Peacefully protesting violence against women, Delhi, Sunday 30th December

This post may not appear to be directly related to the raison d’etre of this blog–South Asian books—but I don’t see it that way. I am interested in feminist issues, and the protests that are happening in India at the moment should be of interest to everyone concerned about Indian society.

Today, Hamish and I went to the protests at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Since the 23 year old medical student who was gang-raped on 16th December sadly died of her injuries just a day or two ago, this weekend has seen a renewal of the protests that started last week but that had declined in recent days. Protestors have gathered for numerous reasons, and not everyone wanted the same thing: to expel their grief, to express anger at the government for the perceived lack of will to act on cases of violence against women, to call for stronger punishment, such as the death penalty, and to more generally speak out against the lack of respect for women in Indian society.  It was one of the most moving things I have ever witnessed. Despite ten central Delhi metro stations remaining closed this weekend, a couple of thousand people were at the Jantar Mantar when we were, mid-afternoon. It wasn’t easy getting to or from (unless you had a driver, of course, although there were road closures to navigate, too) but we got the metro as close as we could and walked the remaining kilometres. There was shouting, singing, clapping, sitting, candles, old and young women and men and children, the majority being students I would say, and a huge number of police, both ordinary and the riot squad. But all remained peaceful. We had some interesting and insightful conversations with other protestors. There were very few foreigners there (or who were visibly obvious as foreigners, anyway) so a lot of people assumed we were from the media, and asked which station we were with. I was sorry to disappoint them! Here are my photos. I don’t necessarily agree with all the opinions espoused. The protests were not coordinated by any one group, and there was a broad range of perspectives on offer. What was agreed upon was that violence against women in India, and everywhere, must stop. How to make this happen is contested.  Some of the best commentary on the issue comes from feminist writers, and I highly recommend the following pieces:

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/lets-ask-how-we-contribute-to-rape/article4235902.ece?homepage=true

This is Urvashi Butalia’s article in The Hindu. Urvashi is one of my feminist heroes, I love her history writing and her other work. Also, Nilanjana Roy’s blog:

http://nilanjanaroy.com/

These links represent a more measured feminist perspective, one that I largely agree with. But I wanted to share the range of perspectives I saw being emotionally expressed today. I hope some of this anger can give way to more widespread introspection, that could lead to meaningful change.

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Daryaganj Sunday book market, Delhi

Every Sunday, hundreds of thousands of books (mostly second-hand and very dusty) are sold along the main street of Daryaganj and around the corner to Asaf Ali Road, Old Delhi. The nearest metro station is Chawri Bazaar, but it’s a bit of a walk, or a fairly short auto ride, through the bazaars of Old Delhi and past the Jama Masjid from there. I had read mixed reports–Fiona Caulfied thinks the idea is better than the reality, but Ajay Jain’s Delhi 101 recommended it, as did The Dilliwallah. So I took a look for myself. As I was starting out, an over-passing bird dropped one on my head (and I don’t mean a book), so I took that as a positive sign to keep going. While there are a large number of textbooks and magazines, there was some pretty good literary fiction, too. A lot of people were taking lists around and asking the sellers if they had copies of the books they wanted. While it was no Lifeline Book Fair, the books were cheaper and the surroundings a lot more interesting. I’m especially pleased with my Hindi copy of Maximum City–I’m a long way off being able to read it competently in Hindi, but I’ll add it to my shelf for motivation to keep studying!

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A Change of Skies, Yasmine Gooneratne (1991)

A Change of Skies

Yasmine Gooneratne’s portrayal of the immigrant experience is as funny and poignantly ironic as Jhumpa Lahiri’s work on a similar topic is earnest. That is not necessarily a criticism of Lahiri’s work, but it demonstrates that not everything about the meeting and clashing of cultures need be deadly serious. A Change of Skies is the Sri Lankan-Australian academic and author’s first novel. Bharat and Navaranjini Mangala-Davasinha move to Australia from Sri Lanka in the late 1960s/early 1970s, initially temporarily, for Bharat to take up a lecturing position at Southern Cross University in Sydney. Friends and family warn them that Australia is a complete backwater, the ends of the earth, a cultural wasteland, and that soon they will be pining to return to the centre of civilisation, Sri Lanka. What was a five year stint becomes a permanent move. Bharat and Navaranjini even change their names to Barry and Jean Mundy, to fit in in Australia.

What makes Gooneratne’s style so appealing to me in this novel is that it is clear that her tongue is firmly in her cheek as she writes from both perspectives: she both mocks and praises aspects of both her adopted country and her homeland. I read A Change of Skies while leaving Australia, my own adopted home, and travelling to Asia, first Malayasia and afterwards India. It held so many parallels, perhaps inverted parallels, with my experiences of travelling to a place where social and public behaviours are different from those I have internalised. As a westerner (whatever that means, I am somewhat allergic to the term), descriptions in travel accounts of arrival in exotic Asia are all too familiar to me. I am bored of reading the clichés of the assaults on the senses that arrival in India (or China, or wherever) brings about. So Gooneratne’s inversion of this amused me. On arriving in Australia, Bharat observes, rather panicked:

“I became suddenly aware of a series of white lines that divided the road we were on into lanes. With a file of cars before and behind us, with similar files on our left and right, we seemed to speed along at an alarming rate in complete silence, the cars on our left and right now drawing level with us, now leaving us behind, now falling back, so that it seemed to me we were like racehorses all coursing onward together, separated from one another but moving with one consent towards a single goal.” (p. 58)

Just the other day I was complaining with an American woman about the incessant honking in Delhi. It’s enough to give anyone a headache, and frequently does me. But she was saying that Indian friends of hers in the US had expressed that when driving without the horn, they initially felt at risk, like other drivers wouldn’t know they were there…. Makes sense as long as all drivers do the same.

Stories of being horribly conned and ripped off in India are shared like greetings about one’s health, or the weather, between western travelers in India, and the result can often be a horrible over-defensiveness that leads to behaviour that nobody would ever consider acceptable at home, like telling a shop owner to f@#$ off when they invite you into their shop, or simply never trusting anyone and therefore missing out on kindnesses that would never occur at home (I was a couple of thousand rupees short of being able to pay in cash for something I wanted in a Kashmiri shop today, and my credit card declined–instead of me coming back later, the shop keeper told me to take my purchase and come back tomorrow to pay. I am still astonished). Again, Gooneratne’s descriptions of her characters’ return to Sri Lanka seemed to mirror my experiences at the moment. Bharat and Navaranjini are determined not to act like expats: “Expats make scenes, expats complain about the food being ‘off’ in expensive hotels, about faulty air conditioning, about the absence of toothpaste, about the dubious cleanliness of sheets, about the disgusting state of public lavatories. Expats make fools of themselves by losing their tempers. Nationals don’t do any of these things.” (p. 262) Replace “expat” with “tourist”, and you may get my point.

A charming and amusing quirk is Gooneratne’s naming of her Anglo-Australian characters after fish. As well as the main characters changing their names to Jean and Barry Mundy, Bharat/Barry’s workmates include Maude Crabbe, John Dory, Angel Fysshe, Pat Whitynge, and so on. Credit to Gooneratne, I picked up on this rather late. As well as having a comic effect, this is also a postcolonial writing back; Gooneratne explains in the Author’s Note: “For my Western characters I have used an ichthyic code modelled on what appears to have been a colonial tradition of naming natives of a colonised country after animals, vegetables, or articles of food” (p. 327).

I’m not sure how easy A Change of Skies is to get hold of these days; I noticed at least one online bookseller saying it was out of print, though I can’t confirm the accuracy of that. I picked up my copy at the legendary Canberra Lifeline Book Sale, and I strongly recommend others try to do the same.

After Love, Subhash Jaireth (2012)

After-Love

Indian-Australian geologist Subhash Jaireth’s After Love, published by Australian press Transit Lounge in 2012, is very different from much contemporary Indian writing. That is, if one could or should call this Indian writing. Jaireth is originally Punjabi, but lived in the USSR for almost a decade in the 1960s and ‘70s, and has lived in Australia since the 1980s. Set primarily in Russia and India, with Italy and Australia also making appearances, After Love is effortlessly cosmopolitan, in a way. It is not diasporic literature in the sense of Jhumpa Lahiri or Bharati Mukherjee, but neither is it really grounded in India.

Jaireth’s Russian connection is largely responsible for this uniqueness in tone, I would say. I attended Canberra’s Asia Bookroom’s discussion between the author and Claudia Hyles in November 2012. Jaireth said that as a young Punjabi student in Moscow in the 1960s, Russia seemed like a wonderful paradise: the people were friendly and welcoming, the food was cheap, cultural events were of high quality and accessible, healthcare and education were free. He touched upon the flipside of these positives—the lack of freedom of thought, speech and association, and this also features in the novel—but one got the impression that Jaireth still holds an overwhelming affection for the place he lived for so long, however changed it may now be. As Hyles commented, nine years is a lifetime.

After Love revolves around Vasu, an Indian student of architecture in Moscow, and Anna, his Russian wife. We see less of their courtship and love than we do of their lives parting. Hyles asked Jaireth about the title: should it be read as “in the pursuit of love”, or rather “once love has ceased”. The author commented that he had not considered the first meaning at all, that he had in fact meant the latter. What fills life once love has departed, love for a woman, or a place. But having read After Love, I think the former, rather more optimistic interpretation, should also be considered. Their wants and needs take them in different directions, they realise that their expectations of each other are too incompatible, but once their love for each other has dissipated, after love, they pursue love in different forms, in other avenues. Their lives are not devoid of love once their marriage ends.

Jaireth emphasised that the character of Vasu was not based upon himself, though there are some immediate parallels. Vasu was inspired by the author’s own experiences, but does not mirror them. Jaireth’s other interests also underpin much of the novel, particularly music and archaeology. It is a very rich and intricate novel, deceptively measured on the surface, but harbouring immense emotional tension and passion. I hope that this beautiful book is made available to readers outside of Australia, because it adds a unique voice and style to contemporary South Asian writing.

Five Queen’s Road, Sorayya Khan (2009)

After reviewing Sorayya Khan’s Noor several months ago, I thought Five Queen’s Road would have a tough time living up to that beautiful book. But this, too, is a wonderful novel with much sensitivity, depth of characters, and careful plot exposition and layering. Sorayya Khan has earned her place in my top three South Asian writers active at the present (along with Githa Hariharan and Anjum Hasan).

Five Queen’s Road is set in Lahore and moves between July 1947 (Partition) and 1961. Dina Lal, a Hindu resident of Lahore, refuses to leave his city when so many of his community are fleeing. Against the better judgment of his wife, he purchases Five Queen’s Road from a departing Englishman. In an attempt to protect himself and his wife from potential violence, he converts to Islam and invites a Muslim family to live at the front of the grand house. Over time, Dina Lal and his tenant, Amir Shah, fall out, and a battle of wills develops between them. As the years progress–we are not shown them in a linear manner, instead jumping back and forth in time to have the progression revealed to us bit by bit–Amir Shah’s son, Javid, studies in the US and marries a Dutch woman, Irene. It is partly through her outsider’s eyes that we explore the complex relationships between the family members, the city of Lahore, and the house at Five Queen’s Road.

For those familiar with Partition literature, Five Queen’s Road might initially be compared to Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (though I do think Khan is a more sophisticated writer) in that the family home acts as a character in its own right, used as a motif to explore ideas of belonging, separation and attachment. Five Queen’s Road is passed from an Englishman to an Indian (who became Pakistani), so could be seen as a metaphor for all sorts of things. But, Five Queen’s Road is also different, as ultimately, the house is just a material object, it is the people who are attached to the house that matter more. Dina Lal is given strict instructions by the man he buys the house from on how to care for the garden, what should be in each room, and so on, but he willfully neglects to do any of these things.

Sorayya Khan is a very clever writer. I am easily irritated by the literary technique of jumping back and forth in time, as it is often a device used purely for the sake of it, because an author thinks that it may be more interesting than a simple linear progression of plot and narrative. But, Khan does it perfectly. Details of the characters’ lives are revealed gradually, and just as I would begin to wonder if I had missed something, not quite understanding why something happened the way it did, another piece of information from another time was added, making me realise I hadn’t missed something, that it was deliberate. This narrative technique also works well because this is not necessarily a plot driven book. Things happen, and these things are very significant, but the main focus is on the characters, their relationships with one another and with the world. By switching back and forth in time we are able to see how they were shaped, as people, by external events in their lives.

As with Noor, I have struggled to isolate a passage that could capture Khan’s writing adequately. Five Queen’s Road’s beauty lies in the overall effect, and I highly recommend readers discover this for themselves.