A Golden Age and the Good Muslim by Tahmima Aman

Today I’m reviewing two books together just because they are the first 2 books in a 3 book series and I feel the second cannot be read without the first.

Title: A Golden Age
Author: Tahmima Aman
Genre: Fiction
Set in: Bangladesh
Source: Personal Shelf
Rating:4.5 out of 5

My thoughts:
In 1947, after Independence from the British, India was partitioned into India and Pakistan (east and West). East Pakistan was later named as Bangladesh after the 1971 war. Okay, as an Indian, I know all this. But my knowledge about the Bangladesh war of Independence is very limited. Forget about the war but even otherwise I knew very little about Bangladesh in spite of its proximity to India. So when my husband went to Bangladesh for work, I asked him to get me something written by a Bangladeshi author and he got A Golden Age. Honestly I couldn’t have selected a better book.

A Golden Age is about a Muslim woman called Rehana whose husband has expired and her children are forcefully handed over to the relatives as she was deemed unfit to raise her kids all alone. She works hard to get her kids back to Dhaka and succeeds but not without any sacrifices. The story actually begins when her kids are all grown up: Maya is a 17-year-old and Soheil is 19. Soheil and Maya are actively involved in student politics; Soheil is a very charming speaker and can pull crowds. When Pakistan attacks Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), Rehana does not want her children to get involved in the war in any way. She had to fight very hard to get them back from her relatives and she doesn’t want the war taking them away from her.

As the war comes closer to home and her children become involved to the point of leaving their homes and fighting for their country, we see all that Rehana has ever struggled for on the verge of falling to pieces. We also see her strength as a woman and her resolve to protect her children at all costs.

In A Golden Age, we don’t get to know the details of the war, we are always on the fringes. Our state is like Rehana’s, wanting to know what is happening and when it will all end. It is a human story, the story of a mother set against the backdrop of a war. I loved the authors writing, it took me to Bangladesh, to Dhanmondi and that period of struggle. I enjoyed reading this book immensely inspite of the serious topic. It was informative and entertaining. This is one book that I very highly recommend.

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Title: The Good Muslim
Author: Tehmima Aman
Genre: Fiction
Set in: Bangladesh
Source: Review Copy
Rating:4.5 out of 5

My thoughts:
The Good Muslim begins 10 years after A Golden Age ends. It felt right to review these 2 books together as the second one is the continuation of the first and without reading the first book  it is very difficult to understand the second. The war has ended, a new country, Bangladesh is formed and 10 years have passed. This book is from Maya’s point of view and she is now a women’s doctor in a remote village in Bangladesh, leaving her mother and brother, for reasons unknown at that point. Due to some unfortunate circumstances Maya has to return to Dhaka. She finds that a lot has  changed while she was away. Her brother has dedicated himself to Islam and he is no longer close to their mother. Soheil’s wife’s funeral is being held and he also has a son called Zaid who is 4 years old.

Soheil has begun to give religious sermons and has left his sons upbringing to a woman who works with him. She is as strict and religious as Soheil and Zaid is left without any education and anyone to look after him. Maya struggles to settle back in Dhaka and tries to comprehend the changes Soheil has gone through. She takes Zaid under her wing and tries to make his life better.
On the other hand, she also struggles to understand how people can forget how they struggled for Independence only a few years back and have moved on. She doesn’t want to move on. She wants to remember, not only all that happened but also how Soheil was before and during the war. She wants to understand what Soheil has gone through to affect him so much that he has to turn to religion. When Soheil decides to send Zaid to a Madrasa, Maya thinks she has to do something for Zaid.

In The Good Muslim we don’t get to know what’s going on in Rehana’s mind which was weird considering how tuned I was to her feelings in the first book. It felt uncomfortable not knowing what was going on in her mind. Nevertheless, Maya is an interesting character as well. The author has shown all her confusion, anger and frustration very well.

I loved this book equally if not more than A Golden Age. I thought without the war as a backdrop, the book would be boring but it wasn’t. Her writing is very beautiful yet very easy to read and get lost into. She takes you to the remote villages in Bangladesh as well as to the rapidly changing Dhaka with equal ease. Most of all it reminded me of home, of eating puchkas and drinking chai from a street vendor while looking at an ever changing landscape.

Tahmima Aman takes you into the heart of the country and into the heart of the people who reside there. For that reason alone, this book is worth reading.

Note: A Golden Age is from my personal shelf while The Good Muslim is a review copy.

The Sari Shop Widow by Shobhan Bantwal

Title: The Sari Shop Widow
Author: Shobhan Bantwal
Genre: Fiction
Print Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Kensington Books (August 24, 2009)
Source: Library
Rating: 2 out of 5

My Thoughts:

I had such high hopes for this book but only a few pages in and I knew I was not going to like it. But I thought I would give it a chance since it was easy to read and I was hoping it would improve. But as you can see from my rating, it didn’t. Before I tell you what I didn’t like in the book, let me tell you about the plot.

Anjali Kapadia, a 37 year old widow, owns a high-end boutique of Indian clothes and Jewelery called ‘Silk and Sapphires’ in Little India of New Jersey. She lives with her parents who help her manage the store. When her business is suddenly in financial crisis, her father invites his rich and successful big brother, Jeevan to pull them out of it. Jeevan arrives with his rather young and dashing business associate, Rishi, who is a British-Indian and has many successful businesses of his own. Naturally we all know what is going to happen next.

The very first thing I disliked about the novel was the main character Anjali. She had this holier than thou attitude which I hated. She thought she was better than all the other Indian girls out there. The author probably meant to portray her as an independent woman, which she was, but to me she came across as a snob. The author wanted to portray a woman who was the best of both worlds, but mostly Anjali criticized her own culture. As an example, read this

Anjali watched her mother flash her most cordial smile and bend down to touch Jeevan kaka’s feet in the conservative way of greeting an elder. So she followed her mother’s example and did the same. It’s be best if she played the passive little Hindu woman–for the moment.

First of all, touching your elder’s feet is not conservative, it’s a cultural thing. And by suggesting that modern woman do not do that is plain ridiculous. It’s a form of respect and if you think you are not modern if you do that, I am going to have very little respect for you. There a few other similar things that irked me in this novel. In fact at one point, as was convenient, she also says this

Maybe despite her American ways she was still an old-fashioned Indian woman who looked on total fidelity and trust as the cornerstone of marriage.

huh? Generalizations are a pet peeve of mine and this novel had them in abundance. The story was also pretty superficial than I thought it would be. It was a simple love story, which I would have loved anyway, if it had a better central character. Even Rishi, the handsome, dashing guy who supposedly every girl dreams of, was always better because he was British-Indian with Indian cultural values thrown in when convenient.

I can really go on and on about what I didn’t like in this book. The one and only positive thing it has is a small glimpse into the life of Indian-American families. That’s about it. Read it at your own risk.

Swapna’s review is very positive though, so I hope you go read that for a different perceptive.

Witness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Title: Witness the Night
Author: Kishwar Desai
Genre: Mystery
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Beautiful Books (15 April 2010)
Set in: Jalandhar, India
Source: Review Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My Thoughts:

How does one avoid the Tyranny of dreams? The footsteps that keep taking you back to a house full of ghosts, where every window has a face staring from it, each face once beloved and known, now with bloodied eyes and grey lips, their hands drooping, bodies limp, yet yearning. They are all silent. The thick bile of sadness oozing from their hearts has regurgitated into their throats and blocked their voices, their pale shadowy hair seems like seaweed, green and stringy, floating in the air. Yet, all around their collapsed bodies is the scarlet odour of fresh killing, the meat at their feet is newly shredded for the dogs, which are peculiar and never bark. They do not even nudge the meat. Do they know whose flesh it is? How can they tell? Does human flesh taste different? Is there some loyalty hidden in the DNA of animals that allows them to differentiate? Nothing in the house is as it should be, because now another smell permeates and rises, the smell of burning flesh. (Pg. 1)

Set in small town Jullundur (Jalandhar) in Punjab, Witness the Night is the story of a 14 year old girl Durga caught in a nightmare and a 45-year-old social worker Simran who is working hard to find out the truth. When 13 people from a rich and prominent family are killed one night, 14-year-old Durga, the daughter of the family and the only survivor, is the main suspect.

When Simran, a fiercely independent and outspoken social worker arrives in Jullunder to speak with Durga and find out the truth from her, she realizes that the incident is not as straight forward as it seems. Durga looks like a scared child but she keeps mum about the incident. It is up-to Simran to find out the truth on her own. As she tries to uncover the truth, she finds that the relationship of Durga with her family has sinister undertones to it.

I cannot tell you how much I loved this book. It deals with a very important subject about female infanticide and the place of women in a conservative society. I could tell the author is passionate about the subject. But in no way does it get overbearing or boring. It’s also a page turning mystery where we are kept wondering till the end about how it happened. Although we know what happened by the first page itself, it’s still a mystery about why someone would wipe an entire family out.

The book is written from 2 viewpoints, Durga’s and Simran’s. While Durga’s writing is serious and dark, Simran’s is sarcastic and funny at times. She is a very interesting lady and I especially enjoyed her interactions with her mother. Overall this is a mystery that is different from many mysteries out there because not only is it page turning but it also deals with a very important subject with honesty and fearlessness.

My review doesn’t do the book justice. You have to read it to see how wonderful it is. Highly recommended. Witness the Night is the winner of 2010 Costa First Novel Award.

Chokher Bali or A Grain of Sand by Rabindranath Tagore

Title: Chokher Bali
Author: Rabindranath Tagore
Translated from Bengali by Sreejata Guha
Paperback: 287 pages
Set in: Kolkata (India)
Publisher: Penguin Books (January 1, 2003)
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:

Chokher Bali is a Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore. He needs no introduction to Indian’s but those who haven’t heard about him, he was a celebrated Indian writer who won the Nobel price in literature in 1913 for Gitanjali. He has also written the national anthem of 2 countries-India and Bangladesh. So I felt bad that I hadn’t read anything by him even after having his translated works around. When I saw this book in the bookstore, I couldn’t resist buying it.

Choker Bali or A Grain of Sand is a story of an extra marital affair. This is just putting it in a nutshell. But not really, calling it an extra marital affair story would be grave injustice. This is a story of love and what people can do for it. Mahendra gets married to Asha, a shy and timid girl who is an orphan and unaware of how the world works. She is just happy to be someones wife and is happy to finally have a home to call her own. She is extremely devoted to her husband. Mahendra is spoilt by his mother and is used to have everything placed before him at his command.

Mahendra and Asha are enjoying their life and are totally consumed by each other as newly weds usually are. Into this bliss enters Binodini, a young orphan woman who was widowed just one year after her marriage. Asha takes to her completely and treats her like her sister. Binodini is envious of Mahendra’s and Asha’s love and yearns to have a home and a man who is as devoted to her as Mahendra is to Asha. Driven by this jealousy and her own desire to be loved, she sets upon seducing Mahendra. Into this cast of characters is Mahendra’s mother Rajalaxmi who is responsible for spoiling Mahendra and Behari, Mahendra’s best friend, an overall awesome guy who is content to stay in Mahendra’s shadow.

Chokher Bali is not all black and white though. In spite of Binodini being the enchantress, she was someone I really understood. I’m not saying what she did was correct but considering she was an orphan and a widow, her need for love and affection was something that endeared her to me. In those days, widows had a lot of restrictions. They had to wear colorless garments and they could not enjoy the worldly pleasures like other woman could. Asha was a naive woman, a girl child who didn’t know disaster until it was right in front of her.

The only person I did not like was Mahendra. He was spoilt right from his childhood. He had a beautiful, devoted wife whom he loved. But he wanted everything. He could not understand why he couldn’t have Asha and Binodini both at his side. Believable and compelling characters is probably what the major plus point of this book is and someone who can create woman like Binodini and Asha is worth applauding. The book was very easy to read, I’m not sure if it’s meant that way or because it is translated from Bengali. Nonetheless, A Grain of Sand is a book I heartily recommend.

This one’s for The South Asian authors Challenge.

Chokher Bali-the Movie:

It’s a Bengali movie, so I watched it with subtitles. It is directed by one of the most celebrated directors of Bengali cinema: Rituparno Ghosh. I was surprised by how different the movie is from the book. While the book concentrates on all the characters and the relationship between them, the movie concentrates on Binodini. The movie is more of a Passion play as the tag line suggests. The movie shows Binodini to be cunning  whereas in the book she is simply a widow who is looking for affection. Suffice to say I didn’t like the movie as much and I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had seen the movie before reading the book.

This one’s for The South Asian Authors Challenge

Children of Dust by Ali Eteraz

Title: Children of Dust
Author: Ali Eteraz
Genre: Non-Fiction (memoir)
Source: Library
Set in: Pakistan, U.S, Kuwait
Hardcover: 352 pages
Publisher: HarperOne; 1st edition (October 13, 2009)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My Thoughts:
I almost feel inadequate reviewing this book because I’m sure I haven’t understood everything the author wanted to convey. But I loved what I grasped from it. That’s not to say the book is a difficult read, far from it.

Children of Dust is not merely a “memoir of Pakistan”, although the time the author spent in Pakistan, up-to the age of 10, was a large part of what constituted his religious outlook.

The book is divided into parts. The first part, when the author is a child, takes place in Pakistan. Here he describes living in a small town in Pakistan and going to a Madrasa which was a very traumatic experience. His parents were very religious and they wanted him to be a follower and a servant of Islam. When the family migrates to the US, the author starts to neglect Islam and concentrate on issues more important to teenagers-like fitting in, sexuality and finding ways to watch ‘Boy meets World’. It was refreshing to read first hand how a Muslim boy had to struggle with fitting in and also trying to follow his religion.

When he went to college far from home, although he struggled with same things he did before, he does become more friendly with people from his own community and gradually acquires a fundamentalist outlook. Without getting into too many details, he returns to Pakistan to find a pious girl and also to find out more about his ancestors. But instead of finding what he expected, he finds his ideas of an Islamic nation shattered. Here’s what he has to say after his visit to Pakistan.

I was sneered at by the very ones who were supposed to embrace me. I was rejected by the ones who were supposed to be purer-in character, in culture, in chivalry-than Americans. The brilliance that I’d associated with Islam just a few months earlier had now turned black. After a period of mourning and melancholy, I craved vengeance. I sought to undermine all that the presumably purer Muslims held sacred.

I found his shift in religious opinions very unsettling. It could be the result of blindly following what he had heard from his childhood and then finding out that not everything is what it is supposed to be. You would think a book about the authors religious journey will be boring, but it’s not, far from it. It’s fascinating, interesting, funny and most of all entertaining. And honest-very honest.

‘Children of Dust‘ is definitely unlike any memoir I have read before and I have read quite a few. Highly recommended.

A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings by Ruskin Bond

Title: A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings: Collected Stories of the Supernatural
Author: Ruskin Bond
197 pages
Publisher: Viking Books (January 2004)
Genre: Fiction (short stories)
Set in: India

My thoughts:
Ruskin Bond. How much do I loved this author. Not because I have read his work extensively, but because he is the first author that made me feel like I could love reading. He showed me that reading could be a pleasure which could transport you to a different world altogether. He gave me my first glimpse into how the reading world could be. All this because of one short story called The Cherry Tree

The Cherry Tree is the story of a young boy from the hill station of Mussoorie who plants a cherry tree and watches it grow. Such a simple story but it evokes such beautiful imagery. We had this story in our curriculum as children and I seriously cannot recall the number of times I have read it. In fact I have still kept my English textbook just because of this one story. That’s the Ruskin Bond magic.

My point being that when I saw the book A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings in the library I picked it up. I couldn’t wait to read it and I was not disappointed in the least. This collection of short stories has all kinds of stories, the theme being “supernatural”. There are stories of ghosts, fairies and jinns, most happening in the backdrop of the beautiful hill stations of Northern India. There is also Rudyard Kipling’s and Sherlock Holmes Ghost.

Ruskin Bond does not write complicated words, nor does he write complicated stories. These stories reminded me of stories I’ve heard from my friends and relatives, of the time when we all used to settle down at night and make up ghost stories to frighten each other.

But none of the stories really scare you, they are simply meant to entertain. Almost all these stories are based in the mountains and in actual places, be it the story of the fairies on the Pari Tibba hill or stories based in the forests of India. Some of the stories are even hilarious but almost all make you smile as you read the last line. How many ghosts stories can you say that for?

Please read this book. It’s the simplicity of the stories which make them beautiful. They can be read by children as well as enjoyed by adults.

I don’t have the capability to rate this book but for me Ruskin Bond will always have a 5/5.

I’m adding this to the South Asian Authors Challenge. Although Ruskin Bond is British by birth, he was born in India and has stayed in India almost all his life. He writes about India and it’s people with as much love and affection. In fact, Ruskin Bond is India’s one of most favorite authors and his stories are included in textbooks in India.

Zero Percentile by Neeraj Chhibba

Title: Zero Percentile
Author: Neeraj Chhibba
Genre: Adult Fiction
Source: Author
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

My thoughts:

Zero Percentile is the story of a guy called Pankaj from Delhi, India. The story begins in 1997 Russia where Pankaj is about to board a flight to India and waiting for one phone call that could change the course of his life. This is just a 2 page prologue after which the story shifts to Delhi and then for the first half of the book we are taken through Pankaj’s childhood.

Although I think the childhood part was quite stretched out with unnecessary details, I do think it was necessary. Even though the tagline of the book says ‘Missed IIT Kissed Rusia’, IIT is a very small part of this book. Just because he misses the IIT exam due to an incident, he lands up in Russia for an engineering degree. After that it’s about his experiences in Russia.

What I liked the most about the book was the information it provided. I haven’t read a lot of books set in Russia and that’s why the setting of this book was very refreshing. I got to know a LOT of things about Russia and the education system back in the 1990’s.  Along with that he’s also managed to insert quite a bit of  Russian history in the book.

This book reads like a Bollywood Movie, a potboiler from beginning to end. It’s a book for the masses and I would safely put it into the ‘Chetan Bhagat’ category. It’s a quick read and it also costs less. The writing does need work but overall it was entertaining.

Note: If you happen to get the book, please skip the summary at the back of the book, it gives away almost all the turning points of the book.

This is my first book for the South Asian Author’s Challenge.