Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review: The Space Between Us

Book: The Space Between Us

Author: Thrity Umrigar

My Review: A captivating novel about the divide between the rich and the poor in India.

My Rating: 4 Stars

After having heard so much about Thrity Umrigar, I finally decided to pick up “The Space Between Us”. I was hooked from the very first page and found every possible excuse to read until I finally finished the book today.

Through the lives of Sera and Bhima, Thrity Umrigar attempts to describe the divide between the rich and the poor in India. Aravind Adiga tries to do the same thing with the White Tiger. While Adiga’s book explores the world of men and drivers of rich businessmen, Thrity concentrates on women and housemaids.

Sera is a wealthy Parsi woman in Bombay and the saying that money can’t buy happiness is definitely true in her case. When she had married Feroz, the man of her dreams all those years ago, little did she realize that her life would take a turn that she never expected. A physically and mentally abusive husband and a nosy, dominating mother in law make Sera’s life hell. She lives her daughter and son-in-law now. Her husband’s dead and her mother in law, crippled and bed ridden. There’s only one person that’s seen Sera through all stages in her life – her servant, Bhima. Bhima’s poor, yet happy, world is shattered when her husband meets with an accident at work. The accident takes away his joy and fun along with three fingers and leaves him with misery and a thirst for alcohol. He soon runs away from home taking his son with him. Bhima is left with her daughter, Pooja. Years later, when Pooja and her husband die of AIDS, Bhima brings their little daughter Maya. Her ray of hope. Maya is a smart kid and through her Bhima envisions a future with no poverty or the hassles of living in a slum.

Thrity Umrigar navigates easily through the ups and downs in Sera’s and Bhima’s life. In addition to their own lives, she also deals with the complicated relationship between Sera and Bhima. As much as they depend on each other for the moral support, they are both painfully aware of the difference in their castes and statuses at all times.

I really enjoyed reading the book. The characters are very well developed – even the minor ones like Sera’s father in law leave an impression on your memory. Have you read “The Space Between Us”? What did you think about the book? I loved this book and I really enjoyed Thrity Umrigar’s writing. Have you read any other book by her? Which one would you recommend for me to read next?

If you haven’t read “The Space Between Us”, I would definitely recommend this one to you. I enjoyed it and I am sure you will too!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review: The Toss of a Lemon

Book: The Toss of a Lemon

Author: Padma Viswanathan

Challenge: Orbis Terrarum 2009
My Review: A detailed look into the lives of a Brahmin family in rural Tamil Nadu (India) in the mid 1900s. A saga of sorts.

My Rating: 4 Stars

The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan first caught my eye when I saw a blurb in Dar’s blog. The book is set in the early 1900s in a small rural village in Tamil Nadu (a state in Southern India). It focuses primarily on a Brahmin family over a period of about 50 years. Being a Tamil Brahmin myself, I was curious about the book and the descriptions of customs and traditions; Customs and Traditions that my ancestors might have followed but not be followed anymore in this modern world.

In the very first chapter, however, I saw references to “Kulithalai” a really small locality in rural Tamil Nadu which is my mother’s hometown. This came as quite a pleasant surprise to me. If the descriptions in the book were accurate and valid, I had just found the key to the lives of my maternal great grand parents and my grandparents. I have visited Kulithalai about 20 years ago. I was about 5 years old and didn’t really notice much except for the cousins around me that I could run around and play with. As I read the book, faint memories of my ancestral home flashed across my brain. Hence, as you can see, this book had much more than just literary value to me.

The Toss of a Lemon describes the life of Sivagami from when she was about 10 until her death 50 to 60 years later. And through Sivagami’s life, we are given a peep into the lives of a small Brahmin community in Tamil Nadu in the early 1900s; A community filled with cultures and traditions passed down over generations along with a strong sense of caste distinction and deep belief in astrology and male dominance. In fact, the name of the title stems from an ingenious method developed to record the exact time of birth of Sivagami’s children so that their astrological horoscopes could be charted effectively. Astrology still plays a major role in many Brahmin households in India.

A short note from the history books: Dravidians are thought to be the original inhabitants of India. History books mention that Aryans invaded India and pushed the Dravidians to the south. This explains the difference in the physical attributes of north and south Indians. Aryans brought with them a distinction of the masses based on occupation – the scholarly folks, the warriors, the traders and the servants. Brahmins are traditionally the scholarly people. They were well educated and performed the Hindu rites and rituals and took care of the temples. Soon, they started considering themselves superior to the other castes and formed strict traditions of not letting non-Brahmins enter Brahmin households, eat Brahmin food, etc. In the present day, these caste distinctions still do exist in India. They no longer define occupations and are not as rigid as they were 50 to 60 years ago. People typically tend to marry within their own castes and inter-caste marriages (Though slowly becoming more popular) are still frowned upon.

The Toss of a Lemon brings out this aspect of Tamil Nadu beautifully through the actions and behavior of Sivagami and her family members. By the end of the book we can slowly see the shift from rigid Brahminical traditions.

The Aryan Society was also completely male dominated and Padma Viswanathan brings out the male domination in the Brahmin Society beautifully.

Though meek and subdued, Sivagami is actually quite a rebel. When she is widowed, she does something that was unthinkable by widows in that period. Instead of staying with her brothers in her childhood home, she moves back into the house she had occupied with her husband and manages the farms and her grandchildren there. Her strength of character is seen in little acts like these that are taken for granted today.

To me, a lot of the descriptions and many of the terms used in the book were familiar. I am really not sure how someone who is not familiar with Tamilian traditions would read and enjoy the book. And I must mention the fact that the book is a chunkster. It has more than 600 pages and it definitely took me a while to get through it. But in 600 pages, Padma Viswanathan weaves a complete tale. She transports you to rural Tamil Nadu in the mid 1900s and makes you a part of the Sivagami household.

I must mention here that the book might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you are looking for action and interesting twists and turns throughout the book, I can assure you that you’ll be bored with this book soon. But if all that you are looking for is to learn about a new culture and get transported into a completely different world, this is a really good book for you! The book is very descriptive and the images are vivid. I definitely enjoyed reading this book! Why I make it a point to mention this is because I have read a wide variety of reviews for this book. Some absolutely love it and others don’t seem to like it at all! I was a little unsure in the beginning of the book. I finished about 100 pages and the book really didn’t seem to be heading in any particular direction… and then I was slowly sucked into the atmosphere of the book and by the end, I didn’t want it to finish!

If you do plan to read this book and if you have questions about certain terms used in the book or even traditions, I’d be glad to chat with you about it.

I read this book as part of the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. I wanted to definitely visit India in this year’s challenge as well and what better place than my mother’s home town?? Thanks to Padma Viswanathan for sending me a review copy of this wonderful book!