The Living Goddess, Isabella Tree (2014)

The Living Goddess by Isabella Tree. New Delhi: Penguin, 2014. Purchased in India.
The Living Goddess by Isabella Tree. New Delhi: Penguin, 2014. Purchased in India.

Isabella Tree’s The Living Goddess narrates a fascinating and unique part of Nepali–or, more accurately, Kathmandu Valley–culture: the tradition of the Kumari, the worship of a prepubescent girl as the physical home of the female mother goddess. Despite living in Kathmandu (Patan, to be precise) I have seen or heard little of this tradition since I’ve been here. Isabella Tree’s personal history, then, of not just the Kumari of Kathmandu, but of surrounding areas (such as Patan, Bhaktapur, and other places that were perhaps once separate kingdoms or entities, but are now suburbs of Kathmandu) was an enlightening read. Tree first came to Kathmandu in the 1980s as an eighteen year old, living in a house on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, opposite the Kumari Chen, or house. She became fascinated by the tradition then, and made it her mission in subsequent visits to Kathmandu to find out more about it.

After buying my copy in Jaipur in January, I have noticed that this book has sprouted everywhere in Kathmandu, the type of book that will likely sell well among tourists. And it should, it’s an interesting book, but it did have its problems. I have written before that the contemporary re-telling of mythological or religious tales have a tendency to take a stale narrative form. Roughly every second chapter of The Living Goddess is on the religious tales and traditions of the Nepali people, of relevance to understanding the Kumari tradition. But I found myself skimming through these chapters, bored by the unimaginative style. OK, these are tales that have been told again and again, and deviation from the understood narrative could risk offending the sentiments  (god forbid that anyone should do that in India) of those belonging to the religion whose stories are being told. But I don’t see why this should be an excuse for bland telling-not-showing. Tree could have done much more with these sections of the book, considering they take up so much of it.

There was also a rather forced defense on Tree’s part of the Kumari tradition against its detractors. In the past decade or so, questions have been raised from various quarters on the dubious nature of the tradition in terms of the human rights of young girl children. Kumaris, particularly the Kathmandu Kumari, are not treated like normal children, so are often prevented from attending school and from playing and interacting with others of their age. Ex-Kumaris themselves have come out in defense of the tradition, saying that they gained much more than they lost from the experience, and do not feel that any human or child rights were violated. Assessing both sides of the debate was essential for Tree, and while some semblance of a balanced discussion is presented, she at times falls rather too easily back on the side of the defenders. This is her opinion, but I found this particularly problematic when she reiterated the empowering aspects of Hinduism on women because of the importance placed on the divine feminine forces. Such an easy equation between female worship and the actual condition of women is dangerous and usually very misleading. Take the following passage, for instance:

“The question remained as to why UN reports had included the Kumari tradition alongside the most brutal examples of child abuse and sex discrimination in the country when evidence existed suggesting that, far from constituting child abuse, the tradition actively protected and championed the rights of women and children; and that ex-Kumaris themselves supported the practice. Sloppy research must be partly to blame. Like most journalists it seems the UN reporters had also been persuaded by the prevailing rumours and had failed to examine the tradition closely, including the Newar beliefs and intentions behind it. But then, perhaps the answer was simpler than that. Perhaps no one, let alone the UN, could conceive of a tradition anywhere in the world where a little girl was genuinely worshipped as a Goddess.” (p. 229)

I don’t doubt that the UN’s research can be sloppy, or that it may have been inadequate in this case. But I (and a great many other feminists) do not equate any type of religious rituals around the worship of female deities, humans, spirits, or energies with the actual well-being of women in general. Tree seems to make this equation far too uncritically.

For anyone interested in Nepal, this is an interesting book, though certainly not the definitive one on the Kumari tradition.

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Jaipur Literature Festival 2014- Day 4

Day 4 of the JLF 2014 brought sunnier skies, meaning that sitting around outside became much more pleasant. It was also a Monday, so much of the throng had returned to Delhi (or wherever else from whence they came), making movement between venues at Diggi Palace less of a scrummage.

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(Vikram Chandra and Adrian Levy)

At every festival there are people who you’ve penciled in to see, and those who you end up listening to because you have a free hour and have managed to secure a seat. Sometimes these latter prove to be revelations, introducing you to writers not otherwise on the radar. Adrian Levy (in conversation with Vikram Chandra, whose epic Bombay gangster novel Sacred Games I am a big fan of) was one of these finds for me, not least because I had a long chat with him over dinner this same night and he proved to be a thoroughly nice man. Levy, with his partner Cathy Scott-Clark, has most recently written The Siege, a non-fiction work on the 26th November 2008 terrorist attacks in Bombay. Most of the session was spent discussing his main ‘protagonist/antagonist’ (my term, not his) David Hedley, a fascinating and complex creature. As Vikram Chandra described him, “If I had made him up and put him in one of my novels, nobody would have believed him.”

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(Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours)

My Himal Southasian colleage, Aunohita Mojumdar, appeared in the next session, ‘Elephants in the Room: India and its Neighbours’, along with representatives from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. The chair, a former Indian diplomat, opened by saying that while India might be an elephant, elephants are widely loved, gentle creatures. Aunohita rightly pointed out that they also have a tendency to crush things in their path, indiscriminately.

This afternoon was also spent at the Bookmark event for publishing professionals. As I wrote yesterday, this was industry-related, so while it was interesting and important for those in the industry, I don’t think it needs South Asia Book Blog’s special attention. Being our last evening in Jaipur, we stayed for the entertainment at Clarks Amer hotel, and I’m glad we did: the fabulous Tuarag band from Mali, Tinariwen, played for about an hour. After some lovely conversations with writers over dinner in the delegate lounge, I was sorry to be leaving the festival a day early, having to travel back to Delhi and then on to Kathmandu the next day. Despite the excellent networking opportunities for work, there were so many interesting people I didn’t get to see. Gloria Steinem! Nadeem Aslam! Robyn Davidson! But, we woke up the next day to torrential rain and thunder storms, which lasted all the way through Rajasthan and into Delhi, so in the end praised our own good foresight at calling it quits when we did.

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Jaipur Literature Festival 2014, Day 3

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I kicked off day three of the JLF, my second, with a well-attended but not oppressively crowded session called ‘Beauty and Fidelity: Texts in Translation’, featuring a Chinese-English translator (Carlos Rojas), a Hindi author (Geetanjali Shree), her English translator (Rahul Soni–also Asymptote literary journal’s India editor-at-large), a Marathi author (Sachin Kundalkar) and his English translator (Jerry Pinto). The pairing of the authors with their translators made for fruitful discussion, as did the addition of somewhat of a wildcard, Carlos Rojas.

The panel immediately discarded the topic, which summarised that old adage of translation (“that translations are like women: either beautiful, or faithful”) and, as Jerry Pinto stated, is both offensive to translators and to women. Having not heard of Marathi-language author Sachin Kundalkar, I was enticed into buying the English translation of his novel Cobalt Blue by the wit that both he and his translator, Pinto, displayed. A favourite anecdote of mine was when Kundalkar told how the Marathi and English versions of the novel have reached different audiences. The young weren’t drawn to the Marathi version, but he now gets messages from youngsters saying how much they enjoyed his book and look forward to the Marathi translation!

The second session of day 3, ‘Dispensable Nation: Afghanistan after the US Withdrawal’ (with a panel of scholars, writers and journalists specialising in Afghanistan, and moderated by William Dalrymple) was so crowded that I was sat on the ground a metre from the stage. Despite the fact that I could only see Dalrymple’s face and could barely make out any voices because of my awkward proximity to the side of the speakers, I would have endured the full session had there not been a freezing cold, foggy wind. So I went book shopping instead. Several others I spoke to after the session were disappointed that William Dalrymple tended to dominate the discussion with his war-horse stories of Afghanistan.

Being a huge fan of Urvashi Butalia, I attended her session ‘Savage Harvest’ with Navtej Sarna, the son of an eminent Punjabi author who wrote about Partition. Translation was once again pointed to as a necessary way of disseminating forgotten or ignored experiences, and the fact that Partition literature can still be discussed in such terms six and a half decades after the event shows how much more needs to be done.

In the afternoon I attended the parallel event that was being hosted this year: Bookmark, held at the nearby Narain Niwas, an effort to get publishing professionals together to talk about challenges and opportunities that the industry faces. By all appearances it was a small event this year, and attended mainly by small publishers, but the event is something that the JLF organisers will be trying to develop in future years. The discussions–from Indian and international publishers, editors, book-sellers, and so on–were more specialised and industry-focused than many of those held at the Diggi Palace, but for people with any interest in the industry it was a welcome opportunity to interact with other professionals. And the calm of the Narain Niwas grounds was more than welcome.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo (2012)

BehindBeautifulForevers
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo. New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, 2012. (Purchased in India).

It was Ramachandra Guha’s endorsement on the front of the Indian version of this book that drew my attention to it: “The best book about contemporary India, the best work of non-fiction that I have read in the past twenty-five years.” I don’t tend to take these author recommendations too seriously, as who knows what behind-the-scenes machinations go on to get endorsements from prominent writers (some truly good writers have endorsed books by Kamila Shamsie, an author who I have vowed never to read again). But this one got me interested because on the surface it didn’t appear that Katherine Boo was doing anything new in writing a book about the slums of Bombay. Such literature and reportage has almost become an industry in itself, especially post-Slumdog Millionaire, and details of plot and character, you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. So how could such a hackneyed topic have caught Guha’s attention?

Boo’s extraordinary writing. This is a work of non-fiction, but it doesn’t read like it. The author enters the heads of the characters, understands their motivations and speaks their words. This could all read as creative license, and indeed I thought it was, until I read the astonishing author’s note at the back of the book: Boo did extensive fieldwork in Annawadi, the slum that is the setting for the book, recording hundreds of hours of interviews, visiting and revisiting her subjects in order to clarify details, employing a translator, gaining access to court records. The kind of research that only very dedicated and inspired writers can pull off (and that should put those like Ned Beauman to shame, who recently, at the NCell Nepal Literature Festival in Kathmandu, admitted that he loved the internet as a writer’s resource because writers like himself, “who couldn’t be bothered”, didn’t have to actually go to the places they were writing about.)

Boo follows the lives of several families in a small section of Annawadi, a slum situated next to Mumbai airport, over the course of a couple of years. I give nothing away in saying that the pivotal event (that happens early on) is the burning-to-death of a Muslim convert woman, over a neighbourhood dispute, and the ruination of a neighbouring family in being implicated in it. Even before I understood how much research had gone into this book, I inherently believed Boo’s portrayal of surroundings as accurate:

“And here at Cooper [government hospital], where fluorescent lights buzzed like horseflies, she continued to feel like a person who counted. Though the small burn ward stank of fetid gauze, it was a fine place compared to the general wards, where many patients lay on the floor. She was sharing a room with only one other woman, whose husband swore he hadn’t lit the fateful match. She had her first foam mattress, now sopping with urine. She had a plastic tube in her nostrils, attached to nothing. She had an IV bag with a used syringe sticking out of it, since the nurse said it was a waste to use a fresh syringe every time. She had a rusty metal contraption over her torso, to keep the stained sheet from sticking to her skin. But of all the new experiences Fatima was having in the burn ward, the most unexpected was the stream of respectable female visitors from Annawadi.” (pp. 99-100)

The sequence of events that follows Fatima’s death illustrates the fragility of the ability to make one’s living in the slums; the corruption and degradation that is an everyday fact of life; the ability of the desperate to keep on living when they have to. Despite ‘hope’ featuring in the title, I didn’t feel that there was very much of it here, unless it can be considered hopeful that life continues, no matter what.

Boo’s writing is what makes this book so brilliant. She has a novelist’s ability to follow characters and plot, and a poet’s sense of language. For instance: “He often presided over his lavender-walled, lavender-furnished living room in an undershirt, legs barely covered by his lungi, while his petitioners flopsweated in polyester suits.” (p. 21) I have often been dumfounded by Indian lads in their top-to-toe shiny polyester in the heat, and now have a new word with which to describe them: flopsweaty.

And the title? I had assumed it was a reference to Bollywood movies. That this book would document what happened once the cameras stopped rolling, once the beautiful happy-ever-afters were screened and everyone went home. But happy-ever-after isn’t a common trope of Bollywood movies, whereas tragedy is, perhaps more fitting for this book. Nevertheless, I was wrong, the reference isn’t to this at all. A “beautiful forever” is a particular wall in Annawadi, keeping some things out, others in; perhaps a more fitting metaphor for the lives retold in this book.