Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Anisul Hoque : Freedom's Mother

This story is more of a panegyric tribute to ideal heroes  than a modern novel.  There is no complexity - no character development -  no ambivalence.

Azad was a young participant in the Bangladesh War of Independence.who was arrested, tortured, and killed by the Pakistani army. Sofia Begum was his mother who never accepted or recovered from his disappearance.  She mourned him every day of the fourteen years she had left to live.

It's not hard to see Azad as a Romantic young fool, too immature to take even the simplest precautions as he enters into the life of an urban terrorist.   It's not hard to see his mother as a foolish old woman too proud to reimagine a new life for herself after her husband takes a second wife -- and then later --- after her son is killed.  All she can do is gradually sell off her jewelry and cook for her family and friends. Someone needed to tell her son that he was on a path to destruction -- and it was not going to be her. His father might have intervened - but she firmly rejecting having him back in their lives - despite his  repeated entreaty.

A reviewer, Robert Hutchison (is he the writer of popular books on Christianity?), tells us that "by her strength of character and incredibly dignity, Safia Begum offers an example for us all".  Sadly, this may have been the message that Anisul Hoque wished to convey,  bit this is the death-cult world of orthodox Islam.  Everybody's honor is preserved - but their lives, along with many others,  are lost.  In the end, the world is no better off - just more of same.

One might also note that the characters are apparently oblivious to the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and 300,000 to 500,000 people killed. Apparently honor was not involved.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Hanif Kureishi : The Last Word

Thomas Rowlandson

"He had completed his work, which was to inform people that Mamoon had counted for something as an artist, that he'd been a writer, a maker of worlds, a teller of important truths, and that this was a way of changing things , of living well, and of creating freedom"

I do admire the above words - the very last words in this novel.

They refer to Henry, the character who has been writing a biography of Mamoon, a controversial  English/Pakistani writer who's as famous as Salman Rushdie.  Henry's task - given to him by his editor - was to write something sensational about the old man's sexual behavior that the general public would like to read. As it turns out, Henry's current sexual escapades are even more prolific.  Women have always found him as irresistible as a box of chocolates - and he has no interest in settling down with any of them.

Unfortunately, we don't get to read anything by Mamoon, only Kureishi, and his story of Henry does not seem to reveal any important truths - other than that some writers work hard and enjoy sex.

Many of the chapters seem to have been dashed off in record speeds. As a critic in Guardian wrote:
"Kureishi's output is so erratic that the reader can sometimes only assume that he has been intermittently coshed on the head, dragged from his writing desk and replaced by an enthusiastic but untutored impostor"

I liked how every character is capable of surprising behavior - but it did get tiresome keeping track of it all. 

Henry ends up living with a girlfriend who has no back story.  She was casually introduced as a colleague of his editor - and then, whoops, suddenly she's in bed with the main character.

I suppose the point of it all is that South Asian Muslim intellectuals, like Mamoon and Kureishi, are both thrilled and baffled by the sexual freedom of English women.

On reflection, it might be noted that Mamoon, famous as he was, was never seen to engage with peers - only service staff, sexual partners, and people who wrote about him. A rather lonely way to end a long and allegedly productive life. 

Monday, January 09, 2017

Tahmima Anam: Bones of Grace


I'm not sure how this book would read outside the context of the entire trilogy, beginning with "A Golden Age".  Set in the Bangladesh War of Independence, it introduced the fiercely loyal,  tender, ruthless, and occasionally  vindictive grandmother.  Her daughter becomes the central character of the next installment,  "The Good Muslim".  As the title may suggest, it's a screed against the violence, hypocrisy, and misogyny of orthodox Islam. That woman's adopted daughter,  Zubaida, becomes the central character of the third installment,  "The Bones of Grace".

Like the author herself,  Zubaida was born after the war, got a PhD in science from Harvard, never moved back to Bangladesh, and eventually became a writer of fiction.  She is the first character in the trilogy to narrate her own story.  Her similarity to the author has allowed this book to be far more intimate, informed, and compelling than the first two.

This story is told as a letter to an American boyfriend, the quite brief but still great love of her life.  Like all the other males in the trilogy, he is a shallow, cardboard puppet.  But he is probably how both Zubaida and Tahmima would view me, if I were the one she had met at the Shostakovich piano recital in Boston.  Or, at least, that's how I  hope they would see (and smell) me: as a tall, handsome,  healthy, blue-eyed, bright, somewhat lost young man of the northern climates.  (I'm not so young any more -- so I've got to imagine myself forty years ago).

Zubaida/Tahmima is my dream lover: exotic, passionate, and brilliantly creative and insightful.  She's also hopelessly self centered - inadvertently hurting everyone with whom she comes in contact. Everyone is collateral damage in her obsession with finding her unfindable self.  (But that's OK with me --  I don't have to live with her.)

This novel is disappointing in the way that so many television mysteries can be.  The puzzle is set slowly and beautifully -- while the resolution is fast and incredulous.

Yet so many of the mise-en-scenes are wonderful- as the narrator's voice takes us through a dialogue between two characters as well as between the narrator herself and the distant boyfriend to whom she is telling the story. Incidental details of landscape, social conventions, and furnishings are to be treasured.  (I loved her mother-in-law's four sofas)

My favorite scene may be the moment when Zubaida asks her adoptive mother for more details of her birth mother, while  beginning to reveal her estrangement from her more-than-perfect husband.  They are sitting at a trendy cafĂ© (Zubaida's choice). The food is burnt, her mother begins to tear up, throws some cash on the table and walks out, not turning to see whether her daughter will follow or not - as the waiter follows to collect the balance of the tab.

Zubaida is crazy.  The story ends on a happy note: enough bone fragments of her beloved walking-whale have been shipped to her paleontology department at Harvard for her to share them with colleagues. But the end-middle-beginning  structure of the novel shows us a mind in perpetual perseveration.   The violence, crimes, and trauma of each generation have been handed down to the next, just as it was in one of the world's first great trilogies: the Orestaia.

As the object of her paleontological study, the walking-whale Ambulocetus, would suggest, Zubaida, like the author, is an awkward,  transitional  life-form:  part traditional South Asian Muslim woman -- part modern, international,  academic elite.  Though told from that secular POV, the old-school characters don't come off all that badly.  Even the mother-in-law -- who appears to Zubaida as a rich-bitch -- actually has had more of a positive impact on people's lives than her prodigal critic has ever had.  Her wealthy family is actively involved in a  growing third-world economy -- whereas Zubaida is passive and ineffective as either scientist or  social critic.  (her project to help the ship scrappers is casually abandoned). Her abandoned husband, by contrast,  is saint-like in his toleration and devotion to her.  His only crime being that he will not adopt Zubaida's long lost neice (whom, as it turns out, Zubaida can't live with either)

This story does not suggest to me that Ambulocetus was better off losing his legs and living in the deep. Though it's true that if Zubaida and the author who created her had remained embedded in South Asian society, I would not have had so much fun reading about them.

As it turns out, the above discussion omits two of the outstanding features of the narrative: the once luxurious ocean liner, "Grace" as mentioned in the book's title -- and the bleak descriptions of life among the underclass of Bangladesh.

In contrast to Ambulocetus who moves from land to sea - the Grace is an ocean going vessel that has been pulled up on the beach to be dismantled and salvaged.   It's size and state of disrepair stimulates the reader's imagination with catastrophic images of  magnificent  ruin.  I Google-earthed a  map of coastal Bangladesh -- and indeed satellite images do display quite a few great ships pulled up on shore.

The men who cut down those hulking wrecks risk their lives and  are paid pennies a day -- most of which is then taken from them for rent and food.  It's the worst kind of exploitation -- though if entrepreneurs had not created those jobs by buying the old ships, what other options would those men have had?

One of the other thrills of this narrative is the story told  by one of those men, Anwar, the most complete and complex male character is the entire trilogy. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

JAYAKANTHAN : A Man, A House, A World

This is a curious story.  It's not driven by a dramatic conflict -- but the consequences of dramas are everywhere.

An unusually gentle, spaced-out young man  returns to the village that his adopted father
had left thirty years before to claim the family home.  His father's younger brother has been taking care of his older brother's property - but has left the home untouched, allowing it to disintegrate in the tropical environment.  He does not want to disrespectfully act as if his brother would never return. He is more than happy that a nephew has appeared to restore it.

All of the story's  drama happened in the past -- when the older brother's  wife ran off with a low-caste barber -- and the older brother himself ran away to avoid disgracing his family name.  He had been a very successful young agri-business man -- but his life is out-of-whack ever after.  He joins the army - and later works for the railway.  He never remarries - but co-habits with the Anglo  widow of his best army friend with whom a adopts an abandoned infant.  The infant is given an English name, Henry, and he will grow up to become the gentle fellow at the center of the story.

Tangentially, other stories streak past, like comets across the sky.  Henry meets a neighbor, a young school teacher, whose wife recently left him.  She would not accept the dominant role that her husband's older sister played in the household. (both parents in the family had suddenly died and the older sister had effectively acted as his mother). Henry also meets a  young woman who wears no clothes and does not talk.  He names her "baby" and takes her home where his neighbors clothe, feed, and care for her. And Henry also meets the village elder who approves his claim on his adoptive father's home, and who later is arrested for intoxication.  Deeply ashamed, he hangs himself.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ayaan Hirsi Ali : Infidel


As I learned from a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, at it's root Islam is violent and totalitarian.  And just for making that observation, or any other criticism, one would be marked for death by the prophet himself.   That's why Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been a fugitive from Islamic justice for over a decade.

In our Christian culture, we think of religion as more true and pure at the root than at the branches. In Islam, as in Judaism,  the reverse appears to be the case.  There are mystical  or syncretic variations of Islam that are quite appealing.  But the moment that Mohammad became a warlord as well as prophet, cruelty and hypocrisy were incorporated into religious practice, and have been there ever since.

Recent American interventions not withstanding, it's not  America's job to secular humanize Muslim societies.  They've got to do it themselves.

But harboring refugees (like my forebears)  and then letting them speak their mind is a find American tradition, and in the marketplace of ideas, the only way to defend the Islamic treatment of women is to kill or threaten those who  criticize it.

So I'm proud that Ayaan has ended up being an American - though it's too bad she has ended up as a spokesperson for an aggressive, right wing, pro-Israel foreign policy.

For me, this book primarily serves as a window into the Somali clans and the Dutch political parties, representing the contrasting social structures of pastoral and modern Western civilization.

It was remarkable that our heroine  could receive support from distant relatives all over the world. In my family, kinship does not extend beyond  first-cousins - and even then it can be problematic. But  Somalis recognize kinship relationships that go back at least ten generations.

It was also remarkable that our heroine could be elected to the Dutch Parliament within a few years of becoming a citizen -- thanks to an electoral system where voters choose parties rather than candidates. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Raymond Chandler: The Little Sister

Thought I'd take a break from inscrutable South Asian literature for a while, but this pulp fiction from the '40's in America was even more difficult to comprehend.

I could make no sense of any of the conversations.  I suspected that the hero, Marlowe, was figuring out the case and making wise cracks - but I could never figure out how he knew what he knew and why he was said what he said.

He appears to be a deeply depressed loser with a Quixotic sense of doing good deeds but no capacity to help anyone, including himself.

Everyone in the story is either cynical or criminal -- and the physical world he  describes is dismal.

"The corridor had a smell of old carpet and furniture oil and had the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives"

It's not surprising that the author was known to be alcoholic.

His only achievement is staying alive -- which, I suppose, is remarkable considering how often he blunders into dangerous situations.

But the unrelenting doom is occasionally interrupted by charming metaphors:

"She has a low lingering voice with a sort of moist caress in it like a damp bath towel."

And some beat-poetic descriptions:

"I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper, hard-eyed car hops. The gritty counters and the sweaty greasy kitchens that could have poisoned a toad"

And this three-page ode to the sensation of being drugged:

"Then it wasn't Napoleon's tomb any more. It was a raft on a swell. There was a man on it. I'd seen him somewhere. Nice fellow. We'd got on fine. I started towards him and hit a wall with my shoulder. That spun me around. I started clawing for something to hold on to. There was nothing but the carpet. How did I get down there? No use asking. It's a secret. Every time you ask a question they just push the floor in your face. Okay, I started to crawl along the carpet. I was on what formerly had been my hands and knees. No sensation proved it. I crawled towards a dark wooden wall. Or it could have been black marble. Napoleon's tomb again. What did I ever do to Napoleon? What for should he keep shoving his tomb at me"

By the way, Chandler's Marlowe is quite different from the Marlowe enacted by James Garner in the film adaptation.   Garner made him light hearted, happy, and pleased with himself.

The original Marlowe was periodically cautioning himself to "stay human"

Tale of an Anklet

This ancient Tamil epic is just about as weird as the South Asian anklet pictured above. (recently seen at a special exhibit at the Art Institute)

Such anklets served as portable safe deposit boxes -- where a woman could carry her valuable gem stones with her at all times.

In this story, the woman, reunited with her wayward husband, takes the anklet to a jeweler to get the contents appraised so she can raise some cash.  The jeweler turns out to be dishonest - the husband is accused of theft and  executed on the spot by order of the king. Upon the subsequent proof of  his innocence, the king dies of shame and the woman, in her fury, rips off her own breast and throws it in air -- where it explodes into a firestorm that destroys the entire city.

If the  execution of the husband was a great injustice that demanded retribution -- what about the slaughter of an entire city's innocent population? 

Yes -- it's a whacky story -- and it gets even whackier -- and bloodier -- when a neighboring kingdom recognizes the woman as a goddess and wages a protracted military campaign to obtain blocks of stone suitable for statues in her honor.

The final episodes of this epic are tedious accounts of pointless battles.

But the  first episodes are drenched with sub-tropical sensuality, as you get the feeling that all of nature is copulating, or about to.

Here is a passage, selected at random from the opening verses:

The lake of sweet waters seemed a woman,
The swan's elegant gait, her walk,
The redolent water lilies dripping with honey,
Her fragrance. The lotus, her red lips.
The cool, black sand, her thick hair.
To the notiram raga of bees singing
With the voices of poets, the lake opened
Her eyes of radiant blue lotuses

Friday, March 04, 2016

Swami Nikhilananda: Vivekananda: A Biography

To complement my reading of a seclular Bengali intellectual , I've now turned to Chicago's most famous Bengali Swami, Vivekananda, who visited the city in the late19th Century to attend the Parliament of World Religions.  He was recently commemorated by a display of colored lights  on the main staircase at the Art Institute.

That visit - as well as the story of Vivekanada's life - is rather fascinating.

His unique capacity to address a Western audience comes from his initial interest in European culture as cultivated by the educational institutions of  the British Raj.  He liked science - he liked European philosophy and literature.  But then he met a celebrated Hindu mystic,  Ramakrishna, and the two became strongly connected to each other.  The  mystic saw Vivekananda as a re-incarnation of  divinity - while Vivekananda  felt the truth of the mystic's spiritual authority and his ability to "see God".

He arrived in Chicago without credentials - without  any kind of institutional authority - and without much money.  But by shear force of personality, he was invited to address the assembly - and when he did - they came to their feet and applauded.  Subsequently, he attracted a coterie of well-to-do American and English followers who would establish religious organizations that endure to this day.

His primary message was "non dualism" -- the idea that God, or Brahma, is not apart from his creation -- though some enlightened individuals are more aware of it than others.  But  two possibly contradictory intentions seem to have driven him.  On the one hand, he felt called to improve the lot of the great masses of poor Indian people. How can a person pray if he is starving?  On the other hand, nothing can be more important than personal spiritual enlightenment, and he felt that more strongly toward the end of his short life, as he focused his devotions on the great and terrible Mother, Kali.

His approach to scholarship was also conflicted.  On the one hand, he taught his  followers to carefully study sacred Hindu literature.  On the other hand, he acknowledged that many paths lead to God - including the Christian and Islamic.

Unfortunately, the biographer is himself a Swami in the Ramakriskna-Vivekananda tradition - so there's no critical distance between the writer and his subject.  Did Vivekananda ever actually do anything to uplift the masses?  And isn't "masses" a European concept that might not be well applied to Indian society? What is the legacy of his scholarship?  How do monks that followed him compare with monks of other Hindu gurus?  Have his followers had any impact on the development of a  new civil society  before and after Partition? Have they actively helped integrate the lowest castes into the rest of society?  Or - like their master eventually did - have they primary dedicated their lives to personal enlightenment?  Like their master - have they scorned their own flesh and consequently died young ?