Category Archives: Autobiography

‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel

(Disclaimer : Even if I write page after page for weeks, it would be difficult to cover the varied emotions and thoughts that still keeps going through my mind. This is a humble attempt to prod you to take this up and read.)

Those eyes seemed to challenge me from the bookshelf for more than a year. “Come pick me up, if you dare,” she taunted each time I picked it up. Her lips curled into a cynical smile as I kept it back, once again. I pretended that I was not yet ready, that the time to listen to her story had not come, yet. For I knew, she would demand undivided attention once she started her tale. And then, when that stare became unbearable, I picked it up again and flipped it open.

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

So started a journey that I am powerless to even imagine, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, Kenya to The Netherlands and finally to that land where milk and honey flows and people, even women are allowed to speak their mind without fear and inhibitions, the US of A. Brought up mostly by her mother and grandmother, Ayaan  begins her tale in a typical Somalian village, that was yet to see the deep valley of darkness that Islam could be, to a woman. Religion was a set  tales for her, rather than a way of living. All that changes as the family is forced to move to a city, if you could call it that. Her parents are comparatively modern in their outlook, her father insists on both his daughters getting educated along with their brother. She gets her first taste of religious fanaticism, that of blindly following a tradition that is barbarous beyond belief, when her grandmother forcefully submits her and her sister to the age old custom of female circumcision. To ensure the chastity of women, the female genitalia is completely cut off, sometimes even carved out with a knife, the wound is then stitched back together, leaving a tiny hole for the ‘pee could trickle’ down – another proof of virginity. The scar that it leaves is more in her soul and intellect than in her body. And her sister’s life is forever mutilated, the emotional after effects follows her till death.

Ayaan’s early life was totally under the control of her mother, who was strong enough to marry a man of her choice, unheard of in those times and where they came from. Yet , we see Ayaan taking the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration when her father abandons them for a larger cause and a new family. She is beaten up mercilessly as her mother retracts deeper into her shell. As she learns, or is forced to learn the Holy Book, she starts questioning the tenets that is completely biased against women. For, according to her teachers, women are the cause for all evil in the world. It is no exaggeration that young girls are made to and they do indeed believe that their bodies could even make the world come to an end. At the mere sight of a woman’s ankle, men would be aroused beyond belief, trucks could collide, all work would come to a standstill. Ayaan is hushed up when she asks a question that seems very natural, “Wouldn’t women be aroused by a male body? Following that logic, shouldn’t men cover themselves up as well?”

As war ravages her home land, the family is forced to stay in Kenya, against her mother’s wishes. The questions continue to haunt her. Books are the biggest solace for her and her sister, and even the trashy ones open out a world to the two of them that they didn’t know existed. In her words,

“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. “

I will leave the years in Kenya and back in Somalia for you to read and gape in open disbelief and horror. The happiness and sense of security that she feels on the return of her father soon comes to naught as he decides the man she should marry, in true Islam tradition. She has no choice, but to agree. The chosen man is from Canada and Ayaan makes the biggest and most daring decision of her life. En route to Canada, she disappears during a stopover in Germany and finds herself in the Netherlands. The second half of the book talks about her coming of age in the free environment, surrounded by a few Dutch citizens who stands by and guides her. The deeper she delves into the teachings of The Prophet, the more she is forced to distance herself from the religion that she was born and brought up into. The more public she is about her views, the more she is hated among her refugee community and among her own people back home. The story goes on to tell us about her transformation,  how she becomes a Member of the Dutch Parliament and finally, how she is forced to leave a country that she has come to love better than her own.

A mere review is too limited a platform to cover all the emotions and thoughts that pass through one’s mind while and after reading the book. She raises some very uncomfortable questions to the so called secularists who still consider Islam a ‘peaceful’ religion in its essence. Freed of the shackles that bound her all through life, she finally denounces the religion that once defined her. The consequences can be imagined. It reaches a point where she has to be guarded even in the privacy of her bedroom following  the brutal murder of a friend, Theo van Gogh. He had to pay the price for standing by her without  compromise and showing to the world what happens behind the closed doors of a typical Muslim family, be it in Somalia, Saudi Arabia,Turkey or The Netherlands.

Even after almost a week, Ayaan refuses to leave me, and I don’t think she ever will, completely. I wonder what is it that prompted her to question the things that were accepted unequivocally by her family and friends. How she started and where she has reached now is something that is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mind. Where does she get the courage to challenge a whole religion? It is even more intriguing given the fact that it was her sister who was the rebel in their younger days. What is truly inspirational is her commitment and dedication to a cause that she believes in, that of bringing out women like her and showing them that they too have a choice, to live life the way they want to.

Many would say her views are biased. She makes no bones about it. She has seen the worst that her religion could do to her and other women. Even men, for that matter. You may not agree with her views completely. But she definitely induces you to question some of your own beliefs, irrespective of whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai. Born and brought up a staunch Catholic, I could easily relate to many a question hers. About after life, the fruits of chastity, how women were supposed to guard themselves all the time and a fierce God who was waiting to pounce upon me the moment I ‘sinned’. The definition of sin is a topic in itself.

One of the most important and relevant issues that Ayaan raises is the integration of refugees into their current country of domicile. She starts by voicing her concerns mildly on the perils of allowing a special status to refugees, especially from Muslim countries and how the basic rights of a citizen could be violated right under the authority’s noses. It takes a huge effort with solid data in place for eyes to be shocked open. Her views and opinions are as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to any other country today.

Sometime ago, there was a discussion in one of my favorite book groups on FB on the ‘one book that you would recommend to your friend.’ A friend of mine had recommended this, strongly. Now I understand why and I agree with her whole heartedly. If there is one book, every young person , especially a young woman absolutely must read, this is it. Without doubt. It forces you to question the beliefs that could even be the foundation of your very being.  It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think of what is really important to you and what should actually matter to you. It shows you how you can raise from your ashes and how a single woman can change the course of numerous lives. So many things that you take for granted suddenly falls into perspective and your soul starts questioning you, “what have you done with your life?” The answer does not come easily.

The movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life. Do watch it

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neQcqyUAhr8

Verdict : Go grab it and read!

It might leave you disturbed for life. But then , it could also make you question some of your beliefs and show you the way.

5/5

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‘Absolute Khushwant’ by Khushwant Singh and Humra Quraishi

khushwant“An old man is entitled to his secrets, fantasies, Scotch, good company,”

says the inimitable Khushwant Singh at 95. The name was a taboo in my younger days, for what he was known most for was ‘sleaze and scotch.’ Reading his articles in the occasional ‘Illustrated Weekly’ I was lucky enough to get my hands on , the title bestowed on him was difficult to believe, at times. ‘Train to Pakistan’ was the first of his books that I came across. How could this man write about something so serious was the first thought. Finished it in one go and it was after many a day that the pain subsided. The next one was ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and I was in love with this ‘notorious’ author.

‘Absolute Khushwant’ is a collection of his thoughts and experiences on writing, religion, people he admire, partition, the Delhi riots, in short, his life. The one trait that comes through is his honesty, in all areas of his life, including his unhappy marriage. Here is a sample,

“I have never taken anyone seriously, least of all myself. I have always been a nosy person, forever probing into other people’s private lives. I love to gossip and have an insatiable appetite for scandal.”

The picture that he paints elsewhere sounds contradictory as he tells us about his work ethics.

“Over the years I have discovered what enormous energy silence creates, energy that socializing and useless chit chat depletes.”

The partition and the 1984 Delhi riots left a deep impact on him and it is evident that he could never get over the pain. His concern for the religious fundamentalism had landed him in trouble , he was on top of the Khalistani hit list. Even an almost successful attempt at his life did not stop him from speaking out about what he believed in. His philosophy on life is best summarized in his own words,

” I would like to be remembered as someone who made people smile.”

Isn’t that essence of being a true human being?

Verdict – An absolutely delightful read, whether you have read him before is irrelevant. Perfect for a pleasant afternoon.

4/5

Meanwhile in December….

So, I’ve been busy boozing baking, like it was going to be deemed illegal. Oh don’t raise your eyebrows, the rate at which things are being judged  immoral, illegal , illegitimate and what not, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Supreme Court judge finds baking soda to be against the tenets of some now obscure religion, baking could indeed be banned, you know 🙂

Anyway, December was one of most hectic months that I’d seen in a long time. Baked almost fifty cakes, sold half of them and played Santa to many a friend. Kids fell ill, one after another, thankfully. Office was crazy as usual, the change over from one legal entity to another did nothing to lessen the daily madness. None of these was a deterrent to my life mantra, “Come what may, I will read.” A few that I managed to devour in the odd moments out of life as usual..

‘Open : An Autobiography’ by Andre Agassi

andreHis fate was sealed even before he was born. Andre’s father had decided his youngest , whether boy or girl, would be the world number one in Tennis. From the day he was born, tennis was all he was allowed to even think of. Hard as it is to believe, the boy grew up to hate tennis, but he didn’t or was not allowed to know any other way of life. After a spate of local wins, he was sent   to the boot camp style tennis academy in Florida where he turns into a total rebel.

The book is less about tennis and more about life, in general. How parents can build or break their kids. The terrible sense of meaninglessness and bewilderment is what young Andre seem to plod on with during his teenage and youth years. It is as if he is searching for something all along, not knowing what exactly it is that he is searching for. This is the story of how he finds the answer finally.

It is also about the guardian angels in his life – the elder brother, the friend for life, the coach and last but never the least, his trainer Gil – they are the ones that need to be mentioned above all. Andre’s life and success as we know it, were built on these pillars. But for them, the story would have  had a totally different end. This was my take away from the book – that a single person believing in you, unwavering, can alter your life for ever. And yes, the story also covers his first marriage to Brooke Shields and then the calmer and stable one with Stefanie Graf. What is most heartening about the couple is the seamless understanding that they seem to have about each other and the way in which they bring up their kids. Both of them would rather not have their kids playing tennis.

True respect for the man comes when we read about his philanthropic activities, especially the ‘Andre Agassi College Preparatory School’ The school is located in one of the most economically challenged areas of Western Las Vegas. Having not completed his education, Agassi started the school with the belief that “the best way to change a child’s life is through education.” Rated as ‘High Achieving’ within eight years, I am sure this is going to be his lasting legacy,what he would be known for in future.

Verdict – Go get it, doesn’t matter whether you like tennis or not

5/5

‘Revolutionary Road ‘ by Richard Yates

One of those classic cases where too much expectation leads you to a  deep disappointment. The book is touted as a classic and was on my reading listrevolution for quite some time. The story revolves around Frank and April Wheeler, the quitessential all American couple – Frank with a job that he is complacent about but that pays him well enough for a home in the suburbs, a wife who can afford to stay at home and the customary two kids. The characters, their behavior, what they want to and what they actually do, their conversations, everything sounded artificial. Maybe that was the point of the story, anyway, found that this was a tea that I would have thrown out half way down, but for that masochistic streak that refuses to let me close a ‘classic’ half way through 🙂

Verdict – Will not recommend to anyone…..at least until I find some hidden meaning in there

3/5 – for the style, loved that

‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ by Paul Torday

salmonThe best antidote to an exhausting month, this was a Christmas gift from a fellow book lover. Like a hot cup of sulaimani chai after a heavy lunch, this book kept me company and solace on Christmas day and the next. Simple life of ordinary people, told in a straight from the heart language have always enamored me, and this wasn’t any different.

Dr. Alfred Jones, a timid fisheries scientist, who leads life in the shadows of his intimidating investment banker wife , would never have thought how his life would change after he gets a request to head a project that sounds not just foolish, but insane. A sheikh from the arid deserts of Yemen wants to start Salmon fishing in his country. And his only back up is his belief that Allah will perform a miracle if He so wills.

The story is also a satire on English politics, or rather politics everywhere. People who have no clue about ground realities are in charge of projects, their only concern is the image that would be presented to the world. I loved the way the story was told and how Dr. Jones’ life is transformed along with the Salmon project.

Verdict – A pleasant sunny read.  If you look for goodness in people, stories splashed with subtle humor, go for it.

4/5

December must have been the only month last year where I read less than a book per week. I had taken up a challenge to read 70 books and completed about 80. On that high, have set a bar of 100 for 2014, and have also promised myself to review all 100. Wish me luck folks!