Year of Reading Women

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(Bookmarks by Joanna Walsh)

2014 has been designated the Year of Reading Women on a couple of fronts: Critical Flame journal has designated 2014 a year in which they will only read and publish in women writers and writers of colour; Joanna Walsh has started the #readwomen2014 campaign.

I am probably in an opposite situation to many readers out there: for the four years that my PhD lasted, I read books almost exclusively by Indian women (apart from a few scholarly books), so when I’d done with the PhD I promised myself that I would read a bit more broadly, including plenty of men!

But I’m aware that the literary and publishing establishment the world over still favours men, white men at that. Not always deliberately or consciously, but nevertheless (statistically speaking, anyway) books by women authors receive less attention than books by male authors.

Unlike the Critical Flame journal who got the ball rolling, and some other readers and bloggers out there, I’m not going to pledge to read more female authors of colour this year, because I really do think I read plenty–ie, the majority of what I read. But I read a good piece on the Arabic Literature (in English) blog recommending a book by an Arab woman author for every month of the year, as a way in for those readers who perhaps don’t know where to start.

So here are my recommendations for South Asian women’s books to read this year:

January: Manjushree Thapa’s The Tutor of History. I’m not of the opinion that women should always write exclusively about women, as even feminists of some persuasion do. Thapa writes cleverly and humorously about the political and social turmoil of contemporary Nepal, showing that women writers can have enormous breadth of experience and imagination.

February: Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man/Cracking India. This Pakistani author’s fictionalised account of her experiences during the Partition of India in 1947 is published under two different titles. It is a brutal account of the horrors of communalism.

March: Anjum Hasan, Lunatic in My Head. This young author from India’s Northeastearn Meghalaya state wittily brings together small town and metropolitan India.

April: Mahasweta Devi, Breast Stories. You can’t go wrong with anything by Mahasweta Devi, but this powerful collection from the fierce Bengali author is a good place to start.

May: Yasmine Gooneratne, A Change of Skies. This Sri Lankan-Australian author wrote about the immigrant experience before Jhumpa Lahiri et al made it fashionable (one could even say passe…)

June: Sorayya Khan, Noor. Khan was one of, if not the first Pakistani English-language novelist to address (West) Pakistan’s crimes in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971.

July: Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day or Baumgartner’s Bombay. This prolific Indian author has many short novels to her credit, and has been nominated for the Booker Prize several times, though she has never won. Her daughter, Kiran Desai, won the Booker in 2006 though, with The Inheritance of Loss. Many consider the mother the better writer, and these two suggestions, amongst her best loved, are good places to start.

August: Githa Hariharan, When Dreams Travel. Hariharan is also a prolific author, with many good novels. This recommendation is a retelling of the classic Thousand and One Nights.

September: Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. The only work of non-fiction to make this list, Butalia’s work of oral history is a stunning and groundbreaking work of feminist oral history.

October: Qurratulain Hyder, My Temples, Too. This Urdu-language Indian author translated her novels into English herself, which many critics say altered them enormously in the process. Several of her novels are sprawling histories, but the English translation of her first novel, My Temples, Too, about India’s Independence, is quite accessible.

November: Meena Kandasamy, Ms Militancy. The only collection of poetry to make this list (I don’t read much poetry), Kandasamy’s fierce anti-caste and anti-patriarchy poems live up to the collection’s name.

December: Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. If there’s one novel by a South Asian woman that the wider world is likely to have read, it is this Booker Prize winner. If you haven’t already, you can still fit it in in December!

Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil (2012)

The week my PhD scholarship ran out I thought I’d buy something memorable (but affordable) with my last pay cheque. I was expecting something along the lines of Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and would have been quite happy with that, as I love those books. But Narcopolis was something a bit different.

Bombay grunge fiction is becoming a sub-genre in its own right. Fair enough, it’s a rather grungy city, though I do love it. Writers on Bombay have commented that it is a character in its own right, that it is impossible to just set a story or a novel there, that it must be given an existence of its own. I don’t think Thayil quite achieved this in Narcopolis, though it seems that this may have been his aim, in naming his book what he did. The city itself doesn’t really have much pull over the characters, it is just the backdrop for events–references to Colaba, the Haji Ali mosque, and so on.

I couldn’t quite get into Narcopolis, though I do not want to claim it’s a bad book, it’s just completely contrary to my personal tastes. There was something unpleasantly masculine about it. Novels revolving around drug addicts do have a tendency to alienate me, but it was more than that- the constant sexual violence was also very off-putting. I am not making the mistake of conflating Thayil’s personality with the personas he depicted, and I do think he is a good writer. I just didn’t like the story, the themes, or the characters. Reading this book was a bit like watching Pulp Fiction, and I don’t like that film. It just gives me the creeps.

Narcopolis has been short listed for this year’s Booker Prize. I can see the connections between this and The White Tiger, though they are very different books, and I’m not sure I like the implications. Are these novels really the best of contemporary Indian fiction in English? I am doubtful. But, perhaps they’re not looking for ‘best’, but interesting, off-beat. Narcopolis is certainly that.

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)

The White Tiger grew on me. I started out vociferously disliking it, for all the reasons I had pre-determined I would dislike it. Indeed, I dislike the premise of this book, and its success, more than the book itself. I don’t want this to just turn into another argument about why a Booker-prize winning book shouldn’t have been given that award because they tend to be tedious (though, seriously, if Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy couldn’t win it then The White Tiger shouldn’t have even been longlisted!). So I shall start by stating my (admittedly, largely extra-literary) problems with it, before discussing it’s good points because it is, ultimately, an enjoyable novel. Would I have given it the Booker? Absolutely not. Now that that is out of the way, I will move on.

When I did my PhD research in India in early 2010, when this book was still being talked about in the literary circles I was interacting with, a lot of people expressed that it was not a well-loved book in India. One author told me her son had vociferously rejected it, without having read it, saying “Why would I want to read about servants murdering their employers?! Why would I want to be afraid every time I get in the car!?” She believed this was a common sentiment, but didn’t approve of it herself, recognising that the huge gap between rich and poor in India is something that the middle classes should be facing up to. The White Tiger provides one way, if one should so happen be able to leave one’s house on a daily basis with one’s eyes metaphorically shut.

But I am not a middle class Indian, I am a middle class “westerner” (whatever that is). And I find it distasteful at best, and disgusting, at worst, that periodically our society (again, whatever that is) finds some “third world” emblem to hold up as the epitome of what is wrong with some other part of the world that is not us. Sometimes this is accompanied by some mild anguished chest beating about how we could do more to help them, and then it is quickly forgotten. (Anyone seen anything about Kony 2012 in the last couple of weeks?) Poverty, inequality and exploitation exist everywhere, all the time, and I find it nauseating that such an emblem is required to get people to remember that. Sometimes those emblems, and the attendant “recognition” that they bring to the first world consumers, act in place of any real action (which, fundamentally, would be a complete overhaul of our neo-liberal capitalist society, but that’s another article again…)

And I had presumed that The White Tiger was just another one. Which it is, a bit. But, like Slumdog Millionaire (another such emblem) it’s also quite enjoyable. The premise is already known. The “white tiger”, Balram, is an ignorant village lad from “the darkness” who lands a job as a driver in Delhi. He’s quite a nice young man, exploited by his boss but always willing to do his best, until things go too far. He pre-meditates the murder of his boss, escapes, and sets up a successful business in Bangalore. I haven’t just given anything away, as all this is known from the beginning, and it is the humour of Balram’s exegesis that is the real strength of The White Tiger. Including one of my favourite types of humour, that directed towards silly western tourists in India (oh yes, I have been one, but not this kind, I like to tell myself!):

“every day thousands of foreigners fly into my country for enlightenment. They go to the Himalayas, or to Benaras, or to Bodh Gaya. They get into weird poses of yoga, smoke hashish, shag a sadhu or two, and think they’re getting enlightened. Ha! If it is enlightenment you have come to India for, you people, forget the Ganga–forget the ashrams–go straight to the Natioanl Zoo in the heart of New Delhi.” (p. 275)

But the humour always gives way to something else, the darkness:

“Delhi is the capital of not one but two countries–two Indias. The Light and the Darkness both flow in to Delhi. Gurgaon, where Mr Ashok lived, is the bright, modern end of the city, and this place, Old Delhi, is the other end. Full of things that the modern world forgot all about–rickshaws, old stone buildings, and Muslims.” (p. 251)

So, after all this, do I recommend The White Tiger? Yes, I do, to Indians and non-Indians. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that by reading this book and gaining enlightenment, anything will change.