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.

Bok_Lahiri

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

 

A story from Iran October 13, 2013

Filed under: Literature — benjamuna @ 6:42 pm
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I was 16 or 17 years old, preparing for a history test. I was reading, turning one page after another but unable to remember a single word. Panic grew….drama… My father entered the room, sent by my mother. While leafing through my text-book, he started to tell me about the 2nd world war in his own words. Exit panic.

I have always found it difficult to read in order to pass a test.  History and geography never were my best subjects at school. So I don’t know much about – for example – Iran. But of course I remember Farah Diba from my childhood. She was the beautiful celebrity from somewhere far away, married to the Shah of Persia. Together they represented some sort of a  sparkling fairytale. The fairytale ended though – and my interest in Iran never really exceeded Farah Diba.

This summer I picked up a book by Iranian Dina Nayeri: “A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea”. The story takes place in the 1980’s and tells the story of Saba who at 11 was left by her twin sister and mother. In Saba’s imagination they fled to America, Saba’s Shangri-La. Saba grows as I’m turning the pages. Her family is Christian converts and Saba is a free spirit who buys American films and books from a pusher. She smokes hashish together with her best friends Ponneh and Reza. At one hand she leads a care free existence. Saba’s distant  father is wealthy, but struggles to cope as a single father. On the other hand, Saba constantly grieves the loss of her twin sister and mother and nobody really knows their whereabouts.

Teaspoon_1

But this is also about the post-revolution, the morale police (the pasdars), the chadors and hijabs, the mullahs… beating and harassment. It’s history. The book also tells me a lot of another culture. About the strong, energetic women around Saba, her “surrogate mothers” who is hiding various unspoken bottles in their voluminous chadors.  The sofrehs, the khastegaris, the parties behind closed curtains, the opium… the fun. In the midst of it Mullah Ali, a family friend who sleeps and snores through the hashish smoke and whatever else taking place that a mullah would never approve of – unless he was a true family friend.
It’s a story about arranged marriages, where Saba marries a very old man and becomes widow-in-waiting because everybody tells her that a married woman, even a widow can indulge in a freedom an unmarried student in Tehran can not even dream of. Besides, she will eventually get very rich.

I’m always thinking… if I had been a history teacher I would use literature as a teaching method. How can history ever get boring through the writing of – for example Dina Nayeri.

 

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!

 

The beauty of books October 5, 2012

Filed under: Literature — benjamuna @ 7:43 pm
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Sometimes you come across things by pure chance….

As always I was looking for a good bookstore when I was visiting Edinburgh a while ago. I hadn’t expected to find The Golden Hare. It’s a rather anonymous little place from the outside, and I probably hadn’t ventured inside if it wasn’t for a sign saying something about beautiful books. It’s a small place, close to tiny, with a quiet but not unwelcoming woman behind a desk. It didn’t take me long to “crack the code”. In addition to shelves lining the walls there was a table in the middle with quite a few books on display and all had extraordinary book covers. Which made me curious about all the other books on the shelves, and yes – all book covers were out of the ordinary. Which is also the idea of The Golden Hare. In a world, now flooded by gadgets with absolutely no beauty attached to them, this tiny bookstore is nothing less than a jewel.

I bought two books; Anjali Joseph’s second novel Another Country. Quite recently I read her first novel set in Mumbai, Saraswati Park. Might not be Nobel material, but her new one had a beautiful book cover (!) so I decided to give it a chance… (And it proved to be quite good).

The other book I bought was Amitav Ghosh’ sequel to The Sea of Poppies, much awaited River of Smoke – and yes, yet another beautiful book cover.

A few days later we were on our way to The Royal Botanical Garden in Edinburgh, on foot. It was Sunday morning and it took a while; it was a long walk through many residential areas – but suddenly we found ourselves outside an antiquarian book shop. Not a surprise really, there are many of those in Edinburgh – but the window display caught my attraction.

The display of the books was clearly not accidental – it was beautifully set up. Of course it was closed on a Sunday morning, but I knew what we had to do after the botanical garden because fortunately it opened later. This was no ordinary second hand bookstore, it was an antiquarian bookshop with carefully chosen books. You could tell that the owner had a real passion for books.

The last of my paper money changed owner because he had a few interesting Indian books, but some a bit on the expensive side which I left behind.

I made some remarks about the display in the window and yes – the owner admitted he put a great effort in it and he already had great plans for Christmas. Wish I could be there to see….

 

The sheltering sky June 1, 2012

Filed under: Literature — benjamuna @ 7:22 pm
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When I see a film, there is almost always a reason…. Maybe it’s a novel that has been made into a film, like John Irving’s books years ago; The Cider House Rules, to mention one… Or there is a specific actor that I like, or a theme – India perhaps… But I can’t remember why I went to see The Sheltering Sky directed by the acclaimed Bernardo Bertolucci – and this is years back. The film was released in 1990.

The film made a huge impact. It’s shot on location in northern Africa, and the sequences from the Sahara desert are magnificent. All through, the movie has the colours of the desert.

It was only ten years later I discovered that the movie was actually based on a novel; The Sheltering Sky by legendary and cult author Paul Bowles: A Norwegian to-be author had travelled to Tangier to “kneel” by the author’s feet – and a tabloid newspaper was trailing two steps behind… Paul Bowles had many admirers, and he was a man covered by many myths. He died in Tangier, in 1999.

Inspired by the discovery, I read the book, and saw the film one more time. The film should always be seen on widescreen, the tv screen cannot really justify the beautiful filming, but anyway…. And then I ordered what I could get from Amazon – his novels, short stories… and read them all.

I have just read the book for the second time, I suggested it for my reading group – I have no idea why it came up after all these years. I guess it is one of those books everybody should have a go at.
The novel is – in many respects – cruel. As I read it, I was searching for the one word to describe it, and the feeling it evokes. And by coincidence I found just the right word on a web page called The Book Drum, where The Sheltering Sky was described as claustrophobic. And yes, that is the word. And it disturbs your mind.
In short, the novel tells the story of three young people; the married couple Kit & Port and their friend Tunner – who (post war) travel to Northern Africa. From the very start, the novel makes you feel uneasy… and it takes a very nasty turn two-thirds along the way. It’s a paradox that it is now that the beauty of the film gets really serious….

The movie sometimes takes giant steps in the sense that 100 pages are suddenly reduced to two sentences… But then of course, it is not possible to include every move in the book. Still, the film is true to the novel in almost all respects.

What I really remember from the film, is – apart from the colours – Debra Winger’s dry voice and her utter despair as the story unfolds. Plus the couple’s sunglasses, and the leather suitcases. Rich people definitely didn’t travel light in those days…
I’m not sure if I think that John Malkovich is right as Port (although he plays well), because Malkovich has this drowsy, thin voice that makes him sort of weak, and the novel doesn’t – in my opinion – paint a portrait of a week man.

The last page of the novel made my reading group despair…. and the movie is equally confusing. But that’s the authors privilege; only Paul Bowels – in his grave – knows what happened to Kit Moresby.

Highly recommended……….

 

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.