Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Book Review: What the River Washed Away


Sometimes, a novel with an agenda can be a great read too, like this one by Muriel Mharie Macleod.
Louisiana in the beginning of 20th century US is no place for brave spirits like Arletta Johnson, a black girl who is compelled to escape the land of her birth and seek a life of freedom and dignity as a missionary in Africa.
They may no longer legally be slaves to white men, but even the government is ambiguous about black welfare. Arletta’s mother Mambo notes “how they used to stop us blacks having any schooling all ‘cause they didn’t think we were up to being educated and how now they’re telling us we gotta go.”

National and world politics play out in the backdrop, but life for poor blacks like Arletta remains miserable as ever. As Mambo observes with earthy wisdom, “ain’t no white folk ever share nothing with any of us.” Jobs are hard for blacks to come by, with white people accusing blacks of trying to escape military service, “like we ain’t got no right to be getting on the same as anybody else.” ...

The author does an amazing job of bringing the world of black people in early 20th century Louisiana to vivid life. Her accuracy and empathy for the characters is even more striking since she herself was born and brought up in remote Scotland, and has no direct link with the culture she portrays so well. This novel would be engaging and illuminating enough as a historical tale. However, Arletta’s journey of regaining her life and dignity takes on even broader and more timeless implications because of the underlying theme of child sexual abuse.

One drawback of this novel is that major characters are either angels or baddies, without enough shades of gray. Arletta wins our admiration for her courage, generosity and resolve. However, she also seems too good to be true. She readily forgives her mother for her past neglect and insensitivity. She reconciles too easily with her mother’s new partner, Quince, and showers her little stepsister with undiluted love. There’s no hint of regret or jealousy for the love and security, which the stepsister enjoys, and which was denied to Arletta.

Pappy hovers in the background as the departed wise and loving grandfather cum guardian angel. Mr MacIntyre and Mr Seymour are archetypal white villains, who ruthlessly prey on innocent little girls for their perverted sexual gratification. They are straw-stuffed effigies who deserve to be burnt, and they don’t have a shred of a saving grace or human quality between them. In contrast, Arletta’s landlady Mrs Archer-Laing, is a benign white do-gooder and champion of black equality.

Some of these one-dimensional characters have implausible turnarounds, which seem more for the sake of conveniently wrapping up the story. Mambo’s metamorphosis from negligent and insensitive mother to a loving champion for Arletta’s cause, is unconvincing. Equally incredible is Quince’s change from a good-for-nothing philanderer to a responsible partner and loving father and stepfather.

That being said, Arletta’s courageous story holds our attention till the end. Her world is brought home to us with memorable descriptions and lifelike dialogues, and the plight of sexually abused young girls is vividly portrayed to move the hardest hearts.


Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Fort of Nine Towers: book review

FortofNineTowersA Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar (Picador UK; 14.99 Pounds; Rs 599, Pp 396)
Qais Akbar Omar was born in an Afghanistan where “our neighbours were like us, quiet and educated people. When there was a wedding or engagement party in one of their houses, everyone in the neighbourhood was invited, along with their kids and servants.”
This remarkable memoir brings to life a complex and at times strikingly beautiful Afghanistan beyond the news clips of war and violence the rest of the world has seen since decades. The author remembers the society of his early childhood as warm and benign. As a respected citizen without any elected position, young Omar’s grandfather talked after prayers at the mosque on how to keep the neighbourhood clean, solve civic problems, and create better facilities for the children to play together. People listened to him, and he discreetly helped neighbours in financial straits....
This memoir is structured around contrasts. As the author, now a young man living in post-war Afghanistan, begins telling his story, a phone call reminds him of his aunt who emigrated to Canada during the war. The aunt is searching for a bride for him, among expatriate Afghan girls who have become young women in a free and peaceful country. She has “seen them taking full advantage of opportunities they would never have had in Kabul had their families stayed there over the past three decades.” The author is now twenty-nine years old, has a university degree and runs his own carpet business. He also has both arms and legs, all of which is normal in most parts of the world, but “which is an issue in mine-ridden Afghanistan.”
As young Omar grows up, he sees his idyllic world crumble around him with a child’s innocent bewilderment. When the Mujahedin arrive in Kabul, people all over town come out to chant ‘Allah-hu-Akbar” to welcome the ‘holy warriors’. As Omar’s father explains, people “want the Mujahedin to come to Kabul and make the Russians leave Afghanistan.” Meanwhile, Omar’s sister tries to scare him by saying this chanting is the beginning of Doomsday. Little Omar is not sure whom to believe. Like the children, the adults too are innocent and full of hope. Ironically, it is the children’s innocently voiced fear which proves true. Soon, war spreads to Omar’ own neighbourhood. Mujahedin break into their home and loot their valuable carpets. Omar’ observations, rife with a child’s innocence and clarity, drive home difficult truths. “Suddenly, I understood that these guys were ordinary thieves who had joined one of the factions. They were not true Mujahedin who defend their country and faith against the invaders and heretics.” The new intruders lose no time in ravaging a lovely and peaceful neighbourhood into a war zone.
...This is a moving account of love, determination and survival against terrible odds. The author portrays the richness and beauty of Afghan life and culture with love and respect. He voices with clarity and dignity, deep pain at that has happened to his family and to his country. While demonstrating the strength, generosity and deep seated values of his people, he successfully transcends barriers with the universal hope for peace and amity.
This is a truly moving book, a must-read. My detailed review is published in Kitaab