Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Kim's Review: Enslaved

Kevin Bales - Director of "Free the Slaves" defines slavery as 'the total control of one person by another for the purpose of economic exploitation' The ILO defines slavery even more narrowly by adding 'it is a permanent feature, often based on descent, where a person is under the total control of another, amounting to ownership'

Under this definition, slavery would thus only exist in parts of West Africa and Sudan.What Rahila Gupta (a campaigner and journalist) sets out to do with this book, is to prove that these defintions are too narrow. Slavery is no longer just an economic phenomenon, there are sociological and political aspects too. And that slavery is rife in UK which has technically and legally abolished slavery since over 200 years, and made all the crimes associated with slavery severely punishable, yet the practice continues. And the people victimised are too powerless to do anything about it.

Rahila says that "the defining feature of modern day slavery is entrapment - physical, emotional, psychological and financial. Often sustained by threats of violence or actual violence. While no human being legally owns another human being today, men, women and children continue to be bought and sold, finding themselves at the mercy of others, forced to work for long hours for little or no pay and unable to escape. Current immigration legislation plays a central role in keeping people trapped in slavery"

To prove her point, Rahila interviews 5 former slaves who have been trafficked, smuggled or conned into the UK and tells their stories.

Farhia Nur from Somalia, underwent FGM at 8, was practically under house arrest by her employers during the revolution, raped at 18 by her employers son in Somalia which continued 2-3 times a week, who then proceede to kidnap her when she escaped to her family, then married her in a secret ceremony, so it turned to legalized rape. After 11 years when the situation in Somalia worsened, he smuggled her into the UK via Kenya, so she could sponsor his children from his 1st wife. But after arriving in UK she received no further contact from him and ended up bouncing around as unpaid househelp in other Somalians houses. Most of whom made her spend her own benefits on food for the whole household while the Home Office kept rejecting her every appeal for asylum on various grounds, including her not being able to conclusively enough prove to them that she was Somalian.

 Natasha Bulova from Russia, a casualty of the mass unemployment after the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, ran away at 17, from her home in Samara in 2003 to Moscow, where she was stuck indoors as she did not have a propiska - permit that proves residence in a town in Russia, while waiting for the human smugglers to get her a European visa to take up (what she was promised, would be) a waitressing job in Spain, but ended up being trafficked as a prostitute in Brussels. Natasha was then trafficked to England and her new pimp was physically abusive too until she was rescued by the police and helped put him away with her testimony.

Naomi Conte from Sierra Leone, was an illiterate 8 year old who was orphaned in one of the frequent wars in Makeni. While begging on the streets she was taken in by a Lebanese woman Mrs Farah, cleaned up and put to work in her house and then transported to England by the time she turned 15, where she was confined to the house and hidden away when anyone visited. When she finally escaped it was only to run into another man who was kind to her at first and within a month started pimping her until she got pregnant. All this before she even turned 18.

Liu Bao Ren from China, a well to do Chinese brick factory owner, who got into trouble with authorities because the religious leader whose teachings he followed was Taiwanese. In order to escape persecution, he paid the snakeheads to be smuggled into Italy where he planned to join a friend in the leather business, but ended up in the UK by mistake. An extremely uncomfortable journey literally as prisoners, with long spells of walking in extreme weather, being herded tightly into small rooms & vehicles ensued and when he reached UK, he unwittingly fell for the promises of a triad to find him work & a place to stay. Then he got caught in a cycle of employment with Chinese who had been in UK longer, being paid well below minimum wage, if he ever got paid at all.

Amber Lobepreet from India, had the opportunity to visit England as a child when her uncle requested her mother to come help out during a medical emergency. So when she received an arranged marriage proposal from a UK based family, she did not think about refusing it. However once the marriage was finalised, her parents were harassed into giving expensive gifts. Her husband who initially seemed caring and sensitive, soon relented to his domineering mother and sister and started ill treating her equally badly. She was slowly prevented from making any contact with any other members of the Sikh community in Britain and her neighbours and completely isolated. Sex turned to rape, the abuse was emotional, verbal, mental,  psychological and then physical. Finally after snatching all her gold and money, her inlaws threw her out on the street and refused to have anything to do with her. Her parents did not want her to come back to India because they could not bear the shame of it all

What hits you is the feeling of futility from each of the 5 when they are interviewed. The loss of self. Rahila intersperses the stories with commentary to clarify certain cultural practices or to provide notes on their pending cases thus showing both sides of the story. There are organisations that are trying to help these modern day slaves who have been trapped by circumstance but the number they are able to reach is insignificant compared to the the number of people sufferring.

This was a very hard hitting book.

Rating: 4/5


Sunday, 12 June 2011

Kim's Review: A Terrible Matriarchy

Another book from North East India brought into mainstream publishing and consciousness by Zubaan Books. At the end of last year, I was looking for books on Nort East India and wanted some non-travel, non-political kind of books, so I could hope to get an insight into the culture of this part of India that to me seemed very interesting but not widely known. This was well before my husband even had an inkling that he was going to be transferred to North East India.

I was pretty lax about updating book reviews last year, but this year I'm being more determined to write a short note about every book I read, just so I can refresh my memory easily at the end of the year.

While I had read, A Terrible Matriarchy last year, I flipped through it again when I realised we were soon moving to this part of the country.

Easterine Iralu is also the author of A Naga Village Remembered (2003), the first novel in English by a Naga writer. However I have been unable to find the book on flipkart or Amazon. Maybe I can find it on a visit to Nagaland? She is presently under political asylum in Norway.

The story in A Terrible Matriarchy is that of  5 year old Dielieno, the youngest in her family after 4 brothers. Declaring that her mother is too soft on Dielieno, grandmother insists that Dielieno moves to her house and helps her and Bano (a cousin of sorts) and learns housework.

While Naga society is known to be matriarchal and Dielieno's paternal grandmother is the absolute matriarch of her extended family, it does not make life any easier for the other women in the family.

Grandmother Vibano, is a complete harridan who has a fawning attitude towards her grandsons while loudly declaring that girls don't need education, love, affection, playtime, or even meat with their gravy. A sentiment that resonates in patriarchal societies in the rest of the country.

At one point, Bano also explains to Dielieno that her friend Vimenuo's father is perpetually angry because his wife had only given birth to daughters."Girl children are never considered real members of the family. Their mission in life is to marry and have children and be able to cook and weave cloth and look after the household. If they got married., they would always be known as somebody's wife or somebody's mother, but never somebody's daughter"

It is only because her father finally dares to stand up to his mother and the effort and encouragment by other members of the extended family that Lieno is able to enroll in school and excel in her studies.

The novel continues as Lieno's life moves forward, she loses 2 brothers along the way, one to sickness and one to alcoholism. The narrative flows in such a way as to give the reader a quick overall glimpse at what life in Nagaland is like.

The importance of the church, the kind of matriarchal society that it is, the problems of alcoholism and promiscuity, the general distrust of the Indian Army and its brutality against the youth of the Naga army. The British and colonial influences on Naga society are all evoked and woven into the tale.

This is not a story that will leave you wondering what next, its a story that tells a tale and draws you into a new culture, a new way of life and a new way of thinking.

Rating: 3.8/5

Buy A Terrible Matriarchy from Amazon

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Brajesh's Review: Dron Ki Aatmakatha

Read a Hindi novel after like a decade. Thoroughly enjoyed Manu Sharma's unique take on the story-line. Surprisingly weak, humane and troubled characterization of Drona. However this gives a far more logical insights of his actions. Must read for any Mahabharat lover. Going to pick up Karna, Draupadi and Krishna's version in that order.

Rating 3.5/5

Friday, 10 June 2011

Kim's Review: The Collector's Wife

The Collector's Wife by Mitra Phukan is the first novel I have read, set in North East India and I thank Zubaan books for translating these brilliant authors into English, so more of us can enjoy their works.

The female protagonist, Rukmini Bezbaruah's husband Siddharth is the District Collector (administrative head of the district) of Parbatpuri, a small town in Assam. She herself is a part-time lecturer in English at the local college. Her in laws live in Guwahati and are busy with their own lives, as is Siddharth who is constantly on tour.

On the surface, she lives an extremely comfortable life in a government appointed bungalow, with plenty of household help, a chauffeur driven car and the respect that comes with being the Collectors wife.

However, her personal worries and fears are multitude - of not yet being a mother, her own thwarted ambitions of being a writer, a husband who seems to grow more distant by the day, her students who are involved in the Assam Students agitations, insurgency, kidnappings, illegal migration, extortion and the ever present threat of violence.

Her days are routine and empty and she finds no solace or company at the Mahila Samaj's (Ladies Associations) of which she is honorary chairperson or at the clubs where she and Siddharth sometimes spend their evenings echoing trite conversations.

It is in this scenario that Manoj Mahanta - a traveling tire salesman (albeit a manager) bursts into her scene. The excitement of meeting someone new, outside the government/academic circles that she normally moves in, brings a frisson into her life.

But the murders and kidnappings start occurring closer to home. The blurb at the back pre-informs you that the final denouement is horrifying and true, where the personal is so closely interwoven with the political, so you know that the ending isn't going to be pretty and the reader is constantly watching to see what could cause such a final denouement.

The novel twists and turns and Mitra Phukan uses some wonderfully evocative language that makes the book a pleasure to read. "she hitched up her mekhela chador as elegantly as the puddle in front of the gate allowed" or "she returned the hollow smiles of the elderly men affably flashing dentures and spectacles at her" "She deposited the large carton onto the brides orange and gold lap. What a relief it was to have got rid of that 'Keep Warm Casserole' at last" "Since there were no shops nearby, the daily household shopping trip had to be planned and executed with the meticulousness of an army manoeuvre"

Its a wonderfully evocative look into small town Assam at the heights of the student agitation and rebellion against illegal migration from across the border. It personalises what we only saw as newspaper headlines, 30 years ago.It delivers a message and imparts information on these causes, without being preachy.

Rating: 4/5

Mamani's Adventures

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Kim's Review: The Map of Love

Inspite of living 4 years in Egypt, I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Ahdaf Soueif. This novel, Map of Love was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize. But while Naguib Mahfouz's English translations are available at every bookstore across Egypt, I don't recall seeing any books by Soueif in the bookstores, or perhaps I just didn't know where to look.

Ahdaf Soueif was another speaker at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, which was how I came to hear her.

While at first glance, Map of Love may seem like a romance novel, it is much more than that. It covers Egyptian history of the 20th century, the disconnect felt by rural Egypt, the position of women, Egyptian history and culture on a personal level, juggling of multiple cultures for the 2 main female protagonists.

In 1900, the recently widowed Lady Anna Winterbourne visits British Occupied Egypt and falls in love with Sharif Al Baroudi an Egyptian patriot. In 2000, an American divorcee Isabel Parkman - visits Egypt with an old trunk, meeting up with Amal (Omar's sister) and both of them turn out to be related to Anna & Sharif.

 There are multiple themes, voices and narratives in this novel. Fictional characters interact with historical figures. The mutual fascination between East and West, the relationship between Britain and Egypt, cultural differences and commonalities are some of the themes running through this book.

At 500+ pages, it is a long novel but it flows smoothly with very few glitches. Stories are interwoven and intermingle. It is a lovely tale, but it may come across as overly Romantic to some. The Romance is a very much a part of the story and integral to the story moving forward. This is defintiely not Chiklit, but if you are put off by tales of Romance, then avoid this book.

Rating: 3.8/5

Monday, 6 June 2011

Kim's Review: Minaret

Leila Aboulela is the first Sudanese author I can claim to have read and it was her presence at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, that led me to buy and read Minaret. As a person, Leila came across as a gentle introspective soul and this feeling was reinforced while I read Minaret.

Minaret is a very moving and personal account of life, its realities, its hardships, how reality can change in an instant.

The story starts in London, flashes back to Khartoum in 1984-85, forward to London in 2003, back to London in 1989-90, back again to London 2003-4, London in 1991 and ends in London in 2004. This back and forth telling of the tale, evokes new questions, which get answered as you read along.

Najwa is a hijab wearing cleaning woman in London when we meet her at the start of the book, but 20 years earlier she was a mini skirt wearing, upper class westernised, well to do carefree young girl studying at the University of Khartoum with hordes of servants at her beck and call. Now, in London she is as anonymous as the Ethiopian maids who worked at her Fathers house in Khartoum.

From spending evenings at clubs in Khartoum to evenings at the mosque in London, Minaret is the tale of struggle and search for identity. Shifting realities make Najwa question her beliefs, her values, her faith, her friendships, her politics.

The book does refer to the multiple coups and shifting political scenarios in Sudan, but through the eyes of Najwa who is disinterested in politics for the most part, until her father is executed during a change in regime and brief glimpses through the eyes of Anwar - a student activist - not above using and absuing his friendship with Najwa for personal gain.

Minaret is a tale of loss, of rediscovered faith, of immigrants and of exile. While Najwa is muslim and there are a lot of Islamic references through the novel, it isn't about Islam, it is about faith and how when all else fails, it is only faith that can sustain a human being. This is a feeling you get all over India as you wonder how the multitude of masses get through the day, and the only answer to that is "faith".

A touching, poignant book with a lot of passages that make you stop and reflect on them for awhile.

Rating: 3.5/5


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Brajesh's Review: The Exodus Quest

Second of Will Adams, this didn't live-up anywhere close to the expetations set by the previous one

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Kim's Review: The Exodus Quest

The next in the Egypt based Daniel Knox series by Will Adams. Daniel Knox is now famous in Egypt as the Archaeologist who discovered Alexander's tomb. On a visit to an Alexandrian market, he chances upon an antiquity that might be a Dead Sea Scroll Jar lid and the vendor admits that he sourced it from a foreigner run excavation, South of the Mariut.

His girlfriend Gail is on assignment in Assiut, forced to accompany and assist a pompous and obnoxious author of populist history - Charles Stafford.

In standard Will Adams style, their paths and investigations criss cross until Gail is kidnapped and appears on tv in a hostage tape.

The mystery in this book surrounds the Jewish Exodus from Egypt and Adams brings out a lot of the currently existing theories on this matter. The heretic pharoah Akehnaten, Moses, Nefertiti, Adam and Eve are all invoked in various myths and theories. Adams has an interesting style akin to the filming of Jack Bauer's 24. He focuses on different characters, shifting the narrative to their respective points of view and then leaves the character in a cliff hanger before moving to the next.

This is an exciting book, but does not quite come up to the standard of his first novel - The Alexander Cipher.

Rating: 3.5/5

Friday, 3 June 2011

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Kim's Review: Alexander Cipher

The Alexander Cipher introduces an Indiana Jones type character with Daniel Knox a disgraced American Egyptologist with 25% Bedouin heritage, currently biding time as a diving instructor for hire in Sharm el Sheikh.

In Will Adams, first book: The Alexander Cipher Knox tries to unravel the mystery behind the whereabouts of the remains of Alexander the great and his magnificent catafalque. The action constantly shifts from Sharm to Cairo to Alexandria to Tanta to Siwa and to the Suez. Adams has an interesting style akin to the filming of Jack Bauer's 24.He focuses on different characters, shifting the narrative to their respective points of view and then leaves the character in a cliff hanger before moving to the next.

This technique makes his books unputdownable and I often felt like skipping sections to continue where the current character's tale continued.

In The Alexander Cipher, Knox has quite a few people gunning for him - an influential shipping agent, the head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, a rich Macedonian businessman and the daughter of an Egyptologist he used to work with. But he also has friends who would do anything for him.

Alexander today is identified as a Greek hero, but his empire was actually the Macedonian Empire. Most of the region was divided by the Treaty of Bucharest of 1913, following the Ottoman defeat in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria each took control of portions of Macedonia.

Macedonian seperatists, a corrupt Head of the SCA, opportunistic locals - all have their own motives and agendas for finding the tomb. The Alexander Cipher is peppered with a lot of trivia from Egyptian and Macedonian History.

Its a wonderful read and quite unputdownable. A real page turner. I can't wait to read the next in the series

Rating: 4.5/5

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