Book Review: The Amazing Racist

A half-English, half-Tibetan author penned down a book set in Sri Lanka, narrated by an English protagonist, and which I, an Indian reader, loved reading. It won’t be wrong to state that Chhimi Tenduf-La has penned down a global novel.

Written from the point-of-view of Eddie Trusted, an English school teacher who moves to Colombo and falls in love with a native girl, ‘The Amazing Racist’ explores in intricate details the many idiosyncrasies of South Asian countries: our pride of our rich, past heritage; the anger we still feel towards our erstwhile colonizers, the poverty, our culture, our work values that stress on achievement and financial success, the potholed roads, the insufferable heat, the corrupt bureaucracy and finally our hot curries. The book explores all this and more in a poignant and witty package.

The story is one which has been told a numerous times in many Bollywood movies: boy meets rich girl at a party. They fall in love and wish to get married. They visit the girl’s father to seek his blessings but he balks at the idea of having his daughter marry (in this case) “a white guy”. Like all South Asian parents, Mr. Thilak Rupasinghe, wants his daughter to marry a man…

“…of the same race, religion, caste, literacy, social club, library, the same town, the same street, the same house. Someone with the right horoscope, the right job, salary, house, car…and skin tone”.

A white teacher from England just doesn’t fit the bill.

However my favourite part of the novel is the second half; after Menaka and Eddie’s marriage and the birth of their daughter, Kiki. Eddie and Thilak have to set aside their differences to look after Kiki, as her mother Menaka immerses herself in war reconciliation efforts that leave her with no time for her family. What slowly fosters through brilliant narration and witty anecdotes, is a bond stronger than blood.

The Amazing Racist is an amazing book!

It beautifully describes the changing South Asian social fabric, and tackles many contemporary issues like divorce, inheritance, extramarital love and stereotypes like that of the house husband and the career-driven mother.

The book will make you laugh and cry at the same time. Through his words Chhimi Tenduf-La will draw you into the world he has created: a world of white suddhas, lush paddy fields, extravagant fundraisers, hypocritical mothers, forbidden romance and an orthodox father-in-law with a sharp tongue and a golden heart. You will fall in love with the well-nuanced characters. The author describes them with such vivid details that you, as the reader, start feeling like you know them as intimately as a close friend: their fears, their ambitions, their triumphs and their weaknesses, all are laid out in black and white. The place and character descriptions are vivid, without being tedious.

The only fault I could find with the book was its depiction of Menaka as a negligent and selfish mother only because she prioritizes her career over her family. I find it wrong to pigeonhole women like that.

To conclude it is definitely one of the better books that I have read in quite a while now. A fantastic debut by Chimmi Tenduf-La. I can’t wait to see what further literary masterpieces come my way from his pen.

My rating for this book is very high. I simply loved it. I loved the witty descriptions of a tropical country that closely resembles my own. I loved Thilak Rupasinghe’s sarcastic comments and blustering arrogance. I loved Eddie, Caroline, Kiki and even Menaka.

And most of all I loved the simple narration of everyday life of simple, everyday people that culminates into a piece of literary brilliance.

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Book Review: Ramayana The Game of Life – Shattered Dreams

Growing up in an Indian Hindu household, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, narrated to you since childhood by your mother and grandmother. As you grow up you further see the epics played out on the silver screen by TV actors in popular TV serials. Whether you ever pick up the epic or not, you end up with a vague idea about the plot.

How then is a modern-day English reinterpretation valid or even relevant, especially in face of other readily available  English translations?

Yes, it is relevant.

In his series ‘Ramayana The Game of Life‘ based and inspired by the epic, Subha Vilas has rewritten the incidents of the Ramayana in chronological order. What makes the book all the more charming and relevant in today’s society are the engaging little insights that Vilas provides to the epic. The reader is not left floundring in the dark, trying hard to glean the knowledge and wisdom inherent in the epic. Subha Vilas has interpreted every facet of the story in painstriking detail and written down his interpretations in small excerpts throughout the novel. The language is simple and easy to comprehend.

One of my favorite parts in the novel is when Sumantra summons Rama and Sita to Dasaratha’s chamber. He is going to banish Rama for fourteen years and Rama, the avataar of Vishnu, in his infinite knowledge already knows this. He looks at Sita and places a garland around her neck, symbolizing (according to Vilas) that in the future all he will be able to give her are forest flowers. Sita smiles at him, indicating that she would stay with him despite his change in fortunes.

What follows this charming incident is a small box note by Vilas listing out the importance of communication, even silent communication in a relationship.  In this way the book can also be seen as a Guidebook to Life, and since each such lesson is enshrined in a box, it is very easy to just flip the pages and read the short extracts, without having to read the entire novel each time.  Some of these are tenets on management and leadership, and bears relevance in even today’s corporate world.

Each page further has little footnotes explaining Sanskrit words or cultural traditions of that time. In this way, the book helpfully transfers the reader back to the era when the epic was originally written, and gives us a brilliant insight into the life and society of ancient India. Some of the footnotes also contain motivational expressions, not unlike the extracts I mentioned before. For instance when Dasaratha visits Kaikeyi and foolishly promises to give her anything she asks for, the footnote derides his decision and all such decisions made spontaneously and recklessly out of lust and without proper consideration.

The character development throughout the novel too is commendable. The book is about Rama but Vilas has not ignored the other characters in his life, who help and support him in all his decisions. One commendable aspect of the book is that it portrays Sita to be as important as Rama. She is his courageous companion who braves all difficulties to support her husband in his time of trouble. Lakshmana is shown to be a caring, devoted brother. Dasaratha’s love and pride in his sons too is well established. Even Bharata who only appears at the end of the book,  is shown as a dutiful and filial brother.

Let me now list out what I didn’t like about the book:

  1. This book doesn’t provide a modern day retelling of the Ramayana. There is little explanation provided for the more fantastical aspects of the epic. The narrative has stayed true to the original epic and sceptics like me might find parts of this book rather hard to digest.
  2. The dialogues are long, repetitive, overly-melodramatic and irksome at places.
  3. There is very little empathy between the characters and the readers. Subha Vilas has placed his characters on a divine pedestal, and readers are only meant to read about their actions, but not question them.

All in all, read this book if you are inclined to learn about ‘Ramayana’ or want a self-help/guide book rooted in Indian culture and mythology. Read it to learn, but not to discern. 

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

Things You See On Mumbai Locals #5: The Hand of the Modern Indian Woman – The Best Of Two Worlds

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From in between the half a dozen Nike and Adidas armbands, the symbol Oum tentatively peeks out

…..

– this is the arm of the modern Indian woman. The red tikka or vermilion mark contrast sharply with her GreenDay t-shirt. She is just as punctual for the first day, first show of the latest Tom Cruise thriller, as she is for every puja or religious ceremony in the temple. She revels in her culture and is unapologetic of her bold sexuality.
The way the young girls in Indian metropolitan cities have assimilated the modern day trends with the traditions of the past is admirable and worthy of being written about.
In my college, for instance, girls have the option of choosing between two ways of dress – ethnic or western. A girl can, if she so chooses dress in tight figure-hugging jeans and a tee or a short black dress, but she would look just as attractive in an azure blue salwar suit with silver lace on the duppata and dangling silver earrings, with a tiny diamante bindi to finish the look. You could also, and many do, combine both forms and mix ‘n’ match – an ethnic kurti over jeans, a duppata thrown casually with a dress, or something as insidious as a traditional block printed dress or a tie and dye shirt….options abound, and the modern Indian woman is determined to make best of all of them.
If you move from her wardrobe to her food habits a similar fusion prevails. For instance, today on the train it was the birthday of a passenger. She is in her early 40s and travels regularly to work with a group of her middle-aged friends, who all wished her with a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday!’ today. She distributed packed chocolates and wafers among them, and they gifted her a packed red box that contained coconut barfi. Or the other day, I overhead a 30-something woman tell her friend that the manchurIan balls she prepared for her son’s birthday party had been praised by all, as had been the rice payasam she had cooked.
Just like the sacred thread which hides underneath the more modern accessories, underneath the modern exterior, the Indian woman has preserved her heritage and culture. Over the years, instead of discarding one for another, we have chosen to learn from all that’s new and modern while not forgetting the wisdom of the ages. Be it in her wardrobe or her kitchen – the modern Indian woman has skillfully fused the best of both worlds.

Talking about the Future on the School Bus

10320348_757120340986332_8630196627970622781_nHave you ever wondered why we only remember snippets of our memories? Like one precious moment in time we managed to catch just before it slipped away, and stored it in the treasure chest of our minds. It might be a little dusty with time, but the essence remains pure.

This is one such memory carefully preserved in my memory box – the details are a little dusty, but it is still cherished.

What do you want to be when you grow up? – the favourite question of every adult whom you met. Today we had just written a paragraph in class on what we wanted to be when we grew up, and the topic was still fresh in our minds. By we, I mean me and my two best friends – who for the sake of anonymity, I am calling S and M. 

“So” I asked, looking out of the school bus window, at the receding building, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” 

“You tell, first”, M demands, testing the waters, testing if it is a trick question.  We were only 4 years old. 

“I wanna be a doctor” I replied proudly. “Like my uncle. He stays in London”. I never knew which held more fascination for me – the profession or the distant land, synonymous with all the magical places I read about in books (maybe that is why when I finally visited the city, a few years ago I was vaguely a little disappointed). Whatever the case, that was the only career path I knew of and deemed fitting back then. 

Now, S followed, a little tentatively, “I wanna be a teacher”. We turn up our noses. Being a teacher is the worst thing you could want to be at that age. A teacher was a wooden ruler wielding monster back then, who mercilessly gave homework to students. “Not any teacher”, she is quick to defend. “A good one, like Rina Miss. I will help students. I will be kind and never shout at them”. This was, still understandable. Rina Miss was all of our favourite teacher. She was kind, and always took extra interest in the underdogs – those who were bullied in the playground, those who didn’t seem to have friends, those who had problems at home. She would call them and talk to them at length. Sometimes she would give us chocolates and small gifts like pencils or ball-point pens (a rare privilege allowed to kids). She would take interest in what books we read and what films we saw, and when another teacher scolded us, it was to she who wiped our tears. 

Now it was M’s turn. She proudly puffed up her chest – “I want to be a wife!” We broke into peals of laughter. Marriage only had two meanings for us – 

  1. A game to play with when we were playing with our dolls.
  2. An occasion where we had to go dressed up and would be served tasty food, and would have our cheeks pulled by a dozen people we never remembered meeting. 

Once we managed to resume seriousness, we gave some serious thought to the question. “You will have to leave your parents”, I said gravely. As a girl, that was the biggest obstacle to marriage, in my opinion.

“I won’t”, M said, confidently. “I will make my husband leave his house, and come to live with my parents. My mother said that long ago that is how it happened. Men left their houses after marriage to come, stay with their wives”. (I have thought of this strange piece of knowledge for long. I guess my friend had misunderstood, or maybe her mother was talking about matriarchal societies)

“That is such a nice tradition!” I said. “Why did they change it? Why did our mothers shift residence after marriage?” 

For a moment we ponder this incomprehensible question. This ridiculousness of our mothers. “My father has a nice house” S said, almost defensively. We all were quiet. We couldn’t really debate this topic, without debasing either one of our parents, so we left it.

“When we get married, we won’t be like our mothers” I decide. “We will bring our husbands to our home. I will never leave my family!” images (1)

More than fifteen years has passed since this conversation took place. None of us are married….yet. I am pursuing a journalism career. M is pursuing English majors, and S just cleared high school. Very little remains of that ignorance and confidence now. Back then, all insurmountable problems had a simple solution. Sometimes I wish I could view life as simplistically now too.

(This post is in response to today’s Daily Prompt: Futures Past)

 

 

 

Someone Special For Dinner….

Dinner-table1-728x546“Mom, I am getting a guest over for dinner” her son told her, as he left for work that morning. Her heart sang with joy.

As he ran down the stairs, she called after him, “Someone special?”

He paused for a moment, and seemed to ponder. Then without looking at her, said, “Maybe…yes”, and then with more conviction “Yes”.

She stood at the door, long after he was gone. Finally, finally her heart sang, and the very air seemed to echo the tender hopes of her heart. He was 32, long past the marriageable age of their community. She was tired of meeting the wives of his friends in the markets, often with little toddlers jumping beside them. Even the gossip had died down now. People had stopped halting her at family functions and weddings to tell her about that nice girl in their neighbourhood who would be just perfect for her bachelor son. She was tired of telling him to get married and settle down – first through subtle hints, and then outright arguments. He wasn’t interested, he wasn’t ready. What sort of answer was that! “I hadn’t been ready to marry your father. I had just finished my twelfth grade. No one asked me. In our time, your parents selected a match for you and you got married! That’s how it worked!”

That whole day she spent in preparation of the dinner. She sent the cook away, and prepared all the dishes on her own. As evening drew closer, she got out her cream chiffon sari she had last worn at her niece’s wedding, and the pearl earrings he had given her for her sixtieth birthday. She hummed as she stood in front of the mirror, straightening the creases in her sari, and combing her silver streaked hair. He was bringing someone special to dinner and all those ugly, vicious rumours would finally die down. When she first heard them she had wept and it was the first time they argued over ‘the marriage topic’. He had left without denying or accepting anything, and she had comforted herself with tears and fervent prayers, before finally realizing how unnecessary they were. Her son would never do something so sinful. The rumours were baseless, spread by jealousy and spite.

Just then the doorbell rang. A final look at the mirror, and she ran to open the door. Her son stood there…and beside him, there stood another man.

Generations collided, tradition and deeply-cherished knowledge clashed with motherly love – and change came knocking at her door, hand in hand with her son. 

Daily Prompt: Modern Family