Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Review: Daughters of the House

Here is my second book review as a part of the 2011 South Asian Challenge. I just completed reading "Daughters of the House" by Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen. This book was published in 1991 by Penguin, New Delhi and published later in the US.

The book is based near Netarhat, in present day Jharkhand (erstwhile Bihar). It is the story of women, about women, by a woman. It is about the eternal lives of women, in which men come and men go, barely creating a ripple in intensely feminine lives. And then, along comes a man who creates not only ripples, but rents and shreds and tears asunder- worlds, hymens, lives. And goes away again, his part played. The worlds, hymens and lives fuse together again, forming another impenetrable feminine world. Waiting for yet another man...

The book is written through a haze of pain- or so it comes across. The narrator is a young eighteen year old girl, Madhuchchanda, insular, stubborn and sometimes, plain weird. She lives with her Madhulika Mausi (Aunt), younger sister Mala and devoted controlling female maid Parvati. An all-female household that has always been like this (her father was there for two years of marriage then left after begetting two daughters). Their relationships are a mixture of control, affection and desperation. One can sometimes smell the man-deprivation and desire of the forty-two year old Mausi. Who gets what she wants and then loses it spectacularly to her own niece. A man!

It is at times hard to like the protagonist, as she goes about plotting and scheming how to ruin her Mausi's marriage. And of course, finds the perfect way- sleep with the man herself. It is not exactly clear what happens and how- is the young girl just male-deprived (she is), does she plan this, does the older man seduce her (doesn't seem like it), is she doing this because she hates him, is she doing it to get some sort of control, or is it just lust on both sides? It is a little difficult to analyze the reasons, and but of course it is obvious right from the beginning that this is what is going to happen. Good, old-fashioned incest. Control. Revenge. Lust. Everything that is female.

It is a painful confusing book. No neat ends, no happily ever afters... unless you count the protagonist giving birth to her daughter... renewing the cycle of femininity. The tie of strongest affection in the book is with the house. The house where they all live. Which comes before love and joy and lust and pain. The house that moralizes and condemns and forgives (or not). Yes, this book is indeed about daughters of the "house".

So did I like it? Not too much. Its a confusing book, with the constant undercurrent of pain. Pain swells and pain subsides, but it pains all the time. That's the book for you. Not painful in reading (don't get me wrong there), but pain drips from the written word. Pain and confusion and lust and desire and hate and sorrow and lust that can intermingle only in the mind and heart of women. And still make sense!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Kitna padhogi?

Its been ages since I ranted about India and Indianisms... which is of course a main feature on this blog ;) So since its been long overdue, here is one thing that irritates me quite a bit. After having lived to my age, and in the US, one thing that I have realized is that life is not the same, nor does it follow a similar pattern, for most people. Each and every one of us lives differently, and makes different choices. It is often not even just about choices, it is sometimes just life that happens to us. Man proposes, God disposes.... Life turns out the way it does, and even though we have control of some parts, sometimes life takes its own twists and turns.

To go back to my point, all our lives take different paths, both by choice and happenstance. It is just downright silly to compare lives- so I did not live the typical circumscribed Indian life of finishing my education at 22, getting a job, getting married by 25 and having two kids by 30. Yes, lots of people live that life, and lots of people don't. In fact, I know any number of men and women who have not followed the above path. I have not, and I find it really irritating when my friends and acquaintances feel it is within their purview to comment on my life choices/ circumstances. Especially my education!!

Yes, that is my problem. Just because I have studied a LOT, people think its weird. They think it is perfectly all right to say offensive things to me about my education. A friend of mine recently contacted my via Linkedin after SEVEN years, and his message- Kitna padhogi? Ab to padhai bas karo!
So this guy has nothing else to say to me after SEVEN years? Not even a courtesy greeting to preface his offensive remarks! I did not even know how to react. This is something that has happened to me often, both by friends and relatives. One of my friends - the happy mother of two kids who followed the prescribed path- was visiting the US recently. We met after a gap of eight years. And again, this was her first comment... kitna padhegi?

I have heard a lot of similar stuff from my relatives, most of whom have commented on my education at some time or the other. I just don't know why people have such problems. Luckily for me, I was funded for most of my higher education, both in India and the US. I could obviously not have afforded to study so much without the funding I got.

So I get money/scholarships to study, I spend my own life doing so, and I do my own work. And yet, these people pop up after ages, and comment on my life choices. I know people who have studied way more than me. I know people with two PhD's, forget about my mere two Masters. I know people who go back to school for the sheer joy of it. I know people who go to school in their 50's. And I am filled with admiration for them. For having chosen to live a little bit differently.

Is it because Indians think it is perfectly all right to meet after ten years and yet be familiar enough to comment on other people's life and life choices? I wish I could say something to shut such people up without being rude. Any suggestions?

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Psychoanalysis of Eating Out

How often do you eat out? And how do you feel when you eat out? Does it mean anything to you or is it just the mundane task of getting food into you and nothing more?
Eating out has layers of connotations and meanings for me. It is never a simple task but fraught with emotions juxtaposed in varying permutations. I was thinking about all it means to me, and realized that there are so many levels to it. So I decided to do this point-wise, else I'll forget all the depths!

1. Foodie- I love food completely (and how!). Every form shape size taste it comes in. So going out to eat is a culinary adventure of sorts. I love trying out new cuisines, new dishes from different countries around the world. Even if the cuisine is something I've had before, every place has a different take on the same recipe. Therefore, eating out is an adventure. However, the flip side is that often I end up trying new stuff that I don't like.

2. Guilt - I always have a vague sense of guilt when I am eating out. Firstly, I'm fat! So even normal eating at home has associations of guilt. Add to that the super calorific large portions served at most restaurants, and no wonder I eat my food with a side of guilt. Secondly, since I don't have a job, I'm spending my husband's money when eating out. This gives me a feeling of guilt because I keep thinking that I can cook up five perfectly decent meals in the same cost at home.

3. Pleasure- Wherever there's guilt, there's illicit pleasure. Because I know this is something I should not be doing, there is the perverse pleasure of actually doing it. Umm, like eating that last piece of chocolate or reading a romance novel all night!

4. Confidence- As I mentioned, since I don't work I do tend to go out a lot less. So eating out translates into an occasion to dress up, look good and generally feel better about myself. Also, I get to talk to people/friends (socialize) and that makes me feel good.

5. Sociality - Eating out is not just eating, it is looking at other people and being looked at. It is a social behavior. It is the virtual space of sociality and encounter and engagement. And I revel in that. I am a people person through and through and love being in the company of people, even if I'm not necessarily talk to them.

Yes, a lot of complicated stuff goes on when I'm eating out. Sometimes, I even do it just because I'm hungry!

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Friday, January 07, 2011

Review: Desirable Daughters

The first post of 2011 is a part of the 2011 South Asian Challenge that I am participating in. This is the review of the book Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee. I've read more than my fair share of Indian authors, so I'm very familiar with the 'diaspora' genre. And I do think that this is one of the better books of that genre. The book is written with a lot of erudition!

This story begins in the house of one of Calcutta's bhadra lok, the brahmins with their books, strict rules, lakshman-rekhas, and inbred insularity. It begins with three sisters, all of whom eventually go their different paths, two to the US and one to Mumbai. The story focuses mostly on the third and youngest sister, Tara, and is also narrated by her. Life happens to them all- parents, sisters, husbands and kids, both in the US and India. Tara, the narrator-protagonist gets married at nineteen and comes to the US, has no clue about anything, and divorces her start-up billionaire pati because he's too busy making money. She's then moving in and out of relationships (both with random men and her sisters).

Throw into this potpourri the worst thing that can happen to an Indian mother - Tara's teenage son announcing that he's gay. If that isn't enough masala for you yet, a Muslim terrorist is thrown into the mix, targeting the most successful South Asian of all time- the ex-husband! The book ends with a bomb effecting a reconciliation of the couple.

So what do I tell you? Yes, it is a very well-written book. The use of language is effective, captivating, powerful. She uses her words very well. The book is so engrossing that I read it for seven hours straight (with bathroom breaks). I really liked the way she brought the old Calcutta to life. She also captures the Silicon Valley Indian immigrant ethos and life very well- with the engineers and their wives and their over-performing "heading to Stanford" kids and houses in the suburbs. San Francisco comes to life in her words, and I could imagine the narrator and her son riding the MUNI back from school.

The power and impact of this book lies in the details. Her sketches of the characters, the places, the thoughts are impactful. How a single woman will live in the City (San Francisco) as the suburbs are too claustrophobic to live alone in. Why all the Indian immigrants kids' have straight A's. Yes, she is good at emphasising and bringing out the stereotypes that we Indians will empathise and identify with.

What I did not like was the overarching story. The details were great, and make the book well worth the read, but I did not like the masala thrown in for masala's sake. The divorce seemed completely unnecessary, with no real reason or justification behind it. It is just there because otherwise there would be no story! I find it hard to imagine that given what Bharati Mukherjee tells us about the strict upbringing and conditioning of the protagonist and her sisters- and given that I am Indian enough to know the stigma and horror associated with it- Tara would divorce her husband because she wasn't fulfilled enough. That is an American reason to separate (and Bharati Mukherjee says so herself in the book), not an Indian one.

Secondly, I did not like the unnecessary fact of the son being gay. We have enough episodes of the boy screaming at his mother, adolescent angst, teenage drama thrown in. The 'gay' thing was not needed and does not contribute to either the story, character development or anything. It seemed to be there only to emphasize its non-Indianness (you get what I mean?). As in, the end of the world for an Indian mother/parent.

And I still don't get the Muslim terrorist. Another item of mayhem in Tara's life. Its like Bharati Mukherjee wrote down a list of "everything that can go wrong for the Indian woman" = divorce, gay kid, dysfunctional family (I haven't gone into the details of her relationship with her sisters here), aging parents, and ummm.... lets put in an international terrorist gang targeting her rich ex-pati as well. Put them together and there's a book.

Don't get me wrong, I quite liked the book. As I say above, the joy and impact is in the details. So while the overall story is a bit contrived, it is a good read. Do try it if you have the time, and let me know what you think!

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