Monday, August 10

A big pile of books about India

I want to start today in India. And not just because I want to be waking up to breakfast at Sangam rather than a pile of washing.

I’ve been reading a few books that have India in common lately. From the library Haunting Bombay and Anita and Me, Oxfam bought me The Counting House and I managed to snag an early reviewers copy of Life of Pi (yes, I know it isn't new! There was a copy of Brideshead Revisited on the list a month back too. Still I'm not going to complain about a free book...)

We'll start with Haunting Bombay by Shilpa Agarwal. It's the one I finished last night and the one that stays in India. Set in 1960's Bombay it tells the story of the Mittal family who are haunted by their drowned baby. It is a ghost story, a story about Hindu superstition and the Mittal family trying to vanquish their ghost. Maji, the overbearing matriarch, using every trick in the book to keep her family safe.

But there is a background noise that keeps getting louder. It whispers about gender, sexuality, colonisation, superstition, sexism. Pinky Mittal's mother was killed in partition, two servants - sisters - lost their parents to famine. The superstition that saves the family from the ghost causes misery and ruined lives. Maji's perfect family is helped along by corrupt officials, poor workers, and gently bending the lives and desires of family members until they become one with the goals of the family.

All of this is done with a feather light touch. Themes are introduce, imperceptibility woven in and tied up neatly at the end. The writing is delicate and sublime and very much recommended.

Next up is Meera Syal's Anita and Me. Between the awards and the film there isn't much new I can say. But that has never shut me up before. Set in a small Midlands town in the 60's this is the story of Meena growing up in the only family that isn't white.

It took me a while to get used to the writing. I was, a bad habit, trying to race on ahead instead of slowing down to savour the sweet, conversational tone. Once I did I enjoyed it. A lot. It reminded me of what the world looked like when I was a ten year old. Not literally but it had the same 'what's going on here', 'I'm board', 'am I adopted' angst that comes about with adolescence.

I'd like to make this required reading for all of my teenage cousins. It's funny, sweet, and could probably explain why they aren't allowed shaved heads at school better than I ever could.

Immigration again, this time to Guyana in the nineteenth century with David Dabydeen's The Counting House. I have to say I've found it hard but time apart from the book has me thinking about it in a new light. It is crude, the characters speak in a stilted English and I found that difficult to read. Once I got into it I found the story bewitching, definitely well crafted but by the end I was unfulfilled.

Okay, on to the free book! Life of Pi. Yes, the one about the boy lost at sea with a tiger. I enjoyed reading it. It's a very enjoyable book. As usual, I enjoyed the set up more than the part where things happen. All the talk of religion, zoology, family life I enjoyed it much more than the bit on the life boat, even if it did involve a tiger. It's beautifully written, almost painted, and an enjoyable read

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