Monday, June 13, 2011

A Taste of India

Years ago the novel, The God of Small Things by Arundhi Roy was selected for the library’s monthly Book Chat. I was entranced by the luscious play of language in describing this foreign landscape, culture, and method of storytelling. While the plot weaves between time and tales, the vividly descriptive words are what I remember the most and what led me to read more novels from Indian, and Indian-American, authors.

In The God of Small Things, fraternal twins Esthappen and Rahel learn that “Things Can Change in a Day” when their English cousin, Sophie Mol, and her mother, Margaret Kochamma, arrive in Ayemenem on a Christmas visit. Lives are twisted into new, ugly shapes and some are lost forever. "They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much. "

Thrity Umrigar poignantly blends the life stories of two women of modern India in a demonstration of how intricately connected the daily lives of the rich and poor are while remaining so far apart in The Space Between Us. Sera Dubash is an upper-middle class housewife who hides the truth of her abusive household from those closest to her. Bhima has served the Dubash household for over 20 years and is an illiterate gran-mother living in the slums of Bombay with bright grand-daughter who is attending college when she becomes pregnant. Sera’s young, married daughter is pregnant as well. Umbriger reveals the privileges of the rich as they contrast with the poverty, neglect, and hopelessness of the poor. Both women share their lives daily, yet live by vastly opposing rules and expectations. “But after all the years of working in Seraba’s home, Bhima has no idea what she thinks, she realizes. And why should you? She chastises herself. You an ignorant, uninformed woman , and Serabai, educated and foreign-traveled.”

A review of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Sister of My Heart remarks that “Divakaruni’s talent and originality lie in her ability to discern [the] basic emotional motifs beneath the flashy “exotica’ of Indian, and American, lifestyles. She finds the real points of departure between the two cultures and, in putting her finger exactly there, activates the universal.” I found this to be true in this story of two cousins born on the same day to mothers who are widowed on the day of their daughters’ births. Sudha, the poor relation, is kind and beautiful while Anju Chatterlee is brilliant and defiant. The two have an inseparable bond which is tested by the revelation of a dark family secret and the arranged marriages which halts plans for college and independence. Anju leaves for America with her new husband while Sudha moves in with her husband and a dominating mother-in-law. Both women experience love, loss, and friendship as they yearn for independence.

Jhumpa Lahiri recently joined my list of favorite authors. Her short stories and novel examine the difficulties, and privileges, of living between two conflicting cultures with distinct religious, social, and ideological differences. Lahiri explores the difficulties of cultural assimilation for the new Indian immigrants as well as the cultural conflict experienced by their American born children.

In The Namesake, Lahiri moves between the world of India and America as she tells the story of the Ganguli’s, a young Bengali couple who move to Boston. At the birth of their first child, the Ganguli’s are forced to choose a name for their son in order to leave the hospital. Unlike Indian culture where a baby is given a good name by an elder and a pet name by the family, American children are given a legal name at the time of birth. The good name has not arrived from India in times so the Ganguli’s name their son Gogol after Ashoke’s favorite author and in honor of the book which once saved his live; Gogol’s pet name is now his legal name. Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path with conflicting loyalties, emotional family clashes, and a series of complicated love affairs. Lahiri’s penetrating insight reveals the means by which we slowly, often painfully, come to know ourselves.

Always a fan of dark humor, I eagerly read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. The White Tiger is the name our hero gives to himself as Balram Halwai spends 7 nights writing a response to a statement he heard on the radio that the premier of China is on a mission to know the truth about Bangalore. Balram is an expert on the truth of the harsh realities and hidden cruelties of the “new India.” In the course of his narrative, Balfour justifies his transformation from an honest, hardworking boy from “the Darkness” of rural India to a cold blooded murderer and entrepreneur. "But isn't it likely that everyone in this world...has killed someone or other on their way to the top?...All I wanted was a chance to be a man--and for that, one murder is enough."

From the glamour of Bollywood to the grime of Slumdog Millionaire, make India a destination in your summer reading.

Recommended Reading:
Interpreter of Maladies – Jhumpa Lahiri
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
The Death of Vishnu – Manil Suri
The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai
Madras on Rainy Days – Samina Ali
Savoring India: Recipes and Reflections on Indian Cooking – Julie Sahni
My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Parsi Home Cooking – Noloufer I. King


  1. When I first read the title of this blog my first thought was of the book Sold. Its about a 14 year old girl thats sold into prostitution in India.

  2. Bartow Bookworms6/17/2011 11:42 AM

    Have you read "The Blue Notebook" by James Levine? It's about a 15 year-old girl who was sold by her father into prostitution at the age of 9. She lives in the street of cages in Mumbai. It's very uncomfortable to read.

  3. When I first read the title of this blog, my first thought was of "Eat, Pray, Love" which has been adapted into a major motion picture, but the most recent book I read that pays homage to indian culture is "I Heard The Owl Call My Name." I often wish life was still as simple as it seems to have been.

  4. Maybe it was The Blue Notebook that I had read. It had been a while and I could not remember the title so I tried to look it up. Not to ruin the story for anyone but did the girl in Blue Notebook die young?

  5. I have read all of the blogs trying to find a book that I might like to read, but after reading these comments I realize I do not care to read any of these books. I will stay with my old mysteries that I enjoy so well. I do not like graphic sex or violence.