Saturday, June 28, 2008

What a statue and two women shared

Karen Essex is a well-known writer of historical fiction whose hallmark is the delightful liberty that she takes with the lives of historical figures, recasting them in her own light. So it was with Cleopatra in Kleopatra and Pharaoh, and so it is with Essex's latest novel, Stealing Athena.

At the heart of this novel are the famed Elgin marbles, a collection of sculptures that were originally part of the Parthenon in Athens. Thomas Bruce, the seventh Earl of Elgin and the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1799 to 1803, had a grand ambition of removing these sculptures and taking them to Britain.

Accompanied by his beautiful wife, Mary Nesbit, Elgin obtained permission from the Pasha to transport the sculptures. While little is known about the historical Elgin, in Essex's book he is a villain who leaves no stone unturned in catering to his megalomaniac streak. This includes nudging his wife to employ her charms on the Ottoman authorities.

Running parallel to Elgin and Mary's story is the tale of Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, original builder of the Parthenon. In traditional Greek society (this part of the novel is set in 400 B.C.) concubines were looked down on; Aspasia, though an intelligent woman, struggles for legitimacy for her relationship.

Having secured for her husband his dream of owning the Elgin marbles, Mary endures his interminable neglect. She finally falls for Robert Ferguson, a fellow Scotsman who gives her stability and love. Elgin launches a vituperative divorce trial, fully aware of the repercussions.

Parallel to this run the woes of Aspasia, who faces a trial for sexual impropriety in Athens. Essex uses the trials, separated in time and place, to make a comment on the inferior position to which women have historically been relegated.

Rich in description and inspirationally political at its heart, Stealing Athena is historical fiction at its finest.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

My Mother, My Child

My husband Shailesh and I have been posted to Kaulapur in Nagaland for his latest transfer. It is a field posting, and except for two Rajput couples, there are no other families in the area.

We have been provided with a two-room cottage whose roof is thatched and walls bamboo-matted. A tiny patch at the back of the house is the kitchen garden. Presently, it is barren, but given the frequency of rain in the north-east, I feel assured I'll make good use of it.

Life at the outskirts of civilization is simple and peaceful. It is the first time that we have been sent to a place that seems to have had no contact with the mainland for centuries. Except for technology that has crept in, like it has in many other unprepared zones, Kaulapur is a rustic paradise. Only the wailing of wolves and hooting of owls disrupt the eerie silence of the nights here. This lends the place a murky mysteriousness, as if danger lurks at the threshold. It fills me with awe and makes me feel that if I were to open my door to step out of the golden yellow that may walls wear, a chilling experience would be waiting in the wings to grip me.

I call home often these days to ask after my mother, even though my hands are tied down by all the work that lies undone. Shailesh is an impatient homemaker, and his long stint in the air force, I rue, hasn't taught him much about order. He wants to get everything — unpacking, arranging, furnishing — done within a week so that it looks and feels like home.

A year-and-a-half after my father died, Ma stopped speaking suddenly, inexplicably. She would sit for hours on end, mumbling to herself, as if in silent prayer, and hardly ever spoke to me after that. After countless visits to various doctors, it was a neurosurgeon who diagnosed her as a case of rapidly advancing Alzheimer's.

When I first heard the word, I was struck with both surprise and sadness. Surprise at my own being pinned down by something I knew very little about. I had expected the diagnosis to throw a more believable result, like depression. Because I knew nothing of the neurosis, I was gripped with anxiety. I leafed through several books on the subject to familiarize myself with it. I read that acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that governs learning and memory, is severely diminished in patients struck with Alzheimer's. Of how Ma could turn aggressive without reason, and get so physical she might hurt herself. She, who had initiated me into the world of classical dance (she was an expert at Bharatnatyam), has developed an unsteady gait, which seems to make a morbid mockery of the vigor that once drove her elegant movements.

Despite the perplexing magnitude of knowledge that I have gathered, the one fear that lurks at the back of my mind is her loneliness. Without Papa to look after her, all my efforts would come to naught. I have spoken to Shailesh about it. He agrees that I need to spend time with Ma. We also decide that given our peripatetic lifestyle, it's best to have her ensconced in Delhi. Until I find a reliable, all-day help, I would stay with Ma in our Delhi home. Even as my new home isn't fully done, I set off.

My mother has always been an attractive woman. Even at sixty and struck by the neurosis, her face radiates grace. She has small round eyes. Tiny loops of gold dangle lightly about her ears. Her right arm used to adorn a gold bangle while Papa was alive which, like her wide, encompassing smile, she forsook when he passed away. The earrings, she let be. They lend completeness to her face, as if they were an inseparable part of it. Her hair are still black, which I think is a miracle, considering that my own have begun to trouble me with streaks of white.

When I was based in Bangalore, busy with research for my dissertation on the architecture of temples in Karnataka, and would call home on Mondays, she would open her conversation by addressing me "Betu!", the "oo" echoing with a lingering wistfulness on the line. It was her way of letting me know that she was upset because I didn't call home more frequently. I, bubbling with youthful verve, didn't care much for her disapproval. I regarded it with a sense of timelessness. I believed that such words of reproach would always stay for me. Life, however, has an odd way of handing out lessons. First, Papa went. And now Ma, though alive in body and spirit, doesn't speak, smile, or look into my eyes. Today my ears strain to hear "Betu" in her lambent voice.

She spends most of her time sitting in her armchair in the balcony, gazing into the distance. She, who bore me in her womb for nine months, and raised me into the woman that I have become, fails to acknowledge that she knows me. She, who spent her vitality in nurturing my father's home, wears a look of wonderment while gazing at his photograph, in trying to convince her mind that she had once loved this man. She sits before me, with her back bent, her eyes eager but hopeless, and with her mind gradually cheating on her.

Today, she has been sitting there for longer than usual, staring at the sky as the clouds close in on her. I finish my lunch and come out to sit with her. I find her smiling to herself. I am relieved. I haven't seen her smile in months. Careful not to break her reverie, I pull a chair and take her hands into mine.

We must have sat like that for half-an-hour when she speaks, "No good!"

"What, Ma?" I ask her, hearing her voice for the first time today.

"Love books — no good!"

"Love books?" I am baffled.

She turns silent. I wonder what she meant. Probably she had heard it somewhere and was only repeating it. Or, she was trying to connect something from the past, as the doctor said she would, and just said it aloud.

She speaks after a minute, softly, almost to herself, "You are not loved enough."

And then it occurs to me. My father, when I was a little girl immersed in heady romance novels, used to admonish me against reading them. His reason was curious. He said those who read books on love are not loved enough. They try to fill that void by getting into the characters' shoes. I used to counter his volley by saying that if that were the case, then indeed, until I found someone to spend my life with, the books were there to stay. Papa would frown and Ma smile at our lively banter.

I help Ma into her bedroom and make her to lie down on the bed. I cover her body with a white sheet so that she doesn't feel the cold. I kiss her hair and whisper to her to sleep. She holds my hand and closes her eyes. Sunlight filters through the door mesh to mark the creases that line her face with little black squares. She looks serene. I think about what she had said, of how she was jogging her mind to hold on to the memory of my father. Of how, despite falling deeper into the vortex everyday, the love that they shared gives her reason to continue.

Tears flow through my hands into her hair, like blood rushing through vein. The wetness wakes her, and seeing me cry, her eyes fill with an immense sadness. She attempts to speak, but her lips only tremble. I gently pat her forehead until she is asleep again.

In the evening, I call Shailesh to say that I want him to come to Delhi and dispose of this house. And that I want Ma to stay with us, however straining the transfers might be for her.

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This is a short story I wrote seven years ago.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Stories of Africa’s kids disturbingly realistic

Uwem Akpan's debut collection of short stories, "Say You're One of Them," is set in different African nations - Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya and so on. Each of the stories is narrated from the point of view of a child caught up in the midst of conflict. Whether it's the pain of living on the street or fighting religious persecution or having one's faith challenged, the children in these tales show grit, perseverance and courage.

A Jesuit priest, Akpan grew up in Nigeria and attended Catholic institutions in the United States before earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. He has a real gift for bringing the day-to-day living of the downtrodden of Africa to life. In “An Ex-Mas Feast,” first published in The New Yorker, a family survives on the roadside in Nairobi on the earnings of their teenage daughter, who sells herself to tourists. The story is narrated by the girl’s brother, whose education is to be financed by his sister’s earnings. The family dynamics, the vicious cycle of poverty in urban Africa and the boy’s guilt at making his life at the cost of his sister’s are portrayed with nuanced clarity.

Akpan has a sound ear for dialogue, and his use of the local dialect lends authenticity to the stories, even if it takes effort to absorb the full meaning of what is being said. In “Fattening the Gabon,” a brother and sister are being set up to be sold into slavery by their uncle. The depravity of the network that perpetuates this inhuman act contrasts with the shock of its realization by the boy.

While all the stories are deeply affecting, “Luxurious Hearses” — about a Nigerian boy who must escape his Muslim roots on a bus loaded with Christians — offers the most poignant and humorous insights into the futility of religious violence. This is also the theme of “My Parents’ Bedroom,” in which a young girl must protect herself and her brother from the mere fact that they are the children of a Tutsi mother and Hutu father.

“Say You’re One of Them” explores universal themes of love and filial bonding against the backdrop of genocide, poverty and slavery. The shameful thing is these stories could be happening to real children, whose childhood is being lost to their fight to survive. If Akpan can sensitize a few of us toward keeping our humanitarian promises to Africa, this book would have achieved its purpose.
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This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Raw politics outweighs family ties

In spite of Turkey's claims to being a Muslim nation with the values and freedom befitting a European democracy, the truth is that the Turkish state has grown increasingly intolerant of dissent in any form. In 2006, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk was charged with "insulting Turkishness" for referring to the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians.

It is in this suspect climate that Maureen Freely, Pamuk's English translator, sets her novel, Enlightenment. The story begins with the arrival of Jeannie Wakefield in Istanbul. The daughter of a CIA agent, Jeannie joins a group of left-wing students out of youthful curiosity and falls in love with Sinan, a charismatic young man. Then one of the group is identified as a spy of the secret police. He is chopped up and his body thrown into the Bosporus.

This has devastating consequences for the group, most of whom are arrested and tortured by the secret police. Jeannie, however, manages to escape to America. She returns many years later and reignites her love with Sinan, resulting in marriage and the birth of a child.

But this is only the beginning of fresh trouble. After 9/11, Sinan's left-wing past returns to haunt him. A slew of disappearances follow, and the web of intrigue gets deeper. What role did Jeannie's father play in getting Sinan into trouble? Is Jeannie a CIA informant or just another victim of the state's repression machine? As the book draws to a nail-biting finish, ties of love and family provide obscure pointers to political affiliations and the machinations of statecraft.

If anything, the book gets too complex in trying to connect its many strands. However, Enlightenment is an important work. At a time when the European Union is seriously considering granting Turkey membership, the poor democratic and human rights record of the nation, which comes through in this book, should make European leaders wary.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

Mary Doria Russell’s fiction has always dealt with power and the search for elusive lands as a means to further it. In her first novel, The Sparrow, and its sequel, Children of God, a band of Jesuits colonize a distant planet. While their intentions are noble, the results of their actions are devastating.

For her fourth book, Dreamers of the Day, Russell shifts her gaze to the Middle East, specifically to the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference where a group of high-profile Europeans met to decide the fate of the region in the aftermath of the First World War. Our guide along this fascinating trip is Agnes Shanklin, a 40-year-old spinster who lives the staid life of a schoolteacher in Cleveland, until she lands a huge pie of inheritance money.

Agnes is the only one from her extended family to survive the influenza pandemic of 1918. As per reports, an estimated 675,000 Americans died of influenza during the pandemic, ten times as many as in the Great War. Agnes loses her mother, brother, sister Lillian, Lillian’s husband and two little sons.

Up until now, the only person who has had an unquestioned bearing on Agnes’s life is her oppressive mother, who has employed a mixture of guilt and aggression to keep Agnes’s wings clipped. But after her death and the bequest of a sizable legacy, Agnes’s life is about to be transformed from the dull and willful monotony Agnes has unwittingly caged it in.

She decides to convert a long-cherished dream, a visit to the Holy Land, into reality. Accompanied by her lovable dachshund, Rosie, she sets sail for Egypt, buoyed by the memory of her sister’s stay in the region, where Lillian served as a missionary for a while. Little is Agnes aware that she will land into a momentous event in modern history. Her first experience of Egypt is unpleasant, unused as she is to “the crushing heat and a buzzing horror of flies”.

But soon, thanks to Lillian’s connections, Agnes finds herself in illustrious company. There is Winston Churchill, a hoity-toity colonial secretary, who is mandated to secure British access to the region’s colossal oil reserves, under the garb, of course, of bringing stability to a fragile land (Sound familiar?). There is Gertrude Bell, the redoubtable British writer, credited with drawing up the borders of Mesopotamia (that later became Iraq). And there is the swashbuckling T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia”, who, having engineered the Arab revolt against the Turks, enjoys tremendous goodwill with the local populace.

Unbelievably, Agnes begins to spend time with these power brokers, moving in and out of their circle with the ease of an old timer. Bell is distant with Agnes, treating her as a novice, someone not to be bothered with as she goes about negotiating countries’ borders. Churchill, blunt to a fault and no believer of political correctness, regales Agnes with the nuances of warfare. It is the charming and principled Lawrence, however, to whom Agnes grows the closest.

In their midst is a fictional German spy, Karl Weilbacher, who gives Agnes her only real taste of romance. In this respect, the novel, in spite of its formidable cast of characters, continues to be Agnes’ story. So, even as he tries to extricate secrets out of Agnes—secrets that only she is privy to given her closeness with “the set”—Karl emerges as a sympathetic lover who enables Agnes to rethink her possibilities in love.

Deserving special mention is Russell’s fascination for the inclusive culture of the Arab world, symbolized by her vivid description of a place that was doomed to attract attention in later years for all the wrong reasons.


…Jerusalem teemed with humanity of all kinds. Shrouded Arab women, white-turbaned Muslim mullahs, Greek priests, Italian monks, and robed Bedouin in kuffiehs joined fashionable French tourists, ragged water carriers, shouting street vendors, store owners, British soldiers, American businessmen, and earnest pilgrims—all these milling amid the beggars, the lepers, and the blind crying, “Baksheesh!”

They say the past is a foreign country. Russell will have you believe otherwise. A sense of déjà vu (in reverse) pervades the text as the West, close to a century after the events described in the book, continues to face the quagmire that its actions have wrought. Explaining the fallacy of deciding the fates of entire nations, Karl tells Agnes:


Who are the British to tutor the people of the Middle East? Civilization was here for thousands of years when the British were still wearing bearskins and painting themselves blue…Foreigners nearly always want to simplify the Middle East, Agnes. They cannot tolerate to fell ignorant long enough to understand it.

Eventually, Agnes returns to Cleveland and becomes a stock market player. Like the other crucial events in her life, the stock market crash of 1929 comes like a bolt from the blue, drowning her fortune. Agnes narrates her eventful life story from beyond the grave. We are now in the present, and Agnes spends her days by the Nile, fulfilling a prophecy that anyone who swallows the mighty river’s water is fated to stay by its side for eternity. Like in life, Agnes is fortunate to rub shoulders with the high and mighty in death too: Gandhi, Napoleon et al.

Russell is a writer of great skill. The worlds she conjures are richly detailed products of meticulous research, if not personal experience. You may not agree with the political message of her book, but it is impossible to ignore her conviction, borne of a deep humanity, that geopolitics does not sit well with hubris. As Lawrence wrote in his autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Russell uses to resounding effect in her book,


Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

As America grapples with the fruits of its actions in Iraq, Dreamers of the Day is a timely reminder of that classic dictum: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
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A condensed version of this review appeared in Barnes & Noble Review.