Friday, January 06, 2012

Reflections: The World We Found

Thrity Umrigar’s latest book surrounds the stories of four college friends who drifted away in the currents of life, but come together for one last poignant reunion. Laleh, Kavita, Nishta, and Armaiti were an inseparable, idealistic bunch in college. With fiery beliefs in socialism and secularism, the girls envisaged creating a New India, a new society, a new way of life. Now, after the passage of more than two decades, fate draws all the four women together as Armaiti battles a fatal illness. As they reconnect, they are forced to reflect on their own lives, confront their pasts, their regrets, their simple, touching idealism, and wonder how their worlds shaped in directions almost contrary to the beliefs and ideologies of their younger selves. Faced with this jolt of realization, the women deal with their inner conflicts as they decide what little steps should be taken to resurrect at least a portion of their dreams to build their own world - congruent to their terms. This is a reflective book that juxtaposes idealism with reality, individual forces against political and religious forces, specifically in the context of Indian society in the thriving city of Bombay.

I loved Thrity Umrigar’s Bombay Time for the wonderful, memorable characters that she weaved into a complex story that involves people, culture and society merging into one another and influencing each other. This book has a similar theme. The threads are similar, the colors are similar, but the patterns and textures are different. One major aspect that I appreciate in Umrigar’s writing is her beautiful, realistic depiction of how people change, and what causes them to harbor thoughts and execute actions that are socially appalling. The psychological characterization makes it easy for the reader to readily sympathize  and empathize with even those characters whom we resent in our lives. One such character in this story is Iqbal, Nishta’s austere muslim husband. Although I was unable to empathize with this character in the beginning, my heart went out for him by the end. And the most amazing part was I sympathized with both Iqbal and Nishta, felt their emotions as if they were my own, read their thoughts, and connected with their fears and frustrations. I couldn’t view one as the victim and the other as the perpetrator as we so often do while coming to know of real life stories. Both were victims in my eyes, and that was precisely the author’s aim. She convincingly crafted the story to show how forces and powers much much bigger than our idealism crush the essence of our ideals. Religious violence, communal violence, and the accompanying prejudices and discrimination, often turn people to seek comfort in the very arms that slashed them - religion and community. An idealistic, secural Iqbal who was daring enough to oppose his family and community by marrying a Hindu, was pushed to embrace his religion and community to protect himself. My favorite piece in this book is the story of Nishta and Iqbal. It has the most impact and significance to the book.

In addition to the strong thread on Hindu-Muslim rivalry and prejudices, Umrigar also focuses on the subtle but powerful influence of capitalism in our socialistic structure. Money, higher “caste”, and power are the reigning elements in India, despite the extents of good-will, idealism, and socialistic attitude that one tries to wear, and live by. These pieces are tightly strung into every chapter and every scene, making it thought-provoking for the reader to inspect into their own lives.

Another piece that touched me was Armaiti’s thoughts and her slow, gradual reconcilement to her illness and mortality. Umrigar’s writing on mortality was refined, deep, and moving.

These strong and relevant themes carry this book along. I was a bit disappointed with some of the main characters in the book - they seemed a bit cliched and didn’t seem to have distinct personalities that I could remember. I think this is because Umrigar tries to cover a gamut of social themes using more than five primary characters, that some characters don’t have enough room in the story to be entirely fleshed out. For instance, the social issue on lesbianism is part of the book, but it merely exists within a cliched, obvious character and setting.

Umrigar’s writing is beautiful and touchingly insightful in some sections, but some of the dialogues seemed a little unnatural and trite. And knowing the various little hoops one needs to jump through, and the lengthy, arduous rigmarole that Indians go through to obtain their US visa, I felt the visa interview process was not represented in its true light. But, that’s just a quibble in the overall framework of the story.

Except for these few quibbles, I quite liked reading the book. It was deeply relevant and meaningful. I could very easily identify with the young idealistic girls who were slowly pulled by life’s uncertain, inexplicable paths. I already cringe at the unnerving prospect of looking back and pondering how far removed life looks from the idealistic image painted by the younger me. I’m sure to remember this book and its themes for a very very long time. This is an interesting, contemplative read that I recommend. 

I received an advance-review-copy of this book through a publisher-organized giveaway that was hosted here. Quite exciting! Thanks to the publisher (Harper) for sending me a review copy, and to S. Krishna for organizing this. 
A disclaimer that my thoughts on the book are honest and are not influenced by the free copy.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Renewed Hope

Hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades. 
Time has snowballed into a terrorizingly massive storm. 
Twenty years. Too long to look back, squinting along moments precious and bitter, to see that phase of innocence, confusion, longing, and hope. How did we so willingly submit to this. How did I allow time to create this constancy, this slow, constant erosion?

Hope. Rising, blooming, and fading with the change of every season. Things will change this year, this month, this time, we kept telling ourselves. How I blink incredulously at such steady placation. The denial successfully sunk deeper and deeper till it shrunk to the shining pin-point of reality, residing in all its glory for all to see, but carefully clothed and dressed in illusions, and careless, silly explanations. Now, it lies naked and bare, shivering in all our rude glares. Too late to grasp it, too soon to dismiss it, and too steeped in our lives to wrap it up in a quiet corner.

As acceptance tries to seep through the spaces to shed some warmth, a new year rises, bringing with it another cycle of immortal Hope. Hope again. Hope, that things will change this year, no matter how helpless I am, no matter how little control I have. I imagine and sincerely dream of plenty of positive changes, and wish very much, with all my last straws of will, that you both will be a part of it. Willingly, happily; like we have always dearly wished and imagined it to be in our isolated fantasies. May all our wishes come together in fruition in this space of reality we find ourselves in.