Summer Reading

It's been all arts all the time on the blog the last couple months, so it's time to catch up on a little reading.  Here's the best, the worst, and the in-between South Asian lit I've stumbled into this summer.

Bhutto's Book

Every since I saw the documentary Bhutto (and blogged about it) I've been interested in the political tamasha that is contemporary Pakistan.  So when Fatima Bhutto, the niece of Benazir Bhutto, daughter of Murtaza Bhutto, and granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto decided to write an autobiography/political memoir I had to read all 441 pages of it.  Fatima is a journalist in her real life, so she can both research and write.  Parts of her work are pedantic and perhaps but a third of it could be edited out, but the chance to read about the ins and outs of one of the most famous political families in Pakistan is worth the effort.  The Bhuttos are also one of the unluckiest families in Pakistan- all three above were assassinated, and even Fatima's uncle Shahnawaz died under mysterious circumstances.  

Fatima is interested in setting the record straight on Benazir, whom she considers responsible for her own father Murtaza's death.  "As Prime Minister, Benazir made the decision to cover her head with a white dupatta.  She was the first member of our family to wear a hijab.  Her father, so progressive that he shunned traditional Sindhi dictates of purdah... never considered the headscarf necessary for public approval.  Benazir's choice was the first of its kind; not even her mother Nusrat covered her hair; it was a choice designed to keep Islamic parties and leaders... on her side" (303).  Benazir gets ripped up one side and down the other for abandoning her family, siding with Islamic extremists, allowing her husband to embezzle millions from the government, and allowing sibling rivalry with Fatima's father to spiral into murder.  Fatima is a bit too close and a bit too obsessed with her father's political legacy and family drama.  But she also watched her father bleed to death in inadequate medical facilities after a planned attack by Benazir's police. Regardless of the length it's worth a read, because I predict few of the rest of us will ever experience anything close to growing up in the Bhutto family.

Faleiro's Book

Equally gritty, but entirely different, is Sonia Faleiro's ethnography of Bombay's dance bars. With a cover guaranteed to draw interested stares on BART, Faleiro fearlessly treads into the Bombay underworld.  I heard Falero speak at a literary panel and decided it was worth learning more about her process.  Over several years Falero became close to Leela, a noted performer in a Bollywood dance bar that caters to middle-class married Indian men and low-level gangsters alike.  Skirting the edges of poverty, Leela negotiates a complicated world of bar owners, police, pimps, competitive coworkers, and hijra friends.  The book is impossible to put down, half because it's so unbelievable and half because you desperately want to know how Leela is going to get herself out of the next fix.  Many things about the people in Falero's book are unfortunately true-to-life; most of the girls come from abusive families and were forced into dancing by their parents, most lower-level prostitutes are drug addicts, and all the women exist within an exploitative system that's almost impossible to escape.  Leela has some agency, and plenty of swagger, to choose how to dance and which men to cultivate, but struggles to make long-term choices about herself and her life.  Written with care and concern, it's an unblinking look at the flip side of Bombay.

Aslam's Book

I liked, although I'm still slightly on the fence about, Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers.  I found it in City Lights Bookstore and decided to take it home although I worried it might end up a bit too much like A Fine Balance for my taste.   The book jacket compares it to Gabriel Garcia Marquez (do reviewers always read the books they're writing jacket copy for?) which this book doesn't warrant, but it is a poetic exploration of a Pakistani community in England.  The rhythms, sounds, sights, and complications of immigration are rendered here in exquisite detail.  The devastating impact of mental illness and domestic violence, although important, were a little strong for my taste.  But I do applaud Aslam for writing the first explanation of honor killing I've ever read that skillfully incorporates a kaleidoscope of different perspectives.  Although Aslam is interested in condemning religious fundamentalism, his writing feels as though he's deprecating all Pakistani immigrant communities in the UK. Worth a read, but with a couple caveats.

Queen of Dreams

On the fluffier side of things, I recommend Queen of Dreams.  Since it's only possible to read The Mistress of Spices for the first time once, this is an excellent runner-up experience.  Set in the Bay Area (much of it at a cafe in Berkeley), Divakaruni simultaneously enters the San Francisco art world and a sect of dream interpreters in India.  It's a thoughtful story of gender, family, and culture set at the intersection of South Asian and Bay Area culture.  The novel explores the demands of a creative life on women, and the struggle to balance a rich internal world with lovers and children. Thanks to my brother for gifting it.

Seth's Book

And although it's an entire novel written in verse, I also recommend checking out The Golden Gate.  I heard Vikram Seth speak and, believe it or not, the man unselfconsciously talks in verse form.  He's also been known to work on translations of early Chinese poets in Mandarin (one of many languages he speaks) and collaborate with orchestral composers. With anyone else I'd assume this is all an affect, but he really, truly, is an amazing literary talent. More approachable (and a good bit shorter than A Suitable Boy) The Golden Gate is a humorous take on the Bay Area, cats, failed marriages, children, betrayal, protests, Catholicism, unemployment, and gay culture.  It also is the only time I've seen oxalis immortalized in print, "Yellow oxalis, brief and tender,/ Brilliant as mustard, sheets the ground" which I'll try to remember as I'm weeding it by the armful next spring.  And the greatest glory of this novel?  After 20 pages you forget it's written in verse.

The Vine of Desire

In the vein of "don't even bother" is Divakaruni's book The Vine of Desire.  I'm generally a huge fan of Divakaruni (note Queen of Dreams) and thoroughly enjoyed her previous book, Sister of my Heart.  Sister of My Heart nicely balances two cousins forced into arranged marriages, one deciding to tread a traditional path and one rebelliously heading off to America.  In the second book, though, nothing has turned out according to plan and the two cousins end up on top of each other in a tiny American apartment.  One's husband in love with the other cousin and there's jealousy over the other's baby...  Seven chapters of increasing tension and meaningful glances later, I decided I just couldn't do it.  If you're in need of more claustrophobic drama in your life, by all means, go for it.  But if you're not, well, then don't.