Category Archives: Fiction
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.
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.
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 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?
Solitary women and kids, in war torn areas, the theme seem to be recurring in the books that come my way these days. ‘Kamchatka,’ the Argentinian civil war from the eyes of a 10 year old boy and a board game in the background, ‘An Unnecessary Woman,‘ from Lebanon, ‘Harraga,’ the path burners from Algeria and now ‘Mister Pip’ from the fictitious tropical island of Bougainville.
Stories through the eyes of children are bittersweet. There is always a silver lining that peeps through the deep, dark clouds. Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’ is one such. The protagonist is named Matilda, no other name would have suited her better. War has closed off this tiny island from the rest of the world, last of the teachers have left. That is when Mr. Watts, the lone white man in the island, appoints himself as their teacher, the only textbook they have is Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ And the book opens out a totally new world to her, Pip becomes her closest friend.
“The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears bad people spoke like pirates.”
In the background is the daily life of a mother and a teenaged daughter, the unspoken tensions between them, the memories of a father who had left to make a living. To get on with the story, Mr. Watts acknowledges that he is no authority on anything. So he invites the elders, one by one to come and talk to the kids. Oh, the beauty of what they say,
“Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the colour blue.
‘It is surprising where the colour blue pops up,’ continued Daniel’s grandmother. ‘Look and ye shall find. You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. And you know what it is trying to do? It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them back home. If blue was an animal or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.
‘Blue also has magical powers,’ she said. ‘You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?’ “
Matilda’s mother resents the growing closeness between her daughter and the White teacher. Added to it is the fact that Mr. Watts’ wife is her childhood friend Grace, who is there, but lost to her old family and friends.
The whole village lives in fear of the soldiers or the Rambos as they are called, and the rebels who are better known as the red skins.A visit from either faction leaves behind some devastating effects. And they lose the book ‘Great Expectations’ in one of these skirmishes. What comes next is beautiful. As Mr. Watts prods the kids to remember and recreate Dickens from what they remember of their readings in the class, he is in fact teaching them to recreate a world that might otherwise have been lost, he pushes each of them to find their own voice and to take pride in it.
Books by themselves are beautiful. And when it tells us stories of books and the magical world of reading, told so well, it is as if you have found the elixir to losing one’s self to the rest of the world. There is a part in the story where a group of ‘rambos’ captures Mr.Watts. The villages turn away frightened. When they are asked to return in the middle of the night, what they find is unbelievable – a group of kids who were insufferable a few hours ago, hanging on to every word of the teacher.
“Those rambos had not heard a storytelling voice for years. The boys sat there, with their mouths and ears open to catch every word, their weapons resting on the ground in front of their bare feet like useless relics…….Three years in the jungle setting death traps for the redskins had made them dangerous, but when I saw the soft focus of their eyes by the fire, I saw faces that missed the classroom. They were practically kids themselves.”
I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, I’d rather call them connections. And it has to be one of these connections that led me to this TED talk, where the speaker mentions a similar experience with the boys of Taliban. They have held nothing but guns in their hands for as long as they could remember. But, they too long for something better, things far greater than themselves.
The story takes its twists and turns, like Matilda you try to throw the unpleasant parts into a closed space in your memory and think of the good things alone. I could go on and on about the thoughts that are spread throughout the book, the beauty of the writing and how almost each sentence brings out a smile on to your face. They say, to be a good writer, you have to be an excellent reader as well. The passionate book lover in you instantly recognizes the kindred soul in the author. As when you listen to Mr. Watts,
“But you know, Matilda, you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”
The narrative sometimes catches you by your soul, it is almost as if you are lying on the white sands, staring up at the stars twinkling far above, lost in the magical voice of Mr.Watts,
“If you watched closely you saw Mr.Watts sink into himself. You saw his eyes close, as if reaching for faraway words, faint as distant stars. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. The only other noises came from the fire, the sea murmuring, and the nightlife in the trees waking from their daytime slumber. But on hearing Mr.Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. “
You turn the last page with a sigh. Why is it that certain books leave you with such a deep yearning, striking that perfect chord with the strings of your heart? Is it the innate goodness of the characters, is it the feeling that you are left with in the end, that in spite of all the pain, you can still find hope , happiness and peace in this world? Or as in the case of this one, the ultimate conviction that a book can really change your life?
To be fair to the reader let me admit that I lost the thread somewhat as the story moved out of the island. Isn’t that the tough reality of life as well? We all find cocoons of solitude in an island that we create for ourselves. We might not get along with some of the inhabitants there, but that is alright. It is our very special magical land. And then we are forced out, sometimes catapulted out without as much as a slight warning. That is when we find our true mettle. Whether we are able to find our voice in the cacophony , whether we are strong enough to listen to it.
Verdict: Read it. A five star one, in spite of flipping through a few passages towards the end. The other parts make it totally worth it.