Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 4, Issue 6, Tuesday February 13 , 2007



Of stale chutney and the immigrant experience

Arundhati Roy stormed into the hearts of the reading populace here with her Booker-prize winning debut novel 'God of Small Things'. She was certainly not the first Indian author to win the award (VS Naipaul won it in 1971, and Salman Rushdie in 1981). Riding on the heels, however, of the rising trend for crossover Bollywood films like Mississippi Masala (1991), and the film adaptation of Amy Tan's best-selling novel The Joy Luck Club (1994), it suddenly became 'cool' to read Asian authors. Suddenly, Vikram Seth whose A Suitable Boy 'needed a shopping cart to be carried around', didn't seem so heavy after all, and R.K Narayan acquired new flavours.

With the increasing popularity of films like East is East, Hollywood Bollywood, American Desi, and Bend it like Beckham, the whole issue of the South-Asian Diaspora, and identity crisis amongst second and third-generation immigrants came to the fore. It was a ripe time for authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Bharati Mukherjee to foray into this hitherto unexplored arena.

Then Bangladeshis made an unexpected debut in Zadie Smith's White Teeth, whose criticism of 'religious fundamentalism' met the same kind of criticism that Taslima Nasreen's books did. This was followed by Monica Ali's 'Brick Lane', the banning (in Bangladesh) of which only increased its sales.

Four years, and several books and films later, the novelty is wearing off. Indian/Bengali Individual (I/BI) leaves behind As-South-Asian-As-Curry lifestyle and heads off to the Land of Opportunity. The euphoria lasts as long as the plane ride, and then the techno-coloured dreams come crashing down as I/BI discovers she/he is a misfit in a strange and unfriendly world. Little by little, she/he carves out an uneasy niche, never quite cutting ties with home, yet changing enough so that she/he won't fit in with the home crowd. When love happens, it is another battle of instinct vs. upbringing, alienation vs. belonging, and the relationship is rarely a comfortable one. If I/BI has children, they are constantly at war between their ethnic heritage and their identities as the citizens of the country they are born in. Fill in the blanks with names, and a few details and anecdotes, and you could be reading anything from Bharati Mukherjee's short stories, to Dina Mehta's Mila in Love.

I confess; I haven't ever lived abroad, and so perhaps the whole immigrant experience only appeals to me on an intellectual level. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake was definitely a touching read;her lead character Gogol's struggle to find himself felt so very real. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's short stories in Arranged Marriages also displayed a broad spectrum of issues and emotions experienced by immigrant Bengali women. Kiran Desai managed to revive the exotic appeal of this genre by setting her Booker-winning story in Nepal, and taking the reader from there to New York, to Britain through flashbacks.

Ultimately, though, even though there are so many ways of presenting a theme, somehow, most of these writers seem to be stuck in a rut; unnecessarily graphic descriptions, and an overly jaundiced view of the whole process. There's only so much you'd want to know about a character's disgusting personal habits, and to read The Inheritance of Loss, or White Teeth you'd think that good things never happen to South Asians, not even their dogs!

Once again, while I cannot claim any firsthand knowledge of the immigrant experience, I do know of families that have migrated to the 'phoren' land, and are leading perfectly happy lives there. Of course there are identity issues; you face these issues even sitting at home in your own country, branded by anything from your medium of schooling, to your tastes in music. We are all searching for ourselves, no matter where we are.

By no means am I saying that any of these authors have exaggerated the issues they write about. Individually, they're all great reads; collectively, they're one helping of South-Asian spice too many...and lugubrious spice at that, if such a thing exists.

By Sabrina F Ahmad
Photo: Munem Wasif

Books-the fatal attraction

Light trickled in through the slightly parted curtains. It sets ablaze the flecks of dust in the air- they appear to follow their own rhythmless patterns, wheeling out an unchoreographed salsa. Amidst the musty smell of charcoal pencil lids and primitively prepared ink, lies a treasure. Books. Arranged neatly in the shelves of the modest home library, sheathed in dust and dog-eared, these leather bound entities veil the secret world that lies within.

Reading is a passion. Although the statement has been worn down to an “oh no, not again” cliché, it does ring true. After all, phrases in the first instance become clichés because they are true. For those who beg to differ, it is a free country (mostly!).

A book is a doorway to another world. As you flip through the pages, the words metamorphose into something else altogether. First you hear them buzz with promise. Soon they rush so fast, so smooth into each other that you are delivered to a different place, a different time. Toni Morrison can whip you through the depths of the ghetto, Amy Tan can mystify you with intricate Chinese customs, Thomas Keneally can pull you back into the vortex of the Holocaust. Authors create magic, and those on the receiving end are gifted with characters they can feel for and things that they can touch, smell and see.

Avid readers treat books- be it a 'collectors edition hardcover' or a paperback pulp- with a certain reverence. Something about them (the books, that is) simply draws you in- the texture of the spine, the flamboyant yet subtle hues of the cover, the fragrance of processed papier-mâché. Then there is the thing with books people have read over and over again (Knock! Knock! Parade in “Gone with the Wind”, “Wuthering Heights” and the Harry Potter series). Some of the pages have been leafed through so often that the book falls open on a particular page. “My copy of 'The Good Earth' is a mess,” says Azmina Haq, an Economics student, “I have read it so many times that it is no surprise that the pages would come out flying if not handled with care. My friends used to joke about its condition. But still, I treat it like some ancient relic.”

And that is not all. Ameer Chowdhry says, “Every book deserves respect. I have a trunk full of old novels. Each is covered with paraffin paper. You know, this prevents them from sticking to each other.”

Moreover, you can read almost anywhere. “Thank God that books are portable,” says Salman Rahman, a student of law, “Not those heavy duty Tort law texts,” he laughs, “When I say books, I mean novels.” The bed is a popular choice. Most readers grab a book and ease down on their beds (aka, the universal comfort zone). And then there is the couch. A comfy couch at home is a blessing. “My dad is a pure couch-reader,” states Ameer, “He sits for hours at a stretch just reading. He even used to fall asleep on the couch, and my mom had to drag him to bed.” Shocking it may seem, but polls show that it is the bathroom that ranks as the most popular place to read in. Perhaps, Othello has something to do with the reader's pants bunched around his ankles. Whatever it is, toilet-reading rules. There are many who have mini racks drilled into the bathroom walls to keep old comics and magazines.

Reading is a pleasure outside home as well. Alvi Gomez, for instance, carries a paperback in the back pocket of his baggy jeans. “You say it as if it is something weird,” he says, “Everyone should have something to read all the time. I mean, what if you get bored in a dentist's waiting room?” Standing in long food queues, taking dreary bus trips home from work, waiting for the coffee machine to serve its caffeine… anywhere, books offer the easiest mode of escapism.

To add up, there are long train/ bus journeys where you would have to put up with the cacophonous snoring of your immediate neighbour…or worse, the stench of his month-long dried up sweat. That is when a book can really come to the rescue to shut out the world. Even if you are not in such an atrocious position, books are welcome.

As the eye runs through the words, reveling in their linguistic potency, time stretches to oblivion. The mind moulds Tom Joad in the dustbowls of post-depression America, it crystallises the Scarlett and Melanie rushing through the burning Atlanta night. The heart recognises these people. Maybe now, you can go up to that old dust-covered library and claim its unearthed secrets.

By Shahmuddin Ahmed Siddiky
Photo: Amirul Rajiv



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