Saturday, October 18, 2014

Vacation Reads

Since I was in India for two weeks, two out of three of the books I read were about India.  And they did actually answer a few of the questions I had along the way (such as why all the hotel rooms had a hose and nozzle next to the toilet), so that was an added benefit.

The Hero's Walk by Anita Rau Badami
This book takes place in Toturpuram, a small Indian town on the outskirts of Madras (now Chennai).  The story is told from the perspective of Sripathi, a middle aged Brahmin man whose family is house poor and has fallen on harder times.  He writes ads for a PR firm, but is a huge disappointment to his widowed mother who dreamed of his becoming a doctor.  The mother herself is a bitter woman, having been cheated upon by her late husband, a renowned lawyer whose only bequeath to his family was a great deal of death.

Sripathi is also disappointed by his job, his mother, his marriage which he now takes for granted, his single sister who has not found a match that satisfies their mother and his son who is a social activist with few job prospects.  However, he reserved most of his anger for his daughter who moved to the US for a job and fell in love with and married a non-Indian man and moved to Vancouver.  Because he was humiliated by having to break off the marriage he had arranged for her, he has not spoken to her since and has never met his granddaughter.

After tragedy strikes Sripathi suddenly becomes this granddaughter's legal guardian and must go fetch her and help introduce her to life in India.  It is fascinating to watch how he deals with his guilt and getting to know this strange (to him) child.

This is a very well written book about family drama, the Indian class system and its impact on a family who has fallen on harder times, and how a man deals with guilt imposed on him by society, his mother and his own actions.

I definitely recommend it.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This one is a classic which I had avoided because of its extreme length.  But since I was going to India I felt it was time to tackle it, and I'm so glad I did.  It's well worth the time investment.  But you have to be prepared - it's very depressing - it seems like in every other chapter someone dies or is mutilated or otherwise suffers.

The book takes place while Indira Ghandi is prime minister of India (though she is never mentioned by name) and deals with much of the political unrest brought about by her efforts to clean up the slums in Mumbai, impose population control and make other social changes.  And I will say, though things may have improved, many of the problems she tried to address seem to still exist.

Most of the narrative takes place over the course of one year, though through flashbacks we get the back story on all the major characters.  The first we meet is Maneck.  He is a college student raised in the mountains in North India who is sent to study refrigeration and air conditioning in Mumbai.  But his real dream is to return to his native town and help run his family's store.  He is terribly unhappy in the college hostel so is sent to be a paying lodger of his mother's childhood friend, Dina.  Dina had a promising future as a child of a successful doctor.  But her father dies when she is a teenager, her mother withdraws as a result and she lives under the thumb of her domineering older brother.  She escapes for a while in a happy marriage and when that ends tragically she stays in their apartment and tries to live independently by sewing.

But Dina's eyes begin to fail her so she seeks to make money through her paying border and by hiring two tailors to help her do piecework for a large company.  The two tailors are the other main characters in the book.  Ishvar and his nephew Om have come to Mumbai to make money so they can return to the town where they came from.  They also have a tragic back story tied to their low caste and the audacity of Ishvar's father to send him and his brother to become tailors when they were supposed to stick with leather work.  When they train to be tailors they are taken in by friendly Muslim neighbours and this allows the author to also explore religious tensions in India.

Along the way we also meet and follow several other interesting characters:  the legless beggar who rolls around on a platform, the Beggarmaster who protects him and others, the shifty hair collector that Ishvar and Om befriend in a slum, the monkey man who loses his mind when he loses his monkey, a lawyer turned proofreader, and the families of all the main characters.

This book really is fantastic and it was hard to forget once I put it down.  It deserves its reputation and then some. But make sure you have lots of time and are in the right frame of mind to read something so depressing.

Between Gods
This memoir by Alison Pick was the only non-Indian book I read.  While it was nice to read something different, and this was an easy read, I didn't love it.  It was a bit of a self indulgent delving into Pick's depression which she tied to her family hiding her Jewish roots from her and the difficulties she encounters in converting to Judaism though her father is Jewish and she feels Jewish already.

I did enjoy the descriptions of familiar Toronto neighbourhoods and synagogues.  And the Pick family history was an interesting one.  However, I got bored with the descriptions of encounters with Rabbis and Judaism classes - and I didn't feel Pick truly appreciated the support she got from her spouse who came across as a very caring man.

I wouldn't strongly recommend this though it isn't terrible and you might like it if you are interested in the Holocaust, Jewish conversion rules or families who hid their Judaism as a reaction to the Holocaust.

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