edition, there's a blurb from The Globe and Mail that calls the book "timeless." That is the most accurate single-word evaluation of The Assassin's Song.
Once you've plunged into the book and read a couple of chapters, you immediately get that sense of timelessness. M. G. Vassanji intersperses aspects of the "present day" with events in the thirteenth century and events from the narrator's childhood. The historical events take on the quality of a story or a myth, whereas the events from the narrator's childhood function much like snapshots that trigger a distant memory. Vassanji has a crisp prose style that unifies these disparate periods in time, tying them together into a very intriguing story.
Vassanji's depicts his scenes with broad brush strokes that allow me to place myself there and immerse myself in the atmospheres he invokes. India, steeped in mysticism. Boston, the nexus of those who don't belong. Canada, the refuge of fledgling cultural movements. All of the settings are a great deal more three dimensional than I do them justice here, of course, but at the same time they represent very clear and intentional periods in the main character's life.
The Assassin's Song is the type of book that you will be able to read at different times throughout life and interpret accordingly. As a fairly young individual, I often found myself aligning with Karsan against his father, who naturally stood in opposition to some of his son's rebellious actions. As with most father-son tales, the ending consists of a one-way reconciliation, Karsan with his dead father, but there is the suggestion that his father clinged to traditions slightly longer than he should have. At least, that is the decision that Karsan reaches, for he is the last of the line of the Sahebs of Pirbaag, and another ancient tradition shrouded in mysticism passes from the world of the living into the pages of history and folklore.
I suspect that when I revisit this book as an older, more experienced person, I will see additional facets of the story that escaped me on a first reading. While I doubt I'll ever completely empathize with the position of Karsan's father, I do understand his point of view. Vassanji takes the father-son conflict and successfully amplifies it into a discussion of religion and spiritualism in the context of modern society. This is one aspect of Indian culture that makes it so fascinating: India has a very strong tradition; although it is primarily Hindu, there's very deep influences of Buddhism and Islam (the latter of which, of course, led to the formation of Pakistan). For this reason, India is a perfect setting for stories that want to address how cultural values shift as a country attempts to break itself away from the cycle of history and become influential on the international stage. Vassanji gives us a glimpse of this struggle from the perspective of an individual and a family rather than the entire country, and this synecdoche is very effective.
The title provoked me throughout the book--of course in hindsight it's dreadfully obvious, and a more astute reader would probably catch on to its obvious meaning. Until the end of the book, however, I meditated frequently upon the significance of the title. It's not the most interesting part of the book though.
The end of the story takes on a strange epistolary dimension that I didn't enjoy. It works, but at the same time it robs the story of some of the timeless quality that it had before. I kept on having this "voiceover" feeling as I read the letters written by Karsan's father--perhaps, however, that is an artifact of the movies and a testament to my own cultural upbringing than a statement about Vassanji's narrative style.
In any event, The Assassin's Song is a solid character-driven work replete with emotional depth and a moving story. At times it can feel somewhat dense, especially for those unfamiliar with Indian history or the basic tenets of Hinduism, Islam, etc. However, the book takes you on an elegant journey that left me refreshed and made me think. I like that....more
I went into this book not knowing what to expect, and I loved it. Jhumpa Lahiri creates timeless families that straddle the cultural divide between AmI went into this book not knowing what to expect, and I loved it. Jhumpa Lahiri creates timeless families that straddle the cultural divide between America and India. She captures the conflict of growing up as one tries to balance one's parent's wishes with the influence of one's heritage and the culture of one's surroundings.
Of the first part of the book, I loved "Unaccustomed Earth", "Hell-Heaven", and "Only Goodness." The other two stories were great, but those three are my favourite--particularly "Only Goodness," which resonates with me as an older sibling who is now watching his younger brother grow up (luckily not as an alcoholic--yet....). And that's the great thing about Lahiri's writing. There seems to be a number of authors, such as Yann Martel (Life of Pi) and Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) who can write stories involving Indian culture that speak to much more universal truths. This is not through any intrinsic value of Indian culture that makes it superior, but I think I'm falling in love with that setting. The themes these authors profess affect everyone, however, and that's why Lahiri's stories are so moving.
Part two consists of three stories involving a woman, Hema, and a man, Kaushik, both Bengalis. The first part is told from the viewpoint of Hema as a young girl, who becomes fascinated with Kaushik when his family stays with hers while moving back to America from India. In the second, Kaushik recounts his difficulty adjusting his father's remarriage several years after his mother's death from cancer. In the third story, Hema and Kaushik reunite for the first time in several decades, in Rome, where they rediscover each other. The ending is somewhat tragic, but at the same time it possesses a sense of stillness. These stories made me want to stop and appreciate each moment in life.
I found this book in the library, but now I'm buying a copy. I want it on my shelf....more
As a neophyte of Salman Rushdie's work, I was not fully prepared for The Enchantress of Florence, although I should have been. Rushdie possesses an unAs a neophyte of Salman Rushdie's work, I was not fully prepared for The Enchantress of Florence, although I should have been. Rushdie possesses an uncanny ability to manipulate perspective. In his stories, the flow of time is always questionable, and subject to change--if it flows at all. And his characters are larger-than-life, capricious archetypes that embody the virtues and flaws of humanity.
In this novel, Rushdie runs two stories parallel to each other: that of Emperor Akbar's court, the emperor's life and philosophy; and the story of a man's heritage, of a lost Mughal princess who travels from Asia to Florence to the New World, then beyond. The boundaries between these two stories--the latter of which takes place in the first one's past--are flimsy, permeable. If you were expecting a linear narrative that reads like a movie novelization, then you a) have not read Salman Rushdie before and b) will not get that.
I might even characterize this story as a fable, for it carries that particular brand of enchantment about it. Romance, yes, that too: the main characters all mediate on the nature of love at one point or another. Cloaked in sixteenth-century philosophical ideas, these ruminations may seem pompous or boring, but I found them intriguing. Akbar struggles with the existence of God, the divine right to rule, whether might truly is the only arbiter of power. We also see a fictionalized Machiavelli, disenchanted with his wife, and like so many men in this story, drawn into the web of enchantment that the eponymous princess weaves.
Descend deeper through these layers, and Rushdie focuses on the nature of power for women in a world dominated by men. How do women exert their influence? Is their beauty, their sexuality, the only way they can ever gain power? In this book, two female characters are essentially imaginary, constructed from the mind of Akbar. What does this say about the nature of gender, a man creating his feminine opposites because he cannot find them in life?
Rushdie uses this story as a vehicle to explore a woman's life--told largely through the perspectives of men, ironically--in this period of history. However, I wouldn't necessarily call this a work of historical fiction, in the sense that it does not concern itself too much with the details of history except when they serve a purpose. The story is not about the Mughal empire so much as it is set, for a part, in that empire.
While "epic" or "sword and sorcery" fantasy has its place, its success of late has typecasted the genre. In those stories, magic is almost a science, subjected to laws the way we have restricted gravity. We often forget that the definition of fantasy is broader. In this respect, The Enchantress of Florence reminds me of Jonathan Strange Mr. Norrell. It is truly a fantastic adventure and romance just steeped in unrestrained magic, a world in which anything is possible--but not everything is permitted....more