Saturday, 28 July 2007

Kim's Review : Ice Candy Man

In 2000, one of the few films that moved me to tears was Deepa Mehta's "1947 : Earth" Coming from the South of the Vindhya's, the Partition was something mentioned in passing in text books. We did not know any affected families and hardly anyone down South spoke about this bloody episode in India and Pakistan's shared past.

According to Richard Symonds 1950, The Making of Pakistan, London, ASIN B0000CHMB1, p 74 "at the lowest estimate, half a million people perished and twelve million became homeless"

"1947 : Earth" brought this part of our history to life and I wanted to read the book which spawned the movie. (Everyone knows that books are better than the movies they inspire) This was on my "To Read" list for almost 4 years before I bought the book and it took me another 3 years to read it. Even reading the book itself took over a month, because it induced strong feelings of despondency, depression and immense sorrow.

The problem with history books is that they tend to dehumanize history, apart from the fact that history is interpreted by the writer for his/her own convenience. Bapsi Sidhwa's - Ice Candy Man manages to avoid both these cons. The story is semi fictional but it is also based on her own experience and that of Rana Khan.

The entire story is told through the eyes of Lenny Sethi (Sethna in the movie) from the time she is 7 to early teenage. Lenny is a Parsi girl. Her religion and age does play a pivotal part in the story telling because most of the events around her do not affect her or her immediate family directly, although it affects the lives of everyone else around her. As Ralph Crane puts it "It may be that the atrocities of 1947 are best seen through the innocent naive eyes of a child, who has no Hindu, Muslim or Sikh axe to grind. . . Lenny is free both from the prejudices of religion and from the prejudices against women and the constraints she will be subject to as she grows older."

Lenny's naivety is brought home often, like when she comes to know that her mother and Electric aunt are acquiring petrol and immediately jumps to the conclusion that they are the ones responsible for setting all the fires in Lahore.
Sidhwa's characters are extremely well etched from Ayah, to masseur, to Ice Candy man, to Imam Din to Mucho, to cousin, to Godmother to Hari (later Himmat Ali). All these characters play an important part in Lenny's life. Each of their religions takes centre stage as matters escalate. And the rich detailing of each character makes the reader commiserate with the plight of each of the "victims".

Her imagery is excellent and brings each scene to life. Visualising Rahul Khanna, Nandita Das and Aamir Khan in the roles of Masseur, Ayah and Ice Candy man simply helped the process.
An extremely touching and poignant story. Khushwant Singh (A Partition survivor himself) says this book deserves to be ranked amongst the most authentic and best books on the partition.
I would highly recommend this book to everyone. It would help one start to comprehend at what cost our Independence was achieved and August 14th/15th can no longer be viewed by most as "just another dry day"

Also published at DesiCritics

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Bookshops in Cairo

Was searching for a DK Eyewitness Guide to Turkey which sent me on a Scavenger-like hunt across Cairo's bookshops. I did chance upon some new gems in addition to some of my old favourites.

Thought I would just do a quick listing & brief review of the bookshops I like in Cairo which may help you out if you are searching for something. Do remember, I was focussed on travel books. Fiction titles in Cairo I find very expensive compared to India & they take time to come into this country by the time they are cleared by the censor. I get my fiction fix from India via whoever is visiting.

1. The AUC bookshop on the AUC main campus is my absolute favourite. I spend at least 1 day each month at this location checking out their new titles & re-browsing some old ones. The AUC-(American University in Cairo) has its own printing press and they bring out an amazing array of Egypt related books written by Subject Matter Experts. Coffee Table Books, history, travel, religion, jewelery, fiction, Egyptian literature, architecture .... the variety of topics they cover is endless. Highly recommend that you visit this bookshop if you are looking for a book related to Egypt.

They have a second outlet in Zamalek too, which I have not yet visited. They stock other (Non-AUC press) titles too as well as International Newspapers. They have a very large collection of Lonely Planet guidebooks, but don't stock DK. They are quite accommodating about ordering books & calling you when something you want has come into the store.

Tip 1 : They have a sale twice a year, where some books are sold at huge discounts but everything else is on at least 20% discount.
Tip 2 : Use this excuse to see the wonderful AUC grounds and palace which has been converted to the Administration block. Carry some form of photo id which you will need to leave at the gate if you are not a student.
Tip 3 : If you are planning on spending more than a week in Cairo (as a tourist or an expat moving into this country) and have more than a passing interest in sight seeing, definitely pick up Lesley Lababidi's - Cairo - The Family Guide This is the 2006 edition. The 2007 edition may be on its way. I've used my copy so much, its actually gone soft and has dog ears. (Anyone who knows me, knows I like my books to be crisp to the touch - always)
Tip 4: You can buy an AUC bookstore membership card for 50LE. This will give you a 10% discount on your purchases. (I think its valid for at least a year. Worth the expense if you plan to buy more than 500LE worth of books from them.

2. Diwan Bookstore on 26th July Street in Zamalek, is a favourite with Expats for good reason. They have a wonderful cross section of books. A section dedicated to books in French and German and a very large section of books for children and a seperate one for teenagers. If you are looking for Children's books with an Egyptian theme (for gifting back home) this is the place to head to.

They have a little in-house cafe which serves lovely coffee and light snacks. Books from the store are not supposed to be read at the Cafe, but they have a section of books and magazines for those who want to read while sipping coffee.

3. The BookSpot is a lovely bookstore on Road No. 9 in Maadi run by my friends Sigrun and Mandy. This is a bookstore which makes you feel completely at home. There's complementary tea or coffee on offer and the best part of a visit to this shop is to catch a chat with either Mandy or Sigrun. You can even buy and order books from them online and collect them at your leisure or have them delivered to you. They take back second hand books and sell them at a discounted rate which is a boon for speed readers.

The atmosphere here is extremely friendly. Many disoriented/culturally shocked Expat women have found solace, friendship and like minded souls through this shop and its owners.

4. Kotob Khan is another gem on Lasilky Road in Maadi. They were recently featured on Al Jazeera TV for their service to the community. They organise documentary nights, book of the month readings, debates and other events, some of them in collaboration with Pen Temple Pilots. They have a wide collection of English and Arabic books and some travel books among others.

5. Volume 1 is a nooky little bookshop located off Al Sawra street in Mohandaseen & behind Victoria College in Maadi. The Mohandaseen shop has an extensive collection of Travel books, a large collection of AUC press publications, childrens books and fiction. They have a large stationary and gift section too.

6. Librairies Renaissance also on al Sawra street stocks only French publications but boasts a very large collection of fiction, children's books, cookbooks and other topics all in French.

7. Adam Bookshop at the Maadi Grand Mall in Maadi is a really tight small spaced bookstore. They have a decent collection of books, that spill all over the store so there's not much space to walk around. If I understand right, they were one of the first bookshops in Cairo to cater primarily to expats.

8. Virgin Megastores has a very large extensive collection of music & movies but I wouldn't say the same for their books. Yes, they have all the popular stuff but if you are looking for something just a little out of the way then this is not the place to look. They do not take orders. (given the size of their chain, I did expect them to do this) Can't blame them, they are only following a "big retail business" rule - stock fast moving items only. If you are looking for bestsellers in any genre you can find it here. But the store completely lacks the intimate feel of all the other bookstores in this list. You are treated as a commodity not a customer.

In the other bookstores the personal touch with the shop assistants, those manning the counter and in some cases the owners themselves makes a book lover want to keep returning to those stores. The shop assistants and the owners are happy to discuss the merits and demerits of a book and recommend further or alternate reading. At Virgin, they look up their computer to see if the book you want is in stock or not. That is the extent of Customer interaction. Lets not start talking about service. Ok, end rant. I like chain stores like CarreFour and Spinneys for my groceries but for my books I like a personal touch. I have nothing against chain bookstores. I think Crossword in India has managed to balance the chain aspects vis a vis the personal touch very well. Although Strand is still a personal favourite and I have my little nooks in every city I've lived in.

9. Alfa Markets especially the one in Zamalek do stock a fair amount of books and at some point had a good collection of DK Eyewitness Guides. But when I checked last it looked like they were having a clearance sale of all their books.

Prices are almost the same across these bookshops with a few disparities. But they are not large enough to warrant a trip to another part of town unless you are planning to buy in bulk.

I did not find the book I was looking for anywhere. Finally I turned back to the last resort The books were available at a discount but the shipping rates are killing me !
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