Monday, May 26, 2008

Book Review: Desperately Seeking Paradise By Ziauddin Sardar

"Desperately Seeking Paradise" is a spiritual-cum-philosophical autobiography by British author and scholar, Ziauddin Sardar. In this book, the author is in search of the right approach for paradise (and please do not take it literally) - one notion which is termed as the prime objective for every Muslim. In his search, he joins one sect (or thought of school) and then gets dejected by its approach/thoughts/people etc... and then leaves it to join another and same thing happens there as well and then another and so on... His search takes him from Mecca to Bejing and all the other places, in between meeting with people like Zia-ul-Haq to Anwar Ibrahim, even attending a mujaheddin meeting with Osama Bin Laden in attendance, and him running into Iran's military police in times of Ayotollah. There is an entire chapter dedicated on 'The Satanic Verses' controversy - talking about how the author felt bad about 'The Satanic Verses' and the Ayotollah's fatwa as well. Here the author regrets that the core issue was buried under whatever political drama that took place around the controversy.

The book is filled with lots of information about various aspects of Islam, ranging from different terms associated with it to the current as well as traditional interpretation of different things associated. He also looks into different school of thoughts and poses a not-so-rosy picture of things. This book was written in pre-Iran, pre-Iraq, pre-Afghanistan era and with his descriptions one can relate to what is happening now and how its roots are related to those times only. The authors quest for a new initiative about "paradise-seeking" is not accepted in the traditionalist societies where the true meaning of Islam has been confined to having a beard sometimes. He also tries to understand what does Sharia means in actual terms and how it should be adapted in modern times - again he finds that societies just want Islam in totality but are never open to understand the totality itself.

I am not sure what to make out of this book - I am as confused about this book as the author is about his search. The main problem as seen by the author is that nobody is willing to listen to modernist Islamic views. Overall, a nice read for me at least - for understanding more about Islam and another face of it where there are modernist thoughts in plenty.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth By Jhumpa Lahiri

After reading her two earlier (commercially) published works, Interpreter Of Maladies and The Namesake, I was eagerly waiting for Jhumpa Lahiri's next one - Unaccustomed Earth. And once again, I was spell bound by her literature. Unaccustomed Earth is truly wonderfully written and keeps the short story writing to the top. She is a master (short) story teller and this latest collection of short stories is another example of it. The best part about her short stories is that her characters are well defined and complex, her handling of the words is marvelous, her stories are never incomplete and they feel like a full novel.

The short stories in this work are:-
Unaccustomed Earth
A Choice of Accommodations
Only Goodness
Nobody's Business
Hema and Kaushik:
Once in a Lifetime
Year's End
Going Ashore

First five stories are individual in themselves while the last three are interconnected. In the title story, a young mother Ruma, is visited by her father, who forms a bond with his grandson. All the while, Ruma is unable to make a decision to ask him to stay with them or not and his father, on the other hand, is harboring a secret love affair. In "Hell-Heaven", a young girl narrates the story of her mother falling secretly in love, outside of her marriage, all the while not accepting it but feeling emotions of a jealous lover when her love marries another girl. In "A Choice of Accommodations", a husband's attempt to turn an old friend's wedding into a romantic getaway weekend with his wife takes a dark, revealing turn as the party lasts deep into the night. In "Only Goodness", a sister tries too hard to get her brother all the support to come out of alcoholism and in the end it threatens her own family. In "Nobody's Business", a young girl makes a wrong choice in love while her family is looking out eligible suitors for her and her roommate hesitantly tries to save her, nearly getting himself dammed in the whole process. And Hema and Kaushik, a trio of linked stories — is about the lives of a girl and boy who, one winter, share a house in Massachusetts. They travel from their foolish childhood to adulthood on separate painful paths, until destiny brings them together again years later.

I would say that I started this book with a prejudice and finished with it as well. But it never came in my way of reading this book from another point of view. It was just that I could not find faults in her writing - for me a fault is a boring phase through the book, a predictable story line or a complete lack of words and emotions. She kept me involved in the book all the while and never once I felt like what-am-I-reading. And for me that is a big thing while reading something. She has surely kept her high short story writing status well and truly intact throughout this book. Some people would say that she writes about confused Indian immigrants again and again and re-using her character set but then there is no deny from the fact that she is doing it wonderfully well.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

"Malgudi Days" By R.K. Narayan

Nearly everyone of us (from my generation) would never forget the "Malgudi Days" we used to watch on the television in our childhood. That title music still lingers on our lips. To hear the tune, click here. Well, the serial was based on a wonderfully written collection of short stories from one of India's greatest novelist, R.K. Narayan.

It is a collection of short stories written by the author (around 32 in number) which are based in a fictional South Indian town of Malgudi. The fiction town of Malgudi has been imagined and described in such a form that it could be any town of India. The vast majority of the stories are less than ten pages long; several are under five; and only one is more than 20. Narayan wrote many of these stories under deadline, within the limits of word count and column length for The Hindu, a Madras newspaper for which Narayan had a contract for a weekly submission beginning in 1939. At the same time they all seem spontaneously and effortlessly composed. Each stands on its own, but they are inherently intertwined while remaining independent from each other. The only force binding them is the town of Malgudi.

The main characters in each of the short story is a real life character - be it a school boy, a retired old man, a gardener, a maid, post man, snake charmer, cobbler, a gateman or even a dog. They all seem so familiar (especially for people like me who were born and raised up in a small city - not a metro); they are people from every walk of life. In nearly all the stories, the description of Malgudi is very real-like - you can actually imagines its market place, its school, its main roads and other things while reading the stories.

Here are some of the best stories from the lot:-

Attila is a small pup in a family who is bought with the expectation that he will grow up to fierce and protector of the house, after all he has the right pedigree. He turns out to be the friendliest dog in the world and when a thief enters the house he turns protector in most unexpected fashion.

Leela’s Friend: Sidda works as a domestic help in an affluent household. His main task is to play with the daughter of the household, Leela, who is just a small girl. Leela is very fond of Sidda. One day her gold chain goes missing and Sidda is accused and handed over to the police. The chain is found later on.

Iswaran: In India, we seem to have very little tolerance for failure and Iswaran flunks his 12th board examinations more than once. He seems not to care and develops a tough exterior. This story rings true for many Indian youngsters even today.

Lawely Road: Lawely Road pokes gentle fun on the fixation of changing names of everything British after India got independence. In this story, the municipality wants to pull down a statue of Sir. F. Lawely with hilarious consequences.

Father’s Help: Swami (a small child studying in first standard) develops an headache in the morning just before school. Father is adamant that Swami has to attend school. Swami tells tales to father that his class teacher Samuel has a fascination of skinning people alive. Father writes a strong letter to the Headmaster of the school and Swami has to deliver it. The dilemma Swami then faces makes this story the best one.

A must read classic in my opinion.