Sunday, February 20, 2011

"No New Land" by M.G. Vassanji

Year of first publication: 1991
Genre: novel
Country: Canada / Tanzania / India

Nurdin Lalani is new in Toronto. He arrived with his family from East Africa, where his father had moved in 1906 from India, his country of origin, when Germany employed Indians to build their empire in Tanganyka. Nurdin can’t find a job in Toronto because he has no “Canadian experience”, in spite of having sold shoes in his country for eight years. All he can get are degrading menial jobs. He lives in an apartment building called Sixty-nine, full of immigrants, many are East Africans of Indian origin, like him. The immigrants have business going on in the building: they cook samosas and chapattis to take away, they offer babysitting services and open-houses. Nurdin and his family experience racism and attempts of exploitation when, newly-arrived in town, they are all invited to a party, which reveals to be a strange kind of fashion show. Moreover, a friend is beaten up by locals - only he reinvents himself as a painter and goes back to Dar, becoming a fashionable exotic artist for Western tourists. Nurdin bonds particularly with two people from his community: a part-time university professor called Nanji who once had a girlfriend in New York but is now lonely and lives in a unfurnished apartment, and Jamal, a successful lawyer who likes expensive cars.
One day Nurdin gives shelter for one night to a couple visiting from Guyana (he didn’t even know where Guyana was, but he had heard there were Indian people there too!) and he’s offered a job by his host’s brother, Romesh. Romesh gives him pork sausage to eat, therefore Nurdin reflects on the prohibition to eat pork. He thinks that’s when he began to “rot”. He’s changed, his well-educated friend Nanji tells him, after having eaten pork. After that, Romesh offers him a sip of his beer and takes him to a peep show. Nurdin even starts a “romantic friendship” with a lady he knew back in Dar. He feels guilty because he’s being “corrupted” by the Western way, the Canadian way. In spite of considering the CN Tower a sort of lighthouse, his fixed mark in his new country, he's confused by a new whirlwind of experiences and temptations.
He offers help to a girl who is crying but she accuses him of rape (echoes of “A Passage to India” are blatant here). Ironically enough, the girl is also from an immigrant community, the Portuguese who abound in Toronto. The novel finishes with Nurdin and Jamal fixing the situation by promising help to come to Canada to the girl’s relatives in Portugal (Jamal is an influential lawyer by now and he lies by saying he is about to open an office in Lisbon).
It’s the usual immigrant-in-a-new-land-novel, only some coordinates are different: the émigré is from Dar es Salaam, but eats samosas while he drinks gallons of tea, and the new city is Toronto, instead of New York or London.
The title of the novel nonetheless suggests that the land where Nurdin and his friends have settled is not new, but it has seen many other “layers of migrations”: the English and the French first, the Portuguese and the Italians after that, and the Africans at last. “No New Land” is well-written, but could have elaborated more on some topics (for example, when Indians are sent away from Uganda and neighbouring countries or on the situation of feeling East African but being Indian and identification – or non identification – with other Indian people).

About the author: M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya, from a family of Indian origin. He was raised in Tanzania and moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1978. He's now considered one of Canada's most acclaimed writers. He has published six novels (The Book of Secrets and The In-between World of Vikram Lall are some other titles), two collections of short stories, a memoir of his travels in India and a biography of Mordecai Richler.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Rich Like Us" by Nayantara Sahgal

Year of first publication: 1983
Genre: novel
Country: India

“Rich Like Us” is the portrait of two families of the Indian elite at the time of the Emergency (1975-1977), the darkest period in modern Indian history, when Prime Minister India Gandhi suspended elections and civil liberties. The author, nonetheless, is Indira Gandhi’s first cousin and Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece. Nayantara Sahgal belongs in fact to the most powerful family of the country, yet she has always had a critical attitude towards the decisions of some of her relatives, her cousin in particular. This made her lose her job (she was about to be appointed India’s ambassador to Italy), which is an experience she recounts in this novel through the story of Sonali, also abruptly dismissed by the unnamed President in favour of her ex-fiancé Ravi Kachru.
“Rich Like Us” is partly narrated from the point of view of Sonali , who ives in a “joint family” with her sister Kiran and her brother-in-law. She’s friends with Rose, an English lady who unconvincingly tries to hide her Cockney accent from her high-born friends. Rose is nursing her Indian husband who has just had a stroke and cannot run his family business like he used to. Ram’s son, an indolent young man who has seriously been affected by the unusual double marriage of his father, is forging cheques to get his father’s money on his account. As time goes by, Rose learns that her rights as a woman and wife are deteriorating, so she turns to her friend Sonali for help.
The narration is told through flashbacks from the characters’ past: for instance how Rose came to marry Ram and how she accepted to be his second wife, living on the second floor while the first wife was downstairs with her children Dev and Nishi, and how Sonali got engaged with Ravi while in Oxford and then split up with him, only to see him married with the youngest daughter of the second cousin of the Prime Minister’s mother (Nishi).
On the background, the political upheaval, the vasectomies and the corruption of this horrible time in Indian history. Sonali’s father, who owns a shop, is sent to prison, apparently for no reason.
The title suggests that the book aims at criticizing the system that prevents richness to “trickle down” to poor people in India. Politics in Sahgal’s novel is of primary importance. In a 1959 flashback, for instance, Sonali discusses communism with Ravi, stating that she doesn’t want to stick to any doctrine. Her motivation is personal: being a woman she has lived too many restrictions to voluntarily have another one in her life. Sonali states ‘I don’t like dictatorships, not even of the proletariat, not even as a passing phase because who knows the phase might get stuck and never pass’ (p.112). That is basically the reason while they broke up: ‘the actual break had come because they couldn’t agree on step three and step four of the Marxist process, whatever that was, and especially what happened to artists and writers and thinkers at that point’ (ibid). The implied motivation, according to Sonali, is that Ravi is actually bossy, rigid and selfish and if she married him she’d have to agree with him all the time. Patriarchal power and arbitrary power are one of the main themes of the book, especially towards the end of the book when Rose has to face her limitations as a woman in Indian society.
Sahgal’s style is impeccable and she manages to portray the lifestyle of the ruling classes with cynicism and detachment. The narrative is almost entirely built through flashbacks, which freezes the story in a timeless reality. Only in the second half of the novel the story takes off, offering us strikes of genius, like the following:
“What is Divali?” Rose asked. “It’s the beginning of winter,” he replied. Why hadn’t he said it was the return and enthronement of Rama, a festival of rejoicing, of lights and feasting and gambling? The beginning of winter and another exile was what it had been for Sita” (p.244)
Mona, Ram’s first wife, is compared to Sita, the heroine and suffering wife of “The Ramayana”. It is not the only allusion to mythology. References to Draupadi and her five husbands abound, but it is the island of Cythera, where according to Greek mythology Aphrodite was born, that bears the most ironic relevant signification in the novel. Rose buys an old postcard of Cythera, after having heard her husband compare India to the island of love. In the end, Rose dead in the most horrible way, it stands for our disillusionment, because this India narrated by Sahgal is no island of love, but a country where patriarchal power wins over everything else, in spite of the refined manners of its ruling glass.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

“The English Patient” by Michael Ondaatjie

Year of first publication: 1992
Genre: novel
Country: Canada/Sri Lanka (even though the novel is set in Italy and North Africa)

You might have seen the movie adaptation of this novel, because it was very successful and won many Academy Awards (as if that was a guarantee of good quality). Well, forget that movie, because the novel is nothing like it. “The English Patient” was in fact considered unfilmable (is that even a word?) for quite some time, before Anthony Minghella decided to shoot it. The reason for this is that it goes back and forth a lot, and it it is an exceptionally fragmentary novel which jumps from a quotation from the great Greek historian Herodotus’ writings to a character musings on the precarious life he is leading. But don’t take me wrong, it is not a bad novel. If you can overcome these hurdles you’ll be rewarded. The author explores different layers of his characters' history and personality with the use of exceptionally-detailed short snapshots.
Ondaatje’s novel is set in an abandoned villa in Tuscany, at the end of the Second World War. Four characters take shelters in the villa: a nurse named Hana and her patient, horribly burned after a plane crash, David Caravaggio, who’s a thief turned intelligence agent, and Kip, the Indian sapper who’s trying to dispose of bombs and mines scattered in the countryside around the villa San Girolamo. In a sense they’re all outsiders: they fought this war not for their people but for somebody else and their lives have been shattered by the war. Hana and Caravaggio are in fact Canadian (they also appear in a previous novel by Ondaatje called “The Skin of a Lion”), while the patient doesn’t remember (or doesn’t want to remember) where he’s from. Together with the Sikh sapper, they form an unlikely quartet: they bond because they can find ways to feel similar. A can of condensed milk, for instance, is the object through which Kip and the man who’s slowly dying and can’t move from his bed become friends. On the background the reader learns the story of the English patient, through his scrapbook, a copy of Herodotus’ histories with a lot of marginalia, photos and papers glued into it. He experienced quite an adventurous life in North Africa and lived a love story that has nothing to envy from Rick and Ilsa of “Casablanca”. Ondaatje’s background as a poet is evident in his use of language: it is often said that prose is different from poetry because in the latter you are choosing you words very carefully, while in the former you can let it go a little a write more freely. In the case of this novel, however, the language is carefully chosen even though it is prose. While I liked some of the themes in the novel and the author’s poetic imagination, I found Ondaatje’s style a bit too dry for my taste, resulting in characters I could not get into, like Caravaggio. I remember, though, that I read a section of one of his poetry books (The Collected Works of Billy the Kid) and I was struck by its originality.

About the author:
Michael Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka in 1943. His family is of Colombo Chetty and Burgher origin (which means he has mixed South Asian and Dutch ancestry). He moved with his mother to the UK when he was eleven and he relocated to Canada in 1962. Although he is known as a novelist, he is also a poet, having published thirteen volumes of poetry to date. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) is his most famous work in this genre. So far he has also written five novels and a memoir, Running in the Family (1982). The English Patient won him the Booker Prize and it is his most-important book to date.