Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Leela's Book- Alice Albinia: review

While it describes the journey of Leela, the protagonist from New York to Delhi, it traces the lives of two families to be joined in marriage, and links them up in ways which are quite alarming. It is quite clear from the beginning that the father of the groom is enamoured by Leela, the aunt-by-marriage to the bride. What is the connection between Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi and Leela- after all Ved Vyasa was married to Leela's sister till she died. The plot includes the driver-servant love story, where the servant is raped by the brides father, the steamy love affair between the groom and the brides brother, the brides sisters marriage to a Muslim boy and being thrown out as a result (progressive, mind you, he asks his wife not to cover her head) and the brides father's own thwarted political and social ambitions. It is too convoluted and the connection with Ved Vyasa and Ganesha of Mahabharata is far fetched and somehow woven into the tale. But the characters are fun to know, and they stay with you for some days after finishing the book.

Alice Albinia is the author of Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River (2008) which won a Somerset Maugham Award, the Dolman Travel Prize, and the Jerwood/Royal Society of Literature Special Prize for non-fiction. Alice read English Literature at Cambridge University and South Asian history at SOAS. In between, she lived for two years, in Delhi, working as an editor and journalist with the Centre for Science and Environment, Biblio: A Review of Books, Outlook Traveller and various other Indian newspapers and magazines.
(From her blog

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Baani: Winner of Elle Fiction Awards 2011 (3rd)

February 2002
As a girl of nine, the last thing on my mind was the waif who suddenly appeared in our house and in the periphery of my consciousness. ‘Appeared’, for she was more an apparition, a shadow crouching among shadows. Light made her uncomfortable; cringe even, as did attention. And it suited me fine, for there were a zillion things to do, rather than notice the wiry, skeletal figure, almost half my size.
A new maid had joined, brought in by the cook- the latest in the throng of helping hands in our colossal house of four floors- and this was her daughter. She was in charge of sweeping, replacing the old lady who had just left.
The girl was hardly visible and never heard; she seemed to have found her favorite nook at a corner of the family room, where she settled as soon as her mother came in to work, and stayed till they left. My mother would try to coax her out with food but they would wrap up their lunch rotis and carry it back, for she also had a brother with whom they would share the food. They would come again in the evening and after her work mother and daughter would take away their dinner. We never heard the child say a word, even to her mother.
In late winter, the sun starts to get some of its power back, but not quite; it is a time when the still short afternoons can be spent lolling on the terrace, amongst drying boris¹ on pristine white sheets, orange peels for home made ubtaans, maturing lemon achaar in humungous glass boyem²-s, and the drying hair of mother and aunt. Their backs turned to the suns feeble rays they would be peeling fresh oranges, and talking nineteen to the dozen with each other.
This afternoon though, as I tried to sneak out some of the achaar from one of the cloth covered jars, no one seemed to notice. Surprised, I paid a little more attention to the group and their conversation. Kanan, our cook was the one speaking as she combed my mother’s hair, in almost hushed tones, an impossibility for her. This made me curious enough to sidle up to my mother and sit with obvious disinterest to my environment, stuffing my mouth with the sweet-tangy orange slices my mother cleaned of their white threads and handed me.
Kanan was talking about the new maid, ‘Baani-r Ma’, they called her, in the fashion of lower class villagers, Baani’s Mother, for that was the waifs name. She was eight, her brother, who I had not yet seen, Goutam, was seven, and the family of three lived with their aunt, temporarily, for it seemed they had just reached this place, having run away from Bangladesh.
“Udbastu” my aunt’s conspiratorial whisper was quite loud, “refugee”, “they infiltrate the border, bribing the men there and will come in whenever they want; criminals”.
“Hush”, said my mother, “she could be right here”.
“We should not keep her in the house. We will start losing stuff soon; you mark my words, chhoto³”.
“Kanan, why did they flee? And why come here when they could easily have gone to Calcutta. There would be more work there. And what about her husband, she wears sindoor.”
“Ive heard the husband is still in Bangladesh. They have land there and a house”
“They all have lands and houses there”
“So, whatever it is, he is still there, and they ran off, or I hear, they had to escape. They have come here to Chandannagar because her sister lives here. You would know her. She works as a cook in the Doctor Babu house. Her name is Purnima. That is how I came to know of her and brought her here to work for you, boudi⁴”
“Bamun?” my mother quipped. “Brahmin” For the Doctors family was Banerjee, and a Brahmin house, would only employ Brahmin cooks.
“Of a sort” Sniffed our cook, “Haldar; not a bona fide Brahmin like me”
February 2002
Baani-r Ma would come to sweep the room when I would still be in bed, half awake, and my mother, fresh from her bath would be lighting aggarbattis or placing flowers at the small cubicle in the wall which held her gods. The day after the terrace discussion, my mother was finishing with her pooja when the maid came in. My mother, circling her hands with the smoking incense sticks and placing them on the holder, amidst the tinkling of her bangles was asking her where she was staying.
“At my sister’s”, she said, with the peculiar accent of some regions of Bangladesh with its particular stress on ‘s’ as if their delicate tongue could not hold the more harsh ‘cchh’ of this land. “But, soto boudi, I cant stay there for long. Her husband does not approve. As it is we sleep on the verandah. The weather is still cold. Goutam is a strong one but Baani always has the sniffles since we have come.”
“What made you come here Baani-r Ma”
My mother had a reputation of kindness and philanthropy, especially among servants and this one would have heard of it, for she was already keeping the broom aside and squatting on the floor.
“Boudi, may my worst enemies not face what I have faced. I used to be soto bou⁵ of a household too, boudi, just like you. Our house was not as big as yours, but it was a two storied home, with a pond, a small aadi lakshmi temple and land where we grew sugarcane, along with betel nut and coconut trees. Banana trees grew in groves on all sides, and we had mango, kathal and guava trees too.
My father had moved to India back in the 70s and settled here, where my sister married. But he married me into their family, linked through business, because they were the richest in the village of Deutala Bazaar. They had many businesses, they ferried produce from the land to other villages and haats⁶ by boats. We had 2 boats of our own, one for each son in the family. My father in law was an illustrious man, a patriot, and part of the village elders committee.
We had braved wars, Boudi, and were part of the country, our country. People around us, other Hindus, left family by family, one by one. I wanted to leave too, my father kept asking us to come, but my husband would not go against his father, who always said, “This land is our Ma. I can trace back ten generations at least in this very village. I’m not going anywhere”
Then the boys came. Mere teenagers went door to door in the remaining Hindu families, maybe 30 in all, threatening us to leave or else. The elections were due the next month, in October, and there was tension in the air. That was the first year we did not have Durga Pooja in the village. But the temple was generations old, and the Lakshmi Pooja had to be done.
We sorted what we could and the only thing left was the sugarcane for the pooja. My unmarried sister in law said she would go out and get a few stalks. She and Baani, excitedly chattering, went out into the sugarcane fields behind the house. That was the last we saw of her. She was only 20. I don’t know what my daughter witnessed. When she came back running she was screaming, “Tene niye gelo, O Ma ore tene niye gelo.” They have taken her, mother, they have dragged her away. Then they came with the sticks and da-s⁷. They broke into the temple and ransacked it, damaged the statue beyond repair. My father in law tried to reason with them, stop them. They dragged him out and hacked him and hacked him… we saw it. She saw it. She hasn’t spoken since.
We left that night with my brother in law and his family. I would not stay there one more day with my children but my husband stayed back. It was hopeless trying to save the land or the house, and the last rites had to be completed in his father’s beloved land, he had to trace his sister. We came to Dhaka but the few relatives there made it clear they could not risk their lives for us. They lived in mortal fear themselves. Some had taken false names, Parveen, Mahjabeen; married women had stopped wearing sindoor.
We left along with some others, and crossed over to Badalpur, the border village. We had to pay a lot of money, Boudi. My gold is all gone. I’m left with nothing. My brother in law’s family travelled to Calcutta to try and find work. I came to the only place I knew, my father’s house, now my sisters and her husbands. We travelled like cattle, on lorries, or goods trains, we walked miles.
I have heard from my husband once in the last two months. I don’t even know if he is alive.”
March 2002
The days went by. I started noticing Baani with more attention now. I was horrified even imagining what she would have been through, what she had seen. I made it my personal mission to cajole her to talk, to smile even. She was just a year younger than me. I gave her my old school books; she took them from me with bowed head, kept them beside her, treated them with god-like respect, but took no further interest in them. I cannot say that I wasn’t a little disappointed with her lack of responsiveness to my efforts. Her eyes always held a vacant faraway look, and the goddess of smiles seemed to have deserted her forever.
She also never gained in health. My mother was concerned, in her own way, which was no white-man’s-burden like mine. She fed her, gave her my old clothes; the girl accepted the daily glass of milk with gratitude on her face, and she wore my clothes which always hung from her bony shoulders like from a hanger. But if anything, she looked sicker with every passing day.
They changed their home to a one room shack, with a broken tin roof, further into marshy land, for even in 2002, there were areas which were unlivable in Hugli district, which were given out to the ones who could afford nothing else. Goutam started going to a corporation school, but Baani would not. She stayed in her corner, morning and evening.
June 2002
A new academic year in June drowned me in hectic schedules of a new course, homework and projects. I still tried reaching out to Baani but I saw her rarely. She had started staying back in their shack, cooking and cleaning for the family as her mother took more and more work to make ends meet.
One development was that we managed to pass on our phone number to Baani’s father, and he called once a week. It was quite hopeless with the land or his sister, he said, he was being hounded almost every day to leave, and he had had to go into hiding in Dhaka for some time too. They were just waiting for him to go so they could take over the land, and if he didn’t leave soon, he would most certainly be killed. He would be joining them very soon.
The call would come every Friday, exactly at noon, when the streets and the payphone in Deutala Bazaar would be deserted. The family of three would be by the phone, and Baani’s eyes would shine when her father spoke to her, but she didn’t ever speak back, and only when she heard her father would be joining them, something resembling a smile seemed to cross her face.
July 2002
The rains started early.
As is wont, every morning, school time would be rain time in Bengal monsoons. And everyday Baani’s mother would come sloshed in mud, knee deep. Their tin roof leaked, their mud floor seeped water. The pond next to their shack overflowed and submerged everything surrounding their home. She asked my mother for some money to buy a wooden charpoy, something to save their bedding which was always damp now. She was ashamed to state the conditions they were living in.
“Where is Baani”, my mother asked one day.
“She is always sick, Boudi. Sneezing one day, coughing one day, body ache another. It’s the damp. It gives her fever.”
“You cant leave her in that snake pit of yours, Baani-r ma. Get her here. You can stay in the outhouse till the rains subside.”
But they would not come. They would not live on anyone’s charity. She took the money my mother pressed on her for a doctor, though. But the medicines were not helping.
“The neemonia is in her mind, Boudi. It is as if she wants to fade away from this world” She said in tears, “She relives that day all the time. I see it in her eyes. She screams inside all the time.”
“Take her to a hospital in Calcutta, Baani-r ma. Don’t worry about expenses”
“Let her father come, Boudi, he will take her. Soon.”
A few days later we were rained in. It had poured non stop for two days and the water had reached the top stair of our main door. The maid had not come in three days but this day she arrived in a state. Their home was waterlogged, she said. Baani was very ill. She was raging with fever. For days she had been delirious, screaming in her sleep all night, finally speaking, calling her lost aunt, and her murdered grandfather, slipping in and out of consciousness. Now she was not responding at all.
“Go home right now and bring her here. We are calling Doctor Banerjee. And here, take rickshaw fare. Don’t make her walk.” My mother was screaming.
She did take a rickshaw back, but she came with Baani prone in her arms. She laid the girl very gently down on the verandah. Her face was mud streaked, and they were drenched through, hair streaming, sopping wet. She was eerily calm.
“Boudi, can you check, I don’t think we need the doctor anymore“
Doctor Uncle left, shaking his head. There would not even be a death certificate. They were Bangladeshi-s. In this country they were state less; rather, they simply did not exist.
No one remembered it was Friday till the phone rang exactly at mid day. Baani’s mother stared as the phone’s urgent ringing echoed through the house. In a low voice she started keening, rocking her body to and fro, as finally tears mixed and ran with the rain water coursing in tiny rivulets down her face.

1. Bori: Sun dried in cone shapes, mix of paste of pulses and spices, used for savoury dishes.
2. Boyem: Large ceramic or glass jars traditionally used to store pickles
3. Chhoto: Small, in this case younger sibling or sister in law
4. Boudi: Sister in law
5. Soto Bou: In the particular dialect, Chhoto Bou or Younger Bride
6. Haat: Weekly market, held in villages and towns
7. Da: Sharp weapon, usually used to hack crops in fields

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Death Clubs

What a waste. With the death of Amy Winehouse, the list of prodigy musicians who died at 27 climbed by one more. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison. Drugs, alcohol, rock and roll! But have you heard 'Back in Black'! In my top 5, any day.

When I turned 30 I finally reached the age when Sylvia Plath had died. But the fact that she left her son, a mere toddler in the room, went to the kitchen and put her head in the gas oven, took away the legitimacy of a troubled poet dying young! My shock ultimately turned to conviction when that son grew up and killed himself. Imagine living with that picture in your mind!

Did you know Jesus was 33 when he died? That's how old I am now. And i can tell you lot of famous people died at 33. Sanjay Gandhi for one. Eva Peron. Eva Cassidy. John Belushi.

And Im still to reach Diana and Marilyn Monroe's infamous 36.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Storm in a gender teacup

Welcome Storm, he, umm, she, umm, well, no one really knows so they call Sotrm she/he.

Kathy Witterick, 38, and David Stocker, 39, a Candian couple has decided to keep the sex of their newborn third child a secret from the whole world. Only they and the siblings will know, as they themselves put it "what is between their legs". They feel that gender creates restrictions which would damage and constrict children. Theirs is a "tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place? ...)."

Very unlikely that the "world" would see any revolutionary progression in the next 50 years. The change is probably more evolutionary. My mother wore sarees and was confined to college and home by the time she was 16. Even a movie had to be watched in secret. Boyfriends were taboo. My mothers mother died for want of a kidney. She refused treatment, not taking the medicines meant for her. They say she died of a broken heart when her youngest daughter would not end an affair. My other grandmother baulked when our fridge was bought, when we were just kids, saying, that my dad should not spoil us, just in case we dont get the same luxuries in our in laws house.

My generation has seen a different world. In my economic class, girls mostly have been given equal opportunities as boys. Even though I have been reminded again and again by aunties sundry and even by my mother what "good" girls do as opposed to "bad" girls.

I know I wont create girl- boy issues with my daughter. But somehow I also happen to dress my daughter in androgynous fashion. She is mistaken for a boy often among strangers. I dislike her girlie traits, she loves wearing bangles at the age of 4, and screams at very small things... but I dont discourage her. Maybe she is learning it from her girl friends in school. But she will absorb everything and retain what her nature allows her to retain. Thats fine with me. I will be the eternal tomboy mum with a girlie girl daughter!! EEEEK.

Isnt the key term "choice". Storms parents have decided to have Storm decide what she/he wants to be when the time comes- girl or boy. Thats too progressive, even by my standards, but what if my daughter said one day (aint gonna happen, given her present behavior, but just hypothetically)- I am a man trapped in a womans body. What am I supposed to do. I will really really mourn the loss of my beautiful daughter, but maybe I will celebrate the birth of a son. Who knows. I sometimes wonder what is left to shock our generation of parents with. Free love, drugs, hippiehood, fast cars- The Baby Boomers have been there, done that. Drugs, homosexuality, raining money, sex change, rock stardom- we have done it all. What else is left for them to do? In 10-15 years we will know.

Till then, let us continue our experiments with gender, freedom, hope and not judge... we are all our parents children and every generation of parents have to make their own mistakes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Flying cattle class: Or, Why I am afraid to travel on low cost airlines anymore

Shashi Tharoor is a genius. His (in)famous train ride spawned one of the most expressive words of this generation. Its not even the aam aadmi, its a subset. And such an apt one too. Now, I have travelled from my childhood on buses, trains, trams, metro and graduated to planes when I started working and could pay my way.

Once upon a time, long long ago, when I was studying in Manipal, my family and I took the Air India flight from Kolkata to Bangalore. We were scheduled to take a bus from Bangalore to Manipal. As Air India flights go, this one was more than two hours late... and we missed the bus. Which resulted us in having to take a seat in another bus, which broke down mid way, after which we had to scramble on to another bus in the wee hours of the morning. This was a local bus, packed to capacity, which took us to Mangalore, where we got one of those high speed inter city buses which would take us to Manipal by noon. Instead it ended up crashing into the back of a loaded truck, and resulted in my broken face and teeth which would trouble me ever since. All for the want of an in-time flight.

But generally planes could be a nice experience, with pretty enough attendants, food and water aplenty. Then came the age of the low cost airlines. Truth be told, my meagre salary allowed me to fly only because the low cost had arrived. Air Deccan made everything possible. The rickshaw puller could fly, and frankly I was not much better off. And apart from having to buy sandwiches at 4 times the cost, it was not a bad experience. Of course, one heard of people opening tiffin cases and having their lunches in flight, and I must say I saw some truth to that. Its good sense after all. Get your cakes and biscuits from home instead of letting them rip you off on board.

Still, the teeming millions of India are a meek lot. As is usual, they took some time to open up to the idea of taking to the skies. But when they did, wow, did they ever!

Lately I have had to take a number of flights on various sectors in the domestic circuit. Chennai-Bangalore, Chennai- Kolkata, Delhi- Kolkata. And I need to chronicle some of the experiences I faced in the last couple of months.
Just yesterday on the Delhi-Kolkata flight, a gentleman (not so much!) refused to switch off his phone. This, after being told by the attendant that he must, and we were just by the runway and would take off soon. "Madaaam", he screamed, "I have to send a message". My neighbours on two flights had to be told to switch off, one was an elderly gentleman who gushed into the phone what an experience it is to fly, and another young boy of about 20, flying with his mother, who kept leaning over two seats to look out the window, probably quite disappointed that he could not see the houses below! The boy nodded and switched off, the older gentleman, I suspect, never did, and the whole flight his phone was on. I need to suggest to airlines that on their domestic flights, they should make it a point to check everyones phones, much like they do at security check. If things go like this, there would soon be a couple of people on every plane with their phones on.

I had the bad luck of sitting by the in flight toilets on my last flight. The plane had already started taxying. The attendant had already taken her seat. One man was insisting that he needs to go right now. The attendant was begging at this point. Her poignant "please"s were hard to hear. Its not a train fellas.

Once upon a time Air Deccan had first come first serve policy when it came to seats on the flight. So usually when the boarding was announced there would usually be a mad dash for the plane to take the window seats. That is history now... but the other day I saw something which defied explanation.
Two overweihgt gentlemen came on at the last moment. One had an aisle seat and the other had the middle seat on the other side. He wanted to sit "beside" his mate, on the aisle seat, and he vehenmently argued that he could sit where he chose. The attendants were two very young girls, and I wonder in their training if they have courses to teach them to deal with such wonders.

Anyway, so trains and planes, not many differences nowadays. Apart from the price of the food, which to my woe, I HAVE to buy everytime, as I end up revenous hungry with all the standing at bus-stop-like boarding stations at airports, bus rides in the hot sun to reach the plane, and jostling with Indian Men to get to my seat with a cranky 4 year old and achey brakey back.