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.