Monday, December 13, 2010

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

Title: A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers
Author: Xiaolu Guo
Fiction: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Publisher: Nan E. Talese
Acclaim: Shortlisted for 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction

Hailing from Zhe Jiang, a province of southern China, Guo wrote several chinese books before writing for the English audience. Originally she wrote several award-winning documentaries and screenplays including her first feature film 'How is your Fish Today' which won the Grand Jury prize at the 2007 International Women's Film Festival. Shortlisted for Orange Prize, this novel is her debut work. Drawing from own diaries she used to keep when she moved from China to London, she paints a humorous, albeit poignant story of a 23 year old Zhuang, a peasant girl from rural china, who embarks on a journey to London to study English.

'I not having life in West. I not having home in West. I scared. I no speaking English. I fearing future'. If reading these broken sentences puts you off, then it might be hard for you get into this book. However, I think thats what makes this book very authentic, though I promise the writing improves gradually. The protagonist of the novel, Zhuang, finding that English people finds it difficult to pronounce her name, calls herself 'Z'. Z's parents sold their land to start making shoes for a living. As per her parents wish, she arrives in London to study English, to earn a diploma from the West. 'Birds have their bird language, beasts have their beast talk. English they totally another species'. Often, frustrations accompany when you begin to learn a new language. It only compounds when you live in an alien country, grappling with the cultural etiquette and language nuances. Especially, try learning Japanese or Chinese, the hardest of all (at least for me). Many times in the past, I have failed miserably trying to learn Mandarin and even during my visits to China, I have never spoken any more than 'Ni hao' and 'she-eh she-eh'. It is interesting to see that Zhuang finds English equally difficult to learn too. 'Chinese, we not having grammar. We saying things simple way. No verb-change usage, no tense differences, no gender changes. We bosses of our language. But, English language is boss of English user'. Often, her observations about the nuances of English grammar are hilarious, at times even astonishing. 'Mrs. Margaret teaching us about nouns. I discovering English is very scientific. She saying nouns have two types - countable and uncountable. You can say a car, but not a rice" she says. But to me, cars are really uncountable in the street, and we can count the rice if we pay great attention to a rice bowl'.

Zhuang find the cultural clashes a bit jarring, even those immigrant Chinese family she lives with, finds her alienated, nervous and scared. Similarly, Zhuang finds them rude, mean and distant as well. No wonder, she comes across like an alien in the Eyes of English. 'The day I arrived to the West, I suddenly realised that I not Chinese. As long as one has black eyes and black hair, obsessed by rice, and cannot swallow any Western food, and cannot pronounce the difference between 'r' and 'l', and request people without using please - then he or she is a typical Chinese: an ill-legal immigrant, badly treat Tibetans and Taiwanese, good on food but put MSG to poison people, eat dog's meat and drink snakes' guts'. A month into her stay, she moves in with an unnamed Englishman, about twice her age, an ex-anarchist, eccentric fellow who makes grotesque nude sculptures that he keeps in the garden at a cinema hall. She struggles to make him understand her feelings, owing to the cultural divide and his bisexual nature. 'Love, this English word: like other English words it has tense. 'Loved' or 'will love' or 'have loved'. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is 'ai'. It has not tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future. If our love existed in Chinese tense, then it will last for ever. It will be infinite'. She finds her love with the English man eccentric, as much as the language itself. She grapples with many Western concepts like loneliness, privacy, financial independence. Like Zhuang observes 'I think the loneliness in this country is something very solid, very heavy. It is touchable and reachable, easily. In the West, we are used to loneliness. I think it's good for you to experience loneliness, to explore what it feels like to be on your own. After a while, you will start to enjoy solitude. You won't be so scared of it anymore'. I feel strange to be saying this, but I agree that I could relate to some of these issues myself. Back home, you always find yourself in the company of people, sitting and eating together. Festivals, Weddings and Religious ceremonies bring people close, make them happy. In Western World, opportunities for social gathering seldom arise, making us lonely, deprived of family togetherness. Many of Zhuang's observations are shockingly true, some I have wondered myself. 'So woman and man pay half half even when they live together. And woman and man have their own privacy and their own friends. And woman and man have their own separate bank account. Is that why Western couples split up so easily, and divorce so quickly?'

A rural peasant girl struggling to fathom the nuances of Western life is not surprising. Yet, I find it hard to empathize with her one-sided love with the English man, mainly because she has no moral values to begin with. At some point in the story, her lover insists that she should go on an Europe tour by herself to raise her self-confidence, its a pity she hardly gets anything out of her travels. It is disgusting that she longs to be with her boyfriend writing him love letters, while having sexual encounters with strangers. The naivety of her character is seemingly lost in her twisted moral values. Otherwise, it is an entertaining read full of insights into a different culture many Westerners can hardly understand.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

Title: Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
Author: William Dalrymple
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 284
Publisher: Bloomsbury UK

William Dalrymple, who has lived in Delhi on and off for the last 25 years, is one of the most eminent historian and travel writers of all times. His books have won several literary prizes and his focus and interests include India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East, Mughal rule and religious aspects like Hinduism, Islamism, Buddhism and Jainism. This is my first attempt at reading Dalrymple and I must confess that I am mightily impressed with his astounding work and the amount of research that has gone into it. 'Nine Lives' is truly a treasure trove of information unraveling some of the myths, legendary practices and religious beliefs, some of which are on the verge of extinct as India is modernizing in a frenetic pace. This gem of a book reveals so many astonishing facts about almost extinct religious practices and deep-rooted traditions still practiced in rural India, that even many Indians would begin to wonder if this is really the country they grew up in. It would be a tough feat for anyone to grapple with the many idiosyncrasies of the past, as the country is so steeped in rich traditions, divine stories and godly practices (both barbaric and non-barbaric). The progress of India in the global sector has seen an astonishing growth over the past decade and India is predicted to overtake Japan as the third largest economy in the world. However, for those who practice the diverse religious traditions and live them out everyday, no economic reforms have been meted out, yet their futures are uncertain as the practices are on the verge of becoming extinct. As more and more software companies sprout like weeds around every corner of big cities luring the younger generations, What will become of those traditions that are handed down by lineage? Will they survive or perish? I am glad some of these complicated issues are addressed here, so at least people can put on their thinking caps as opposed to acting oblivious to the situation. Divided into nine non-fiction short stories, they are narrated by the characters themselves. Dalrymple takes a backseat, gently guiding them allowing themselves to open up. Nothing here is altered or twisted and the stories comes out purely honest and compelling thereby offering an unflinching look at how some of these people are coping with living in the eye of the storm. 'For a while the West often likes to imagine the religions of the East as deep wells of ancient, unchanging wisdom, in reality much of India's religious identity is closely tied to specific social groups, caste practices and father-to-son lineages, all of which are changing very rapidly as Indian society transforms itself at speed.'

Its hard to write a book about India - especially if touches upon religion & sacred beliefs - without talking about sadhus, vedas, monks and monastries. Dalrymple couldn't have had a better subject for his novel, For India, being the cornucopia of traditions, people, culture and topography, fits the bill perfectly. Dalrymple's focus on this book is more of ordinary humans who turn into monks, nuns and in one case, a prison warden who becomes a incarnate deity for just two months in a year. Many of his subjects are quite enigmatic - a former MBA-educated, sales manager with Kelvinator - (a Bombay electricals company), who renounced his worldly desires to become a sadhu and is now trekking up the Himalayan mountains seeking salvation in his half-naked, ash-smeared divine form. Tapan Goswami, a tantric, who lives in a cremation ground near Birbhum in West Bengal, practices spirit-summoning and spell-casting using cured skulls of dead virgins and restless suicides. He is forbidden to speak of his sinister practices by his sons who practice opthamology in New Jersey. Tapan himself is contemplating about living in the West, albeit being an enthusiastic skull-feeder. His enigmatic subjects of the book have led extraordinary lives, driven by an enormous faith and total devotion and it takes an exemplary writer like Dalrymple to shed light on some of these esoteric subjects.

The book begins with 'The Nun's Tale' - fascinating story of a Jain nun 'Prasannamataji', who grew up in a wealthy family in Raipur. Despite having a happy childhood, she turns to an ascetic life soon after puberty. She never doubted her faith in the spiritual path and enjoys practicing it in spite of its rigorous rules. She befriends another nun - Prayogamati, her age and before they knew it, they develop one of the best spiritual connection ever. When Prayogamati dies of sickness, Prasannamataji mourns for the loss of her friend, which is strictly forbidden as a Jain nun, as they are believed to develop indifference to human sufferings. 'Any sort of emotion is considered a hindrance to the attainment of Enlightenment. We are meant to cultivate indifference - but I still remember her'. Prasannamataji atones for her sin by practising 'sallekhana' - starving oneself to death, which is the last renouncement of Jain munis. This is just a heart-wrenching story in itself, but what I found more appealing are the tidbits thrown here and there about Jainism in general. You might find a plethora of books regarding Buddhism, but not many will you find about Jainism. It opened my eyes to a whole different religion and I find their beliefs utterly fascinating! Though Buddhism and Jainism appear to have some similarities, but in reality, there are oceans apart. Jains don't shave their head, but pluck their hair out by the roots, they have to have food given to them without asking and are forbidden to handle money in any way. These differences are just the tip of the iceberg, as Jainism diverge from Hindus and Buddhists in many deep aspects. Jains not only reject the Hindu idea that the world was created or destroyed by omnipotent gods, but also in their understanding of karma. According to them, 'To gain liberation, you must live life in a way that stops you accumulating more karma and you must embrace a life of world renunciation, non-attachment and an extreme form of non-violence'.

'The Dancer of Kannur' story narrated by Hari Das, a 'Theyyam' dancer, takes us into the lives of Dalit caste people of Kerala. Kerala, being one of the most conservative and socially oppressive in India revels in establishing and still practicing a strictly hierarchical society even in Modern India. A lower-caste man such as 'Dalits', if appeared on the same road as that of warrior-caste Nayyar or higher class Brahmins, could be beheaded righteously for such a crime. But, during the 'theyyam' season, the performers are believed to be possessed by gods and even the higher-class people bow their heads and seek their blessings. 'It's the intensity of your devotion that determines the intensity of possession. If you lose your feeling of devotion, if it even once becomes routine or unthinking, the gods may stop coming'. The theyyam tales are abound with tales questioning the limits of acceptable behavior, especially the abuse of power, as the upper castes struggle to keep their place at the top of the caste pyramid and oppress the lower castes in order to do so. As much as Hari Das finds 'theyyam' as a tool to fight against social injustice, he also finds it very demanding and exhausting. Most of the dancers have a low life expectancy as they use strings to tie heavy costumes on which disrupt their blood circulation. Yet what he finds more frightening is the job he returns to after his theyyam performance - that of a prison warden, where thugs from political parties rule the prison and the mere job of the Hari Das is to keep himself safe and alive in that desolate, frightening place. It is heart-warming to see Hari Das receiving utmost satisfaction from being a dancer. 'Theyyam has made me what I am. All my self-esteem comes from this. The rest of the year, no one here would even greet me or invite me to a share a cup of tea with them. But during the season, I am like a temple, if not a god'.

'Daughters of Yellamma' is the story of devadasis - one of the oldest professions in India, tracing as far back as 9th century or even older - as some archaeologists claim to be 2500 BC. Devadasis are women who enter for life the service of god or goddess. though the nature of that service have recently transformed to be working exclusively in the sex trade. In the medieval times, these 'temple women' were necessarily dancing girls, courtesans or concubines - more like nuns, busy with devotions and temple cleaning duties, domestic and personal servants of the temple Brahmins. Some even had honoured and important roles in temple rituals, fanning the idols, honoring them sandalwood paste and jasmine garlands, singing and playing music in the sanctuary etc. Its such a pity that colonial and post-colonial legislation slowly broke the ancient links that existed between the devadasis and temples and forced into prostitution. Like the protagonist of the story, Rani Bai, they are drawn exclusively from lowest castes - usually from Dalit Madar caste and are almost entirely illiterate. 'For the very poor, and the very pious, the devadasi system is still seen as providing a way out of poverty while gaining access to the blessings of the gods, the two things the poor most desperately crave'. It is such a pity that the devadasis have become more of sex workers today, earning pittance for their services and after only a few years, wither and die of STD and other diseases. But, as Rani Bai says 'But, we must continue this work if we are to eat. We have a lot of misery to bear. But that is our tradition. That is our karma. We try to show our happy side to clients to keep attracting them, and put all our efforts into doing a good job'. As far as hopes for the future, she trusts in none other than 'Yellamma', her goddess.

Let me wrap up this review with one last story, that captivated me from the beginning. Its the 'Monks Tale'. 'Once you have been a monk, it is very difficult to kill a man', begins a Tibetan Buddhist monk Tashi Passang. He dedicated himself to religion thinking he would have a better chance of a good rebirth in his next life and have an opportunity to gain Nirvana. Passing his youth as a nomad in the Tibetan plains, he spent his time studying in a now destroyed monastery. But, his ambitions to become a hermit, soon evaporated when Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950s and intended to destroy Buddhism. 'Non-violence is the essence of the dharma. Especially for a monk. The most important thing is to love each and every sentient being. But when it comes to a greater cause, sometimes it can be your duty to give back your vows and to fight in order to protect the dharma'. He temporarily gave up his vows to fight against the Chinese and went to exile when he fled with Dalai Lama from Tibet to India. He spends the rest of his life atoning for the violence he committed by printing prayer flags, making sure every flag is perfect, every word correct and legible. He only feels that whatever happened only increased his faith in god. 'We Buddhists believe in karma, in cause and effect. An action has consequences; we are the consequences of our acts. Perhaps because there was a time in the seventh century when we Tibetans invaded China and tortured the Chinese. so we are suffering this torture now. It is our turn to suffer for what we did in previous lives'. Two other stories I really enjoyed are 'The Makers of Idols' and 'Red Fairy', but I will let you explore on your own what its all about, leaving your curiosity intact. Not only all these stories beautifully told, they provide us a window into their obscure lives, their miseries, hopes and unfulfilled dreams. At the heart of these stories, behind all those beliefs and practices, there lies the misery, a longing for freedom and happiness/enlightenment. A desire to free themselves from all evils, dreadful pasts to either nirvana/happy lives. Their prayers remain unanswered as they pursue their utmost devotion to god or sacrifice their lives or practice worldly renunciation. Aside from rendering their life stories, these characters also drawn upon myriads of tales from the ancient mythology and religion. Stories from Jataka tales, Adishankarar, Buddhism and Tibetan cosmology, and even translated works of famous Tamil poets like Appar, Sundarar are featured in this book for a delightful read. I learnt so much about various religious practices in modern India and the relevant mythical stories through this single book. Clearly, Dalrymple is one gem of a writer and I highly endorse this book for anyone who wish to know more about India and how some of the religious devouts cope with the rapid growth of modernization.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Black Mamba Boy by Nadifa Mohamed

Title: Black Mamba Boy

Author: Nadifa Mohamed

Edition: Paperback

Pages: 280

Publisher: Harper Collins

Acclaim: Long listed for 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Now you depart, and though your way may lead

Through airless forests thick with hagar trees,

Places steeped in heat, stifling and dry,

Where breath comes hard, and no fresh breeze can reach -

Yet may God place a shield of coolest air

Between your body and the assailant sun.

- Gabay by Maxamed Cabdula Xasan

'Black Mamba Boy' depicted a grim tale of war-torn North Africa during the period of Second World War, when it was ripped apart under Italian fascists and the British invaders. The hero of the story was a 10 year-old Jama who embarks on a treacherous journey through Northern Africa with the sole purpose of reuniting with his father. Set in the 1930s, the story covered the deserted lands of Northern Africa including Somali land, ploughing through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea, Abyssinia, Sudan and Egypt - some of these countries were seldom focused in modern literature. The author's exceptional work portraying a lively Somali, decades before the Second World War offered a refreshing outlook (though short-lived) for those minds which always conjured up poverty-stricken, disease-ridden people at the mention of many African nations.

Like expected, the journey was perilous and I was subjected to deaths, torture, violence, hunger, crime and all sorts of atrocious things that happen in the name of war. The vivid portrayal combined with the bloodstained history was quite enough to bring me to tears. Especially, I found the chapters on African history during the colonization heart-wrenching. What I found fascinating were those little snippets of information regarding different african clans. It was so heartwarming to realize how most of the clans worked well with each other, always lending a helping hand when necessary. When Jama travelled through the African landscape, he always found good hearted african people ready to offer him help. Not entirely convincing, but glad to see it happen at least, as a figment of imagination. Though the first half of the book was utterly compelling, I felt that the second half could have been a bit more succinct. Often, I kept wandering off the pages, mindlessly skimming over the lines, struggling to keep my focus on the page. The overly long descriptions and the stale scenarios bored me and I should admit that I expected a bit more fresh content and adventure. However, the story picked up pace towards the fag end, especially the chapter that narrated Jama's adventures on a British ship sent shivers down the spine.

"They rode a lorry together towards Abyssinia. They travelled for five days in the back of the lorry, marvelling at the paradise they passed through; the landscape was a juicy emerald green, with wild mango trees full of frolicking, singing birds, herds of giraffe and zebra gathered around blue watering holes. Jama would have been happy to jump off the lorry and stay in this small heaven but shiftas and patriots lurked amongst the trees and long grass. It was unsettling to see a place so lush, so full of promise without one tukul or any kind of human dwelling."

"To appease the hungry demon in his stomach, seething and cursing from his cauldron of saliva and acid, Jama had fought with stray cats and dogs over leftover bones. He tried to be brave but sadness and loneliness had crept up on him, twisting his innards and giving him the shakes."

Whether it be describing a lush landscape of Africa, or a painful hunger gnawing your guts, Nadifa's writing was rich, luminous and evocative. One particular instance that really gave me the shudders was the time when one of Jama's friend got mutilated by the Italians for stealing food to stave off hunger pangs. I was almost shaking in terror, crying out in pain as I read those horrific passages describing their barbaric acts. Another chapter that really moved me to tears was the last one that described the events that happened aboard a British ship 'Runnymede Park', carrying thousands of Jewish prisoners of war from the concentration camps to be taken to Britain after being denied entry into Palestine. Some of the horror stories refugees ranted during that voyage still kept ringing in my ears long after I finished reading the book.

"a young woman stood up to speak. 'I knew this man in Poland, he was a friend of my father's, he taught Hebrew to my sisters and me. When the German and Polish soldiers came, he saved my life. He hid me in a barrel in his flour mill while the rest of my family were walked to the river and shot. I saw their naked bodies floating down the river. If it wasn't for this man, I would be in that river with them'..."

For someone new to African fiction, Nadifa's book will serve as a window into their culture, clan, war-torn history. Her writing is truly an exemplary work of fiction and something to look forward to in the future. Sometimes, its even hard to believe that its a work of fiction because of her vivid narration. At times, I felt a little squeamish, giddy, unsettling reading her book. This is one story that will surely tug at your hearts' emotional strings, as the author plays with various elements such as grief, love and loss. In a way, thats partly the success of this novel. It drags you into the middle of a sweltering desert in Africa to witness the horrific injustices played out repeatedly in the name of war.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

Title: Human Chain
Author: Seamus Heaney
Genre: Poetry
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 85
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

"Had I Not Been Awake"

Had I not been awake I would have missed it,
A wind that rose and whirled until the roof
Pattered with quick leaves off the sycamore

And got me up, the whole of me a-patter,
Alive and ticking like an electric fence:
Had I not been awake I would have missed it,

It came and went so unexpectedly
And almost it seemed dangerously,
Returning like an animal to the house,

A courier blast that there and then
Lapsed ordinary. But not ever
After. And not now.

Not the one who takes up his bed and walks
But the ones who have known him all along
And carry him in -

Their shoulders numb, the ache and stoop deeplocked
In their backs, the stretcher handles
Slippery with sweat. And no let-up

Until he's strapped on tight, made tiltable
And raised to the tiled roof, then lowered for healing.
Be mindful of them as they stand and wait

For the burn of the paid-out ropes to cool,
Their slight lightheadedness and incredulity
To pass, those ones who had known him all along.

"Human Chain"

Seeing the bags of meal passed hand to hand
In close-up by the aid workers, and soldiers
Firing over the mob, I was braced again

With a grip on two sack corners,
Two packed wads of grain I'd worked to lugs
To give me purchase, ready for the heave -

The eye-to-eye, one-two, one-two upswing
On to the trailer, then the stoop and drag and drain
Of the next lift. Nothing surpassed

That quick unburdening, backbreak's truest payback,
A letting go which will not come again.
Or it will, once. And for all.


Between heather and marigold,
Between sphagnum and buttercup,
Between dandelion and broom,
Between forget-me-not and honeysuckle,

As between clear blue and cloud,
Between haystack and sunset sky,
Between oak tree and slated roof,

I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
Where can it be found again,
An elsewhere world, beyond

Maps and atlases,
Where all is woven into

And of itself, like a nest
Of crosshatched grass blades?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

Title: Earth and Ashes
Author: Atiq Rahimi
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 67
Publisher: Other Press
Translated by: Erdag M.Goknar

About the Author:
Born in Kabul in 1962, Atiq Rahimi was only 17 years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He fled to Pakistan during the war and was granted political asylum in France in 1984. After the end of Taliban regime in 2002, he returned to his home country where he filmed an adaptation of Earth and Ashes. The film was in the Official Selection at Cannes in 2004 and won several prizes. His first novel 'The Patience Stone' won the Prix Goncourt in 2008.

"... these days the dead are more fortunate than the living. What are we to do? We're on the eve of destruction. Men have lost all sense of honor. Power has become their faith instead of faith being their power. There are no longer any courageous men..."

This slim novella begins with a bleak landscape, a torn bridge that connects northern Afghanistan to Kabul, dry river-beds, a dirt track that runs sinuous between the scrub-covered hills leading to a coal mine. An old Afghan man, Dastaguir squats against the railings of the bridge, his eyes fixed on the dusty road waiting to hitchhike a ride to the coal mine. A bundle of dust-covered apples and a stale bread lay beside him. But, what weighs him down is unbearable grief, solitude and loss. As the old man strikes conversation with the benevolent shopkeeper, truck driver and the guard at the post, the readers slowly begin to understand the grave situation he is in. Dastaguir's son Murad left to work in the coal mines years ago, leaving his family with Dastaguir.

"... Over the four years Murad has worked at the mine, you haven’t had a single chance to visit him. It’s been four years since he entrusted his young wife and his son Yassin to you and left for the mine to earn his living. The truth is, Murad wanted to flee the village and its inhabitants. He wanted to go far away. So he left…Thank God he left."

The Russian Army has just bombed his village, reducing it to earth and ashes. Dastaguir's family perished in the disastrous event leaving him in despair. Unable to bear his solitude and grief, he bears a terrible news wondering how to convey it to his son Murad who works in the coal mine. Only a handful of survivors remained - including his young grandson Yassin. But, Yassin lost his hearing during the bombing, though he doesn't know it yet.

"They must've come and taken the voice of the shopkeeper and the voice of the guard... Grandfather, have the Russians come and taken away everyone's voice? What do they do with all the voices? Why did you let them take away your voice? If you hadn't, would they've killed you? Grandma didn't give them her voice and she's dead. If she were here, she'd tell me the story of Baba Kharkash...No, if she were here, she'd have no voice...

Grandfather, do I have a voice? You answer involuntarily, "Yes". He repeats the question. You look at him and nod "yes', making him understand. The child falls silent again. Then he asks, "So why am I alive?"

Written from the perspective of a second-person, the writers invites the readers into the hearts and minds of their bleak lives, the desolate souls who have lost everything in the war. That makes it very powerful, a clever attempt on writer's part for sure. The prose is sparse, poignant, his characters profoundly empathetic. In a meagre 67 pages, the author tries to pack centuries of Afghan history into a slim, bleak novella. It offers no hope only grief, no pleasure just pain. For Western audience its quite an ambitious effort, yet the prose is strikingly beautiful, words sharp as a dagger ready to plunge your heart in deep sorrow. I read this book in one sitting, though I went over it a couple of times to read fragments of text that I really loved. For instance. "You know, Father, sorrow can turn to water and spill from your eyes, or it can sharpen your tongue into a sword, or it can become a time bomb that, one day, will explode and destroy you". I would have liked to see it written more elaborate, complete, but when there is no hope but only grief, what is left to say? When your soul is scorched and scathed, ripped and blasted, what is life to you? What is world to you? You just let it pass by..

"Silence. You watch the rocks and scrub race past. It's not you who are passing them No. It's as if they are passing you. You're not moving. It's the world that's moving. You've been condemned to exist and watch the world pass, to watch your wife pass, to watch your children pass... Your hands tremble. Your heart flutters. Your sight goes dim. You roll down the window of the truck to refresh yourself. The air isn't refreshing. It has become thick, heavy, and black, It's not your sight that has gone dim, it's the air that has grown dark."

Not many novels come out of this war-torn country, such a pity it is. The only other Afghan based novels I have read before are Khaled Hosseini's novels. No wonder I was dying to find out what this novella was all about. If you get past the initial shock of how small it is, you will come to realize that this book is worth its weight in gold . You will truly appreciate the author for his highly commendable work for its not just a story of war, also that of a story about father and sons. Of love and grief. Family and relationships. The power of the story lies in the fact that you feel like a part of it. You are either the accused or the victim. You take a side. You either take the blame, cry in shame. Or You be the victim, weep in sorrow. No matter what, you cry. You grieve. You try to understand. It weighs you down. You fall to the dust, You pray for hope. You become Dastaguir. He becomes you.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Animal's People by Indra Sinha

Title: Animal's People
Author: Indra Sinha
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 374
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Acclaim: Commonwealth Writers Award winner, 2007 Man Booker Prize Nominee

Dec 02, 1984, Bhopal. It was an unforgettable night permanently etched in our sorrowful memories, scarring many people's lives forever. The Bhopal holocaust which killed thousands and thousands of people, burning many of them alive, is a shameful past we all struggle to forget. Every year, this time around, the TV media, newspaper articles and Internet bring back those horrific events alive again and again.

The Gas Tragedy: Built in the 1970s, the Union Carbide factory jutted through the already polluted skies of Bhopal claiming to make pesticides in an effort to aid the country's green revolution. When the expected green revolution didn't go as planned due to monsoon failures, the authorities decided to shut down the plant. However, no buyers came and the company went on a cost-cutting spree. Workforce halved, safety standards diminished. Minor accidents occurred, a few killings here and there due to gas spill. Despite safety audits, warnings and repeated articles in the newspaper condemning the government's neglect in imposing safety rules, no actions were taken. Safety sirens were permanently switched off so as to not disturb(!) the surrounding neighborhoods. One of the most lethal substances, MIC (methyl-iso cyanate) used during the first world war gas, was kept in huge tanks inside the factory. [Methyl iso cyanate is such a deadly, toxic gas, so volatile that unless kept under freezing temperatures, it can explode and cause catastrophic reactions].

On that fateful night, from inside the Union Carbide factory, what began as a thin plume of white vapor soon morphed into a dense venomous fog, cloaking the night in its devious veil. Nudged by the wind, the fog crept down the alleys, walkways wrapping the shoddy neighborhood, throttling its throat with its monstrous grip. People woke up in the middle of that night, with burning eyes and throat, with flaming lungs. They ran into the streets, coughing and choking, eyes searing with pain, tripping over hundreds of dead people including children. Desperate for their lives, they ran and ran, among many others, including cows and dogs trampling them, ignoring those who just dropped dead. Many struggled to breathe, the gas ripping their lungs apart, gasping for clean air. Over 8000 people died that night and till date the death toll rises over 20,000. More than half a million people remain injured.

The aftermath was catastrophic. People suffered (and are still suffering) eye defects, lung cancer, chaotic menstrual cycles, neurological damages, crippling birth disorders, high cancer rates, diabetes, mental illnesses and much more. Future generations are affected as well. Even as we speak, children of Bhopal are still born with mental illness and physical disorders. The city's polluted waters remains poisonous as the monsoon rains plants poisons deep into the soil which seep into wells and ponds. More than 100,000 people remain chronically ill while they await for any compensation from the government and Dow Chemicals (which later acquired the Union-Carbide factory in 2001). The meagre compensation that was promised perhaps could cover a cup of tea for the rest of their lives. The factory remains uncleaned since neither the government nor DOW Chemicals is reluctant to take up the responsibility. As the nation's biggest scandalous event ever witnessed in the history, the Bhopal holocaust remains a threat to humanity. The apocalypse that gripped the city that night, the terrors they witnessed, the horrific aftermath all comes alive in this heart-breaking novel written by Indra Sinha.

Photo courtesy: Guardian
More pictures in the 'Big Picture' here:

Indra Sinha, a France-based author, himself went on a hunger strike in 2008 supporting the survivors of the tragedy and the local activists condemning the authorities and accusing the government for letting the DOW chemicals off the hook. He has spent about 5 years writing this novel, many of the accounts drawn directly from the experience of his friends. In many ways, he truly triumphs in bringing back those terrors alive, giving readers an unflinching account of the truth, plunging the readers into a world hardly known. Though considered a fiction, the fabrications remain confined to perhaps the character names as their stories turn out searingly painful and honest as the tragedy itself.

The protagonist of the novel, Animal (a.k.a "Jaanvar" in Hindi), narrates this story as voice recordings using a worn-out 'tape mashin' which he hides in a spider hole, in the dilapidated tower he resides in. "I used to be human once. So I'm told. I don't remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being". so begins 'Animal'. Being a victim of the gas attack himself, Animal was barely a few days old 'That Night'. He lost his parents that terrible night and picked up by Ma Franci, a French nun, was normal until he was six. One day, a searingly painful attack on his back twisted his spine and didn't leave its monstrous grip until he hunched forward on all fours leaving him permanently crippled. About two feet from the ground, Animal is hunched, his hands deep rooted to the ground, his legs weak, yet his upper body strong as a body-builder. He could navigate through the crowded alleys in a lightning speed, climb up trees, eavesdrop (a.k.a 'jamisponding' as in spying 'James Bond') behind doors and survives in a human world with his pittance of earnings. He loves Nisha, a daughter of a local musician 'Somraj' and yearns to marry her. Zafar, a local hero, who fights against the injustice by protests, demonstrations, hunger strikes and rallies people against the government and the DOW (a.k.a 'Kampani' as in 'Company') asking them to pay compensation, set up clinics to treat the ill and clean up the factory and the polluted water wells and ponds. Nisha falls in love with Zafar much to Animal's contempt. His attempts to thwart their love, though futile in the beginning, takes a disastrous turn of events. Elli, the 'Amrikan' (American) doctress sets up a clinic to treat the diseased, but the locals refuse her offer suspecting her true motives. The plot revolves around the campaign run by Zafar, the many boycotts, hunger strikes, the war in general waged against the government and the 'Kampani'. But, in many aspects, it is also the story that portrays love, regrets, loyalties, sorrow, revenge and lust.

Animal is undoubtedly the most beloved character of all. With his crippled body and an orphaned, desolate upbringing, he earns a magnanimous amount of sympathy in the beginning, no doubt. As the novel progresses, the readers will witness his true motives, his yearnings and the lengths he would 'gallop' to, in order to attain them. He is flawed, of course, does despicable things, but his honest reasonings could make you rather hesitant before judging him. He repeatedly narrates that he is an animal, a one of a kind at that. Yet, I could not find someone more human than him in that novel. His shortcomings - a sex maniac, selfish, greedy 'bugger' - though loathful at times, he comes across as a profoundly honest, human being.

Some Western readers might find the pidgin-like style, Hindi-French-Inglis mixed notes, and the profane language a little difficult to get into (though if you had enjoyed novels like 'The White Tiger' by Aravind Adiga, you may not), his scathing observations will suck the readers right in. I adapted to the style rather quickly, enjoyed reading it a lot. All the characters in the novel are totally lovable - Be it the selfless, bold, Gandhi-ist type Zafar who is willing to lose his life for the betterment of his people, or Elli, the doctress who leaves behind her country to fight for the poor and the deceased, the Comical Somraj who lost his voice 'That night' now finding music in the oddest creatures like in the croaking of frogs, fart of an ant (as Animal observes), Nisha, the lovable teenager who treats Animal like a respectable human, even Farouq, the local thug who does the utmost sacrifice for his people, and Ma Franci, the mother Teresa type French nun, who lost her mind after the accident.

Despite Animal's belief that his audience might fail to comprehend their sufferings, his harrowing account of 'That night' and the unspeakable misery that ensued will surely bring the readers down to their knees begging for an end to misery. As I read, tears flowed incessantly, my numbed fingers gripping the pages, sorrowful eyes going over the lines over and over refusing to turn the page. Sinha's triumph not just lies in his ventriloquistic style, but more on his honest depiction of the corrupted political system and blighted lives of the victims. The authorities indifference to the poor and their denial for justice brings forth many questions in the minds of the readers. Aren't all human lives the same? Why does the law stay partial and delay justice to the poor? Why do the politicians succumb to the demands of a foreign company when their own people are dying before their very eyes every day? Is greed so powerful that it can turn a blind eye to humanity, love and grief? Why do the rich treat poor like scums? Aren't we all equal in the eyes of god? Is god truly there? If he is, Why would he let such atrocious things happen? I am burning with curiosity to seek out the answers myself. Yet I remain perplexed for the answers seemed to elude me. The context of the novel is powerful, the characters complex yet endearing. This compelling novel truly deserves the nomination and awards, perhaps even more recognition would have been better. As for me, It will remain one of the best reads of all time. If you like this novel, you might also want to consider reading 'A Breath of Fresh Air' by Amulya Malladi and 'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry (both I tremendously enjoyed).