Thursday, 22 March 2012

Kim's Review: Shades within Shadows

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that this book is written by my uncle - my mum's sister's husband. Uncle Alan has a special interest in the history of Mangalorean Christians and his first 2 books - Saraswati's Children and the Captivity of 1784 specifically focus on the historical and geneological aspects of the community.

When asked why he was writing "Shades within Shadows", Uncle Alan jokingly remarked that his nieces and nephews did not read his first books, finding them too technical and history textbook like, so he had fictionalised it so we would read his book and learn more about our community's history

If this was his objective, then he has most certainly achieved it. After reading this book, I'll definitely re-attempt reading "Saraswati's Children" once our household goods are delivered and book cartons are opened.

The tales told within this book begin with the forced conversions of Goan Hindus to Christianity and their subsequent persecution between the Santo Officio - Portugese Inquisition, increased taxes to fund the Portugese missions & wars and the local chieftains who run thieving incursions into the villages of the converts and take away their harvest, livestock, gold or anything else that they can get their hands on.

Over the next 200 years, some of these converts flee to South Canara to make a better life for themselves in slightly less daunting circumstances and slowly build up their land holdings, reputations and businesses over generations.

Life progresses steadily until Tipu Sultan comes to power. After his skirmishes with the British, Tipu needs a new "enemy" and the 40,000 Catholics of South Canara are targeted. The 'Captivity' occurred in 1784, when on Ash Wednesday, the Canara Christians are deported to Srirangapatna. Males who survive the arduous trek are circumscised and conscripted into the army, females are inducted into the harems. In the next 15 years the captives who didn't die were converted.When they were finally set free in 1800, less than a third of them returned. Inspite of their return, the Christian population of Canara had fallen to 10,000.

Shades within shadows tells the fictionalised tales of these converts, the trials they face, their joys and sorrows, the myths and lore. There are so many stories in this book, that at times you lose track of the charaters, but this is exactly the kind of story telling that grandma indulged in. Jumping from one to another until everything ties up into a neat loop, with the irrelvant threads left hanging for another day.

Some of the stories of bhutas & daivas in the book were familiar to me, because I remember nana telling us these tales on cold, dark nights in the spooky environs of the power-cut engulfed estate bungalows. There are almost 2 distinct voices that weave this tale together, one is a poetical voice that waxes lyrical about the greenery, or the water and the other is a bit more stacatto, focussing on the facts that weave the story line.

Its initially a bit confusing to follow with the multitude of characters introduced in the first 5 pages, but when you stop focussing on the characters and their names and just let the story wash over you, is when you really start getting involved and drawn in.

I highly recommend this book to any Canara Christian who wants to know more about their collective history. Its also an engrossing read for any Mangalorean. And even if you don't fall into either of these categories, this is a lovely prolonged ajji kathe, (grandmothers tale) that has a lot of local lore and historical details to keep you engrossed.

Rating: (I don't rate books written by family or close friends, but I will recommend this book highly)

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Kim's Review: The Lost Daughter Of Happiness

Geling Yan's "Lost Daughter of Happiness" is set in San Francisco during the Gold Rush Era. The story revolves around Fusang, a young girl kidnapped from her home in China, shipped under inhuman conditions to San Francisco and sold into prostitution at China town.

Whether, Fusang has resigned herself to her situation, too slow-witted to realise her predicament, has the serenity of a saint or just too amiable a disposition is not clear. But whatever her reasons or her qualities, they help keep her alive in a profession where her fellow workers contract innumerable diseases and drop dead like flies.

The other girls in your line of work started losing their hair at eighteen, their teeth at nineteen, and by twenty, with their vacant eyes and decrepit faces, they were as good as dead, silent as dust.

 There is a bit of a love triangle too. Chris a young boy of European descent first purchases her services as a 12 year old "little white devil", he is besotted with her and follows her around and even saves her life, but he faces tremendous pressure from his family and society to conform. Ah Ding / Da Yong is a Chinese mafioso of types who may or may not be the husband she was married to, in absentia in China. He controls a large part of all the prostitution rackets and other gang activity in China town, slowly involving himself in fostering a union of underpaid and overworked Chinese mining labourers. He is not sure of his feelings for Fusang, especially after she is gangraped.

Fusang is sold in slave auctions, has people coming from miles to see her deformed bound feet, has suitors fight bloody duels for her, almost dies of TB, is saved by the Christian ladies of the Rescue society, stolen back by Da Yong, brutally gangraped by a white mob, yet she survives it all.

Fusang is a real person who achieved a notorious kind of celebrity in her time, Geling Yan may have tried to unravel the mystery around her, but reading the book just left me with more questions.

The narrator is a later wave Chinese immigrant who tries to draw parallels between her own life and that of Fusang's, but neither her character or Fusang's is ever completely revealed. The identity of the narrator is left as a mystery and she just drops hints of what she is going through, but her voice keeps distracting from the main story, although her character doesn't develop beyond that.

The book does protray Gold Rush San Fransisco in all its ugliness, the prostitution, the hatred for Chinese immigrants among the earlier European immigrants, the stoic Chinese who just keep going back no matter what is thrown at them.

As a work of historic fiction, it is a good read with insight into the era, but as a story, at the end, the reader is left with more questions than answers.

Rating. 2.75 / 5

Friday, 2 March 2012

Kim's Review: One Thousand and One Nights

As a child, on a visit to a friends house Hanan Al Shaykh saw a beautiful collection of leather bound books in a book case which turned out to be the complete works of Alf Layla Wu Layla, (One Thousand and One Nights) She was itching to feel the books and read them, but her friend said that her father kept the books under lock and key as it was belived that any woman who read the complete collection would fall down dead. It was only much later on in life that Hanan realised that the original Alf Layla Wu Layla, dealt with sexuality and other adult themes that were deemed inpappropriate for women to read and the childrens fairytale versions available in the market weren't really part of the original Arabic epic. Aladin, Sindbad, Ali Baba were all stories added by Antoine Galland and other European translators.

However, her love for the opus endured and when Tim Supple asked her to translate a couple of the stories for him to produce on stage, she was quite willing to do it. This book is a corollary of some of the work that she did for the screenplay.

This book is not a complete translation of the original, but only covers some of the stories that were adapted for stage. The tale of course begins with King Shahrayar's cruel order for a virgin bride each night, who is put to death the following morning. The viziers daughter Scherazade marries him and prolongs her life by telling him a new tale each night, always leaving it at a cliffhanger stage, thus postponing her death one day at a time.

Her tales make King Sharayar see that it isn't just women who are fickle and untrustworthy, but men too and women aren't always to blame for their perfidy. So the stories don't just keep him engrossed, but also provide valuable insights and guidelines for living.

The stories are all interesting, but given the nested third and fourth degree narratives, its easy to lose track of who is telling whom which story and to what intent.

This is definitely not a "childrens" edition although the language flows very smoothly and easily.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

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