Monday, March 29, 2010

Dahanu Road by Anosh Irani

Category: Fiction Format: Hardcover, 320 pages Publisher: Doubleday Canada ISBN: 978-0-385-66699-2 (0-385-66699-3) Pub Date: March 30, 2010 Price: $29.95

It might not be too much of a stretch to state that Rohinton Mistry, Bapsi Sidhwa, Dina Mehta etc. are essentially Parsi writers, not just because they follow the Zorastrian religion, but also because their books portray Parsi life, their writings shed light on the issues affecting the Parsi community in India and by describing in detail the esoteric rituals and Zorastrian festivities like Navroze and so on, their works assert their ethnic identity. In other words, the tempo of Parsi life is infused in their writing.

The Iranis are also Zorastrian community living in India and Anosh Irani's "Dahanu Road", does for the Irani community what Mistry did for the Parsis in some of his books - presented us with a look into the lives and sensibilities of the Irani community- many of whom live in an area called
"Dahanu", a town on the outskirts of Bombay.

Many of the early Irani migrants to India settled in the area and bought up a lot of fruit farms (Dahanu is well known for its bountiful chickoo crop) from the indigenous people called "Warlis". Warlis were the original farm owners (tribals) but drinking debts (and confiscation of their land by the British) forced many of them to sell their land to the Iranis and who in turn made the Warlis work for them.

"Dahanu Road" is based, in part, on Anosh Irani's ancestors. Through the two main characters, Shapur Irani and his grandson, Zairos Irani, Anosh is able to tell us, the readers, the story of how the Iranis came to be in India . Shapur arrived in India as a kid with his father from a place called Yazd in Iran. His father loved Iran but decided to move because of religious persecution. In India, not only did they find refuge but also a way for them to put their business skills to good use. Many, like Shapur, bought fruit farms in Dahanu and became land owners, but a large majority moved to the city (Bombay) and became hoteliers (the Irani cafes of Bombay are world famous), confectioners/bakers and liquor retailers.

So the story goes back and forth (seamlessly I will add) between the 1940's when Shapur was in his prime to the early 2000's when Zairos comes into his own. Shapur is representative of the old generation where the landowner was Lord and quite literally King of all he surveyed. The Warlis possessed little or no say and were no better than slaves on the land that was once theirs.

Zairos represents the new generation. Not only is he uncomfortable with being lord and master of the Warlis but it's come to a point where the Warlis do not revere him as they once revered his grandfather. Also, in Shapur's day if the Boss wanted to sleep with one of his workers' wives, he could just "take" her. But Zairos was not like that...he wanted Kusum one of the Warli girls that worked on his farm and instead of taking her in secret he had an open love affair with her which made him a laughing stock but which also brought him grudging respect.

To me, this is an ideal is a love story, it has history, great storytelling, wonderful characters, an unusual plot, and best of all, it is set in a locale not familiar to too many people and in a community that is slowly becoming extinct - the Zorashtrian Iranis of Western India.
Reading this book provides the reader the opportunity to discover another culture altogether, with its different rhythms, tastes, smells and ways of being human.

Anosh Irani's writing sparkles as usual (he is also the author of "The Song of Kahunsha" which I enjoyed tremendously). The prose is animated, lyrical and has such a meditative quality to it that very often I'd put the book aside and reflect on a statement that I'd just read.

"Night would fall soon. Shapur Irani always thought of dusk as a beggar. It had no light, it had no darkness; it lived on the scraps that were fed to it by day and night."

Also, I love how he captures the Irani community at play and at work, I especially loved the gatherings at Anna's place which is where the Irani men would gather together...just like an old boys club.

"At Anna's they were like beasts in a cave where they could fart, joke, smoke, abuse and pontificate. Ofcourse they could do this anywhere, but Anna's was the home ground. Each morning after making a round of their chickoo farms, the Iranis would gather here and drink tea, coffee or Pepsi. Cigarette smoke gave the place a sinister haze, like fog in a cemetery. Yet the place was alive, full of joy and horniness and credit had to be given to Anna's steaming chai and his steamy wife" pg 24

Irani also has a very strong feel for relationships and such a poetic way of describing moods:

"Mithoo, who in all these years had rarely been anything but chipper, now cooked in silence, her tea was hot but lacked warmth, and when she sad on the swing outside, her cream skirt failed to flow or flutter even a tiny bit"

To sum up, this is a story that is simply told but very deeply felt. Enjoy it.


starry said...

thanks for the interesting review.makes me want to read it.

Sanjay said...

Hey Lotus, thank you for yet another wonderful book review.
As always you bring out the salient features of this book so well. Loved the lyrical prose.
Was there a sense of wistfulness about a time long past?
And if so do you think the exploitation of the Warlis was seen thru a soft focus lens?
Was the generational gap in the treatment of the Warlis just a little more compassionate but it continued via Zairos?
How about the women characters in this book? Where they as well etched out or strong (if I may use that term) as the men?
Sorry about the many Qs.
Love the new look of the blog too.

Leela Soma said...

How little we know of our diverse popualtion in India and their historie? I had heard of Irani cafe's in Mumbai and their fantastic bakeries and biriyanis. This lyrical, historical fiction tempts our palate like a basket of ripe chikoos. Thanks Angie for drawing comparisons with Mistry, Sidwa and other authors to help us understand the context of this group of people. Your reviews wants me to buy and read the books so my TBR pile is growing ever more!

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks Starry, I would be delighted if you did for I'd have someone to discuss it with! Let me know if you do!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanjay! I welcome the questions actually for it gives me the chance to elaborate on the book, so thanks for them!

Ummm, I don't know if I detected any wistfulness for the past in Iran, but, yes, the old man Shapur Irani I suppose did wish that things could remain as they were when he first arrived in some extent we all feel quite nostalgic for the past and often our memories tend to paint it in rosy colours. In the end I am not sure if our pasts are any different from now. What do you say?

Yes, I would definitely say that the attitude towards the Warlis was in the process of change and it wasn't all because of Zairos. The Warlis were being coached by activists to stand up for themselves which is a very good thing. I still cannot believe that their land was taken away from them without so much as a by your leave!

There is one main woman character in the book Sanj, and she has been wonderfully fleshed out by Irani. She's strong both in mind and body...loyal, loving, hard working and stoic too. There are other minor women characters too and each of them bring something solid and interesting to the story.

Thanks for noticing the new look! I was about to give up on Blogger and then the new draft template comes along! :)

Lotus Reads said...

This lyrical, historical fiction tempts our palate like a basket of ripe chikoos.

Love this line Leela! I might want to steal it from you sometime! :)
Thanks so much for the comment. You are so right, India's rich and diverse subcultures provides such fodder for writers, researchers, historians, anthropologists and curious people like us. :) I love it!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great read. The irony is that it is impossible to find Irani's books here in India! There are very expensive imported editions but nobody seems to have thought he would fit well into the Indian writing in English market here. Wonder why.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Grant!

Great to hear from you! Took a quick look at your blog and I'm most impressed. I intend to make time to visit and absorb some of the lovely posts you have on there.

Irani is now Vancouver based and his books (three in all) have been published by Random House, Canada. Guess he doesn't have an Indian publisher yet which is a shame, because as you so rightly state, his writing would be a snug fit for the "Indian writing in English" genre.

Marilyn said...

Love this always - your attention to detail and bring the story out for all of us to peak at. Wonderful. This was a great pick, tough to get a work like that at the moment...hmmm though I was able to download some DH Lawrence while I have been here...perhaps if they have it on an e-reader I might be able to get this one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Lotus! I'd reviewed song of Kahunsha for Desilit, and was wondering about his forthcoming work. And now that you've termed this an "ideal book", I am totally going to check this out. Even though I *hate* chickoos!

Id it is said...

Thanks Lotus for yet another intriguing review...makes me want to pick this book right away :)
A few years ago when I was in India I met with some Iranian students who were on an exchange program with some University (I forget the name) in Western India. They appeared to really enjoy the experience and even had plans of finding jobs in Mumbai.

Happy Reader said...

What a brilliant review, Angie! Loved your thoughts on this book. I had already marked it for reading, but your review wants me to run to the store and snatch a copy right away. The passages you had quoted were so beautiful. I learnt so much about 'Zorastrians' from your page and the link you provided. Thanks much! For some reason, every time I read the term 'Zorastrian', it reminds me of 'Sourashtrians', the silk thread merchants from Saurashtra.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Marilyn!

As always you are so generous with your praise, thank you! Yes, it's tough enough finding Irani's work in India, it will be that much more difficult in China, although I daresay Amazon will ship anywhere! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Niranjana, how could you hate chickoos? :))) After Mangoes and pineapple they are my favourite fruit! Did you enjoy "Song of Kahunsha"? I know I did! I wish Irani was more prolific, don't you? Going to mosey around your blog now, I'm dying to find out what you've been reading!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Id! Always lovely to see you here. Yes, a great number of Iranian students study in India and many of them settle there too. Bangalore was full of them. The Iranis in "Dahanu Road" are the Iranians that came to India a little before the Partition. They have blended so well into the community, you wouldn't guess their ancestors had origins elsewhere.

Lotus Reads said...

HI Chitts! Yes, yes, I remember the Saurashtrians....but I didn't know they were silk thread weavers. How interesting! And is Saurashtra on the border between Gujarat and Maharashtra? As you can see, my geography is pretty rusty!

Happy Reader said...

Angie: You are right. Even though 'Gujarat' is their homeland, a greater majority of them later migrated to south india due to muslim invasions, seeking haven in Karnataka and Tamilnadu. One of my best friends from college is a 'Saurashtrian' - We used to have some interesting conversations.

Veens said...

I really want this one. I have not read anything on this culture or their life styles. Great review as always.

Lotus Reads said...

HI Chitts! You know, I haven't given Saurashtra or Saurashtrians any thought in years. Thanks to you I now want to go look them up on Wikipedia and learn more about the community. Thanks so much for rekindling that interest. India has such diverse communities as well you know...the anthropologist in me longs to find out more about each one.

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks Veens, you will like this book. Not only is Irani a great storyteller but he imparts to the reader so much information on the Irani community that it's quite a treat. I hope he will write more on this theme.

Happy Reader said...

Angie, Just read a review of 'Lotus Eaters' on NYTimes. Good to see that you have it on your wishlist. I'm planning to read it too so we can exchange our thoughts on it :)

Sanjay said...

Thank you for the response Lotus. How are you? Hope that you are having a good Easter.
To address your response, yes we are all nostalgic to some extent and may view it as rosy. I think change is constant, it is just that things seem simple when we were younger maybe?
Also the nostalgia the older man feels like is likely different. His past was so much about the power he had (benevolent or not) over the Warlis.
Thank you for telling me about the other main woman character in the movie, I take it she was Parsi? How does she compare to the Warli woman that Zairos fell for?

Lotus Reads said...

Chitts, definitely! I read the review too and the reviewer seems to love it, eh? :) I am told a copy is winging its way to me already but I am not sure when I'll get to it. I am really swamped at the moment! But don't worry, I'll make time for it and yes, we will exchange thoughts...excited! :))

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanju

It's difficult to compare the two women because they had entirely different personalities. One was weak but was surrounded by strong people and the other was strong but surrounded by weakness. That's all I should give away really! :) As always, thanks so much for your interest!

shirin said...

This seems like an awesome read! Would love to get my hands on this. I love Rohinton Mistry. A Fine Balance is my favorite book ever! I get the feeling that Irani's style of writing is similar - basically simple writing about a deceptively simple group of people, with hidden secrets.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Shirin!

Welcome, it is so nice of you to stop by! If you do get around to reading this novel I'd love to hear what you think about Irani's writing. His first novel, "The Cripple and the Talisman" was a fantasy or fable and had a very strong magic realism theme running through it which didn't quite grab me. I started to fall in love with his writing after I read "Song of Kahunsha", a Dickensian-like story about street kids in Bombay. I might go to listen to him read on Wednesday but I don't know for sure yet.

Priya Iyer said...

that sounds like an interesting read. thanks for the wonderful review!!

i have something on my blog for you... do come over and accept it! :)

Julia Dutta said...

First time here.....interesting as ever!

Lotus Reads said...

Julia, how very nice of you to drop by, thank you! I look forward to exploring your blog too!

The Pixy Princess said...

Love books that give us more of an insight into a particular community, and especially the Parsees. I have an alarming amount of Parsees who have married into my family!!!

Btw, have you read The Crow Eaters? Another Bapsi Sidhwa classic!

Uniskywriter said...

Yazd is a place I've been and wrote a little bit about it in "Americans in Iran", an opening chapter in a book set primarily in Thailand.

Zorasterians have a story to tell too and as a smaller religious group have much to contend with.

Anonymous said...

I read this book awhile back, it was truly mesmerizing. The imagery is incredible. The subtle details bring a rich story telling experience.