Stoic, illiterate Bhima has worked as a maid for years, just like her mother, grandmother and daughter. While she anticipated her son and granddaughte...moreStoic, illiterate Bhima has worked as a maid for years, just like her mother, grandmother and daughter. While she anticipated her son and granddaughter to have an education and a better future, a series of tragedies set different events in motion. She now wakes up everyday facing a new problem - unmarried Maya, the granddaughter, is pregnant and Bhima cannot help but worry about what this means - no more college education and no decent marriage either, as who would want to marry a girl who is no longer a virgin. The Sera Dubash household, where Bhima works, have their own daughter, Dinaz, who is also expecting, but the circumstances are happier, more celebratory. While the Dubash household helps Maya in "fixing" her situation, Maya isn't that happy about it and as more secrets tumble out, the demarcation between the rich and the poor takes center-stage.
Thrity Umrigar clearly has a lot of fans out there, and after reading The Space Between Us, it isn't hard to understand why. There is a quiet comfortable lyrical quality to her writing that makes you want to pick it up when in need of relaxed reading, despite the ugly nature of the problems and issues she talks about. One of the things that typically worry me about books set in India and written by Indian authors, is that sometimes they are too Westernized for me to be able to relate. Umrigar's book didn't disappoint me - it was well rooted in Indian culture and the characters were well created.
Bhima has learned the hard way how much a lack of education can change fortunes. Not knowing to read or write, she had been taken advantage of, many times, by people higher up in the social strata, who didn't care too much about how the poor lived their lives. She didn't care to educate her daughter either because no man from her social class wanted an educated wife, he only wanted a wife who could look after his home and children. Her family didn't receive timely medical care, and the usual vices that ailed a lot of the poor dogged her family too. On the other hand, rich assured Sera and her family could command righteous treatment just by their very presence. Sometimes, a few bills changed hands, and sometimes, threats did the job. But they were also one of the few families who actually treated their maids with respect and dignity. Despite that, Sera did feel uncomfortable with the idea of touching Bhima or allowing Bhima to use the same dishes as them.
The first half of The Space Between Us went back and forth between Bhima and Sera, as Umrigar led us through the circumstances that shaped the women's personality and beliefs. Both women have endured similar experiences, involving abusive men and disappointing lives. There is not much forward progress happening in this half, which made the book feel a bit slow for me, but the second half picks up the main thread of the story and lays out the stark difference between the two women. While they debate on what to do about Maya's pregnancy, Maya herself has her thoughts on the matter, which are pretty much not considered.
Umrigar's writing is beautiful. I love how well she has captured the Indianness of the places and the people bordering the story and stayed true to character. Occasionally, it is easy to forget the social divisions among the people as one gets deeper into the character's thoughts. Often, I railed against the injustices of the caste system and wanted the characters to fight for themselves. Sometimes they fought and lost. Other times, they didn't fight at all. The caste system is not designed in their favor and they have learned not to fight it.
Although the first half didn't impress me too much - I'm not one to enjoy too many flashbacks, without any movement in the present - the second half made reading this book so worthwhile. Umrigar doesn't waste her words in sugar-coating the dark underbelly of the Mumbai slums nor does she glorify the richness or poorness of the people. Using a setting such as an Indian household, especially the kitchen, where people of two different classes mingle with each other in common spheres that touch yet do not really touch, she was able to masterfully demonstrate their different circumstances and how that can be the difference between getting preferential treatment and being left to die, or being swindled out of money and getting any job, or getting a college education and being a maid for life.(less)
For a long time, young Hayat Shah has heard the same stories from his mother - about her best friend Mina and her mischievous disposition. When newly...moreFor a long time, young Hayat Shah has heard the same stories from his mother - about her best friend Mina and her mischievous disposition. When newly divorced Mina arrives at their home in the US to protect her son from her ex-husband back in Pakistan, Hayat is entirely captivated by her. From Mina he learns to read and worship the Quran, and is inspired to try and become a hafiz (someone who has memorized the entire Quran). But when Mina falls in love with a Jewish man, Hayat begins to feel betrayed and angry. Around the same time, Hayat begins to hear anti-Semitic stuff that he believes to be true, thus adding to his resentment, leading him to do things that will destroy a lot of lives.
I guess that synopsis kind of sounds intriguing. (I hope so - I struggled to write it.) The book however was just so-so. What I struggled most with was the amount of religious matter in it. I see the point to it - without all that content in the book, I don't think I would be convinced as to how much Hayat fell under the "spell". (I say 'spell' because he was believing what he wanted to believe and there was no one to correct him. At such an impressionable age, that just spells disaster to me.) The stuff did make me uncomfortable and sometimes angry (that's just me), but then I remembered that the person thinking these thoughts was a really young kid. I appreciated the author for not censoring anything while writing this book - that made the book all the more atmospheric.
Having never read a book like this - on one of the ways how religious fervor is born, I liked the insight I got into Hayat's mind. He had good people on his side to help him out, though I felt it's mostly that destructive thing he does which changes him. I did however find it strange that his parents never bothered to tell him that whatever crazy stuff he heard were wrong. For a person all insistent on an atheistic life and hating any form of incendiary talks, Hayat's father felt like a weak character to me. He seemed to more fulfill the role of the dissenting voice in the book than a responsible father who should worry about what his son listens to. Unfortunately, there are lot of fathers like him, so I can't really say that this is the fault of the book. It's just the way a lot of the families are - somehow the nastier aspects of religion, politics and sex education are allowed to collect dust in the attic.
The parts of the book I enjoyed have to do mostly with Mina's four-year old son, Imran. Growing up without a father was tough for him, making him look at any Pakistani man and ask if he was his father. When he is introduced to Mina's lover, Nathan, Imran isn't at all happy about it and sulks most of the time. Imran instead looks at Hayat's father as his own father and this drives Hayat jealous. I loved the dynamics between these two boys, who were like brothers sometimes, and other times, Hayat's jealousy would make him do desperate things.
American Dervish is a really fast read, and although it was challenging for me, it was also engrossing at some level. I was mostly curious as to how Hayat gets transformed (which we know right from the start). And although there were times when it felt hard to look at Hayat as a child and instead as a very troubled person, the author did remind me of that many times. The religious aspect of the book is probably its strongest suit (never thought I would say that), but I felt that the plot was a bit unstable, and a couple of the characters, especially Nathan, felt too comical to me. There are however a lot of stereotypes in the book - most of the "not good" guys are painted as too orthodox or too fanatical. While that gets the point across, I doubt it does much for the Pakistani culture. Overall, the book was just alright. Pity because I love the cover too much.(less)
Rakhee Singh had it all. She'll soon be graduating from Yale's, and starting a promising job. She has a wonderful family and is engaged to the man she...moreRakhee Singh had it all. She'll soon be graduating from Yale's, and starting a promising job. She has a wonderful family and is engaged to the man she loves. But she has a secret - something that still bothers her, something that happened when she was eleven and on her very first trip to India with her mother. Since then, her parents had separated and the events of that summer forever hung like a shroud over her. The Girl in the Garden is the story of that summer and Rakhee's subsequent efforts to come to terms with that event.
There really wasn't anything I knew about this book on accepting it, except that it features a garden (duh, title!) and was set in India. That was a big risk for me, but this year, I had challenged my reading tastes so much, that I knew I would welcome the risk. Moreover, I recognized the author's surname to be from my home state, and that made me a bit giddy with excitement. I didn't know yet where exactly it was set in India, but that was soon revealed in the second chapter (Kerala).
I usually shy away from reading books set in India, because I typically have plenty of issues with them, irrespective of who the author is. Mostly, the customs almost always feel as if viewed by a non-Indian, even when the protagonist was Indian or of Indian origin, or the language is a caricature in itself as if all Indians spoke a funny English. And sometimes, when the setting was very rural India, the conversations in English feel very fake (although I can't think of a way around this). On that note, I thought Rakhee's world in Kerala was almost authentic. Although I did have some issues with the portrayal here (I'll get to that), for the most part, I could sync well with the characters.
Rakhee, as the eleven year old girl, was very charming and believable. We don't really see much of her in the present for her to make an impression. The culture shock she experienced on the first trip to India, the easy way in which her mother had settled down causing Rakhee to feel as if she couldn't connect with her mother at all, her cautious excitement on seeing so many people who look more like her than she had ever seen in the US. (I remember my five year old niece, who stays in LA, a place she loves, was absolutely exalted and exuberant when she landed in India and saw all these people who looked like her, so this is something I understand as significant from a child's perspective.) I appreciated that the author played all these elements very well - the curiosity of exploring a new place, the automatic bravery that a child feels contrasted with the fear that creeps in when meeting certain not-so-nice adults. I also loved how the author used "Indian English" (most of the words are what Indians typically use as opposed to their American version).
Rakhee was a typical first generation American kid. She was having trouble fitting in at school. She rarely got invitations to parties at the homes of her classmates, she mostly kept to herself. Her father was a hard-working doctor, her mother worked part-time at a store. One day, her mother gets a strange letter all the way from India. Rakhee is intrigued by it, but doesn't get any answers. That letter however sets the motion for the trip to India.
I, however, found Rakhee's character very inconsistent. My understanding was that her knowledge of the local language was decent, which made me wonder how she followed most conversations. I can say for sure that not many people (esp in rural villages) will speak English. There were times when she expressed her inability to understand but most times, she didn't have any trouble following. There was also some amount of repetition - not consistent enough for me to attribute it to a very young character, but often enough for it to feel jarring. I guess that was probably for the benefit of remembering what some Malayalam (Kerala's language) words or customs mean.
Another issue I had was how conveniently a lot of the adults seem to be spilling out their inner fears and desires to Rakhee. Now, I have to say that this is not a strange thing at all, at least from where I come. I grew up on a very delicious amount of adult gossips and even before I was 15, I already knew the secret tales of half the family and most of the neighbors. While the adults do shush around kids, that lasts for about 5 minutes. Serious! So I didn't think this was out of the ordinary - Rakhee listening to a lot of stuff. I just couldn't fathom why any of the adults would pool out their troubles on her plate (other than for moving the story along).
The Girl in the Garden, being a story of a world seen by an eleven-year old, has plenty of references of mythic gods and goddesses, ghosts and devils. While Rakhee sensed that most or all of those were just tales, she was still fascinated by them. The story of the devil who stayed in the garden behind their house, scared her the most, but she was also curious enough to want to explore. And that's what actually starts the main plot in the book, when she meets a certain someone out there. I enjoyed this part of the story, though I found a lot of the events very unrealistic. I could however say that the author chose a dreamy, fairy-tale-ish manner to portray something that actually happens in a very dark manner (those who read this book would understand this convoluted sentence I just wrote).
Overall, I recommend this book, especially because I enjoyed the cultural references. The story didn't make much of an impression on me, but the characters were wonderful, especially the younger ones. Most of the older ones seemed too selfish, too self-centered, but every kid thinks that. I thought the mystery in the book had a nice twist to it, but in the end, it felt like a long convoluted mystery. But then that's very true of a lot families. We still pay for the actions of some of our ancestors. In the end, this book covered plenty of themes, was a very fast read and I also happened to find it hard to put it down.(less)
Someone Else's Garden, being released today, is Mamta's story, but it is also the story of million other village girls, who are married off with a hea...moreSomeone Else's Garden, being released today, is Mamta's story, but it is also the story of million other village girls, who are married off with a heavy dowry to some man, any man who will have her, even if he is an octogenarian. It is the story of mothers, who are impregnated at an alarming regularity in the hopes that many sons will fill the homes. For each son's birth that is celebrated as an immensely festive occasion, there are many other girls disappearing into the night - either as another statistic on the infant mortality graphs, or as one more exhibit in the red-light districts, or as a victim to some unnamed disease. This book is also the story of these forgotten girls and their yearnings for life and love.
Mamta is the eldest of seven children born to her mother, Lata Bai. Her younger sister has already been married off, and at twenty, Mamta is considered old. Her father routinely complains that he doesn't want to bother with feeding any of his daughters because why water someone else' gardens? That is precisely how he (and much of the backward society) views women, as someone else's eventual possessions. With her head submerged in dreams, Mamta is married to a man, who brought about his first wife's death, and now beats Mamta quite often and blames her for his downfall. When he commits a very cruel act on her, she escapes to the city. Along with Mamta, we also follow another villager, Lokend, who only wants to do good to others and see good in even the most hardcore dacoits. His brother has his eye on their father's property and assuages his hurt at not being loved enough by verbally taunting his paralyzed father. At some point, everyone's destinies cross, but before we reach there, there is plenty of pain, torture, cruelty, and tears.
Dipika Rai writes in a beautiful artistic style that vividly brings the whole village to life. I could almost taste the food, smell the hay, see the lush greens, and feel the pouring rains. There is a whole array of characters, and the author takes her time through them - revealing their petty characteristics and giving us an insight into their natures. The descriptive narration however turned out to be too meandering to me. I love it when authors share something about every character in a book - not too much that it becomes a character study, not too less that every one seems a stranger. I appreciated those character-revelations here, but I felt most of the sketch too long that I kept slipping off the main thread of the story.
The pacing of the first half of the book is real slow. It took me a while to get to know the characters well enough to want to revisit them. A while as in more than a third of the book. The last 100 pages however whiz by. It could be because I got used to the characters enough to be able to read faster. The book starts strongly, with vibrant descriptions and well-sketched characters, but it ends poorly in my opinion. A lot of books fall into the trap of fixing every single broken artifact or cleanly solving every mystery. I feel this book could have been shorter, by avoiding a drawn-out ending.
The contents of the book however are very powerful - there is so much gasp-inducing stuff in here, almost all of it to deal with the cruelty against the women gender. Lata Bai's husband is irritated when she delivers yet another baby girl. He doesn't even notice that she has delivered. He considers his daughters "someone else's gardens" (Oh, the disgusting images this phrase conjured up in my mind!) Wives and daughters are regularly beaten. If a daughter is old enough and has still not received any marriage offers, the father plans to sell her to a brothel. A married woman who runs away, if ever caught, is abused and raped publicly. Worse than that - the other women approve of this "punishment". Dipika Rai doesn't mince any word as she chalks out this story - there is a lot of graphic descriptions of mundane stuff - stuff we overlook or never bother to describe. I felt grossed out a lot. In the same vein, I could have done with a little less repetition of such parts. I appreciate that none of the harsh matter is glossed over, but too much of it only grosses the reader out.
The narration is punctuated many times with several philosophies and spiritual beliefs, either expressed as the thoughts or words of a character, or as a standalone thought supporting the context. I'm not big into either, so there were sections I skimmed past, but that's just me. I initially thought that this book will be hard to follow by someone not familiar with Indian phrases or customs. But after I turned the last page, I noticed that there is a glossary section. I didn't have any trouble reading this book, but potential readers may want to refer to the glossary. Overall, I thought this book was well-written and with a very realistic plot, but the latter half slackened considerably, as the focus fell more in connecting the dots than letting them connect on their own.(less)
"Amma," I said tentatively. "I don't want to get married." "What, Vidya kanna?" Amma said anxiously. "I mean, I don't want to get married until I finish school," I said nervously. Amma's expression cleared a little. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm sure we can wait a little longer. After all, girls are getting married much later these days. Even seventeen is not considered too old anymore."
For me, the essence of Climbing the Stairs was conveyed so expressively in the above conversation. Vidya is a fifteen-year old girl, approaching her marriageable age, not yet ready for it, but intensely desiring to go to college, instead. It was 1941 and India was still under the British rule. Vidya's father, Venkat, being a doctor would attend these marches to help those who were being beaten by the police. During one of those peaceful protest marches, a woman hosting the Indian flag gets beaten by an English policeman and has her sari and blouse ripped off, revealing her stark nudity. Venkat lifts the limp woman to help her, but in the process gets beaten viciously.
In a few minutes, Vidya's life is transformed. Just moments ago, her father promised her proudly that he would send her to college. Bliss was rapidly followed by shock and tragedy, as Vidya witnessed her father's assault. Venkat was reduced to a severely mentally ill person, with no control of his mental faculties.
He became what the others derogatorily called "idiot".
Padma Venkatraman has woven a masterful novel, with very vivid characters, realistic actions and believable situations. The first quarter of the book reveals Vidya's life in Bombay with her parents, her brother, Kitta and her dog, Raja. She has a typical teenager's life, although she occasionally worried about the World War 2 and the protests within her own country. The setting is truly Indian, with many common customs lacing their everyday lives. In India, there is usually one religious festival each month. Traditional homes duly gear up for the festivities every month, and once that month's celebrations were over, they start preparing for the next festival.
After Venkat is disabled, Vidya's family returns to Madras, to stay with their in-laws.
"My place is with my husband's family," amma said flatly. "A married woman must stay at her husband's home."
Vidya faces some of her biggest challenges at Madras, as she tries to battle the age-old beliefs that her family had managed to liberate itself from but were still prevalent back home. Her relatives do not fail to mask their disgust at Venkat's disability. Vidya does not like the school she attends, where she is almost vilified because her father is sick. We come across a mindset that evaluates a family according to the father's occupation. Occasionally, though, I found it unbelievable that someone would ridicule a child because her father is ill. There are rude people, but most of them know to keep their condemning remarks to themselves. Vidya's cousin, Malathi, who attends the same school, doesn't bother to support Vidya, but instead laughs with the others. Malathi is the epitome of a girl who wants to get married and brags about it saying she was "chosen" (by the groom). Soon as her marriage is fixed, she wants to stop going to school, and her parents are even proud of her for that.
The second half of Climbing the Stairs is a poignant description of life in a traditional Indian household. The women folk sleep downstairs while the men folk sleep upstairs. They usually get to meet only during mealtimes. There is only one other bedroom in the house, which the couples take turns to use. When food is served, the men have their fill first. The women eat second.*
When Vidya realizes that she has no avenue for learning in the house, because of the tons of chores that are cast her way, she asks her grandfather for permission to use the upstairs library, where no woman has set foot before. She breaks an unwritten rule in the process but she gets what she asks for. The simple journey to the library, reached by "climbing the stairs", sets in motion an incredible saga that transforms Vidya in so many ways.
It's been almost a week since I read this book, and I still can't stop raving enough about it. There is so much more that I want to say, but then I would have to write another post. What I appreciated the most about the book is that it is truly Indian. But I have to warn that there are plenty of references to Indian customs and festivals, without giving much information about them. So if you are not very familiar with the Indian culture, you can get a bit lost. If you don't mind looking up references once in a while, which is how we sometimes read books set in a country we are not familiar with, then I strongly suggest that you try this. Climbing the Stairs is geared towards the YA audience, but can be enjoyed by anyone, since the themes addressed are universal.(less)
In an unnamed American city, seven customers and two officials remained in the visa office of an Indian consulate, during the late afternoon, each los...moreIn an unnamed American city, seven customers and two officials remained in the visa office of an Indian consulate, during the late afternoon, each lost in his or her own thoughts, when an earthquake struck. Amidst the chaos that follows, only one person, Cameron, an African-American ex-soldier retains his senses. He tries to calm the people down, and keep them away from the collapsed section of the office. Soon after, everyone's focus turns to survival. They try to scrape together as much food as possible, they collect water in bowls from the visa officer Mangalam's bathroom, they distrust each other. Slowly, the office begins to flood.
When finally the stress begins to get to them and they wait achingly for help to come, Uma, a young graduate student, brings every one together and tells them to each tell one story, one amazing thing, that happened to them. And as they kept waiting for rescue, they each began to tell a tale of something that defined the person they have become.
One Amazing Thing is a wonderful read, mainly for the many stories that weave together to make a coherent unit. The first one-third of the book shows each character in a certain firmly set Plaster-of-Paris role. They were either magnanimous or selfish; kind or rude; imposing or withdrawn. Already I liked or hated certain characters. I didn't care for some, and a few left me in an ambiguous state.
Chitra wrote these characters really well, but some of the characters felt too stereotyped for me. For instance, there is the Indian American girl, Uma, whose boyfriend is non-Indian. Her parents do not exactly support this decision of hers and are hoping to get her to meet some Indian guys during her vacation. That may be a common dilemma among Indian Americans, but I didn't want to read about yet another Indian-American girl rebelling against her parents and having immigrant issues within her family. Tariq, a Muslim, is shown to be highly rebellious and violent, yet another common stereotype among Muslims who have long suffered since 9/11 for no fault of theirs. Through their stories, I was able to appreciate them better, but I found their character descriptions slightly weak, especially Tariq's because of his easy typecasting into the angry young Muslim.
The stories themselves were very captivating. Some of them were really powerful and gave a nice insight in to the characters and their various thoughts that we have been reading for most of the book. Some, like Uma's, didn't exactly connect well with their present circumstances. I felt her story to be somewhat of an aberrant, after being inside her head for too long. All the stories weren't exactly happily-ever-afters. They do have character redemption, but most felt strangely incomplete. Although they were narrating one significant thing that happened to them, I had a lot of questions once they were done with the story.
I found the narration of the stories very discordant. Chitra tries to tell each story uniquely, but in the process does not give each narrator his or her own unique voice, which is what would be ideal in a multi-cultural setting as this. Instead, she uses different narrating styles. One person's story is told entirely in the present-tense format, which happens to be the one story-telling style I like the least. After a while, the different styles felt highly jarring.
As I turned the last page, I felt highly unsatisfied to the level that I wanted to scream. I definitely didn't appreciate the way it ended, since it left me to fill in the gaps. I find this mode of fiction becoming a lot popular nowadays - an ambiguous ending that leaves the viewer/reader to form his or her own interpretations. That works well in highly imaginative shows like LOST, and supernatural or paranormal books, where one's own beliefs can play a role in how one reads the story. But where things are stated as they are, as in One Amazing Thing, I would have appreciated a couple more pages to explain what was left out. A week after reading this book, I don't feel too bothered now - probably because I've come to realize that what-was-left-out was not consequential to the story as a whole, since the events in the basement would have no bearings on the two possible endings. I also concocted my own follow-up for the same, so my anxious mind rests easy now.(less)
I really liked this book. Probably because I could relate so well with the characters in their feelings of not fitting in well with society, or confus...moreI really liked this book. Probably because I could relate so well with the characters in their feelings of not fitting in well with society, or confusion over roots, initial desire to be away from family, keenness to abide by the customs of the country they stay in rather than their native country, and so on.
I thought Jhumpa Lahiri so eloquently captured these confused feelings. I liked how she showed the maturity and growth of each character with the passage of time. I was especially interested in Ashima's portrayal in the last chapter. I could so easily sympathize with Gogol - his need to not appear Indian but American, his disgust with his name, his lack of interest in going to India on vacation, and his eventual understanding of all this. It was such a poignant read, I cried a lot, mainly because it struck a chord in me, and reminded me of my troubles growing up.
I've always loved Jhumpa's writing. Her novels/stories ring a lot with the immigrant Indian population, and I especially like that they are almost always so correct.
I would have given it 5 stars if this book weren't so verbose. At times, I felt lost in the sea of words.(less)
I have to say I bought this book thinking it will be a refreshing way to relive my college days. I found this to be just another book trying to live t...moreI have to say I bought this book thinking it will be a refreshing way to relive my college days. I found this to be just another book trying to live the Five Point Someone What Not to Do at IIT hype.
I found this book terribly boring and dragging. I couldn't relate with most of the characters in the book and definitely found their problems very odd. It was really dull.(less)