Still posting from my vacation reading — three books from and about India.
Bumiller spent several years of living and working in India, and used her time there to travel and meet a great variety of Indian women. “May you be the mother of a hundred sons” is a traditional wedding wish and reflects the deference given to a woman who produces sons — and the lack of it when she does not. Bumiller was appalled by the poverty of India, the injustices of the caste system and much about the treatment of women, but she also came close enough to the real people to see the difficulties of change in a culture of rigid customs and limited resources.
I already had great respect for Bumiller after reading The Secrets of Mariko in which she documented the busy life of a Japanese housewife. I wish she would update her observations of India, made over 20 years ago. Has anything changed?
Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss.
This novel, winner of the Mann Booker prize in 2006, is rather difficult to get into, as you sort out the various people and places. Hold on. The writing is good — carefully controlled, while evocative of place and character. Small matters, for example, the tin trunks marked “Mr. J. P. Patel, SS Strathnaver” and “Miss S. Mistry, S. Augustine’s Convent” will return with greater meaning as the context develops.
The story has two settings: northeastern India near the border with Nepal and New York City, where the son of the cook lives as an illegal immigrant, unable to fulfill his dreams or anyone else’s. The two stories run parallel, but finally merge.
This is a sad book, sad in its setting and sad in the events in these people’s lives, but especially sad as we gradually recognize the dark undercurrents of life. The retired judge who currently shelters his granddaughter once abused his wife, and he still shows more affection for his dog than for the girl. The cook’s son learns to dodge all the relatives and villagers who ask for his help in a situation where he can barely keep himself going. Sad.
Cherian’s novel about an American-trained Indian doctor and his arranged-marriage bride is a combination of soap opera and social comedy. Nevertheless, the themes of the roles available to Indian women and the difficulties making a life in America are the same themes found in the Bumiller and Desai books, only treated more lightly.
It is easy to relate to Leila who, after several rejections by suitors, accepts the doctor — she has little choice and neither has he. It is not so easy to respect the doctor who marries while planning to dump his wife as soon as possible. What happens? Tune in tomorrow for the next episode.