Tag: Cultural

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, by Cyrus Mistry

“Because if the dead are really and truly dead, null and void, snuffed out without a trace – then everything we grow up believing in is a lie. All religion, theology, my father’s life and beliefs and prayers, the pumped-up ‘power of faith’ – everything is simply wishful thinking.”

Processed with VSCO with f2 presetI first read about the Towers of Silence in the James Patterson-Ashwin Sanghi collab project Private India. Until then I did not know about the Parsi custom of disposing corpses by leaving them for vultures to feed on. The Parsis are a close-knit community and I admit there wasn’t much I knew about them before reading Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer.

According to custom, the Parsis are not allowed to touch dead bodies, even those of their closest family, as they’re considered unclean. It is only the corpse bearers, or the khandias, who carry the corpses to the Towers of Silence, where they are left for the vultures. The khandias are therefore considered untouchables. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is the story of Phiroze Elchidana, son of a priest, who falls in love with Sepideh and is forced by her father to become a corpse bearer if he wished to marry her. Phiroze loves Sepideh enough to denounce his family and priesthood, and join the ostracized community of khandias. His father breaks all ties with him, and the only news he receives from home is from Vispy, his elder brother. Sepideh, or Seppy as she is fondly called, dies soon after, leaving Phiroze with the responsibility of raising their three year old daughter Farida.

The corpse bearers were forced to work for long hours under harsh conditions. One morning, overcome by fatigue and hunger, Phiroze faints, causing a corpse to fall off its bier. The superiors, convinced that he was drunk, suspend him and later place him on probation. Given the other challenges the corpse bearers were facing, they decided to go on strike. The strike lasted three days, during which no corpses were removed from their houses. The superiors agreed to their demands and also reinstated Phiroze.

This strike, in a way, forms the crux of the story. Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is based on the true story of a corpse bearer who led the only khandia-led strike in Bombay in history.

What I liked about this story: An insight into the guarded Parsi community. Phiroze questions many of the rigid religious customs, and is often admonished by his father, Framroze, who considers it his responsibility to uphold the orthodox traditions. Framroze believes his wife died of cancer because she sometimes refused to follow his religious instructions. Phiroze, though overly fond of his father while growing up, begins to see him in a different light when this revelation is made. His heartbreak over losing Seppy is also a main part of the story – his belief that they will be reunited in the afterlife is quite moving.

What I did not like: The writing! The writing was too verbose for me to be invested in the story. One of the simplest examples of this is the following sentence: “He and I were meeting after the passage of a long time.” Needlessly long. The book is written in first person – Mistry has written it as though Phiroze himself has written it, but at no point does Mistry’s writing voice not conflict with his intended narrator’s voice. If you have read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, you can hear the story being narrated by none other than the geisha in question. This is not the case here. For one, Phiroze is described as a simple man. However, the sophisticated language used is quite out of synch with the kind of character described.

Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer is a story in which a lot is written, but very little is said. On the whole, considering the potential of the subject matter at hand, I feel a tad underwhelmed by the book. The title rouses one’s interest, but the title may just be its most interesting part.

Goodreads | Amazon

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo

“Doesn’t his tongue feel cold?”

1533682Someday when I look back, I might think of 2013 as the year of horrible reading choices and good music. 2016, on the other hand… This year, I have come across books purely by chance and have unexpectedly and thoroughly enjoyed them. Touchwood.
One of these books is A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo, that I found on the Amazon Used Bookstore. On the surface, ACCEDL isn’t a wholly remarkable plot – girl meets boy (man twenty years her senior, in this case), a whirlwind romance, [SPOILER, AVERT YOUR EYES] a realization that they have no future together, and an eventual, quiet and resigned heartbreak. [SPOILER ENDS; CALM DOWN]

What sets ACCEDL apart is the way it examines the West through the eyes of a Chinese girl who can barely speak the language, and how this culture clash causes problems in her relationship with her English lover. And what makes ACCEDL wholly unique is the way in which it’s written – in deliberately bad English.

Books with poor grammar are tedious to read. But ACCEDL works. Whether it works because the reader knows the terrible grammar is a deliberate plot device (yes, it does add to the plot) or in spite of it, I will never know. What I do know is that it was a delightful little read – perfectly paced, flavored just so. Each chapter begins with the definition of a new word that the protagonist, Zhuang (Z for the westerners), has learnt, and how she learnt it. Funny at times (“In France, their fish is poisson, their bread is pain, and their pancake is crepe. Pain and poison and crap. That’s what they have every day.”), profound at others (“Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved’. All these tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exist in particular period of time. In Chinese, love is ‘爱’ (ai). It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.” ); the wit is balanced with poignancy. It is presented without unnecessary drama or loud colors, yet with a beauty specific to itself. As for the prose, it is a testament to the author’s skill that even with the poor grammar it is written in, it manages to evoke such vivid images and convey such precise thoughts. Consider the quote at the beginning of this post. Z meets a man who has lost several of his teeth. I was struck by how she thinks about his tongue feeling cold! It is funny, yet so clever.

The story of a naive, homesick girl who finds love, and also learns to live on her own. Do grab a copy and let me know how you like it!

Goodreads | Amazon

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See

“We are expected to love our husbands from the day of contracting a kin, though we will not see their faces for another six years. We are told to love our in-laws, but we enter those families as strangers, as the lowest person in the household, just one step above a servant. We love our parents because they take care of us, but are considered worthless branches on the family tree. We are raised by one family for another.”

In sixth grade, we were taken for a visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. They were having a historical exhibit at the time (they even had Egyptian mummies – I honestly don’t know/can’t remember if they were real or just dummies, but I wanna believe they were real, so please don’t take this away from me). Among other things, I remember a painting quite vividly. It was a painting of Chinese women with their feet bound. It was a strange painting though, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.  In the painting, the women had their legs (legs, not feet) tied up like they were rope! These women had knots where there ankles should have been.We were told they did this so their feet never grew beyond a certain size and this intrigued me. Or, more accurately, I should say, this bothered me. Which is why I remember the painting to this date.

Bulisa-see-snow-flower-sreeshadivakaran-rainandabookt the funny thing is, I can’t remember how Snow Flower and the Secret Fan ended up on my TBR list. It’s just been there since, forever! The book presents the true picture of foot binding – so unlike the painting I saw, but all the more brutal. The feet are bound in cloth, and the kids (yes, they do it to little girls) are forced to walk with their toes underneath them so that the bones break and… do you want me to go on? Why did they do it? To enter into “good marriages.” What did marriages have to do with breaking the bones in little girls’ feet? Read this for a brief summary. Warning: May piss you off.

Anyway, back to Lisa See’s book.

Genre: Historical, Cultural

Summary: In 19th century China, when women were treated like dirt, the protagonist Lily finds a “laotong“, Snow Flower. A laotong relationship is a lifelong friendship between two women, and is considered more sacred than that between a husband and wife. Lily and Snow Flower communicate using the secret Nu shu script used by Chinese women. They even have their feet bound at the same time, are born in the same year (the year of the horse) and are matched on almost all points, except social standing. At first, Lily believes herself unworthy of Snow Flower, because the former belongs to a family of farmers, whereas the latter’s family is quite well off. The story is narrated by Lily as an old woman, and she begins the tale by implying something went terribly wrong with their friendship. It’s all very tragic.

Good: Had this been a work of non-fiction, it would have been worth devouring! The detail, right to the smallest dot, is fantastic. A lot of research has gone into this book. So fascinating – the secret script, the folk tales and songs, the culture and customs, even the horrid-sounding foot-binding.

Bad: When the narrator tells you something bad is gonna happen, as a reader, you would get this sense of foreboding. That was absent in this case. I knew something was gonna wrong, but it made me go, “Oh yeah? So?” I just couldn’t bring myself to care. You reach the 40% mark before the story actually begins. So you tend to wonder what were you doing up until this point. It’s really slow, and I didn’t expect to finish it for another two days. I did, somehow. I don’t even feel a sense of accomplishment or anything. I just feel like taking a break from books! Happens, when a narrator is particularly drony.

Ugly: Look at that quote I’ve shared in the beginning. Almost every page has at least one paragraph that tells you women are worthless. I mean, okay, I get it, it was the “system” or whatever. But this is a work of fiction! You can turn your heroine around, you know! Make her question the “system”! There’s another popular work of historical fiction, also set in the nineteenth century, but in a different part of the world – Gone With The Wind. The heroine of that book was Scarlett O’Hara and believe me, if she were the heroine of this one, this would be a completely different book, a mindblowing one. She didn’t take the system lying down, I don’t know why Lily did. Or Snow Flower, for that matter. Snow Flower was built up as a strong character, one just waiting to fly off. But she didn’t. Not only that, Lily’s voice almost sounded like she wanted to be treated like crap. Like, all women should be grateful for being treated like crap. It was terrible. The sheer repetition of the words, “We are women. This is our fate.” will make you wanna put a bullet through your mouth. Or six.

I know this book has a high rating on Goodreads and seems to be wildly popular (though I still can’t remember how it ended up on my TBR!) So I may be entirely wrong here in my interpretation. But I can’t overlook the fact that this was so slow, so cliched, so boring, so irritating. Again – it should have been non-fiction. My rating is a reflection of that alone – the research and the depiction of history.

Rating: 2.5/5

Goodreads | Amazon

 

Water, by Bapsi Sidhwa

I am not a movie buff. I am choosy about the films I watch and only very few times have I been cwater-bapsi-sidhwa-sreesha-divakaran-rain-and-bookompletely enthralled by a film. Also, when I read a book, I don’t wish to see it as a film no matter how much I enjoy it (in fact, a lot of times, when a book I’ve loved is adapted into a film, I end up not watching it at all).

However, only twice in my life have I watched something on screen that made me think, “How I wish this were a book!” One of the times I wished this was when I watched Water. The poignant story and the breathtaking visuals affected me enough to leave me speechless. The book came out after the film. How often do you see the words “Based on the film by…” on a book’s cover?

Genre: Historical, Cultural, Indian, Feminist Literature, Literary

Summary: Set in 1930s, Water is the story of Chuyia, a girl who is widowed at the age of eight, and forced to live in an ashram for widows. Her head is shaved, she is only allowed to wear white saris, only certain kinds of foods are permitted, and she is not allowed to touch anyone or talk to anyone outside the ashram. With all her innocent curiosity, she questions why the widows must be forced to suffer so much. The more she questions, the more Shakuntala, an older widow in the ashram, begins to wonder why the holy scriptures were so against women, why a widow was considered to be a danger to society, a lustful creature that would lead good men astray. Meanwhile, Chuyia, and a beautiful young widow named Kalyani become good friends. Since the time Kalyani was a child (she was widowed very young, like Chuyia), the head of the ashram, Madhumati, had been sending her out to the houses of rich seths in the city as a prostitute. One day Kalyani and Chuiya meet Narayan, a young man who is a follower of Gandhi. He does not believe in the ill-treatment of widows and wishes to marry Kalyani. Fate, however, has other plans.

The reason why book lovers love to bitch about movies is simple: the movies always get something wrong. For a book lover, this is like a guilty pleasure – like there’s a secret between the author and the reader, which those who’ve only seen the movie will never know. In the case of Water, however, either because the book came after or because I saw the movie before reading the book, I was robbed of that experience. The book is fantastically written, but scenes from the film constantly interfered with what I was reading. Also, the film was woven around Chuyia, the eight year old widow, but the book was more about Kalyani – it’s the same story, but the book somehow leaned more towards Kalyani than Chuyia.

Overall, a heart-wrenching read. If you do get the chance though, watch the film it is based on too.

Goodreads | Amazon

Rating: 4/5