Thursday, December 05, 2019

Alice Albinia - Empires of the Indus

Publisher: Hachette
Author: Alice Albinia
Title: Empires of the Indus

I remember a time when I was momentarily seduced by the idea of following the Silk Route. It seemed like a glamorous idea, trudging in the wake of traders and adventurers who braved inclement weather, murderous dacoits, disease, illness, hunger, thirst to undertake seemingly foolhardy journeys into the unknown or nearly unknown far off lands. Men like Marco Polo, Hiuen Tsang, Ibn Batuta and many many more.

Seemingly, we are well connected with the world in these modern times. We can fly to the other side of the world, or encircle it, within a day or two. Or more, given the airline schedules. We can eat sandwiches everywhere, sip bottled water and be fairly safe. But this applies only to beaten paths. If you decide to go off the beaten paths, be prepared to live it down. Knock about in ramshackle buses, drink contaminated water, eat iffy food and miss your cozy home.

Alice Albinia undertakes an arduous journey along the banks of the mighty river Indus, starting from the Sindh delta where the river merges into the Arabian sea. She tracks the river up to its modest source in Tibet, Senge Khabab (Mouth of the Lion). The journey is daunting. It is often through dangerous parts of Afganistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet. As it is close to the borders of these countries often, the area is under military surveillance and not accessible. Alice has to take permission from the military of all these countries to be able to continue her journey.

The lower part of Indus is nearly abandoned and fisher folk living there are robbed of their fertile land and occupation because of damming on the river in upper areas. This region is populated by Sindhis who find themselves overshadowed by the rest of Pakistan. From here she moves on to the Sheedi's, African settlers who were brought here in the same manner as they were taken to America, for the purposes of slavery. She moved ahead, each stop more perilous than the last, under the shadows of the Kalashnikov and AK47. Her last journey is the most difficult of all. It is treacherous, changeable weather at high altitudes of Tibet, the most unmanned point of all.

All along the way we learn the fascinating history of the region she is in. The story is saddening and familiar. Where all was pure nature's bounty earlier, it is depletion and exploitation of natural resources by man now. The early civilisations respected nature and lived within its rules and enjoyed its bounties. Now man is in a hurry, he wants to extract the maximum out of the earth, its minerals, its flora, fauna and water. The deplorable effects of damming are seen everywhere. Politicians want to provide water for irrigation and puts up dams, harming the natural ecology of the region. Modernisation ignores the rules of nature and harms the earth in consequence.  Water becomes a weapon for negotiating with fractious neighbours.

Along with the author, we mourn for the lost glory of Indus. We shake our heads thinking of the heads of government who no longer care for nature, they care only to provide short term solutions to increase the longevity of their tenure.

I will pull out one quote from the book with the reminder that it was published in 2008.
As we move along the edges of the flooded fields, the village men talk of Kashmir, unburdening themselves of their disappointed life histories. They speak bitterly of the Pakistani Mujahideen. 'Nowdays we are not so deceived by their false promises of freedom,' one man says. Nor does the Indian state offer much hope, nobody in India, they say, wants to employ a Kashmiri Muslim. The only advantage that Kashmiris have is the law which forbids Indians from buying land in the valley: 'So even poor people here have a home and farmland.'

The subversion of Article 370 puts paid to this last tenuous link to self-subsistence the Kashmiris had.

So we can perhaps 'look forward' to the hell on earth that faces us as we kill the rich fauna and flora and dry up the bounties nature has heretofore offered us. And we offer no hope or reprieve to the people displaced by the hasty ill conceived actions of our politicians, no matter what their country or affiliation.

The books is excellently written, deeply researched and each region of the Indus personally visited by the author. I admire her tenacity and dedication to this project. It is a valuable book for someone wanting to know more about the East-Asian region. Alice Albinia joins the ranks of brave world travelers who suffered privations to add to the knowledge of people like us.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Inderjeet Singh Jaijee Dona Suri - The Legacy of Militancy in Punjab- Long Road to Normalcy

I lived my life in Gujarat though I am a Sikh. I returned to Delhi/Patiala/Chandigarh in 1979 after completing my schooling. I was looking for a job and reuniting with my family in Chandigarh. I was in Patiala in 1981 when newspapers were splashed all over with the killing of Lala Jagat Narain, owner of Punjab Kesri. To me that was the introduction to what would soon be known as the era of militancy in the region. There were numerous times when I held my breath when seeing blanket clad men. Militants usually traveled that way. My husband's boss and another friend were gunned down by militants. There were bomb blasts in Sector 22 market. Earlier, working at a newspaper office, I was privy to the news of Golden Temple being raided, Mrs. Indira Gandhi being gunned down. All employees of the office were pressed into attending phone calls that were flooded in. We had to parrot out the official line given to us. Militancy is history we have lived though.

Yet, reading this book was an eye-opener to me. I was perhaps aware of the official version, certainly nothing about what went on behind the scenes, how the police behaved, the number of innocents dead and how humanity could die a sudden death when faced by power hungry, money mongering individuals.

Punjab was the bread-basket of India, one of it's most prosperous states. I had the seen the sad plight of farmers in Gujarat. In comparison, Punjab looked so well to do. No more, alas. Militancy has taken its toll.

I am not the one to read non-fiction. I surprised myself by devouring the book in a single sitting. It was amazingly well written. Despite its grim topic, there are dollops of humor in it, especially while describing the shenanigans of the politicians. No one is spared the acerbic wit of the pen, not the Akalis, not the Congressis. That is the heart of the matter. Politicians who took the side of the populace did so more to snub their rivals. In the end, the sore and complete losers were the residents of Punjab and also those of India.

As a citizen of India, as a human rights believer, it is essential to read such books and try to understand the power that is vested in us as a voter.

Inderjit Singh Jaijee is a human rights campaigner and Dona Suri was a journalist and they both have impeccable credentials to author this book. All the claims made and reported have been meticulously backed with documentation.

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice

Of course this is not the first time I read Pride and Prejudice. I cannot remember how often I have read this novel. Recently I re-read Mansfield Park and Persuasion to my great delight. This book was in my Apple Books library and the one I opened on a flight I took recently. I was captivated anew by Jane Austen and her amazing story telling skills.

Mrs. Bennet's ardent wish is to see her daughters married off.  Her eldest, Jane, is twenty-three which is borderline spinsterish. Jane is beautiful and sweet tempered. The lack of marriage can only be attributed to lack of deserving candidates. When Mr. Bingley takes up residence at neighbouring Netherfield, Mrs. Bennet rejoices. Her unerring maternal instincts tell her Mr. Bingley will surely choose Jane.

Mr. Bingley brings a friend Mr. Darcy, a haughty, tall, dark and a handsome man. Jane's younger sister, Elizabeth finds herself crossing swords with this prideful, forbidding, stiff man.  Darcy is used to everyone deferring to him and is intrigued by the bright eyed, pretty, witty Elizabeth. He is deterred by Lizzie's inferior relatives. Her father is a gentleman but her mother comes from trade and some of her relatives are quite coarse. Her mother is a silly woman, as are the three sisters younger than Elizabeth. In a time when family connections mattered a lot, it was a serious drawback for a woman to have such a liability.

As this is a romance you can be assured of a happy ending. Not too soon though. There are many hurdles to be surmounted, Darcy's pride, Elizabeth's prejudice, an amorous cousin, an elopement, nasty sisters doing their best to keep lovers apart, angry aunt encroaching upon the private affairs of nephews. In short a lot of delicious episodes to be savored before the lovers kiss. That is, I suppose the lovers do kiss once the wedding is over, I believe it was called saluting the bride.

What makes a piece of literature survive for more than 200 years? I got my answers when I read the book again. This novel was written in 1813. Yet it feels fresh off the press. The language is not the kind we would use now. But how wonderful the phrases sound. How on point are the descriptive powers of Jane Austen! She describes various residences and parks so beautifully that you can see them in your mind's eye. Her language is my most favorite thing about this novel. I can read and re-read and find something new to admire each time. Her characters are all standout. The silly Mrs. Bennet, indolent Mr. Bennet, capricious Lydia, insincere Wickham, proud Darcy, sweet Jane and Bingley and above all spirited, witty, lively Elizabeth.

All lovers of Pride and Prejudice admit that Elizabeth Bennet is a marvelous character. She livens up the book with the gamut of emotions she goes through. She is dismissive of Darcy at first, then hates him. As she gets to know him more and more, she begins to love him deeply. We can only sigh in envy at the love and fortune (not to mention the dishy Mr. Darcy) that awaits her at the end of the novel.

Even though P&P is merely a romance it is not merely a romance. It is a glimpse into the way of life of the middle class gentry in Georgian England. It is a small, narrow world. But so is a painting of Houses at Auvers by Van Gogh. All we get is a bit of a sky and a house, does the narrow view of the world mar its beauty?

No. I can look at the picture for hours, contemplating the warm blues, the pretty house, the little garden. I feel restful when I look at this painting. Likewise, the pretty picture Jane Austen paints of Elizabeth Bennet and her little world is worthy of contemplation and delight.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Ann Howard Creel - The Uncertain Season

Author: Ann Howard Creel
Title: The Uncertain Season
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

When I stood on the shores of Galveston in 2013, I was clapping my eyes on the ocean after decades. I grew up in a town that was a little like Houston, only much smaller in scale. It was hot and humid and the seashore was at least an hour's drive away. Absence had made my heart fonder for the sea shore. The proximity of the ocean from the city charmed me. The sands, the rolling waves were the same as they were on the beaches of my childhood.

I have read the 1900 Galveston: Indignities series by N.E. Brown and enjoyed them immensely. I read up on the infamous 1900 storm and a book by Suzanne Morris Galveston. 

Ann Howard Creel's book was recommended to me by a Kindle newsletter that sends me a list of books that are recommended and marked down as a special deal for the day. I usually browse through the newsletter and buy the book if it looks interesting, as this one did. I used the Look Inside option  available on Amazon to get the feel of the book. This option reminds me of flipping through a few pages of a book in a library or a bookstore to see if it looked good. This method has rarely failed me.

The Uncertain Season gives us a prologue where a girl's family is lost during the 1900 storm in Galveston. She is saved thanks to the ingenuity of a fisherman her family is friends with. From the next chapter we learn about the main character, Grace Hilliard who is on her way to the railway station to pick up her cousin Etta. The girls know each other slightly, having met only once before as children. Etta is gorgeous but a poor relation. Grace is true to her name, talented, rich and graceful.  She is engaged to Jonathan, rich and handsome. Etta tries to make a foothold in this rarefied world of the Hilliards, she wants to marry a rich young man and live this luxurious life they are accustomed to.

By contrast Grace finds herself doing charity work among the poor people of the city by the side of  the Methodist Reverend Ira Price and is deeply affected by the life there. She also comes in touch with the Girl who lost her family in the 1900 storm and tries to help her.

The changes that Grace and Etta face changes their thinking and way of life. There are secrets that are uncovered and revealed dramatically which alters them forever.

We can call the book a historical romance. It is the story of Etta and Grace, girls who are related by blood but not class. All the divisions of that age, between rich and poor, colored and white are well etched.  Etta is an outsider trying to fit in, she can hold her own in a conversation with the friends of Hilliards but when they start talking about travel or opera and the art scene, she finds she cannot compete. She isn't exposed to that kind of a privilege. Hence she has to use subterfuge and mystery to augment her appeal. Grace has been so ensconced in her privileged life that when she first steps into the alleys to work with the poor she is taken aback. She has lived her life barely a mile away from the alley but never imagined anything like it.

I liked how well etched the characters were. They seem so real with their angst and anxieties. It is easy to empathize with them even when they are doing something wrong, for we understand why they do it. The story is well crafted and it was easy to read. The writing style is simple and engaging. This a little gem of a book and I am willing to read more books by this author.

I love a good romance but find it hard to find one. There are so many romance novelists who wind up being tedious, most of them are too fluffy and the story feels like flat soda. This one was full bodied and it barely even felt like a romance, it was more like a slice of life story. The best kind in my opinion.

Friday, May 17, 2019

J M Lee - The Investigation

Author: Jung Myung Lee
Title: The Investigation
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Translator: Kim Chi Young

Nearly five years ago I was introduced to Korean Series by my mother. In these years I have barely seen a handful of Hollywood movies, another handful of British ones. Hollywood AV output, movies or series, was once my staple. The majority of my watching time is now devoted to Korean series or movies.  I have discovered a new world, a new sensibility there which I am not willing to leave.

Likewise, my book reading was also majorly western. I did like a lot of Soviet authors at one time and read them avidly. Mostly it was British authors and the US ones that occupied my reading.  My love of Korean series has made me look for Korean literature as well. I loved Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, both Japanese. Now it was time to look for some Korean authors. I found the magnificent Han Kang who gives us a glimpse into human psyche without any mercy for her readers.  I found Bae Suah equally good, not for the same reasons, but for extracting beauty out of the commonplace.

And now this book! J.M. Lee has used fiction to give us the fictional biography of one of Korea's best loved poets - Yun Dong Ju. Dong Ju was born and brought up in Manchuria where his grandfather had fled to avoid famine in Korea.  Korea was annexed by Japan in Dong Ju's lifetime. He studied for a while in Korea and then went to Japan to study further. He was a poet and wanted to publish his poetry. His professor feared his poetry would be seen as seditious and urged him to give up the idea. He left a copy of his manuscript with his professor and another with his friend. Soon, he was arrested by the Japanese for working underground for Korean independence. He was lodged in Fukuoka prison. He died there after a year and a half,  just before Korea won its independence. Later, his friend published the manuscript of poems left with him.

The narrator of the book, Yuichi Watanbe is a young guard in Fukuoka prison. He is handed the investigation of the murder of a guard Sugiyama. He solves the murder, it was the work of one of the prisoners. However, he finds that things are not simple and keeps digging. In the process he comes in contact with Yun Dong Ju. They share a common love for poetry and literature but the realities of their situation is not conducive to beauty of any kind. They are on opposing sides in a war, a prisoner and a guard. This war has torn apart the victorious nation of Japan as much as the vanquished nation of Korea. The ordinary people of both sides suffer equally. The beauty and sanity of life is a victim here, not the nationality of people.

We get an in depth look into the murky life of prisoners and guards of this prison. This is the worst way in which humans treat their own kind. The greed of a few lays waste the lives of many. The murder mystery is used in a masterly fashion by J.M.Lee to expose the dirty underbelly of war to us. It is interspersed with beautiful poetry of Dong Ju, references to great masters of literature and even Opera.

As I said in my review of Han Kang's Human Acts, if this book does not make you a pacifist, nothing ever will. I have to say it again for this book as well.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Rattawut Lapcharoensap - Sightseeing

Publisher: Grove Press
Author: Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Title: Sightseeing

I have been trying to enrich my knowledge of Thailand lately. I visit my mother there yearly and wanted to expand my knowledge of all things Thai to be able to appreciate the country better. More so as I wanted to travel across the country and take in the sights. I have been reading some blogs that offer information about backpacking through the country. There are useful tips about what to pack and which medicines to carry and where to stay, apart from the usual tips about what to see.  This blog, by Nomadic Matt, curiously, even had a list of books about Thailand as a bonus.

When I was last in Thailand and visiting Ayutthya, my mother told me about the story of a king whose family drowned in a canal there. Apparently, you cannot touch a royal person. So when a boat capsized and the Queen and her children were drowning, no one would rescue them for the fear of breaking the rule of physical contact with a Royal. It was such a macabre story, that I was struck by it. My mother also talked about Anna and the King of Siam which has been made into two Hollywood movies. 

The book, Anna and the King of Siam was on the list of recommended reading by Nomadic Matt.. So was Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap with some glowing comments. I discovered Sightseeing on Scribd, which is always an incentive to get to it right away.

I was captivated by the first story, Farangs. It was about a boy whose father was an American and the mother, a Thai girl. The father stuck around with them for ten or eleven years before going back to the US. His mother now runs a hostel on a beach. The boy uses his facility with English, learned from his father, to hook farang (foreign) girls. The few pages of the story hit the spot right away. They give us a quick, by no means shallow, look at life in Thailand.

This statement is true of all seven stories in this anthology. The stories are about Thai people from the lower end of the social strata, working hard to keep body and soul together. There are young boys trying to cope with loss and grow up in At the Cage Lovely. Draft Day is about a privileged kid dodging draft and losing friendship. Sightseeing is about a woman who is on a trip before she loses her eyesight. Priscilla the Cambodian (my favorite of the lot) is about the divide between natives and the refugees. This poignant story makes a strong point about the hostility refugees face the world over. Don't Let Me Die in This Place is about an aged American man trying to adjust to a life in Thailand. Cockfighter is about a man trying to hold on his dignity, viewed by his teenaged daughter as she is trying to make sense of her life.

The stories are all beautifully written, layered, deep and striking. This, in my mind, is how every author should strive to write. This is Rattawut Lapcharoensap's debut book. He is a Thai-American writer residing in the USA. I have read another story of his on Granta, called Valets, a story about a group of valets who are working at a seedy food joint which was once the pride of Bangkok. Like Rattawut's other stories, this one lingers in your mind too.