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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Book Review -The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

I've started reading Japanese authors very recently and have really hit the jackpot as it were with what I've selected. I went for this book (again amongst dusty piles) and just got hooked on the cover.

A really stiff upper lip kind of man and a steely beauty both not very young and I fell for it - really bad. The book took me by surprise because I did not even read the outline of the story - just picked it up and didnt I get a very very pleasant surprise.

The book set in the mid 1950's proceeds from a very Englishman's home is his castle sort of story where our story teller is the very upright, dignified butler, upholding
the traditions of centuries of what a good butler should be - professional to the last, loyal to the utmost and maintaining the "very important dignity" of the household to which he is affiliated.

We see a relationship budding between the housekeeper and the butler and despite all the best efforts of the housekeeper to thaw Stevens, his first priority is always to the master of the house. First Lord Darlington and after the house is sold to an American gentleman Mr. Farraday with whom Stevens tries very hard to maintain a position of equilibrium without bordering on the familiarity which Mr. Farraday sometimes seeks.

The book reminded me (forgive me if I am so out on this) on the Jane Austen style of writing - though the story did not end as a very happily ever after kind of tale, the book was enthralling and I would recommend this small book of just under 250 pages. The book is an old publication (1989 Booker Prize) but no apologies for that. I just get my books way later than all of you out there. Am just grateful that due to recommendations of such fantastic book bloggers, I have a permanent TBR list on call.

The book was for me a real relaxer as it were from the frustrations and anxiety of the journey I underwent over the last four days. I started the Historian and thats due next.

Non book blogging - just Pooneryn

I came back yesterday exhausted as the trip really takes its toll on one. As I said by American standards the trip would be just a walk in the park as it were but here it took us a good ten hours just to get to the Mulankavil school where we were scheduled to meet the Principal and the teachers and the children whom we help.

The trip was very discouraging. The North is in the midst of a severe drought, everything was parched and desolate. Add to that bombed out houses or rather miles and miles of bombed out properties, coconut trees and palmyrah palms all bombed out so that the fronds are not there but just the stark trunks and then miles of this without a bird or a monkey or any sign of life. Miles of rough road pitted with holes and bumps that would kill an ordinary car and when you see this for mile upon
mile it hits you that this is what faces people everyday of their life.

What really hurt was that entire townships have gone. The resettlement of people in these areas is happening but albeit very very slowly. The areas I speak of were never densely populated ones in the first place but they were very progressive agricultural communities and one feature of the Northern part of Sri Lanka is the huge emphasis put on education. Despite hardships the Northern man was always determined to educate his children and that is why the Principal and teachers are so keen to see that the children of this school do something with their lives specially now that the war is over. Thousands of families have sent their children abroad through mainly irregular channels and the place is splattered with families who have grown up children in Norway, France, Germany and the UK. The parents have stayed behind and of course there are families whose children were too young to send anywhere and it is these children that needed help.

Facilities for the teachers are non existent. From paper, to text books, to extra reading material. The logistical difficulty of even getting something across to these children is mind boggling. We have ordered 50 sets of the Grade 5 scholarship exam past papers, work sheets but to get this from Jaffna to Mulankavil involved a series of kind lorry drivers who whilst taking other stuff would see that this lot of books would be handed over. The dedication of these teachers who have seen personal hardships of the children and who can do very little for them is hard to imagine. All the children who we found sponsors for had lost a parent. Several of them had lost both parents. Quite a few lost a mother along with the youngest sibling who was with the mother at the time of the aerial bombardment. I do know in times of war victims are not specifically chosen but to see rows of children mechanically saying "My father was killed in an aerial shelling incident" My mother died in a cross fire is heartbreaking.

It took me several months to get to this point that I actually visited the school and saw for myself the ground scene. Hopefully we can help more and move forward. My heartfelt thanks to the Principal and teachers of this little school in the middle of nowhere.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Short trip up North and a haul of books

An opportunity has come for us to visit Pooneryn (in the very north of Sri Lanka) and where I very recently started a project of helping children there. It started quite successfully and I am so glad that unexpectedly we decided to go there and we are hoping to leave Thursday night. Its quite an arduous journey though distances in terms
of miles is nothing very much - the journey is tiresome, dusty and hot!

I am looking forward ever so much to meeting the children and the teachers and Principal who helped us so much with making contact with this lot of children. 13 of them lost both their parents during the war and 15 of them have lost a single parent. Several children have lost siblings as well as a parent. Trying to get them over this loss and getting back to the mainstream is not an easy job and the teachers and Principals of those schools need as much help as they can get. There are no counsellors available for these children and the only support system is the extended family which fortunately still exists in this part of the world.

On a bookish note I finally got Pope Joan (yes I know its been around for ages) but I am ever so grateful to have found a copy now. I am halfway through right now as I find it very good. I also in a rash moment today bought The Historian and picked up a second hand copy of Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day for almost nothing so it all balanced out. I owe my interest in Japanese authors to Sakura of chasing bawa who spoke so beautifully on these books that I felt that I had to start reading them! Thank you Sakura. I also got three again dusty Penguin books - Daughters in law by Henry Cecil, The Kings General by Daphne du Maurier and Ordinary Fables by E Arnot Robertson. The books by Cecil and Robertson are not those I have read about but just liked the outline of the story. Despite the trip being a working trip, I am taking several books. There is no way I can get to post about this trip till I return but I am hoping that it will be a fruitful one.

I was also very taken up by Simon's post (Savidge reads) on Neel Mukherjee's book A Life Apart.His review and thoughts are very interesting and the book has obviously had a huge impact on Simon. The fact that he has given it a ten out of ten makes it absolutely imperative that I dig this out of somewhere!!!! Hopefully being an Indian author my favourite bookshop in Chennai may probably have it. Now to find a way of getting it down.....

A good week so far.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Recommend me - Leaving India - Minal Hajratwala

Recommend me is hosted by Kate at The Neverending Shelf.

The book Leaving India would enthrall anyone who has been or one whose ancestors
have been immigrants to a country. I think that encompasses a fairly large section
of a population! The book begins with a tiny village in India so small that it is
not even on a map, moves to Fiji where just one branch of the family moves to for
better economic prospects. From there the story moves temporarily to New Zealand
where the family moves once again, leaving quite a large section of the family behind
in Fiji. Their final destination is America where the family settles for good and
where the children grow up into teenagers and adults trying to assimilate and absorb
what the West has to offer and where their parents try desperately to cling and
preserve their Indian roots and traditions.

The book was absorbing as it is so very down to earth and is a perennial situation
faced by thousands of families who emigrate for whatever reason it could be. For an
Asian this is a commonplace story embellished with small variations depending on the
family and its own traditions. For others it would be a fascinating story of families
trying to get to grips with life in a somewhat alien situation! even trying to find a halal butcher is a problem and the very mundane acts of living is what draws one in.

This is a good book for everyone as it will make one realize that each of us whilst being different in color or race or religion ultimately are human who seek peace of mind and a loving environment above all else for their children and families.

What do you recommend this week for us?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Project in Adampan, Mannar

My project in Adampan is going on slowly but surely - support comes in from such unexpected sources that I am amazed. A friend of mine out of the blue rang me to say
that they had done a trip up North to Jaffna and found out first hand information for themselves and they were appalled that they had for seven months just sat in Colombo totally unaware of the actual ground situation and done nothing. She contacted me thinking I might have some opening for them to help out. Here was I looking for help and it fell into my lap. Hopefully this group of people from a suburb of Colombo - will be able to help out in some way.

The individual stories of families that need help are so varied that one could write
individual stories and probably put it together for a book. Most families that seek help have lost one family member and very often with the parent a child has also been
lost mainly due to aerial shelling. How these families are trying to put their lives back together - facing a loss of a parent, and a sibling and economic losses on a huge scale are courageous. Lands have got fallow, gone back into shrub jungle and trying to clear these areas are an uphill job. This area is extremely fertile and I
know that given sufficient inputs it could be turned around.

So far children that have come to my attention have got sponsors of some kind and for this I am truly grateful. All over the world so many natural disasters have made so many people homeless, so many people deprived of everything that resources have to be stretched. I am glad that help is reaching people in Adampan.

The weather gods were kind and rain has started once again in Colombo. True an isolated shower only but hopefully its a beginning. I thought this dry, hot weather was never going to end.

Next month we celebrate a beautiful festival in Sri Lanka - the Singhala and Hindu New Year. Hopefully new beginnings for our country. Cannot end this post without mentioning that we are once again the midst of a general election falling on April 8th. Hopefully peaceful.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review - Susan Howatch - Glittering images

I had read several Howatch books but I felt that I should have started right at the beginning and then worked my way through the lot. My knowledge of the Anglican church
the politics, the workings of a parish in England in the early part of the 20th century, the hierarchy of the bishops, arch bishops, deacons and vicars were all little known to me and was actually of very little interest to me until I got my hands on Susan Howatch.

Her books are intense, all encompassing reads. You feel swept along in the passion of how each person feels not just for their lives, including their sex lives! but the passion and fervor shown towards their religion in this very modern age. The details are minute but not boring, and show very clearly how the ecclesiastical system works.

This book deals mainly with Dr. Charles Ashworth as the primary character and Bishop Jardine and his wife Carrie along with the mysterious Miss. Lyle being supplementary characters. Initially Charles is sent to investigate the actual workings of Bishop Jardine's household and where Lyle fits into the general scheme of things. Lyle is an extremely attractive 35 year old who does not apparently show any kind of love requited or unrequited for the Bishop and who seems devoted to his wife Carrie and acts as hostess and general dogsbody in the household. Charles goes to Starbridge as a spy for his Bishop Lang and though uncomfortable with the thought is determined to seek out the truth of the Jardine house.

Ashworth is a widow of seven years and the attraction for Lyle is immediate on his side. He pushes through his views with Lyle despite her obvious reluctance to do so and also at this point it does appear that her loyalties are divided and that she does not want to do anything that will upset the apple cart of the Jardine's lives.

Whilst pursuing Lyle, Charles Ashworth also discovers various aspects of his own life which are mysterious and answers which do not quite tally. His antagonism and difficult relationship with his own parents, why his parents constantly quarrel, why love and affection were never shown to the children of the Ashworth household. Past histories are untangled with surprising results leading to a certain amount of reconciliation between Charles and his own parents.

The focus shifts to Charles own twisted psyche and that Charles himself has grown far too confident for his own good and the fact that he seems to know it all - knows how to handle the problems thrown up at him and feels he can do so without spiritual guidance, almost too cocky for his own good! He disdains advice from his spiritual advisor in the form of the enigmatic and deeply charismatic Jon Darrow and he thinks that he is above it all and can manage perfectly well on his own steam. It is Darrow who guides him, protects him from the demons within him, gives him strength to pursue a path which he feels is pre destined for him and also shows him a path to reach out and win over Lyle without hurting either Bishop Jardine or his wife.

A twist in the tale at this juncture is almost too much to handle. A "spiritual" marriage between Jardine and Lyle witnessed by Jardine's wife is "permitted" according to Jardine as Carrie is not interested in the physical aspects of the marriage and how this is reconciled in the eyes of the Bishop, his wife and Lyle is too good to be true!!! You have to read this to understand how someone could actually blindly follow a charismatic man despite knowing fully well that what he is saying has absolutely no legality or validity from any point of view. It seems that almost anyone who comes in contact with the Bishop is hypnotised by the Bishops way of doing things and accepts it blindly as the only way.

The ending of the story is unusual in that Lyle leaves the Bishops house or rather runs away from the horrible position she is in and Charles naturally welcomes her with open arms as he wants Lyle with him under any circumstances. What he didnt envisage is that Lyle will get deliberately pregnant as she feels that this is the only way for her to escape from Jardine. Bishop Jardine realizes at this point that the time for retirement has come as not just him but the entire bishopric will be disgraced by the scandal.

The book is good reading as it delves not just into the lives of clergy who are shown up as very normal human beings but is also a very good descriptive read of the early 20th century in England. For those of us not from England this will come as something different and unusual. A book that I couldnt put down and had to finish in one go.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Review - Colin Dexter's The Daughters of Cain

This author was absolutely new to me but I liked the sound of the title which seems really childish I know. The book is one of a series dealing with the Wagner loving, beer guzzling, very stingy Inspector Morse.

I found the meanness to be a bit difficult to comprehend in this character who seems so above board in every other respect! We find here a mystery involving two separate and so far unlinked murders. Morse and Lewis initially have to take over the investigation into the murder of Prof. McClure. Morse seems unhappy to have to take over midway but he accepts with good grace and pursues the case. The Professor at Oxford seems to lead a blameless life but a little digging shows drug taking and selling on a massive scale, call girls, and plenty of motive to get rid of the good Professor but no witnesses and no weapons.

Add to the story another body across town with a tenuous link to the first and two women - one cleaning lady, and one school teacher and the story gets a little complicated. Morse seems to think that the link is the two women and to this he adds a third woman - the call girl who is also linked to one of the victims being his step daughter, also linked to the Professor as his long standing girl friend. Everyone is kept on their toes as to who the actual murderer could be. Are these two murders done by one person - are they linked in any way seems to be the questions asked by Morse. What would be the purpose in Julia and Brenda killing the Professor and how was Mr Brooks stabbed by two small made women. Morse is also drawn to Ellie the call girl though this has no bearing either on the story or the plot but would highlight Morse's own emotional involvement in the case highlighting Morse's more caring nature.

The book is lively and I would certainly like to read Colin Dexter's other books with Morse - I do wish though Dexter will get rid of Morse's stinginess. It adds a totally unbalanced view to the character of Morse. I just couldnt shake this off!
Other than that, an interesting mystery to read.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review - Cover her Face - P D James

I've always loved P D James' books and if ever I see one around I snap it up right away. This was a very quick read of just a little over 200 pages and involved the ever enigmatic Adam Dalgliesh Scotland Yard Detective.

The story which seems romantic and very idealized in its setting is a quaint, typical
English village portrayed so often and in my eyes oh so very nice to live in. I wonder whether the actual situation is so! Getting back to our story, the plot involves a family of repute living at Martingale for generations and looked up as one of the "old" families of the area. A doctor son, a divorced daughter, an ailing husband nearing the end of his life and a devoted wife form the crux of the family. The supporting cast becomes finally the main characters of the story and this is very interesting how James incorporates the minor characters of Catherine and Miss Liddell and even Felix Hearne (who is courting the daughter)and most surprisingly the housemaid Sally Jupp forms the pivotal part of the story.

On the surface everything seems very calm leading to an annual fete held traditionally in the gardens of Martingale - beneath this very benign fairy tale
scene simmers tensions, antagonism and outright hatred which culminates in the murder of Sally with seemingly little or no idea of who or why someone wanted Sally
out of the way. Knowing Sally's character of playing off one against the other, being very secretive and having an affinity for creating problems wherever she lived, there are many suspects all of whom have very legitimate reasons why they dislike her to the point of even murdering her. The ultimate murderer when revealed is a total surprise as to all appearances she seemed the stable, steady person who held the reigns of the entire family in her hands.

A very pleasant read as usual from Ms James. Right now I seem to be reading more detective books than anything else and enjoying them very much. Am in the middle of a Colin Dexter book - review will be done soon.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Review - William Dalrymple - Nine Lives

Those who have read Dalrymple's earlier books would find this book definitely edgy. Interestingly edgy. The book deals with nine distinct personalities each very different but each experiencing a situation - which has no basis for rational understanding or scientific analysis. Individuals depicting not just the major religions of India but also little known sects as well.

There is the Jain nun who ritually starves herself to death (albeit over a period of
two years)to a well digger who belongs to a very low caste and who will not even be touched by upper caste Hindu Brahmins, except for the period when he dons the masks of a god to dance Theyyam in Kerala.During this period he is revered by the same people who will ignore him for ten months of the year. We then see a Buddhist monk whose very religion preaches ahimsa (non violence) who felt he had no choice but to renounce his religion to fight the Chinese in Tibet, and a Bihari Muslim who has ended at a Sufi shrine in Pakistan.

Dalrymple himself calls these people crazy but crazy as not afflicted with a mental illness. Crazy as a people apart - people who are exceptions to the rule, who are rare in modern India as they seem to combine the wisdom of an ancient religion and philosophy and have adapted it to suit their present day needs and the needs of those around them.

The book explores nine different lives and lets the life of each individual speak to us - it shows us the variety of religious beliefs (which may be quite surprising for some readers) it also depicts how religion has not only survived in modern India but actually flourishes and far from depleted places of worship, temples, and mosques and religious festivals are very much part and parcel of the daily life of most Indians - much loved, and looked forward to. The book shows how modern India handles the secular and the religious not allowing one to completely annihilate the other and to live in balance.

Dalrymple has surpassed himself with Nine Lives. His other books are a tad historical and enthrall anyone who has a love for the East. This book enthralls you to the point that once this is over, you want to learn more. One point however, which seems slightly off key is that Christianity in any form(despite the sizeable number of Christians in India) is not touched upon - maybe Dalrymple has his reasons and one of these days a book may probably tell us why.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review - - Mark Tulley's No Full Stops in India

I have always been fascinated by India and its nothing to do with the close proximity
that Sri Lanka has to India. i enjoy reading so very much of its history which is complicated to say the least, bloody very often and also extremely romantic at times.

Added to that you have a huge mix of cultures - not just Indian - the South is so very different to the North despite sharing a common religion of Hinduism, languages are so diverse that they do not even seem remotely connected to one people, and even physical characteristics are so very different. Geographically too the country varies so much its mind boggling.

Naturally I have been drawn to people who write on India, and about India. Today's book is by one who could be called an authority on India, writer and broadcaster and it reaches to its very heart - from the peasantry to the towns and bigger cities in India.

The stories commence with Tulley's own experience firstly with his personal servant Ram Chander who is not just a cook, but a cleaner, housekeeper, finance manager, advisor on the proprieties of living in India and becomes for the Tulley family a friend though on Ram Chander's side the Tulleys appear always to be the "bosses" and should be revered and respected as such. We learn much of how a village operates, the attitude of the villagers towards this family and how much affection for the family there is from this extended village family. The story moves to Mahabalipuram in the South and then to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad which is
considered by some to the biggest religious festival in the world. This one attracts over 10 million people bathing in the sacred river on one particular day. The logistics are mind boggling considering that you are dealing with people who are going to camp outdoors, with no proper facilities available to a great extent!! and to top it all people all who may be talking several different languages and dialects.

The next short story deals with the rewriting of the Ramayana. Something equivalent to taking the old testament and making it into a tele drama serialized with lots of action, dancing, human interest stories, religion, and most importantly making the actors and actresses believe that this is not acting, its actually an epic, they are gods and goddesses and so the film became the runaway success it was, grossing millions for the producers apart from enthralling a nation for months on end.

We next go to the infamous attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar and its repercussions on modern India and move on to Communism in Calcutta which has a never say die attitude despite crumbling infrastructure and millions of poor and a surprisingly flourishing religious streak despite the every prevalent Communism, then a fairly uncommon sati in Deorala (a wife's ritual suicide by burning herself on her dead husbands pyre). The practice was common but is presently outlawed like child marriages but unlike child marriages is very rare thank God.

The stories Tulley weaves around us are varied ending with the tragic death of Rajiv Gandhi killed by a suicide bomber from Sri Lanka. Politics of every hue are woven into Tulley's stories which add to the variety and interest that is always found on the Indian political scene. The communal politics which emphasise and divide people by caste, language, race and religion are seen in a style which is easy to understand for the non Indian reader who may find it mind boggling and bewildering that politicians can actually swing votes on these lines.

A very enjoyable book for someone wanting to know about India not from a tourist's point of view but to understand to a small degree the vastness of India.

Tulley has written several books on India and I hope I will be able to do the other reviews shortly.