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A Mirrors Greens in Spring by Selina Sen – New Delhi in the 1980s

June 10, 2020 19 comments

A Mirror Greens in Spring by Selina Sen (2007) French title: Après la mousson. Translated by Dominique Goy-Blanquet.

A Mirror Greens in Spring is an Indian book by Selina Sen. Set in New Delhi in the early 1980s, it focuses on the lives of two sisters, Chandrayee “Chhobi” and Sonali. We are in a Bengali household where the two young women live with their widowed mother and their grand-parents.

The grandfather is very nostalgic of his youth. He had to leave his hometown after the partition of India and Pakistan. He’s from Bangladesh and he chose to stay in India but he never truly healed and still feel in exile.

Chhobi is 25 and Sonali is 19. The two sisters have very different personalities, due to a different education. When Chhobi was a young girl, their father died and she stayed in a Catholic boarding school when Sonali went back to New Delhi with their mother.

Chhobi is more studious and loves history. She works for a magazine in Delhi and writes pieces about various historical places of the city. She wants to have a PhD in Indian history. She’s the serious one, taking care of her sister and behaving responsibly. As she’s already 25, their intrusive neighbour, Mrs Chatterjee, wonders why she doesn’t have any prospect of marriage yet. But Chhobi enjoys being single and doesn’t seem eager to get married. She’s intelligent, grounded and her good sense brings a good support to her family. Her boss, Rosemary, encourages her to follow her dreams and not give up for family reasons.

Sonali is the frivolous one. She’s gorgeous, spoilt and self-centred. Her only interests in life are clothes, jewels and parties. She’s naïve and since she’s so pretty, her grandmother, the real master of the house, hopes for a rich marriage. So, when Sonali sneaks out of the house to meet her wealthy boyfriend Sonny, her mother and grandmother turn a blind eye. The inevitable happens: Sonny’s family has already chosen someone else for their son…

The first part of the book is pretty standard. Two girls with opposite characters, a cautious one and a reckless one. I thought that the plot was a classic déjà-vu and I almost stopped reading. The second part moved past the jilted poor girl part of the plot and became more suspenseful and I’m glad I didn’t abandon it.

Overall, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring but I thought there were too many descriptions of places, flowers, dishes, saris and of the weather. It felt written for an international public who doesn’t live in India. The descriptions happened at odd moments, as if a tourist guide jack-in-the-box popped up to give details and it broke my reading flow. It did make me want to learn how to cook Bengali cuisine though, everything sounded delicious!

India is a complex country for foreigners and I didn’t get the Bengali vs Panjabi comments from the characters. Sonali got on my nerves because I have little patience for spoilt princesses. I rooted for Chhobi and hoped she wouldn’t sacrifice her dreams to take care of her vapid sister and support her family.

Selina Sen takes us to a cultured household who struggles to make ends meet. We see three generations of women and the toll that widowhood puts on the girls’ mother. The book is set at the time Indira Gandhi was assassinated and I wonder why the author chose this time and place for her novel written in 2007. Politics has little to do with the story but the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam movement appears in the plot. Selina Sen mentions the historical wounds that people still carry with them, the partition between India and Pakistan in 1947, the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971, terrorism in Sri Lanka.

In the end, I enjoyed A Mirror Greens in the Spring for the sense of displacement, for taking me away from my home and drop me into another country, into another culture.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry: I took the French leave

December 21, 2019 13 comments

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (1991) French title: Un si long voyage. Translated by Françoise Adelstain.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry was our Book Club read for December. Let’s be honest, I couldn’t finish it. It’s a book set in 1971 in Bombay, just before the war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. It tells the story of a modest family during these troubled times. It sounded fine on paper.

In reality, I abandoned the book because I never really engaged in the family’s fate and I got tired of reading sentences with foreign words I didn’t understand and getting lost in the political undercurrent of the story. I read 187 pages out of 441.

I am miffed that the publisher didn’t include any kind of foreword or footnotes about the political context of the country and the family. Here’s the first sentence of the book:

The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda.

Of course, I had no clue of what Ahura Mazda was and I continued reading. After a while and an internet research, I realized that Gustad was Zoroastrian. I imagine that it’s crucial in the novel since the main character is neither Hindu nor Muslim. A footnote would have been welcome.

Then, there were numerous sentences like these ones:

The bhaiya sat on his haunches beside the tall aluminum can and dispensed milk into the vessels of housewives.

Run from the daaken!

The malik says go, sell the milk and that’s all I do.

These poor people in slum shacks and jhopadpattis….

He recited the appropriate sections and unknotted the kusti from around his waist.

Wait, I am filling the matloo.

You see what I mean? And there are no explanations in the French edition and none in the English one either. We don’t even know to which language these words belong to. I’m all for using local words if they are specific to a context but please, explain them to me the first time they are used.

I also guessed that, when Gustad spoke about political issues, there were subtitles for knowledgeable readers that totally escaped my notice. I could live with that if I didn’t have the feeling that writing about this specific political context was a reason for the author to write this book. Another frustration.

It’s all on me, I suppose. Such a Long Journey is rated 3.95/5 on Goodreads, it has won literary prizes and the blurb was promising. In the end, it wasn’t a good match for me. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about it if you’ve read it.

PS: It has always amused me that in French, to take the French leave is filer à l’anglaise, which means to take the English leave.

The Dark Room by RK Narayan or Desperate Indian Housewife

February 15, 2017 14 comments

The Dark Room by RK Narayan. (1935) French title: Dans la chambre obscure.

NarayanI had already read and loved Swami and Friends and I was looking forward to returning to fictional Malgudi with another book by RK Narayan. And I wasn’t disappointed.

The Dark Room is not as light as Swami and Friends which was centered on childhood. We are introduced to a family of five persons, the husband Ramani, his wife Savitri and their children Babu (13), Sumati (11) and Kamala (5). This is a Tamil family of the middle class in the South of India in the 1930s. Ramani works for an insurance company and his wages are enough to support his family and hire two domestics. Ramani and Savitri have been married for fifteen years and Ramani reigns on his household as a spoiled tyrant. The society gives him privileges because he’s a man and he takes advantage of it.

RK Narayan describes the daily life in Ramani’s house. Everything and everyone revolves around him. When he leaves for work, the other members of the family exhale a big sigh because they know they won’t be riding on the roller-coaster of his moods until he comes home. Ramani isn’t mean or violent per his time and place’s standards. He’s just the head of the house and the atmosphere is different when the master is at home. Narayan never calls him “master” but his behaviour is close to a master and servant relationship. He’s unhappy if the garage door is not duly opened when he arrives, despite the fact that he comes home at random hours that no one can foresee. Savitri is his trophy wife, a property he’s happy to show off, like a shiny sports car or a big diamond.

Ramani sat in a first-class seat with his wife by his side, very erect. He was very proud of his wife. She had a fair complexion and well-proportioned features, and her sky-blue sari gave her a distinguished appearance. He surveyed her slyly, with a sense of satisfaction at possessing her. When people in the theatre threw looks at her, it increased his satisfaction all the more.

As a man, Ramani has a lot of power and he doesn’t deserve it. He’s whimsical, cruel sometimes and doesn’t hesitate to make decisions or impose his views just because he can. After 15 years, Savitri is tired of her life as a housewife. She takes no pleasure in running her household. She’s bored to death by her daily routine. Here she is, thinking about the preparation of meals and its related tasks:

“Was there nothing else for one to do than attend to this miserable business of the stomach from morning till night?”

The Dark Room from the title is where Savitri finds solace when her family becomes a burden, when she needs alone time to regroup and refuel. Ramani cannot understand that and the children are puzzled as well. But she needs it.

Their fragile equilibrium is shattered when a woman is hired at Ramani’s insurance company and he gets infatuated with her. We see Ramani’s behaviour change while Savitri’s quiet resistance grows and turns into full-blown rebellion. She resents her fate as a woman and she starts expressing her feelings and opinions. She challenges Ramani, like here:

’I’m a human being,’ she said, through her heavy breathing. ‘You men will never grant that. For you we are playthings when you feel like hugging, and slaves at other times. Don’t think that you can fondle us when you like and kick us when you choose’

And she reflects that society is made to keep women under the tutelage of their closest male relative, father, husband or son. Of course, this doesn’t only happen in India. Savitry realises that she’s always under somebody’s order because she has no financial independence.

I don’t possess anything in this world. What possession can a woman call her own except her body? Everything else that she has is her father’s, her husband’s, or her son’s.

She comes to the conclusion that she should have studied to have a degree, to have a chance to get a job and earn her own money. She thinks of her daughters’ future and promises to herself that they will have the choice and feel obliged to be married to get fed.

If I take the train and go to my parents, I shall feed on my father’s pension; if I go back home, I shall be living on my husband’s earnings, and later, on Babu. What can I do myself? Unfit to earn a handful of rice except by begging. If I had gone to college and studied, I might have become a teacher or something. It was very foolish of me not to have gone on with my education. Sumati and Kamala must study up to the B.A. and not depend their salvation on marriage. What is the difference between a prostitute and a married woman? –the prostitute changes her men, but a married woman doesn’t; that’s all, but both earn their food and shelter in the same manner.

I didn’t expect to find such a modern and feminist novel under Narayan’s pen. It was an agreeable surprise and I can only warmly recommend The Dark Room. It’s an unusual topic for a male writer of the 1930s. He’s very good at describing Savitri’s disenchantment and growing awareness that she’s trapped. She has no other choice than be a wife and a mother. It could be as dark as the room Savitri closes herself into but it’s not. I could feel Narayan thinking that education was the key to freedom and equality for women. It’s certainly necessary to reach financial independence but it’s not enough without a proper legal environment. He’s hopeful though and his hope can be perceived in his novella.

It is truly an odd book for its time and I wonder how it was received when it was first published. From a strictly literary point of view, Narayan’s prose flows like the water of a stream. It’s clear, melodic and unaffected. My omnibus edition, a kind gift from Vishy, also includes The Bachelor of Arts and The English Teacher. I am sure I will like them too. Thanks again, Vishy!

Highly recommended.

Swami and friends by R.K. Narayan

December 28, 2014 33 comments

Swami and Friends by R.K. Narayan 1935 French title: Swami et ses amis (out of print in French, I think)

NarayanMaybe I’m sentimental but there’s something special about reading a book that has travelled half the world to get to you. My copy of this omnibus edition of Narayan’s work was sent from India by Vishy from Vishy’s Blog and I’m really grateful he made me discover this writer.

My copy includes four works by Narayan (1906-2001), all set in the fictional city of Malgudi: Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room and The English Teacher. Of these four novels, only The Dark Room is still available in French. So far I’ve only read Swami and Friends but you’ll be sure to hear more about Narayan in the coming year.

Swami and Friends introduces us to Malgudi where Narayan frequently set his novels; it seems to be his Wessex. Malguldi is not featured with pages of description but we get a strong impression of the city through passages like this one:

During summer Malguldi was one of the most detested towns in South India. Sometimes, the heat went above a hundred and ten in the shade, and between twelve and three any day in summer the dusty blanched roads were deserted. Even donkeys and dogs, the most vagrant of animals, preferred to move to the edge of the street, where catwalks and minor projections from buildings cast a spase strip of shade, when the fierce sun tilted towards the west.

I don’t know you, but I can imagine the heat, the blinding sun that weighs on one’s shoulders and make you want to crawl into shade and not move until it relents. Details add up until you have a sense of the place.

Swami and Friends relates moments of Swami’s life at the age of 10. (Swami is short for Swaminathan.) It’s not a story with a beginning, events and an ending. It is more composed of sketches about Swami’s life that give you a picture of the childhood of a middle-class Indian boy in the 1930s.

Swami lives with his parents and his grand-mother. His father is a lawyer and his mother stays at home to take care of her family. At the beginning of the book, Swami is an only child until he is informed that his mother has given birth to a little brother. Apparently, nobody told him about her pregnancy. He doesn’t know what to think of the little bundle that occupies his parents greatly. I loved the following paragraph:

Now he peered in and was disappointed to find the baby asleep. He cleared his throat aloud and coughed in the hope of waking him. But the baby slept. He waited for a moment, and tiptoed away, reminding himself that it was best to leave the other alone, as he had a knack of throwing the house in turmoil for the first half-hour whenever he awoke from sleep.

Poor Swami doesn’t know how to interact with this baby and he’s still adapting to all the changes his little brother brought to the family’s routine. It reminded me of my daughter’s puzzled look when she first saw her younger brother. She didn’t seem to know what to think of this strange thing lying in his crib.

Narayan_françaisEverything is described from Swami’s point of view so we see life through the lenses of a ten-year old boy. The narration is consistent with a child’s vision of time and life. He’s absorbed in school that gives rhythm to his life and his days are filed with children’s routine: school, homework, relationships with friends. He’s trying to be a good pupil but sometimes he gets bored. He’s afraid of some of his teachers but shows a great deal of character when confronted to adults.

The opinion of his friends is as important as the opinion of his parents. When a new boy comes to town, Rajam, everyone wants to be part of his crowd. He’s an important boy, his father is the new chief of the local police. He’s more sophisticated, he’s richer, he’s got nicer toys. Swami’s full of admiration for him and Rajam becomes popular and gets his power after leading a little war against the former popular boys.  Swami and his friend Mani befriend him after Rajam takes the power. Rajam will be the one to finance the creation of a cricket team. Swami plays well and is passionate about the game. It’s one of the most important things in their lives, something they’re ready to fight for, even if it means go and talk to a dreaded headmaster to secure regular practices.

Swami and Friends is about school, friends, cricket, the birth of a younger brother and Swami’s relationship with his parents. It is set in India but Swami’s main concerns are the same as any middle-class pupil of his time and ours. Of course, there are cultural differences. He learns how to count with mangoes when a European boy would have heard about pears and apples. And he plays cricket, a game almost nobody plays in France. (I’ve seen a team in a neighbouring town: all the players were of Indian or Pakistani origin). And for him Europe is as imaginary as Neverland.

He sat at his table and took out his atlas. He opened the political map of Europe and sat gazing at it. It puzzled him how people managed to live in such a crooked country as Europe. He wondered what the shape of the people might be who lived in places where the outline narrowed as in a cape, and how they managed to escape being strangled by the contour of their land.

I thought it was quite funny. But apart from local differences, it felt universal.

The fact that this is colonised India also seeps through the novel. For example, at the beginning of the book, Swami goes to Albert Mission School until his father decides to change him of school and make him attend the Board High School. The change came after a teacher denigrated the Hindu religion in class only to praise Christianism. And there is a protest march in Malgudi because a political militant was arrested in Bombay.

I read Swami and Friends at the same time I was reading My Ántonia by Willa Cather. Both relate childhood memories but I preferred Narayan’s tone. As it is Swami’s point of view, the reader can’t expect a deep insight on what’s happening around him. It is different when it’s an adult telling his story like in Cather’s novel. Narayan’s book has the warmth of Naguib Mahfouz’s novels. The two writers were contemporary. Small people come to life under their pen and the characters and places become familiar and loveable.

Thanks Vishy!

PS: Swami and Friends is out of print in French but I picked the French cover anyway because it’s a collection for young readers and I’ve discovered many great books in Livre de Poche Jeunesse. These covers belong to my childhood memories.

In San Francisco’s snowless winter The gray weeks rinse themselves away.

September 20, 2014 28 comments

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth (1986) French title: Golden Gate, translated by Claro. (It should be good)

 “…Don’t put things off till it’s too late.

You are the DJ of your fate.”

Seth_Golden_GateThe Golden Gate is a novel and it relates something quite banal, the lives of a group of friends in the San Francisco area. They are named John, Janet, Philip, Liz and Ed. They’re you and me. John, Janet and Phil were at the same university. At the beginning, they’re single and lonely. John works in an office, has a great job, is good at it but his life is empty. Janet decides to push him into dating by placing an ad in a paper. This is how he meets Liz and who later brings into their group her siblings Ed and Sue. Phil is now raising his six-year old son Paul by himself after his wife Claire fled to the other side of the country. He quit his job after Claire’s departure to take care of Paul and because he was working for a company designing weapons. Phil is an anti-nuclear war activist. Although things weren’t exactly perfect between them, he doesn’t understand why Claire left and more importantly how she could leave her son behind. He’s still recovering from his divorce. Janet is part-musician, part-sculptor and she tries to make a name on the art scene. She used to be John’s lover at university. She hides her fragility behind an apparent strength and a proclaimed autonomy. Ed is homosexual and a fervent Catholic, an explosive combination for his peace of mind. He doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.

Now, that seems quite banal and simple. Except the interwoven relationships between the characters aren’t conventional. Except that each character is troubled and flawed. That would be enough material to write a good novel. This novel is exceptional in its form and its style.

As the Appetizer showed you, The Golden Gate is a novel in verse, more precisely in tetrameters. It’s divided in 13 chapters, all composed of poems of 14 verses. (sonnets, right?) For example, the second chapter is made of 52 poems. I’m sure I missed part of the beauty of the text because my English isn’t good enough, especially my pronunciation. We French people never know where to put the stress on English words and I’ve just discovered in my English literature manual that it’s important for poetry and the construction of verses. (Plus in French, as far as I know, we only have syllabic verses) Well, I loved it anyway.

Vikram Seth achieves a tour de force. As the poet pulling the strings of the story and the pace of the narration, he’s present in his text as the bard, the man who tells the story and interacts with his readers. For example, he intervenes just after he’s described John and Liz’s young love. His description of John and Liz’s new relationship reminded me of the fantastic scene played by Heath Ledger and Charlotte Gainsbourg in I’m not there and illustrating the song I want you. I was indeed thinking that the passage was heading towards corny when he disarmed all criticism with this:

Judged by these artless serfs of Cupid

Love is not blind but, rather, dumb.

Their babblings daily grow more stupid.

I am embarrassed for them. Come,

Let’s leave them here, the blessed yuppies,

As happy as a pair of puppies,

Or doves, who with their croodlings might

Make even Cuff and Link seem bright.

Let’s leave them to their fragile fictions—

Arcadia, Shangri-La, Cockaigne—

A land beyond the reach of pain—

Except for two slight contradictions,

To wit…but what transpires next

Is furnished later in this text.

Seth knows it’s time to move on and he does.

Self-deprecating humour and witty interactions with the reader are one of the highlights of the book. Then there’s the sound of his poetry, the way he depicts San Francisco and his incredible gift to put human feelings into words. The text is light, sad, deep, funny and witty. It is set in San Francisco and like the Golden Gate, the characters wander in life with their feet in the clear and their nose in the fog. Seth’s words drizzle in a lovely mist and envelop the events and the characters of the text in a special aura.

This group of friends has fairly common inner struggles: what’s my part in this world? Who would remember me if I died? How do I deal with death and grief? How do I recover from a broken relationship? How do I reconcile my job with my beliefs? While exploring his characters angst and making them move forward with their lives, he also discusses nuclear war, homosexuality, marriage, feminism, civil disobedience.

He shows John’s prejudice and inflexibility of mind, Ed’s struggles between his earthly love for a man and his faith, Phil’s honesty with himself and Liz’s internal conflict between her job and her convictions. For me John is the most troubled, the one who has the strongest mental barriers to isolate him from happiness. He lives his life with sadness sitting on his left shoulder and the weight of miscommunication on his right shoulder. He’s grounded in loneliness. With his poetry, Seth conveys the sensation of these toxic hands on John’s shoulders. You’d want to hug John to ease his pain. Phil is living in a cloud of loneliness but he’s better equipped to fight it and reach out for the companionship he craves.

It’s a lovely text, for its take on human experiences and its bright description of our world’s beauty:

It’s spring! Meticulous and fragrant

Pear blossoms bloom and blanch the trees,

While pink and ravishing and flagrant

Quince bursts in shameless colonies

On woody bushes, and the slender

Yellow oxalis, brief and tender,

Brilliant as mustard, sheets the ground,

And blue jays croak, and all around

Iris and daffodil are sprouting

With such assurance that the shy

Grape hyacinth escapes the eye,

And spathes of Easter lilies, flouting

Nomenclature, now effloresce

In white and lenten loveliness.

It’s difficult to write anything after that. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I really recommend this book. It’s 300 pages long but let yourself ride the tide of Seth’s poetry.

PS: Cuff and Link are cats. There’s another cat in the book, Charlemagne. He’s Liz’s pet and the description of his jealousy of John’s place in Liz’s life is absolutely hilarious.

The Golden Gate : Appetizer

September 19, 2014 9 comments

5.1

A week ago, when I had finished

Writing the chapter you’ve just read

And with avidity undiminished

Was charting out the course ahead,

An editor –at a plush party

(Well-wined, -provisioned, speechy, hearty)

Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook

Where my Tibetan travel book

Was honored–seized my arm: “Dear fellow,

What’s your next work?” “A novel…” ” Great!

We hope that you, dear Mr Seth–”

“…In verse,” I added. He turned yellow.

“How marvelously quaint,” he said,

And subsequently cut me dead.

 

5.2

Professor, publisher, and critic

Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced.

A writer is a mere arthritic

Among these muscular Gods of Taste.

As for that sad blancmange, a poet–

The world is hard; he ought to know it.

Driveling in rhyme’s all very well;

The question is, does spittle sell?

Since staggering home in deep depression,

My will’s grown weak. My heart is sore.

My lyre is dumb. I have therefore

Convoked a morale-boosting session

With a few kind if doubtful friends

Who’ve asked me to explain my ends.

 

This reader to Mr Seth just says: “Thank God writers are stubborn and do as they please.”

To the readers of this post, she promises “See you soon with a billet about this luminous book.”

But more importantly she cries out THANKS SCOTT!!! 🙂

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.

Discovering Rabindranath Tagore

July 28, 2011 21 comments

Somapti, followed by Med o roudro by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Read hereafter for French and English titles.

Whereas two actors, the sun and the cloud were playing they game in the whole sky that was their stage, other countless plays were given beneath, in the various places of the world’s theatre.

I’d never heard of Rabindranath Tagore before reading Himadri’s post about him. I thought I should discover this great Indian writer and what a surprise, my favourite collection of books for discovery, Folio 2€, includes a small book of two stories by Tagore. The two stories are Somapti (La petite mariée) and Meg o roudro (Nuage et soleil). As always when I read foreign books in French, I have to look for their English title to write my review. Here, I couldn’t find them, so I asked Himadri to help me. Here is his answer:

Hello Emma, I’m afraid the only edition I have of Tagore’s stories in English is the collection in Penguin translated by William Radice, and Radice doesn’t include either of these stories. However, in Satyajit Ray dramatised the story “Samapti” in the film Teen Kanya. This film was a portmanteau of adaptations of three of Tagore’s short stories, and was filmed in 1961 to celebrate Tagore’s centenary.

“Megh” literally means “cloud” (or “clouds” – in Bengali, the form of the noun does not differentiate between singular and plural), and “roudra” refers to sunlight when it is particularly strong or even oppressive. “Samapti” literally means “ending”, but can also be taken to mean “fulfilment”.

Now you have as much information as me and let’s move to the stories.

Sompati.

Apurbo comes back to his village after passing his exams in Calcutta. When he arrives, he runs into the facetious Mrinmayi, whose face had stayed with him during school time. Mrinmayi is playful like a child, graceful as a fawn. She laughs freely, acts as she pleases despite the reprobation of her community. She’s alive and Apurbo loves her for her liveliness although she is much less educated than him.

Apurbo’s mother suggests it’s time for him to get married and has actually already selected a bride. She’s a silent, submissive and scared young woman. When he talks to her “no anwer comes out of this pile of shyness covered with clothes and jewels.” The bride chosen by his mother seems dead on her feet. Apurbo is inflexible: he will only marry Mrinmayi and his mother surrenders. Mrinmayi’s family doesn’t ask her what she wants and they are promptly married.

Marrying Mrinmayi against her will is like putting a wild flower into a box: she withers. Her mother-in-law wants to turn her into a proper bride. She balks, unwilling to comply to social rules and give up her freedom. I won’t tell more but there is a lot in this 50 pages story.

Mrinmayi symbolizes the condition of the Hindu woman of that time. She’s not the master of her life. A life of obedience is all she can expect: obedience to her family and then obedience to her husband and his relatives. She doesn’t have the right to be herself, to live in her home and choose her husband. But the men aren’t free either: Apurbo needs to sneak out to have some alone time with her. This tale explores the mystery of feeling, how they grow and how we don’t always love a person who seems right for us according to his/her education or social position.  

Meg o roudro

Giribala is a 10 year old girl. As a girl, she doesn’t have access to education and however loves to learn. When she is 8, she persuades Sashibhusan to teach her classes. He has a degree in law and has been sent to this village to manage his father’s real estate. He’s solitary and studying is what he really enjoys. He lacks the social skills to succeed in running the estate. He’s so shy that the villagers think he’s haughty. Giribala is his only friend.

Once he witnesses how Giribala’s father Harakumer gets harassed by a passing sahib. Indeed, Harakumer has refused to provide four kilos of butter for the Englishman’s dogs. Sahibhusan is most upset by this abuse of authority and persuades Harakumer to go into trial. But things aren’t so easy in colonial India.

This short story is more openly political than Sompati. I wonder if Sashi doesn’t look like young Tagore. Multatuli in Java wasn’t far from my mind. It describes the same mechanisms: the power of the white man built on the corruption of the local elites and on fear. No has ever seen or heard anything when it comes to report it to the court.

Shashi has a political conscience and it will cost him a lot. When he’s put into jail, he states “Prison is welcome. Iron bars don’t lie, whereas this freedom we have outside disappoints us and gets us into all kinds of trouble. And if we talk about good company, liars and cowards are comparatively less numerous inside because there’s less room. Outside, their number is a lot higher.”  I was sad for him that his condition was such unbearable to him that prison was a relief.

I’ve read Tagore in French and I can’t tell if the translation is faithful or not. In French, Tagore has a very poetical prose. These two stories have the same setting, small villages in Bengal. He writes very politely, sweetly with a sort of innocence. In that he reminds me of his contemporary Charles-Ferninand Ramuz. Like in Ramuz, I could feel an immense fondness for his country and its common people. His stories exhale a sort of simplicity, a naïve description of young hearts confronted to social rules. Only the landscapes are heavenly. Under the soft words, the lovely description of nature, he nonetheless describes the violence of this rural life. People are as corrupt, mean, weak and narrow-minded as everywhere else. It is first the lifeless destiny of Hindu women and then the constant fear due to the English rule, leading to insupportable behaviours. Tagore was a pacifist, a humanist and supported Gandhi’s fight. It filters through these stories.  

He shows us that poetry doesn’t prevent lucidity and the other way round, that social cristicism can be associated to a wonderful style. I really enjoyed the combination of the two.  You can find Tagore’s short stories in Penguin Classics and on Project Gutenberg.

Thanks Himadri!

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