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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China by Jay Taylor

Jay Taylor Wins 2010 Lionel Gelber Prize for Book on Chiang Kai-shek

The GeneralissimoJay Taylor, a U.S. Foreign Service specialist and Harvard University researcher on China for many decades, has won the 2010 Lionel Gelber Prize for his book The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

According to Jury Chair George Russell, The Generalissimo is a remarkable achievement, a fresh and impeccably documented approach to a vital issue that puts the histories of the Chinese Revolution and of Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists in a new and more favourable light. For decades since the Chinese Communist revolution, the triumphalist historical view of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party dominated. Chiang was viewed as a greedy villain and a puppet of Western capitalist influences. It is a tribute to Taylor’s objectivity that his own views changed as he researched the topic.

The jurors agreed that this was an important, intriguingly written contribution that would stand the test of time and would be an important corrective to another era’s intellectual fashion, as China itself is forced to consider the continuing remarkable success of the Republic of China. That success owes a great deal to the austere and contradictory personality of Chiang Kai-shek, which Taylor brilliantly illuminates.”

I'm really excited to see this book win such a prestigious prize. I haven't read it yet, but anyone with a finger on the pulse of Chinese history will tell you that a revisionist history book on Chiang Kai-Shek was long overdue.

From the Globe and Mail:

Mr. Chiang was given the name General Cash-My-Cheque by U.S. officials to whom he regularly went for financial aid while fighting the Japanese and Communists. During and after the wars, his regimes were seen as plagued by corruption (though Mr. Taylor's research suggests the generalissimo himself was not on the take).

His rehabilitation comes as relations are rapidly warming between Beijing and Taipei, where the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) was voted back to power in 2008 after an eight-year absence. With the Kuomintang now seen as the most Beijing-friendly of Taiwan's political parties, quarrels over history have been shoved aside in favour of the closer economic and cultural ties that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou both seek.

More controversial is a new reassessment of Mr. Chiang that argues that although the Nationalist chief lost the war, it was he who laid the foundations for China's current rise, by reuniting the country and by securing for Beijing one of the five permanent, veto-wielding seats on the United Nations Security Council.

Drawing from 56 years of Mr. Chiang's own diaries, in addition to Chinese, American and Russian sources, Mr. Taylor's biography The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China surmises that while Mr. Chiang made some enormous errors – most notably the White Terror campaign of arrests and executions unleashed on his political opponents in Taiwan – his accomplishments outweigh the harm done.

“I came to the conclusion that Chiang did commit crimes against humanity in Taiwan … but on the balance he comes out as having made some remarkable contributions to Chinese history,” says Mr. Taylor, a historian and former U.S. government intelligence analyst, who has also written a biography of Mr. Chiang's son and successor to power, Chiang Ching-kuo.

Indeed, in his conclusion, Mr. Taylor says that even though Mr. Chiang lost the war to Mao's Communists, his ideas won the longer struggle to shape China. He argues that the country today's Communist Party presides over is in many respects closer to Mr. Chiang's vision than to Mao's.

“If the Chiangs could see modern Shanghai and Beijing, they might well believe that their long-planned ‘ counterattack' had succeeded and that their successors had recovered the mainland,” Mr. Taylor writes in the conclusion of Generalissimo.

“Truly, it is their vision of modern China, not Mao's, that guides the People's Republic in the 21st century.”

Although China is rethinking Mr. Chiang, that last idea is far too revisionist for Mao's heirs. Mr. Taylor's book is being translated into traditional Chinese ahead of its Taiwan publication, but he doesn't expect to see it on Beijing book- shelves any time soon.

The Far Eastern Economic Review reviews the book here

And one more from the Washington Post.

A good companion read might be Hannah Pakula's "The Last Empress" ( a biography on Soong Mei-ling (1897-2003), usually called Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

My Life as Emperor by Su Tong

After Chinese author Su Tong won the Man Asian literary Prize for 2009 for "The Boat to Redemption" my curiosity was piqued and I vowed to get to a book of his that I had sitting on my shelf for years, "My Life as an Emperor". I bought this book in Singapore and after a hurried read of its synopsis had the idea that it was historical fiction, but it's NOT!

Su Tong has set this book (about a fictitious Chinese Emperor and his doomed Kingdom) in a deliberately hard-to-guess era. In the epilogue he says he did this deliberately because he wanted the freedom of using imagination over fact. However, he writes so convincingly and in the same vein as some of my other favorite authors of historical fiction, that several times I came close to googling the "Xie" dynasty and Imperial family, believing they were real people.

"I hope my readers do not approach 'My Life as Emperor' with the idea that it is historical fiction; that is why I have set the novel in no particular time. Identifying allusions and determining the accuracy of events places too great a burden on you and on me. The world of women and the palace intrigues that you will encounter in this novel are but a scary dream on a rainy night; the suffering and slaughter reflect my worries and fears for all the people in all worlds, and nothing more."

Fourteen-year old Duanbai came to the throne after the sudden death of his Imperial father. To say he was unprepared for this honor or responsibility would be putting it mildly. He had no social graces, limited hobbies and no real intelligence. His favorite thing to do was to listen to caged crickets sing and he was afraid of going to bed alone because he had nightmares populated by "white demons . . . raising a sad wail."

But it wasn't long before he was intoxicated on the power that being king brings. He realized that it didn't really matter how smart or intelligent he was, what people really respected was someone they could fear. Being cruel seemed to come naturally to him and one of his first imperial acts was to cut off the tongues of concubines confined in the cold Palace, because their sorrowful wailing at night disturbed his sleep.

Most courts are places of intrigue, gossip, mind games and so on, but the one that Duanbai presided over seemed to have cruelty at the top of its list. Not only was Duanbai cruel, but so was his grandmother Madame Huangfu, the Empress Dowager who wielded the actual political power, Lady Ming (his mother) and Lady Ping (his wife). Infact, it's hard to find a single sympathetic character in the book, although, Duanbai's eunuch attendant and closest friend (their relationship is shrouded in ambiguity), Swallow, might come close.

Now, the dandy Prince Duanbai has two half brothers who believed with all their might that Duanwe, the elder of the two, and son of the imperial concubine Madame Yang, was the rightful heir. Throughout the young cruel king's time on the throne he is constantly afraid of Duanwe and of the day he might wrest the crown away from Duanbai. The day comes to pass but Duanwe, who is obviously more merciful than Duanbai, doesn't take the king's life but expels him from court and tells him to live life as a commoner. The dethroned king leaves to follow a childhood dream, that of becoming a tightrope walker in a travelling circus . Incidentally, I found that it is at this point that the story actually came alive for me, infact, it almost takes on the garb of a parable with Duanbai learning that loyalty, love and doing what you are most passionate about makes you a happier person than limitless power.

While this may be a little book, Su Tong skillfully manages to weave plenty imagery and symbolism into a tantalizing web of meanings. I have to confess I didn't discover all these meanings for myself but discovered them after reading this review. It is an indepth and academic review of "My Life as Emperor", so go ahead and read it for more insights. And in case you missed you missed those parts of the novel that alludes both to China's past, particularly the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and to the nation's uncertain future, please read this review....the author certainly manages to uncover far more depth and matter to this novel than I ever could. Fascinating stuff!

If Imperial China fascinates you as much as it does me, have a look at's page on "Royalty in China" for some book recommendations.

Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang

Yesterday I finally saw Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" based on a story by Shanghai writer, Eileen Chang. The movie left such an impression on me, I just knew I had to grab a copy of "Lust, Caution" to see how true the movie was to the story. Besides that, I was very curious to read something by Eileen Chang. I had read that she was a Chinese wordsmith, a linguistic queen with a vocabulary so large she regaled her readers with a bewildering panoply of baroque names for ornaments, fabrics, plants, and bric-a-brac, many of which have become remote and quaint to us. But the most gratifying moments of Chang's prose belong to the many deliciously refreshing and always piquant metaphors and similes that enliven the descriptive passages between saucy and spirited dialogue. Now which reader can pass up such delicious-sounding prose? Certainly not me!

Lust, Caution is the title story of a collection of five stories, most of which were published in the 1940s when Eileen Chang was in her 20s. The title story, which was begun in the 1950s and not published until 1979, is set in China, during the Japanese occupation in World War II.

This is the story in a nutshell: A young student and actress named
Wong Chia Chi has agreed to be the central figure in the assassination of a Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee. Using the alias of Mak Tai Tai (Mrs. Ma) and the fictional Mr. Mak, Wong befriends Mr. Yee's wife, Yee Tai Tai, and eventually seduces her husband in order to kill him. However, just as she is about to have him killed, something unexpected happens which changes the course of both their lives. I cannot reveal exactly what happens because that would a huge spoiler!

As I couldn't find a copy of "Lust,Caution" at the library or even at my local bookstore, I downloaded the story from It had a very short running time, only 90 mins, so the fact that it was made into a full length feature film (run time:
two and a half hours) is perhaps a testament to the author's wonderful prose and plot. Chang has this way of giving the reader so much information but without being too wordy. She has also mastered the art of giving the reader the illusion that the prose and the pace is unhurried and leisurely when in actual fact there is a lot that is happening on every page! Besides the stylistic prose, the irresistible themes of lust, love, betrayal, kinship, jealousy, espionage etc. keep the reader (or listener) mesmerized.

Having said that all that, however,I benefited greatly by seeing Ang Lee's film first. The film provides a good historical background to the story, something that the story itself neglects to do, it also provides more background information on the characters. The story does make references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai and the apathy of the people of Hongkong to the plight of the displaced people of Canton, but it's choppy and probably would require that the reader google some of the events to get a better idea of that time in history. However, the story is a treat to read and Chang's sparkling and witty dialogues are not to be missed...but if you want to enjoy it fully, watch the movie too!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel

Format: Trade Paperback, 208 pages
Publisher: Other Press
ISBN: 978-1-59051-326-2 (1-59051-326-6)

Pub Date: June 30, 2009
Price: $18.95

In recent years, there has been no shortage of expat-written nonfiction books set in Beijing, but fiction in the same category is hard to come by. That is why Jonathan Tel's new story collection, The Beijing of Possibilities, caught my eye the moment I saw it on the Commonwealth Writers' Prize 2010 short list (thanks, Leela Soma and Rob) .

It's a slim little volume with a most intriguing cover art of a pretty Chinese lady with what appears to be sightless eyes. When friends and I first saw the cover design we had a nice discussion of what that might signify...was she looking "inside" herself or was she deliberately refusing to "see" that which is obvious to everyone else? Don't you just love cover art that intrigues? I did some research on the art and found out it has been taken from the Reed Darmon collection. Reed Darmon is the person responsible for the "Made in China" graphics book and you can learn more about it here.

To come back to the stories...all twelve invoke Beijing in some way or the other even if the stories themselves vary widely in time period and location.
The most notable aspect of Tel's storytelling is how he recounts modern facts about China but interwoven with Chinese folk tales (and superstitions). The Monkey Legend seems to be his favorite one and the first story of the collection "Year of the Gorilla" begins with the sentence, "It's been a while since the Monkey King set out on his Journey to the West", with "A Journey to the West" being the title of this much-loved legend and folk tale.

Another trait I noticed is his ability to blend old China with the new and no story illustrates that better than "
The Most Beautiful Woman In China.” which links together two thousand years of Chinese history, while being set in Beijing today! One generic character that makes his or her appearance in many of the stories is the 'Chinese migrant' and after reading a lot of topical articles on China I have come to the realization that Beijing, even more than Shanghai, is a mecca for the Chinese is the land of opportunity, the land where dreams come true or as Tel himself describes in the title, it is the land full of possibilities.

"Beijing is the center of the universe. Ask anybody who lives there. “The true Beijinger secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
—in a foreword by Helan Xiao

One of my favorite migrant characters in this collection is from the title story. Miss Xu is a fisherman's daughter but "foster" mother to the child of a young couple in Beijing. The couple have hired Miss Xu to look after their as-yet-unborn child because they are too busy to care for the child ten or twelve years time they'll be ready to take the child to live with them. Unfortunately the child dies before they could hand it over to Miss Xu but because she had been registered in Bejing as a "foster mother" Miss Xu lands herself an unexpected ticket to residency in Beijing which is to most Chinese what an American green card is to refugees!
Ofcourse, being a "hick" from Hainan (a sleepy little fishing village) she was treated as an outcast in Beijing which makes for a very moving story.

Tel also has this ability to infuse his stories with playful plots and language. Amusing, but a little sad too, is "The Book of Auspicious and Inauspicious Dreams" where a young, modern couple, during renovations to their 1960's home, chance upon a rusty tin of souvenirs buried in a wall of their suburban Beijing house. Realizing it must belong to the previous owner they do everything to try to return the tin, only to be met with exclamations of protests from the previous owner who insisted she had never laid eyes on the tin before and that she "loved Chairman Mao more than her own mother and father" which reminds the reader of a turbulent time in China's history
where to be a lover of the arts or to have "western" things meant having a "bourgeois" background which in turn meant being sent to the villages for "reeducation"...something that was a tough and humiliating experience for most intellectuals.

I found a couple of the stories had the overall effect of looking at a subtly distorted mirror but for the most part Tel's prose and plots are smart, entertaining, observant and insightful. It's most definitely a collection to cherish.

Oh, and before I go...I haven't been able to explain the girl on the cover. My best guess is that she is "Little Yu" from the heart warmingly sad story, "The Three Lives of Little Yu" about a childless couple who adopt a little girl whom they call "Yu" only to have her snatched away by the god of death. They adopt a second girl and call her "Yu" too, but the same fate awaits her. When the third girl, again called "Yu" enters their family it is implied that she is a reincarnation of the previous little girls. So could the girl on the cover have been Yu between her lives on earth? I guess I am getting carried away. I'll bet you not even Jonathan Tel thought about his cover as much as I have! :) Oh and whatever you do, don't miss the last story....there's a nice twist in the tale there, a brilliant narrative coup!

Two insightful reviews that might interest you are:

L. Dean Murphy at The Book Reporter

and Happy Reader at Book Closet

And finally, some entertainment! A clip from the pop opera, "Monkey: Journey to the West"

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin

(Coming soon: 08 April in the UK and 29June in the US)

For a polygamist like Baba Segi, his collection of wives and a gaggle of children are the symbol of prosperity, success and validation of his manhood. Everything runs reasonably smoothly in the patriarchal home, until wife number four intrudes on this family romance.

Bolanle, a graduate amongst the semi-literate wives, is hated from the start. Baba Segi's glee at bagging a graduate doesn't help matters. Worse, Bolanle's arrival threatens to do more than simply ruffle feathers. She's unwittingly set to expose a secret that her co-wives intend to protect, at all costs.

Lola Shoneyin's light and ironic touch exposes not only the rotten innards of Baba Segi's polygamous household in this cleverly plotted story; it also shows how women no educated or semi-literate, women in contemporary Nigeria can be as restricted, controlled and damaged by men - be they fathers, husbands, uncles, rapists - as they've never been.