Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ruins by Achy Obejas

Achy Obejas
205 pages, drama, character study
Found: A signed first edition (!) at a secondhand bookstore somewhere in India

Usnavy, a proud veteran of the Cuban revolution, is as much of a straight-shooter as it is possible to be. Despite the deprivations that have made life miserable for him and his family, he refuses to do anything illegal. The other employees at the bodega (government ration supply store) may sell products out of the back before they can be parceled out, but Usnavy refuses. He is happy to do the most miserable of government jobs - and be the one who gets abused about the lack of supplies or the need to collect funds for public projects - because he truly believes in his country and the purpose of the Revolution.

Where everyone else has given up, Usnavy continues to go on, an idealist till the end.

And then one of his best friends leaves the country by boat, and recruits Usnavy's help. And Usnavy is suddenly compromised for the first time. And suddenly Usnavy becomes truly aware of the deprivations and the ways he could make money to better himself and his family's position.

Hunger and food shortages

This book is best at getting you into the head of someone dealing with great deprivations, especially those caused by food shortages. There is no way that the government can provide enough food for people, so they are left to scrounge around for whatever they can find (or buy, or steal, or sell). Usnavy's constantly empty, rumbling stomach is an unceasing companion. The author conveys this all-consuming hunger so viscerally that I could feel my own stomach twisting as I read it:

Usnavy watched as [his wife] Lidia served up a sandwich for [their daughter] Nena that he recognized as having what looked like a reddish-brown meat. His immediate fear was that it was cat flesh. As a delighted Nena ate - complimenting Lidia, savoring the little bits of what looked like onions - Lidia kept busy, avoiding Usnavy's eye.... Of all people, of course, he knew that the only ingredient she'd gotten legally for that sandwich was the bread. (35)
But no sooner had Usnavy pulled up the bread and seen the flat layer of pith covered in seasoning, than he recognized its true provenance: These were pieces of a blanket normally used for mopping floors which [their neighbor] Rosita had beaten and marinated in spices and a little beef broth.... At least it wasn't cat meat, he thought. 
Then he bowed his head in dismay and disbelief. (37-8) 
What happens when basic necessities are only available on the black market, and you have to do illegal (and sometimes immoral) things to get the cash to pay for them? Especially if you believe so strongly in the rightness of the government and the society that you are a part of?

These are all moral questions that Usnavy struggles with in this book, and the constant hunger lends a sense of urgency and desperation to everything. What won't someone do when faced with such a situation?

Fear of flight

Usnavy spends much of the book trying to prevent his daughter from running away - from fleeing to the US, which beckons more and more with every day of starvation. It seems so close, and yet it is so far from everything that Usnavy ever wanted for her, or for them.

Usnavy has always been made fun of for being light-skinned, having red hair, and being so naive as to truly believe in the revolution. But he has also been fighting for the revolutionary values because he does not want things to change. He wants his struggle in the war to be worth something; he wants his country that he fought for to be worth something. And somewhere in his mind he worries that it is maybe not worth anything after all. What is the use of a country that can't even provide its own people with food to prevent starvation?

So he vehemently opposes the flood of people leaving the island for brighter shores, but also wonders when he will have to follow them. When he will himself turn traitor to the cause that he spent his life serving.

And of course that terrifies him.

Gender issues

I cannot write a review without examining the very delicate but incisive discussion of gender issues in this book. 

First, Usnavy's wife and daughter seem like women who have been forced to give up their desires for the sake of the man in their life (i.e., Usnavy). Lidia, Usnavy's wife, used to be a driver for a hospital, and, as Usnavy mentions, was "one of the first women to really excel at the job." However, due to budget cuts she was laid off and not provided with an alternative job that would pay appropriately. So now she is stuck in their tiny apartment, trying to eke out meals from the tiny amount of supplies that her husband brings home. 

Their daughter, Nena, is in a similarly stuck position. Not only will Usnavy not allow her to break any of the oppressive government rules, but she is stuck between school and home because he will not allow her to access his bicycle - not even as a loan! 

While Usnavy does give some thought to his family's position (especially in terms of hunger), his thoughts are mostly on himself. He never asks whether Lidia and Nena are ok with giving up opportunities to follow his principles. Usnavy spends most of his time outside of the house, whether at the bodega or playing dominoes with his friends; when he is not at home, he still takes up most of the space with his large stained-glass lamp (more on this below). It is a very claustrophobic situation for the two women, and there seems to be little thought on Usnavy's part about whether they really want a life like this.

Second, the novel masterfully details how relatively uneducated, ordinary people deal with trans issues. The "son" of one of Usnavy's friends is in the US, where "he" is reportedly doing well. When "he" comes to visit, however, it turns out that she has transitioned. While her father knew (and seems accepting), he had been ashamed to admit that his son was now a daughter. And his fear appears to be justified when another friend reacts violently to the news. But Usnavy does not seem to have a problem with the situation; sure, it is a bit unusual, but then as a kid she was always different. I would be very interested to hear the thoughts of a trans individual on this aspect of the book, particularly how they read Usnavy's reaction to her transition. 

A jeweled mystery

Usnavy's life is consumed by a large piece of his family heritage: a beautiful glass lamp that not only provides some comfort and beauty to his otherwise bare, meager life, but also inspires him to make changes to that life later in the novel.

To relieve the gloom, the family's room - a breadbox, a shoebox - was illuminated by a most extraordinary lamp. Were it not for the sheer size of it, Usnavy could have built a second floor - a barbacoa - like many of his neighbors. Made of multicolored stained glass and shaped like an oversized dome, the lamp was wild. Almost two meters across, the cupola dropped down with a mild green vine-and-leaf motif that flowered into luscious yellow and red blossoms, then became a crimson jungle with huge feline eyes. (In truth, they were peacock feathers, but Usnavy had never seen or dreamt of peacocks, so he imagined them as lions or, at least, cats.) The armature consisted of branches at the top, black and fat to resemble the density of tree bark. They narrowed as they neared the edge, until they were pencil thin and delicate. The borders were shaped with the unevenness of leaves and eyelids, petals and orbs, in a riotous yet precise design. (17)

This glorious lamp is the source of Usnavy's greatest joy. He knows it has something to do with his family's past; it was a feature at his mother's house in his childhood, but she had never explained its provenance or how it had come into their family's possession. He spends hours just looking at the lamp, polishing it, making sure it glows with all possible intensity. This obsession seems to take precedent over everything else in his life, including his family members.

It is only when a chance encounter shows him that there are other lamps like his (although smaller, less elaborate, not as beautiful) that he realizes he is sitting on a goldmine. He begins to use his knowledge of the lamp and its brothers to make some money, to improve the family's state of living. He sells the other lamps and the glass from the other lamps, but he is reluctant to touch his own unless absolutely desperate. And so he begins to walk a fine line: neglecting his official work in favor of an alternative industry of selling glass, while also refusing to allow anyone to see his own lamp. Eventually all of this has to catch up with him, somehow.

I absolutely loved this novel, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is both a good literary investigation of life in Cuba during the early years of the Special Period and a brilliantly written and paced novel.

Further Reading

"Was the 'Special Period' a Cuban Invention?" by Dmitri Prieto (Havana Times) 
"Cuba’s 'Special Period' Remembered" by Irina Pino (Havana Times) 
"The Maleconazo, Cuba’s First Popular Revolt, Happened 23 Years Ago" by Ivan Garcia (Translating Cuba)

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Alif, directed by N K Muhammed Koya

Alif: The First Letter of Knowledge
India (Malayalam), 2015
101 min, drama
Directed by N K Muhammed Koya

This movie focuses on a Muslim family in Kerala, India, which had been important in the past but had fallen out of power because of the death of the patriarch. At this point there are four generations living together from this one family. For simplicity’s sake I will refer to them as the grandmother, the mother, the daughter, and the granddaughter. There is also a grandson who is younger than the granddaughter, and who is the pride and joy of this otherwise poor family.

The plot of the movie concerns these four generations of women and how they deal with the patriarchal Muslim and Malayali society that they live in. They have to realize their own autonomy while still being circumscribed by the men in their lives, specifically the dead grandfather and the young boy.

Social ostracism

At the very beginning of the movie, the daughter is summarily divorced by her husband with the support of some village elders. Even before this, he had not been contributing to the family, and they were suffering because of this.  Not only are they having trouble because of not being able to afford food, etc., but they are treated badly by the other members of the community because of their poverty. For example, when the grandson visits a friend from a wealthier house he is forced to sit on the floor to watch TV; he is not allowed to sit on the furniture.

Read the rest of this review at The Asian Cinema Blog

Further Reading: 

"Understanding triple talaq (and domestic violence) through the stories of three Muslim women" by Aarefa Johari (scroll)

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Moogavani Pillanagrovi (Ballad of Ontillu) by Kesava Reddy, translated by the author

Moogavani Pillanagrovi (Ballad of Ontillu)
Kesava Reddy
Translated by the author (Telugu)
First published 1993, I read 2013 translation
114 pages, common man's tragedy, mental illness

Many thanks to Oxford University Press India for providing a review copy of this book.

After being forced to sell his land, an elderly farmer faces a mental breakdown that finally ends in his death.

This is my first video review! Watch it here:


Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2014 (National Crime Records Bureau)
"Centre must step in to stop farmer suicide, Madras HC says" by A Subramanil (Times of India)

Further reading:

"Why Farmers are Protesting with Human Skulls at Jantar Mantar" ( (video)
"BJP ignoring farmer suicides by pushing for stricter cow slaughter laws: Sena" (Hindustan Times)
"West Bengal: Potato farmers commit suicide even after bumper harvest" by Indrajit Kundu (India Today)
"India's sugarcane farmers: A cycle of debt and suicide" by Janos Chiala (Al Jazeera)
"Stories of survival: Widows of India's farmer suicides" by Deepti Asthana (Al Jazeera)
"Why Bihar Sees Fewer Farmer Suicides Than More Developed States" by Sanjiv Phansalkar (Huffington Post India)

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Behind the Painting and Other Stories by Siburapha, translated by David Smyth

Behind the Painting and Other Stories
Siburapha (Kulap Saipradit), 1905-1974
Translated by David Smyth (Thai)
Translation first published 1995, I read 2000 Silkworm edition
160 pages, psychological drama, romance, plight of the poor

Many thanks to Silkworm Books for providing a review copy of this book. 

Behind the Painting is Siburapha’s most acclaimed novel, a tale of the repressed romantic feelings between a young Thai student studying in Japan and an older, married Thai woman on holiday there. According to the introduction, this novel is the best example of  Siburapha’s early writing: romantic stories based on the upper classes of Thai society during the interwar period.

His later stories, however, draw upon his Communist politics to portray the plight of the poor and working classes. The three short stories in this collection provide a sample of his later work, which contrasts with the novel in almost every way. Because of these differences, I will review the novel and the stories individually.

Behind the Painting (serialized 1937-1938)

When an elderly member of the Thai nobility contacts him, the young Thai student Nopphon agrees to arrange their travels in Japan, where he is studying. The elderly man is accompanied by his younger wife, Mom Ratchawong Kirati, and Nopphon’s quick friendship with her soon blossoms into love. When he reveals this to her, she refuses to respond in kind and requests that he hide his feelings. However, it is evident that her actions are bound by her difficult circumstances - and therein lies the essential tragedy of this short novel.

There are several important cultural insights that can be gleaned from this beautifully written novel. First, Mom Ratchawong Kirati is stuck between a rock and a hard place: she feels like she must preserve her looks to be liked in the society; at the same time, she is prevented from going out into society because of her rank as a member of the nobility. At this time, nobles were required to act in specified ways that marked their difference from the peasantry - they were not allowed to pursue certain careers, interact with certain lower-class people, travel to certain places or in certain ways, and so on. (I will discuss this further in my forthcoming review of Many Lives by Kukrit Pramoj.) These restrictions and enforced isolation from society prevent her from living as she desires, and prevent her from even looking for love. This leads her to agree to marry a man who is significantly older than her, whom she does not love and who does not love her.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Dangal, directed by Nitesh Tiwari

India (Hindi), 2016
161 min, sports movie, biography
Directed by Nitesh Tiwari
Starring Aamir Khan, Fatima Sana Sheikh/Zaira Wasim, Sanya Malhotra/Suhani Bhatnagar

After he is forced by financial circumstances to give up his own wrestling career, Mahavir Singh Phogat plans to train his future son(s) so that they will win a gold medal for India on the international stage. When he ends up having four daughters, he thinks his dream is lost – but then he has the radical idea that girls can be wrestlers, too. After many years of intense training, he manages to bring two of his daughters, Geeta and Babita, to the international level. But will his old-fashioned, village methods work against athletes from around the world?

This movie tells the true story of Geeta Phogat, the first Indian woman wrestler to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth games (in 2010), her sister Babita Kumari, also a gold medalist, and their father who coached them to greatness.

The Cultural Context

This film does a good job of showing the cultural context and why, exactly, this family is so remarkable. Mahavir and his family live in a village in rural Haryana, India – a state known for its poor treatment of girls, and high rates of female infanticide. Haryana has one of the worst sex ratios of any Indian state: 861 women for every 1000 men in the whole population, and 835 girls for every 1000 boys aged 0-6 years. Patriarchy, especially the wish for male children to carry on one’s legacy, is particularly strong. The movie demonstrates this cultural pressure for male heirs through a humorous sequence, in which Mahavir receives innumerable bits of advice on how to conceive a male child. In the end, it seems to be a catastrophe for the entire village when all of these efforts fail and Mahavir’s wife continues to have girls.

Read the rest on the Asian Cinema Blog

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Bale Bale Magadivoy, directed by Maruthi Dasari

Bale Bale Magadivoy
India (Telugu), 2015
137 min, romantic comedy
Directed by Maruthi Dasari
Starring Nani and Lavanya Tripathi

Lucky is a young, good-hearted plant scientist with one major flaw: a mental disorder that makes him get distracted incredibly easily. This interferes with his life in various ways, and now it is interfering with his ability to find a girl and get married. When his father arranges for Lucky to meet the father of a prospective bride, Lucky gets distracted by a series of random events in full view of his prospective father-in-law – leading him to believe that Lucky is a terrible human being.

When Lucky accidentally runs into the girl, Nandana, he falls in love and tries to conceal his problem of forgetting everything. Many of his actions turn into (or are passed off as) incredible philanthropy, and Nandana falls in love with him partially because of his apparent goodness. But how long can he keep this up? Will he ever get the girl?


Lucky’s habit of forgetting things is treated as a disability throughout the film – and not just because he thinks he has to hide it. Throughout his life, his father has told him that he will never amount to anything, or be able to get married, because of his forgetfulness. And it does significantly impact his life - he has trouble carrying out the simplest tasks because he forgets about them halfway, and he has a lot of trouble with accidentally giving away his belongings – including his father’s car!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees (Requiem for the Living) by Johny Miranda, translated by Sajai Jose

Jeevichirikkunnavarkku Vendiyulla Oppees
Requiem for the Living 
Johny Miranda
Translated by Sajai Jose (Malayalam)
87 pages, ethnography, family drama

Thank you to Oxford University Press, India for providing a review copy of this book. This is part of the Oxford India Novellas series, which translates short works from Indian languages into English. 

An oppees is a prayer for the dead. This novella tells the story of a people who are eligible for an oppees in every way, while yet alive. - Author's Note

Josy (Osha) Pereira is the latest in a line of church sacristans in a village near Kochi, Kerala. His family belongs to the Parankis - a Christian group with mixed bloodlines due to centuries of Portuguese rule and trade in the area.

In a winding narrative, Osha tries to explain his life to the reader: his grandmother Mammanji's almost magical religious/traditional healing abilities; his father's desertion of the family in order to go on pilgrimage; his own hapless marriage and inability to connect with his wife; and, most importantly, his unique community and the religious and cultural values that it reveres.

Women and Men

As noted by J. Devika in her fantastic introduction, one of the central issues in Osha's story is the struggle between men and women in this community, and in Kerala as a whole. While Kerala is widely regarded as one of India's most developed and progressive states - with the highest rate of female literacy in the country and a higher percentage of women in the population than men - the actual story is much more complex. Keralite women do work outside of the home, and many have jobs that are considered "man's work" in the rest of India. Historically, several of the ruling groups have also been matrilineal, tracing their lineage through the female line and placing the elderly women in the family in a position of great power (but limited mobility).

Perhaps related to this history of female power and (limited) autonomy, Keralite society brims with an existential crisis of masculinity. This is reflected in many ways: restrictions on women's movement and strict gender separation in some public places and transportation; high rates of crimes against women; and a tendency toward machismo on the part of men, who feel that they must prove their manhood. This last aspect (expressed primarily through the need to be right at all times, even if demonstrably wrong) that has been particularly pronounced in my dealings with Keralites during the year I lived in a village near Kochi.

This novella does a great job of depicting these ideas and attitudes. Osha's life is dominated by powerful and influential women, and he does not know how to deal with this. He feels emasculated: why does he have to rely on his mother or grandmother, and why are his male relatives so ineffectual in comparison to them? Osha's existential angst, which he treats with alcohol and laziness, highlights this major problem in Keralite society.

Ethnographic Details

This novella is unique in that it is written by a member of the Paranki community from Kochi, a forgotten and marginalized group that does not fit into Kerala's highly stratified and purity-conscious society. As the translator notes in his introduction, much of the culture depicted in the novel is unfamiliar even for Malayalam readers: the "extremely local references" to Kochi Creole/Paranki culture and religion call for a detailed glossary of terms and rituals, provided at the end of the book. 

Osha also seems to be aware of how marginal his community is; he often stops to explain the significance of various rituals, terms, or clothing. This adds an additional flavor to the narrative: he is evidently addressing someone outside of his group, and wants to reveal something about his heritage and life. Luckily for the reader, this provides a detailed look at this fascinating religious, cultural, and ethnic minority, the history of which is further elucidated in J. Devika's introduction. 

While I did not like this story, per se, I do recommend this novella for the ethnographic information it provides about Keralite society and this particular community. If you are at all interested in cultural mixing, Indian Christians, or minority communities, I highly recommend this book. 

Further Reading: 

"Tribute to Cochin Creole Portuguese," an interview with Dr. Hugo Canelas Cardoso by K. Pradeep (The Hindu)
"What Led to the Decline of the Matrilineal Society in Kerala?" by Sheryl Sebastian (Feminism in India)

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