& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Extract: The Reading List

Leslie Shimotakahara
Leslie Shimotakahara is a young, disenchanted English professor struggling to revive her childhood love of reading. Her father Jack, recently retired from a high-powered corporate job, finally has time to take up reading books for pleasure. The Reading List tells the story of Leslie’s return home to Toronto to rethink her life and decide what to do next. At the same time, she bonds with her dad over discussions about the lives, loves and works of the novelists on their reading list – Wharton, Joyce, Woolf and Atwood, to name a few. But when their conversations about literature unearth some heartbreaking, deeply buried family secrets surrounding Jack’s own childhood – growing up Japanese-Canadian in the aftermath of World War II – Leslie’s world is changed forever. Could discovering the truth about her father’s past hold the key to her finally being happy in love, life and career?

Excerpts from The Reading List.

Reprinted with the permission of Variety Crossing Press.

“Poplar or cherry?” Daddy said.  He slid a brochure across the table. 

I stared at the caskets, so solid and heavy, and something about the ruffled satin lining in Pepto-Bismol pink made me giggle.  Is that the wall Granny would want to stare at for all eternity?

Daddy had spent the past three days meeting with funeral home directors, comparison shopping, planning ahead for the inevitable.  At least it gave him something to do. 

“It’s big business.” He flipped open his laptop to show me a website. 

What balls these people had.  Who charges $39.95 to light a memorial candle?  The website was full of ways to activate your PayPal account, buy services, and even avoid going to the funeral altogether, while appeasing your guilt. 

Daddy smiled grudgingly.  “Absolutely recession-proof.”

“You should have gone into the funeral business.”

“Oh, yeah.  Can you see me with old ladies crying on my shoulder?”

We continued joking, but something about the whole thing really got to me.  Spending all this money and the person being honoured wasn’t even around to enjoy it.

“I’d rather just go the way of Addie Bundren,” I said.

Daddy looked at me blankly.

I explained that Addie Bundren is the cranky old matriarch at the centre of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  The novel begins on the eve of her death, as her son, Cash, is making her casket, sawing and sanding boards.  All her kids – Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman – are crowded around her bedside watching her die, just like we were all hovering around Granny.  After her death, they pack her into the casket and load the whole thing into a horse-drawn buggy to make an epic journey across the land to Jefferson, Mississippi, where Addie wishes to be buried with her own people, rather than by her husband’s side. 

“A homemade casket,” Daddy said, shaking his head. 

“You should read it.” 

“Maybe I will.”

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that much more is at stake than just an eccentric lady’s dying wish.  Addie Bundren wants to be alone.  Alone in death.  To put the final nail in the coffin of a life lived in solitude and despair.

An image of Granny being carted away by horse and buggy popped into my head.  She was no less a strange, impenetrable woman.

A few days later, I was revising the syllabus for my Modern American Literature course (just in case I needed it for next year).  Last year I’d deluded myself that undergrads could handle Absalom! Absalom!  What had I been thinking?  Even Faulkner scholars are baffled by what he was up to in telling the legendary story of Thomas Sutpen, in flashbacks by multiple narrators whose accounts fail to match up.  The reader is left guessing about who Thomas Sutpen really was.   

My course evaluations reflected just how much the students loved the novel (I’d finally forced myself to read through the pile).  “What was Faulkner on when he wrote that crap?” wrote one kid.  “Half the time I didn’t even know who’s speaking – everything blended together like a bizarre dream.”

Since I would have to teach a Faulkner novel (what’s an Am Lit class without Faulkner?), I figured As I Lay Dying was a better bet.  Although the novel is told from fifteen different perspectives, at least it’s always clear who’s speaking; each chapter is titled with the name of the speaker.  And the plot is simple, deceptively simple.  At first glance, you wonder why Faulkner is spilling so much ink over an old lady’s death.

But Addie Bundren gradually draws you in.  She has shameful secrets at the core of her being.  As soon as she dies, the neighbours are all gossiping about how quickly the Bundrens pack her up and cart her off.  

I wondered if Granny’s neighbours were talking about Daddy.  They must have seen him packing boxes at her house.

Despite Daddy’s show of wanting to get her death over with, however, I could tell that deep down he was astonished it was happening at all.  I could see it in his childlike air, his petulant gaze, the way he stomped around the house.  In a way, he reminded me of Vardaman, Addie’s youngest son.  After her death, Vardaman bursts into the barn; the warm, rank smells envelop him and mix with the smell of his own vomit and tears and everything seems very close and suffocating.  The little boy is so overwhelmed that he wants to lash out at something, anything, “You kilt my maw!” burning at the back of his throat. 

Yet racing through the dust and striking the horses can’t make it better, can’t bring his mother back.

Read more...TheReading List

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Learning to Live Again: Translator's note

By Sumedha Raiker-Mhatre
It was a rewarding experience to bring the Muktangan story in English, orginally written in Marathi. Muktangan is a recognised de-addiction center which has done pioneering work in the rehabilitation of drug and alcohol addicts.
It is a path-breaking experiment that was initiated by Dr Sunanda and Anil Awachat 25 years ago in the city of Pune. While Dr Sunanda is no more, Muktangan continues with its de-addiction experiments. This book is a tribute to the difficult journey of a de-addiction center.
It details the forces that pulled it apart at times; it also zeroes in on the positive energy that stopped it from closing down. It is also an inspiring guidebook for any rehabilitaiton center or grassroots organistion that thrives on community participation.
It is a book, written by none else but the founder of the institution, Anil Awachat, who remains at the core of the activity to this day. His daughter Mukta Puntambekar leads the organisation from the front.
Muktangan is a brand in itself, ISO-certified, professionally run by doctors and community workers alike. It is a formula that presupposes the co-operation of the addict and the addict's family, thereby placing the human being at the center of the five-week medical treatment. 

The book mirrors an organisation that took on the establishment. It is a record of a struggle against an apathetic state government, the uncaring drug manufacturers, the pushy liquor lobby, the indifferent social set up, the corrupt bureaucracy and the unresponsive funding agencies.
Despite all the travails and tribulations, the book is celebratory in spirit. It is a free exchange of experiences that make or break rehabilitation set ups in India. In a country where such rehab centers have a poor death rate, the Muktangan story is uplifting. It underlines the power of one.
For an organisation that started with a donation by Marathi litterateur P L Deshpande, Muktangan has grown in all directions. It has diversified its energies in many sectors, including Internet Deaddiction. It has 23 counseling centers in and around Pune. There is a separate cell catering to women addicts.

But the translation of this book is not rewarding just because of its popular success. In fact, Dr Awachat's Afterword states that he is not proud of the achievements. “We do not boast of these diversifications, as a corporate firm would have bragged about its rising growth graph.”
Muktangan works towards a drug-free society, which would necessitate the conversion of Muktangan rehabilitation center into a cultural center. That is what makes the book special. The experience of presenting it for a wider audience is therefore even more exciting. 

The mention of Dr Anil Awachat's co-operation in the translation is imperative. He was available 24/7 during the translation process, checking every page, every detail meticulously, No wonder the translation got over in less than three months.
See below for extract from the book

Book Extract: Learning to Live Again

Sumedha Raikar
Learning to Live Again
Story of a de-addiction center
Author: Anil Awachat
Translator: Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre
Pages: 192
Price: Indian Rupees 200
Publisher: Samkaleen Prakshan

Extract from Chapter 8 
(Specially keeping in view the cross-cultural audience of Generally About Books)

Follow-up and sharing

Patients who are brought to Muktangan against their wishes usually go into denial mode. They have a peculiar way of reacting to the charges of alcoholism or drug abuse leveled against them. The initial dialogue with such people follows a predictable pattern.
They start with a complete negation of the truth, “No, no never! I have never touched liquor!” When we remind them of complaints from their near ones, they say, and quite calmly, “Just a little bit, that too just once in a while.” When told that they are known to be habitual drinkers, the reaction becomes aggressive. “Who doesn’t drink in this world?

The whole world consumes liquor. Why target me? I don’t even trouble others, I just drink and come home and sleep.” To this we tell them, “Not really, you beat up your wife regularly every night.” After this patients become confrontational and some use foul language.
During the process of de-addiction, we console our patients by telling them that their lies and pretences stem from their compulsive alcoholism. “You are not lying. It is your liquor which compels you to mouth these lines.” These patients have a much focused approach to life. Liquor is their prime interest. Those who don’t drink cannot be their friends. Similarly, those who oppose drinking are barred. They remain deaf to any advice against alcoholism.

Drug addicts are even worse than alcoholics. They are never ready to move from their neighborhood, because they are not sure of a steady supply of drugs in the new place. There was one drug addict who reluctantly went to Aurangabad for a family wedding. He carried his stock along, but the supplies did not last and he started scouring the city for the fixed dose. When he could not find what he was looking for, he came back to Mumbai without informing the relatives. Unable to cope with the internal pressures, he could not be bothered about the problems he was creating for his host.

In Mumbai, the drug addicts know exactly where to get their stuff. One addict told me, “Go to any railway station at any point in time and you will get what you want. There will be someone waiting to sell that stock. These peddlers know our faces very well. They come close and ask a question.” It is interesting how they can identify their customer. Actually it is not very difficult to spot an addict – a skinny frame, dark circles around the eyes, black lips, etc. These characteristic features catch the eye immediately.
Interested? Read More: Learning to Live Again

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Shoe Project

Last August I went to India for a month – my first trip after I came to Canada.

I had a long list of stuff to buy, and on the top of the list was ‘Buy shoes from Bata’. 

I belong to a generation that grew up before the big four global shoe brands (Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma) came to dominate the minds of consumers.

I’ve only wore Bata shoes (or sandals).

In Canada, I could get everything I wanted but no Bata shoes.

In India, where market segmentation is multilayered, Bata is still a powerful brand.

When I was growing up, Bata was such a huge brand that during the socialist phase in India (in the 1970s), there was even a song in a Hindi movie about flour being made available in a Bata shop – flour in Hindi is ata, and rhymes with Bata. 

(Bata ki dukan par bhi ata mile ga a rare Rafi-Kishore duet from the 1978 Heeralal Pannalal).

During our first month in Canada, we took a sightseeing tour of downtown Toronto and saw the Bata Shoe Museum from the outside.

I made a mental note to visit the museum, but visiting museums is one of those things that forever remain on the ‘must do’ lists.

Then, I heard about the Shoe Project from my friend Yoko.

Novelist and short story writer Katherine Govier, who has worked for many years with newcomers to Canada, was spearheading an initiative for the Bata Shoe museum.

The Shoe Project is a collection of memoirs of women immigrants about the shoes they wore (or brought with them) when they came to Canada.

The project started last fall when “Katherine met with twelve women, ages eighteen to sixty, who came to Canada from the Ukraine to Japan and many places in between...(O)ver tea and cookies the group discussed writing and immigration. Each woman found that she had a shoe-inspired tale. By the end each member had written a personal essay and provided the footwear to match.”

The exhibition came about when Katherine met Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum; Elizabeth “had long considered doing an exhibition featuring the shoes that brought people to Canada.”

Last week, the Shoe Project was officially unveiled.

And I finally visited the Bata Shoe Museum to see the Shoe Project – it is an absolutely fascinating exhibition.

Contributing writers to the Shoe Project 
There are 12 stories by immigrant women from across the world. 

They are by Filiz Dogan from Turkey, Maryam Nabavinijad from Iran, Sayuri Takatsuki from Japan, Gabi Veras from Brazil, Tanaz Bhathena from India, Elizabeth Meneses Del Castillo from Colombia, Miliete Selemon from Eritrea, Teenaz Javat from India & Pakistan, Freweini Berhane from Eritrea, Nada Sesar-Raffay from Croatia, and Tanya Andrenyuk from Ukraine.

Teenaz Javat and Tanaz Bhathena (both Parsis and both originally from Mumbai) read their shoe memoirs.

The exhibition has become possible thanks to a generosity of an anonymous donor.

I also met Sonja Bata, the force behind the museum that was started in Toronto in 1995.

Read more about the Shoe Project here: The Shoe Project
Read more about the Bata Shoe Museum here: Bata Shoe Museum
Read more about Katherine Govier here: Katherine Govier

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Dickens bicentennial

Estella & Pip: Great Expectations

Who else but the BBC would do a program on Charles Dickens to commemorate the bicentennial of English language’s greatest author?

(The bicentennial is on February 7. And this is the omnibus site for the celebrations: Dickens 2012).

This afternoon, the BBC World Service, had a 30-minute discussion on Dickens’ best novel – Great Expectations. (To listen to the program, click here: Dickens on BBC)

The program had a live audience and panelists from Kenya and India, besides England, of course. 

Sambudha Sen, Professor of English, University of Delhi, suggested that Dickens is today more relevant in the developing societies such as Delhi and Kolkata than to London, or any other city in the developed world. 

He argued that the societies in the developing world are going through a churn that reflects Dickensian drama in the everyday existence of its people. 

On the other hand, the societies in the developed world have homogenised almost completely and have little left of their 19th century milieu, especially after nearly a century of the welfare state.

That is true at so many different levels. For instance, the ongoing Kala Ghoda Festival in Mumbai – which is a celebration Mumbai’s unique cosmopolitan identity – is holding a Tributeto Dickens film festival that will show some of the classic Dickens novels turned into films by master filmmakers.

The festival will culminate in conversation on A Tale of Two Cities between British author Craig Taylor and Indian academic Dr. Mitra Mukherjee-Parikh.

Unfortunately, there are many events being planned to commemorate the bicentennial in Toronto, at least nothing on the net. A Charles Dickens Tribute Concert by the Counterpoint Community Orchestra is scheduled on Saturday March 3, 2012. Here is the link to the concert. Counterpoint.

Dickens is my favourite author and Great Expectation my favourite Dickens novel. I’ve written on several occasions on this blog about Dickens. (Read previous entries here: Dickens on GAB). I’ll be a good time to thank a dear friend – Pranav Joshi – for gifting me the novel at an age when I could read it as any other book, and not as a classic of English literature, which it is.  

About the image: Pip and Estella Walking in the Garden by Charles Green c. 1877 7.6 x 4.6 inches Dickens's Great Expectations, Gadshill Edition. These plates have neither captions nor pages, being inserted into the text. The Annotated Dickens provides the following caption, which is not in the original Gadshill Edition: "Estella walking in the garden at Satis House: her other hand lightly touched my shoulder as we walked" (Ch. 29). Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham