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Book Review: Love, Loss, And What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

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The muse writes back, and is far more generous about the marriage than the artist was. Maligned in ex-husband Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, model and culinary savant Padma Lakshmi tells her side of the story, along with a handful of comfort food recipes. Love, Loss, And What We Ate opens on a promising, often evocative, footing.

She’s gracious through the recounting of her high profile marriage and divorce, compelling when talking about her early childhood and fiercely independent mother, and canny in her self-deprecations (“silly little cookbook”). Her descriptions of life within her grandmother’s kitchen are charming and familiar. Even a chutney of discarded citric rinds as a metaphor for how her grandmother dealt with the bitterness of marriage doesn’t ring twee.

So when a shockingly problematic streak shows up about a third of the way through the book, the reader who has rooted for her all along stumbles. The first trace of trouble is when Lakshmi extends her experience of racial discrimination as an immigrant schoolchild to her country of origin. For her to say that she is considered dark-skinned in Tamil society is disingenuous, to say the least. And she backs this with this bombshell: “my extended family urged me to avoid the sun… out of fear that my skin would darken to the shade of an Untouchable..”

While we’re still reeling at her word choice, we’re introduced to her second stepdad Peter, whom she hates. He is a “lower-caste” Fijian Indian, with a “crude, beast-like ignorance”. What follows includes references to his “stench”, his “ugly” Hindi accent, and “some inferior poni grain” he eats instead of basmati. She wants her mother to be with someone more “cultured”.

This vitriol is reserved for only for Peter, who is still her mother’s partner, as well as her own daughter Krishna’s favourite grandparent. By contrast, her mother’s second husband, whom she divorces when he doesn’t believe that a relative of his has molested the young Padma, is merely “pretty darn handsome”. The casteism, classism and colourism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self-reflectivity nor shame.

The author – well-travelled, well-heeled, well-connected, speaker of half a dozen languages and self-proclaimed bookworm – has no excuse for her lack of sociopolitical intelligence or conscience. At the very least, somewhere between her late partner Teddy Forstmann’s philanthropy and the Rousseau she thanks Rushdie for handing her in the acknowledgements, a little tact would have served her well.

Perhaps unable to recoup after this ethical failure, or perhaps because Lakshmi’s early style gradually gives way to a tabloid-friendly one, the narrative simply begins to bore.

And then she chucks another jawdropper. The first non-breast milk meal Lakshmi gives her daughter are a few sips beef broth at a hawker stall in Singapore. The result? Brahmin guilt. “I prided myself on how well one could eat following a Hindu Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet. I had extolled its virtues on many occasions and truly believed in its merits. I know what had happened, while an accident, was also karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food”. Yes, really.

Who would have known that the saffron brigade had an ally in the glamourous Lakshmi, who without irony refers to her ex-husband as a “fundamentalist atheist” and to herself, repeatedly, as a “secular Hindu”? After watching the author eat everything from live snails to her own placenta, it’s the reader who’s left with a bad taste in the mouth.

Love, Loss, And What We Ate is really a book about men – a series of partners whose influence and guidance shaped Lakshmi’s life. She plays the ingénue often, and credits everything from her sartorial sense to her gastronomical savvy, and even this — her writing — to a lover. She does not memorably detail even a single non-related female friendship or mentorship. Most disappointingly of all, as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, Lakshmi speaks only about her experience of the disease, not the work of the foundation, or its impact. With the exception of her mother, she does not weave in other female narratives of struggle and success – be they on the catwalk, in the culinary world, or in any of the many spheres of her experience. Her feminism begins and ends with the desire to date more than one man at once – a desire she quickly regrets once she realises she doesn’t know who has fathered her child.

But there is a singular feminist saving grace in this memoir, and that is the other Ms. Lakshmi – her mother. Vijaya Lakshmi’s journey is a tale of its own, beginning with an arranged marriage in which the groom cheats on her on their wedding day, and a divorce after which she endures a two year separation from her child. Upon her arrival in the US, she takes her mother’s name as a surname, abandons her limited diet, dates and falls in love, has the courage to leave marriages, explores what the world has to offer, and even takes her daughter to a nudist beach. None of this is typical for her generation, and in the Chennai they still call home, it isn’t even typical for her daughter’s. It is the story of this dedicated nurse – who keeps fruits in the fridge for her terminal patients, and manages somehow to save enough money to give her daughter Indian vacations, skating rinks, and myriad pleasures – that is ultimately the maverick one.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

Book Review: Matchbox by Ashapurna Debi

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The title page of this new volume of selected stories by Ashapurna Debi carries this evocative credit: “Translated into a Bengali English by Prasenjit Gupta”. It’s a small homage both to the many sub-languages that we speak, write and think in, as well as to the oft-forgotten translator, whose burden it is to prove an author’s entire reputation to a foreign audience.

In Ashapurna Debi’s case, that reputation is complicated. She began to publish her work as a teenager, in 1936, and by the time of her death in 1995 had penned a staggering 242 novels and novellas, 62 books for children and over 3000 short stories. Although widely-read, her work was also largely derided for its tendency toward the domestic and quotidian. The author did not command respect, only recognition.

This is surprising, especially if one skips the excerpt from Jhumpa Lahiri’s master’s thesis that serves as the book’s introduction, and returns to it later. Lahiri writes at some length about the author’s critical reception, offering the observation: “[A] complaint issued by critics is the author’s supposed conservatism, especially with regards to women’s lives.”

Only 21 of the aforementioned 3000 stories are collected in The Matchbox, and while the extent of the author’s palette remains out of the grasp non-Bengali readers, what is represented here contradicts, or at the very least complicates, her reputation as a non-feminist writer.

Ashapurna Debi’s feminism is extraordinarily subtle. She does not forget men: their rage, their worries, their susceptibility to being manipulated. In “Brahma’s Weapon”, Oshima seeks employment at a former flame’s company, to her husband’s jealousy. In “Glass Beads Diamonds”, Shomita shows up unannounced to a wedding in her ex-in-laws household, while her current husband waits in the car.  In the disturbing “Shadowsun”, sisters Mollika and Ghentu are pitted against each other since childhood, one deemed feminine and the other inferior. In “Earth Sky”, Rojoni is temporarily swayed by a warm welcome on a visit home but ultimately chooses to keep working at the tea plantation: the subtext is the pain of those at home, who cannot experience that freedom to choose. Her characters do not challenge the milieu that causes them this grief. They lie to themselves and to others: little Monoroma in “A Covering Of Leaves” learns from watching her deeply-bonded parents that love is the only true wealth but a pretense of success will spare the providers’ pain; in “Grief”, Shoktipoda decides to delay telling his wife Protibha her mother has died, and she in turn feigns not having seen the postcard with the news so as to fully express her anguish only when he comes home. They are not progressive in any way. The author, however, in her close rendering of their lives, lays bare the suffering within.

Only in the title story, “Matchbox”, does her concern for the status quo of a patriarchal worldview – take an explicit turn. “This is precisely why I compare women to matchboxes. Even when they have the means within themselves to set off many raging fires, they never flare up and burn away the mask of men’s high-mindedness, their large-heartedness. They don’t burn up their own colourful shells. They won’t burn them – and the men know this too. That’s why they leave them scattered so carelessly in the kitchen, in the pantry, in the bedroom, here, there, anywhere. And quite without fear, they put them in their pockets.” In one reading, this is a statement of restraint. In another, it is a statement of sheer power.

Here, the introduction sheds light again, quoting from the scholar Manisha Roy’s 1972 critique: “Ashapurna Debi’s novels, which emphasize the glory of love in a conjugal setting, are frequently given to brides as wedding presents. They have attractive jackets, often with illustrations of a demure wife touching the feet of her husband to show respect.” On the one hand, her books were seen as light romantic reading. On the other, they told the truth about mundane oppression within marital contexts. This bifocality of her work is what explains its popularity: it was subversive literature about life within ordinary households, welcomed in those same households through a non-threatening guise.

In terms of language, that Bengali English brought to life by Prasenjit Gupta is well- rendered. The languages are interwoven effortlessly, without the awkwardness of italics. Onomatopoeic touches are maintained: a cat purrs pirring-pirring, and a drawing is made at khosh-khosh speed. A glossary at the back of the book needs little consultation – not because of a pan-Indian familiarity but due to the smoothness of the translation and the universality of the spaces in which the stories occur. There is something to be said for understanding through osmosis: in any fine translation, such ease is a characteristic most notable when it goes unnoticed. For instance, when Keshob Rai in “The Scheme Of Things” is full of vitriol for a child described as “that cold-in-the-nose, enlarged-spleen-in-the-abdomen, amulet-on-the-arm, tiger’s-claw-around-the-neck, rickets-stricken boy”, we need no explanation for the meanings of this odd string of invectives.

Reading these stories, one senses what its original audiences – those whose lives most closely mirrored those of the characters – must have felt. For lack of a better word, they must have felt understood. Even the distant reader, at times bored by the domesticity of squabbling in-laws or long-suffering spouses, sees the genius it takes to stir such clarity of recognition.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

Book Review:The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing By Mira Jacob

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When a successful brain surgeon begins to sit on his porch and speak to his long-deceased mother, his daughter is summoned to her childhood home in New Mexico to try to make sense of what is happening. Kamala Eapen and her husband, Thomas, have maintained no more than a cordial engagement for decades. Their marriage has been savaged by enough trauma: a rift sown by a fateful 1979 holiday to his own childhood home in India, the subsequent loss of that entire wing of relatives, and then their own son Akhil’s tragic death as a teenager. So Amina Eapen – a gifted former photojournalist who has chosen to hide in the more banal world of wedding photography in order to cope with her varied melancholies – is only one among the many who return to her father. His memories, regrets, and more than several of his dead loved ones have too. Amina’s task is not so much as to find out why, but to find a way toward an elusive peace – for all of them, and all of their ghosts.

Mira Jacob’s debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing, is a brilliant accomplishment. It takes a familiar premise – that of a crisis in the family forcing someone in the younger generation to confront the past and thus facilitate healing – and spins it into something original, fresh and often funny.

The book brims with the honesty of its setting and its characterisations: it is unlike the vast majority of diasporic fiction in that neither it nor its protagonists’ lives pivot on the fact of immigration. India is not romanticised; the only losses that count are those of people and relationships. True to life, in the circumstance of immediate grief, there is neither room nor reason to indulge grandiose imaginaries.

But certain things are definitely not imaginary, even as they find rational explanatory parallels. Medical science explains Thomas’ visitations from the dead, but not Amina’s own enigmatic experiences. With an astonishing lightness of hand, Jacob weaves the realms of spirit and doubt in a way that resounds with the truth of most human experience.

At a substantial 500 pages, a length at which any novel might risk tedium, The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing nonetheless glides by. Jacob has succeeded in creating that rare thing in this age of the fragmented attention span: a big book so gripping and so charming that it truly can be read in a day, its many pages flying by effortlessly.

The heart of this novel is not suffering, but the ways in which faith and love can suffuse pain with a quality that makes it somehow less irredeemable. In Albuquerque, the Eapens belong to a motley new family composed of other Indian immigrants. They are so close that Amina’s best friend Dimple, who like her lives in Seattle as an adult, is introduced to people as her cousin. It is this patchwork family who rally around through Thomas’ medical diagnosis, just as they had in all difficulties past. In caring for her father, Amina finds in them her own safe harbour – and with it the courage to end her own self-sabotages and step into the potential others see in her, as an artist, a partner and a daughter.

Among the novel’s outstanding points is its beautiful structure. Moving between Seattle and Albuquerque past and present (with a brief prelude in Salem, Tamil Nadu, where the Eapens’ ties to India are permanently severed), the author maintains the story through a talent for the graceful cliffhanger, convincing dialogue and a palpable compassion – we know what binds the characters is not their grief.

Thus, despite its sadness, this is above all an uplifting, reaffirming book. The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing is a moving paean to human existence: forever poised between the facts of the mundane yet also waltzing with the mysterious in experiences too esoteric to bring into the open, except by way of that great intangible – love.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Review Of One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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Distance allows us to be dismissive of the lives of other people, to filter their narratives down to a few essential keynotes and tragedies. In One Part Woman, translated into English three years after its Tamil original garnered widespread acclaim, Perumal Murugan turns an intimate, crystalline gaze on a married couple in interior Tamil Nadu. It is a gaze that lays bare the intricacies of their story, culminating in a heart-wrenching denouement that allows no room for apathy.

Kali and Ponna, land-owning farmers in Thiruchengode, enjoy a completely happy marriage on all counts but one. Despite over a dozen years together, they are yet to have children. Theirs is a sexually-charged and mutually fulfilling relationship; it is neither for lack of effort nor of intent that they are unable to conceive. The couple perform countless acts of penance, entreating various deities – among them the half-male, half-female god on the hill attended by a Brahmin priest and the tribal goddess Pavatha of the same hill, to whom blood sacrifices are made. Ponna weeps at the onset of every menstrual period. Neither love nor their thriving land is enough to keep at bay the despair of being without offspring in their community. They are constantly on the receiving end of disparagement from the people around them: Kali’s sexual potency is the subject of sly and open taunts, while every slip or argument Ponna has with another is turned on her using her childlessness as an indication of her character or capabilities.

The disparagement arrives in wounded, less unkind guises too – particularly from their mothers, who tell stories of hereditary curses that could explain their misfortune and sing dirges lamenting the couple’s barrenness. Eventually, the two women decide that there may be only one way. Every year, on the fourteenth day of the chariot festival to the androgynous deity on the hill, the rules of all marital contracts are relaxed. Any man is allowed to lie with any woman – a tradition acknowledged as being a socially and divinely sanctioned method of conceiving should a husband be sterile. Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law, in the hope that it is Kali who is the cause of their infertility, suggest the solution of sending her to participate. The resulting anxieties and attendant manipulations challenge the marriage, and alter its course.

One Part Woman is a powerful rendering of an entire milieu which is certainly still in existence, which it engages with insightfully. The author handles myriad complexities with an enviable sophistication, creating an evocative, even haunting, work.

The novel is also acutely sensitive in its approach toward gender and sexuality and humane in its treatment of longing. While fundamentally an emotional work, driven by personal desires and losses, it also unsettles the reader with what it frankly reveals about simplistic ideas about progressiveness. The society in which the book is set in is permissive in ways that the urban middle-class in the same state at large is not, even though known markers of suppression, such as caste laws, hold sway. But, here as elsewhere, the true hindrances to happiness and progress come in much more personal forms.

Murugan’s writing is taut and suspenseful, particularly as the book progresses towards its climax. At a slim 230 pages, the novel moves quickly, but with such a finely-wrought intensity that tension remains high right up to the final paragraph. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation deserves mention – the language is crisp, retaining local flavour without jarring, and often lyrical. Highly recommended.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line.

Book Review: Island Of A Thousand Mirrors” by Nayomi Munaweera

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In the media today we sometimes encounter the phrase, “the Sri Lanka story”, as though a singular narrative exists. Nayomi Munaweera’s Island of a Thousand Mirrors is an elegant debut that attempts, and more often than not succeeds, to complicate this notion. It is a classic diaspora story, only set against a backdrop still fraught with fresh wounds, with the author in the unenviable position of belonging to the defense. Although presented as an account of two sides of the struggle, the book’s more resonant voice is certainly Sinhala and relatively privileged. Starting out with these facts, Munaweera has crafted – in an unapologetic, unaligned tenor – a novel that succeeds in offering a new perspective to a situation that continues to unfold.

The novel opens evocatively in a double-storey house on Colombo’s Wellawatte beach, where one of its two narrators – Yasodhara Rajasinghe, elder daughter and eventual American immigrant – spends her childhood, and recounts with omniscience the lives and choices around her. The upper floor of the house is rented out to a Tamil family, the Shivalingams, over two generations. The riots of 1983 send them all scattering: Yasodhara, her sister Lanka and their parents to America and the Shivalingams to the north of the country. Neither sister completely lets go of the memory of their childhood companion, Shiva, or of the country they leave behind.

Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, another girl is growing up – intelligent, determined Saraswathi. Her brothers have disappeared into the civil war, and her ambition to become a schoolteacher is all that holds her family together. But Saraswathi’s life takes a tragic turn, and left with no other choice, she joins the LTTE. Her voice begins persuasively, but loses conviction along the way – perhaps partly a structural problem, because we are introduced to her so far into the book that – used as we are to Yasodhara’s strong, lovely narration – her appearance is unexpected and her story far more compressed. Yasodhara as narrator captures an idyllic childhood and nostalgia for the same perfectly, but the intensity of the arc of Saraswathi’s trajectory is not as impressively conveyed. What Saraswathi eventually becomes is someone stripped of her humanity, collateral damage turned pawn, but that transformation is in some ways predictable. But Saraswathi’s story is closer to the uni-dimensional “Sri Lanka story” we hear of often; it is Yasodhara’s that is a truly fresh perspective.

The strength of the novel lies in its clean, graceful prose. Munaweera’s language is expressive, tautly-rendered in such a way that its lush passages never slip into overwhelm. This is a difficult task for the diaspora novel, because in certain ways the book treads over territory already made familiar by American writers of Indian descent like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri. Yet when Munaweera writes of the immigrant condition, she is neither clichéd nor cloying. Yes, there’s something familiar about “[s]o many lonely men dreaming in Sinhala, moaning in their chilly beds, wanting American green cards and perfectly cooked eggplant curry” – yet it is tempered by the eloquence of the line that follows: “[s]o much palpable need, such archaeologies of desire that I am suddenly afraid”.

Despite its emotional ambition, however, Island of A Thousand Mirrors falters a little when it comes to political scope. Though Munaweera handles the complexity of the early stirrings of the civil war well, and presents a nuanced and necessary voice, the novel ends abruptly with the death of Prabhakaran. The war is over – but only technically. Certainly not in the real world, where three years on Sri Lanka continues to struggle to find a meaningful peace. For the reader who knows this – i.e. the reader who was introduced to the conflict neither through this book alone nor through news of the killing of the LTTE leader – this feels like a cop-out. She quotes Rajapakse in the book’s final pages and makes an observation: “‘I don’t want to dig into the past. I don’t want to open the wound.’ He knows the wound is there, just under the surface, waiting to erupt. Over the decades we will witness how it heals or festers.”

But the novel too hesitates the same way. If Munaweera had extended this slim novel just a little way further into the post-war era and chosen to approach a few of the many current complexities, a well-roundedness that is otherwise missing could have completed an otherwise moving picture.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: One Hundred Names For Love by Diane Ackerman

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I wrote about Diane Ackerman’s memoir about her partner Paul West’s astonishing near-recovery from global aphasia, One Hundred Names For Love, for Cerise Press. Global aphasia is a stroke-induced condition that leaves the sufferer bereft of vocabulary. The review is here.