Benjamuna's Blog

Stories…. with a touch of India….

Two reasons why I couldn’t stop reading… March 28, 2015

I have just finished two books. I came back from Delhi in the middle of February and when I did my packing, collecting all the books I had bought, I squirmed… One, two, three and many more. I let one go in my hand luggage, the rest in my suitcase.

I picked up Mirror City by Chitrita Banerji at Bharison’s Booksellers, quite a famous book seller at Khan Market. And a good place for bookaholics. I knew I had read about the book somewhere, and that it most likely was on my to-buy list in my notebook. Having finished Mirror City a few weeks after I came home, Jumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, The Lowland, was next in the pile. I bought it at The Delhi World Book Fair; a very intense experience. The grounds were enormous, the halls likewise, crowds, heat, confusion… I picked up Lahiri, a few more and fled…

Now that I have read these two books I realise that I wanted to finish both books fast, but because of different reasons.

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Mirror City is set in Bangladesh just after independence. The cover summarises the book in words like “the turbulent early days of Bangladesh”, “the slow breakdown of a marriage”, “a woman’s search to find herself”. I should have read it like a warning, still, novels set in Bangladesh are hard to come by and I bought it because of that. After a few pages I knew I’d label the book as simple. An easy read, rather shallow… Very easy language, one-dimensional characters. Still I read on, just out of curiosity because I wanted to know who Uma fell in love with, if Nasreen really was a traitor and – having swallowed even more pages… if Uma would leave her husband and escape with her lover. I wanted to finish the book fast, because in a sense I felt that I was wasting my time.

And then I moved on to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowland. After 50 pages I was hooked, the story seemed promising, but most important; the language was music to my ears compared with Mirror City. As a “foreigner”, meaning that English is not my mother tongue, I’m sensitive to language. A few years back I picked up Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I wasn’t able to turn the first page, I read the first few paragraphs again and again and I hardly understood a word. It might as well have been Urdu. Defeated, I searched my book shelves and found a Norwegian edition. It was a relief though, to realise that Rushdie can be rather unattainable also in your own language, he writes long and complicated sentences. Concentration is a part of The Rushdie Reading Experience…
I experienced almost the same a while ago, while reading Neel Mukherjees The lives of others. I enjoyed the story, but more than that, he writes in a very sophisticated language –  I must admit I had to concentrate as well as enjoy….but I never gave it up!

Whereas Mirror City tells the story from Uma’s view and within a restricted time span, The Lowland moves back and forth in time and follows the main character almost from the day he is born until he is a man in his 70s. Moreover, the story is told from all the three main characters points of view. Which makes the story even more interesting.

I knew from the very start that I would like the book to last. That I’d get a book hangover after the last chapter. Still, I couldn’t stop reading, I wanted to finish the book because I wanted so badly to see how the character’s lives unfolded. I read before going to work in the morning, after dinner (which in Norway can be as early as 4.30…), when I was watching the news, in bed – at length… And now it’s over…

My present pile...

My present pile…

 

A book and a bestseller January 31, 2014

What makes a book a bestseller? Obvious?! It sells many copies. But what actually makes one book a bestseller – and another not?
My reading group recently read Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s bestseller Secret Daughter although I was very reluctant, I guess I was simply curious. When we took stock, two persons read it through and found it “OK”. One person read it on “fast forward”, one person gave up after 50 pages – and myself? – I left it when there was 50 or so pages left. The book is on display in whichever bookstore I enter and you can read it in more than 20 languages. To me, that is a mystery!

indias-datter

My reading group, concentrating on Indian and other Asian literature, ended up discussing not the characters in the book or the plot – but rather; is this a good book or not? We reached some sort of consensus.
Secret Daughter has roughly six main characters; An American couple with an adopted Indian daughter. A poor Indian couple who has “lost” one daughter, put one daughter up for adoption and well, there is one son. So the main plot of the book? It goes without saying.  My main objection to this book is the way the writer gives life to the characters. There simply is no life, as if they’re made of cardboard. And it’s not a story, it’s a rigmarole of events.

We left the book and moved on to the next: The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah. After only a few pages I felt I had a gem between my hands. It’s a family saga and the back drop is Iran, and moreover – the story leads up to the revolution in 1979. Secret Daughter told you a lot about Indian culture, but it was as if the author had a list of events that she wanted to include in her story. And then, check….
Abdolah tells a story and at the same time manages to include Iran’s bitter history in a very natural way. But it is the characters that most and foremost makes the book such a good read. They stand out as real, rise from the pages, and come to life. The book makes me curious, I’d like to step into the house, and the mosque; take the stairs up to the roof, sneak into the minarets… Go downstairs, get a glimpse of the “grandmothers” keeping the kitchen ship-shape, down to the pottery in the basement…. The book is about characters who give life to an environment, and vice versa.

Huset ved moskeen

 

Reflections on some muslim writers… September 20, 2013

In my part of the world, muslims are looked upon in a very one dimensional way. We associate muslims with women in burkas, the Koran, mosques, eid, fast, Ramadan. And…. terror. Does people from, say Pakistan, drink alcohol? do they read Shakespeare? do they have any sense of humour??

I always turn to the books, novels in particular, in order to learn about foreign cultures, and have lately read quite a few books by Pakistani authors. My favourite might possibly be Kamila Shamsie. Highly acclaimed “Burnt Shadows” (2009) is translated into Norwegian, but all her previous novels (which I read in succession) are really worthwhile to read. Maybe more so than “Burnt Shadows”…

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Shamsie, and many other Pakistani writers, describes a muslim world we seldom hear about in the news. They describe the elite…. the intellectuals. Those who dance and drink and sing… Those who are in opposition to the establishment. Those who quote Shakespeare… Yes, poverty is there, in glimpses.  But those of us who has read say Indian literature extensively, is more than ready for a more differentiated picture of countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Which leads me to the novel I just finished; “A good Muslim” by Tahmima Anam, born in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Anam lives in London and has received several UK prizes for her first novel, “A Golden Age”. “A Good Muslim” is a good read. But it’s also tells the story of “the good and the bad” muslim and thus calls for reflection. (It also has a beautiful cover, which I’m always drawn towards…)

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Most of the muslim authors I’ve read travel between their homeland and the US, or other western countries. Shamsie has won prizes both in her homeland and UK.

Last but not least I should mention “How it Happened” by Shazaf Fatima Haider. Born in Islamabad, based in Karachi, this is her first novel. Haider has taught me all I need to know about arranged marriages…. besides, her book is absolutely hilarious. In the western world we despise arranged marriages, failing to see it’s part of a totality. It doesn’t fit in our culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I wouldn’t say I’m now in favour of arranged marriages, but the novel gave me both insight and understanding – and a good laugh. Haider writes well and a difficult topic is handled with humour!

 

Some favourite book covers… April 26, 2013

I’m not a wine connoisseur…. I like wine, but I know nothing about it. I have tasted expensive red wines, but realised it wasn’t really worth it, at least if I would have to pay myself… So what I sometimes go for, is the label. Within a price range, of course… If I don’t know what to buy, I choose a really nice label.
But this is not about wine, it’s about books! Very often I go looking for a specific novel or a specific author. Sometimes I buy one by chance. And what initially attracts me is very often the book cover.  Then I turn around the book and read about it.

I can’t remember where I found Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph, but I guess I fell for the bicycle, the flourish around the edges, the font and the green shades. The bicycle made me curious… although I didn’t expect the novel to tell a story about bicycles. What it does tell, is the story about Mohan; a letter writer in Bombay. A dying phenomenon. Never the less, when I visited Bombay last November a guide took me to the remaining letter writers outside the General Post Office in the south of Bombay. I felt lucky… I was able to see something that represents – soon – another time. In short; the letter writers have for decades written letters on behalf of those – migrants for example – who are not able to write themselves. Or, they fill in forms and help sending parcels. These days, even the underprivileged have access to a cell phone, and thus the letter writers are on decline.

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A bitter-sweet story.

Calcutta Exile by Bunny Suraiya is definitely novel I bought because of the book cover, and also because I’d like to go to Calcutta – where I haven’t been yet. This might not be great literature and a book to remember, but it tells the story about Anglo-Indians and in that respect depicts a part of Indian history.

Calcutta’s Anglo-Indians, one of the most graceful and beautiful communities of India, became bewildered orphans, suddenly uncertain of their roots and equivocal about their future.

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A book cover that says… travel back in time.

Anosh Irani was new to me before I read about him in a magazine recently. Dahanu Road is his most recent novel. Literature never fails to enlighten me. I have now learnt that there are Parsis and there are Iranis… but that is another story. On the front cover you can see the chikoo fruit; not only does it look good but it plays an important role in the novel. Dahanu Road is one of these books permeated by domestic violence and whether the end is optimistic or pessimistic I really don’t know… It was, at times, a struggle to read.

The book is beautifully written – thus a quote from the book:

Shapur Irani always thought of dusk as a beggar. It had no light, it had no darkness; it lived on the scraps that were fed to it by day and night.

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On the bike; Zairos and Kusum…

The Alchemy of Desire brought me to Uttaranchal in the north of India where I met Tarun Tejpal, his father and his wife. Which is yet another story…. I read the novel and knew I just had to go there.  The front cover shows a photo of a house which the story evolves around. This house is now turned into Two Chimneys, a bed and breakfast where we were the very first guests a few years back. I never really thought the house in the book was for real, and I took the cover photo to be nothing but an illustration. But it was all very much real… The house on the hill with the two chimneys… Literature can open doors!

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A book and a house….

 

Updates on my reading… April 29, 2012

I never thought there would be an Indian detective, in fiction. Every time I come to India, preferably Mumbai, I spend considerable time in bookstores – always with a ‘wish-list’. But I have never come across detective stories. Not that I have been looking, I stopped reading crime novels many years ago, having read my share. But then a friend from Finland told med about Vish Puri; an Indian Herule Poirot.  However, the author is British; Tarquin Hall – and so far he has published two books about “India’s most private investigator”, a third is on it’s way. Years in India, and also married to an Indian, he is very much familiar with the Indian lingo. Vish Puri lives and works in Dehli, the books are funny  page turners and yes, I have become a fan.

It’s no secret that i love novels set in Mumbai, that’s probably why I chose Thrity Umrigar’s novel Bombay Time. Also, she writes about the Parsi community – well known from the books by Rohinton Mistry. This is her debut and tells the story of a bunch of people in Wadi Baug. It may not be ‘Nobel Prize material’, but it gives you insight into the Parsi community. The novel has a hint of bitterness, but tells many interesting stories.

Anuradha Roy published An Atlas of Impossible Longing in 2004, and I have been waiting for her next book. The Folded Earth didn’t let me down, especially since it is set in a remote town in the Himalaya. When people ask me, – where should I go in India – I always say; the North. The Himalaya Foothills. The novel is set in Ranikhet in the state of Uttaranchal, and tells a rather sentimental story about Maya who has lost her boyfrind and takes refugee in the mountains. I have been to Uttaranchal and I could easily imagine Maya, Charu, Diwan Sahib and his mysterious nephew an this breathtaking landscape.

The most shocking reading experiene in 2012 has so far been Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarsan. Somehow it reminded me of V. S. Naipaul when he writes about dysfunctional families where men hit their wifes and mothers hit their children – at the same time being able to write in a witty way.  This novel is set in a village in Malaysia, however in an Indian community, the street aptly name Kingfisher Lane. Raju and Vasanthi have three children, all of them neglected – especially the youngest girl: I have never in my life read such a dismal portrait of a child. The novel is an impressive debut. She is able to portray a family where every one is a loser, still – the book has a good portion of humour.

Ali Sethi was a completely new name to me, but I’m curious about literature from Pakistan and was happy to find this debut novel in a bookstore off The Strip in Las Vegas – of all places. The Wish Maker tells the story of “a fatherless boy growing up in a family of outspoken women in contemporary Pakistan” as the back cover of the book says. That made me decide to buy the book, and it definately gave me a taste for more…

At the moment I’m reading Planet India by Mira Kamdar. It’s an analysis of contemporary India, published in 2007 – thus the chapter about cell phones seems utterly outdated…. Kamdar writes interestingly and she has talked to a lot of people, Mukesh Ambani and his likes, for instance. Sometimes she interviews people who has great plans for the future of India, also short term plans – and this makes me rather curios to what has been ahieved in 2012 – if achieved at all. The book has chapters on retailing in India, villages, the cities, power – and more.

 

Summer reading June 14, 2011

This summer has a set goal… I have to get rid of two piles of books in my living room. For a start I’d like to read these books. Secondly, I have to read them in order to justify new purchases on my next travel to Mumbai.

The Indian joint family closely observed by two female writers.

I had a whole week to myself recently, my agenda was full – but that was before I started Manju Kapur’s Home. I had just finished John Irving’s latest novel; Last night in Twisted River – 600 pages full of  John Irving’s peculiar characters – but you tend to get wary of Irving’s many words en route. Maybe that’s way I picked a small pocket book with the modest title Home. Kapur was unknown to me and the story itself might not be “prize material”… Set in Delhi, it tells the story of three generations of an Indian joint family. And the Indian joint family facinates me with it’s tangle of mothers, fathers, in’laws, children, aunts, nieces, nephews…. where everybody has his/hers place in a distinct hierarchy. The novel centres about the female members of the family; like Rupa who is unable to conceive and Nisha who is a mangli (bad horoscope) and her struggle to get married after a love-marriage was denied her. Instead of doing all the things I had planned, I found myself constantly curled up in the sofa – hours after hours – together with Rupa, Nisha, Rekha, Raju.. a cup of tea, a glass of pepsi or an espresso…..

India is on my reading list this summer...

Even before I had finished the book, I had decided on the next one: Desirable daughters by Bharati Mukherjee. From the title I could tell that this was another novel about Indian family life. And from the author’s name I knew she was a Bengali writer. The book is mostly set in California, but tells the story about three sisters from upper class Kolkata (Calcutta) – and the many flash backs paint an interesting picture of a Calcutta nowhere near the misery of Mother Teresa’s Calcutta. And constantly reminds me that Kolkata is number one on my “travel-to-another-city-than-Mumbai” list…. From a literary pont of view, this novel is more substantial than Kapur’s Home. The three sisters have a complicated relationship, and the fact that the eldest has an illegitimate child that appears on the scene after being a family secret for 25 years, gives the book a certain tension and moves the story forward. Being just half way through the book, I know that this is an author I will explore further.

So what should I read next… Normally I read two books at a time. One fiction and one non-fiction. Fiction is on my bedside table, the non-fiction by my side in the living room. – So what do you read in the kitchen, a friend asked… Certainly not cookery books…

I have several non-fiction books ready to read; the legendary City of Gold – The biography of Bombay by Gillian Tindall. A bit outdated perhaps, nevertheless a much quoted book. Secondly; Calcutta by Simon Winchester – because I’d like to go there during the literary festival in February every year. And then After the Raj by Hugh Purcell – because The British Raj has intrigued me ever since I saw the TV serial The Jewel in the Crown a lot many years ago. The adaption of Paul Scott’s novel is brilliant, and reminds me that I should read the book – not only watch it which I did again a year ago. I can’t help it but I could have died to step back into history to be a part of The British Raj – no matter how horribly wrong it seems…. This is a feeling I have been fighting against for many years, still, it remains after many trips to India. This particular book tells story about the Britishers that didn’t escape India, after The Raj ceased to exist.

When I have left the Indian joint family (at least for now) I will go on with Herman Koch’s Middagen (The Dinner) and then In the Kitchen by Monica Ali. I had never heard about Herman Koch, but my most valuable source of book reviews; Norwegian financial paper Dagens Nærlingsliv praised it highly some months ago. Most of the time, there is only one book review pr week, on Saturdays, but their taste for books is great and I have bought many a book on their recommendadtion and thought; where else would I have read about this book….

Hopefully Monica Ali won't let med down!

Monica Ali is famous for her novel Brick Lane, and her latest novel In the kitchen is supposed to be a follow-up to Brick Lane. A multi cultural hotel kitchen seems like the right place to be on a cool summer day in Stavanger because right now I can’t envsion myself lightly dressed with a book on my veranda! More so under a rug with a hot cup of tea….

 

Too many books. Only one life. June 19, 2010

Filed under: Indian literature,Literature — benjamuna @ 2:06 pm
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Some years back I told my friend Dagne that I always finished a book once started on it, no matter how bad I found it.  Did I feel I owed it to the author, in some peculiar way? Dagne found it outragous, and I eventually admitted that life is too short to bother about bad books. Since then I have been terribly choosy, every book I read has a purpose behind. I only rarely read a book on impulse.

First of all I quit reading crime novels. I have read a lot of them, – and enjoyed, but it strikes me that there is nothing much to learn from a crime novel. When people ask me how I have come to know so much about India; about culture, politics, geography, demography – whatever, I always answer; from novels. My number one source whatsoever.

My Indian books have a bookshelf of their own! This is but a few....

So how do I chose my books and where do I find them? Some authors I follow closely, year after year – American Alice Hoffman being one of them. I guess I have every single novel she has published, most of them in the original language. There are two reasons I buy the American edition. For a start I can’t possibly wait for a translation. Moreover, Hoffman’s language is worth reading as she wrote it. Nobody can descibe the elements of nature as Hoffman describes it; a soaring heatwave in small town America, or a bitterly cold night, the overwhelming smell of a flower or the intense buzz of a bee… Nobody is able to paint those pictures with words like Hoffman does, and no translation can ever justify it. Her novels are a garden of delight! A few years back she came down with cancer. Then followed a  couple of novels where she obviously was writing her way out of this trauma. Half way through her last novel; The Story Sisters, I told a friend that Hoffman was out with another novel. Any cancer, she asked. Not yet, was my immediate answer, although we have one drug addict. The day after, hell broke lose in The Story Sisters. Leukemia. Heroin. Death. A fatal accident. It was overwhelming, I decided to finish the book in one go and felt totally drenched afterwards. But the book also paints a picture of two beautiful old, eccentric and forgiving women, who made up for all the grief.

Alice Hoffman - a long time favourite!

I went from Hoffman to Chowringhee by Sankar, for me a totally unknown Indian author. The book was published in 1962. Indian literature is a passion, no doubt. I search for new titles and new authors everywhere. In January I picked up the 2009 volume of India Today at the library, given to me for 50 kroner. Some of those issues I already read last year, but the reason I asked for them was to look more closely at the book reviews. I go through every issue and add books of interest to my list.

India Today is an important source when I'm looking for Indian novels out of the main stream.

 
Last year, in Delhi, I found a small bookstore crammed with books, in Connaught Place. The sales personnel was obviously impressed with my list and criss-crossed the floors in order to fulfill my wishes. (Lurking in the back of my mind was of course weight…. books are heavy and KLM make no concessions for book addicts).
Indian bookstores are great, whether small or big. I could spend hours. But books are also sold on the street as well, sometimes laid out on the pavement. Dusty books wrapped in plastic, impossible to pass by…… Impossible not to listen to the vendors advice.

My favourite book seller in Colaba, Mumbai, last year.

Sometimes people tell me – oh you should read this or that book…. I hardly listen. I panic. First of all, I have my own constant mental list. Of authors I follow closely. Of books I’m thinking of buying. Of books I should read (Knausgård for example – I have only finished volume 1). But I mostly panic because of the various piles of books at home. Everywhere. My own favourites and my own research is keeping me more than busy, other people’s advice must have me excused.

One of many piles of books I should read before buying more….

The web store Amazon is an important source of information, annoying though it might be. The system is “intelligent” in the way that it remembers your buys and feeds you with more of the same. In my case; mostly Indian literature. The danger is that when all these offers pop up  – one tends to buy on impulse…. Anyway, at the moment I’m jotting down any interesting suggestions and await my visit to Mumbai in November. I dont know what is worst though, paying postage through Amazon or overweight on the plane…..

Today's offer from Amazon.....

Although I’m very serious about books, I have one flaw…. and he is called Douglas Kennedy. I sometimes wonder how I got to know about him in the first place, and when. It’s tempting to call his novels trash. Undoubtedly we can use the word page turner. Once started, you’re completely hooked. ‘That’s why I’m saving his latest novel Leaving the World for either USA in August or India later this year. It’s perfect for a lang haul air ride. He has titles like The Big Picture, The Job, Temptation. Tells you everything, really…. But to make up for all those negative wibes, after finishing the one called State of the Union, I was not able to start a new book in several weeks. I was thinking of the main character night and day. I was seriously worried about her future, thinking of her as a real person, wanting to know more…… Which must mean that the author has managed create a character of flesh and bood…

Good or bad... Douglas Kennedy shortens a long journey for sure!