Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Book ReviewI was quite taken by the conversation Terry Gross was having with a Pakistani author on Fresh Air on NPR. His composed and very sensible views made me listen more closely. And that is how I picked up Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.

Characters: Set in an unnamed city (resembling Lahore in Pakistan), the story is about two main, very dissimilar characters, a young man Saeed- who lives in a very close knit family with his parents and who has a strong spiritual side, and Nadia – a young woman who has left her family to live on her own (terms) and who is not particularly religious. They develop a friendship that leads them to be together for a large part of the novel. Interestingly, Nadia always wears a long flowing black robe covering her body from neck to toe that might make her seem religious/ traditional, but she has very independent ideas about living and loving and sexual freedom, which only  goes to make a point that despite ‘conservative’ appearances, people could actually be different/ modern/ progressive in their thinking.

Storyline: The ‘normal’ things like surfing the net or freedom of movement or being able to hang out in restaurants or listening to music- things we take for granted- begin to get obstructed in Saeed and Nadia’s city by extremist militant activities, causing increasing bombings and destruction and killings and curfews. After Saeed’s mother is killed, he and Nadia, like many others in their city, decide to flee their country, reluctantly leaving behind his father who is firm on living (and dying) where his late wife’s memories still lived. The father making his son leave for the latter’s safety, knowing well that he might never see him again and agony of the son leaving his father in peril must describe only mildly the pain of refugees and, to some extent, of the immigrants.

This migration happens through these “magical doors” that are opening here and there around the world, as the reader gathers from short independent scenes from other countries interjecting within the main story. What it also does is it expands the canvas and context of the story from two characters to “everywhere”. Hamid used these “magical doors” to simplify the logistics of movement, ‘a relatively minor thing’, compared to the major issues of what makes people leave their country where they have belonged their entire lives, and what happens when they find themselves in another country among the natives. Saeed and Nadia secretly buy access to one such door through an agent. Against the ever changing backdrop of life with large groups of other refugees in foreign lands they go to, of meagre resources, and of hostility and conflict with the natives, Saeed and Nadia’s relationship also morphs in a way that I thought was very realistic.

Dystopia: The story is set in our present world with internet and smart phones and such, juxtaposed with the elements of wars and unrest in most parts of the world causing migration of large populations, the refugee crisis that develops as a result of such masses taking over other stabler regions /countries of the world, and the hardships of such an existence. It reminded me of the dystopian novels I had read, those cautionary tales set in some future time. But wait a minute! Terrorist activities and wars in vulnerable parts of the world and refugee crisis and hostility towards immigrants – it is all happening now. Are we actually living in a dystopian world? This thought was so unsettling!

Narrative: The flow of the novel is beautiful, and sentences long, as if building a crescendo. Some of the insights and sentences in the book are remarkable and make you think. Besides, it is relatively a short read. (230 pages paperback). I gave it four starts on my Goodreads.

Quotes:

“..an old woman who had lived in the same house her entire life…she had never moved, and she barely recognized the town that existed outside her property…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we cant help it.
We are all migrants through time.”

“He prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents… and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.”

“…for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”

“Thus in the end their relationship did in some senses come to resemble that of siblings, in that friendship was its strongest element, and unlike many passions, theirs managed to cool slowly, without curdling into its reverse, anger, except intermittently… that if they had but waited and watched their relationship would have flowered again, and so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”

Book Review: A Man Called Ove

img_0709Intrigued by all the hype, I downloaded  the book on Overdrive (the great app that lets you borrow books online-all you need is a Library Card). I was finishing up other books and somehow could read just a few and it got auto-returned in 3 weeks. As I placed another hold to get the book back, I downloaded the audiobook from Hoopla as well. Part book and part audiobook, I eventually did finish A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

The story: is set in Sweden. It is about a 59-year old (though the character actually sounds more like a 70-ish) fastidious and grouchy man called Ove (oo-veh) who has just lost his job to someone of the younger tech savvy generation, and lost his wife of several years, to cancer. He is an old-school, black-and-white kind of guy, who lives to follow rules. A handyman who loves to use his tools, he believes very firmly that Saab made the best cars on earth. The other characters in the story are Ove’s neighbors, including a young Iranian immigrant, Parvaneh, who is pregnant mother of two little girls,  the old couple Rune and Anita, a few other neighbors, and a stray cat. Ove tries to commit suicide (to join his departed wife) several times, but some matter concerning either a neighbor or someone breaking a rule or the stray cat keep him from his matter-of-fact important project of dying successfully. Interjected with backstories from his childhood and about his late wife Sonja, the main story develops with Ove’s increased interaction and involvement with his neighbors and their lives in a series of tragic-comic events.

Good things about the book:
Backman’s has a peculiar way of bringing out humor that Ove’s strong opinions evoke. And that runs throughout the book. Ove, in spite of appearing to be angry with his “rule-breaking” neighbors (and the whole world in general), has a soft heart. How this lonely aging man develops a bond with the two little neighbor girls (like a grandfather to them) is very endearing (As a side-note, and this is as funny as it is cultural, but in India, we address almost all elders or elderly- including those we don’t know, like the vegetable vendors or shop keepers- as either uncle/aunty or grandpa/grandma: less alienating and giving respect that comes with age). However, the most important aspect, I think, that makes this book so popular, despite it not being particularly “exciting” or “deep”, is that it gives the reader a sense of community and togetherness, especially when (or because) it seems to be waning so swiftly from our lives. I digress- but since the time of cavemen, the human race increased its odds of survival against the stronger wild predators and elements of Nature being in groups and communities. It is so basic to our evolution and must be part of our DNA. That the readers all over the world who loved it and felt so good about these basic qualities bears testimony it.

If it is a simple story that is a relatively light read, A Man Called Ove is also funny, feel-good and very heartwarming. As I progressed towards the final chapters, warm tears were streaming down my cheeks and it just felt so good at the same time (I seem to love shedding tears watching movies or reading, and strangely not at all ashamed of it).

So I’d say, give the book a shot.
Check out: the Movie Trailer here, and the entire audiobook here (not sure how long before its taken down!)

SOME QUOTES:

To love someone is like moving into a house,” Sonja used to say. “At first you fall in love in everything new, you wonder every morning that this is one’s own, as if they are afraid that someone will suddenly come tumbling through the door and say that there has been a serious mistake and that it simply was not meant to would live so fine. But as the years go by, the facade worn, the wood cracks here and there, and you start to love this house not so much for all the ways it is perfect in that for all the ways it is not. You become familiar with all its nooks and crannies. How to avoid that the key gets stuck in the lock if it is cold outside. Which floorboards have some give when you step on them, and exactly how to open the doors for them not to creak. That’s it, all the little secrets that make it your home

Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for the living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.”

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (Book 1)

Outlander by Diana Gibaldon
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

What a disservice this book has done. As I read, I was far removed from my daily life and the chores, much to the silent consternation of my family members; Outlander had swept me off my feet!

This is the first book in a series of eight books (so far, and counting) by Diana Gabaldon. It is 1945 and the World War II has just ended. Claire, a combat nurse, accidentally goes back in time, two hundred years in the past to 1743, and there begins the adventure. She encounters few McKenzie clansmen in kilts speaking with Scottish Gaelic dialect, who, suspecting her to be an English spy, take her along to Castle Leoch. There, she tries to heal patients with whatever amenities and herbs she is able to get. Amidst family politics, clan rivalry and the Jacobite rebellion, develops Claire’s relationship with Jamie. Their fierce and impassioned love in the thick of continual danger, constant insecurity and looming fear only gets stronger, and keeps the book together. Their love and dedication to one another is one of the things so wonderful about the story. As they are displaced hither and yon, one witnesses the loyalty and valor of friends who come to their rescue from time to time. Set in the pristine Scottish Highlands, the book is replete with rich imagery of the terrain and the flora, with detailed description of plants, trees and birds.

The Scottish Highlands. Outlander.
The Scottish Highlands

I had almost fallen off my bed seeing the page count of my ebook: three times of a ‘regular’ sized book. How was I ever going to finish it? (Besides, there is this Goodreads Reading Challenge 2017 I signed up for, you see.) I finished the book in not more than 4 days, staying up very late, getting up in the wee hours, and reading while waiting in the car! It was worth the while. It is amusing to see life in those times, simpler of course, but certainly not as convenient as today; our commonplace comforts in the 21st century are manifold over those of the richest of the rich of that time. The valor displayed by people in wars and combats made me shudder. The book is so long and detailed that one starts dwelling in that time, living life along side the characters. And since it is a series, the characters and their stories create for us a universe, not unlike the Harry Potter series of books. Having completed the book, I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Book # 2 is on my list.

Note of the TV series: I saw the first episode (because it was free on Starz), partly out of curiosity, and partly due to my longing to dwell more into the book. It is quite well made, the show, left to itself. But I would not want to watch it just yet, as the characters I created in my mind reading the book still linger, with obscure faces notwithstanding, that are close to my heart. I would not want to spoil the aftertaste while it lasts.

 A beautiful, intense and a memorable book.

Book Review: Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet – Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health
Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet: Indian Traditions in Beauty and Health

On a chilly winter evening, sitting by the fireplace bundled in my cozy throw and having hot chocolate or something, listening to the stories and secrets from times gone by… This is exactly how I felt reading through the book.

Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet is a fictional memoir of an Indian Princess of her time and traditions in the royal household, written by Sharada Dwivedi and Shalini Devi Holkar. The book is replete with household remedies for health and beauty from either the kitchen or the garden, rather than the store bought jars and bottles. With the backdrop of her childhood in Rajasthan, her marriage, moving to husbands royal home in Hyderabad and her journey spanning seven decades of her life, the Princess describes all the health and beauty traditions handed down from generation to generation.

A Young Maharashtrian Bride
A Young Maharashtrian Bride

Did you ever have the urge to time travel? I always did, to travel in the past. To see the people and understand their life and lifestyle, their customs and beliefs, the wisdom that got lost with time. I’ve always been curious to know how we’ve evolved in our ways and values as a society. I have vivid visuals from the conversations as a child with my grandmother of her time as a child bride, her mothers home and then that of her husbands, her lifestyle and all the interesting stories. I have always wanted to know more about the culture of the Indian subcontinent that is as old as the hills. And  about Ayurveda. Oh – and how to be beautiful.

Maharani Indira Raje Holkar of Indore (A.L. Syed: 170 K.V. Talcherkar)
Maharani Indira Raje Holkar of Indore
(A.L. Syed: 170 K.V. Talcherkar)

As you read through each beauty formula in this book, you become one with this ‘beautifying’ process and certainly are inspired to try some out. I thought it had a similar effect that you get after shopping for clothes or cosmetics: it makes you feel beautiful. The princess also talks about the importance of saleekha (an Urdu word meaning balance and moderation, neither too much nor too little) that is expected of the palace women. Reading through such a desirable image of women makes you want to be like one, balanced, respectable, dignified and delightful.

After the massage (by Raja Ravi Verma)
After the massage
(by Raja Ravi Verma)

The long baths and head bath rituals in the zenana (secluded women quarters) are explained in engaging detail and exude sheer luxury- one of my many favorite parts in the book! After their long headbath they’d lay “... stretched out in the sunlight after the shampoo, their hair spread over a basket of herb incense smoke, lazily watching the parrots in the mango trees and laughing at some silly joke. That sort of vision makes me long to be young again, close to the earth and closer to other women. Somehow in those days we were all sisters in these simple pursuits. That was a very sweet comfort” I like the idea of women having the time to groom and feel good about themselves without rushing through it.

Young girls playing chaupat, precursor to Ludo (Hemlata Jain: Raja Deen Dayal)
Young girls playing chaupat, precursor to Ludo
(Hemlata Jain: Raja Deen Dayal)

Today, I am not sure why, but we seem to rush all the time; everything is a means to some distant or unknown end. We miss living the moment, which, I feel, these women did much more than we do. And they also got so much ‘girl-time’ and had the sisterly bonding, which is priceless!

The mention of flowers, the smells, the clear ponds, the changing seasons brings forth a myriad emotions and evokes memories you might or might not know you had. A passing mention of Kalidas’ Ritusamhara in the book brings forth such a beatific picture:

The temptress, Mohini (Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)
The temptress, Mohini
(Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)

One of our renowned poets, the famous Kalidasa, who lived in the fourth century, has written a poem on the seasons called Ritusamhara “Garland of the Seasons,” which expresses the rhythm and the joy of our seasons, passing from the heat to the cool of the monsoons, from the rains to the blessings of winter. He describes it all through lovely courtesans. Robed in transparent muslin in the heat of summer, they smear their breasts with sandal paste and their hair with light perfumes. Wearing flower garlands around their necks, they fan themselves with fans moistened in sandalwood water and swim in cool lakes full of lotus blossoms. Lac dye shines on the soles of their feet and jewels cold to the touch adorn their bodies.”

Enjoying the fragrance of the outdoors (Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)
Enjoying the fragrance of the outdoors
(Farooq Issa, Phillips Antiques: Postcards)

For me, this book also took me back to my childhood days as I remember using the same shikakai and other herbs like Ritha, nagarmotha, orange peels etc. that my grandmother used to have powdered for the women of the house to wash hair with. I have used chickpea paste (besan) and other household ingredients as a skin scrub and cleanser. We used to make the spiced tea in our household to cure sore throat, using turmeric (haldi), holy basil (tulsi), peppercorn etc.

'Paandaans' and 'supari' cutters (Suresh Cordo)
‘Paandaans’ and ‘supari’ cutters
(Suresh Cordo)

Its a book by women, of women and for women for the most part. If you will let it, the imagery the words create will, along with the actual vintage photographs, paintings, postcards, zoom you back in time. And the sensuous indulgences described will delightfully keep you there, as time itself would seem to have become still, waiting on you. I have felt the comfort of finding the ‘me’ that lived back in time. A cut and dry account of beauty and health regimen would made a book quite informative, but quite boring all the same, had it not displayed the camaraderie, the belongingness and the love behind it that these women enjoyed, which was an integral part of their lives.

Personally, I find the book is a keepsake of sorts.

Women bathing (B. D. Garga)
Women bathing (B. D. Garga)

Book Review: The Hindi-Bindi Club

Hindi BindiFor the longest time, I have not read fiction. One sunny afternoon, I find a book that my brother shipped thinking I’d enjoy reading: The Hindi-Bindi Club by second generation Indian-American Monica Pradhan.

This book is about 3 women from India settled in the United States, and about each of their daughters. The way the book is written, each character speaks for herself.

There is Saroj Chawla from Punjab who is a great cook and runs a catering business. Her daughter is Preity, the Miss Perfect, as viewed by one and all. The other character is Meenal Deshpande who hails from Maharashtra. She is more philosophical than others and has learnt from the experiences she had to deal with. Her daughter is Kiran, a physician and a divorcee in her early thirties who comes across as smart and stubborn. And then its Uma Basu, a Bengali scholar and professor. Her daughter is Rani, a wild child growing up but now an artiste.

From the eyes of these three mothers and daughters, you get to experience their wonder years growing up, their challenges with motherhood/daughterhood in a foreign country and all the gossip of what the girls call “The Hindi-Bindi Club”. As I read on, at different points, I could identify with some, the goosebumps, the nostalgia. And above all laughed and laughed at the humor! Saroj has her roots in the cosmopolitan Lahore, a part of India before the horrifying Partition, to become a part of Pakistan. With the character, you go back to the days half a century back with the description of the beautiful city, the festivals, the cheer, the Basant (Spring) in Lahore. Its poetic. Reminded me of the old Hindi movies. Meenal represents the typical and realistic Marathi woman and her life as a girl in Mumbai. The Mumbai rains, the paper boats, the street food, the beach etc. Uma is from Kolkata – the city of so many shades and contrasts. She is an intellectual, has a tough past, how she deals with it and her triumphs, her perspective towards life- its all is very inspiring.

Then there is the second generation of the daughters and their lives and challenges. Thus, it is a seamless patchwork of old and new Bollywood movies into a spectacular melange; now who wouldn’t like that! The book is very entertaining and brings that warm and fuzzy feeling. Its one of those I didn’t want to end. I highly recommend it to women, especially women from the Indian subcontinent settled abroad. They can most identify with it. I will be surprised if no one makes a cross-over movie out of it.

The best part is, each chapter is followed by a recipe. That is a real treat in more ways than one! I actually tried out a few!

My last word: A delightful book that is a must read! 🙂