Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reflections: The Namesake

I may just be one of the last few people on this planet, especially among Indians, who is reading this book now. I usually don’t pick up books that are causing the current wave of hysteria. I tend to go with great expectations and a very critical pair of eyes, so I have learned it’s best to wait for the hype to subside before curiosity eventually leads me to the book. With The Namesake, there is an additional reason why I consciously stayed away from both the book and the movie. I went through this phase of aversion until last year regarding all topics related to immigration woes, the culture shock and the rift between the first and second generation immigrants. Wherever I turned within family or friends, I saw this topic being beaten to death with the innumerable (often closed-minded) discussions and vociferous arguments. Yes, I understand the crux of the issue, but I resent the exaggerated perspectives of both sides of the argument. I also get tired of the stereotypical portraits that are repeatedly perpetuated in movies and books - they seem to turn the issue into a satire, and a mockery.

Anyway, I eventually drifted to the book to see what the fuss is all about. The synopsis is probably all too familiar. Gogol Ganguli is a second generation Indian American, born to traditional Bengali parents. His father is the quintessential Indian academic - a professor of Electrical Engineering, and his mother is the perennially home-sick and lost stay-at-home wife and mother. Starting from his name, everything about his culture, his family and his roots are unfathomable to Gogol. The story is about Gogol’s tussle to break-free of his stringent family and how he gradually learns his way through his heritage and comes to identify with his roots.

It was heartening that Jhumpa Lahiri did not stereotype the characters. She manages to bring out the very subtle aspects of being an Indian family and how drastically different those aspects are in contrast to the Western families. And I appreciated the fact that she made the distinction between which of these aspects are endearing and make us unique, and which aspects are not necessarily healthy to keep practicing down the generations. In most movies, the stark differences are either shown as acute embarrassments or glorified to unnecessary heights, and I hate either approach.

It was also a refreshing relief to me that the culture battles didn’t take centre stage and dominate the book. The core of the book is on one’s search for identity. Lahiri dwells on how the second generation leads bitter and confused lives because of their ceaseless need to rebel almost all through their life, even when their parents no longer present the stifling circumstances for it. The constant subconscious pressure to seek the forbidden and make a statement is shown to take precedence over leading a normal life. She shows that the search for one’s identity intensifies, especially after they break-free from their family.

However, there is one aspect of the first generation immigrants that I never fully comprehend or empathize with. True, living in a country that in no way resembles home is daunting. And I can imagine how acute it must have been in the 70s and 80s when there was no technology to help us stay connected with family, hardly any Indian stores or restaurants to resort to authentic dishes etc. But the class of highly qualified professionals have a very clear choice - they don’t have to suffer the misery and can go back home. Lahiri calls these people brave and courageous to continue to stay away from home and make a living abroad. I definitely don’t agree with the adjectives, “brave”, or “courageous” , or to even call it a sacrifice!

All of us make a clear, deliberate, conscious decision between the two choices - return home or live abroad. A professor of Electrical Engineering can lead a very comfortable life in India, but if he chooses to stay in a country that helps him advance in his career much better and promises a greater standard of living for his family, then his choice doesn’t stem out of anything noble or brave! We all make this choice time and again to fulfill our selfish goals. We choose to compromise, and according to me, when the compromise turns into an unbearable sacrifice, then nobody is stopping us from making the move. But to put on a facade of constant suffering and sacrifice to live in this country with the implication that they are somehow tied to the place out of no other choice, is unfair. It’s not like we are refugees who can’t return to our own country, or our country is so impoverished or war-torn and filled with political conflict that we can’t set up a secure home. There are many immigrants who are unfortunately driven away from their countries - I sympathize with them, not with those of us who are assured a decent life in either countries. And that is why I don’t like the drama surrounding the Indian Diaspora's “dilemma”. Those who complain the most and talk of being home-sick all the time, are the first ones to wonder if they will be able to cope with the traffic and cows on the road if they are to go back. It’s hypocritical.

I also resent the fact that even after spending two decades in a country away from home, some immigrants still refuse to see the place as their home (away from home) or mingle with people other than one’s own nationality or community. Pockets of Indians, no matter how long they have lived here, continue to mix and mingle only with each other. If we decide to isolate ourselves from a community we choose to live in and which is clearly helping us reach our ambitions, then we can’t complain of being treated as aliens.

Anyway, that’s my rambling two cents on the issue. The compromises are clear, but I see us making the same choices and mistakes over and over again, and then complaining about them. Also, the false, rosy expectations of second generation children never seem to change.
Digested thoughts: Rerouting my derailed thoughts back to the book, I definitely found it an interesting read. I appreciated that Lahiri explored much subtler and deeper issues about the clash between first and second generation Indian Americans. Her characters were realistically drawn out and were not stereotypical caricatures. Her writing was simple; it was mostly insightful, but sometimes I found her sentences to be stilted in their construction. In all, I would give it a favorable rating. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Reflections: Ceremony

Tayo is a Native-American war veteran who stumbles into his present life after experiencing the horrors of war as a Japanese prisoner during World War II. The violence and morbidness of being in war has left him hanging on the edges of his sanity. His past haunts him relentlessly, and his bitterness grows towards the Army and the Americans who still racially segregate and exploit his people. His family in the Laguna Pueblo reservation try to help him get back on his life through a mystic medicine man. This is a grim narration of Tayo’s journey of healing as he resorts to age-old superstitious rituals and reconnects with himself by establishing his own ceremony to cure his weathered spirit.

The book started off powerfully, but the momentum faltered somewhere in the middle and didn’t pick up pace for me. The tone is morose, and adds to the weight of the subject. Although I was captivated by the writing at first, it became increasingly abstract and disconnected. Silko shifts rapidly between time periods, contexts and characters that half the time it seems like we are in one of Tayo’s disturbed dreams. Silko' s disconnected style of writing, in terms of flashes of memories and threads from the past, doesn’t work well all the time, especially when the narration shifts into the present. The rituals and myths also did not sink into me.... they were far too mystical, abstract and cryptic for me to see how they related to Tayo, or his heritage or healing. In the end, I feel like I haven’t grasped as much as what the author intended to convey, and that’s a disappointment.

I made sense out of Tayo’s main “ceremony” as his way of completing what he had left behind when he had joined the Army. A part of him seemed focused on assuaging his guilt as one way of making peace with his past and facing the present. Silko’s underlying thread throughout the story is the unfairness, hypocrisy and selfishness of the Army and the “white” people, who stoke internal conflicts and misery within isolated Native-American communities, using them when needed and ignoring them and not hesitating to trample on them to meet their ruthless ends.

It’s a powerful theme that could have been fleshed out better if the writing didn’t hover over fleeting boundaries of poetry, and enigmatic mysticism. But as I said, I have perhaps not been sharp enough to pick up on something significant.
Digested thoughts: I am starting this new addition to save readers from the misery of parsing through my review-like-non-review, and wonder what the bottom line is and if it’s worth their time to read this book. So.... I would give this book the following smiley/rating (an elaborated rating scheme is on the side-bar):

 This book did not leave a strong enough impression on me - neither positive nor negative. I liked it for its powerful themes, but the writing, the ancient rituals and allusions to witch-craft were too abstract to hold me down and let me savor the story.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Reflections: The Age of Shiva

The Age of Shiva follows the life of Meera through her marriage to Dev, a talented musician struggling to make a living, and through the various divergences in her destiny as she aimlessly plods though her disappointments, clinging to her son as the only reason for her existence, till she finds her foothold and purpose in life. The story unfolds right after the partition between India and Pakistan,  when the tension between Hindus and Muslims heightened and gave birth to the Hindu fundamentalists, and later flows into Indira Gandhi’s reign, and the years of Emergency. The political background gives some perspective to the story, the characters, and some of their decisions. Just as how Parvati molded a son out of turmeric and breathed life into him, creating her own personal attendant and friend, in effect, that’s how Meera views her son. The events leading up to the inevitable separation from him, is her Age of Shiva.

There are so many levels to this story and the characters that I don’t know how to summarize it... maybe I shouldn’t be trying to, for it takes away the book’s intensity. Cutting through all the layers, it is a common enough story of a woman caught in the various trappings of society and traditional norms. But it’s the power of the words crafting the story that makes all the difference. I was mesmerized by Suri’s writing. It is delicately sensitive, incisively insightful and clear, and rivetingly poetic. It is absolutely beautiful that I have been craving to read more of his words, randomly turning to pages and not caring about the context or the story. It’s been ages since I did something similar, hopelessly hypnotized by the writing. Ok, I will stop gushing now. Be forewarned though, that if you don’t have a poetic streak/love/inclination, you will find the writing laborious and tedious. But to me, his writing is what pulled together a regular story of a mundane life into a gorgeous and poignant work of fiction.

The protagonist, Meera, is hard to sympathize with at times, yet (I will harp again), the writing made her shine in a light of vulnerability that made me reach out to her. Her emotions, feelings and thoughts were so palpable that I wrapped myself in them and felt miserable for her. Despite hardly any correspondences between our lives, I somehow could relate to and understand Meera, in spite of my frustrations with her. And although there is no intense suspense or drastic turn of events, I was hooked to the book, eager to know more about a woman who kept blundering through her life. And I love the book just for this quality!

Well, I might be painting the image of a deluded romantic in love with the writing and gushing about a boring story. Not true (well, not entirely)! Suri  manages  to bring to the fore those subtle aspects of  our lives which are riddled with constraints and disappointments, and presents the basis for all the underlying resentments and misery. He shows how much we are variables, dependent on factors such as the society we are in and the families we are bound to, and that our individual destinies get shaped by the push and pull of these forces. In essence, every little step influenced by our surrounding is what results in drastic shifts in our life …. and unfortunately, there is very little that can be done to break-free. Wherever we go, the patterns repeat. The ability to break-free, in its true sense, rises from a deeper place from within us. It is the ability to break free from our vulnerabilities and still live within a prejudiced social structure. We realize the value of such independence only after suffering the loss of dependency.

In addition, the characters in the story are well framed. Suri’s exploration of the various relationship dynamics - between husband and wife, father and daughter, siblings, sister-in-law and brother-in-law, sisters-in-law, and most importantly, between mother and child, is very interesting and quite realistic. It is interesting because of the hidden depths to which his exploration seeps. Suri delves into an especially uncomfortable zone, the intimacy between a mother and son, and the possibility of a latent sexuality underneath it. Although I found it extremely repulsive and reproachable to even read, after much thought, I think it makes psychological sense for Suri to have introduced this issue in this story. Suri has done a beautiful job of expressing a mother’s intensity of love and her fiery instincts of possessiveness. I was teary-eyed throughout the book although I’m not a mother to empathize with the instincts... but I felt I could read my own mother and feel her pain, however irrational it may sound. Viewed from such a psychological point of view, and taking into account the various circumstances through which Meera and her son go through, it is understandable that the issue of Oedipal complex surfaced. But not to cringe, Suri barely scratches the surface... but even the tip of the iceberg looks menacingly huge sometimes.  And I saw many more intricate facets to the discussion than just lust, although it takes time to get to that point of reflection. 

I have floundered enough with this post because I can't verbalize that which managed to impress me. I may have made the book seem disturbing (even disgusting) and full of despair, but I am not able to convey the feeling of poignancy that erases all of that and simply just moves you and lets you connect with the simple human emotions and needs pulsing through the story. I see this book eliciting only one of two reactions from its readers - love or hate, nothing in between. 

PS: And, I HAVE to end by sharing this tidbit - Dr. Suri is a Mathematics Professor at the University of Maryland. I mean, this book just shatters stereotypes! Math and Literature? I almost revere him ;)

Monday, January 03, 2011

Making Time to Stand and Stare

A couple of nights back, in his half-asleep, half-drugged state, the husband suddenly burst into this poem by William Henry Davies:

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this is if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

I jumped up in panic as he rattled on, and stood and stared at him. I feared he was delusional from his medicines, or worse, I suspected he had been possessed by some poetic spirit. Poetry and him don't go together, that too poetry recited from memory is just taking it too far into the realms of impossibility. But I soon realized he wasn't possessed or delusional, just being his goofy self in trying to distract me from my reading. And he was forced to "by-heart" this poem when he was in school. However, he claims it made an "impact" on him.

But for once, in a totally nonchalant and unintentional way, he related a few words of wisdom that are quite fitting to this generation. I currently have been making time to stand and stare (figuratively and sometimes literally), and engage in several non-productive albeit enjoyable, leisurely activities, such as blogging, but I wish in the coming new year (and decade), I will continue to remember to make time to pause, and smell the roses (so to speak) and indulge in simple pleasures.

A very happy new year to all my kind readers! May all of you always find the time to smile and be happy :)
Ah yes, I finally made the time to bake cookies that smile ;)