Saturday, July 30, 2005

Book Review: "Me & Emma" by Elizabeth Flock

ISBN: 0-7783-2082-0
March 2005
Mira Books

Eight-year old Caroline or Carrie Parker had an idyllic little life with a wonderful mom and dad in a place called Toast, North Carolina. Then her father died and her mother married again and after that everything seem to go downhill for her 6-year old sister, Emma and her. Her mother's new husband, Richard, was an alcoholic and abused the children in a not-so-fatherly way.

This is a beautifully written story and narrated by the 8-year old Carrie. It is amazing to note how the author can so accurately write in the voice of a child. The plight of the girls will bring tears to your eyes, but despite the story-telling skills of the author, this might have been just another story on abuse had it not been for the unexpected dramatic twist at the end.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Book Review: The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Book: Paperback | 129 x 198mm | 256 pages |

ISBN 0141015616 | 26 May 2005 | Penguin

This first novel by Amritsar-based writer, Rupa Bajwa, takes place in the old city area of Amritsar , the city famous for its Golden Temple, the place of worship of the Sikh sect of India. The story revolves around a sari shop, called "Sevak Sari House" set in the old bazaar of Amritsar. The colorful characters in the novel are made up of the men that work in the sari shop and the rich women that patronize the shop. I am always partial to stories of ordinary men and women, and this novel about the lives of the sari sellers, is no exception.

There are several note-worthy characters in 'The Sari Shop', but the one who stands out the most is Ramchand----a young sari salesman who is very sensitive to everything going on around him. He dislikes the life he lives currently---his one-room dark and dismal lodging, his mundane job, his aimless wandering around after work, his dhaba dinners, the Sunday matinees with his co-workers. He wants better for himself, but he's not sure what, until one day he is asked by his boss to take some saris to a customer's house for viewing. When Ramchand sees the affluence, status and dignity of these wealthy customers, he resolves to change his life by studying English (note that 'to study English' is to elevate one's status in life). His tentative forays into bookshops and picking out books to study English from will bring a smile to your face.

Chander, another sari seller, is an alcoholic and has the added burden of an alcoholic wife. Kamla, his wife, wasn't always prone to drink. Circumstances---poverty, the accidental death of her mother to which she was a witness, the loss of a job, Chander's alcoholism, and a miscarriage all contributed to driving her to alcohol and a madness that has her feared in her shanty town neighborhood. Ramchandra, being as senstive as he is, wants to help her. He knows that underneath the garb of an alcoholic lies a woman who is just a victim of circumstance (and not unlucky as her superstitious husband would believe). Unfortunately, no one is prepared to adopt a charitable view with regard to Kamla. Most of his co-workers believe that Chandra was justified in beating her because....

"...Maybe she has had difficulties, maybe she has had problems, but it is a woman's duty after all to take care of her husband and his home first, and later think about herself..."

Finally, when Kamla gets beaten and raped by a police constable for the crime of getting drunk and abusing a wealthy factory owner, Ramchandran cannot assuage his conscience any longer and decides to talk about Kamla's plight to one of the more educated customer's of his shop, a Mrs. Sachdeva, who happens to be a well-respected English teacher in a renowned high school in Amritsar. He feels certain that Mrs. Sachdeva would extend a helping hand to Kamla, but, to his great disappointment, Mrs. Sachdeva, instead of empathising with a less fortunate woman, berates Ramchandra for even daring to tell her Kamla's story.

This little incident speaks volumes of how the issue of class is handled in India. The
'haves' want to have nothing to do with the 'have-nots' and it's considered an insult to even approach them for help.

I love the title of the book because the Sari can be a metaphor for the lives of Indian women---the sari with its soft, flowing and beautiful materials can be an expression of grace, modesty and exoticness, but because of the way it wraps around the female form, it can also be restrictive, never allowing the woman to be exactly what she wants but constraining her to be that what society wants her to be.

Rupa Bajwa is truly a very gifted story-teller and a bit remniscent of Rohinton Mistry, in that, her main characters seem to have such sad lives and little to hope for.

This book received a lot of prestigious nominations, including the Commonwealth Prize, the KIRIYAMA PRIZE and the Orange Prize for fiction.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Book Review: "Inside the Kingdom" by Carmen Bin Ladin

I surprised myself by enjoying this book. I say "surprised" because I thought it was just going to be a mundane reflection on the aristocratic Iranian-Swiss author's marriage to Yeslam Bin Ladin (half-brother to The Osama), but instead it read like a social and cultural commentary on the people, especially the women, of Saudi Arabia. It is true that the author also spent time talking about her relationship with the Bin Ladins, but it was not excessive. The message I thought the author was trying to convey is that it must be the ultimate misfortune to be born a Saudi woman. According to her, for a Saudi woman everything is "haram" or sinful. Even the Arabic word for woman, "hormah", comes from the word haram.

"...everything seemed to be haram, or sinful; and if it wasn't sinful it was "abe", shameful. It was haram to play music, abe to walk around in the street, abe to talk to a male servant, haram to be seen by a man outside the family..."

However, I don't see this happening only in Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries practising "Wahabism"---for instance, the Hasidic Jews don't allow their women too many liberties either. I remember being appalled when I read that these women apart from always having to cover their hair, couldn't even sing at the Sabbath because it is possible that hearing their singing voices may cause men to sin!

Then, Saudi Arabia being a patriacrchal country, for Saudi women it is essential to produce male heirs: is not just a question of your personal status in society (Saudi women are named after their first-born sons, eg. the mother of Yeslam was called, Om Yeslam), but it can be a question of basic survival because in the event of a husband's death, the mother and her daughters become dependent on the first-born son. He is their guardian and must approve of simple decisions such as travel, education, the choice of a husband etc. If the mother has only daughters then her husband's father (if he is still living) or the husband's brother becomes her guardian and will also inherit 50 percent of her estate. So, as you can tell, it is imperative for a Saudi woman to have a son. The author herself had three girls, Wafah, now 28, Najia, 27 and Noor, 17. And it was precisely because she had daughters that she gradually became 'more sensitive to the dismal, oppressive conditioning that Saudi girls must suffer as they grow into women. Ultimately she found herself compelled to save her daughters from that culture. She simply couldn't watch her precious girls submit to Saudi customs.

In addtion to the author's observations of Saudi culture, I also enjoyed the many pages of information she shared about the founder of the Bin Ladin industries, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Ladin. His story is truly inspiring. He was a poor, illiterate man from one of the most deprived regions on earth-the Hadramaut, in Yemen. He emigrated to Saudi Arabia and became the most powerful man in the Kingdom's fledgling economy. He worked hard and lived life king-sized with his 22 wives (four official), 25 sons and 29 daughters, maybe more.

In addition to Sheikh Mohammed, she also drew other fascinating portraits of people with whom she came in touch with---her mother-in-law, her sisters-in-law, including Osama's downtrodden wife, Najwah. One memorable anecdote being a recounting of a picnic trip to the desert made by the bin Laden women. Because it was scorchingly hot everyone was giving their thirsty babies water in baby bottles, apart from Osama's wife, who had been forbidden to feed their baby with a rubber teat, it being somehow un-Islamic! (The baby nearly dehydrated as a result, as she was only able to give him water from a spoon.)

Anyway, the author's account of being a foreigner married into a family where women did nothing, read nothing and were kept like pets and where their husbands would fly into a murderous rage if they so much as showed their face to another man, but ignore lesbian parties, is a good introduction to the Wahabi ways of Saudi Arabia. Carmen is able to hang in there with her two daughters till the events in Iran in 1979 (when the Shah was overthrown) have a constricting effect in Saudi Arabia. Yeslam, her husband, turns toward religion and mistresses; Carmen toward freedom in Geneva and a long-drawn-out divorce proceeding on a monthly alimony payment that’s even less than what Yeslam pays his private pilot.

The Acceptable Face of the Bin

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Book Review: The Book Seller of Kabul by Asne Seirestad

Asne Seirestad, a Norwegian journalist, makes friends with Sultan Khan (not his real name) who owns a bookshop in the Hotel Kabul Intercontinental. Sultan Khan is a brave man who hid 1000's of his old books and manuscripts that the Taleban had insisted on destroying. Now that the Taleban have left he is making great efforts to display them and have people read them. Asne Seirestad, sensing an opportunity to observe a real Afghan family up close (although she admits they weren't a typical Afghan family), asked Sultan if she could stay with his family for a season and write a book on the experience. Sultan agreed and that is how "Bookseller of Kabul" came to be.

After you read the book you come away with the feeling that life has been so unfair to the people of Afghanistan, but even more unfair to the poor women. Most of them slave for their families from dawn to dusk and have no voice. The men trample all over them and when they reach middle age,many are humiliated by their husband taking a younger wife (Sultan married a 16-year old when he and his wife were in their 50's). But even worse than being a wife in Afghanistan is to be a widow, but Asne doesn't explore that in her book.

Anyway, Asne is a Western woman and there has been criticism that she viewed the Afghan family through Western eyes and as a result, has painted their gender and social politics unfairly because of her limited understanding of the complexities of Afghan society. After all, does a Western woman, privileged, glamorous, have the right to hold a Third World family up to her own values and find it wanting?

For instance, this is what Asne had to say about wearing a burkha:

It was, she says, a dismal business. She quickly learned to loathe her burka. “How it pinches the head and causes headaches, how difficult it is to see anything through the grille. How enclosed it is, how little air gets in, how quickly you start to perspire, how all the time you have to be aware of where you are walking because you cannot see your feet, what a lot of dirt it picks up, how dirty it is, how much in the way. How liberated you feel when you get home and can take it off.”

But many women in Afghanistan appreciate the burkha for the privacy it provides them, especially in a culture where women don't like to make eye-contact with men they don't know. It also makes them feel safer.

Sultan Khan has since sued her, but because the lawsuit didn't amount to much,he has decided to write his own book with an unflattering chapter on Asne.

Summary/Review from "World and I"The Tenacity of Custom

All in all, there is clearly plenty of material with the capacity to inform and provoke, but the book is undermined by one massive, fundamental problem. It is not quite clear how much of it is true, nor how many of the events described were actually witnessed by the author seeing that she did not understand the Persian dialect that the Khan family spoke and that she lived there for only three months.

What I liked about the book, however, were her often detailed descriptions of the Taleban regime and her interesting commentary on Afghanistan's geo-politcal history.

Seierstad reminds us that when the Taliban rolled into Kabul in September 1996 they set about installing a regime based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran. They banned everything that seemed vaguely unKoranic: exposed female flesh, all music, shaving, pigeon racing, drug taking, kite flying, gambling, long hair for men, washing clothes by the river, drum playing and manufacturing female garments.

All pictures and portraits had to be removed, money lenders were forbidden from charging interest, witchcraft and magic was forbidden. Women were ordered to stay at home and leave it only if they absolutely had to. No work, university or school for them. If they wore 'fashionable' clothes they were promised an afterlife in Hell. The Taliban even had it in for women’s shoes. White was banned because that was the colour of the Taliban flag; solid heels were banned because their sound might 'distract' men and inflame their lust.

To surmise, the book lies somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. I liked the parts that could be corroborated by historical facts, but when she talks about the family and what she 'presumes' are their thoughts and opinions about certain things, it makes me uncomfortable, because I have no way of knowing how much of a literary license she has taken with that kind of thing.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Book Review: Massacre at the Palace: The Doomed Royal Dynasty of Nepal

Here is the official version of that grisly night: The occasion was a regularly scheduled family dinner. The Heir Apparent, Prince Dipendra, dressed in full combat gear, drunk and high on bhang (or hashish), strolled into the family room at the Narayanhiti Palace and opened fire, murdering his father, King Birendra, his mother, Queen Aishwarya, his younger brother, Prince Nirajan, his sister, Princess Shruti, one paternal uncle and all three paternal aunts. Having slaughtered ten family members, the Crown Prince Dipendra then turned the gun on himself.

Jonathan Gregson, in his book "Massacre at the Palace", explains:

"He had apparently attempted to blow his own brains out. The single shot to his head left him virtually brain-dead, but his vital functions did not cease for another two days. As a result, during those two days, as dictated by the rules of royal succession, the man who had committed parricide, matricide, and fratricide, and had bungled his own suicide was briefly declared King Dipendra of Nepal. Nobody, not even the most morbid of Jacobean playwrights or Greek tragedians, could have invented a plot with so much self-inflicted damage, nor such a bizarre twist at the end."

Dipendra did not survive and the Nepalese royal line, which had ruled for more than 200 years, was decimated. Having survived so many external threats and with a civil war raging in the background, it is the ultimate irony that the royal family eventually succumbed to an attack from within.

To this day, Dipendra's motive remains somewhat elusive. Gregson depicts him as a young man who had a strained relationship with his parents. The younger brother Nirajan, with his more amiable nature appeared to be Queen Aiswarya's favorite, and even the King seems cold and distant with his first-born. Dipendra was was also frustrated by his very mundane duties as Crown Prince. Ever since Nepal made the transition to democracy in 1990, the Royal family, although they retained their titles, no longer ruled Nepal. His role in this consitutional monarchy was boring and uninspiring to him.

It is clear that he wished to marry against his parents' wishes and this is believed to have caused him huge distress. In 1997, he fell for an aristocratic young woman, Devyani Rana, and the couple began a clandestine affair. He wished to marry her, but his mother, Queen Aiswarya, worked tirelessly to prevent it from happening.

Dipendra also had his own personal demons---he was putting on weight at an alarming rate, he was drinking and smoking far too much. He had high cholesterol and high blood pressure and to make matters worse, he was also losing his hair. He felt like everything was against him leading him to suffer from depression and exhibiting numerous mood swings. On his 29th birthday, he announced that he would marry Devyani and shoot anyone, including his parents if they stood in his way. When his heavily pregnant sister, Shruthi, 'shoo'ed' him for talking like that he struck he struck her so hard she fell to the ground. It was a grim prelude, but nobody saw the warning signal.

Dipendra was then presented with the ultimate deterrent: that he would be stripped of his royal titles and allowance if he persisted in defying his parents. According to the book, Dipendra was prepared to give it all up for love, but Devyani "went white with rage" when she heard that she wouldn't get to be Queen of Nepal. Ofcourse, Devyani's family denies that this was the sentiment.

Theories abound as to what tipped the Prince over the edge on that hot summer evening, but no one really knows. The Crown Prince spoke to Devyani minutes before he carried out the murders and telephone records show that she later phoned his security personnel and begged them to find him urgently. He had consumed whiskey and hashish mixed with "a strange black substance".

Gregson chronicles the shooting and its aftermath with ease, but little insight is offered. Much of it is drawn from the official report and although he interviewed several palace officials, they did not yield much information. The book fails to shed much light on what went on behind the closed doors of the Royal Palace in Katmandu, but in the pages before the shooting he presents a wonderful overview of Nepal's history and a character assasination of quite a few members of Nepal's royal family.

This is a skeleton that looks likely to remain in the royal closet.

Nepalis do not accept the official version of the bloodbath, and soon after the tragedy fingers were pointed at Gyanendra, Birendra's younger brother.

Related links:Opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal discusses the mystery surrounding the massacre of Nepal’s royal family Regicide Reappears

The suspicion still lingers, and has been one reason for King Gyanendra's dwindling support among his subjects. They feel —all the more — he is guilty because there have been convictions till date.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Book Review: J. Maarten Troost's "The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific

When 20-something J. Maarten Troost and his girlfriend decided to accept a job offer for the girlfriend in a tiny little island in the South Pacific named Kiribati, but pronounced Kiribawa, they were certainly looking for adventure. However, this tiny little island just north of the equator was nothing like either of them had ever experienced, or indeed, ever imagined. For starters, it was hotter than Hades and although their home was just a stone's throw from the ocean, the waters were infested with sharks and tempting as the turquoise blue waters were, Troost didn't dare go for a swim initially.

"I was left alone to ponder the immensity of the ocean and the giant sharks that were undoubtedly lingering behind the house waiting for some stupid foreigner to go for a swim. I scanned the water closely. I began to imagine terrible things. Terrible things. But that water looked outrageously appealing. It was, to reiterate, to stress, the accentuate the point, to leave no doubt, hot. Staggeringly hot. The heat blasted from a contemptible sun; it came unbidden from the white coral sand; it floated on humid waves...I yearned for Canada. I imagined tundra..."

And if the heat was bad, the food was even worse---there was only fish to be had and tins of Spam. (from reading I have done, it is easy to conclude that people from the South Pacific really enjoy their Spam and Corned beef in the tin, and yet, western writers, including Oliver Sacks, Paul Theoroux, and now Troost, have come to see Spam as some kind of a vile symbol of Western culture being imposed upon a helpless people---infact, Paul Theroux went so far as to suggest :

"It was a theory of mine that former cannibals of Oceania now feasted on Spam because Spam came the nearest to approximating the porky taste of human flesh. `Long pig' as they called a cooked human being in much of Melanesia. It was a fact that the people-eaters of the Pacific had all evolved, or perhaps degenerated, into Spam-eaters. And in the absence of Spam they settled for corned beef, which also had a corpsy flavor."

Stomach infections were everyday things and since water to wash with was scarce, the locals had taken to using the sea as a method of disposal---ugh---enough of that! So, as you can see, this was no tropical paradise and yet, the author captures the spirit of the people in such a great manner you can't help but admire their resilience and ability to make a life from such a barren desolate place.

Troost also has the ability to see the humorous side of any situation and packs the book with one funny anecdote after another.

This book certainly won't contribute to tourism in Kiribati, but it will make you laugh---no ordinary laugh, but one of those big belly laughs, as you read it!

One final note, the book is quite unlike its title suggests; the only allusion to sex in the book is when the author talks about copulation patterns of the stray mangie dogs on the island, or atleast that is the only sex I remember reading!

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Book Recommendation: " I Didn't Do It for You: How the World Betrayed an African Nation" by Michela Wong

I have been an Africaphile for as long as I can remember and so, when I chanced upon Michela Wong's new book "I Didn't Do it for You", I jumped at it because it dicusses Eritrea, which is a place seldom written about. In a very concise and informative manner the book takes you through the creation of Eritrea, describes some living relics of Eritrea's past, the Eritrean people, it's civil war and finally, how Eritrea along with Britain, Italy, America etc. betrayed itself to become the pitiful country it is today.

In order to put forth an informative synopsis of the book, I have garnered bits of reviews from The UK Guardian, The Economist and Andrew Price's piece in The Nation:

Wrong relates a history that began when the British suggested (1886)the Italians might like to start getting themselves an empire, and offered up the Red Sea port of Massawa, hoping by this ruse that the Italians would prevent French influence spreading out from Djibouti.

Italian colonialism seems to have involved murder of the local potentates and then the confiscation of their land and women.

Italian rule took a decidedly worse turn with the rise of fascism: Eritrea was the first country to pass a set of apartheid laws, and was used as the launch pad for the 1936 invasion of Ethiopia.

Eritrea was liberated along with Ethiopia by the British in the second world war, and things continued pretty much as before until 1950, when the question of what to do with it was handed over to the United Nations, which allowed itself to be persuaded by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Eritrea's western neighbour, that Eritrea had no rights of its own and should come under his imperial flag.

Not surprisingly, Haile Selassie, an absolute monarch, broke all his promises to protect Eritrea's fledgling democracy. He abolished not only the parliament, but also education in anything but his tribal language, Amhara, and set about terrorising the Muslim lowlanders when they complained. Haile Selassie's flirtation with America took on an added glow at the height of the cold war after it was discovered that Eritrea's topography made it the best place on earth to receive and transmit radio signals, and that it was particularly well suited to allow America to monitor traffic to and from Russia, Israel, Egypt, Libya and the rest of the Middle East. America took out a 25-year lease on a site on top of the Hamasien plateau and built Kagnew, its biggest eavesdropping installation anywhere, for which it eventually paid Ethiopia more than $360m in military aid as rent.

It seems fitting that this book should come out 20 years after the Ethiopian famine, which - in stark contrast to Eritrea - everyone knows about. As was said of the Irish potato famine: nature creates hunger, but only man creates famine. And so it was in 1984. While we know there was famine, many of us have no idea why. Somehow, through all the news broadcasts and pop concerts and images of thankful Ethiopians, no one thought to mention that the famine was largely being caused by the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ended up leading the coup against a senile Haile Selassie.

Wrong, who is remorseless when it comes to the failings of the Italians, British and Ethiopians, is positively gushing in her depiction of Eritrea's freedom fighters, whom she likens to the Spartans of ancient Greece. Admittedly, they benefit from the comparison to their opponents. In 1974 Selassie was overthrown by a military junta known as the Derg. After some infighting, an army colonel named Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as the Derg's leader. Elite Ethiopians scoffed at Mengistu's dark skin and diminutive stature, but the insecure dictator proved ruthlessly effective at eliminating enemies. When the Americans cut off aid, Mengistu embraced Communism--he capped one memorable rally by smashing a Coca-Cola bottle filled with blood--winning the favor, and the arms shipments, of the Soviet Union.

Mengistu's well-equipped army drove Eritrea's separatist rebels into an impenetrable mountainous region known as the Sahel. There, they hunkered down and trained, building an elaborate network of schools, hospitals and factories, which were often literally situated underground. Wrong describes this exilic period as a utopian moment: Uneducated villagers took literature classes in caves; a self-taught chef whipped lentils into delicacies; a rebel pianist played recitals under thorn trees, amid the bombs. Female fighters sported Afros, and their children, called "Red Flowers," were communally raised. The "absence of worldly distractions," Wrong writes, "encouraged a clarity of thought the meditating monks of Shangri-La would have recognized."

In 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated, and Mengistu fell, worn down by the Eritrean rebels and an allied movement of highland Ethiopians led by Meles. Two years later, in a referendum, Eritreans voted overwhelmingly for independence. Isaias became president. This was the period during which Wrong first visited the country. In retrospect, she writes, this was to be "Eritrea's golden era, when everything seemed possible." She met newly minted government ministers who dropped references to Samuel Pepys and Charles Darwin. She heard that President Isaias, an ascetic fellow, was sometimes glimpsed doing his own shopping along Liberation Avenue.

Then came Badme. If the border war (1998)with Ethiopia seemed senseless and spiteful, Wrong writes, this was largely because it was a family spat. Meles and Isaias had a similar ethnic background; they were even rumored to be blood relations. In the bush, Meles had been Isaias's protégé. But after the war, the dynamic changed. Meles ruled a far larger and more powerful country. "They were brothers, certainly, but a touchy younger brother can easily come to hate a patronizing older sibling," Wrong writes.

Eritrea marched to war with Spartan assurance. It retreated badly defeated. Thousands of soldiers perished, and with them any hope for democracy. Since 1998 Eritrea has degenerated into a paranoid hermit state. Opposition political parties are banned, as are gatherings of more than seven people. Dissenters are jailed. Internet cafes are watched. Foreign aid has dried up. Last year the government kicked out the BBC correspondent, the last Western journalist in town. Wrong reports that Isaias is often drunk, and has taken to head-butting underlings who dare utter a word of disagreement. Presumably, he doesn't do his own shopping anymore.

In her closing chapters, Wrong describes this changed country, which she compares to Ceausescu's Romania, and ventures an explanation for its decline. As usual, history is to blame. "If Eritrea today so often comes across as dangerously imperious to criticism and bafflingly quick to anger," Wrong writes, "she is largely that way because colonial masters and superpowers made her soIn other words, she is asserting that history builds national character, but might there not be other factors at play--ones that implicate Eritrea's rulers themselves?

As Eritrea faces the challenges of making a nation out of a national movement, it is still to be seen whether its mulish and self-reliant people can rediscover the extraordinary inner strength they demonstrated as a fighting rebel army.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Book Review: Marjane Satrapi's "Embroideries"

Marjane Satrapi who catapulted to fame after bringing us the very popular illustrated novels, Persepolis 1&2, memoirs of a young Iranian woman (herself) growing up during the Islamic revolution of Iran, now brings us her latest graphic novel called "Embroideries"

"Embroideries" which I read in a little under an hour takes place in the matter of a single afternoon where a group of Iranian ladies (the author's grandmother along with her friends and neighbors) get together over a cup of tea and chat about their marriages, divorces, lovers, how they lost their virginity, plastic surgery and other topics along the same vein.

While the book didn't bore me into a stupor, it did nothing to entertain me either. I was expecting a shocker from the outspoken and non-conformative Satrapi, but these conversations were tame---no different from any conversation any group of ladies anywhere in the world might have over a cup of tea.

OK, one thing that did come across as different however, is that a woman's virginity is an extremely prized possession in Iranian culture---I'm not saying that it isn't elsewhere, but Iranian women who are not virgins when they marry will go to extraordinary lengths to convince their newly-wedded husbands that they are virgins, including undergoing surgery to rebuild the hymen (infact, the title "Embroideries" is a euphemism for this surgical procedure), and all this because most Iranian men will not accept a non-virgin for a wife.

In the book's favor, I will say that the drawings are creative and vivid and I loved that the author opted for a non-grid layout---it made the book seem more of a novel and less of a cartoon.

pic. courtesy:

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Book Review: "Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel" by J.A. Schmoll.

A recent exhibition in Quebec City showcasing, for the first time, the sculptures of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel side by side, got me interested in Auguste Rodin and his tumultuous, passionate love affair with his pupil, muse, acolyte and lover, Camille Claudel.

In order to study the artistic couple furthur I picked up JA Schmoll's book titled simply "Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel". Schmoll, uses this book primarily to examine the relationship between Rodin and Claudel and what influence their romantic interaction might have had on their art while making sure that the information he imparts is historically accurate. While doing so he takes some of their most famous works of art and reveals how the sculptures were conceived and how the artists Rodin and Claudel executed them and what happened when they were complete. To me, that was the most fascinating part of the book because the story behind a work of art gives the viewer an intimate connection with it.

For instance, I had always wondered why some of Rodin's 'couple scupltures', as erotic and passionate as they are,
usually had the couples moving away from each other even though they were locked in a tight embrace---I now understand that these sculptures of unrequieted love and hopeless yearning reflected how he felt about Camille and himself. One great example of this theme is "Fugit Amor" z9Pic. on left) and some others that were worked into his monumental masterpiece, "Gates of Hell".

The scupture featured on the cover of Schmoll's book is titled "The Eternal Idol" and was created by Rodin in 1889. The erotic tension of this sculpture has made it one of Rodin's most celebrated "amorous" works. What is unusual about the sculpture is that although the woman is not an active participant of the love fest, her pose clearly signifies an expression of surrender---she is "allowing " all this to happen, but she is not totally involved. The man is unusal too in that, he does not attempt to embrace the woman, and yet, the position of his body indicates that he feels very close to her
and his head is bent forward to place a kiss under her breast. The female figure in the sculpture has a certain sphinx-like quality. To the man kneeling before her, she seems as mysterious and enigmatic as Camille was to Rodin. It almost appears that the man is afraid to touch her with his hands for fear of breaking the spell or ruining the mirage.

A lot of Camille Claudel's work was also autobiographical. Take L'Age mur, for instance. Schmoll seems convinced that the sculpture is a symbolic embodiment of the menage a trois between Rodin, Camille and Rodin's mistress, Rose Beuret. In the sculpture the man's gait seems to be unsure, and although the upper part of his body is half-bent towards the younger woman (Camille was atleast 23 years younger than Rodin) who is on her knees in an imploring gesture, the man's trailing hand has already slipped out of her grasp. Spurned and left alone to moan, she will never be allowed to touch her lover again. The man is being led away by an older woman (Rose Beuret). This sculpture was created once Camille realized once and for all that Rodin was never going to give Rose Beuret up for her.

Schmoll, in his book, also tries to assess Camille's work but concludes "... it is difficult to arrive at a balanced judgment of her qualities as an artist because her biography and her involvement with Rodin constantly intrudes into the foreground. She is a fine marble sculptor no doubt, and several of her symbolist creations are indeed substantial works of art, but having lived in Rodin's shadow for so long, even when she made the break from him it was difficult for her to cast off the oppressive burden of his authority and he continued to inadvertently supply the basic template for her work as a sculptor..."

In other words, it's safe to say that Auguste Rodin would have arrived at greatness even if he had never encountered Camille Claudel---the real question is whether Camille would have become what she did without Rodin, who quite obviously fostered her gifts. Either way, at the height of their entanglement they produced delirious works of sexual passion---Rodin's "I am Beautiful" which feature a pair of acrobatic lovers and Camille's "The Waltz" are representative of that.

And no book about Rodin and Claudel would be complete without mentioning Camille's mental difficulties. Camille's behavior became increasingly bizarre as time went on and it became apparent that she was heading for a nervous breakdown of some kind. In 1893, she moved out of Rodin's studio and although he tried very hard to win her back, she reacted to his efforts with increasing coldness and touchiness. in 1898 she broke off the relationship altogether and worked for a while on her own. From 1907 onwards, Camille's creative powers deserted her completely. Barricading herself in her apartment, which soon fell into a state of sordid neglect, she only went out at night. In 1913 she was forcibly evicted and taken to a mental asylum where she died in 1943, 26 years after Rodin passed away.

So, in closing, the romance of Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel produced great happiness, great pain---but mostly great art.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Book Review: "The Diary of Ma Yan" by Ma Yan and Pierre Haski

Five years ago when French journalist Pierre Haski, visited the North-East part of China, he was approached by a peasant woman who thrust some weather-beaten, torn, brown paper note books into his hand and begged him to read it. Turns out that the notebooks were a collection of wonderful and inspiring diary entries of 13-year old Ma Yan, a very poor peasant girl from an uninhabitable part of North-West China (also called 'The Region of Thirst) and the peasant woman's daughter. In her diary Ma Yan tells of the supreme sacrifice made by her parents, who despite their dire poverty and the mother's illness, worked hard and sent Ma Yan to school because it was her heart's desire.

The gratitude that Ma Yan felt towards her parents, especially her mother, forms the central theme of the book. Besides her love of learning, Ma Yan's one big aim in life was to do well in school so that her parents' sacrifice would not be in vain.

My fervent wish is that every 5th to 8th grader could read this book. Many of us have a sense of entitlement when it comes to our education, but with Ma Yan, she counted every day that she could go to school as a gift (although it took her 4 hours walking each way to get to school). I found that Ma Yan displayed a lot of Confucian values like respect for one's elders, duty above pleasure, honor for one's ancestors, which was very refreshing to see in a young teenage girl where hormones and a certain rebelliousness usually dominates.

Today Ma Yan is in a good high school in a big city of China. Her family's lives changed radically after the book was published, but till today Ma Yan gives 25% of the income she earns from the book to an association set up for other poor and underprivileged kids that are in the same position like she once was.