Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel

I’m glad that I read Vaishnavi Patel’s essay on how the Ramayana and its stories have been retold in Indian culture and politics before I read her own electrifying retelling, Kaikeyi. I had only the vaguest idea of what happens in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, only what I’ve gleaned from some quick skims of the relevant Wikipedia articles. Patel’s essay added some important subtext to this novel and why she wanted the long-maligned Kaikeyi, the woman who exiled Rama to the forest and kicked off one of the greatest epic tragedies ever written, to finally tell her side of the story.

Kaikeyi was (in Patel’s version) a very gifted but isolated girl who was forced to grow up very quickly after her father exiled her mother. At a very young age, Kaikeyi had to take on her mother’s duties of running the palace and host her father’s subjects and other high-ranking visitors when they have business in the northern Indian kingdom of Kekeya. Aside from these roles, her father ignores Kaikeyi so much that she is able to wheedle lessons in charioteering, archery, and swordsmanship out of her twin brother…at least, she is ignored until her father realizes that Kaikeyi is of marriageable age. Before she can figure a way out, Kaikeyi finds herself married to the king of Ayodhya.

It’s in Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finally comes into her own. Her kind husband, Dasharatha, is more than willing to give Kaikeyi power, especially after she saves his life in spectacularly martial fashion during a battle against an upstart warlord. In fact, Dasharatha seems to be one of the few men in Kaikeyi’s life (or in Kekeya or Ayodhya or any of India’s many kingdoms) who is willing to upset the status quo enough to give women more freedom. His advisors—especially his religious advisors—warn him that doing so will not only annoy many of the men in his kingdom; it will also anger the gods. And there they are, the central conflicts of Kaikeyi: the old ways versus the new ways, the secular versus the divine, the men versus the women.

Kaikeyi, Rama, and other figures depicted in a Mughal-era edition of the Ramayana. (Image via Wikicommons)

The events that follow Kaikeyi’s marriage begin to take on the kind of epic weight that I associate with the Greek or Norse or Egyptian legends, when the gods sput their divine noses into the human’s lives. Everything that happens feels inevitable. Because we’re following events from Kaikeyi’s perspective, we understand the decisions she makes. We know why she fights so hard for women’s rights. We know why she tries to avert war at every chance. And we can’t help but feel her frustration and fear when everything around her conspires against everything she wants, especially when her court and her own children start to turn on her. This book does everything those great epics do. It draws us inescapably into a great but very human story, with larger-than-life characters whose actions are still retold today.

I highly recommend this story, whether or not you’re familiar with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Wikipedia and the essay I linked in the first paragraph are more than enough to catch you up. Please read this amazing book and then tell all your reader friends about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Fuzz, by Mary Roach

Mary Roach’s latest dive into the interesting and odd is Fuzz, in which she pesters experts and government officials in four different counties to ask all kinds of inappropriate questions about human-animal conflict. She talks to wildlife rangers who determine if people were killed by animals, other humans, or by accident. She attempts to get straight answers out of officials who really don’t want to talk about India’s monkey overpopulation problem. And she talks to lots and lots of biologists who study species they clearly enjoy, but that they are tasked with finding ways of eradicating. The result of this tension is that Fuzz might be the most melancholy of Roach’s books. Thankfully, it is packed with irrelevant facts, fun vocabulary, and plenty of silliness.

Humans have been locked in a struggle with many species since the first humanoids. We are killed by and kill in turn large predators like bears, mountain lions, and leopards. (All are covered in Fuzz.) We’ve also been fighting with species who steal our food and mess with our stuff, mostly by pooping on it. (Roach discusses several species of birds and rodents.) We’re not even safe from plants. Windthrown (a new word I learned from Roach) trees destroy our property and occasionally hurt us. Some plants can poison us. It’s a dangerous world out there. As Roach discovers, however, most of the things we do to avoid, mitigate, relocate, or eradicate the problems are pointless.

There’s a fact Roach deploys towards the end of Fuzz. Until the mid-nineteenth century or so, boys were employed as bird scarers. Twice a year, the boys would head out into the fields to scare the crap (literally, but accidentally) out of birds that would eat seed and ripe grain. Because they only did this semi-annually and because they were kids, the birds didn’t acclimate and the scaring worked a charm. All of the other methods used since then—explosives, poisons, and even lasers—stop working very quickly, if they even work at all. The real kicker of this is that birds don’t take that much. A rancher tells Roach in the last chapter that he estimates that the birds take about the same amount of cattle feed that he loses to the wind. These facts summarize Fuzz well. First, technology is no substitute for understanding animal and human behavior. Second, really understanding animals and the ecosystem would show us that it’s best if we left things alone. On the way to this lesson, Roach dives into monkey contraception, gene drive eradication plans, dynamiting treetops, lots of humane rodent traps and less humane poisons, and the US Navy futilely waging war on the gulls of Midway Island.

I learned so much from this book that I’ve been blurting out all kinds of trivia to everyone I’ve talked to in the last two days. The urge to drop trivia into every conversation will probably fade. (It usually does.) What’s going to stick with me is the knowledge that we need to learn to live with all of the other species on this planet. The critters are crafty and they’ve had a very long time to learn how to survive. Our energies would be better spent making peace with the rats and the gulls and getting into the habit of correctly using bear-proof garbage bins.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Illustration from US Patent 269,766 (“Animal Trap”), submitted in 1882 by J.A. Williams (Image via PlanetPatent)

The Bombay Prince, by Sujata Massey

Perveen Mistry returns to right wrongs in Sujata Massey’s The Bombay Prince. This entry sees the first Parsi woman lawyer hoping for a few more cases for the family firm while tension starts to simmer across the city in anticipation of a visit from the Prince of Wales, the future (briefly) King Edward VIII. On a routine day, Perveen has a visit from a student of one of her friends. The student asks for Perveen’s opinion about whether or not her college can kick her out for her political activities. This little meeting ultimately leads Perveen into a murder investigation, religious and political tangles, parental disappointment, and perhaps another chance at love.

The Prince of Wales’ visit to India reveals a deep divide between pro-independence Indians and Indians who are content to remain a part of the empire. While the pro-British side prepare for celebrations, the pro-independence side (which includes Perveen’s young visitor, Freny) are also scrambling on their response of protests and demonstrations. Freny only wants to refrain from attending a parade with the rest of her college, a minor act of rebellion. But she worries about expulsion and her parents’ displeasure if anyone finds out. This worry, unfortunately, creates an opportunity for her murder. Just a few days after Perveen and Freny meet, Perveen sees Freny’s dead body on the grounds of her college. Perveen immediately springs into action to make sure that Freny gets justice—something that’s even more difficult when the police are on high alert.

The Bombay Prince was kind of a slow burn until events kicked off the closer Perveen got to the solution. That slowness gave Massey a chance to do a lot of character development. We see more of Perveen’s father than we ever have. We also get to see more of life in Bombay’s Parsi colonies (neighborhoods, but a little more formal I think) and how complicated life can be in a place where everyone has very strict rules about how to behave. For example, part of what Perveen has to do, in addition to making sure that the Bombay police don’t write Freny’s death as a suicide, is making sure that all of the coroner’s work gets done in time for Freny to have proper Parsi funeral rites. Best of all, at least for me, was that Colin Sandringham returns. Perveen was not lucky in love (as we learned in The Widows of Malabar Hill). Colin first popped up in The Satapur Moonstone. The connection that grew between them on that case gave me hope that Perveen might be able to have a husband and a family in the future, something Perveen claims she’s accepted that she’ll miss out on because of her disastrous marriage.

Fans of Perveen Mistry will enjoy this one, and wait eagerly for a new book so that we can find out what happens next.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Burnt Sugar, by Avni Doshi

Trigger warning for child abuse.

Throughout Avni Doshi’s unsettling novel, Burnt Sugar, the protagonist is told by others that memories and realities are shared. We create memories together. Because no one’s memory is perfect, there is no one version of what happened. Unlike many of us, however, Antara’s account of her life is complicated by mental illness, dementia, and a large dollop of rewriting the past to tell whatever story the teller needs to convey. No one can be trusted in this novel—making it a perfect read for those of us who love diving into the motives of unreliable narrators.

We don’t learn Antara’s name until well into Burnt Sugar. We learn her mother’s name first: Tara. This little clue serves as notice that Antara is rarely the protagonist of her own life. Instead, Antara follows in her mother’s wake from a home she was too young to remember, to years at an ashram where she was cared for by an older devotee of the guru, to her grandmother’s house (with a brief stint in an abusive convent school), back into her mother’s neglectful care before she could strike out on her own. When we meet Antara—before all of this backstory is revealed—she appears to be a woman who has managed to marry and make a life for herself. This life is an illusion. Antara has never left her mother’s orbit. In fact, we meet Antara at a moment when she is being pulled back into her mother’s life because Tara is showing signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

I’ve always found it a bit strange that we only seem to have coming-of-age stories for characters moving from childhood into early adulthood. We don’t have a word for stories that capture the transition when adult children have to start taking care of their parents, although I’ve started to see more of these books being published. Coming-of-age stories give readers a blueprint to navigate increased responsibility and freedom. There are no such blueprints for characters and readers who have to look after the people who raised them, watching as those parents lose their ability to live independently. All that said, Burnt Sugar is not a blueprint. While Antara relentlessly quizzes her mother’s doctor for remedies and diets and answers and even offers to have Tara move in, her own struggle to accurately remember the past and deal with her emotional trauma combine to pull Antara apart as much as Tara’s mental health is doing the same to the older woman.

Burnt Sugar moves back and forth, from Antara’s present to her past. A lot is unspoken in this novel, but the way that Antara tells her stories made me think that there is a lot of inexpressible anger simmering underneath Antara’s efforts to appear normal. A psychologist would probably have better words to describe (or diagnose) Antara’s inability to face what Tara did to her as a child, to explain why Antara has such a hard time bonding with her own daughter after Anikka is born, or why Antara feels so cut off from others. But, as the old psychology joke goes: if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. Tara has a lot to answer for in Burnt Sugar.

I found Burnt Sugar to be a very disturbing read. It turns a lot of expectations about mother-daughter relationships inside out, showing how they can become warped when a mother is unable or unwilling to care for her child. We see, in vivid detail, what can happen to a child who is left (mostly to strangers) to be raised and how damaging it can be for a child to know that they are only looked after by others because of obligation instead of love. Very few relationships in this book fulfill the characters in them. Because of this near-complete breakdown of family care, Burnt Sugar left me with a lot of questions about how families should be, how they ought to support members with mental health issues, and when it’s time (or if it’s even possible) to cut all ties and run for the hills.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Note for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who are facing the decisions that come with having to take care of their elderly parents. Also recommend to readers who have complicated relationships with their mothers.

Purple Lotus, by Veena Rao

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Veena Rao’s Purple Lotus is the story of a woman’s growth from submissive—albeit resentful—girl to a self-actualized woman. It’s not much longer than the average novel, but it contains so many years and so much plot that it felt like I dropped into the protagonist’s life as she lived through critical moments. It is a troubling, affecting read that I think will appeal to fans of biographical novels.

Even though its the twenty-first century, Tara’s life is a lot like an Austen novel. She grew up in a comfortably wealthy family of Hindus in Mangalore. She becomes a journalist, but her parents push her to marry. Because she’s in her late 20s, she’s starting to be looked at by her community as a sad spinster. Her parents passed over earlier proposals because Tara’s father refuses to pay a dowry. He calls the practice old-fashioned—not that the rest of their community sees it that way. Tara’s last chance, they believe, is to marry an Indian man who lives in the United States.

When the novel’s setting relocates to the US from Mangalore, Tara starts to reveal the long road of parental neglect and cultural pressure that led her to a bad match. I had to keep hoping that things would get better for Tara. Thankfully, even though things get very dark for her, Tara has a core of steel that she begins to discover. I really like stories about women who find the strength to demand that others treat them with the respect that they deserve. Tara is a good, smart, beautiful woman and, dammit, people need to stop pushing her around.

This novel doesn’t dive as deeply into Hinduism or Mangalore culture as Seven, by Farzana Doctor, delves into Dawoodi culture and religion, unfortunately. But Purple Lotus is definitely a rewarding read—especially since Tara does get a measure of happiness and even payback after a rough life of being ignored, left behind, and scorned.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Seven, by Farzana Doctor

Trigger warning for discussion of female genital mutilation.

Sharifa is an Indian American. Like many immigrants, Sharifa and her family have mixed and matched traditional Dawoodi Bohra traditions with American ones. She and her husband met and married for love—but they chose each other from the small pool of Bohra Indians in New York. Their daughter is taught at a secular school, but is still taught about the Bohra Muslim faith. As Seven, by Farzana Doctor, opens, Sharifa and her family are preparing to return to Mumbai for a year. Like so many others, ends up discovering herself on the great subcontinent while intending to do something else.

Before we follow Sharifa to India, we get a good look underneath the surface of her marriage to Murtuza. Four years earlier, Sharifa nearly cheated on her husband. They’ve patched things up, but there is still a bit of mistrust and hurt in their relationship. It doesn’t help that Sharifa is unable to orgasm when they have sex. Because Murtuza and Sharifa can’t completely connect—and because Sharifa doesn’t understand why she can never reach completion—there’s a massive elephant in the room that keeps them from fully repairing their relationship. When Sharifa and co. arrive in Mumbai and she begins her family history project (researching the actual history behind a nineteenth century ancestor who has become legend), she learns what the elephant really is.

Sharifa’s arrival coincides with increasing activism against the practice of khatna, a form of female genital mutilation practiced by some Dawoodi Bohras. Sharifa always believed that she had escaped the knife. Surely she would remember? But her cousins definitely remember. One of them, Fatema, is one of the leading activists against khatna. Against her will, Sharifa gets drawn into the fight against khatna—which means uncovering family history that she didn’t want to dig up. It’s pretty ironic considering that she meant to dig up even deeper family history.

Seven offers a deep dive not only into the Dawoodi Bohra, but into family betrayals and the complicated psychology of FGM survivors. The way Sharifa and her family talk, part of being Bohra is not questioning tradition and not bucking the status quo. They keep themselves to themselves. The problem with not questioning (and I love that Sharifa’s daughter constantly asks why when she sees new Bohra customs and none of the adults can answer the question) is that it means things fester until they erupt, with all kinds of messy psychological consequences.

Doctor relates all of this with sympathy and open-mindedness. The thing about Seven puzzles me is the fragmentary interstitial chapters that contain dates and snatches of sentences about Sharifa’s legendary ancestor. It’s entirely possible that the fragments were just an error in my advanced reader copy. I hope it was just a mistake, because the fragments were so small that I found them irritating more than intriguing. If it is a mistake, I’m sorry I missed out on seeing how life has changed or not changed for the Bohra in the hundred years between Sharifa’s life and the life of her great-great-great-grandfather. (I think I got the number of greats right.)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Mother Land, by Leah Franqui

Rachel faces a fate feared by many women around the world. Shortly after Leah Franqui’s novel, Mother Land, opens, her mother-in-law appears at her apartment door with a loaded suitcase and no plans to ever leave. Franqui presents a clash of cultures that plays out as two women try to find a way to live together when they have radically different ideas about how to live.

Rachel tells us more than once in Mother Land that she marred Dhruv because of his certainty. After a life of not knowing what she wants, she is attracted to a man who knows exactly what he wants. They married in less than a year, then took what turns out to be an even bigger step: they move to Mumbai. Rachel is more than willing to give living in India a chance. Like other Westerners, she hopes that India will help her find herself.

Unfortunately, not knowing what she wants doesn’t mean that Rachel doesn’t know what she doesn’t want. For example, Rachel does not want the maid to come more than once a day. Nor does she want a cook. Most especially, Rachel does not want her mother-in-law Swati to live with her. After seeing the way her son and daughter-in-law show each other affection, Swati realizes that she has never loved her husband. Her unhappiness leads her to separate from her husband and fly across the country, from Kolkata to Mumbai, to live with her son.

Swati and Rachel have very different ideas about the right way to live. Swati argues that of course maid has to come twice a day and that not having a cook is just not done. Rachel loves cooking so much that having a cook is an insult. Neither of these women is very good at explaining what they want and why. Swati falls back on arguing that this is just the way things work in India. Rachel can’t articulate the American shame of having servants or her satisfaction in cooking things from scratch. Because Mother Land is narrated by Rachel and Swati in turns, I couldn’t help but sympathize with both of them.

As forced proximity often does, Swati and Rachel start to learn more about each other—as much as they don’t want to at the beginning. Swati slowly comes out of her very constricted upbringing and social strictures. Rachel, however, has to come to terms with the fact that she might have made too big of a leap when it came to marrying and moving to India. And, as the characters reflect on their prejudices and choices, they start to realize just how much they have in common.

Mother Land doesn’t end with a happily ever after for Rachel and Swati that we might have expected from a story about two people from different cultures who have to suddenly get along or end up fighting to the death. But it does end with a clarity that feels brave and honest. I really, really liked this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: This book is strongly recommended for people who find themselves in close quarters with people they don’t understand.

The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple

As I read The Anarchy, a history of how the East India Company came to take over most of India in the eighteenth century, I kept having the same thought: they can’t do that! This heavily researched yet highly entertaining history reveals that, when there are no laws to stop you and no authority strong enough to stop you, it is entirely possible for a business to boldly disrupt and then conquer the empires of India. The Anarchy is wall to wall audacity.

Originally founded in 1660, the East India Company was started to compete with French and Portuguese traders who were starting to make a lot of money in India from their small trading posts. But, where other nations moved slowly with the various emperors, nawabs, and other rulers of India’s empire and kingdoms, the men who the EIC sent to India were more likely to start fights. These fights escalated over the years from skirmishes in the 1600s to full-on wars in the 1800s. Battles like the ones at Plassey and Assaye were so devastating to indigenous powers that the EIC was able to push right into the power vacuum. The EIC’s aggressive expansion and their rapacious money making were so inhumane that even members of Parliament (the ones whose finances weren’t dependent on the Company) were appalled enough to start regulating what the Company could and could not do.

Dalrymple recounts the battles and fights with the kind of blow-by-blow commentary that reminds me of the first history lessons I ever got, ones that focused on the movements of armies and the bold (or foolish) actions of the Indian and British leaders. Dalrymple’s commentary is balanced in two ways (for those who don’t want histories that are all about fighting and politicking). First, Dalrymple frequently discusses how all of the EIC’s actions affected the daily life of ordinary Indians, from changing their farming practices to disrupting the entire artisan class to destroying the military class up to so aggravating a famine that up to a fifth to one-third of all the people in Bengal died in 1770. Second, Dalrymple does outstanding work letting historical figures speak for themselves. Dalrymple used materials from the British and Indian Company archives, contemporary letters and diaries, and accounts from Indian historians to bring figures like Shah Alam II, Tipu Sultan, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and dozens of other to life. Reading the words of all these contemporaries brought immediacy to The Anarchy; this is one of the most gripping histories I’ve read.

After reading The Anarchy, I know what happened and a lot of the why. That said, I continue to be astounded by the rise of the East India Company and its actions in India. I tried to imagine if, say, Apple or Walmart decided to set up shop in another country and then decide to start fighting with that country’s army before eventually just taking over. It seems unthinkable now, even though I know that it’s happened since then in Hawaii and Guatemala. The powers of capitalism and colonialism are stronger than a nation’s right to sovereignty, says The Anarchy (and a lot of history).

Mir Jafar meets Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey, in a painting by Francis Hayman (Image via Wikicommons)

A Burning, by Megha Majumdar

In an unnamed Indian city, a teenaged girl becomes a scapegoat for a terrorist attack. Jivan appears to be one of the few lucky ones who might be able to rise out of extreme poverty with her intelligence and school performance until it all comes crashing down in a rush to plan someone for a train fire that killed over 100 people. But A Burning, by Megha Majumdar, is not just the story of how one person can be swept up in a miscarriage of justice. It also tells the story of how two people with good intentions use Jivan for their own rises to fame and fortune.

Jivan is accused of terrorism after she is found at the wrong place at the wrong time, physically and virtually. Not only was she seen with a package (of textbooks) before the train caught fire, it appears that Jivan was using Facebook Messenger to talk to a boy who (allegedly) turned out to be a recruiter for a terrorist organization. Jivan had no idea who she was talking to; she says so repeatedly during a brutal interrogation that eventually coerces a confession out of her. Before she knows it, Jivan is locked away in a women’s prison with only an overworked attorney and her poor family as advocates.

Meanwhile, two people have the opportunity to help or hurt Jivan in court. First, PT Sir, who was Jivan’s physical education teacher before she dropped out to find work, has become a low-level tool for a rising political party. PT Sir relishes the little bit of power he gets from delivering testimony against people in court. He never thinks twice about committing perjury as the party assures him that the defendants are guilty; the police just couldn’t find the evidence to prove their crimes. The second person, Lovely, a hijra who Jivan was teaching English, goes viral thanks to her twin performances in an acting class and as a witness for Jivan in court. But, like PT Sir, Lovely drops her support for Jivan when a producer and Lovely’s guru ask her to. It might hurt Lovely’s career, they say.

Reading about PT Sir and Lovely’s twinges of conscience against the background of Jivan’s hopeless cause is agonizing. A Burning is, therefore, a painful reminder of how hard it is—and how necessary it is—to stand up for the right thing. In order to save Jivan from an unjust sentence, PT Sir and Lovely might have to give up their hopes of a better life. They would have to go against popular opinion that wants someone punished for the actions of terrorists. They might be tarred with the same brush. Turning on Jivan is the easy, pragmatic thing for them to do. In fact, PT Sir and Lovely’s decisions seem so easy that one has to wonder, how often does this happen in our supposedly just legal systems?

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

Night Theater, by Vikram Paralkar

There are many kinds of desperation on display in Vikram Paralkar’s affecting novel, Night Theater. The first desperate man we meet is a disgraced former-big city surgeon. He is desperate to be able to do his job in a poor, rural Indian village. Then there’s the frantic pharmacist and her husband. And then there are all the women who show up with their children for polio vaccines that haven’t yet arrived. But the most desperate people of all don’t arrive until after dark. When they do, the surgeon is faced with an impossible but irresistible job: to bring the dead back to life.

I loved the surgeon from his first appearance. This gruff surgeon is constantly angry at conditions in the Indian village where he now works. There’s not enough money for supplies. He can’t hire anyone except a pharmacist (who actually never qualified as pharmacist, actually) and pay for the faux pharmacist’s husband to run errands. His immediate superior will get supplies in, but only for a price. This is on top of the cockroaches that infest the clinic. I was sold on the surgeon when he interrupts a surgery to beat a roach to death with his shoe.

The real action, however, begins after the all the children have gotten their vaccine and the sun goes down. A man, his wife, and child show up and ask for help, even though the clinic is closed. The surgeon and the pharmacist try to get them to come back in the morning. Then, the family reveals their wounds. All three have fatal wounds. They shouldn’t be standing, let alone standing and arguing with the surgeon. If the surgeon can repair the damage, they tell him, they will return to life as soon as the sun comes back up.

When desperation encounters a choice, thoughts of consequences go out the window. It’s only when facts start to be revealed about the surgeon’s past and the extraordinary deal the dead family have that we start to see what these characters should have thought about before they made their choice. Did the surgeon really have to burn bridges? What’s the real price of resurrection? What strings are attached to any apparently good deal? What the surgeon and the undead father failed to realize is that there are always strings attached.

Night Theater went by in a blur. I was hooked from the first smack of a shoe on a bug and I just had to know what happened next. I wasn’t expecting the emotional and philosophical layers that Paralkar added into the surgeon’s story. These layers grounded the horrific and fantastical elements of the story. I have a lot to think about now that the sun has come up, the consequences are laid bare, and these characters have to discover a way to live (or not) with what they’ve done.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.