Monday, July 31, 2006

Journey to Mysore: Part One

Drove up to Mysore (130 kms from Bangalore) a couple of days ago. I was very excited about the trip because Mysore is well-known for its beautiful gardens, palaces, shady avenues, sugarcane juice, silk and sandalwood carvings/oil. Enroute, we obeyed the rumblings of our stomach and stopped at "Kamat Lokaruchi" a restaurant nestled among lovely palm trees, a river and other greenery, for a meal from the northern part of Karnataka (the state which hosts the cities of Mysore and Bangalore). Although the jowar roti and eggplant curry are considered specialties, my favorite was the dill herb curry cooked with spices and coconut milk. Lunch was served on green plaintain leaves and I was left licking my fingers long after my meal was consumed.A sweet end to the meal was a delicious dried- fruit ladoo which was whipped out from a cupboard (a rather unusual way to store these sweetmeats, I thought) and later I noticed that the cupboard even had a lock which made me feel like I was truly savoring a very precious delight.

Forgot to mention that the curd and buttermilk served with our lunch was obtained from cows kept on the premises, also, we were served by very pleasant local people dressed in Gandhi caps and dhotis.

The drive to Mysore from Bangalore is a very pleasant one and along the way, if you're so inclined you can stop at various interesting places like, "Ramanagar" well known for its silk cocoon market, the silk from which is woven to make the very famous, Mysore silk saris(picture below). Then there's "Channapatna" famous for its wooden toys; "Mandya" for its sugar mills (infact there are numerous sugarcane fields along the drive) and finally "Srirangapattana" set within and around the ruins of Tipu Sultan's fort.

As we arrived into Mysore, we had a flat tyre , but the gods ensured that it happened just outside a bodywork place, or as they call it in India, a tyre shop. Whilst they were fitting the spare tyre onto our SUV I visited a government school whose gate we had stopped infront of. I requested permission to take a picture of the teacher giving a lesson - the class was filthy, the walls unpainted. The amenities were basic with just a couple of benches (no desks), the kids (grade 6) received all their instruction orally. Primary education is free for children from low-income families and despite the condition of the school, I was happy to see these kids receiving an education.

Just Outside the school was this local couple weaving window blinds (you can see some of the students of the school I visited peeping over their school yard (notice one of the students is barefooted and the other seems to possess just an ordinary pair of rubber flip-flops. None of the students had shoes).

The lady in the picture is wearing a small garland of flowers in her hair and this is a typical hair adornment for most women in the state of Karnataka. The flowers are usually the sweet-smelling jasmine, but I am not sure what the orange flowers are called. She also has the red kum-kum at the parting of her hair which indicates she is a married woman.

Hope you've enjoyed this little trip to Mysore from Bangalore and hope you will stay tuned for pictures from Mysore in part 2.

(Sari pic. courtesy yourmanindia)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Namaste from India

Namaste from Bangalore, India!

Happy to report we're having a wonderful time here. The weather's a balmy 23-24C during the day and cooler in the evenings. I have been stuffing my face with all the munchies I can lay my hands on like Masala Dosas (Indian crepes), idlis (rice cakes) and vadas (lentil dumplings) and washing them down with ganna (sugarcane) juice. As for the desserts - I'll have to dedicate a whole new post to them I'm afraid!

I've also been attending Yoga classes on a regular basis after having been inspired by a yoga clothing store called "Urban Yoga" (pictures on top). They have the cutest little tank tops with ethnic Indian prints and symbols and the best part about the store is that these cute little lycra t-shirts are priced so economically with most items under $15 (CAD)

As for reading, the most recent one I've finished is titled "Remember Me" by Lisa Takeuchi Cullen and published by Harper Collins. Like its subtitle suggests, it is a lively tour of the rites and rituals surrounding death in America. Clearly, I am old fashioned for I never thought there was more to a funeral in the US than a whole body burial at the cemetry or a cremation, but apparently "green" burials, or turning a loved one's ashes into diamonds and the bizarre practice of modern "mummification" are slowly gaining popularity among Americans who are clearly keen to be more creative with how they mark the death of a loved one. While the subject matter may sound morbid, it is anything but. Lisa Takeuchi Cullen (staff writer for the TIME magazine) has tackled this subject in a very entertaining and informative way giving you a whole new perspective on funerals. Now I wish someone would write a book examining the different ways in which people from all over the world celebrate death - I am sure we can learn a thing or two.

We will be travelling to the palace city of Mysore tomorrow, so more after we return.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Blogging Hiatus

It's vacation time and I am off tomorrow so this little blog will go on hiatus until I can find an internet connection in India. Our first stop is the city of London where we plan on being regular tourists, doing all the sight-seeing we possibly can. I have to admit the one-year anniversary of the London subway bombings have left me slightly wary about using the tube. What is it about us humans that make us so apprehensive about something that is highly unlikely to happen and yet carefree about more likely disasters like global warming ??? Is it because global warming doesn't roam around with a backpack?

After London we will be heading for sunny India, more specifically to the garden city of Bangalore. For more on Bangalore, do visit Itinerant's (Shashikiran Mullur) Bangalore Jottings/Files. I will try to blog from Bangalore with pictures, but it will have to wait until I can find that elusive internet connection!

Well, guess it's time to say "au revoir" or see you soon. Have a beautiful summer everyone - I will miss you!

Sorry I couldn't write everyone personally to say à bientôt, but as you may imagine, things have been pretty crazy here.

(pic. courtesy The New York Times)

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices by Xinran

# Category: Social Science - Anth/Cultural; Social Science - Women's Studies

# Format: Trade Paperback, 256 pages

# Published: November 11, 2003, Random House

Meet Xinran

An Interview with the author on BBC's Women's Hour

"The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices" is a little book, but whatever you do, don't let its size fool you because its contents are capable of hitting you hard in the solar plexus.

This is a collection of stories about women in China put together by a journalist named Xinran who from 1989-1997 ran an incredibly popular radio show for Chinese women called "Words on the Night Breeze". The show was made possible as a result of reforms brought in by the Deng Xiaoping government and it was groundbreaking in its attempt to allow women, for the first time in sexually and culturally repressed China, to talk about their feelings on love, marriage, relationships, sex, sexual preferences, physical violence and so on. Listeners were encouraged to call the night show and leave messages for Xinran on any topic they felt like unburdening their hearts on (anonymously, ofcourse) and she would play and discuss these messages on the radio the next day. But, BUT, this being a Communist Party controlled radio station, the broadcast ran with a ten second delay and a censor was always on hand ready to pull the plug! All credit must go to Xinran (or the Chinese Oprah Winfrey as she was often referred to) for handling the calls, some of which address taboo subjects like homosexuality etc.) so adeptly.

Historically, women in China have been commodities: things to be used and reused until they were worn out. The Cultural Revolution (which is where many of Xinran's stories have their roots) for all its proclamations of equality, treated women just as badly as in feudal times. Young women were raped mercilessly by the Red Guard in-charge and educated women (from the capitalist class) were forced in marriage to peasant revolutionary men while their peasant wives had to struggle on in the village bringing up kids on their own with no chance at a remarriage- all of this created a generation of women who felt like they were worthless and powerless.

But thanks to this radio program , the Chinese women now had a voice. Many of their stories of incest, rape, forced child marriages, death etc., caused Xinran to weep and made her determined to tell these women's stories to the world, even if it put her life at risk.

While I appreciate Xinran going to such lengths to publish this book, I have to ask myself the question: Who does this book really benefit? No amount of copies sold is going to change the way women in China are treated unless their own government introduces reforms to change their lives. Therefore it stands to only benefit those of us who read it. Although I felt like a terrible voyeur, peeking into the lives of these poor women, it sure made me thankful for the life I have, also, I have come away with keener insights to Chinese thinking on love and sex. It seems to me that they take love to extremes - either they don't expect it at all (most marriages appear to be loveless ones) or they will starve themselves and commit suicide over a lost love they may have hardly known. Sex is definitely a taboo subject as a result of which many Chinese women are woefully ignorant about it - when Xinran was 22 years old she still believed that you could get pregnant simply by holding your boyfriend's hand!

My little peeves about the book: Xinran presents these harrowing stories of women in modern China, but she doesn't provide any solutions or ideas as to how the suffering of the Chinese women may be alleviated. Also, some parts of it, especially the serendipitous meetings with a couple of women callers, seem contrived and not altogether believable. Nevertheless, this is a good book for every woman, and also every man, to read and you come away very thankful for your lot in life. I will warn you however, that should you choose to make this a summer read, be prepared for these sad stories to cause your warm summer air to chill a little.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Caliph's House: A Year in Casablanca by Tahir Shah

# Category: Travel

# Format: Hardcover, 368 pages

# On Sale: January 31, 2006

# Related Links:

Author's website

Pictures of renovated Caliph's House or Dar Khalifa where Tahir Shah still lives.

Radio Interview with Author on WNYC

When writer and film maker,
Tahir Shah, became a father, he, like most parents, started looking to the future, and realizing that a life in organized and sanitized London would do nothing for his children's sense of adventure and simply promote cultural insularity, he decided to move his family to a place where he spent many an enjoyable day when he was a child - Casablanca! (Tahir's father was famed Sufi poet, Idries Shah, who drove his family from London to Casablanca every summer because the Atlas mountains reminded him of his home in Afghanistan, which was now inaccessible owing to the Taliban occupation)

Moving to and settling in Casablanca was no joke and even though they managed to get themselves a sprawling house which was once the palace of a former Caliph, it was in a terrible state of deterioration and urgently needed huge repairs in order to make it habitable again. Also, it was located right in the middle of a bidonville or a slum, but most troubling, it was reputed to be infested with Jinns who are attracted by empty houses (more on that later).

In those first few months everything that could go wrong, did and quite frankly, if I were Tahir Shah's wife Rachna, who had a 3-week old baby at the time of the move, I would have packed my bags and returned to London. In Morocco, house renovations rarely involve a signed contract, it's all via a verbal agreement thus resulting in a customer having very little hold on the contractor. The craftsmen would be prompt to start on a project, or several projects in the home, but they could take months finishing it.

"Why the hell can't they finish one damn thing before they move on?" I complained again and again.

Kamal would creep behind me, his head low. "It's the Moroccan way," he would reply. "We may not finish things, but we start them so well!"

"The Caliph's House" is primarily a first-person account of Shah's family's relocation to Morocco, but it is so much more. It's a journey into his ancestory, ethnicity and also a beautiful cultural peek into Casablanca, its people, customs, especially its society's close association with the supernatural, in particular, the Jinns.

"...They go by various names - Jinns, Genies, Jnun- and are believed by all to share the earth with us, living in animate objects. They are born, get marries, bear children, and die, just like us. Most of the time they are invisible to humans, but they can take almost any form they wish, most commonly appearing in the hours after dusk, disguised as cats, dogs or scorpions. Although there are some good jinns, most are wicked. Nothing gives them greater pleasure than injuring humans for the discomfort they imagine we cause them"

Tahir Shah, has done a great job of introducing Morocco to his readers and the account of the renovation of the house made for great reading although I do wonder if he went too far in uprooting his young children from their secure and stable London home and subjecting them the Caliph's House with its decay, the rat infestations, the bloody animal sacrifices meant to appease the jinns and the fetid shanty-town that surrounded the house. But then again, his kids have his genes and noting from his earlier books where he travels to King Solomon Mines in Ethiopia, the Upper Amazon in search of shrunken heads and meeting primitive tribes in Central India, nothing is 'too far' for Tahir Shah.

And then, he makes a good case for why Morocco was attractive to him. He says, Morocco was the first time in his life when he became completely alert. "...In the West, you can drift from day to day in the knowledge that society will protect you and your children. Any problems, and someone will pick you up and dust you off. But after five minutes on North African soil, I knew it was up to me to guard my family. No one else was watching them."

This rang true for me, too. When I lived in India I felt my wits were constantly sharpened because, I had to live by them 24/7. I am a lot more relaxed here in Canada. I feel in some ways my reflexes are so much slower here because I don't need them as much. That lack of safety I felt in Asia was an energizing force but also a huge concern, but is my adopted country cushioning me too much?

In closing, I really enjoyed the book. I feel like I have been given a private viewing into the lives of the people of Morocco. I have learned that while they are extremely superstitious, they are also a very proud nation, where family and honor come before anything else. You can tell that the author came to care deeply for the place and its people, every page in his 368-page book gives him away.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

I want to read this book!

"The Looming Fog" by Rosemary Esehagu

# Paperback: 288 pages

# Publisher: Oge Creations Books (June 15, 2006)

I am so pleased and proud to announce that Rosemary Esehagu, who sometimes comments on this blog, has just had her literary debut! "The Looming Fog" which has been published by Oge Creations Books is now available through Amazon, Rosemary's website and at most brick and mortar book stores.

Here is a quick synopsis: ( I promise to do a longer review after I read it which will probably be a couple of weeks from now)

In an isolated village in Nigeria, an intersexed child is born and is instantly motherless. Abandoned by the father at the age of seven, the nameless child is plagued by the isolation and loneliness created by the lack of a social role in the community. When the child receives the gift of omniscient sight and learns of two young women, Kayinne and Onuwa, who despite poverty, subordination, and tragedies are still driven to influence their world, the child realizes that while lacking a defined role in society is a problem, it is even worse to not have the opportunity to choose the roles that dictate one’s life. With these problems, how can one live? How can one ever be happy? Is happiness still genuine if it is at the condemnation of others?

The Looming Fog explores the uniquely human desire to not just live, but to live well—a desire that is the source of our greatest accomplishments and failures.

Sounds so intriguing and thought-provoking! If I wasn't so busy getting ready for this vacation I would have devoured the book the day I received it from Amazon, stopping only to eat and sleep. I can't wait to read this book!

Found this review at News Blaze