26 July 2012

The edge of desire by Tuhin Sinha

The sheen of an underbelly
Not since The White Tiger has a book gripped me in this particular way, engaging me with both its plot and language, and overcoming me with a sinking feeling at the false image so many of us live with of life in India.
What do we know of kala azar, a chronic and potentially fatal parasitic disease transmitted by sand-fly that afflicts thousands in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar? That in India only one of fifty rape cases is reported; that only one of five reported are convicted? That being an illegal migrant is a privilege because it offers certain dubious opportunities to officers of the state administration? That the so-called tribals who support the 'Naxal' movement, who are not even aware of modern techniques of agriculture, can somehow handle modern ammunition?
These are some of the issues that this fast-paced and well-written book offers, along with a range of information about India, from the early politics of Kashmir to the qualities of the god Krishna, to our vapid and rather pointless method of celebrating Independence Day.
What I liked best about this book is that it is written by a man, and the voice of his heroine – her thoughts, feelings and actions – are so very authentic. Shruti starts off as a journalist and in this book, as she evolves first into a politician and then into a convict, we get to see her suffer deceit in a committed relationship, then rape by a group of strangers, then frustration in what started off as a promising marriage. When finally a complicated situation seems likely to bring her happiness at last – that disintegrates too.
What I did not like was that the quality deteriorated towards the end, starting with an unlikely and clumsily-described event between Shruti and a younger woman, after which it became rather weak and sketchy.

06 July 2012

The storyteller of Marrakesh by Joydeep Roy-Bhattarcharya

Under a starlit sky
This is not the usual beginning-middle-end type of story. It is told by a traditional storyteller of Marrakesh, sitting in the town square, the Jemaa. With a changing audience every night, the storyteller takes up his narrative from a different point. Members of the audience often add to it, joining in with their own observations and anecdotes.
While I enjoyed almost everything about this book, I didn’t care much for the storyteller’s story as a piece of entertainment. I found it useful from an anthropological point of view and a great device to work in all kinds of things about the history, geography, family relationships and various other aspects of the culture of the region – but the two strangers themselves are pasteboard and rather annoying in some ways. They are tourists, a loving couple, the woman French and beautiful, and the man may or may not be an Indian - at one point I wondered whether he was actually a cameo appearance by the author himself. However, we learn very little about them and more about almost everything else the storyteller tells of – including his own family, and the story-telling tradition he has inherited from his father.
This book shows us different aspects of this multi-layered society and what I found most fascinating was the women we get a glimpse of. As children, the storyteller and his brothers are vaccinated by a woman doctor - the leader of a medical team visiting their remote village. On the square we see not just a beggar woman and a witch woman but housewives too. And yet, we are also witness to the public molestation of the beautiful stranger on the square

You can’t blame the men for what happened next. A woman like that isn’t worthy of respect. She was dancing like an animal in the dusty earth. She’d advanced into the middle of the circle by this time. Now she stopped a few times before some of the men as if challenging them. She was stoking their fire, taunting them to let themselves go.
What we learn from the storyteller is how difficult it is to arrive at a version of the truth because each person’s perception varies so much and depends not just on their different views – but also on the way in which they present these views.
What I enjoyed most about this book is the descriptions of the Jemaa which bring it alive with all its different characters, colourful wares, and powerful traditional music.