The Innocents Or Not So Innocent Abroad

Click on the link below to access a hypertext map that traces the route of The Quaker City excursion: https://twain.lib.virginia.edu/innocent/iamaphp.html

I recently read The Innocents Abroad, a travelogue of a journey by ship to Europe and the Holy Land, undertaken by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain. When you hear the name Mark Twain, you immediately think of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not many people know that he was a prolific travel writer well before he published his two famous novels. In 1867, he embarked on a pleasure excursion with a group of fellow Americans from New York aboard Quaker City, a retired Civil War ship, for a five and a half month long trip around the Mediterranean. At the time he was a travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper, “The Alta California” and sent dispatches about his travels to them and to “The New York Tribune” and “The New York Herald” too. The Innocents Abroad was published two years later, in 1869. It was a perfect pick for the pandemic as it let me indulge in some armchair travel! It made me reminisce nostalgically about the places I have already visited and compare notes with his experiences and also made me dream of places I have yet to visit.

Mark Twain’s incomparable humor sets this book apart from the countless run of the mill travel guides. I laughed out aloud innumerable times while reading and at times I was practically in stitches. I would say Mark Twain is right up there with Oscar Wilde as one of the wittiest writers I have ever read! Whether the group is traversing through the countryside of the Middle East on recalcitrant donkeys or horses, looking in desperation for soap anywhere in Europe, having a disappointing shaving experience in France, being dragged up the Pyramids by ‘draggers’ asking for ‘baksheesh’, sneaking into the Parthenon at night and stealing grapes along the way, having a private rendezvous with the Czar of Russia or playing pranks on the tourist guides by acting dumb, every experience is recounted with caustic humor.

The group’s language troubles with the French provides a good example of a humorous quip:

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language. One of our passengers said to a shopkeeper, in reference to a proposed return to buy a pair of gloves, “Allong restay trankeel—may be ve coom Moonday;” and would you believe it, that shopkeeper, a born Frenchman, had to ask what it was that had been said. Sometimes it seems to me, somehow, that there must be a difference between Parisian French and Quaker City French.”

I fell over the floor laughing when I read his description of the famed Turkish bath. Turkey was a country that had conjured up visions of the Arabian Nights for him. He had imagined the voluptuousness of the perfumes of Araby, the richness of the silks and carpets and the sensuousness of a luxuriating bath but instead he was in a dark, dingy and slippery corner from where he was taken to a place that resembled a chicken coop and served a Turkish drink which turned out to be the most execrable coffee:

“He took me back and flooded me with hot water, then turbaned my head, swathed me with dry table-cloths, and conducted me to a latticed chicken-coop in one of the galleries, and pointed to one of those Arkansas beds. I mounted it, and vaguely expected the odors of Araby again. They did not come.The blank, unornamented coop had nothing about it of that oriental voluptuousness one reads of so much. It was more suggestive of the county hospital than any thing else. The skinny servitor brought a narghili, and I got him to take it out again without wasting any time about it. Then he brought the world-renowned Turkish coffee that poets have sung so rapturously for many generations, and I seized upon it as the last hope that was left of my old dreams of Eastern luxury. It was another fraud. Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. “

I have only picked a handful of examples from the book of his scintillating wit. Practically every page is full of bantering remarks and railleries. Unfortunately, some of the humor degenerates into appallingly racist and xenophobic comments. At first I gave him the benefit of the doubt for living in a different time when people were not politically correct and when there was no concept of cultural relativity. But as I continued reading, I felt that some of the racist diatribes were offensive. He is disgusted by the poverty around him in Bashan, Syria and describes the crippled, the lepers, the vermin infested children with eye sores and beggars distressed with hunger in very unflattering terms :“They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.”

Some of his remarks are downright misogynistic. “She was the only Syrian female we have seen yet who was not so sinfully ugly that she couldn’t smile after ten o’clock Saturday night without breaking the Sabbath.” He comes across a ‘monster headed dwarf’ and a ‘mustached woman’ inside a railway car leaving Milan. He makes it clear that they were not show people for “Alas, deformity and female beards are too common in Italy to attract attention.” Along with the misogyny and racism, there is animal cruelty thrown in for good measure. His ingenious and refreshing wit and the fact that he did not spare anyone- not even himself or his fellow Americans made me forgive him for some of the over top comments. Maybe the book is a product of its time but it is as infuriating as it is funny.

He cracked me up with the descriptions of all the artwork he comes across in Europe. He was not that moved by the famous paintings and sculptures of the Old masters. According to him, it is difficult to admire them when the place is full of them from ceiling to walls. He does not think much of the Hagia Sophia either and calls it “the rustiest old barn in heathendom”. He ridicules the inflated tales of travel writers as reality does not meet the expectations you have after reading their accounts. He is scathing in his criticisms about the Catholic Church and their penchant for obsessively collecting relics including skulls many of which are of dubious origin. It is amusing how a part of the original crown of thorns shows up in every church.

The book inadvertently highlights the stereotype of the ugly American abroad. Every tour guide is called Ferguson and every place Jackson because they can’t be bothered learning new names. There are many examples of American ethnocentrism throughout the book. Twain feels the beautiful Lake Como and the Sea of Galilee pale in comparison to Lake Tahoe. I was shocked that the American ‘pilgrims’ chipped away pieces of monuments and ruins to bring back home as souvenirs! What a different time! We even hesitate to pick a seashell from a beach these days. Twain mocks their behavior but suggests that the reverse would never be tolerated. “Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from altar railings for curiosities, and climb and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith — the other only the profanation of a pagan one.”How preposterous is that statement! The ‘innocents abroad’ even shamelessly flouted quarantine rules. It was interesting that some countries did not allow them to disembark because of cholera or the plague. Living through the pandemic right now made that detail more meaningful to me. Twain makes self deprecating jokes too and lampoons Americans who behave badly abroad: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.” 

Twain’s prose is rich and lyrical too along with being humorous. Here’s a poetic description of the Sphinx in Egypt:

The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never any thing human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever image of stone thought, it was thinking. It was looking toward the verge of the landscape, yet looking at nothing—nothing but distance and vacancy. It was looking over and beyond every thing of the present, and far into the past. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time—over lines of century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years. It was the type of an attribute of man—of a faculty of his heart and brain. It was MEMORY—RETROSPECTION—wrought into visible, tangible form…….The Sphynx is grand in its loneliness; it is imposing in its magnitude; it is impressive in the mystery that hangs over its story. And there is that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the awful presence of God.”

I noticed that Twain and his fellow travelers mellowed down towards the end of the journey. They experienced travel fatigue from having traveled so long and extensively. In fact Twain does not linger over his descriptions of Spain or the places they visit on the way back. The book ends with these oft quoted lines: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Over time, the memory of disagreeable incidents faded away and Twain states that he would happily undertake the same journey if given a chance again.

I highly recommend this satirically humorous account of Twain’s travels. Make sure you are reading an edition with illustrations by True Williams which are as amusing as the text. This is a long book and I took my time to read it. It is informative and illuminating and Twain digresses at times to regale the readers with interesting legends and stories. Although I found the sojourns in Italy and France to be the most humorous, I enjoyed the parts about the Middle East as I haven’t been there. It was fascinating to journey through Syria and Palestine and see all the Biblical places and people come alive. I interrupted the reading to google some of the information and returned to the page lingering over every detail. At one point in the book, he describes Venetians enjoying granita ( a distant cousin of Italian ice) on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I felt reading this book was like slowing down to savor every bite of the delicious granita offered by Mark Twain.

 

Caste: The Origins of our Discontents

As another year comes to a close, I reflect on the books that had the greatest impact on me in 2020. In the genre of non fiction, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson is the most powerful book I have read this year. The title itself piqued my interest. The premise of the book is that ‘caste’, a term traditionally associated with India, is a better word to describe racism in the US. As someone who has grown up in India, caste is not just a term I am familiar with, but something that has seeped into every aspect of my existence, knowingly or unknowingly. It is so deeply ingrained in the psyche that often people are not even aware of how they are perpetuating the caste system even if they openly and truly condemn it. In that aspect, caste is very similar to white supremacy and Wilkerson posits that African Americans in the United States are at the lowest rung in a hierarchy analogous to both the caste system in India and the Nazi rule in Germany. She claims that “Race, in the United States, is the visible agent of the unseen force of caste…. Caste is the bones, race the skin.”

One might wonder if these cross cultural comparisons have any merit for how do we compare 400 years of American history with 12 years of Nazi rule and 3000 years of a complex system of social stratification in India? The three share basic methods of subjugation and the underlying feeling of dehumanization is the same. So caste and not race is the lens though which we should view America, according to Wilkerson. It is not just a matter of semantics but a better framework to understand and analyze the inequities. Wilkerson says that Nazi Germany was inspired by American segregation laws and believe it or not, they thought the American system was too extreme. I have often wondered why people are only shocked by Nazis and their brutality when what African Americans endured as slaves was no less. Even the Nazis thought that determining the percentage of blood that made you black to be too harsh. It is only on reading this book I realized that there was no basis to the one drop of blood rule ( which even black people have come to believe- so deep is the brainwashing or rather whitewashing) and that theory was touted just to keep black people in their place.

Wilkerson delineates 8 pillars of caste that are common across the three societies and gives examples from each category to illustrate her point. Endomagy is one of the pillars of caste I found fascinating as a comparison. She equates the past ban on interracial marriages in the US to the control of marriage and mating in India where traditionally people married into their own caste. Alabama was the last state in the union to overturn the ban on interracial marriage in 2000, 33 years after the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs Virginia that such laws were unconstitutional in all states. And yet, more than 40% of Alabamians voted against overturning it. Now, in the US and in India, legally you are allowed to marry any one you want. But only 10% of the population in India marries outside its caste and only 15% of marriages in the US are interracial. This number includes Hispanics and Asians as well. The percentage would be a lot lower if it were only blacks. Sadly, the figures speak for themselves.

Another pillar of caste that I found striking to compare is the emphasis on pollution and purity. Black people were considered impure and dirty just as Dalits who belong to the lowest echelons of the caste system in India and whose very shadows were once considered polluting and who often eat and drink from separate containers to this day. It was no different for black people till a few decades ago when they drank water from separate fountains and were not allowed to use swimming pools frequented by white people. Wilkerson cites the example of Al Bright, the only black child on the Little League Team in the town of Youngston, Ohio who was banned from using a swimming pool when his team went on a celebration outing. When parents and coaches protested, he was allowed to float on a raft without his feet touching the water, towed around the pool by the manager only after all the white kids had vacated the pool. This incident took place in 1951.   

The book traces the history of enslavement in the South from 1619 when the first Africans were brought to Virginia to the Civil War and subsequent period when the caste system was perpetuated through the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolition of slavery, the country found ways to keep black people subjugated. Wilkerson describes in detail discriminatory housing policies, unethical medical experiments and horrific lynchings where the white community would come to view the spectacle, collect body parts as souvenirs and send postcards of the event to family and friends. This was an astounding revelation to me for as a recent immigrant, I didn’t fully know or understand the extent of the horrors African Americans were subjected to in the past. I had always viewed America as the leader of the free world. But what a paradox then that the country that espouses the values of liberty and justice for all fails many of its citizens on just those counts? For unless the racism inherent in society is acknowledged and addressed, any claim to be the beacon of democracy rings hollow.

“Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world. Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history, It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces.”  

We are loathe to talk about past horrors but events that happened long ago still color our thinking. The book depicts current realities too with the backlash to Obama’s election and the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Wilkerson believes that white voters vote against their own self interest when the power they hold is threatened for the reality is that in a few decades, they will no longer be the majority of the population. She goes on to ask this uncomfortable question: ”..if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” In the US, there is controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments whereas Germany has no statues or memorials to Nazi officers and looks back upon the Third Reich as a shameful part of its history. Americans not willing to dismantle monuments is emblematic of the larger unwillingness to dismantle the system.

Wilkerson lays bare some stark and painful truths about race relations with scholarly research and compelling personal anecdotes. She describes how she was viewed with suspicion while traveling business class. She was followed in the airport and questioned by agents on a car rental company’s shuttle bus and not one passenger came to her defense. Throughout the book she employs striking metaphors to drive home her point. She likens caste variously to the foundation of an old house, to a computer operating system, and to a staged performance. “Caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.”

There are some gaps in the arguments Wilkerson puts forth. She tends to view caste as a binary and has omitted the plight of Native Americans and other minorities and does not dwell much on how class operates within caste- for instance how do we explain the success of Asian immigrants in the US who are not white? Some of the comparisons of the treatment of African American to Jews seem tenuous too. The Nazis wanted to eliminate Jews and not dominate them while black people in the US and Dalits in India were needed by the dominant class for economic exploitation. 

In addressing the caste system in India, Wilkerson focuses mainly on Brahmins and Dalits but caste is far from a two tier system in India. It is an extremely complex dynamic whose definition is broader and more nuanced. There are four main castes or ‘varna’. Interestingly, the Sanskrit word varna itself means color indicating that originally skin color was used to determine place in a hierarchy. The four castes are Brahmin, Kshatriya,Vaishya and Shudra or the priestly, the warrior, the merchant and the laborer respectively and each caste is further divided into sub castes. Dalits once known as ‘ untouchables’ and whose work involves removal of garbage and animal carcasses, cleaning toilets and sewers, are the most oppressed group. They are even excluded from the traditional classification and form a fifth caste.

There could be more than 5000 castes and sub castes in India and often a subjugated group also subjugates in turn, those they perceive to be lower on the rung. Besides the caste system is not restricted to Hindus but is practiced in some form or other by Muslims and Christians too. Caste is not the exclusive domain of religion but has insidiously seeped into Indian culture. Wilkerson cites sociological research and discusses the activism of Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar but does not take into account current realities in India where the government has implemented affirmative action initiatives for the marginalized and where we witness the evolution of a rapidly growing Dalit political movement to fight caste hegemony and Hindu nationalism as they continue to be targets of lynching and rape.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is illuminating. It inspired me to do some soul searching about my own heritage and my complicity in keeping the machinery going. Call it unconscious or silent bias, in the end the discrimination whether in the US or in India is part of an underlying unspoken system of hierarchy. We have accepted this system and adapted to it. I naively believed that caste was not something that was all that prevalent in urban India where I grew up and was mostly confined to rural pockets of the country. I didn’t care what castes my friends belonged to or what last names they went by. Yet, I was guilty of not protesting when the domestic helpers drank water from separate glasses or were not allowed to use the bathrooms at home. Often in a high rise I would come across separate lifts- one for the residents of the building and one ‘ for servants and dogs’. I remember being shocked and angered by it but not enough to do anything about it. Not only do we need to have empathy but ‘radical empathy’, to borrow Wilkerson’s words, to bring about social change.

Caste is an eye opening book especially for those born into privilege who need to shoulder the responsibility for the inequities in society and work to eradicate the deeply entrenched social malady but the sad part is that not everyone is willing to open their eyes to the truth. Although the book ends on a note of hope, it is a long and tortuous road ahead. And there was a part of me that wondered despondently if it is truly possible to live in a world without any implicit hierarchy of race, caste or class!

A Rose By Many Other Names

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Zéphirine Drouhin- Antique Bourbon Rose

I’m taking a slightly different turn on my blog today. I had submitted an article a few years ago for a contest on a gardening website where we had to write an essay based on the famous lines from Romeo and Juliet about a rose by any other name smelling just as sweet. Unfortunately the contest was called off as they didn’t have enough participants. Roses will be blooming soon in my garden. They are already awakening from their winter slumber and putting out new shoots and leaves. I thought it would be timely to post the essay I had submitted pertaining to gardening but inspired by literary lines.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Juliet declares these impassioned lines in Act 11, Scene 11 of Romeo and Juliet. There is a feud between the noble families of Capulet and Montague but for Juliet, Romeo would still be perfection incarnate with a different family name and she would still love him wholeheartedly. But would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

Fragrance is not exclusive to roses. We just have to smell a jasmine or a hyacinth or get a whiff of a lilac or a sweet autumn clematis to know that there are other alluring scents in the world of flowers. Besides, the scent factor varies a lot among roses. A rose can be virtually scent- free or it could have the most intense and intoxicating perfume on earth. Take a look at any rose catalog and you would think they were describing the aroma of an old wine. A rose could have a spicy fragrance with hints of cedarwood and vanilla or a deliciously fruity fragrance reminiscent of raspberries.

Fragrance is not the only quality of roses. Color, form and habit are equally important to the gardener. Nowadays we can’t really say that a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. The name rose has become generic. There are thousands of roses in mind-boggling varieties: hybrid tea roses, grandiflora, floribunda, miniature, climbing, antique and rugosa to name just a few. How do we distinguish between the different varieties of roses? By their names of course. The names are often majestic and meaningful and reveal their outstanding characteristics.

I must confess that many a time I’ve bought a rose solely for its fancy name ignoring all its other attributes like disease resistance and hardiness. Who can resist the allure of a romantic name like ‘Moondance’ or ‘ Sweet Intoxication’? Or roses that transport us to faraway places like ‘April in Paris’ or ‘Tahitian Sunset’? ‘Mister Lincoln’ and ‘John F. Kennedy’ named after famous Presidents would appeal to history buffs. A religious person might be inclined to buy ‘ Pope John Paul II’ or ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe’. I once bought ‘Queen Nefertiti’ from the David Austin Roses catalog only because the rose sounded regal and exotic. Her Majesty has certainly lived up to her name, rewarding me every year with exquisitely scented apricot blooms.

 

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David Austin English Rose – Queen Nefertiti

I also have a predilection for roses named after famous authors and literary characters and again, it is the David Austin collection that fulfills my fantasies. ‘Jude the Obscure’ and ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles’ fit the bill perfectly as I am a big fan of Thomas Hardy. There is ‘Gentle Hermione’ from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, ‘The Lady of Shalott’ named after Tennyson’s poem and ‘The Pilgrim’ from The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. Then there is the crimson rose ‘William Shakespeare’ named after the Bard himself.

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David Austin English Rose- Tess of the D’urbervilles

However the sweetest smelling rose in my garden is ‘Zéphirine Drouhin’, a fuchsia pink antique French rose. It puts on a spectacular show every June in my zone 5b garden and continues blooming sporadically through the summer into the fall. The most remarkable characteristic of ‘Zéphirine’ is that it is virtually thorn- free and can grow in semi-shade unlike most roses which require full sun. The only drawback is that it is susceptible to black spot and powdery mildew. The very name Bourbon for this class of climbing roses conjures up images of powerful monarchs. 

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Zephirine Drouhin- Antique Climbing Rose

‘Zéphirine’ itself is quite a rare and unusual name. The word ‘zephyr’ could refer to a light breeze or remind us of ‘Zephyrus’ the Greek God of the west wind. This rose is also known by other names like ‘ Mme. Charles Bonnet’ and ‘La Belle Dijonnaise’ ( the beautiful lady from Dijon). ‘Zéphirine’ has the quintessential old rose fragrance. It is the distinctive scent of ‘attar’ or the essential oil extracted from the petals of a rose. I have my own pet name for ‘Zéphirine’. Madame Zeffy as we lovingly call her at home can be quite temperamental and moody. There are days when her perfume is elusive. She needs the perfect warmth and humidity to release her captivating fragrance.

I know that ‘Zéphirine’ will have an enchanting fragrance with any other name but it is her name that makes her sound ethereal. Despite Juliet’s fervent declaration, it is on account of their names that the story ends disastrously for the star-crossed lovers. A rose will always be known for its beauty and redolence but the short and sweet one-syllable name enhances the charm of a rose and imbues it with character. Could you imagine a rose being called a thistle? Somehow it doesn’t have the same effect.

~ Jayshree

My Life in Middlemarch: A Bibliomemoir or Biography?

Middlemarch

There are books that remain with us throughout our lives-books we return to time and again for solace and guidance. But wouldn’t it be hard if you were asked to pick a single favorite? I could name 10 or 12 titles that I love and that have touched me deeply. But it would be impossible for me to narrow down my list to one choice. That’s why they say that asking a bookworm to pick a favorite book is like asking a mother to pick a favorite child. Not for Rebecca Mead, a staff member of the New Yorker who has no trouble in professing a preference. For her it was just one book that had such a lasting impact on her- the nineteenth century novel, Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life, written by the English author George Eliot. She has been fascinated with the book her whole life, has re-read it many times and has written a bibliomemoir entitled My Life in Middlemarch detailing her journey with the novel, her affinity with the author and how she can relate to the characters and experiences delineated. In the beginning of her book, Mead makes this profound observation about reading:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it’s a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. There are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.

Mead’s perception of Middlemarch changed with age and maturity as the book helped shape her life through its various stages. But the book is not a primer on Middlemarch. Read it only after you’ve read the novel otherwise you’d be lost. I read it as a companion piece to Middlemarch right after I finished reading the mammoth novel.

I have to admit that I trudged through the first few chapters of Eliot’s sprawling novel numbering almost 900 pages and divided into eight books. I was familiar with George Eliot’s Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss from school days. I’m not one to be daunted by the size of a book. I’ve read the likes of Proust and Tolstoy. It wasn’t the size but the tedium of the first few chapters. There were too many characters and plots and an omniscient narrator with a didactic authorial voice with moral asides and digressions. But I was determined to persist as Middlemarch is widely believed to be among the 100 best novels of all time and I’m glad I did. The first three books were ponderous but once I started Book 4, I couldn’t put it down.

Eliot understands life in all its complexity- what we have on display is the full panorama of provincial life in Victorian England with piercing insights into human nature. Eliot highlights the preoccupations of the middle class- marriage, money and morals and skillfully captures the frailties and foibles of her characters. It is a vast canvas and a study of manners in the 19th century in the manner of Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine which also served as an inspiration to Eliot.

Virginia Woolf made the astute observation that Middlemarch is “…The magnificent book, which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English books written for grown-up people.” While a Jane Austen plot commences with a romance and courtship and ends with a marriage and a happily ever after, Middlemarch starts off with the idealistic Dorothea Brooke’s disastrous marriage to the scholarly and much older Edward Casaubon and continues with the equally idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate’s troubled romance and subsequent disappointment in marriage. Eliot dauntlessly subverts the commonplace tropes of Victorian novels. There are no characters that are inherently good or evil ; they are all flawed and human and therein lies the beauty of the novel. Each and every character evokes the empathy of the reader. I can understand how the book influenced the way Mead viewed life and how each reading left her with a new perspective. I am determined to revisit the book this year itself as it is the bicentennial of its publication and to re-read it slowly to savor the exquisite writing and reflect on the psychological insights.

Mead’s book is part memoir, part biography and part literary criticism. She dwells on George Eliot’s unconventional life and loves, her break with orthodox Christianity, how her writing developed and how she was perceived by her contemporaries. She was shunned by family and friends for her scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes who was married to another woman and had a family. The book also details her emotional attachment to Herbert Spencer, the philosopher who believed in ‘meliorism’ and her marriage to John Cross, a man twenty years her junior who on their honeymoon in Venice jumped from the hotel window falling into the Grand Canal.

The book is replete with interesting details about Eliot’s personal life.  Eliot was renowned for her uncomely appearance lacking in feminine charm. In a letter to his father, Henry James described her thus : “She is magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous. She has a low forehead, a dull grey eye, a vast pendulous nose, a huge mouth full of uneven teeth, and a chin and jaw bone qui n’en finissent pas (never-ending)… But there was

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Portrait of George Eliot by Samuel Lawrence, circa 1860

something disarming about her intellectual radiance for he continues to say,  “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few very minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end, as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.” The most fascinating tidbit for me was learning about Eliot’s epistolary relationship with a Scottish fan, Alexander Main, who had a stalkerish obsession with her and even wrote a book entitled Wise, Witty and Tender Sayings of George Eliot reducing her literary lines into pithy aphorisms. Eliot seemed to have been flattered by his idolization and even encouraged the relationship.

Mead first read the book when she was seventeen. She grew up in a provincial setting not too different from the fictional Middlemarch and like Dorothea yearned to pursue her ambitions and make sense of her life.  And like the heroine of Middlemarch, she has a relationship with an older scholarly man. She compares her parents’ stable marriage to that of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth’s loyal relationship. Not only does she find parallels with the characters but also with Eliot and her life. Eliot thinks of Lewes’ three sons as her own and Mead herself marries a man who has three sons whom she adores. I felt this was the weak part of the memoir. Some of the links she establishes with her own life seem tenuous and although she provides us with juicy details about Eliot’s life, she doesn’t disclose much about her own which seems so lackluster compared to that of the author she reveres. I would say that a memoir is somewhat of a misnomer for this book and it would fit better under the genre of biography.

What I did enjoy was discovering a kindred spirit- an avid reader whose love of the written word shines through every page. She frequents libraries and book stores poring through manuscripts- she delights in reading lines changed later by Eliot and analyzes how they would have altered the import of the plot. She spends hours looking through Eliot’s notebook in the rare book collection of the New York Public Library and embarks on literary pilgrimages to Nuneaton and Coventry to inhabit the world of her idol. I also found Mead’s excessive admiration of Eliot endearing when she jumps to her defence for all the criticism she faced from her contemporaries for both her personal and professional life.

Mead’s book illuminates her own life along with Eliot’s and shows us how the fictional world collides with the real world. Life imitates art just as art imitates life. It added a new dimension to my understanding of George Eliot and Middlemarch.  I thought about my own favorite books and what they mean to me. What a beautiful feeling it is to connect with a writer from another time and space and equally beautiful it is to connect with a fellow bibliophile from another time and space!

 

 

 

Becoming: A Memoir by Michelle Obama

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Becoming, a memoir by Michelle Obama has become one of the bestselling books not just of the past year but possibly of the decade. Before reading the book, I looked up the reviews online and I mostly saw extreme reactions- either the book got five stars or just one star. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that the reviews were partisan reflecting the deep divide within our country right now. It’s unfortunate that we can’t read a book objectively without thinking about political allegiance. It’s hard to keep politics completely out of the equation when analyzing a book by a First lady but it’s still disheartening to see the unhinged hatred in the reviews.

I enjoyed reading this riveting memoir about the respective trajectories of the careers of the former President and the First Lady, how they came together as a couple and lived a remarkable life in the White House in spite of the haters and the naysayers. The book is divided into three sections reflecting the three important phases in Michelle Obama’s life.

Becoming Me–  This section describes how Michelle Obama worked her way up from the humble beginnings of her childhood to a stellar education that paved her way to a successful career as a lawyer. She was from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago but from a stable and loving family. The public school she attended deteriorated over time and eventually white people started fleeing the neighborhood. Luckily for her she was put in a class for overachievers and went to a magnet high school where she excelled.

I was struck by her drive and ambition to succeed even before starting elementary school. When she was in kindergarten, she got one word wrong on a quiz and the next day she insisted on a do-over in order to get a gold star along with the two other top students in the class. From childhood days itself she comes across as an assertive and confident person determined to succeed. And succeed she did! She got into Princeton despite the school guidance counselor discouraging her from applying as according to her she wasn’t Princeton material.

At Princeton racism reared its ugly head in both covert and overt ways. She met with the scorn of those who thought she was there only through affirmative action. She was put in a room with two other white girls one of whom left their suite midway through the semester. It was only years later that she found out that the mother of the roommate didn’t want her daughter rooming with a black girl and had requested the university authorities for a room change. From Princeton she went to Harvard and eventually became a lawyer working in a prestigious law firm in a skyscraper- the same building she used to pass on her ride to school in a school bus, a world so removed from her own at the time but which she eventually made hers through sheer grit, hard work and perseverance.

She is very frank and reveals that she got accepted from the waitlist at Harvard and that she even failed the bar exam on her first attempt. In spite of her academic accomplishments, there was always this question niggling in the back of her mind: “ Am I good enough? ” There is something charming about her candor which we see more of in the next two parts of the memoir. It was while she was living her dream in this law office that she met Barack Obama who worked there as an intern for the summer.

Becoming Us-  Barack Obama made a dazzling entrance into her office and her life. He was a charismatic, cerebal and calm individual with an exotic background who charmed everyone around him. They were friends for a while before they became romantically involved.  She did marry the love of her life but marriage was far from a bed of roses. Two people fiercely devoted to their respective careers would inevitably meet with challenges. A few weeks into the marriage, Barack Obama left for Indonesia to write a book in solitude. On his return, they grapple with miscarriage and infertility and eventually start IVF treatments before giving birth to their beautiful daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Barack Obama had a lot of commitments which kept him away from the family Monday through Thursday prompting them to seek marriage counseling. She had a full time demanding job herself but the onus fell on her to take care of the kids. She doesn’t gloss over any of the unpleasant moments in their relationship. They are like any other regular couple who juggle bills, debts, careers and parenting responsibilities. As his political ambitions become grander- from a community organizer to being involved with politics along with practicing law, teaching and writing books, she even speaks of a dent in her soul and a dent in her marriage. I was struck by a passage where she describes her frustration with her husband’s unpunctuality and how she and the girls would wait past their bedtime for him to join them for dinner until one day she decides that enough is enough and that they wouldn’t mess with their ironclad routine:

For me, this made so much more sense than holding off dinner or having the girls wait up sleepily for a hug. It went back to my wishes for them to grow up strong and centered and also unaccommodating to any form of old-school patriarchy: I didn’t want them to ever believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”

But the Obamas survive the stresses as they love and respect each other a lot. She realizes that her own career would be swallowed up whole by his and she is an extremely intelligent, accomplished and ambitious woman in her own right. By then she has realized that she is not cut out for law and pursues a career in public service instead. Eventually as Barack Obama’s political ambitions grow and as he meets with success and popularity and announces his presidential bid, she has no choice but to scale back on her work and ambitions and starts campaigning for him and puts her heart and soul into it. She understands that it is his calling and that he has a vision to fight inequities and bring about change and she doesn’t want to hold him back although she was initially reluctant about his entry into politics.

Like countless other people, I looked up to the Obamas as a model couple I wished to emulate. Yes, they have a wonderful and strong marriage but they have to work on it. Michelle Obama’s candor in this regard is refreshing especially since every word she utters is dissected to the core. To make herself so vulnerable to the public reveals a lot of courage on her part. It also gives permission to other couples to acknowledge that there is no shame in experiencing infertility or marital problems and to seek help when needed. This section of the memoir also captures the excitement of the days leading to the election, the victory and the inauguration day. It was a pivotal moment in American history representing hope, optimism and change when a country with a brutal history of slavery elected its first black President. And there definitely was a supportive wife who was instrumental in making this happen.

Becoming More: Politics is a dirty business and your life is like an xray where every action is transparent and scrutinized endlessly. Not only do you have to adjust to the fame and the admiration but also the criticism that comes along in its wake. It didn’t take long for the image of Michelle Obama as an angry woman to take root when a speech she made was taken out of context. And of course this vitriol made her angry but she would have to curb her anger for if she didn’t, wouldn’t she be fulfilling the prophecy of her haters?

When she declared that her main role was to be mom-in -chief in the White House, she was castigated for not being a strident feminist. You can’t please everyone and you are constantly in the spotlight being analyzed to pieces even for superficial details like the size of your arms or the length of your dress. The White house is a gilded cage as privacy becomes a thing of the past.  The Obamas venture out for a dinner date one evening and that outing becomes a big production as they have to be accompanied by motorcades and secret service agents disrupting traffic and inconveniencing the public. It’s the same for attending school events of the girls. There is a protocol to be followed for every move and the Secret Service has to be even alerted for them to step out on the Truman Balcony.

Among Michelle Obama’s accomplishments as a First lady was the cultivation of a patch of vegetables which grew in size and symbolically to become a cause dear to her- combating childhood obesity and encouraging good nutrition. She worked for the empowerment of girls and implemented programs around the world to help them have access to education and she championed to persuade businesses to hire or train military veterans and their spouses.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the Presidency was the sheer bigotry and repugnant vitriol targeted against them which had nothing to do with policies. Obama’s opponents blocked bills only because they wanted him to fail. It all started with Trump’s hateful birther campaign and revealed a side of the country that most people thought was outmoded as they had visions of a post racial America. Yet the President got elected for a second term and was able to implement a few of the policies important to him some of which are being revoked by the current administration. It’s a testament to the fine character of the Obamas that they comported themselves with utmost grace and dignity for two terms in office without a major scandal and in spite of the vicious mud-slinging, lies and hatred waged against them. As Michelle Obama wisely said : “ When they go low, we go high.”

Michelle Obama believes that she is “ …an ordinary person who found herself on an extraordinary journey.” The word ‘becoming’ means developing or blossoming into the best version of something and that’s what she intended the title of the memoir to mean. But ‘becoming’ can also mean suitable, appropriate or something that gives a pleasing effect. And all those meanings too apply to this compelling memoir of brave revelations.  It is a book inspiring women and especially women of color to pursue their dreams in spite of weaknesses, doubts and struggles and especially in spite of the question, “Am I good enough?”

 

 

 

 

Femme Lisant: My Year In Reading!

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Femme Lisant ( Woman Reading)-1869   Painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot

As the year comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of my reading habits and achievements. My goal for 2018 was to read a book a week which would add up to 52 books a year. I’m pleased to say that I managed to stick to this resolution but unfortunately I have not kept track of the exact number. I would venture to guess that I read somewhere between 60 and 70 books. For next year, I vow to track my progress on Good Reads to help me better accomplish my goals. But even without keeping a log, it’s been a fruitful year of reading. I tend to gravitate towards fiction and I’m pleased to note that this year I included more non-fiction in my reading.

So here, in no particular order, are 12 books I read this year that had an impact on me :

Fiction:

The Handmaid’s Tale- Sometimes even the most voracious reader overlooks a popular book. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985 was one of those books that would stare at me for years from bookstore displays and which for some inexplicable reason and much to my embarrassment, I hadn’t read. I finally got my hands on it and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s a dystopian tale which transports us to the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an oppressive regime characterized by religious extremism and misogyny. It’s a strictly hierarchical world where a woman’s main function is to bear children. The most chilling aspect of the story to me was is that it could be considered prescient given the political climate we are living in and may just not remain speculative fiction.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a sprawling family saga of the Korean diaspora in Japan spanning four generations and almost a century in time. I had enjoyed reading The Calligrapher’s Daughter, a story based in early twentieth century Korea during the Japanese occupation. Pachinko, too, transports us to that time but it is mainly an eye-opening account of the discrimination of Koreans living in Japan and their struggles to survive in that hostile environment where they were essentially stateless. The game of pachinko is an apt metaphor for the lives and fates of the characters. The novel is not without its flaws. There are far too many characters and those we connect with in the beginning fade into the background as the plot thickens. Yet, it resonated with me on a personal level as this is an immigrant story about learning to adapt in an adopted country.

The Accusation-The book from the Korean peninsula that moved me the most was this collection of poignant short stories by a dissident writer who goes by the pseudonym Bandi and still lives in North Korea. The short story is my favorite genre and one of my resolutions this year was to read more translations. This book translated by Deborah Smith fit the bill perfectly. The stories are set between 1989 and 1995 during the repressive regimes of Kim- Il Sung and Kim-Jong- Il. Each story is about an unjust accusation and delineates the plight of the citizens who are under the constant watchful eye of the state and of their fellow citizens. I have already written a blog post about this book with my detailed thoughts: https://literarygitane.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/forbidden-stories-from-north-korea/

I enjoy reading classics and often reach out to the tried and tested. This year instead of re- reading Jane Eyre for the umpteenth time, I decided to read The Professor and Villette, two novels of Charlotte Brontë that I hadn’t read before. As both books are based upon Brontë’s own experiences as a teacher in Brussels, I read them as companion books. Villette is considered to be a more polished re-working of The Professor and enjoyed more critical acclaim. Despite the moralistic, judgmental and occasionally xenophobic narrators, I enjoyed reading both novels for depicting the challenges, disappointments and rewards in a teacher’s life. The Professor is written from the perspective of William Crimsworth, a male protagonist and is a very sweet and realistic love story which ends with a happily ever after. The fascinating aspect of this Victorian novel is the portrayal of a strong woman who is interested in being financially independent even after marriage. Villette, on the other hand, a love story written from the point of view of Lucy Snowe, a female teacher in the fictitious French town of Villette, ends on a depressing and ambiguous note. It is interesting for the passionate lyricism with which it lets us glimpse into the complex inner world of an unreliable narrator.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the story of Cora, a slave in a plantation in Georgia who attempts to escape with Caesar, a fellow slave who has a connection to the underground railroad.  The underground railroad was a network of safe houses and routes used by slaves to escape to free states with the help of abolitionists and other well-wishers but in this story the author makes it a literal train network with stations, tunnels and locomotives that transport slaves. The story depicts antebellum life on a plantation and the atrocities black people had to endure in a sad era in American history.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline was another historical fiction that enlightened  me about a dark and relatively obscure part of US history.  Between 1854 and 1929, orphaned and homeless children were picked up from the streets of New York in an ostensibly humanitarian gesture and boarded on railroad trains headed for the farmlands of the American West to be adopted by families. Often the children ended up in worse circumstances as unpaid household or farm help. Vivian Daly was one such child who now is a 91 year old woman who lives a secluded life in coastal Maine. Molly is a 17 year old girl in the modern foster care system. Their stories intersect at a point and what follows is an emotional recollection of the past along with the blossoming of a new and tender friendship.

Elinor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- As someone who likes both Brit lit and chick lit, I enjoyed reading this heartbreaking but yet heartwarming debut novel by Gail Honeyman about Elinor Oliphant, a socially awkward and brutally frank loner who strikes up a friendship with a co-worker and gradually comes to terms with her distressing past and starts healing. The book reminded me a little of A Man called Ove. It was refreshing to have a quirky and out of the box character as the main protagonist.

Non Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot- A black woman’s cancerous cells were multiplied and distributed around the world enabling a new era of cellular research and resulting in incredible advances in medicine and technology including cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and finding a polio vaccine but raising ethical questions about using someone’s cells without informed consent. It is the story of Henrietta and her descendants who had no idea that their relative was being used for scientific research. People and companies and corporations made millions out of the Hela cells but her own family couldn’t afford health insurance. I just couldn’t put this book down! It is an illuminating account of racial injustice and unethical practices all in the name of science.

Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir of a girl raised in isolation in rural Idaho by a survivalist Mormon family. She and her six siblings are kept out of school, denied medical treatments and subjected to all kinds of abuse. She studies for the ACT exam on her own, teaching herself math, grammar and science and gets admitted to BYU and eventually gets a PhD from Cambridge University. She rises above her birth and childhood but yet her past and her family still have a hold on her. It is a moving story of grit and resilience in the face of extenuating but excruciating circumstances.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean is the story of the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library suspected to be caused by an arsonist which resulted in almost a million books being either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Ouch!. As someone who is an avid reader and who also loves frequenting libraries, I reveled in this paean to libraries. Libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but are living entities too as they also serve as important cultural institutions and community centers.

I’m currently reading Becoming by Michelle Obama and I have included it in the list. This is a compelling memoir in three parts entitled Becoming Me, Becoming Us and Becoming More which takes us from Michelle Obama’s childhood on the South side of Chicago in a working class family and her years at Princeton and Harvard to marriage and motherhood and life in the White House. It is written with candor and gives us a glimpse into the human side of the former First lady. Her struggles, whether it was balancing family and professional life, dealing with infertility, seeking marriage counseling or encountering racism and sexism are issues that strike a chord with most women.

Whether the books I read in 2017 have literary merit or not is subjective, but they did cater to my eclectic literary taste. As Francis Bacon famously said, “ Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” But I did savor them all in some way or the other as each and every one of them provided its own unique flavor to my varied palette.

I’m going to start the New Year with Middlemarch, the Victorian behemoth by George Eliot and the Pulitzer Prize winning book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. I’m also looking forward to new publications in 2019 including The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism by Harold Bloom, The Source of Self Regard by Toni Morrison and The City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert.

How was your year in reading and what are your most anticipated reads for 2019?

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!

 

 

Letter to a New Mother on Raising a Feminist Daughter!

frontAs a mother of two daughters, I’ve often wondered if I have equipped them well in a world that is largely sexist and unfair. Have I empowered them to expect equal opportunities and equal respect as men or have I unconsciously passed on gender biases that have existed through generations and are reinforced by society and media? I recently read Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a guide to new parents presented in a simple and succinct manner on raising our daughters to become strong women. This book which can be read under an hour made me examine my own thoughts on feminism and introspect in retrospect about my children’s upbringing.

The book had its genesis in a letter Adichie wrote to her friend Ijeawele who had reached out to her on advice on raising her newborn baby girl. The epistolary style along with personal stories and anecdotes makes it heartfelt and intimate and the familiar and conversational tone establishes an instant connection between Adichie and her reader. In fact the book is astonishing in its simplicity. One would expect an essay on the history or theory of feminism or something profound based on the title but Adichie stays away from dogmatism and the use of academic jargon and makes the tenets of feminism accessible to a layman ( or laywoman as the case may be). This work could be considered a companion piece to Adichie’s essay How We should all be Feminists that resulted from one of her popular Ted Talks.

The book is written from a Nigerian woman’s perspective and there are many interesting references to Igbo culture in particular but the themes are universal. As a woman born and raised in India, I could identify with almost everything she writes about. For, sadly, misogyny knows no borders. There are nuggets of wisdom about marriage, gender roles, body image, body shaming, romance, boundaries and consent. She also highlights the importance of inculcating reading habits and taking pride in cultural upbringing while rejecting the bad but imbibing the good parts of our traditions. Much as I enjoyed this quick read, I personally prefer Adichie’s novels. Nevertheless it lead to an interesting discussion in my book club of women ranging in age from the thirties to the seventies.

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The back of the book cover!

Adichie begins by  writing about two feminist tools. “I matter. I matter equally. Not “if only”. Not “as long as.” I matter equally. Full stop.” The second tool follows in the form of a question. ‘Can you reverse X and get the same result? If a woman chooses to forgive her husband for infidelity, would the reverse work too?

Many points raised by Adichie resonated deeply with me. She urges us to raise our girls in such a way that they don’t view marriage as an achievement. In a heterosexual relationship there is an automatic imbalance when the institution of marriage matters more to one person than the other. A woman is more invested in the relationship when society conditions her to view it as the be all and end all of life. When marriage is made to be the primary goal of a girl’s life, all her other accomplishments pale in comparison.

The mother should be a fulfilled person with a full life apart from husband and kids. Housework and child rearing should be shared responsibilities. She counsels her friend to reject the language of help.“ Chudi is not “helping” you by caring for his child. He is doing what he should. When we say fathers are “helping,” we are suggesting that child care is a mother’s territory, into which fathers valiantly venture. It is not.” The use of language is very important and reveals our prejudices. We must get rid of redundant words like ‘lady mechanic’ from our vocabularies.

She cautions her friend to beware of the concept of ‘feminism lite’ or  ‘the idea of conditional female equality’. Some men and women believe that women are naturally subordinate to men but men should treat them with respect. Do we then have to depend on male benevolence to be treated well? Again, the language we use is significant. Many women without paying attention to their choice of words speak of their husbands ‘allowing’ them to do things. But as Adichie wisely points out being a feminist is like being pregnant. You either are or you are not.

She advices her friend to let her daughter play with toys traditionally considered as toys for boys. I am reminded of the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s famous lines from her groundbreaking feminist text, The Second Sex, that one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman. She posited that a woman is a cultural and social construct as opposed to a biological one. Are traits like being obedient, childlike and timid imposed on women rather than being innate qualities? There is no denying that there has been a historical subjugation of women by patriarchal structures which by ascribing traits to women have kept them from achieving their full potential. An angry or powerful woman who doesn’t exhibit ‘feminine’ traits is frowned upon. Adichie points out the ingrained double standards : “Teach her that if you criticize X in women but do not criticize X in men, then you do not have a problem with X, you have a problem with women.” 

From a young age girls are taught to be compliant and accommodate to others sacrificing their own sense of self in the process. Adichie exhorts us to reject the concept of likeability.  “We have the world full of women who are unable to exhale fully because they have for so long been conditioned to fold themselves into shapes to make themselves likable.” She emphasizes that a girl is not just an object to be liked or disliked, she is also a subject who can like or dislike.

Women do not need to be revered or worshipped. It is patronizing. They need to be treated as equals. This point struck a chord with me as in Indian society many men put their mothers and sisters on a pedestal thinking them to be flawless and beyond reproach but the same men mistreat their girlfriends and wives. How could they exhibit such extremes in their attitudes and behaviors? True respect for women comes from treating them as fellow humans. We don’t want to be treated as a doormat or as a Goddess but as an equal human being with warts and all.

Adichie brings up the uncomfortable topic of changing our maiden names after marriage. There are many women who consider themselves feminists but still resort to the practice for convenience. There is no easy solution to this problem as it is much simpler if the whole family has the same last name. Even our maiden names reflect patriarchy and Adichie admits that friends have called her out for it but she argues that it’s the name you’ve always had and identifed with. Imagine how long and multi-hyphenated last names would become if future generations were to honor their patriarchal and matriarchal ancestries! As a woman with four last names floating around ( it’s a complicated story for another day! ), I  personally look forward to the day when we would do away with last names and stick to mononyms.

If I were to pick a favorite quote from the whole book, it would be:  “Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive. It’s misogynistic to suggest that.” Why do we have to apologize for being feminine? I personally don’t just embrace my femininity, I revel in it. To me feminism is about recognizing the intrinsic biological differences between the sexes and working in such a way that those differences complement each other in an equal and fair manner. It is true that we are conditioned into gender roles from a young age. My girls played with legos, blocks and trains along with dolls. But I have to admit that I didn’t stay away from pink in dressing them up or refrain from calling them ‘princess’ as Adichie suggests. To me it’s not about the colors I dress them up in. On the contrary, I believe that it’s not empowering at all when little girls are dressed as boys for then the subliminal message they receive would be that it’s better to be a boy.

I was ecstatic the day my first daughter was born. I was equally ecstatic the day my second daughter was born. So many people all over the world wish and pray for boys. I felt that my girls entered the world with parents who were elated to welcome them. So they got the best feminist start to their lives as they were valued. And that carries a lot more weight than the color of their layette. The best way to teach is by example. Let’s raise our daughters to be self-reliant and financially independent adults proud to be women. Let’s lead a life dedicated to equality for all so they may be able to emulate us and consequently, lead a life better than the one we lead. And let’s also raise our sons to be feminists!

Feminism has become the new  F word and provokes strong reactions. Many women who consider themselves feminists wonder if they fit into what is defined as feminism as the common perception seems to be that feminists are angry misandrists. One woman I met in my academic circle told me that to be a true feminist you can’t be married. Another one went as far as to say that you can’t be a feminist in a heterosexual relationship as there is an inherent imbalance of power. Adichie who has herself faced criticism for saying that women’s issues are different from trans women’s issues has also been taken to task for writing this book from a cisheteronormative point of view. She defends her position by saying she writes best about what she identifies with. Besides feminism is always contextual as she points out. There is no rule set in stone. And according to me, if we exclude women who feel empowered in their personal choices from embracing the label if they don’t fit some narrow definition, then we are in fact doing a disservice to the movement and not letting it grow.

What are you thoughts on feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist? And if you have children, do you think you are raising them to be feminists? I personally look forward to the day when such a discussion will no longer be necessary.    

 

 

The Hideaway of a Young Girl : A Literary and Historical Pilgrimage

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Six year old Anne at Montessori School in a happier time.

The Diary of a Young Girl is one of my most cherished childhood books. I was around the same age as Anne Frank when I first read the book and like many other adolescents, I could relate to the young girl and her angst. I was vaguely aware of the chilling horrors of the holocaust but at that age I mainly found a kindred spirit in Anne for she was a normal teenager like all of us encountering the same problems –squabbles with her sister, feeling misunderstood by grown-ups, dealing with the awkwardness of puberty, the onset of the first period and crushes on boys. Anne poured her heart out in her diary, her friend and her confidante whom she lovingly addressed as ‘Kitty’, during the two years she spent in hiding in ‘The Secret Annex’ with her family when the Nazis occupied Amsterdam. Little did I imagine that one day I would be entering this personal space so vividly described by the spunky and precocious teen! I re-read her diary before going on a trip to Amsterdam and had quite a different perspective on it as an adult. The book, along with the moving and sobering experience of visiting the house, brought home with full force the atrocities inflicted by the Nazis.

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The Anne Frank Huis located at No. 263 in Prinsengracht in Amsterdam is where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for twenty-five months during World War 2 along with the van Pels family and the dentist, Dr. Fritz Pfeffer. They hid in the Achterhuis or back house (Secret Annex) located at the back of the Opekta and Pectacon office and warehouse where her father, Otto Frank, ran businesses making spices and seasonings for meat and pectin for jelly. Otto decided to find refuge here when the Nazis began rounding up all the Jews to send them to Westerbok, a transit camp near the Dutch town of Assen before deporting them to Auschwitz- Birkenau and Sobibor in German occupied Poland where they were ruthlessly exterminated.

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Otto’s employees and friends played an important role in keeping the businesses running and the family safe. I am going to name them all as they risked their lives to protect the family- Johannes Kleiman, Miep Gies and her husband Jan Gies, Victor Kugler, Bep Voskuijl and her father Johan Voskuijl. They did grocery shopping and brought food for their survival and books and magazines to entertain them and were their only contact with the outside world. Bep signed up for correspondence courses in shorthand and Latin in her own name to continue the children’s education. These well-wishers whom Anne referred to as ‘helpers’  represented hope in their small acts of kindness and show us how human nature is as capable of compassion as it is of cruelty.

The self-guided audio tour began in the warehouse which has a door to the left which immediately leads to a staircase up to the first floor where the offices were located. The interactive displays and audio clips shed a lot of light on the era and prepared us for what was to follow. We then entered the storeroom to access the secret annex which is connected to the main house by passageways. The doorway to the annex was concealed behind a moveable bookcase expressly constructed for this purpose by Bep’s father, Johan Voskuijl. It was a surreal feeling to step behind the original bookcase and enter Anne’s world. The living space was only 540 square feet in area. On the first floor we walked through the room shared by Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith and her sister, Margo, and then entered a small room shared by Anne and Fritz, the dentist who got on her nerves. On the wall we could see posters of celebrities just like the room of a typical teenager.

On the second floor is the area where the van Pels lived. It is the largest room of the annex and also served as the communal living room and kitchen as it had a stove and sink. Next to it is their son Peter’s room which is just landing space coming down from the attic. The house is bare other than a few photos and mementos but that adds to the poignancy and as a reminder of how the Nazis ruthlessly stripped them of their lives along with their belongings. Yet there are a few things here and there that make you well up with tears like the original strip of wallpaper where Otto marked the girls’ height as they grew.

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Canal side entrance to the museum

Anne’s diary reveals how during the day they had to be very quiet and tiptoe around the place, tense and fearful,  lest they be discovered by the workers of the warehouse. They washed and got ready before the workers came in and then they got busy with their reading and school work. They prepared their own meals and canned food for future use. They were most relaxed at night after the workers left. They would listen to the BBC and Radio Oranje and discuss the war and politics. They celebrated birthdays, Hannukah and Christmas and tried to keep their spirits up. But they also had arguments living in such close proximity to each other and as the war progressed the tiffs got worse when they started running out of supplies. Often sleep was elusive as air raid sirens and bombings could be heard throughout the night. In spite of all the difficulties and dangers they faced, Anne’s diary was laced with her youthful idealism and optimism:

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

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“The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn’t speak.” Photo courtesy of annefrank.org

 

The entrance to the attic was barred. I was eager to climb up the stairs and take a peek in the area which served as a meeting place for Anne and Peter and their budding romance and which also had a narrow window from which they could furtively look outside into the world. Anne loved looking at a giant chestnut tree in the courtyard, a little slice of nature to soothe her confined soul. I was disappointed that I couldn’t go there but immediately realized how painful it must have been for the inhabitants who couldn’t go anywhere and as prisoners had nothing but the little hurried glance from the window to content themselves with. They were deprived of fresh air, of sunlight, of nature, robbed of all the little freedoms we take for granted every day.

After the tour of the annex, I descended to the museum area which houses photographs, documents and objects that belonged to the family including Anne’s original diary. It was heartbreaking to see the pictures of the family in happier times. There are touching video clips with interviews with people who knew the family including Miep Gies who was particularly close to Anne and Anne’s friend who met her on a few occasions at the camp and managed to survive the war. Anne made her last entry in her diary on August 1, 1944. Their hiding place was revealed on 4th August, 1944 when they were betrayed by someone who tipped the Gestapo and they were taken to the Westerbok transit camp on a passenger train and eventually to Auschwitz on a freight train.

Only Otto Frank survived the war. It broke my heart to imagine the pain of the man who lost his entire family all at once. Anne’s mother died of tuberculosis at Auschwitz and the girls contracted typhus at Bergen- Belsen where they were transported to from Auschwitz. And isn’t it a cruel joke of fate that they were on the verge of freedom, that their camp was liberated just two weeks after their death? It was Miep Gies who gathered Anne’s papers and notebook after the hiding place was ransacked and gave them to Otto who sent it for publication. Somehow the Gestapo had left these papers alone. Anne had expressed a wish to become a famous writer in her diary. Ironically, her wish came true but not in the way she wished for it to happen. Who knows what she would have achieved if she hadn’t been plucked before her prime? A young life was robbed of its potential. Millions of lives were robbed of their potential.

I stepped out of the building with a heavy heart and a lump in my throat. Outside it was business as usual in the city with the hustle and bustle of tourists and their bikes and boats calmly floating down the same canal from Anne’s time and the same chiming of the bells of the Westerkerk that Anne heard regularly throughout the day. But a small nondescript corner in this bustling city will forever bear witness to the tribulations and trauma of not just one family but a race at large and to the resilience and indomitable spirit of a young girl who showed so much dignity in her suffering. And as for the old chestnut tree, unlike Anne it died a natural death. It finally succumbed to disease but not before scores of cuttings were taken from it and planted all over the world to grow new trees. And similarly Anne’s legacy lives on through her story which continues to inspire countless people everyday around the world.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION: I recommend booking tickets online in advance before visiting the museum. The lines outside can be very long if you decide to purchase tickets on the spot. I had tried to buy my tickets online a few weeks before my trip but they were already sold out. I tried again a few days before my visit and luckily I was able to obtain them as they had some cancellations. Keep trying even after they are sold out. There are always people cancelling the last minute. Photographs are forbidden in the museum not only to preserve the original artifacts but also as a respect to the sanctity of the place. 

 

 

 

 

All Booked Up!

kindred.jpgI’ve found my kindred spirit and I’ve never even met her. I’m sure many avid readers felt and would feel the same while reading Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, an enchanting collection of essays on the love of books. It is essentially a book about books and a treat for all bookworms. As a voracious reader myself, I could relate intimately to the experiences of Anne Fadiman, the author. A daughter of two well-known writers, she had an upbringing that revolved around reading books in a house spilling with books. She and her brother even used to build a playhouse out of their Dad’s twenty-two volume Trollope collection. Many of these essays were published separately in Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress before being published collectively in this volume. The joy of reading permeates through the essays and I savored each and every one like a rare delicacy, lingering over every tidbit.

For Anne Fadiman books are more than paper and print; they are an integral part of life. The essays tackle topics as varied as the love of long words, proofreading, plagiarizing, the pleasure of reading aloud, shopping for used books, reading books in their actual setting, cherishing writing instruments with the preferred color of ink and the perfect quality of the nib and gastronomic references by famous writers. The essays are heartfelt and humorous. In “Marrying Libraries”, she narrates how she and her husband only considered themselves really married when her books and his books became “our books” occupying the same shelves.

They say that only a bibliophile can understand another bibliophile and Anne Fadiman is a woman after my own heart. I could recognize myself over and over again in her obsession with the written word. How do I relate? Let me count the ways:

She loves words so much that she pores over her roommate’s 1974 Toyota Corolla manual, the only thing in the apartment she has not read at least twice. I could understand the frustration and restlessness of being without any reading material. I am the sort who would read anything and everything. I even read the dictionary to amuse myself just as Anne Fadiman reads mail order catalogues for fun. In a hotel room for want of a book, I have reached out in desperation to the Bible on the night- stand.

In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians”, Fadiman describes her family’s love for long words. The members of “Fadiman University” would spout sesquipedalians at the drop of a hat and watch quiz shows together, each member having his or her own area of expertise and often arriving at the correct response before any of the contestants. She could just as well be talking about my family watching Jeopardy together.

Every library has an odd shelf according to her containing books unrelated to the rest of the library. Her odd shelf houses books on polar exploration and expedition narratives. How odd that my odd shelf at home also has books on exploration, the only difference being that my adventures are about Jim Corbett’s thrilling hunting expeditions in tropical jungles!

Fadiman recounts the excitement of diving into the stash of adult books from our parents’  libraries! My uncle, a compulsive collector of books, had the habit of hoarding them everywhere in his apartment- pell-mell with no method to the madness ( although I’m sure that he knew exactly where each one was located.). His apartment was overflowing with books- on bookshelves, on the window sills, on tables and even on the floor. Books propositioned me from every corner and as a teenager I remember the thrill of furtively stumbling upon Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Lolita in much the same way Fadiman came upon her father’s copy of Fanny Hill and learned about sex from it.

One of my favorite essays is “Inset a Carrot” in which she describes how her family members are compulsive proofreaders and check for spelling and grammatical errors on a restaurant menu. Her mother has an envelope of hundreds of clippings from the local newspaper containing errors. Anne Fadiman once made corrections to an edition of Speak, Memory and mailed it to Nabokov himself. I understand her pain and share her affliction. I remember being shocked to discover that Emily Dickinson confused “it’s” and “its” in many of her poems and wrote to the editor about it. The editors, I later discovered, were aware of the errors but wanted to leave her work untouched. I was equally disturbed to see a literary celebrity like Hemingway write ” I feel badly” in one of his major works. It was probably a case of hyper-correction not knowing that linking verbs are modified with adjectives and not adverbs. I can imagine some readers rolling their eyes. As Fadiman puts it “ I know what you may be thinking: What an obnoxious family! What a bunch of captious, carping, pettifogging little busybodies!” I agree with her but I think for a true grammar nerd such errors are sacrilegious and you just can’t help the urge to fix them. And unfortunately, as Fadiman quips, there is no twelve-step program for this affliction.

Some readers may think she is pretentious and anything but a common reader. The title of the collection of essays is a reference to Virginia Woolf’s collection of essays entitled The Common Reader, who in turn, borrowed the phrase from Samuel Johnson’s Life of Gray where he writes about the common reader who is different from the scholar and the critic and reads purely for pleasure. Anne Fadiman comes from a privileged background that was undoubtedly pivotal in fostering a deep love of books in her. To me she comes across as an intellectually curious and erudite person who loves learning for learning’s sake.

In “Never do that to a Book”, she recounts how her brother Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table in a hotel in Copenhagen and found a note from the chambermaid: “Sir you must never do that to a book.” Fadiman makes a distinction between the courtly and the carnal reader. A carnal book lover will scribble notes in the margins, dog- ear the corners, fold and crease the papers and even break the spines. In this aspect I differ from Fadiman and belong to the courtly lover category as in India we were taught never to deface a book. If you accidentally stepped on one, you would touch it and put your fingers over your eyes as an apologetic gesture.

Along with the bliss of reading, the essays are suffused with a zest for life and the warmth of a loving family. In the essay, “Scorn Not the Sonnet”, she narrates how her father on losing a considerable amount of his vision, laments the fact that he will no longer be able to read or write as before. She gently reminds him that Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he became blind and the father-daughter duo reconstruct, in a heartwarming moment, as much as they can, the sonnet “On his Blindness” from memory in the hospital and she reads the rest to him later over the phone. She and her husband who, needless to say, is a bibliophile too, read Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey to each other as a bedtime ritual. The essays also have interesting snippets about other authors and famous people and their relationship with books.

It’s always reassuring to know that there are many other crazy book addicts in the world and that you are not alone. I enjoyed reading these charming essays and the icing on the cake was a final section with a recommended reading list of books about books. As if my list were not long enough already! One lifetime will not be enough for all the books I want to read. I really hope that there is an afterlife and that there is a library in heaven or hell or even better that the theory of re-incarnation is true and that we will be able to enjoy many reading avatars.

P.S. What is your relationship with books? Are you a courtly or a carnal reader? Do share your experiences in the comments. 

 

In Other Words: A Love Affair With A Language

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The Rosetta Stone from the British Museum

By © Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Every immigrant’s story is a story of exile. Many works of fiction and non–fiction have explored the alienation of the diaspora in many forms. Along with the change in customs, cultural and religious practices, economic status and dietary habits, there is also a linguistic estrangement which inevitably accompanies spatial displacement. Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir, In Other Words (In Altre Parole), poetically addresses the exile of language which leaves you with an inexplicable vulnerability along with a keen sense of loss. As someone who loves learning languages and who inhabits a world of multiple languages, I found the concept of the memoir captivating even before I plunged into the reading. I could relate to many aspects of the linguistic expatriation and right away Lahiri’s story became personal and my own.

The memoir is a paen to language, specifically to the Italian language. For some unexplained reason, Lahiri develops a fascination for learning Italian from the time of her first visit to Florence with her sister where with the aid of a pocket dictionary, she navigates her way through the city. It’s love at first sight with the language. On her return to the US, she learns Italian under various tutors. She later returns to Italy many times to promote her books and finally decides to move to Rome for a couple of years with her family. The memoir describes the agony and ecstasy of learning Italian and is presented in a dual language format: Italian on the left page and English on the right. The Italian is written by Lahiri who wants to find a new voice in her writing through another language and it is translated into English by Ann Goldstein, the famous translator of the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan books. Lahiri makes a conscious decision to stay away from English and to write exclusively in Italian and therefore refrains from translating the work herself. She feels a profound connection with the Italian language but at the same time is also detached from it. These ambivalent feelings make up her memoir which is essentially about writing in a language she is in the process of learning.

To complicate matters, there is a third language in the picture which incidentally happens to be the first language she spoke, raised in the US to immigrant parents from Calcutta, India. Bengali is her mother tongue but she feels distanced from it as she doesn’t know the language perfectly. She bemoans the fact that her mother tongue is “paradoxically, a foreign language, too.” I can relate to the estrangement from the mother tongue. My mother tongue is Tamil but as I spent my entire childhood in northern India, I was more fluent in Hindi than I ever was in Tamil. People would marvel at my impeccable Hindi but I was still the outsider defined by my name. I never learned Tamil formally. I could understand and speak the Tamil spoken by my parents but I could not read and write in it. I was more comfortable with Hindi but it was English, the language of colonial imposition that became by default the language I became most proficient in. As Lahiri laments, what relationship can you establish with a language that is not part of your blood and bones? She makes a distinction between inherited and adopted languages. Bengali is the mother who died and English is the stepmother who has arrived.

Lahiri uses a lot of metaphors to describe the painstaking endeavor of learning a new language. . Learning a language is like learning to swim across the shore, it’s like climbing a mountain, it’s like pulling weeds in a garden. It indicates a perpetual state of growth and possibility. It’s almost a Sisyphean task. Italian is the newborn demanding full attention and English is the older sibling left to his own devices. The Italian verb ‘sondare’ meaning to explore or to examine encapsulates her project. She is researching something that will forever remain out of reach. She compares writing in Italian to a bridge in Venice; it’s fragile and on the verge of collapsing but it also serves as a passage into another world. She also compares her writing to Daphne’s flight and transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her journey of learning a foreign language is imperfect as the imperfect tense she confuses with the simple past. “ I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures.”, she declares. I found the memoir tedious and repetitive in parts drilling the same point with countless metaphors. Lahiri comes across as a perfectionist who holds herself up to an unattainable ideal instead of just experiencing with abandon the joy of learning a new language. And somewhere between all the metaphors, she has squeezed in two short stories. Lahiri seems to take no more than a pedantic interest in learning Italian. I would have enjoyed reading stories about her family life in Rome, about her interactions with neighbors and friends, about the food, the culture and the people of the glorious city of Rome. Language is after all about connecting with others and is inextricably linked with culture. She also tends to take herself a little too seriously. The memoir could have benefited from some humor. Learning a language lends itself to humorous situations. One has to just think of the faux pas, the double entendre, the malapropos remarks and the miscommunications that can leave any student or teacher in splits.

One interesting point Lahiri makes is that her physical appearance often comes in the way of her immersion. How much ever she masters a language, she is, and will always be viewed as a foreigner. She speaks fluently in Italian to a saleswoman in Salerno but the lady assumes, solely based on looks, that her husband who barely knows a few lines is the one who is Italian and speaks perfectly.  On a trip to Quebec, I recall speaking in perfect French to a shopkeeper, but to my surprise he replied in English. It’s hard for people to shed the stereotypical image they have in their minds of a nation or its people. Many people in the United States are surprised by how well I speak English and I have to constantly explain that India was a former colony of the British and that I went to a school where English was the main medium of instruction. In fact, I speak English better than any other language. I could venture to say that English is my first language but would anyone believe it based on my appearance or my name? People are even more shocked when they find out that I’m fluent in French. There is a French word called’ dépaysement’ which has no English equivalent but literally means ‘uncountried’. Lahiri lyrically evokes this feeling of being stripped off your country :

Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mother tongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realize that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.

I understand her exhilaration. I understand her frustration. It’s a love affair but a one- sided one. It’s unrequited. She needs the language but the language does not need her. I belong to Hindi. I belong to Tamil. I belong to English. I belong to French. But they do not belong to me. I know her pain and I can relate to the sense of alienation she experiences but I don’t despair and I don’t share her pessimism. I also know that my life is richer and more expansive because I know so many languages. Gaining proficiency in a language opens up a window or rather many windows into different worlds. Instead of feeling excluded from many cultures, you could revel in the rich plurality of your experiences. In Other Words, is, in other words, a love affair with no passion. Though this book struck a chord with me, I don’t see it appealing to anyone who has not learned a foreign language. As I’m proficient in French, it was exciting for me to try and decipher the Italian, a fellow Romance language, on the left side of the page.

I respect the fact that Lahiri seeks the literary freedom to write in a language of her choice. The memoir is about being vulnerable as a writer and looking at your work from a fresh angle. Every writer deserves a room of her own. Heck, she deserves a country of her own. But I hope Lahiri will return to English and that this self-imposed linguistic exile will remain temporary. Nabokov, whom Lahiri brings up in the memoir as an example of a writer writing in a different language, himself said that a writer’s nationality is of secondary importance and a writer’s art is his real passport. Indeed, writing, like any other art, transcends all languages and barriers.