Friday, October 28, 2005

Book Review: Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

Edmund Morris, who previously wrote three presidential biographies, has traded in his Whitehouse pass for a concert ticket giving us an excellent, concise biography on the eccentric but much-revered and well-known composer, Beethoven, aptly titled, Beethoven: The Universal Composer". What is so enjoyable about this offering is that it reads more like a novel rather than a biography. Morris doesn't bore his readers with dry facts and details about the composer and his rise to fame, but tells it like a story.

We read how Beethoven was pushed into long, arduous hours of practising the piano by his taskmaster of a father who would sometimes wake him up in the middle of the night for more hours of practice. We read how although he lusted after women he was too shy to approach them. In any case he was considered unattractive by the opposite sex because of his "swarthy complexion, skin pits, and short legs". They also thought him half-crazy. He never married but wrote passionate letters to his "Immortal Beloved".

What he lacked in the looks department he more than made up for in musical talent and ambition, and at the age of 21 in Vienna, he became the first bourgeois, self-employed composer in history, feted by Princes and Dukes; they would host him in their palaces and instruct their servants to serve him before they served the Duke or his family. Never before had a composer been given this much attention.

Sadly, at the age of 30 Beethoven started to go deaf. Morris includes in the biography letters Beethoven wrote to friends, as well as notes to himself, where he talks about his fears about growing deaf; the letters are heart- renderingly sad and add a very poignant and authentic touch to the biography.

Beethoven didn't allow his hearing disability to stop him, infact, he went on to write some of his strongest harmonies (Symphones 8 and 9) after he turned deaf. Morris, being a classical pianist himself, does a wonderful job of describing some of Beethoven's best-known tunes. As I read the book, I was tempted to crank up my stereo and listen to the nine symphonies one after the other. I have to confess I have a new found appreciation for Beethoven's music after reading about his life through the pen of Edmund Morris.

The composer died in 1847 from liver problems, three years after writing his best-known composition, "Symphony No. 9". At the premier of this great Symphony, Beethoven, deaf and facing the orchestra, did not realize the audience was enthusiastically clapping until a teenage soprano took him gently by the sleeve of his coat and turned him around so he could see the tumult.

His story will stay with me a long,long time.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown

Louise Brown, an academic who lives and teaches in Birmingham, has spent a great deal of her adult life researching the sex trade in Asia. Before she wrote her most recent book, "The Dancing Girls of Lahore", she wrote,"Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia".

In order to study the dancing girls of Lahore, or the "nachne wallis" as they are called, Louise rented a room in the red light district of Heera Mandi in old Lahore so that she could observe the subjects of her research from close quarters. Heera Mandi (Diamond Market) was once the abode of the fabled courtesans of the Nawabs (Princes) of Lahore. The women were respected for their art which included being a master of Kathak, a very intricate dance, she also spoke chaste Urdu (the language of the poets) and was able to sing impeccable ghazals (songs in a classical or semi-classical tradition).

After Independance in 1947, the Nawabs were stripped of their purses giving way to a new class of Pakistani industrialists and businessmen who became the dancers' new patrons. However, when in the 1960's the military dictator Ayub Khan, while pursuing a policy of stricter Islamization closed the district down, the women of Heera Mandi had to go underground. Since the place was now declared illegal, the nature of the clients changed. The elite stopped visiting Heera Mandi and the current customers, poor or middle-class men, now seek the girls out only for sexual favors. Not being cultured they have no real interest in paying to see the women dance. As if riding on the luck of their residents the havelis (grand residences) in which the courtesans reside, have also crumbled into tiny, dark, stinky, airless rooms.

Although the author describes the lives of many of the girls in Heera Mandi the focus of her book is Maha and her five children. Maha was born into a family of kanjars (prostitutes). When she was only 12 years old she was taken to the United Arab Emirates and was paid well for allowing one of the ruling Sheikhs to take her virginity. After that, she returned to Lahore where she enjoyed the patronage of some fairly rich Pakistani men. When Louise meets her she has 5 children by three different men and her latest husband already has another family and is a drug addict. Maha considers herself lucky to have a legal marriage. Most of the women in Heena Bazaar don't. However they call all their clients shohar (husband) because being intimate with someone who is not your husband is a criminal offence.

At 36 years, plump and not as pretty as she once was, Maha appears to be a spent force, and much to Louise's concern, spends most of her energy (when she is not overdosed on cough syrup) on grooming her 12 and 14 year old daughters to take up the trade. She insists they have no other way to survive. She is very concerned that if they don't find another source of income she might wind up in Tibbi Galli which is where older tawaiifs (prostitutes) are forced to sell themselves for little or nothing. Maha is lucky in that she has daughters. How ironic that while elsewhere in the country the birth of a son is celebrated, in Heera Mandi it is a daughter who is celebrated because in this business it is she who becomes the sole bread winner.

The girls pictured here are dancing girls from Heera Mandi. They wear the traditional outfit of a Pakistani woman but they omit the head scarf indicating they are "fallen" women. Around their ankles they wear bells, also known as Ghungroo which make a delightful tinkling sound as they dance. In the olden days, the choice of dance was "Kathak", a classical dance of the courts, but these days the women do several versions Bollywood (Hindi film) dance routines.

For more pictures, go here

I love Louise Brown's writing style. Although she is an academic discussing her research, she doesn't have the dry style of a researcher because she weaves into the study true conversations, wonderful anecdotes and beautiful geographic descriptions. Best of all, each chapter is subdivided into little chapters under headings like, "Shadi-Wedding Ceremony", "The Shia and Sunni", "Black Magic" "Friday Prayers", etc. which makes it easy to use as a reference book. Her particular strength lies in being an astute observer of customs and everything else she sees around her without being judgmental.

Readers might want to know how this book, which is one among hundreds of books on prostitution and sex slavery, is different from the others. What makes it special is that the people of Heena Bazaar, have descended from true artists. These courtesans of old and ancestors of our current Heera Mandi women, may not have gone to school but they were highly accopmplished in the art of dancing, singing and pleasing a man. Till today there is a refinement in many of the women of Heera Bazaar that one finds hard to locate elsehwere, also, the residents of Heena Bazaar are tightly bound to Shia rituals and customs. Religion plays a very important part in their lives. One of the finest parts of the book involves descriptions of Ziyarat ( a religious ritual at Moharram) and the mattam ceremony , where 100's of young men flagellate themselves with blades strung on metal chains to show sorrow at the killing of the Shiite prophet, Imam Hussain from many centuries ago. The Sunni majority in Pakistan look down upon such rituals as semibarbaric and these ceremonies very often become sites of clashes between the Sunnis and Shias.

In clssing, Louise Brown ingratiates herself admirably with the women and families in Heera Mandi. They trust her with their life stories and their friendships. This is the main reason why this book is such a good read.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Book review: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin", by Lionel Shriver, winner of the Orange Prize 2005, is a disturbing read but a riveting and compelling one, nevertheless. At the root of its story is the age-old debate of "Nature vs. Nurture".

Kevin appears to be a troubled child. His mother saw traces of a monster in him right from the time he was in diapers. Although he gets good grades in school his social skills leave a lot to be desired. Also, he doesn't appear to get joy from his everyday life. All his time is spent just trying to make his family unhappy. His mother Eva, who had great difficulty bonding with him as an infant, now wonders if her lack of maternal instincts/skills when Kevin was just a little baby had a bearing on the sociopath he was turning into, or whether he was just born that way? What makes this book bold and different is that the author has tackled a question most people don't wish to ask themselves or others--- does indifferent parenting change the course of your child's life or does he or she have a destiny that is decided at birth?

When Kevin commits the ultimate crime, Eva lays out all her thoughts and guilty feelings in a series of exquisitely-crafted letters to her estranged husband, Franklin. Writing a novel entirely in letters is a hard thing to do, but Shriver pulls it off beautifully. But this novel isn't just about parenting skills or the lack of them, it is a psychological thriller with a climax that took me by surprise even though there were so many clues leading up to it.

I predict this is a novel that people will either love or hate. It is bound to provoke some very strong reactions because it deals with the last big taboo in our modern world---that maternal love need not be unconditional. Are you prepared to swallow that whole? This book is the ultimate book club pick; I hope my book club decides to read it soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Book Review: The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

The first thing that struck me about Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's book, "The Last Song of Dusk", was the language. He has the ability to gather the most beautiful words in the Lexicon and braid them together into the most poetic sentences, turning them into the sweetest-sounding verbal bouquet. I was so enamoured with his ability to do this that for the first half of the book I was more into the language than the story. Ofcourse, the naysayers will tell you that he has a propensity for being too indulgent with the adjective, for using too many metaphors and for being addicted to the hyperbole, but then this is the genre of magic realism and to expect anything less would mean to take the magic, the fantasy, the unexpected out of it.

" duly complemented the pale yellow duranta flowers billeted in her thick chignon, flowers with such aptitude for fragrance that several bees grew dizzy and promptly fainted mid-air...."

The story itself revolves around a couple in colonial India. Anuradha, whose looks were fabled to be so striking that more than a few young romeos of the Udaipur Sonnet Society claimed her as their muse and whose voice was so beautiful that 'when Anuradha sings, even the moon listens'. Vardhmaan, her husband, was so highly thought of as a doctor that more than a few nubile lassies of Bombay (where he practiced) feigned fevers and simulated stomach aches only so he might measure their excited pulse or even -praise the Lord Shiva!- glide his stethoscope over places no man had ever touched before.

Now, one would imagine that a handsome, talented couple like the Vardhmaans would live happily ever after, but this is no fairy tale despite the haunted house and wicked step-mother. As they try and build their lives together, Anuradha and Vardhmaan face insurmountable problems, including the death of their first son, driving them furthur and furthur apart until they no longer remember what it was that tied them together in the first place. Other fascinating characters in the novel include, Divi-bai, the proverbial wicked step mother whose brown eyelash-less eyes spread fear wherever she goes and Nandhini the young orphan artist who paints souls. Nandhini is wild as she is wonderful. She dances on tables, walks on water, mates with leopards (and quite a lot of humans too — both male and female), and is prepared to go to any lengths to set herself up as the great artist that she knows she is. I was particularly enchanted by her encounter with the famous freedom fighter, Mahatma Gandhi at one of the first soirees she attended.

Their conversation went something like this:

"I hope you don't take this personally, but I think your loin cloth is unbelievable sexy."

"I am not wearing this," fumed Gandhi, touching his holy hand-woven loin cloth, "because it's ... it's ... sexy ..."

"You're not?" Nadini batted her eyes like a doe in heat. "Maybe that's what makes you great, and me merely adorable."

But she, too, is haunted by some mysterious thing that happens in her past. And then there is Sherman Miller, the young Irishman, who is utterly besotted with the wild and restless Nandini. And finally, there is 'Dariya Mahal', the ruined haveli by the Arabian sea where Anuradha and Vardhmaan make their home, a house haunted by secret, desperate unrequieted love, whose unhappiness is so bitter it curdles any other joy that happens to innocently comes its way.

I was fascinated by the story---not just because it asks you to suspend disbelief for a moment while it takes you on a magical trip, but because I am unaccustomed to reading about Bombay (the city I grew up in) in the 1920's, it seemed so elegant then and truly makes for an enchanting read.

This is an amazing debut for the young author. Ever since his emergence on the literary scene, Siddharth has been the toast of the media. The praise has been effusive. The Sunday Times Magazine described him asthe next best thing to have happened to Indian writing in English since Arundhati Roy.” A publicity report in the Fringe Club described his books selling like hot cakes in India and the paparazzi waiting outside his house to take his snaps. Tired of all this Siddharth has taken to the Himalayas, working on his next opus. Meanwhile, his mother frets about the marriage of her (in)famous son: “who would like to marry a man who writes on sex?” As an aside, the Guardian, U.K. had a fun competition on which book had the worst sex scene. Although "Last Song of Dusk" was nominated, thankfully it did not win! Here's the paragraph is was nominated for:

"...Was it on the bed that she sat on him, her weasel-like loins clutching and unclutching his lovely, long, louche manhood, as though squeezing an orange for its juice? Or was it on the balcony swing, much later, that he buried his thirsty tongue in those thick pink lips between her legs? She loved most the lusciousness of his buttocks, their dimpled circumference, as though God had created them only so she might pull him farther into herself and then muffle her rapturous pleasure as she had, only a few hours back, muffled her anguish. ... they had exhausted all the wild beasts lurking in the forests of their flesh. . ."

Coming back to Siddharth, he wrote the novel when he was twenty-two and was his way of dealing with a broken relationship. He soon forgot about the book, but when a friend read the manuscript he insisted that Siddharth show it to an agent---the rest is history. Today his work is compared with Marquez and Rushdie.

He doesn't appreciate having his worked described as magic realism. In an interview recently, he protested. “Please don’t call my work magic realism. I don’t like the word magic realism-it takes away from the realism of my story. In India, we have this belief that everything-a house, a tree-has a spirit and we must respect that spirit. So in my novel if a house is talking, it is not magic realism. You may call it heightened realism.”

Well, since this is my blog and my review I am going to give myself the last word on his writing. His novel , with its tragic elements of love and loss, the heroines breaking into song and dancing on tables etc., reminds me of a finely-crafted literary version of a Bollywood movie. I look forward to the author's next book.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Album Review: Kronos Quartet and Asha Bhosle "Youve Stolen My Heart"

Asha Bhosle featured on the cover of Kronos Quartet's "You've Stolen My Heart"
I just heard the most wonderful news! The Kronos Quartet has just released an album of Rahul Dev Burman's (a well-known Bollywood music director) best-loved songs, reworked by Kronos Quartet and sung by none other than the very talented and timeless Asha Bhosle. For those of you for whom Asha Bhosle's name draws a blank, she is RD Burman's muse and wife and one of India's film industry's (Bollywood) most talented playback singers with a career that has spanned nearly 62 years now. It is amazing and probably somewhat of a miracle that at 73 years her voice is still as sweet, fresh and as seductive as ever.

The album opens with one of my all-time favorite songs, "Dum Maro Dum". This song was included in the 1971 movie, "Hare Rama Hare Krishna", which tells the tale of a wayward Indian girl who's fallen in with a hippie commune in Katmandu. She sings of "the nihilistic joys of smoking your cares away." The song title, by the way, translates as "Take Another Toke. When Asha Bhosle first recorded it, the conservative Indian society was determined not to like it, but with the popularity of the movie, the song took off and became one of Asha's most popular songs to date.

"Mehbooba, Mehbooba" (Beloved, Beloved) is another track to look out for to see if you can spot Chinese composer Wu Man's virtuositc pipa playing on it. Although the Quartet never really succeeds in imitating RD Burman's sensual, raw and passionate style, they do an elegant, if somewhat restrained, version of it.

While making the album, Kronos Quartet often had problems in trying to identify certain otherwordly sounds in an RD Burman song. After pondering on it for weeks, they finally realized that the odd sound at the start of track 2, "Rishte Bante Hei" or "Relationships Grow Slowly" was the sound of matches being struck and lit and they have recreated that effect in their remaking of that remarkable song.

The Kronos Quartet was painstaking in their effort to recapture the sounds of RD Burman's music so that they could sound as authentic as possible. Some of the methods they resorted to was to use vintage pianos (the Burman songs selected for this album were mostly from the 60's and 70's). They recorded in hotel rooms and other unlikely spaces to achieve a warm, tonal quality that perfectly matches the music. Various exotic instruments were also used, ranging from the Uzbek chang to Harrington's granddaughter's tambourine! Tabla maetro, Zakhir Hussain was also invited to explore new textures. Surprisingly enough, the album documents the first encounter between Asha Bhosle and table maestro Zakir Hussain, who started his career writing and playing on Bollywood scores.

But the real star of the album is Asha Bhosle and her ageless voice. It is truly amazing to me that this graceful septuagenarian has the voice of a 25-year old!

This has truly been a trip down memory lane for me.

For a treat, listen to four songs from the album at the Kronos Quartet site. You can always write to me for a translation!

Another treat- an interview with Asha, HERE

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Book Review: Lipstick Jihad by Azadeh Moaveni

Azadeh Moaveni grew up in San Jose, California, the daughter of Iranian emigres (her mother never did like the word "immigrant"). As with most children of emigres, she feels she straddles two cultural worlds, the exotic Iran, home to some of the world's greatest poets, dense, fragrant orchards and finest carpets, and the United States, the land of her classmates and her adopted land. As a young girl she had wonderful memories of a summer spent visiting relatives in Tehran, and in university she developed a strong interest in her Iranian heritage. She became a reporter for Time magazine, and, after a stint in Cairo, she was assigned to work in Tehran.

This personal memoir describes her life in Tehran between the years 2000 and 2002. When she arrived in Tehran in 2000, she realized that Iran was in the throes of a huge change. The generation, or the under 30's, that grew up after the Islamic revolution and which made up nearly 2/3rds of the current population of Iran, seemed no longer willing to be slaves to Islamic ideology. Most of that change was internal and had occurred in their thinking, value or belief systems. There wasn't much about their outward appearance that could tell one that there was a monumental change going on. There was one exception, however, and that was in the way the women dressed---she found that they now wore veils of dazzling colors leaving their hair slightly exposed which was a huge no-no in the years immediately after the Islamic revolution. It is this colourful rebellion that prompted the author to call her book "Lipstick Jihad" which when translated literally would mean, 'the war of the lipstick'.

The veil was responsible for causing many emotional and physical problems but the biggest problem it seems to have caused was a social one---a burgeoning of clinics specializing in cosmetic surgery. Since only the face of a woman could be revealed, women were obsessed with having a near perfect one, which unfortunately meant lots of costmetic surgery, but especially rhinoplasty. Men, too, seemed to favor nose jobs (perhaps to achieve a more Western look and thus appearing less traditional), even the ones that didn't actually have a nose job, would use post-surgical bandages anyway, because they looked cool!

Realizing she was in the midst of a youth rebellion and wanting to get an authentic feel for what was happening, Moaveni decided to live like any young Iranian---she delved deep into Tehran's secret underground, she attended parties where young people did drugs, holidayed with them at ski resorts, attended youth movements and so on. What was most disturbing to her were the clandestine house parties that encouraged young men and women to mingle.

As she aptly points out in her book:

"... the codes of the Islamic Republic banned young men and women from interacting casually together, attending soccer matches, stydying at the library or going to the movies together. As a result, when they met at these underground parties and were finally permitted a few hours in each other's company, they scarely knew what to do, or how to behave. They had never developed a sense of what normal behavior between the sexes looked like; not only were they lacking a template, they found the prospect of normality unsatisfying. Instead, they sought to contrast the oppressive morality outside with amplified decadence behind closed doors..."

So in reality, state-sanctioned sexual puritanism unwittingly had eroticised the society, keeping sex as much on people's minds as it was in the rhetoric of religious leaders. But even these very same religious teachers or the Mullahs couldn't help but push their carnal desires to the front. Many of them would resort to Shiite custom called 'signeh', a temporary marriage, very convenient for a man when he wants to sleep with a woman and yet not marry her. A 'signeh' could have a man and a woman married in as little as 15 seconds and the marriage could be annulled as soon as the carnal act was over, sometimes in less than 15 mins.

So clearly, the Islamic revolution was not acheiving all that it had set out do, if anything, it was turning Iran into a sick, depraved society. People were getting so disillusioned with Islam that many were turning away from Mecca and finding solace in in the Hindu mystic Sai Baba, Yoga, Sufism etc. ( Eastern spirituality, with its internally directed, pacifist sensibility, was the ideal antedote to the militant, invasive brand of Shiite Islam imposed by the regime) This is not how the reformists of the 1979 revolution had meant for the new Iran to be and they too were baffled that their utopian vision had produced an oppressive overly sexualized society. However, because most of the reformists came from an ultra-traditional class that held more conservative social values than the majority of the Iranians, they still refused to see that women's oppression was among the Islamic Republic's central problems.

"...this was the Achilles heel of their movement, this foolish idea that they could take a Western concept, like democracy, alter it with Islamic attitudes toward women, and expect it to function properly..."

As a journalist, this was a very exciting time for Moaveni to be in Iran, and she effortlessly combines commenting on the political goings-on of the country alongside her own personal journey. She reveals her private struggle to build a life in a country with medieval laws and customs, wholly unlike the sweet, pomegranate-tinted Iran of her imagination. Hers is the struggle of a young woman searching for a homeland that may not exist.

I did enjoy the book and felt like I had learned a lot about the Iranian youth struggle, but then again, since most of the author's sources seem to have come from affluent urban families in Iran, it's hard for the reader to tell if these views are shared by the majority in Iran. Still, it is an authentic view and I am better off for having read it.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Book Review: Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village

In the 1950's, American writer Elizabeth Warnock Fernea spent the first two years of her marriage to fellow-American Bob Fernea, an anthropologist, in El Nahra, a small village in Southern Iraq as guests of the Shiek of the tribe. This book is a personal narrative about life behind a veil in a community unaccustomed to Western women.

When Fernea arrived in El Nahra, both she and her husband agreed that she would have to don the abaya (long black cloak traditionally worn by Arabic women) if she wanted to make inroads to the community of tribal women and learn more about their ways and customs.

At first, the tribal women wasted no time in making her feel like the awkward outsider. They would laugh at her attempts to speak Arabic, her bread-making abilities and the fact that she was wearing no gold. Later, these were the very same things that made them pity her. They presumed she must have been poor not to have gold and they were perplexed that her husband (whom they called Mr. Bob) would take her so many 1000's of miles away from her family. Because to the tribal women, family and tribe means everything, they presumed he must be a cruel man to have done such a thing. To add to that, she was too thin in their eyes, wore her hair too short and didn't have a child. They wouldn't have traded even one day of their lives for hers! To top it all, she didn't seem to know how to cook an Arabic staple---rice! Out of pity some of the women from the Sheikh's harem volunteered to teach this poor, rather daft American lady, how to cook "properly" and slowly a friendship between her and the other women, started to blossom.

Soon they were having her over to tea and confiding to her all their trials and tribulations. For instance, she learned that tribe loyalty and affiliation was so strong that women only married their cousins, preferrably from their father's side. If they couldn't find an eligible cousin, they would stay single but never could they marry someone from a different tribe. Many such unmarried girls would then devote themselves to their studies and become Mullahs (teachers of the faith). She learned early that there was no social communication between the sexes and that the women's actions are strictly dictated and curtailed, ostensibly for their protection and honor. She learned also that if a woman was seen in the company of a man who wasn't closely related to her, she would bring dishonor on her family and it was then incumbent upon her father to kill her, thus restoring the family's honor.

She also visited, with the women of the harem, local weddings, feasts, krayas (sixteenth century Shiite religious rituals, presided over by a female mullah) and taaziyas (mourning ceremony during Moharram where young men in procession flagellate themselves with chains bound together in bunches to mourn over the death of the prophet). Her vivid, detailed descriptions of all of these functions are a delight to read and a wonderful social/cultural commentary of Iraq in the '50's. I must say here, although this book describes Iraq in the '50's, I think a lot of the issues the author touches on, like honor killings, polygamy, segregation of the sexes, education only for boys etc., are definitely relevant in some Middle-Eastern societies even today.

I think the author does well to show her readers that although the Iraqi tribal women may lead lives that are so different from what we may ever want for ourselves or our daughters, most of them are completely happy and satisfied with their lot. In other words, she is quite effective in dispelling the myth that women who wear the abaya must be weak and passive. From having spent years in the Middle East, I know that many Arab women regard the veil as a garment that protects and provides anonymity rather than one that hinders and robs them of equal rights. Best of all, the author has shown us that no matter the cultural differences between people, each one of us wants the same things in the end---to be happy, to be well, to do good, to have good friends and so on.

This book should definitely be on the shelves of every high school and university library because it's a wonderful study of Iraqi society in the '50's.