Friday, April 29, 2011

The Importance of Being Vain

While growing up, I was taught that being vain was a bad thing. Being vain ranked high up there along with being dishonest and uncharitable. Even though I grew up in a cultural milieu where looking good was paramount, I was often too lost in my own world of books and studies to pay much attention to looking good. Also, I never had much to be vain about, so maybe that contributed as well. I did pay a lot of attention to my clothes- and was always the best dressed person in any gathering. Though I never had the perfect bod- far from it, actually- I realized that I had to pay extra attention to my garb. To this day, I plan most of my outfits with all the detail of a general planning a war. Dressing up well becomes very important if you (or me, in this case) do not have a good body!

Anyway, to get back to my main point, I grew up without any sense of personal vanity- that I looked good and needed to look good. Vanity implies that I know I look good. By extension, I realize that I get attention and people look at me! By further corollary, it means that I will work hard to look good because I take pride in doing so. So in a way, being vain does mean being proud of one’s looks/ body etc. This vanity/pride spurs us on to look good. To work hard at looking good. It is an innate sense of self-worth. And it keeps us on our toes.

In today’s age of skin-deep beauty, it is futile to deny that the more attractive among us are privileged. Call it shallow- I used to, and look at me now! I have come to believe that it is important to look good to feel good. Not just for the external world, but because being attractive makes you feel better about yourself. It is an added validation in this world ridden by self-doubt. Maybe your sense of self-worth comes from being a great genius, or your intellectual capacities or whatever rocks your boat. But for me, and most mere mortals like me, how we look is a big contributing factor.

I think being vain helps you take better care of yourself. Love yourself a little more. And we all need extra love- especially from our own selves.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review: The Wish Maker

Here is review no. 3, as a part of the South Asian Reading Challenge 2011. I did read a couple more South Asian/Indian books in the interim, but did not like them at all. In fact, simply hated one of them. Will get around to reviewing them soon! Here is today's book:

Title: The Wish Maker
Author: Ali Sethi
Release Date: June 11, 2009
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover

This book is based in modern day Pakistan. It is a wonderful portrayal of the travails, tensions and politics of the country. The story revolves around a young boy named Zaki Shirazi, son of a political activist mother and a pilot father (who was no more). It follows the small kid as he grows up, his relationship with his cousin Samar, his adolescent pains, friends and foes in school, and bits and pieces of his extended family (buas, tayis, mausis, dadi, nani, cousins etc.). The turbulent politics of Pakistan serves as a backdrop for this family, as their lives and activities are directly interlinked with the country's turmoil. Add to that the cultural restraints on women in the subcontinent, and personal intrigue starts fomenting within the larger picture of political intrigue. The story is gripping and fascinating, as one is drawn deeper into the web of Zaki's family's lives and loves.

The book does seem to be autobiographical in parts, since both of Ali's parents are prominent Pakistani journalists. Also, the hero in the book goes to "a prominent liberal arts college" in Boston for his higher education; Ali Sethi studied at Harvard. A large part of the book is devoted to his mother's political activism, which could be true in real life. The book also talks a lot about Benazir Bhutto and her regime.

The story develops on the beautiful relationship between Zaki and his elder cousin, Samar. They see Bollywood movies together: she weaves dreams around her "own" Amitabh coming and rescuing her one day. Samar is portrayed as an example of the adolescent modern-traditional Muslim girl-woman: desirous of love, making dangerous trysts with illicit love, shifting the boundaries just a little- and yet scared. She is obviously caught and exiled to a small village, away from all temptations of town! Zaki is her partner in crime, aiding and abetting her. This brother-sister love is the heart of this book, staying on through separation and distance and time.

Ali Sethi's book also captures the youth of Pakistan- caught between tradition and modernity, religion and belief. The book also has a brief flashback of pre-Partition days, when there was an undivided India. We get a brief glimpse of the terror and carnage of those days. Enough has been written about the Partition, yet I do believe that the pain will never completely go away. Its like a limb rent apart from one's body. I feel this way because both my paternal and maternal sides of the family came over from Pakistan then, barely saving their lives. They lost everything: land, house, money, friends, family, history... faith, hope and joy. It says a lot for their courage that they rebuilt totally destroyed lives from scratch in a new country. I've heard the stories from my family, and so everytime I read about the Partition I feel intense, personal pain. Its too close to me to be able to read about it.

Ali Sethi writes beautifully. Some parts are a bit vague, maybe intentionally, I could not be sure. For example, I just could not make out whether the narrator (Zaki) was gay or not. I think he was, this was slightly ambiguous. He, however, sketches a beautiful portrait of Zaki as an immensely sweet innocent trusting fatherless kid, taking in all the pain and pathos around him and trying to make sense of it. The book, narrated through this kid's eyes, takes us on a journey through Pakistan: we sense the growing pains of the author and the country. Its women and its men. Its beliefs, religion, culture and families.

To sum up, I loved the book and would recommend it. It is a great gripping book- I was emotionally invested in the characters. And that makes for a great book!

Friday, April 01, 2011

When words come alive!

I have mentioned time and again on this blog about my love of reading and how voraciously I read- any and everything that comes my way. I have always loved reading and read a lot since I was a little kid. Inevitably, this informed my world view. Also, since I read mostly fiction and romance, I have to admit that I have always held a very rosy view of the world. This has led to not occasional disillusionment as well. Still, I prefer to keep my rosy world view intact. It has not been difficult, try as I might, I can never be cynical. I have deep enduring belief in the goodness of this world (though unfortunately, this has not borne true for me in the last few years).

Anyway, I'm digressing. Today, I wanted to talk about how this incessant reading made me familiar with the world outside of India. It aroused in me a desire to see the world. One of my biggest reasons to come to the US was that I wanted to see the world. Mujhe duniya dekhni thhi! And I did. I have not traveled as much as I would have wanted, but its a good start. I've lived and experienced stuff outside of the narrow proscribed path of a good bhartiya naari :) I am happy I got the chance to see a bit of the world!

As a fond reader, an inevitable book that one reads while growing up is "The Diary of a Young Girl", Anne Frank's diary. I read it at a time when my age was very similar to Anne's at the time she was writing the diary. I could relate to her teenage angst and pain. The very real fear of death in the book. Often I tried to imagine her and the small attic the two families were hidden in, the everyday challenges and the constant shadow of fear. The picture remained in my head. Since that age I always cherished the desire to see the house, though it was mostly just another pipe dream.

Then a little more than an year ago I had the opportunity to visit Amsterdam, and I went to the Anne Frank Huis there. I saw the secret entrance to their hideout, hidden behind a bookshelf. The two small rooms that Anne Frank's family lived in. And the other rooms of Peter's family. The water closet (which they could never use during the day). The darkened windows. The rooms were small, suffocating and claustrophobic. With no daylight allowed in. I think that seeing Anne Frank's house was an experience, since I think after reading the book one can never forget it. Especially since I read it at such an impressionable age.

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It was literally a thought come alive for me. I could never have imagined as a small girl of twelve living in a small town in India that I would get to see Anne's house. I'm profoundly grateful for the chance. And I hope I can get many more such chances, when more books and words come alive for me!