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Category Archive for 'India'

South African author Damon Galgut’s fictionalized biography of author E. M. Forster (1879 – 1970), known as Morgan, takes a different approach from non-fictional biographies, synthesizing all the author’s research into the character of Forster and then journeying inside his mind, ultimately allowing “Forster” to tell his own story. As the openly gay Galgut asserts throughout this novel, Forster’s most significant difficulty in his personal life and in his writing seems to have been in reconciling his homosexuality with the rest of his life so that he could live and love fully on all levels. During Forster’s most prolific years as a novelist, 1908 – 1924, “minorite” activities were almost universally hidden, not just frowned upon by society, but rejected as aberrant behavior.
Strict codes of behavior governed how people interacted within various social classes, and the need to conform allowed little room for any kind of social experimentation and led to the ostracism of those who were “different.” How “minorites,” in particular, came to terms with their essential natures and were able to live within this restricted society becomes a major theme of this novel.

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In this magnificent novel of family relationships, which is also a love story and a story of betrayal on several levels, author Jhumpa Lahiri introduces four generations of one family whose history begins in their home in Tollygunge, outside of Calcutta, and then moves off in many different directions. Traveling back and forth in time, with points of view shifting among several different but interrelated characters, the novel creates an impressionistic picture of events which begin in 1967 with a political uprising, the family effects of which continue into the present. Two brothers, only fifteen months apart in age, become linchpins of the novel. Subhash, the older, more cautious brother, is far more apt to watch any action, even as a child, than his brother Udayan, the more adventuresome brother, who is always participating in the action and testing limits. As the novel expands over four generations, it revolves around the idea that “you can’t go home again,” physically or emotionally, at the same time that it also considers the ideas that we are who we are. Accepting the latter, however, is not good enough, unless we are also prepared to accept the consequences to others of our decisions to “be ourselves.” In this novel the interactions, responsibilities, and consequences are particularly fraught as the novel moves through nearly fifty years of personal and social change within one family through several generations.

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Dr. Raj Kumar, the speaker of this ambitious and often exhilarating novel, decides, ultimately, that “What holds things together is more important than what separates them,” but by the time he discovers this, he has explored the world on more levels and examined life in more detail than many other authors do in ten novels. I cannot recall a novel which has kept me reading so slowly and so happily for so long as this one did. Brimming with unusual insights, the novel remains firmly focused on life itself, not just on the speaker’s life, but on the grandest and sometimes most horrific aspects of life—socially, historically, artistically, scientifically, and even cosmically. As I read this, I was breathless, in awe of author Jaspreet Singh’s creativity, vision, and his literary execution. The speaker, Dr. Raj Kumar, has just returned to Delhi for the first time in twenty-five years. He has been a professor at Cornell, but he is now trying to understand himself and his own search for information about an event which has left him traumatized for more than two decades. Married and the father of two American children, Raj is essentially a loner, preferring isolation and solitude as he returns to India. Here he sorts through the flow of his own memories and tries to understand them and their significance in the context in which they have occurred. In the process, he also discovers that events that he knows nothing about have affected those around him in extraordinary ways. Ultimately, he must uncover the whole past if he is to understand who he really is and what his obligations are, if any, as a human being.

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If you came to this review because the title suggests that this is a romantic, even pretty, little novel of love in exotic India, then you will be shocked by what you discover here. This is a tough novel depicting what author Uday Prakash, controversial in his own country, sees as a major hurdle for India – not necessarily in the major cities so much as in the rural countryside. The economic changes in India in the 1990s have brought about a thriving middle class and a vibrant life in the cities, much of it “American style,” but those changes do not translate into similar changes in rural states, where traditional ways of life continue, including dramatic contrasts between the wealthy Brahmin class, which still controls the economic, political, and intellectual life of many areas, and the non-Brahmins who seem unable to rise, no matter how hard they try, because those very Brahmins also control most of the opportunities. A sweet love story between Rahul, a non-Brahmin student at a university in the state of Madhya Pradesh, and Anjali, the Brahmin daughter of the state minister of Public Works, provides the framework through which the author illustrates what he sees as a cultural crisis for the next generation

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Always an astute observer and subtle writer about human nature, Anita Desai is at her best here, creating a group of three novellas, each of which reveals the interplay between a main character dealing with universal issues and a second character (sometimes more) who sees the world and its values quite differently. The result is book that feels almost sacred, in the sense that it is morally serious and filled with thematically weighty stories. These stories, however, reveal subtle, unspoken lessons – neither moralistic, obvious, nor absolute. In all the novellas, the main character, approaching the end of a problem, might well conclude that what s/he wants, “[is] dead, a dead loss, a waste of time,” a statement actually made in the final novella, “The Artist of Disappearance.” For the involved reader, however, “the loss” is not the point. What the reader gains is a new appreciation of the small joys and great sorrows which fill the lives of plain people in rural India trying to find beauty and, perhaps, the fulfillment of dreams within an overwhelming reality. All the characters want to preserve something beautiful and important to them, but all must persevere against forces which consider their own goals to be more important than those of the people with whom they are dealing. Ultimately, each main character becomes an “artist of disappearance,” either physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

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