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No Life Without Wife

May 24, 2012 10 comments

The Good Indian Wife by Anne Cherian 2008. French title: Une bonne épouse indienne.

The Good Indian Wife is our book club choice for May. The writer, Anne Cherian, is Indian, studied in America and now lives in Los Angeles. It’s important to know.

It relates the story of Suneel and Leila. Suneel is anesthetist in a hospital in San Francisco. He comes from a little Indian town. He studied in America, started his career there and doesn’t intend to move back to India. He’s a green card holder now. Suneel, or Neel as he is named is the USA has a major flaw in the eyes of his mother: he’s 35 and he’s still single. Neel doesn’t want a wife and especially not an Indian one. But his mother is persistent enough for him to dread his trips back home because he knows she will present him young women she considers good bride material. So when she calls and says that he needs to come back because his grandfather is on his death bed, Neel can’t help being suspicious. But he’s fond of his grandpa and knows he would never forgive himself if he missed the chance to see him again before he dies.

Neel flies back to India.

Leila is 30 and lives in the same village as Neel’s family. She teaches English literature at the local university. She has a major flaw in the eyes of her mother: she’s 30 and still unmarried. Several men came to see her but none of them chose her. She doesn’t have a dowry. She’s getting old and her sell-by date as a bride-to-be is approaching. Spinster teacher seems to be her future.

Neel’s family does plan to marry him to a local girl. When he learns the trick, Neel refuses to meet any girl. But his family pushes the right buttons of love and guilt and he accepts to meet one, to save the family’s face in their neighborhood. He chooses to meet Leila: she’s old and poor, which means everyone in town will understand he refused to marry her. He’ll be free and his family won’t be embarrassed.

Things don’t go exactly according to Neel’s plan and one thing leading to another, here is Neel flying back to San Francisco with his brand new Indian wife. However, he has no intention to change his way of life or to break up with his blond girl-friend Caroline. She meets his wish to have an American wife to Americanize him and help him blend in. So here is our poor Leila alone in San Francisco, married to a man who doesn’t want her.

The plot is fairly simple and would be totally flat without the identity issues and the description of Indian customs and Indian diaspora. Have you seen Bride & Prejudice? It’s the Bollywood version of Pride & Prejudice filmed by the British director Gurinder Chadha. This book has the same flavor and the title of this billet comes from the funniest song of the film. The film shows the same marriage customs, this kind of wife market for Indian men who emigrated in a Western country. The novel digs deeper on the identity issue though. How do you live in a country you weren’t born in? You lack all the tiny little details of a local childhood, like knowing popular songs, commercials or news items. To give a personal example, it’s like reading Aiding and Abetting without knowing Lord Lucan really existed and really did what the book mentions. You need subtitles. (Sun)neel is torn between two countries, two cultures. He wants an American wife, eats American food, dresses like an American and sort of turns his back on Indian things. What do you need to do to adapt to your new country and become a real American citizen?

Both he and Leila are oppressed by traditions and can’t resist them in India, among their family and friends. The weight of customs and the education they received which pushes them to obey their parents are too strong in India. Living in America is their declaration of independence. Leila is happy to leave India, to get married at last and to be free to do as she pleases, to go out on her own, to meet new people. In a way, she can be herself without her family watching and judging her. What kind of a life is it for a spinster in India? She dreads it enough to be willing to leave her home to follow a man she met only once.

Of course I wonder to what extend what Anne Cherian describes is true. I’m always suspicious about that kind of theme as it serves the plot to exaggerate the impact of customs and the influence of families. I wonder if what she says about this big marriage market is true, if it is as sordid as what she says about Leila’s feelings. Don’t misunderstand me, Anne Cherian doesn’t judge, she relates something which sounds rather common. As she is Indian and followed Neel’s footsteps, I imagine she knows her subject well enough.

I enjoyed reading The Good Indian Wife but it’s not a great book on the literary point of view. It’s a nice Beach & Public Transport novel. It’s entertaining with a decent style, a nice story to read in a noisy environment or to relax after a difficult book. This seems nasty but it’s not. In my opinion, we also need that kind of novels from time to time.

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg

March 14, 2012 18 comments

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg (1898-1973) Published in 1949.

From 1949 to 1959, the Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg wrote the Emigrants series, which counts four volumes.

  • The Emigrants (1949)
  • Unto a Good Land (1952)
  • The Settlers (1956)
  • The Last Letter Home (1959)

The series relates the story of a Swedish family from Småland, a rural part of Sweden, who emigrates to Minnesota. Don’t ask me why the French edition has five volumes, the second one relates the crossing of the Atlantic. I suppose it’s included in the first book in the English edition.

The Emigrants describes the life of peasants in Småland in the early 1850s. As the law on inheritance splits properties equally between children, the heir who wants the estate must buy out their siblings’ part. If the division is done during the parents’ lifetime, they keep an allowance. It has a huge impact on their living conditions.

We follow the Nielsson who are small landowners. The eldest son, Karl Oskar bought the land but their property isn’t vast enough to support his family and pay back the loan they subscribed to buy the part that belonged to Karl Oskar’s siblings. Plus, the soil is poor, full of rocks, with small return. No matter how hard Karl Oskar and his wife Kristina work, they can’t make enough money to make ends meet. As the family grows, they risk starvation and cannot pay their debt any time the weather is foul and endangers the crops. Slowly, the idea of moving in America settles in their minds as they cannot see any future for them in Sweden. Despite their fear, they decide to risk it and settle in the country of gold and honey.

I understood that there were four official conditions for a person in Sweden at the time: clergyman, aristocrat, peasant and other. The Emigrants details the living conditions of small peasants. It shows how they are under the yoke of the Church and of secular power too. Farm workers sign contracts with masters that are close to slavery. They can’t leave the estate, they can be beaten and can go to prison if they escape. (The equivalent of gendarmes chase them and bring them back to their masters)

Moberg also puts forward the power and intolerance of the Lutheran Church. “Heretics” are chased and some emigrants left because they were persecuted and couldn’t live according to their faith. I saw there the roots of obscure American churches that these emigrants brought with them. This is something odd for a French, as these alternative churches aren’t widespread here.

It’s a tough life ; I thought the villagers hardly held together, there seemed to be no dances or joyful gatherings. It’s not very different from what Herbjørg Wassmo described in the Dinah Trilogy. Did the Church forbid dances and fests? It was a rigid life, dedicated to work with little pleasure. However, sometimes Moberg is unintentionally funny, like here:

Le pasteur avait pleinement confiance en Per Persson. Comme celui-ci ne buvait pas plus d’un demi-pichet d’eau-de-vie par jour, c’était un modèle de sobriété pour les autres paroissiens.

The priest fully trusted Per Persson. As he didn’t drink more than half a jug of schnapps per day, he was a model of temperance for the other parishioners.

Humph! If like me, smelling schnapps is almost enough to get you drunk, the idea of half a jug of it makes you shiver and imagine alcoholic coma straight away. And to think that half a pitcher is temperance!

From the literary point of view, the narration is very straightforward, it’s in chronological order, narrated in the third person. The style isn’t literary enough for my taste and I think Moberg could have said as much in less pages. The second volume is the crossing, I wonder why he needed 300 pages to describe the trip, no matter how awful it must have been. The French translator wrote in the foreword that he couldn’t translate the dialect and that the Swedish-English words spoken by the emigrants in America were impossible to give back into French. So, I suppose it’s better to read an English translation than a French one. Perhaps these difficulties retrieved some of the literary effects of the original text.

Notwithstanding, I thought it an interesting read, more for the historical side than for the literary pleasure. Between 1850 and 1914, one million of Swedish emigrants arrived in Ellis Island, which means that 25% of the population left their country. This was a surprise for me, I knew from reading Jim Harrison and Siri Hustdvet that States like Minnesota or Dakota had welcomed Norwegian and Swedish settlers, but I didn’t know that so many families left Sweden for America. To me, massive emigration of that time meant Italian, Jewish and Irish communities. It is a curiosity for a French as we don’t share that history of emigration to America. We had the same problem of land division between heirs and of properties becoming smaller but the French chose to have less children. As a consequence, the low birth rate was a concern for the different governments. Anyway, people didn’t leave, except to settle in the colonies. I wonder what it means about our people: are we less adventurous or does it only mean that we live in such a blessed country that people won’t go away?

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