Author Archives: wanderlustathome

‘A Woman Is No Man’

Four women, three generations. Fardeen, Isra, Sarah and Deya. The first two, immigrants in Brooklyn, New York. Sarah and Deya, two generations of women born and brought up in Arab Brooklyn, forced to conform, waiting to break free.

At seventeen, Deya is forced to ‘sit with suitors.’ College is not for well brought up girls of Palestinian origin. She is torn apart between duty to her grandparents on one side and the urge to break free and be her own person on the other. She and her three younger sisters have only faint memories of their parents, who ‘died in a car accident.’ She seem to be on the brink of falling into a repeating pattern. Her mother, Isra was married off to a man almost twice her age and had to move to the land of dreams, America, almost overnight. All that Deya remembers is a mother who was almost always sad. She has some happy memories though, mostly of her mother reading aloud to her.

Isra had already followed the path of most Palestinian women, she was handed over a dose of reality by her mother before the wedding,

“Isra cleared her throat. “But Mama, what about love?”
Mama glared at her through the steam. “What about it?”
“I’ve always wanted to fall in love.”
“Fall in love? What are you saying? Did I raise a sharmouta?”
“No . . . no . . .” Isra hesitated. “But what if the suitor and I don’t love each other?”
“Love each other? What does love have to do with marriage? You think your father and I love each other?”
Isra’s eyes shifted to the ground. “I thought you must, a little.”

“Mama sighed. “Soon you’ll learn that there’s no room for love in a woman’s life. There’s only one thing you’ll need, and that’s sabr, patience.”

All that Fardeen, her mother in law wants from her is a set of grandsons. Her only respite is Sarah, her twelve year old sister in law. The spark of rebellious fire in Sarah is what sustains Isra through the few years of marriage and four daughters.

As Deya goes through the process of being shown to a prospective groom, she is also struggling to come to terms with questions that has haunted her throughout. As she is succumbing to pressure, a mysterious woman appears at their door step and drops a letter for her. What follows forces her to finally confront the truth about her parents and her own choices.

In the background is the story of women almost everywhere. Of being there for their men, cooking, cleaning, bringing up kids, toiling till the end of their lives. Especially of Arab women irrespective of where in the world they are. Being beaten up is taken in their stride. Most of them who are brought up in traditional manner cannot even find anything wrong with it. The conditioning is to believe that they must have done something to welcome it. For a man can never be wrong. And a woman can never question him because ‘a woman is no man.’

The author, Etaf Rum is Palestinian American. Having grown up in Brooklyn herself, what she must have seen around her must have been something very similar. In her interview here, she mentions how she had to write about the abuse in spite of the knowledge that she might be opening up a can of worms among her community. She was married after high school, had her daughter at eighteen and a son two years later. Maybe it is autobiographical in nature in that the feelings, the angst, the inner struggles of each woman is brought out so poignantly, at times it is gut wrenching. Our hearts go out to each of them, even Fardeena. What she has gone through is what makes her behave so, and she doesn’t even for a moment believe that this is a cycle that can be broken.

The most beautiful part of the story is the love for books shared by Isra, Sarah and then Deya. ‘Thousand and One Nights,’ ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Bell Jar,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ even ‘Dr.Seuss,’ gives them joy, solace, an escape from reality, and maybe redemption itself. The choice is theirs to make and each of them do it in their own way.

The women / girls are sure to tug at the string of your hearts which in all probability might still be roaming around between the kitchen and basement of that Brooklyn apartment.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice cream to the Sun (Book#2, 2020)

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The only resolution at the beginning of the year was to keep a tab on the books that I read in 2020. Let’s say I’ve accepted the meaninglessness of making up my mind to do something from the first of a particular year, when you could actually do that any time of the year. Reading, or keeping count of the books you read is however different. You need a timeframe and when else but the start of an year to do so. No targets, though. Will read when I feel like it and what fancies my mood and my mind.

The first one was  ‘A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea’ by Dina Nayeri. Of growing up in Iran post the coup. Of a lost twin and a disappeared mother, of love, friendship, sisterhood, motherhood. Of patriarchy, betrayal , survival.

The second one came through Twitter. The place has become a treasure trove of book recommendations of all kinds. The author, Sarah Ladipo Manyika seem to have transferred her nostalgia and longing for Lagos and Jos where she grew up, into her protagonist, Dr. Morayo.

Nigerian by birth, having lived in several places across the world with her once husband, who was a diplomat, she is soon turning seventy five. After separation, she had lived her life as an English professor and she currently resides in her rent controlled apartment in San Francisco.   She lives life on her own terms which means totally uncharacteristic of a woman of her age, or as the world would expect her to. A characteristic pirouette in the bathroom results in a broken hip and she finds herself in a rehabilitation home.

More of a novella, than a novel, the story introduces us to some of the people who walks in and out of her life. You might feel nothing much happens, but in very few words, the author takes us through the lives of a number of characters. And that exactly is the charm of this short read. Each character stays with you, who they are is brought out in very few words. And the thread that runs through each of them is the doctor who influences their life one way or the other. No one can escape her charm and no one can stop her from what she wants to do.

A thoroughly captivating read, and a character that I would love to evolve into, in real life.

‘The Weekend’ Bernhard Schlink

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A terrorist, freed from prison after almost thirty years. His sister, who has been a mother to him gathering a group of his friends from thirty years ago. A weekend in the country. In the hope that at least one of them can help him, guide him back to life.

They were an angst filled generation. Fired with anger against establishment, fascism, inequalities, injustice. Today, they are a motley group. A journalist, a vicar, a lawyer, a businessman, a teacher, having lived, loved, lost, gained. And Jorg, the terrorist.

As the weekend unfolds, questions are asked, more to themselves than others. Some secrets unveiled, some still hidden. The futility of ‘what others think,’ for some of them realize that others might not have been  thinking anything at all. That all they were afraid of all this time was maybe fear itself. Only that.

Some existential questions, and some beautiful answers from unexpected sources. A son, trying to find answers from a father that had given just given him up, forgotten him? All through this, how relationships make and break, how one’s truth could be another’s lie. Of betrayals and guilt.

Why terrorism, who is a terrorist and why, how should they be treated and what becomes of them if they are not killed in youth, would they have dreams like others, what of their family.

Also, how the realism of life overwhelms the idealism of youth, how the cycle repeats itself. How much is in our control, how much from our genes and circumstances, and whether we have any right to all to judge the other for the paths they chose, even question them.

Finally, the freedom. The peace that comes from knowing that all you can and should do is let it be.

It took me less than half a weekend. Pick it up if life, people , their thoughts, questions, relationships, expectations and conversations excite you.

And peace be with you 🙏

‘Warlight’ by Michael Ondaatje

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It is 1945. 14 year old Nathaniel and his 16 year old sister Rachel find themselves abandoned by their parents. As it is both of them were secretive about their war time work. The kids are flabbergasted by yet anoththey were told of the departure, no further details were given. The confusion turns into a sense of betrayal when they find their mother’s luggage that should have been with her, in their basement. They are left in the care of a character they call ‘The Moth’ , a strange man who had been inhabiting the upper floor of their house.

The first half of the story weaves itself around the strange characters that float in and out of their home, The Moth’s friends. The Darter, Olive, the ethnologist, the Russian woman that was Darter’s girlfriend and so on. Each of them include one or the other of the kids in their strange occupations and influence them in their growing up years one way or the other. Meanwhile, Nathaniel starts working in the kitchen of a restaurant where he strikes up a friendship with a girl called Agnes. They meet up at night in houses put up for sale, letting themselves in with keys borrowed from Agnes’s real estate agent brother. The life that has now become normal comes to an abrupt halt with an almost catastrophic event that turns fatal to one of the characters.

The second half finds us years later with Nathaniel trying to piece together the years of his uncertainty as well his mother’s life, from her childhood, youth and marriage, the war years and post that and her professional and personal relationship with the suave and enigmatic Felon Marsh. Each earlier character’s role is revealed slowly. The story ends with an extremely unexpected twist that reminds us of Julian Barnes’s ‘The Sense of an Ending’.

That Michael Ondaatje is a writer unparalleled is a given fact. He doesn’t let the reader down, yet again. Lives entwine each other, threads that were unraveled once get caught up with each other again and there is vengeance, but with a cause. Every act has a reason for the actors, but do they know the consequences fully? Once they come to know of it, are they penitent or do they accept it and go on with their lives? The ongoing thread seem to be how your acts are never left dangling in the air, that there are always after effects.

The language as expected is exquisite. It caresses you as you feel for each of the characters. And the final twist is something you would never imagine.

If you love well etched characters, a story that flows gently like a calm river (who said war stories have to be violent?) and an ending that makes you gasp at first and then accept it and go on without upsetting the applecart as Nathaniel did, do not miss it.

‘The Amazing Racist’ by Chhimi Tenduf-La

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Unassuming, charming and an excellent sense of humor , that was enough for me to fall for Chhimi Tenduf-la and pick up his collection of short stories at BLF 2017. It was a huge leap of faith for someone who seldom read short stories and probably never that of an author previously unheard of. He didn’t disappoint. In fact, I was actually blown away by the slices of life in Sri Lanka and how he connected one story to another, almost imperceptibly. That was ‘Loyal Stalkers’.

Didn’t have to think twice when I came up on this novel of his that was published in 2015 – ‘The Amazing Racist’. Set in Sri Lanka, the story revolves around Eddie Trusted, anEnglishman who landed there to teach Economics, the whirlwind, elusive beauty Renuka Rupasinghe and her terror of a father, Thilak Rupasinghe.

The story starts with Eddie waiting outside Thilak’s office door to ask his daughter’s hand in marriage. Thilak has an apparent hatred to anyone other than pure bred Sinhalese and he has no plans to forgive the English as a race who looted all his mother land’s riches. So you can guess how Eddie would have been received.

How the relationship between the father and the prospective son-in-law develops in spite of the daughter and probably because of the grand daughter is what the story is all about. Said in a poignant manner coated in generous doses of humor that makes you break out in laughter many a time, this is one book and author you shouldn’t miss. The tough exterior of a man that is used to having his way, the convenient lie that he has hidden all his life, the knowledge that it is his pride and the fear of losing his daughter’s love that has made him so, is brought out in a way that you feel nothing but love for the old rascal.

His characters are human with their own petty weaknesses, but they are not apologetic about it. There are moral dilemmas which of them faces in their own way. You understand and even empathize with all of them. It emphasizes the fact the it is not always blood that makes a family, that your race or the color of your skin have nothing to do with how you may come to care for a person. And love doesn’t always come in sweet words and gestures, it might even be disguised in veiled insults and curses.

A breezy read, I started this while waiting for an appointment at the tax service center and almost finished it by the time I was done three hours later. And then couldn’t wait to finish the last few pages after reaching home.

A heart warming, witty read, you will not regret taking this up. Made me feel good about life and the people that are a part of it.

p.s. the author is half English, studied Economics at Durham University, currently manages Elizabeth Moir school in Sri Lanka and teaches Economics there. Wonder whether there are any autobiographic elements there 🙂 

‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait Of the Writer as a Young Wife,’ Meena Kandasamy

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“Primrose Villa, with its little walled garden, its two side entrances, has the quaint air of kept secrets. It is the sort of setting that demands drama. The white and magenta bougainvillea creepers in their lush September bloom. Papaya plants, along the east wall, with their spiralling, umbrella leaves and frail trunks. A coconut tree in its advanced years, its leaves designed to frame the solitary moon at night and play an air-piano in the rain.”

Sounds like the beginning of a beautiful family saga, doesn’t it? Well, as in many an experience, first impression can be deceivingly false. But then, you already know what is coming. A book and an author who has been discussed to death. Her memoir of a marriage that was all of four months long came out two years ago, surrounded by controversies.

A writer, and a ‘feminist’ at that, putting up with an abusive husband, not walking out immediately? How could she, why didn’t she, the accusations are aplenty. But we all know, not a thing in life is as simple as that.

She writes about her search for that ‘one perfect love,’ how she almost found it in a Kerala politician, and married a professor almost twenty years her senior on the rebound. What she thought and dreamed of, from a pre marital distance was strikingly different from the reality of being a ‘married woman.’

The trauma that she went through in four months is so unbelievable that it can only be facts. For reality is always stranger than fiction. The descriptions are graphic. As to the question of why an educated, thinking girl did not walk out, that is what her story answers. And mind you, she had to face this trial by fire even if she did leave him after four months.

“In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation.
Why did she not run away?
Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape?
Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as she claims?
How much of this wasn’t really consensual?
Let me tell you a story. Not mine, this time around.
It is the story of a girl we call after the place of her birth, lacking the integrity to even utter her name. The Suryanelli Girl.
Forty-two men rape this girl, over a period of forty days.
She is sixteen years old.
The police do not investigate her case. The high court questions her character. The highest court in the land asks the inevitable. Why did she not run away? Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape? Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as she claims? How much of this wasn’t really consensual?
Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape.
The shaming is in being asked to stand to judgment.”

There are questions aplenty. Would she have walked out if the abuse was not so intensely physical? Would she have continued in hope if it was more subtle and not so visceral? And I guess we all know the answers to that.

You may or may not agree with her choices, her way of life before and after. Maybe she could have handled things differently. There is one thing that remains unquestionable. The beauty of her language, the power of her thoughts and how it seems to flow so effortlessly into words that read like a poem that speaks directly to your heart, catch you by the the throat and shake you to the core.

The life of a ‘feminist,’ a woman who thinks, who dares to have her own opinions, who has the courage to question, is not so easy, you see. As for love, no one seems to believe that even she can yearn for it.

‘All The Lives We Never Lived’ by Anuradha Roy

Wanderlust at home

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Gayathri and Myshkin. Mother and son. Freedom and love. Letting go and lingering on. I am no longer surprised at how certain books happen to jump right out of the library shelf and land into my soul. Anuradha Roy’s ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ was the latest. At a time when memoirs and thoughts of vulnerable women holds a  coveted place at my bedside, why a piece of fiction, I’d wondered. I should have known better by now.

Myshkin, a sixty something old man, reminisces about life before and after his mother. Nothing romantic or heartening as the death of a young mother that orphaned a nine year old boy. She ran away With a white man as people around him would never let him forget. The fact that the man was German never mattered, all that was important was the colour of his skin and that a young…

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How they find me

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The name of the movie came up time and again as I flipped through Netflix. A lazy Sunday evening seemed the perfect time to watch it, finally. I had found the book quite underwhelming, so did not expect much from the movie. It was a pleasant surprise to have been absolutely delighted. Meryl Streep, as phenomenal as always. The movie, you ask? Well, ‘Julia & Julie’ 🙂

The reminiscing mode switched on afterwards. If I had to take up a project for a year, what would it be? Not ready to kill myself by experimenting with a new recipe everyday when these days cooking is done in between the short intervals from work, what would be the next best option, I wondered. Maybe a recipe a week, from books I’ve read or that I will? Patting my back, I told myself, “brilliant idea!” Try it out, it’s easy. Patting yourself on the back 😉

‘Swimming Among the Stars’ by Kanishk Tharoor was a book I was looking for, but was not willing enough to buy. The library messaged, “we’ve put in hold for you, come get it.” Two birds in one shot and I was off. With Tharoor’s book in hand, I started typing the key words on the library computer – ‘food books,’ ‘books with food theme,’ ‘books on food’ and so on. Trust it to come up with this, ‘Browsings – A Year of Reading, Collecting and Living with Books,’ by Michael Dirda. The cover said, ‘Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.’ How could I not grab it?

While at the shelf, my hands went to the othe nearby, but of course! Books on books, can any book lover resist them, ever? So jumped the next one winking at me, ‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu’ in large print and ‘and their race to save the world’s most precious manuscripts,’ in small print. That went right into the bag, no prizes for guessing that.

No, I was not done yet. The ‘food’ had to be taken care of. The name M.F.K Fisher caught my eyes. I had read about her sometime ago, she was said to be a legendary food writer. Her books had eluded me and it continues to be so even now. The next best thing , I hope. ‘The Arrangemnt’ by Ashley Warlick, a novel based on Fisher’s life.

Finally, a challenge to myself for the Thanksgiving weekend, at least a couple of recipes from ‘Appetites, A Coobook,’ by none other than the Anthony Bourdain. Ambitious, aren’t I? Who knows, where it might lead me to? 😉

How do your books find you, my friends?

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

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An 18 year old Australian girl goes to Iceland on a Rotary Exchange program, hears of an execution which incidentally is the last one there, then spends ten years in research and converts it into a spellbinding story – that is Hannah Kent and her debut novel ‘Burial Rites’ for you.

Agnes Magnusdottir is awaiting execution for the murder of her former employer and his friend. The story is set in early 19th century. The execution is to happen in the area where it happened, but there are no prisons there. Jon Jonson, a regional official is forced to take her into his household for safekeeping until the deed is done. His wife Margaret and their two daughters have mixed reactions to Agnes being with them. The story unfolds mostly through Agnes narrating it to Toti, the young priest who is assigned to make her repent before her death.

Margaret has heard bits and pieces of Agnes’s story and she is rightly uncomfortable with having to put up with a murderess in her life that is already fraught with enough pain and challenges. But her innate goodness comes through right from the beginning. The background that is set is already stark with the unbearable cold and the dilapidated, grimy state of their surroundings. Even that seems mild in comparison to the state that Agnes is in. Margaret cannot ignore it even though she had decided not to have too much to do with the fallen woman.

Agnes slowly settles herself into the household silently, and she turns into a support that Margaret desperately needed. The two daughters are a contrast in characters and the way they treat Agnes. As her story unfolds, along with the reader, the family also comes to know of the why and how of what happened that night.

The maturity of the writing and the understanding of the psyche of the characters is truly commendable. What held my attention was the nuances of the underlying emotions between the women. The connect that only women seem to have, the subtle ways in which Margaret shows her support for someone who has no one else in the world and how she defends Agnes against her nosy neighbours tugs at your heart.

Agnes, like any other woman longs for stability and validation that has been denied her right from childhood when her mother leaves her when she was six. The manner in which her life turns out shows us how circumstances and people’s opinions can make or mar us. It underlines how nothing ever is stark black or white, and it is in the gray areas that we live and love.

The characters are drawn out so well that we can almost touch and feel them. It is as though you are lying in one of the beds in the room and listening to Agnes pouring her heart out to the young priest. You cry for her as she refuses to taint anyone, especially the baby that she saved the life of. And the despair and futility of it all, when finally the inevitable happens.

I don’t know why we are so amazed reading a brilliant debut novel, especially by someone young. How can one write about such emotions without going through something similar, we wonder. Then you realize, that is what brilliance is all about. That one can write so deeply about something they might not have experienced.

A must read, I would say. And totally deserving all the awards that it garnered.

 

 

The latest from my favorite author

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Eating wasps. Haven’t we all? Mistaking it for a honey bee, hoping and dreaming that it’s an eternal pot of honey that we have caught. Only to be stung, the honey turning bitter the moment it enters our mouth.

The story starts with the poet Sreelakshmi killing herself and the bone of her little finger being locked in an old cupboard by her lover Markose. After years, we find the cupboard in a resort “Near the Nila,’   the finger held tight by a little girl who is haunted by the ghosts of an ‘uncle.’

We come across them, one after another. Those that attempted to catch and eat wasps of validation. For Urvashi, it was her desirability  after fifty, for Megha, that she was lovable, for Najma, that there was life after a horrible tragedy, for Brinda, that life was all about demolishing her opponents, for Lilliana, a life after a scandal, for Molly, the act of contrition that she is trying to figure out.

There is a little bit of us in each of those women. The never ending attempt to validate ourselves, in someone or something else. As if our very existence will not be justified until someone makes a tick mark.  The ever elusive ink of approval. That we are desirable, lovable, worthy, wise, valuable. And we go in search of one chimera after another. That eternal pot of honey at the end of the rainbow. If we cannot get the whole pot, let’s at least get that honey bee. So we run after them, knowing not what they are. And getting stung.

What is endearing in these stories is what happens after the bitter bite. When they realize that it is poison that they consumed. It starts with Radha, I would say. Those of you who have read the author’s ‘Mistress’ would remember her. I did not like how the story ended, honestly. The meekness, they very ordinariness of her decision had enraged me. She stays in the background in this story. But the place is pervaded by her soul, the steely resolve in her can be felt in each stone of that place. And I love this new Radha.

The women make their own honey in spite of, or maybe because of the wasps that consumed them temporarily. Is it because all of them are contemporary, I wonder. The reach of social media, the ready availability of news from across the world makes them aware that they are not alone in this journey. Many have trodden the path that they now embark upon. They were stung too, but they just spit the poison out and continued. Not in the least bothered about their swollen lips and blue faces.

And that makes me wonder whether Sreelakshmi would have a taken a different path had she lived in these times. She made an attempt at going  on a road less travelled much before it was built. Only to fall.

The men in these stories seem to have gone scot free, left to live their lives as they wanted. But then, isn’t that too what happens time and again? Slices of life as we know it. Maybe that explains the heavy feeling that hung upon me even days after finishing the book.