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‘Saraswati Park’ by Anjali Joseph ****

I travelled to Mumbai (once known as Bombay) on a cruise last November, and have been eager to read more books set in the city – and, indeed, within the whole of India – ever since.  I therefore requested Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, Saraswati Park, from my local library, and settled down with it immediately.

8517801Although it seems underread, with less than 100 reviews and just 600 readers on Goodreads, the novel was well received upon its publication in 2010, and won both the Desmond Elliott Prize for New Fiction and the Betty Trask Prize.  The Guardian writes that this ‘subtle novel is infused with multiple regrets.  How true to life it seems…’, and The Times calls Joseph ‘a latter-day Mrs Gaskell’.  The Literary Review takes a wider view, noting that the author ‘perfectly articulates a growing sense of alienation as the old, socially fractured – yet transparent – India is superseded by modern democracy.’

The protagonists of Saraswati Park are married couple Lakshmi and Mohan Karekar, who live in the quiet suburb of Saraswati Park in Bombay.  Mohan works as a letter writer, and Lakshmi is, to all intents and purposes, a housewife.  They are settled, with their children grown and living elsewhere.  When Mohan’s young nephew, Ashish, comes to stay with them, however, the lives of all three are changed.  Ashish is ‘an uncertain 19-year-old’, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and is struggling to make sense of himself.  Within the family, tensions begin to grow, and Mohan and Lakshmi ‘start to question the quiet rhythm of their lives – and discontents, left unspoken for many years, begin to break the surface.’

The sense of place which Joseph has created here is wonderful.  From the outset, one can feel the constant buzz and heat of Bombay, and the always moving stream of people which fills its streets and alleyways.  The novel is also highly evocative of its characters; we are aware of Mohan and Lakshmi, their motivations, and their relationship with one another from very early on.  Ashish, too, is presented as a daydreamer, rather vague and unable to stick to one path.  We learn about the past lives of each of the characters in turn, which gives them more solidity.  Their interactions with one another have been shrewdly imagined, and just as much importance is given to what is unsaid.  One gets the sense that Joseph really sees her characters.

Joseph makes one continually aware of old and new Bombay, and the sense of tradition and change within the city.  She writes, for instance: ‘A hundred and fifty years earlier this had been the beach, before the land reclamations; perhaps it was the murmur of the waves one heard on the busiest of days, through the endless talking… and the rumble of the red buses, the taxi horns, the metallic steps of each person hurrying through the Fort.’  The contrasts between rich and poor are, as one might expect, apparent throughout.

I love character-focused novels, and fiction set in India is a real favourite of mine.  It is therefore difficult to imagine how I would not enjoy Joseph’s novel.  Although parts of Saraswati Park are really quite slow, the overall novel is a delight to read.  The exploration of Ashish’s sexuality is one of the best handled elements in the entire book.  Saraswati Park is a lovely piece of escapist fiction and, with the rich picture Joseph creates of life in modern India, it would be the perfect choice for the even the most discerning armchair traveller.

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India (November 2019)

We visited four very different places in India on our Asian cruise. Please find the footage as follows:

00.08 – Mumbai (historic walking tour)
02.02 – Goa (02.24 – Mangroves and Crocodile Dundee tour; 03:28 – Spice Farm tour)
04:16 – Mangalore (Mangaluru)
05:15 – Cochin (Kochi; 07:01 – wash house; 07.32 – Chinese fishing nets)

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Best Indian Fiction Books

One of my favourite places to read about is India.  I find that literature set within the vast and wondrous expanse of the country appeals to all of my senses, and instills in me a lot of wanderlust.  I have yet to visit India, but I feel as though I continue to learn a lot about it through reading novels set there.  Here are ten books set in India which I have not yet read, and which really appeal to me.

 

52111. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
‘With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.  The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.’

 

2. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth 50365
‘Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.’

 

140823. Malgudi Days by R.K. Narayan
‘Introducing this collection of stories, R. K. Narayan describes how in India “the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story.” Composed of powerful, magical portraits of all kinds of people, and comprising stories written over almost forty years, Malgudi Days presents Narayan’s imaginary city in full color, revealing the essence of India and of human experience. This edition includes an introduction by Pulitzer Prize- winning author Jhumpa Lahiri.’

 

4. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verges 3591262
‘A sweeping, emotionally riveting first novel—an enthralling family saga of Africa and America, doctors and patients, exile and home.  Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa. Orphaned by their mother’s death in childbirth and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Yet it will be love, not politics—their passion for the same woman—that will tear them apart and force Marion, fresh out of medical school, to flee his homeland. He makes his way to America, finding refuge in his work as an intern at an underfunded, overcrowded New York City hospital. When the past catches up to him—nearly destroying him—Marion must entrust his life to the two men he thought he trusted least in the world: the surgeon father who abandoned him and the brother who betrayed him.  An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others.’

 

2183575. The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar
Set in modern-day India, it is the story of two compelling and achingly real women: Sera Dubash, an upper-middle-class Parsi housewife whose opulent surroundings hide the shame and disappointment of her abusive marriage, and Bhima, a stoic illiterate hardened by a life of despair and loss, who has worked in the Dubash household for more than twenty years.’

 

6. Sister of My Heart by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni 16235
‘Anju is the daughter of an upper-caste Calcutta family; her cousin Sudha is the daughter of the black sheep of the family. Sudha is as beautiful, tenderhearted, and serious as Anju is plain, whip-smart, and defiant. yet since the day they were born, Sudha and Anju have been bonded in ways even their mothers cannot comprehend.  The cousins’ bond is shattered, however, when Sudha learns a dark family secret. Urged into arranged marriages, their lives take sudden, opposite turns: Sudha becomes the dutiful daughter-in-law of a rigid small-town household, while Anju goes to America with her new husband and learns to live her own life of secrets. Then tragedy strikes them both, and the women discover that, despite the distance that has grown between them, they have only each other to turn to. Set in the two worlds of India and America, this is an exceptionally moving novel of love, friendship, and compelling courage.’

 

58497. A House for Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
‘Mohun Biswas has spent his 46 years of life striving for independence. Shuttled from one residence to another after the drowning of his father, he yearns for a place he can call home. He marries into the Tulsi family, on whom he becomes dependent, but rebels and takes on a succession of occupations in a struggle to weaken their hold over him.’

 

8. The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell 256280
‘India, 1857–the year of the Great Mutiny, when Muslim soldiers turned in bloody rebellion on their British overlords. This time of convulsion is the subject of J. G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur, widely considered one of the finest British novels of the last fifty years.  Farrell’s story is set in an isolated Victorian outpost on the subcontinent. Rumors of strife filter in from afar, and yet the members of the colonial community remain confident of their military and, above all, moral superiority. But when they find themselves under actual siege, the true character of their dominion–at once brutal, blundering, and wistful–is soon revealed.  The Siege of Krishnapur is a companion to Troubles, about the Easter 1916 rebellion in Ireland, and The Singapore Grip, which takes place just before World War II, as the sun begins to set upon the British Empire. Together these three novels offer an unequaled picture of the follies of empire.’

 

2717349. Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai
‘A wonderful novel in two parts, moving from the heart of a close-knit Indian household, with its restrictions and prejuices, its noisy warmth and sensual appreciation of food, to the cool centre of an American family, with its freedom and strangely self-denying attitudes to eating. In both it is ultimately the women who suffer, whether, paradoxically, from a surfeit of feasting and family life in India, or from self-denial and starvation in the US. or both. Uma, the plain, older daughter still lives at home, frustrated in her attempts to escape and make a life for herself. Her Indian family is difficult , demanding but mostly, good hearted. Despite her disappointments, Uma comes through as the survivor, avoiding an unfulfilling marriage, liek her sister’s or a suicidal one, like that arranged for her pretty cousin. And in America, where young Arun goes as a student, men in the suburbs char hunks of bleeding meat while the women don’t appear to cook or eat at all – seems bewildering and terriying to the young Indian adolescent far from home.’

 

10. Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai 109335
‘Sampath Chawla was born in a time of drought that ended with a vengeance the night of his birth. All signs being auspicious, the villagers triumphantly assured Sampath’s proud parents that their son was destined for greatness.  Twenty years of failure later, that unfortunately does not appear to be the case. A sullen government worker, Sampath is inspired only when in search of a quiet place to take his nap. “But the world is round,” his grandmother says. “Wait and see Even if it appears he is going downhill, he will come up the other side. Yes, on top of the world. He is just taking a longer route.” No one believes her until, one day, Sampath climbs into a guava tree and becomes unintentionally famous as a holy man, setting off a series of events that spin increasingly out of control. A delightfully sweet comic novel that ends in a raucous bang, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard is as surprising and entertaining as it is beautifully wrought.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are your favourite novels set in India?

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Two Novels: ‘The Surface Breaks’ and ‘The Householder’

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill *** 9781407185538
I have read a couple of Louise O’Neill’s to date, and really enjoy her writing style. She tackles a lot of important topics, particularly with regard to young women. I thought, on the surface of it, that The Surface Breaks would be rather different; it is, after all, a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s beguiling fairytale ‘The Little Mermaid’. However, O’Neill has managed to suffuse it with a lot of affecting issues.

Whilst I found this, and the way in which she tackled the story, interesting, I found that there was no subtlety whatsoever to it. From the first, feminism and the way in which the mermaid protagonist of her story is so oppressed, is explicitly mentioned; this continues throughout the book, and becomes a little repetitive at times. The narrator constantly questions herself, often asking herself the same things over and over again. As I read further on, the cliched characters and roles began to grate on me somewhat.

Elements of the original story were well interpreted and incorporated, but I found parts of it were executed far better than others. The Surface Breaks feels rather drawn out; there was perhaps a little too much build-up to the time at which she gains legs and loses her voice, which could have been edited for greater effect. O’Neill, whilst retaining the core ideas of Andersen’s stories, does manage to bring the story up to date. However, the novel is not quite as good as I felt it could have been.

 

9780393008517The Householder by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ***
The Sunday Times calls Ruth Prawer Jhabvala ‘a writer of genius…  a writer of world class – a master story teller.’  Seeing that she has been on my radar for years, and I have read such praise as the above on many an occasion, it seems odd that it has taken me such a long time to get around to actually reading her work.  Whilst I didn’t love The Householder I’m so pleased I finally have an idea of her themes and writing style.

First published in 1960, The Householder is an ‘appealing story of a young schoolteacher trying to come to terms with marriage and maturity’, which is ‘much more than a highly comic vignette of a particular society – it is also a reflection of a universal experience.’  Prem is our protagonist, a young man who is ‘not too good at enforcing discipline’ in his role as Hindi teacher in a boy’s college.  He has recently married a woman named Indu, in a relationship arranged by his parents; he barely knows her, and feels adrift in their new home in Delhi.  Indu is also pregnant, something which is ‘a terrible embarrassment for him.  Now everybody would know what he did with her at night in the dark…’.

Prem is almost constantly at odds with himself; his life is not shaping up to be following the same course which he had imagined so vividly, and try as he might, he is unable to change it.  He cannot connect with his wife, no matter how hard he tries: ‘He felt so alone and lonely, shut up in this small ugly flat with Indu who cried by herself in the sitting-room while he had to lie and cry by himself in the bedroom.’  Prem is, essentially, at a point of crisis in his life.  Whilst I did not find him a believable protagonist, he is both believable and understandable in his thoughts and actions.

The way in which Jhabvala writes about Indian society is fascinating, particularly with regard to Prem; despite having little disposable income, he feels that he has to keep a servant-boy to maintain his public appearance.   Jhabvala deftly sets scenes, and gives one a feel for each of her characters in just a couple of sentences.  Her prose has a wonderful ease to it.  As a character study, The Householder is fascinating, but I did find that due to its rendering into the form of a novella, some important themes remained relatively unexplored.  From the outset, I thought that this would be a four-star read, but the ending does feel a little too rushed to fit with the quiet patience which the rest of the story has.  The Householder is unarguably transporting, however, and I look forward to visiting India again with Jhabvala very soon.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden’s The Lady and The Unicorn, which was first published in 1937, is the 630th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  As with The River and The Villa Fiorita, both republished by Virago at the same time, The Lady and The Unicorn includes a well-crafted and rather fascinating introduction penned by Anita Desai.

After setting out the author’s childhood, lived largely in India, Desai goes on to write about the influences which drove Godden to write over sixty acclaimed works of fiction, for both children and adults.  Desai states that Godden ‘cannot be said to have been ignorant, or unmindful, of her society and its role in India. In no other book is this made as clear’ as it is in this one, a novel written ‘in the early, unhappy days of her first marriage’.  Desai then goes on to write that ‘the contact with her students [at the dance school which Godden opened in Calcutta], their families and her staff taught her a great deal about the unhappy situation of a community looked down upon both by the English and by Indians as “half-castes”‘.  The Lady and The Unicorn faced controversy upon its publication, with many English believing her ‘unfairly critical of English society’, and others viewing ‘her depiction of Eurasians’ as cruel.  Her publisher, Peter Davies, however, deemed the novel ‘a little masterpiece’.

The Lemarchant family are Godden’s focus here; ‘neither Indian nor English, they are accepted by no-one’.  They live in the small annex of a fading ‘memory-haunted’ mansion in Calcutta.  The widowed father of the family is helped only by ‘auntie’ and a servant of sorts named Boy, an arrangement which causes misery for all: ‘There were so many ways that father did not care to earn money that the girls had to be taken at school for charity and the rent was always owing…  No matter how badly he [father] behaved they [auntie and Boy] treated him as the honourable head of the house, and auntie complained that the children did not respect him as they ought’.  The way in which the family unit is perceived within the community is negative, and often veers upon the harsh: ‘The Lemarchants are not a nice family at all, they cannot even pay their rent’ is the idea which prevails.

The three daughters of the Lemarchant family could not be more different; twins Belle and Rosa are often at odds with one another, and the youngest, Blanche, is treated no better than an outcast.  Blanche is described as ‘the family shame, for she was dark.  Suddenly, after Belle and Rosa, had come this other baby like a little crow after twin doves.  Auntie said she was like their mother, and they hated to think of their mother who was dead and had been dark like Blanche.  Belle could not bear her, and even Rosa was ashamed to be her sister’.  Of the twins, Godden writes that Rosa, constantly overshadowed by her twin sister, ‘could never be quite truthful, she had always to distort, to embroider, to exaggerate, and if she were frightened, she lied’. The family in its entirety ‘were sure that Belle was not good, and yet at home she gave hardly any trouble; it was just that she was quite implacable, quite determined and almost fearless…  Belle did exactly as she chose.  When she was crossed she was more than unkind, she was shocking’.  The divisions within the family therefore echo those which prevail in society.

The sense of place is deftly built, particularly with regard to the house in which the Lemarchants live: ‘There was not a corner of the house that Blanche did not know and cherish, all of them loved it as if it were their own; that was peculiar to the Lemarchants, for the house did not like its tenants, it seemed to have some strange resentment’.  Of their surroundings, of which the girls know no different, Belle sneers the following, exemplifying her discontent: ‘We know a handful of people in Calcutta and most of them are nobodies too.  What is Calcutta?  It is not the world’.  There is not much by way of plot here, really, but the whole has been beautifully written, and the non-newsworthy aspects of the girls’ lives have been set out with such feeling and emotion.

The Lady and The Unicorn is a captivating novel, which captures adolescence, and the many problems which it throws up, beautifully.  Part love story and part coming-of-age novel, Godden is shrewd throughout at showing how powerful society can be, and how those within it often rally together to shun those ‘outsiders’ who have made it their home.

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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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‘Two Under the Indian Sun’ by Rumer Godden ****

I cannot wait to travel to India at some point in the next few years, and was thus very much looking forward to deciding on my Indian book choice for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  There were so many intriguing and tantalising-looking works of fiction which I could have chosen, but I decided to go with something a little more unusual, and picked up Two Under the Indian Sun by sisters Jon and Rumer Godden.

I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before.  I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India.  Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.84b6c72c80c3e0ffac1edd779348a767

The girls had both lived in India as very small children, along with their two younger sisters, Nancy and Rose, but, as was the custom at the time, were sent to live with their grandmother and maiden aunts in London.  In the meantime, their family, whose father works in India, had moved from their old home in Assam to the town of Narayangunj.  When they arrived back in India, they realised that they had been homesick all along.

The girls’ observations of the world around them are sometimes contrasted with their experiences of India as adults, and everything is consistently captured using the most beautiful prose: ‘Early mornings seem more precious in India than anywhere else; it is not only the freshness before the heat, the colours muted by the light, the sparkle of dew; it is the time for cleansing and for prayer.’  Highly vivid and sensual descriptions are given throughout of the girls’ surroundings: ‘Perhaps the thing we had missed more than anything else was the dust: the feel of the sunbaked Indian dust between sandals and bare toes; that and the smell.  It was the honey smell of the fuzz-buzz flowers of thorn trees in the sun, and the smell of open drains and urine, of coconut oil on shining black human hair, of mustard cooking oil and the blue smoke from cowdung used as fuel; it was a smell redolent of the sun, more alive and vivid than anything in the West, to us the smell of India.’

The preface of Two Under the Indian Sun begins: ‘This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone, a few years that will always be timeless for us; an evocation that we hope is as truthful as memory can ever be.’  Interestingly, although published several decades earlier, Jon and Rumer address many similar questions to those which Penelope Lively explores in her memoir of life in 1930s and 1940s Egypt, Oleander, Jacaranda.  All three authors write about the reliability of memory, particularly those made in childhood.

Spreads of rather charming photographs have been included in Two Under the Indian Sun, and these complement the memoir wonderfully.  The girls’ relationship with one another is beautifully evoked; whilst they fight from time to time, they write that they ‘were so close that between them was a passing of thought, of feeling, of knowing without any need for words.’  The girls feel an overarching affinity for life in India, something else which is shared between them: ‘Our house was English streaked with Indian, or Indian streaked with English.  It might have been an uneasy hybrid but we were completely and happily at home.’

The voice which Jon and Rumer have created together feel fluid, and I loved the shifts between describing themselves as ‘Jon and Rumer’ and then ‘we’.  Whilst it can occasionally be described as dark, Two Under the Indian Sun is largely a charming memoir, filled with all kinds of quaint details, and told with a light and often funny collaborative voice.  Their portrayal, despite those nods to the darkness which they know exists in their adoptive country, is largely an idyllic one.  They enjoy having personal freedom in India, which is markedly different to the rather strict and proper conditions which they lived under in London: ‘We were free of everyone and everything and, as hares take on the colour of their surroundings, we disappeared, each going our separate ways except during the period of Nana, when we were taken for a walk every morning.’  Two Under the Indian Sun is a lovely and joyful book to read, offering a multilayered portrait of India at the beginning of the twentieth century.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden’s The Lady and The Unicorn, which was first published in 1937, is the 630th entry upon the Virago Modern Classics list. As with The River and The Villa Fiorita, both republished by Virago at the same time, The Lady and The Unicorn includes a well-crafted and rather fascinating introduction penned by Anita Desai.

9781844088478After setting out the author’s childhood, lived largely in India, Desai goes on to write about the influences which drove Godden to write over sixty acclaimed works of fiction, for both children and adults. Desai states that Godden ‘cannot be said to have been ignorant, or unmindful, of her society and its role in India. In no other book is this made as clear’ as it is in this one, a novel written ‘in the early, unhappy days of her first marriage’. Desai then goes on to write that ‘the contact with her students [at the dance school which Godden opened in Calcutta], their families and her staff taught her a great deal about the unhappy situation of a community looked down upon both by the English and by Indians as “half-castes”‘. The Lady and The Unicorn faced controversy upon its publication, with many English reviewers believing her ‘unfairly critical of English society’, and others viewing ‘her depiction of Eurasians’ as cruel. Her publisher, Peter Davies, however, deemed the novel ‘a little masterpiece’.

The Lemarchant family are Godden’s focus here; ‘neither Indian nor English, they are accepted by no-one’. They live in the small annex of a fading ‘memory-haunted’ mansion in Calcutta. The widowed father of the family is helped only by ‘auntie’ and a servant of sorts named Boy, an arrangement which causes misery for all: ‘There were so many ways that father did not care to earn money that the girls had to be taken at school for charity and the rent was always owing… No matter how badly he [father] behaved they [auntie and Boy] treated him as the honourable head of the house, and auntie complained that the children did not respect him as they ought’. The way in which the family unit is perceived within the community is negative, and often veers upon the harsh: ‘The Lemarchants are not a nice family at all, they cannot even pay their rent’ is the idea which prevails.

The three daughters of the Lemarchant family could not be more different; twins Belle and Rosa are often at odds with one another, and the youngest, Blanche, is treated no better than an outcast. Blanche is described as ‘the family shame, for she was dark. Suddenly, after Belle and Rosa, had come this other baby like a little crow after twin doves. Auntie said she was like their mother, and they hated to think of their mother who was dead and had been dark like Blanche. Belle could not bear her, and even Rosa was ashamed to be her sister’. Of the twins, Godden writes that Rosa, constantly overshadowed by her twin sister, ‘could never be quite truthful, she had always to distort, to embroider, to exaggerate, and if she were frightened, she lied’. The family in its entirety ‘were sure that Belle was not good, and yet at home she gave hardly any trouble; it was just that she was quite implacable, quite determined and almost fearless… Belle did exactly as she chose. When she was crossed she was more than unkind, she was shocking’. The divisions within the family therefore echo those which prevail in society.

The sense of place is deftly built, particularly with regard to the house in which the Lemarchants live: ‘There was not a corner of the house that Blanche did not know and cherish, all of them loved it as if it were their own; that was peculiar to the Lemarchants, for the house did not like its tenants, it seemed to have some strange resentment’. Of their surroundings, of which the girls know no different, Belle sneers the following, exemplifying her discontent: ‘We know a handful of people in Calcutta and most of them are nobodies too. What is Calcutta? It is not the world’. There is not much by way of plot here, really, but the whole has been beautifully written, and the non-newsworthy aspects of the girls’ lives have been set out with such feeling and emotion.

The Lady and The Unicorn is a captivating novel, which captures adolescence, and the many problems which it throws up, beautifully. Part love story and part coming-of-age novel, Godden is shrewd throughout at showing how powerful society can be, and how those within it often rally together to shun those ‘outsiders’ who have made it their home.

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Reading the World: ‘Ghachar Ghochar’ by Vivek Shanhbag ****

Vivek Shanbhag’s interestingly titled Ghachar Ghochar is the first of his eight books to be translated into English.  Its fluid transition from its original Kannada – an Indian language spoken by 38 million people – has been handled wonderfully by Srinath Perur.  Ghachar Ghochar has been described as ‘… a quietly enthralling, deeply unsettling novel about the shifting meanings – and consequences – of financial gain in contemporary India’, and has been highly praised by the likes of the BBC and the New Yorker.

Ghachar Ghochar presents a portrait of a family in Bangalore, whose dynamic shifts greatly as time goes on; they move from relative poverty to wealth almost overnight.  9780571336074The uncle, Chikkappa, forms a spice company, managing to make large profits, which allow all of his family to live comfortably.  It also renders him almost godlike in the eyes of society; he is the one who saved them, and thus he deserves the best of everything.  There is a strict hierarchy within the family, too; if one family member disagrees with Chikkappa, they are immediately thought badly of, no matter how founded their own beliefs are.  The family are supposed to stick together as a single unit, with no dissenters in the ranks.  The new wife of our unnamed male narrator is just such a thing; when a woman comes to the new house to look for Chikkappa, the mother and sister of the family are cruel to her, and cast her out.  The wife takes a very negative view of this act, and speaks aloud about it.  The narrator says this in response: ‘How was I to explain that Chikkappa must be protected at all costs?  She wouldn’t understand.  For that, she would need to have lived through those earlier days with us – when the whole family stuck together, walking like a single body across the tightrope of our circumstances.  Without that reality behind her, it’s all a mater of empty principle.’

As the story goes on, this newfound prosperity has a knock-on effect for all involved: ‘alliances realign; marriages are arranged and begin to falter; and conflict brews ominously in the background.  Things become “ghachar ghochar” – a nonsense phrase uttered by one meaning something tangled beyond repair, a knot that can’t be untied.’  Everyone lives under a cloud of deception.  The narrator, whose wife is under the illusion that he works, rather than is given a monthly salary from the spice company, uses a local cafe as a place of refuge, sitting there during usual working hours, and then heading home.

Shanbhag’s prose is beautifully profound at times: ‘How different are the words of those exalted beings from his?  Words, after all, are nothing by themselves.  They burst into meaning only in the minds they’ve entered’.  His writing is taut and intelligent, and he has presented a fascinating slice of both traditional and modern India.

Ghachar Ghochar is a slim novel, but it also has a surprising richness and depth to it.  The narrative voice which Shanhbag has crafted is engaging, and the balance has been struck perfectly between the minutiae of life and the bigger picture.  So much about India can be learnt within its pages, particularly with regard to the concepts of marriage and business.  I shall finish this review with a quote which should strike some feeling in the modern breast: ‘It’s true what they say – it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us.  When there’s only a little it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.’

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The Book Trail: Swinging to Nightbirds

We begin with a very thoughtful and compelling work of Miriam Toews’ for this particular Book Trail!

1. Swing Low by Miriam Toews 17846957
One morning Mel Toews put on his coat and hat and walked out of town, prepared to die. A loving husband and father, faithful member of the Mennonite church, and immensely popular schoolteacher, he was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggle, he could no longer face the darkness of manic depression.  With razor-sharp precision,Swing Low tells his story in his own voice, taking us deep inside the experience of despair. But it is also a funny, winsome evocation of country life: growing up on farm, courting a wife, becoming a teacher, and rearing a happy, strong family in the midst of private torment.  A humane, inspiring story of a remarkable man, father, and teacher.’

 

2. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada’s most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney’s. In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we’d live in if we all got what we wanted.

 

3. Open by Lisa Moore
498084Lisa Moore’s Open makes you believe three things unequivocally: that St. John’s is the centre of the universe, that these stories are about absolutely everything, that the only certainty in life comes from the accumulation of moments which refuse to be contained. Love, mistakes, loss — the fear of all of these, the joy of all of these. The interconnectedness of a bus ride in Nepal and a wedding on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake; of the tension between a husband and wife when their infant cries before dawn (who will go to him?) and the husband’s memory of an early, piercing love affair; of two friends, one who suffers early in life and the other midway through.  In Open Lisa Moore splices moments and images together so adroitly, so vividly, you’ll swear you’ve lived them yourself. That there is a writer like Lisa Moore threading a live wire through everything she sees, showing it to us, warming us with it. These stories are a gathering in. An offering. They ache and bristle. They are shared riches. Open.

 

4. Luck by Joan Barfoot
Philip Lawrence, a robust and pleasure-loving furniture-maker, dies suddenly at the age of forty-six. Though that’s terribly young by most standards, he’s lucky to have passed presumably peacefully in his sleep. Less fortunate, however, are the three women he leaves behind to make sense of his loss.  There’s Nora, his wife of seventeen years, who wakes up next to his dead body. A fiery visual artist, Nora’s feminist re-interpretation of biblical themes stoked fundamentalist outrage from her small-town neighbours. Now, as her emotions run the gamut, she must confront solo life in a place she despises.  Nora shares the house with Sophie, a buxom and bossy redhead, who works as the couple’s housekeeper and personal assistant. A recovering virtue addict, Sophie turns to menial tasks as a way to suppress painful memories of her two-year stint as an overseas aid worker. Philip’s death leaves her quietly reeling.  And then there’s the pliable and vacuous Beth, a former beauty queen, who serves as Nora’s live-in muse and model. She mourns not Philip so much as the loss of a haven from her own creepy past.  The novel follows the three days immediately after Philip’s death. Privately, each woman deals with memories and emotions, secrets and uncomfortable revelations, while at the same time preparing for the public rituals of mourning (including a funeral like no other). The narrative moves seamlessly from one perspective to another with delicious dark humour and wry insight into the nature of death, love, mourning, fundamentalism and luck.

 

5. Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa 2454933
At the heart of this collection of intimately linked stories is the relationship between a father and his son. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese village and the crushing weight of his mother’s expectations to build a future for himself in a terra nova. Manuel struggles to shed the traditions of a village frozen in time and to silence the brutal voice of Maria Theresa da Conceicao Rebelo, but embracing the promise of his adopted land is not as simple as he had hoped.  Manuel’s son, Antonio, is born into Toronto’s little Portugal, a world of colourful houses and labyrinthine back alleys. In the Rebelo home the Church looms large, men and women inhabit sharply divided space, pigs are slaughtered in the garage, and a family lives in the shadow cast by a father’s failures. Most days Antonio and his friends take to their bikes, pushing the boundaries of their neighbourhood street by street, but when they finally break through to the city beyond they confront dangers of a new sort.  With fantastic detail, larger-than-life characters and passionate empathy, Anthony De Sa invites readers into the lives of the Rebelos and finds there both the promise and the disappointment inherent in the choices made by the father and the expectations placed on the son.

 

6. The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
At the turn of the twentieth century, newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who cared for the young Lillian searches for clues that might penetrate the mystery of the father’s motivation. Meanwhile Rachel’s teacher grapples with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams.  In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the intricate and unexpected connections between the people in this close-knit community that continue to echo in the future. In her nuanced, evocative descriptions, a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel barrel of a revolver. A supreme literary achievement, The Boys in the Trees offers a chilling story that swells with acutely observed emotion and humanity.

 

7. The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji
1664732In the aftermath of the brutal violence that gripped western India in 2002, Karsan Dargawalla, heir to Pirbaag – the shrine of a mysterious, medieval sufi – begins to tell the story of his family. His tale opens in the 1960s: young Karsan is next in line after his father to assume lordship of the shrine, but he longs to be “just ordinary.” Despite his father’s pleas, Karsan leaves home behind for Harvard, and, eventually, marriage and a career. Not until tragedy strikes, both in Karsan’s adopted home in Canada and in Pirbaag, is he drawn back across thirty years of separation and silence to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India.

 

8. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a fragmenting Punjab and moving between Canada and India, Can you Hear the Nightbird Call? charts the interweaving stories of three Indian women – Bibi-ji, Leela and Nimmo – each in search of a resting place amid rapidly changing personal and political landscapes.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

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