Sunday, February 8, 2009

India Reads

Undoubtedly, Chris holds the family record for most books read/purchased/schemed over.  But the rest of us are not doing so badly in the book-i-tizing department ourselves.  A fair few folks have asked and commented about what we/ I am reading lately, so with a special thanks for Jen K for being my specific motivator, I present my (heavily) annotated reading list for last 4 months.

My first book purchase in Varanasi was The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh.  Upon finishing it I quickly bought another of his novels, The Glass Palace.  Both are meticulously researched historical fiction set mostly in India, and peopled with enthralling and complex characters.  Best, both novels  are written with just the slightest glimmer of the fantastic so that they became a world unto themselves which I relished escaping to.  (Let me pause here and apologize to all the English majors, PhDs and Profs out there for the cringe-worthy crap I’m passing off as a book review.  Forgive me, and then go read Caitlin Flannigan’s article, “What Girls Want”  in the December 2008 edition of The Atlantic.  I was totally that girl, and now, loosed from my moorings and at least half a world away from home, you better bet yer bootie I’m finding some serious solace in fiction. And I’m not apologizing for that in the least.)  Another of his novels, Sea of Poppies was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year and I spent more than a month coveting it, but was ultimately unwilling to pay the high price for the (beautiful) hardcover edition.  Happily, Chris was and Poppies was well worth the wait.  It too is historical fiction but simultaneously of much more limited temporal scope than the two above novels and a much, much grander narrative sweep.  Set again in India, Poppies begins in rural Bihar (the state adjacent to Uttar Pradesh, where we live now) and follows many characters touched by the British opium trade.  Over 300 glorious pages of sailors, farmers, outcastes, European colonialists and more, and all written with the benefit of the same assiduous research as Ghosh’s previous works.  A singular pleasure for both Chris and I was the inclusion of lots of dialogue in both Bhoj Puri (the rural/folk dialect of Hindi common to this part of India) and Lascar, the language of the sailors, an astounding hyrbid of Arabic, Hindi English, Spanish (or Portuguese?) and who knows what else.  (Admittedly, we are both big language and linguistics nerds, but it was fascinating to read and try to decipher.)

Also in the first month or so in India I read Birth on the Threshold by Cynthia Van Hollen.  It is an academic work detailing birth customs in Tamil Nadu, a state in south India.  She writes in an accessible and captivating style, interlacing discussions of larger anthropological/sociological memes with illuminating narratives drawn from her field work.  It was a shocking window into birth in India and a great motivator for me to uncover and challenge the assumptions about birht that I arrived here with.  It gave me an invaluable foundation for talking to women in Varanasi about their births and has whetted my curiousity about all things birth here in India.  Given that birth is such a taboo subject here there is not much written, or even talked about, but plenty to learn.  Here’s hoping my Hindi will someday be up to the task…

Another early read was Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, which I probably have already written enough about.  I also read his sophomore effort, Between the Asassinations, which was a huge disappointment.  Dull, plodding and often both inscrutable and pointless at the same time – skip it. 

I discovered that reading fluff during extreme intestinal illnesses has a salutory affect on my health, no matter how bad the book.  Playing for Pizza by John Grisham was the only bright part of a day of puking and Practical Magic  by Alice Hoffman distracted nicely between episodes of too much action at the other end.  Then, in utter desperation, after my dad left at the tail end of my puking/fainting spree I read Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat.  Easily the worst book I’ve ever read.  Ever.  But at the same time, oddly compelling.  Bhagat is an IIT alum and Five Point Someone is purported to be an inside peek at the life of IIT boys everywhere.  For all our sakes, I hope Bhagat has got it wrong, but much like a nasty car crash on the highway, I just couldn’t tear myself away from the spectacle. If you can find it, brace yourself for not only an insipid plot and one dimensional characters, but also a reprehensible mutilation of the English language.  However, if you find yourself dehydrated and semi-conscious in a developing nation, it may be just the thing to see you through. 

Emerging on the other side of intestinal upheaval it was back to good solid Indological writing.  Friends lent me The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple, a collection of essays about various places, people and events in modern India – good, bad and ugly.  Dalrymple is a journalist and historian and much like Ghosh, his thorough research provides an unbeatable foundation for whatever he writes about.  I also picked up Janini – Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood by Rinki Bhattacharya.  Another collection of essays, Bhattacharya seeks to illuminate modern-day Indian motherhood from all angles.  The frank and sometimes surprisingly raw essays uniformly fascinated me, but I wish she had included voices beyond the Hindu upper middle class.  Looking at an entirely different aspect of India, I read the Ladahk-classic, Ancient Futures by Helena Norbert-Hodge.  Maybe a bit pollyanna, but still quite informative.  And mostly because I feel like I ought to, I’m trying (without much success) to read Kim by Kipling.  (Maybe I’m a cretin for saying this, but really, Kipling is just way too over the top…)

Then, in a complete break with my usual reading habits I read Rosana of the Amish.  A lovely little book and an interesting glimpse of yet another world.  Also a departure from my usual India reading material, but so greatly appreciated were the back issues of The Nation, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker that my Greensboro People provided.  Words cannot describe my delight at finally having access to smart, liberal American journalism!  Tate St and Magnolia St, I salute you! 

So now I’m back to William Dalrymple and his magnum opus, White Mughals, the story of English colonialists in 17th centrury Hyderabad.  As with Age of Kali and again, like Ghosh, Dalrymple shines as both a historian and a story teller.  At only 100+ pages in I’ve hardly scratched the surface, but am again searching for spare minutes to read and staying up too late most nights as I wade into another world. 

Last, I want to briefly mention some highlights from what I’ve read with the kids these past 4 months.  We have Quiet Time for an hour or so most afternoons during which I read aloud.  We are working our way through The Chronicles of Narnia (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader presently) and all loving it.  I tried Narnia as a kid and hated it, but now find myself looking forward to Quiet Time everyday just so I can catch up with Lucy and all the others.  Caitlin and I read All Creatures Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot, and Swiss Family Robinson by Jonathan David Wyss and had a great time with both – me revisiting childhood favorties (any surprise I’m doing birth work after reading about all those calvings and lambings in Herriot’s books as a 12 year old?) and Caitlin discovering lovely welcoming lands for the first time.  We’re plowing through Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, having lots of fun with the word play and poetry. 

So, while the absence of internet at home has been lousy for blogging/email/keeping in touch with anyone, ever, it has done wonders for my reading life.  Now who’s next?  Has anyone read this far?  If so, drop me a line with the best book or two you’ve read lately…  I think I’m almost done reading about India, so send some new ideas my way. 


Grandpa George said...

Thanks for this list of things I might find at the Greensboro libraries. Flanagan has been included in the Best American Magazine Writing several times since 2002, and I just read in the 08 edition "Babes in the Woods."

Grandpa George said...


I read Ancient Futures after going to Ladakh. I think there is an advantage to reading it before going. I will be interested in your reports--and in knowing how much Leh is changing. Hope you get to meet Dawa and his wife; their kids should be of an age now to be close to Ben and Caitlin.