Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Six Weird Things About Me - Meme

Yeay! I've been tagged by Bookfool. Thanks, Bookfool, this is a fun meme!

The Rules: Each player of this game starts with the “6 weird things about you”. People who get tagged need to write a blog of their own 6 weird things as well as state this rule clearly. In the end, you need to choose 6 people to be tagged and list their names. Don’t forget to leave a comment that says “you are tagged” in their comments and tell them to read your blog.

6 weird things about me:
(since this is mostly a book blog, I'm going to restrict my weirdness to books/rading material)

1.I cannot read a book that has a torn or stained cover - I just cannot do it.

2.I don't read the preface of a book until I am almost halfway through the book.

3.I generally read magazines backwards, starting with the last article first.

4.When I am about to start a new read, I take great pleasure in creating the right mood for the book. For instance, if it's a book set in Morocco, I will play Moroccan music, visit a Moroccan restaurant a couple of times, read a few Moroccan blogs, light some frankencense in the study...I love immersing myself in the culture that the book is going to take me to.

5.When onboard a train, bus or plane, I have to look at the titles of books that fellow-commuters are reading even if it means staring. I can't seem to help myself!

6. I love bookstores, but I can't spend too long in one or I get claustrophobic - guess that rules out ever working in one! ;)

I know I'm supposed to tag 6 people, but it's a busy time so I'll say, if you like this meme, consider yourself tagged!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

An Indian Christmas Card

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays Everyone!
Have a wonderful,wonderful time and see you after Christmas!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran

Category: Travel - Middle East; Non-Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada

"Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, A Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Omar Khayyam in The Rubaiyat

Blending travelogue, stories of Iranian poets and poetry, bits of Iranian history, trips to sacred mosques, zurkhanes (where wrestlers practice their art) and anecdotes about people he meets as he travels through Iran, author and former wrestler, Marcello Di Cintio attempts to find out if in Iran there is an emotional link between poetry and another central aspect of Persian culture: wrestling. As he travels through the interiors of Iran we see, through Di Cintio's eyes, an Iran of startlingly beautiful,friendly and hospitable people who contrary to what the media will tell us, love Westerners (yes, even George Bush). THis is a land where poets are revered (where else in the world is a poet's tomb a popular picnic spot?) and where everybody, rich, poor, old, young can recite poetry, even daunting epics like the Shahnomeh or "Book of Kings" which recalls a thousand years of Persian history. The Iranians are a very social people; they love to eat in groups and socialize hence Tea houses where people gather to discuss politics while smoking qalyuns (Iranian water pipes with sweet, fruit-flavored tobacco) are very popular, and yet, for all this bustling activity there is a melancholy about the place that he can't quite put his finger on.

"...Sadness was as Persian as swirling poetry and spinning pahlevans. I was back among a people who bemoaned what happened to their country, its highjacking by severe men in robes, and longed for what once was. For too many Iranians, their nation had the taste of Qalyun (water pipe) once the sweetness has charred away and all that is left is cinders."

Liz Gilbert says in her travel memoir "Eat,Pray,Love" that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. According to her SEX was Rome's word and for the Vatican it is POWER. In New York City the word is ACHIEVE, in Stockholm it's CONFORM, in Naples it is FIGHT etc., and so, according to di Cintio, it would appear that MELANCHOLY and POETRY are synonymous with Iran.

I think it's safe to presume that the melancholy comes from being held so tight in the mullahs' grip and poetry is the antidote - only in poetry can Persians exchange kisses with their lovers in rose-scented gardens. Only in the Divan of Hafez does ruby wine flow free. So much sweetness has been lost in Iran, and it is only found in the rhymes of ancient measured lines.

So, coming back to the premise of the novel, does Di Cintio find that emotional link between poetry and wrestling?

The Iranians have a word "fotovat" which is the combination of unabashed masculinity with chivalry and kindness. Iranian wrestling champions— called pahlevans—embody this concept. Di Cintio wishes he could strive for fotovat but realizes it is not his to have, it is the birthright of the Iranian people, the inheritance of poets and pahlevans. Despite the wars, the sorrow, the revolution, the oppression, the crown and the turban the Iranian men hold within themselves a poetic civility. Noble verses are inscribed on their hearts like tattoos on muscle, and ancient verses direct them towards kindness.


Perhaps we all need more poetry in our lives.

What more can I say about this book? I can only suggest that if
you have time to sit quietly and ponder you will benefit much from this read.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

It took me a while this year, but finally, I'm in the Christmas mood and to celebrate that, here's a Christmas book my kids and I discovered last year. This is a repost from Dec 2005.

Some other Christmas book recommendations that I've seen on other blogs and which I intend buying, include:

Les' The Gift of the Magi

Booklogged's The Forgotten Carols

Jenclair's The TALL book of Christmas

Joy's The Autobiography of Santa Claus

Nessie's The Christmas Carol

Repost from Dec 2005

It's the First of December and in our house that means we get to open the first window of the chocolate advent calender! (The kids and I love the idea of having a piece of chocolate first thing in the morning)! This year, along with the advent calender, we have decided to read Jostein Gaarder's book, "The Christmas Mystery" which is the story of a boy and the mystery he encounters as he opens the windows on his magical advent calender.

This review has been taken from the South Ayrshire Library reviews:

(sorry for not being able to provide one of my own - so rushed for time)

This is a fascinating story within a story. Set in present-day Norway, this is the story of Joachim, a young boy who finds a faded, handmade Advent calendar. He begs to be allowed to take it home. The next morning, when he opens the calendar's first door, Joachim discovers not just the expected picture but also a tightly folded piece of paper, the first instalment of the fantastic tale of Elisabet who has been missing for over 50 years. Soon the girl's story is making unexpected intrusions into Joachim's own life, and he races to solve the mystery of the calendar before Christmas Eve. The book is about peace and love and tolerance and is perfect for reading aloud. Like an advent calendar there is 24 'doors' to open, you could read one a day to savour the story in the run up to Christmas. (Suitable for 9 - 12 years)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

TBR 2007 and Chunkster Challenge

Tired of those TBR piles threatening to collapse? Fed up with having your view obstructed by huge mounds of books? Miz Books has the solution. She has set up a challenge which asks the participant to read 12 books (one a month) for the year 2007. Imagine, taking 12 books off your TBR by the time 2008 rolls along. Along with the TBR 2007 challenge I will also be doing booklogged's "Classics Challenge" and bookfool's "Chunkster Challenge".

But first, come with me on a virtual journey through the TBR 2007 Challenge:

In January I plan to leave the Canadian winter behind and travel to the villages of China where I will make friends with a farmer and his family in 1. "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck. This book fits in neatly with my Classics Challenge as well.
I cannot dream of returning to Canada in the coldest month of the year so I travel from China onto Singapore (so that I can visit Bibliobibuli in Malaysia) where I intend learning about a young man's coming of age during the fall of Singapore in World War II in Vyvyane Loh's 2.
"Breaking The Tongue"

From Singapore and Malaysia I will travel to Sri Lanka, where I'll have the opportunity to meet this really sweet boy who everyone calls 3."Funny Boy", I'll tell you why after I meet him. After Sri Lanka I will have to stop in India or my mom won't forgive me.
In India I am going to encourage Australian gangster-turned-author Gregory Roberts or 4.
"Shantaram" to tell me how he happend to end up in an Indian jail and what happened to him after he was released.

Whilst in India I know I won't be able to resist visiting Kerala to see and meet a Kathakali dancer in Anita Nair's 5.

It will be sad to leave India, but I have to head back to Canada. Enroute, I know Africa will beckon so I'll stop for a while in Somalia to meet 6. "Aman:Story of a Somali Girl" who will tell me what it's like to be young woman in 20th-century Somalia.

Africa is a huge continent and I see myself wanting to visit another country before I head for Europe, so I'll probably travel for Cairo to meet three generations of an Egyptian family in Naguib Mahfouz's 7.
"Palace Walk" from the" Cairo Trilogy".

I've booked my trip on Air Iberia so my plane will stop in Spain; whilst there I might as well learn some flamenco dancing with Jason Webster in 8. "Duende; A Journey into the Heart of Flamenco".

It's impossible to be so close to France and not visit - I find the French fascinating and I'm going to learn all I can about them with the aid of Jean-Benoit Nadeau's 9.
"Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't be Wrong:Why we Love France but not the French".

Just before I leave Europe altogether I will make a quick visit to the country of my birth (UK) to meet Najwa in Leila Aboulela's 10. "Minaret" who is in exile in London due to a political coup in Sudan which forced her family to move away. I want to ask her how her life has changed, if at all.

Before I touch Canada, I'd like to make a quick trip to New York where I will meet Barak Obama and his family in 11. "Dreams From My Father". I find Barack Obama to be such a fascinating person, I can't wait to find out more about him.

I hope to be back in Canada for Christmas and I'm going to celebrate it with the doyenne of Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood and her latest novel 12."Moral Disorders"

So, there you have it, my 12 TBR reads for the TBR 2007 Challenge.

For bookfool's beautiful and flexible" Chunkster Challenge" I have picked 5 books of which I hope to read atleast 3 (please follow the link to Bookfool's blog for the guidelines)

Naghoub Mafouz's "Palace Walk" (512 pages)

Gregory David Robert's "Shantaram" (944 pages)
(recommended by Holly Dolly Books)

Suketu Mehta's "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (560 pages)
(How could I resist reading about the city I grew up in?)

Zusak's "The Book Thief" (560 pages)
(Led by Les, Bookfool and Booklogged, this book has been raved about by every book blogger that has read it)

Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" (592 pages)

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

# Paperback: 162 pages

# Publisher: Penguin Books (India)

The fabulous MYTH series, which includes Margaret Atwood's "Penelopiad" , was launched last October intending to give fresh life to some of the most timeless tales ( myths and epic poems) ever told.

Twelve high profile authors were invited by
Canon Gate to revisit and re-write these epics with a contemporary pen. Along with "Penelopiad" you can expect to find "Lion's Honey" (based on the myth of Samson) by David Grossman, "Weight" (The Myth of Atlas and Heracles) by Jeanette Winterson and "Dream Angus" (the Celtic God of Dreams) by Alexander McCall Smith. There are more, but these are the books I'm most interested in.

According to Homer's "The Odyssey" When the wily Greek hero Odysseus sailed for the Trojan war (after Paris of Troy stole Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta) he left behind his wife Penelope and young son. When when he returned after 20 odd years away, he immediately killed the suitors vying for his faithful wife's affections and fortunes and also hung her twelve maids.

In her introduction Atwood states that the maids' executions have never been satisfactorily explained in the Odyssey, and admits that the image of the twelve lynched girls has always haunted her, she therefore has chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the
twelve hanged Maids. The Maids form a chanting and singing Chorus (like a Greek chorus) which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of the Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? To solve the mystery she (Atwood) has drawn on material other than the Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumours circulating about her.

When I think of Homer's Odyssey the three characters that first spring to mind are the lovely
Helen of Troy, Paris her besotted suitor and Odysseus (ofcourse). Penelope hardly ever comes to mind, after all, who would remember a clever but rather dull person when one can have someone like Helen who is beautiful and dangerous. Also,being the paragon of virtue that Penelope was (she is supposed to have waited faithfully for Odysseus for nearly 20 years) she is a difficult role model for most women to aspire to. However, Margaret Atwood has taken her story, polished it up and guess what, I love the new Penelope!

She may be a strong woman, a clever woman and a faithful one, but through Atwood's pen you also see a vulnerable Penelope - one that couldn't trust her immediate family (her father, the King of Sparta, tried to drown her when she was a child) and one who was constantly overshadowed by her cousin Helen's beauty, but you also see a woman determined to be a faithful wife and a determined ruler and mother.

I found Atwood's retelling of the Odyssey to be highly imaginative, witty, clever, happily irreverant in parts and very colourful - she has given Penelope a voice that is both, sad and funny, but always engaging - I drank up the 160 pages in about as many minutes!

Reading this book, has made me crave for more of the books in the Myth Series, so if anyone wishes to trade some other book in the series for "The Penelopiad", please let me know! (I have Karen Armstrong's "A Short History of Myth", so I won't be needing that one)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Daaku by Ranj Dhaliwal

# Paperback: 312 pages
# Publisher: New Star Books (October 23, 2006)
# Language: English
#Genre: Fiction

"Sounds Like Canada" interviews Ranj Dhaliwal

Synopsis: A story of betrayal, cold-blooded murder and the rise and eventual fall of one gangster, "Daaku" is a bullet-riddled grand tour of Indo-Canadian gangland.

Daaku, in Punjabi, is another term for outlaw. A Daaku is a person who has no regard for life and is an outcast in society. This person believes that whatever he does is right, even though it is against all laws of his country. The Daaku can be found in every culture across the globe and has been around since the birth of mankind.

The Daaku referred to in Ranj Dhaliwal's book is Ruby Pandher, an Indo-Canadian gangster. We meet Ruby when he is 7 years old or thereabouts and realize right away that he's a trouble-maker, he loves danger and seeing how far he can go before he's caught - it started with childish pranks like stealing a dime from his teacher's desk, pasting "kick me" signs on his teacher's chair, but he soon grows bored and moves on to arson "I wasn't a pyro, but I loved the power it(fire) had over items and their demise" to stealing cars and to beating up people for just giving him "the look" . Soon he graduates to carrying guns, selling cocaine, making collections for Indo-Canadian drug dealers, organizing a jailhouse smuggling ring whilst in prison ... eventually we see him betraying his closest friends and taking out anyone he perceives as a threat - 19-year old Ruby is determined to be the fiercest gangster in Western Canada.

This is a hard book to read because of its very graphic subject matter. You hate Ruby's attitude to life, his blatant disregard for the law and for human life. You cringe at how easily he will pick a fight and beat another human being to pulp for the littlest grievances, and yet, when he talks about his "poor mom" and how he loves her daal roti (lentils and Indian bread) and how he demands that his friends and girlfriends respect her, or when he holds off having intimate relations with a girl who is coming onto him because he wants to lose his virginity with his girlfriend whom he loves, or even when he beats up a bully for calling his younger brother a "bun head" you realize that somewhere inside that hard exterior there is a heart and you want so much to believe he is more than a hardcore gangster.

THe question I kept asking myself as I read the book was 'why'? Why do kids opt to live on the edge, when they could have stability and security? Why do they knowingly hurt the people that love and care for them? In Ruby's case, a hard drinking, brutal father who ruled his home with violence and a community that appears to respect maschismo and bravado, could have contributed to making Ruby the tough guy that he was, but at some point the lure of fast money, power and the adoration of the female sex as well as the admiration and fear of his peers was mainly instrumental in keeping him in the business.

I was curious why Ranj Dhaliwal, a first-time author, would choose this subject (Indo-Canadian gang warfare) as a topic for his first novel for as far as I know topics like these tend to be very controversial. Apparently, growing up in Surrey (home to the largest population of East Indians in Vancouver) Ranj Dhaliwal was exposed to the Indo-Canadian underworld and saw many young men joining gangs and losing their lives in the process (In the past 10 years in Greater Vancouver, atleast 60 men have died in an Indo-Canadian gang war over drugs, money and women).

Despite losing so many of their young men to gang violence the Punjabi community remains tight-lipped about this ugly phenomenon because of the stigma associated with it. I think Ranj Dhaliwal aims to break the code of silence in Surrey’s Indo-Canadian community and is hoping that his novel will raise awareness of gang culture and will prompt some sort of dialogue about gang violence and the effect of it has on a community. I commend him for that and I commend New Star for publishing his book. I can't predict the effect it's going to have on other readers, but it sure opened my eyes.

Related links:For more about the roots of gang warfare in the Sikh community in BC, Canada read this piece by Renu BakshiThe Roots of Gang Warfare
I'll leave you with this very thought-provoking statement from a letter by the author on his site:

“When you open this novel you enter the daaku’s world, and
when you close it you leave it—unlike the life of a real daaku whose only exit is death.”

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Booklogged's "Winter Classics Challenge"

I cannot wait to get started on Booklogged's, from the wonderful "A Reader's Journal", Winter Classics Challenge. The rules are simple - all you need to do is to read 5 classics in the months of January and February.

In keeping with the theme (World and South-Asian Literature) of this blog, I've decided to pick 5 Classics from different parts of the World. I will also be doing Miz Books' TBR 2007 and Bookfool's "Chunkster Challenge" and as a result some of my book choices may overlap.

For now, here's my list of books for the Winter Classics Challenge:

1."The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck. 1932 Pulitzer Prize winning novel (American)
(overlaps with the TBR 2007 Jan Read)

2. "Palace Walk" by Naguib Mahfouz (1957) . Book one of "The Cairo Trilogy" . A Landmark of postcolonial Arabic literature that traces three generations of a family in 20th-century Cairo in vivid, realistic detail. At 512 pages it qualifies as a tome so this will be on my Chunkster Challenge as well.(Egypt)

3. "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling (1901). Set in India, this book is about the adventures of an Irish orphan who passes with ease as an Indian native. (Britain)

4."Some Prefer Nettles" by Junichiro Tanizaki (1928-29), exploring conflicts in everyday life between Japanese tradition and Western modernity. (Japan)

5. Umrao Jaan Ada by Mirza Hadi Ruswa(1905). An integral part of Urdu literature, Mirza Haadi Ruswa's 'Umrao Jaan Ada' is an Urdu classic not to be missed. (India)

Based on the 19th century Lucknow Nawab culture, this is the story of a courtesan who was kidnapped by the village baddie during her childhood and sold to the ladies at the kotha. The innocent Ameeran (Umrao) grows up to relish and admire the power she possesses to control men's hearts with her beautiful voice and her dances. This is the story of the loss of innocence as a child turns into a woman and then a courtesan.


"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe (1958). A classic work of postcolonial African Literature that vivdly portrays traditional Nigerian culture and the destructiveness on that culture by colonialism. (Nigeria)

THis is my list for now - I may change titles as I go along, depending upon the availability of the books (for instance, Umrao Jaan is being ordered from India) and my mood, ofcourse!

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A message

To all my blogger friends:

A big thank you to all of you who wrote in to tell me my blog wasn't loading properly. I apologize for my blog's bad behavior :) Apparently this is happening when the browser used is Internet Explorer...not sure why that is, I can only think I may have inadvertently tampered with the template causing the incompatibility. However, as far as I know, it can be viewed well with Mozilla Firefox, so while my blog is being redesigned (yes, I am hoping to have a subtle makeover!) I would request all of you to try accessing my blog through Mozilla. I so appreciate all the feedback you give me so please continue to let me know how the blog is doing!

Thanks so much (and sorry for the inconvenience)!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Poetry Meme

I have never attempted a poetry meme before so I was ecstatic that the lovely Lesley of Lesley's Book Nook would tag me- a big "thank you" to her and also to Cam from Cam's Commentary for originating the meme.

Here goes:

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was:

Abou Ben Adam by Leigh Hunt

My dad dabbled in amateur theatre as a youngster and Abou Ben Adam was a poem he could recite with a lot of dramatics and hence he was forever reciting it all over the house...infact, one of my earliest memories of my father was him reciting this poem to us children. He also recited a lot of Punjabi poems that I can't find on the net, so I'm not going to be able to write about them.

Abou ben Adam

Abou ben Adam (may his tribe increase!)

awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,

And saw, within the moonlight of his room,

Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,

an angel, writing in a book of of gold.

Exceeding peace had made Ben Adam bold,

And to the Prescence in the room he said:

"What writest thou?" The vision raised its head,

And, with a look made of all sweet accord,

Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."

"And is mine one?"said Abou, "Nay, not so,"

Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,

But cheerily still, and said, "I pray thee, then,

Write me as one who loves his fellow men."

The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night

It came again, with a great awakening light,

And showed the names whom love of God had blest,

And lo! Ben adam's name led all the rest.

- Leigh Hunt

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and........

I was forced to memorize "O Captain My Captain" by Walt Whitman and you would think I'd hate the poem, but au contraire, it's one of my favorite poems! I went on to recite it at my school's elocution competition and WON! :)

3. I read/don't read poetry because....

I don't read modern poetry because I'm an old-fashioned gal, I like poetry that rhymes. The only non-rhyming poetry I love are the Sufi poems by Rumi, Hafiz etc. Also, poetry is getting so abstract these days that I don't always understand what the poet is saying.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is .......

When I think of the word poem in the dictionary of my mind, "Solitude" by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is the poem that comes to mind. Good or bad, I've often taken her advice...

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
For the sad old earth must borrow it's mirth,
But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer; Sigh, it is lost on the air. The echoes bound to a joyful sound, But shrink from voicing care.

I also love this one by RUMI

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

5. I write/don't write poetry, but..............

Sadly, I don't write any poetry, not even the rhyming kind!

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature.....

When I read certain kinds of poems it's a magical experience, it's almost as if I am lifted up and away into a different world and even when the words are long forgotten, the essence of the poem continues to stay with me. Very few bodies of literature have been able to do that for me.

7. I find poetry.....

especially the old-fashioned or Sufi poetry, beautiful....it fills my heart and touches my soul. I love the rhythm of poetry, I love that for the most part it is free from rules of grammar, allowing it to bend and flow any which way it wants to go.

8. The last time I heard poetry....

I think the last time was when my friend and fellow blogger "Waryer Poet" or 'Cactus Poet" as he is now known, sent me a recording of his poems.

9. I think poetry is like....

Red wine, when you read the right kind of poetry and it can intoxicate you, but when you read something that you don't particularly enjoy it gives you a headache!

There are so many on my blogroll that would love attempt this meme, so I'm going to invite all of you to play if you would like!

This might also be a nice time to introduce some friends and fellow bloggers whose wondrous and clever poetry I absolutely enjoy:

Beloved Dreamer
Gautami from Rooted
Sharanya Manivannan

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie

Category: Fiction

Format: Trade Paperback, 416 pages

Publisher: Vintage Canada

Price: $21.00

Whenever friends or acquaintances learn of my love for South-Asian fiction, I am asked the inevitable question: Have you read Salman Rushdie's "........."(fill in any title you want here) and I am almost embarrassed to have to reply to them in the negative. I have no good reason for not reading an SR, except to say the opportunity never really presented itself until now. A few weeks ago Random House asked if I would like to read "Shalimar the Clown" and I jumped at the chance because not only was it a Rushdie, but also, it was set in Kashmir a place I am drawn to because of its handsome people, beautiful scenery and its precarious position in the world (political pundits say that if a nuclear war does take place, Kashmir is where it will be, after all it is the only place in the world where two nuclear forces are staring down at each other across the Line of Control.)

The book opens with the killing of Max Ophuls, ex US ambassador to India, in Los Angeles on his daughter's doorstep. His death, believed to have been carried out by an Islamic fundmentalist, has no witnesses. In flashbacks we learn that Max Ophuls during his tenure as Ambassdor in India falls in love with a beautiful but uneducated Kashmiri village belle, Boonyi Kaul, who leaves her family to become his mistress...such being the lure of his position and power. A bulk of the story is about what happens to her after she becomes his mistress and what happens to her family, her husband Shalimar the Clown and her native Kashmiri village, a village of theatrical performers and cooks,which she leaves behind. Shalimar, a tightrope walker is understandably devastated when Boonyi leaves with the American ambassador and starts to fall apart, his beloved Kashmir seems to mirror his descent by falling into a madness of its own.

It is not easy for an author to wed large social and political conflicts, such as the conflict over Kashmir, to personal lives, but in "Shalimar The Clown",through the lives,loves and tribulations of the 4 main characters, Boonyi, Shalimar the Clown, the Ambassador Max Ophuls and India, his daughter, Salman Rushdie deftly does just that. Through some great storytelling he acquaints us with the history behind the "rape" of the beautiful valley of Kashmir.

Some history:

When India gained its independence from Britain on 15 August 1947, the Asian sub-continent was partitioned into Hindu-dominated India and the newly-created Muslim state of Pakistan. Kashmir which had a larger Muslim population was expected to join Pakistan, but, it was ruled by a Hindu Maharajah who dithered over the issue because ideally he would have preferred to remain independent of both countries. While he agitated and fussed, Islamic militia from Pakistan began pouring into Kashmir and to counter them the Maharajah had to call on India to send troops to Kashmir, thus began the oppressive military presence and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the beautiful and formerly peaceful valley of Kashmir.

Rushdie's book not only turns the spotlight on that bit of history but also explains the genesis and growth of the JKLF ( The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front), a Separitist movement,fighting for the Liberation of Kashmir from both India and Pakistan, the growth and ferocity of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of the Pure - one of the most feared groups fighting against Indian control in Kashmir),the banishment of the Hindu Kashmiri Pundits and so on. Rushdie does this with an impressive storyline, a fascinating cast of characters and a blend of fables, superstitions,folk tales, and legends which keeps the reader engaged in the story...don't you just love a book that educates even while it entertains?

If I do have a critique about the book it is that Rushdie tends to be very wordy and around the middle of the book the sheer weight of what I thought were long-winded passages,took its toll on me. I shut the book only picking it up again once I had agreed with myself to skip any long descriptions or anything I deemed not really contributing to the story. Having said that however, this is a powerful and "essential" story; powerful because strong emotions such as love, revenge and jealousy are the engines that drive the narrative and essential because the plight of the Kashmiri people needs a ear. Sure, the newspapers cover the crisis in Kashmir all the time, but there is nothing quite like a novel with characters a reader can come to care for and love, to really make us interested in a cause.

I'd be happy to read another Salman Rushdie soon, so write in and tell me what Salman Rushdie novels you have read and liked (or disliked) or what you plan on reading.

For a concise reading on the Kashmir dispute, go here

An update (13 Dec): Recently President Musharraf said that Pakistan would give up its claim on Kashmir if India accepts a four-point resolution, including autonomy for the region under a joint government with Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri representation...read more about it here

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Soong Sisters (1997)

Hubby is in China at the moment and in his honor I decided to watch a Chinese (Mandarin) movie that I spied in the "Foreign Films" section in the library. I'm not sure why I picked this particular movie, "The Soong Sisters", after all I had never heard of them before, but I am so glad I did because this movie tells the story of pre-modern China - right from the revolution that overthrew the Qin dynasty in 1911 right up until when China became a Communist Nation in 1949- through the lives of the celebrated Soong sisters, daughters of Charlie Soong, American-educated Methodist minister and one of the main financiers of the 1949 Revolution and who made a fortune selling Bibles in China. Apparently this movie won a bunch of awards at the 1997 Hong Kong Film Festival.

"Once upon a time in distant China, there were three sisters. One loved money, one loved power, and one loved her country." So opens this historical, melodramatic chronicle of the influential lives of three daughters from one of pre-Communist China's wealthiest families. Two of the Soong sisters married important figures in 20th-century Chinese history. Soong Ching-ling (played by Maggie Cheung) married Sun Yat-sen, who led the Chinese revolution that toppled the Qing dynasty in 1911 and became China's first president, while her sister Mei-ling (Vivian Wu) married Sun's successor, the famed Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang became president of China after Sun Yat-sen and had to deal with a nation thoroughly plundered by Western powers and by local Chinese warlords. His own government was corrupt and he was eventually defeated by the communists in 1949. Chiang and the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, where he remained president, a virtual dictator, till his death in 1975. The oldest daughter Ai-ling (Michelle Yeoh) married industrialist H.H. Kung, a wealthy and powerful man who eventually became Hong Kong's finance minister.

Most of my knowledge of modern China consists of Mao's rule and what came after..this little period between the end of the Qin Dynasty and Mao, with the Japanese invasion, the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists, resulting in the Nationalists fleeing to Taiwan and the Communists taking over power, was never well known to me until now. But then again, I am wary about promoting this movie because, having been through strict Chinese censorship, I am sure this movie presents a very biased look at history with Chiang Kai-Shek and the youngest Soong daugher, Mei-Ling being depicted as the bad fellas and with Ching-Ling who was married to Sun-Yat Sen being the most likeable. Her politics were Left-leaning and she remained in China after the communists took over, eventually becoming honorary chairperson of the People's Republic. Not surprisingly, Soong Ching-ling was estranged from her two capitalist sisters. IMO, Mei-Ling was definitely the most fascinating and accomplished of the Soong sisters.

Why are people, including myself, so fascinated by the Soong Sisters? I guess it's because China being the patriarchal society that it is, it seems incongruous to have women at the helm, no doubt, in part it was the women's wealth and their connections that heralded them onto the world stage, but even so it was quite an achievement. Indira Gandhi, Corazon Aquino are also to be admired. Not sure why the US, this great respecter of women's rights and achievements should have taken so long to see a Condoleeza Rice.

For more fascinating reading on the Soong Sisters, go here

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Inheritance of Loss By Kiran Desai

# Hardcover: 336 pages;

# Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (January 9, 2006);

# Language: English

So strong is the link between loss and sadness that I went into Kiran Desai's book "The Inheritance of Loss' fully expecting it to be cloaked in melancholy, however, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't. Sure, there was sadness, there was loss, but because she balances it with such humor and wisdom you don't come away with a sense of gloom.

Kiran Desai's story is set against the backdrop of the agitation for Gorkhaland (1986)in the north-eastern hills of Darjeeling (India) close to the border with Nepal and revolves around two main characters: 16-year old orphaned Sai and her grandfather, an emibittered, orge-like judge who seems to prefer living in the past . In flashbacks we learn that when he was a young man the judge was sent off to Cambridge by his doting family to study law , but it was a time when people of colour weren't particulary liked in Britain, he was ridiculed for his accent, young girls held their noses as he passed insisting he reeked of curry... this rejection fueled in his soul a shame and a dislike for his heritage, his culture and the colour of his skin.

"...he forgot how to laugh, could barely manage to lift his lips in a smile, and if he ever did, he held his hand over his mouth, because he couldn't bear anyone to see his gums, his teeth.They seemed too private. Infact, he could barely let any of himself peep out of his clothes for fear of giving offence. He began to wash obsessively, concerned he would be accused of smelling. To the end of his life, he would prefer shadow to light, faded days to sunny, for he was suspicious that sunlight might reveal him, in his hideousness, all too clearly." (pg 40)

Other characters in the book include, the wizened old cook and his precious son Biju whom he sent to the US to pursue the American dream; anglophile sisters Noni and Lola; Swiss national Father Booty; drunk uncle Potty and the fascinating Nepali tutor Gyan (also Sai's love interest). The book is set alternately in India and in North America and lovers of language will be fascinated to see how Desai's narration changes to reflect the part of the world her story is in.

Although the story unfolds against the background of the Gorkhaland movement, the book doesn't take political sides. The story is more about the affect this movement had on the people of Kalimpong, how they reacted to it and how it changed their lives. It's about the victims and the survivors. Many books and movies have been made on other Indian separatist movements, like the Sikh's call for a Khalistan or the Kashmir separatist movement, but to my knowledge this is the first book that talks about the call for a Gorkhaland and I am grateful for it shed some light on this cause

I happen to know a lot of blogger friends who are currently reading this book or who have plans to, so I won't reveal too much more, except to say, I really, really enjoyed the book! A big part of the enjoyment came from the fact that booklogged from A Reader's Journal, whose blog I admire so much, sent this to me as part of the BAFAB event and also, reading Kiran Desai at any time means to sit down to an ample literary feast (they don't compare her to Salman Rushdie for nothing). I found her style of writing with its compact paragraphs, lots of exclamation marks, the generous use of capital letters and some breathlessly long sentences to exude a spritliness I am not used to seeing in many books and I love it. I don't know quite how to describe the style except to say it is exhuberant! The narrative, her descriptions and the images they evoke are inspired, take this for instance (about a young boy getting dressed for school)

"...Fed he was, to surfeit. Each day, he was given a tumbler of fresh milk sequined with golden fat. His mother held the tumbler to his lips, lowering it only when empty, so he reemerged like a whale from the sea, heaving for breath. Stomach full of cream, mind full of study, camphor hung in a tiny bag about his neck to divert illness; the entire package was prayed over and thumb-printed red and yellow with tika marks. He was taken to school on the back of his father's bicycle." (pg 58)

In closing, this book has such a range of subjects to discuss - there's globalization, immigration, displacement, the aftermath of colonial rule, love across different cultures, exile, the American dream, just to name a few, but most of all, read it for its expert narration, descriptions and memorable characters . The Chicago Tribune critic predicts "you'll read it almost as Sai read her Bronte, with your heart in your chest, inside the narrative, and the narrative inside you." There is so much more I want to say about this book and hopefully I will get a chance to do so when some of us discuss this book later.

This is the first book from my "Stacks" challenge, four to go!

An Update (15 Dec) : Apparently Kiran Desai is not much loved in Kalimpong. Read about it here

Another update: My friend Sai from Sai Speak has a nice take on the novel. Read it here.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

An Early Reading Meme

Kate S. has a very interesting childhood reading meme that I decided to try. This is what Kate had to say in her introduction:

"I’ve decided to have a go at creating a meme. I’ve been re-reading some childhood favourites lately and thinking a lot about the process of becoming a reader, so I’m taking early reading experiences as my subject."

1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?

I was an early reader,I think I was three when I learned to identify a few easy words. I can't remember my mom actually sitting down and reading to or with me, but I do remember my grandmother reading to me over and over (she was the owner/principal of a little nursery school in Bombay so she was very keen on getting children to read, besides she had a great assortment of books in her school library!)

2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?

Gosh, I can't seem to remember my very early books but I do remember when I was about 7 or 8 my grandmother gave me a beautifully illustrated book called "Cultures of the World for Children" and I was so hooked on that book...I read it everyday and all the time. I realize now that it was that very book that sparked my interest in anthropology . Besides that book I also remember having various fairy tale books that I loved, "Hansel and Gretel", "The Little Matchgirl" and so on, but none have stayed in my memory as much as that book on cultures. I'd love to get my hands on that book again if I could.

3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?

Ahhh, this I remember well. We got Rs.5/month as pocket money (25c. at today's rate exchange maybe?) and I'd rush to the bookstore to pick up an Enid Blyton ( I was hooked on the St. Claire's and Mallory Towers series). Sometimes I'd buy the "Just William" books by Richmal Crompton or something from the "Famous Five" or "Secret Seven" series. Interestingly enough, when we visited India in August this year, I was able to find some of my old copies of the St. Claire's series and my 11-year old just loves them,except she wishes the pages weren't so yellow with age!

4. Were you a re-reader as a child? If so, which book did you re-read most often?

I don't remember being a re-reader. I was always impatient to finish a book so that I could start a new one. I guess I've carried this habit with me into adulthood because I very seldom re-read a book although I am often tempted to. Maybe I should impose a re-reading challenge on myself!

5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?

Good question. I must have been all of 12 0r 13 when I started exploring my dad's collection of classics. I would just thumb through the pages initially, but slowly I started wanting to read more. Soon I was totally engrossed in Maugham's "Of Human Bondage" ( I still think it was one of my best reads ever) and high on the delight that Maugham's classic provided I attempted and enjoyed "Woman in White" by Henry Wilkes and a slightly abridged "Anna Karenina". My mom loved romance novels, so ofcourse, I had to peek into the books she left around...many were historical romances which intrigued me, but there were some Jackie Collins and Harold Robbins and although I wouldn't waste my time on those books anymore, I do think it contributed to making me a good speed reader because I had to finish that novel before my mom got home and caught me red-handed! :)

6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?

Oh yes, plenty! Living in India as I did, I didn't have access to "Anne of Green Gables" or to Phillip Pullman's "Dark Materials" or EB White of "Charlotte's Web" fame. I discovered these books upon coming to Canada and I love them!

Hope you enjoyed the meme. If you would like to chart your early reading experiences, consider yourselves tagged!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Omkara, India's Othello

Not being a literature major I haven't read Shakespeare in much depth, but like most people, I have my favorite plays of the Bard that I will read over and over: "The Merchant of Venice", "Hamlet", "Macbeth", "Twelfth Night" and last but definitely not least, "Othello". I first read "Othello" when I was 15 or 16 and I couldn't believe how darn tragic it was, since then I have read it often and every single time I come away feeling very melancholy, a feeling that somehow sits well on me especially on a grey,overcast windy day like yesterday, except, yesterday I didn't read "Othello" but rather watched the Bollywood adaptation of it titled "Omkara".

After watching Omkara last evening and "Black" the night before, I am convinced that Indian cinema has entered a brand new, exciting age...we now have a troupe of directors and actors that are keen to give us quality movies with brilliant storylines and passionate execution of those lines by actors committed to their craft. We are now seeing movies that make us go "wow" and we come away from them sated and yet wanting more.

(Ajay Devgan and Nasarudeen Shah)

Ajay Devgan, whom I always believe could whip the crown off Shahrukh's head in an instant if he really wanted to, has been perfectly cast as Omakara or Othello. I can't say he delivered the best performance in the movie (that honor has to go to Saif Ali) but to be fair to Ajay the role is such it only demanded a brooding presence, and with his smouldering eyes, intense stare and brooding good looks, who better to do that than the Devgan? Whereas the Bard's Othello was a Moor (dark-skinned and of a different race from the white Spaniards he commanded), Omkara is a half-caste, so while the racial angle may be missing, Bhardwaj has introduced something closer to home, our precoccupation with people's castes and our dismissal or veneration of them depending on where they are positioned on the caste ladder. .

Saif Ali Khan, another favorite of mine, is paan-chewing, chapped lipped, scruffy Langda Tyagi (Iago in Othello) and he delivers a strong and memorable performance ( his was also the meatiest role in the film). His role stays quite close to that of Iago's except, he is Omkara's bro-in-law in the film instead of his lieutenant, and Viveik Oberoi (Kesu) is Cassio or Omkara's successor.

Instead of Venice, Omkara is set against the milieu of political and gangster warfare in the dusty, rustic interiors of India's Uttar Pradesh and it follows a warlord's descent into sexual jealousy and the wreckage resulting from his amorous obsession. Set as it is in the western villages of Uttar Pradesh the language is a dialect of Hindi and although abound with "gaalis" (cuss words) of the very worst kind, it is perfectly and ably rendered by the cast of the film.

(Konkana and Ajay Devgan)

In Othello the object of Desdemonia's object of infedility is an embroidered handkerchief, but in Omkara, in keeping with Indian traditions and values, it has been replaced by the cummerband. Kareena Kapoor plays Desdemonia and while her acting is superb, I think the women in Omkara are totally overshadowed the powerful roles that the male actors possess.

(Saif Ali Khan and Ajay Devgan)

Omkara is a dark movie with fierce emotions - there's strong loyalty juxtaposed with harsh betrayal, insane jealousy with unconditional love, raw passion, undying devotion, terrible recklessness, and all of these emotions in ample measure. The cinematography is fantastic, the music will blow you away, but best of all, each of the actors has put in a performance that is worth their weight in gold. Vishal Bhardwaj has truly pulled off a marvellous feat with a very worthy, and in some ways, an even more complex, Othello in "Omakra".

But I will tell you I was disappointed that Vishal Bhardwaj chose not to end the movie in typical Indian movie style (they all lived happily ever after) but chose to remain true to the story of "Othello" to the end, because as you will know, "Othello" ends on a terribly tragic note and so does this wonderful movie.

Now I'm off to see "Maqbool" which is Vishal Bhardwaj's remake of MacBeth.

In re-reading my post I realize I haven't done much of a review so for those of you interested in knowing more, let me guide you to The Storyteller's blogspot for a more detailed one, or to my favorite reviewer, Blogical Conclusion.