Archive for December, 2010


Literate-Literary-Literati Journalism

After working 10 years as some kind of journalist or editor, I’ve spent the last six months trying to unhook the information IV from my brain. (Hello, my name is Neela and I used to mainline the interwebs.) In my last year as an editor with a non-profit media organization, I would daydream through editorial meetings of writing a book proposal about spending a year without imbibing any kind of modern media. It was textbook burnout. The general malaise about the death of the newspaper didn’t help either. Knowing how many good reporters my local newspaper had recently laid off, I very rarely picked it up, except maybe to absent-mindedly peruse a forgotten paper left on a train seat. Skimming through websites and following Twitter links killed time, but it didn’t seem to inspire me. I had no sense of ritual to go along with reading the news except a faint carpel-tunnel-esque twitch in my right wrist from all that web surfing.

My trips to Kolkata over the last decade have always been different. Here newspaper media is fiercely alive and competitive, with several papers (in several languages) to choose from in each city. Much of the commentary I have done from India over the past years came directly from the inspiration I got from not only reading the newspaper, but observing the way the news had an affect on the community. I also love the way it distills this disparate and complex country. For example, yesterday’s Telegraph includes a story about a new salon at the Constitution Club in New Delhi where all the nation’s MPs and their families are getting a fancy new facial treatments, a story about a possible tiger poisoning in Orang National Park and one about striking tea workers in Alipurduar—and then a few obligatory grip and grin shots of Bollywood starlets at some event or another. It’s both the array of stories and the array of people you see reading the newspaper—from a scarf-wrapped gentlemen in a lungi at the tea stall to my wizened old aunties to a young woman at Café Coffee Day – the daily community building of news media is still happening in a analog way here.

When my grandmother was still alive, she’d have sent someone for a newspaper early in the morning and I’d read it while sipping tea and eating the luxurious breakfast she prepared. Now, on my way to the market or after the gym, I’ll walk the three blocks down to Rash Behari where there are several newspaper and magazine stands. There is a beautifully elegant woman, with short stylish graying hair, who sits at the newspaper stand, wrapped in a red shawl. She chats up the other regular customers, all men, who seem to be drawn to her, as I am. I linger by the stand sometimes to try and hear what they are talking about, whether they are discussing personal issues or news, but I can never quite catch the drift. (My Bangla eavesdropping skills need some serious work.) I’ll buy a Telegraph or a Statesman, or both, or an Open—a Newsweek meets magazine that I’ve been enjoying. One of my uncles told me to take delivery, but I wouldn’t give up this small walk and interaction for the world.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed about Indian papers, or at least the ones in Kolkata, is that there is a story about a writer, or about writing or publishing, or literature every day. Writers have a different kind of celebrity here than they seem to in America. There seems to be a similar kind of fascination with writers that there are with movie or television celebrities in America. Not entirely, but enough to get them in the paper on a regular basis. Also, because writers in India seem inherently more political, the sense of their role as rabble-rousers is also present.

For example, back in December, there was a Telegraph article about a jungle bungalow that Arundhati Roy owns, which may or may not encroach on tribal land. Under dispute, the case will be judged by a Manoj Srivastava—known for his “nationalist” (read conservative) tendencies. The tone of the article, written by Rasheed Kidwai, was tongue in cheek—sending up both Roy and Srivastava and celebrating this clash between India’s literary left and bureaucratic right. The surprising thing for me was the large amount of space this took up on the Telegraph’s National section (page 5) – in the prominent above-the-fold placement with several photographs – including a stunning one of Ms Roy, one of the disputed jungle bungalow and one showing Srivastava looking, well, exactly how you think a stodgy Indian bureaucrat should look. About a week later there was an article almost in the same space about a Gujarati poet named Aqeel Shatir who was asked by the Gujarat Urdu Sahitya Academy to return the money they had spent to publish his collection, Zinda Hon Main or “I’m Still Alive”— some two years after it was published. This happened after the publishers discovered an offensive remark about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Shatir’s book. The sentence was not written by the poet, but in the introduction by another poet named Raunaq Afroz, commenting on Modi’s controversial involvement in communal riots and about the poor state of Urdu in Gujarat. Yet Shatir insists that the Academy is coming down on him because he filed a Right to Information act to look carefully at the way the organization is using their funds. Again, a fascinating story, but not one I’m sure would find it’s way to mainstream media in America.

The Telegraph has also run a series of articles about the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair, or Boi Mela, which will be held in late January. This festival, in its 33rd year, is one of the biggest book fairs in all of India and runs 12 whole days. The articles have been aimed at exposing the controversy surrounding the fact that the Book Fair, or to be more specific the Publishers and Booksellers Guild — the non-profit org that runs the Book Fair — has received serious discounts and incentives on space rental, etc., even though the Book Fair is a trade convention that makes all the members of the Guild money. Writer Kinsuk Basu’s “objective reporting” seems to come down hard on the Guild, as you can see by the lede: “Book-lover Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s favorite annual event is reeling from the shock of a Rs 3.14 crore rent estimate for the next edition after being spoilt silly by sops that have swelled it’s coffers and eroded the state exchequer.” [Emphasis mine.] Actually, Bhattacharjee, West Bengal’s Chief Minister, is quite a literary patron, as well as a poet in his own right and cousin-brother to revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya. Again, it is fascinating to be in a place where the inner workings of a literature festival make their way to the front of the metro section.

There have also been a series of articles both covering events that have to do with Tagore’s 150th birthday. Sunday’s Metro paper led with a feature story covering a two-day conference in Kolkata about Tagore, and today’s paper talked about plans for a joint conference on Tagore to be held next Spring organized by both India and Bangladesh. Other recent literary stories include one in yesterday’s Telegraph about making George Orwell’s birthplace – which apparently is a run-down house in Bihar, some 160 km north of Patna – a protected site. I had no idea he was born in India!

Anyway, this is just the beginning of my investigation of Indian writing/reading. I am conducting a slow survey of Kolkata’s bookstores to learn more about what Indians are writing about, but am equally as fascinated by what books they are reading. I’ve also been wandering around the alleys of Kolkata’s College Street area, which are rife with publishing houses and–as my friend Aritra says–smell of ink, or kali. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to spend all of 2011 writing about my literary journeys, tourism, investigations and event coverage weekly or more on this blog. In January alone, I will be writing about the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, the Jaipur Literature Festival and the Kolkata Boi Mela!

Tomorrow there’s an event to launch Indivisible in India sponsored by Aryanil Mukherjee’s indie poetry magazine Kaurab. It will be held at the Bangla Academy — a renowned place for Bangla literature. I will be reading some of my work, as will my friend and Indivisible contributor Minal Hajratwala — currently on her own Fulbright year in Mumbai. In honor of the reading, held in a hall named after this popular Bengali poet, I’ve been working on a translation of the first section of Minal’s amazing poem “Angerfish”. I’m terribly nervous about reciting this translation in proper Bangla, as I am about how my own work will hold up in such a storied venue. The flip side of living in a city where so many people are thinking about and valuing literature, is that it is held to an incredibly high standard. Wish me luck.


Obligatory Domestic Help Post

As we make our way into our first solid month in India, almost two straight weeks in Kolkata, I found myself struggling against the urge to write about my experiences with the domestic help. It seemed so banal. A couple of years ago, I reviewed this movie, Lakshmi and Me, that played in the San Francisco 3rd i Film Festival. It is a beautiful documentary that details the filmmaker’s relationship with the young woman who works in her apartment and building, and though I appreciated it, I remember also criticizing it. I remember thinking at the time: How bourgeois to make a film about one’s hired help in order to ease one’s guilt for paying someone a pittance to sweep the floors. I’m not sure how different I feel now, sitting here at my dining table, while Sobitha — my hired cook and cleaning person — sings to herself in the kitchen. The criticisms still stand: bourgeois? check. guilty? check.  I am a highly privileged person, no matter if I am in the First World or the Third, but the concept seems less weighty and twisted here.

Class privilege and difference in India isn’t so wrapped up in national identity and race discourse. Here, there are lots of people who are poor, then lots of people who are middle class who employ the poor people, and a few people who are very rich, who employ even more poor people. I’m not sure I’ve ever met any rich people in India who pretend that they are poor, at least not the way you see this charade at expensive private liberal arts colleges in America. The myth of class mobility that America is built on — that elusive dream — doesn’t seem to exist here. [Of course, Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger was all about this and I think about the book constantly while I'm here and have been trying to goad Robin into reading it, so we can discuss it. Speaking of Adiga, read his wonderful essay about desire and writing and Delhi here.]

India runs on it’s service sector — with hired help in the fanciest  to the most-broken down elevators, pushing the buttons for a few rupees an hour. When leaving the airport in Delhi, there was even someone employed to lift the parking garage gate manually as each car exited. Here, you can get your clothes ironed and your food delivered and of course, your floors swept and washed. My father’s family had a long line of retainers. In those days they were men. These men ran the household and made sure things got done. My father and grandmother had endless stories about Mathura, their retainer, who was described as the most loyal and giving man in the world. My grandmother employed many poor people from her village, but also schooled them and employed them and helped them turn their mud and straw huts into brick and mortar homes. It was a fine balance of treating them like a different species, but also humanizing them with education and opportunity.

I mean, is it really so different in America? I was raised by a series of “housekeepers”, while my parents were at work. In my case, in Southwestern Ohio, they were older white ladies, quite poor, who worked for cash and took care of me from the time I came down for breakfast in the morning to when my mother came home from work at 5:30 p.m. There was Mrs. Miller,  a small woman with a pouf of white hair. My mother recently told me she fired her after she found out that Mrs. Miller had taken me to go pick up her wayward granddaughter without my mother’s permission. But mostly there was Edith Burris, a thick, hard-working older woman, whose people were from Kentucky, who lived alone and had a granddaughter named Janelle, who I remember had a rabbit fur coat and I thought was terribly glamorous. Edith watched soap operas while she ironed and pronounced the p in pneumonia, as in “You’re going to catch Pee-neumonia if you don’t wear socks.” She baked us the most delicious pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving and Christmas and her skin felt like dusty paper and she smelled like mothballs. She was there until I was in the fifth or sixth grade and then one day, we never saw her again.

Here, we’ve hired Sobitha, who cooked and cleaned for my grandmother in the last year of her life. She lives in the country, or as she calls it the “desh”, outside Kolkata. I asked her yesterday and we figured out she was about my age, maybe a year or two older. She calculated her age by saying that she was married at age 15, and that she has been married some 18 years. Her husband can’t work because a labor injury has left him with spondylitis in his neck. She also has been blessed with three daughters, whom she says will cost her one lakh (100,000) rupees each to get married off. She travels by train to Kolkata, leaving her home at 3:45 a.m., to come to work in several homes and an office before coming to our flat around 12:30 p.m. each day. She was close with my grandmother and says that my grandmother had promised to give her money to finish building her home, which she says will cost about 3000 rupees – for the bricks and labor.

She is funny and sharp-tongued and while I sit at the kitchen table and write, she sometimes squats on the floor at the boti (large stationary knife) and talks to me about her family and her village and her life. She has a younger sister who works in one of the buildings next door and sometimes she comes over to talk as well – the two of them sweet and funny. The second day they came, the sister peeked her head around the corner of the laundry room where I was soaking the clothes to say, “Didi, we like you very much,” and then ran off giggling like a little girl and not a 25-year-old mother of three. They think me strange and lonely, sitting here in front of this machine all day.

The food has been amazing! How nourishing to have someone bring you fresh vegetables and cook you warm food each day. True Bengali cooking: masoor dal and moog daal, okra with poppy seeds, white radish curry, cauliflower and potatoes, roasted eggplant with tomatoes and onions. And all kinds of greens: spinach and radish greens and lau (kind of green squash) greens and red greens. All of it cooked in mustard oil! I always complain that when you come to India you have to eat too much rice, and I just wasn’t feeling the rice we ate over the last few years, but rice here has a delicious flavor and I can’t get enough! I don’t know what it is, Sobita says it’s the water, but whatever it is – it’s amazing. She keeps asking for us to buy some fish, because to a pakka of genuine Bengali, a meal is just not a meal without some fish. Today, I scandalized her to no end when I told her for my predilection for sushi.

When Sobitha’s not cooking and gossiping with me, she tells me about home remedies like heated mustard oil on my temples and the bottom of my feet to get rid of a cold or explains idioms, like when a cat is pushed, it climbs a tree — to refer to doing something you don’t want to do but you have to. Or another one about how a bird-eaten Jackfruit will be bought by the poor people, as an analogy to why her father married her off to an uneducated man. She’s invited me to come and visit her home and I am going to buy her an alarm clock and a cloth bag — basic things she doesn’t have.

Meanwhile, our building also has a darwan, or security guard — an older man, maybe in his 50s. He lives in in a little nook on the ground floor of our building, a space that is also shared by a car repair shop. It’s just enough room for a bed and a television. Sometimes he cooks for himself on a little stove on the ground. Mostly, though, he watches his television at alarming volumes – or listens to the radio. Since his little alcove falls just two floors below our bedroom, it is very much as though the television and radio is being piped into our bedroom. In terms of security, he doesn’t make me or Robin feel very safe, in fact, it’s a bit of the opposite.

One of the first days I was here, he came up and rang the doorbell and asked me for money, 100 rupees. When I asked him for what, he said: “I just need it.” I wasn’t quite sure what I was to do in this situation, but it felt wrong. I know in the same situation, my grandmother would have been furious. But I felt helpless because I didn’t know how much he gets paid and how we have contributed to that. I knew  that we’d paid all our building fees, which must cover his salary, but I had no idea what kind of living wage that was. But I also didn’t want him to take advantage of me as an unsuspecting NRI.

At night, our dreams are infected with his hacking cough, which has worsened as the nights here get colder – but not made any better by his constant bidi habit. The kicker came last Friday night though, when Robin and I went out to Salt Lake – a Kolkata extension – where we met two of my cousins for a drink and some food. With traffic and all, the car ride alone took us over an hour, so after hanging out and drinking and eating, by the time we came home it was about 11:30 p.m. (Not an abnormal time to LEAVE the house for a night out back in the states). We found our gate locked and the lights off. We rang the doorbell and knocked, to no avail. After knocking and calling out for some time, we aroused the security man from his slumber, but also aroused his great ire and he began a vitriolic tirade against us in slurred angry Bengali that I could barely understand. What I did get is that he thought it was ridiculously late, and that next time such a thing happened he wouldn’t open the gate for us and other angry words. The tirade continued and we could hear it going on as we went upstairs to our bedroom. What we learned, after the fact, was that we should have given him a lock and key and let him know if we were going to be after 10 pm, which is when he officially goes to sleep.

Just yesterday we met our neighbor, a nice young woman named Aishwarya who works in market research for AC Nielsen, and has rented the apartment downstairs for some two years. She had all the same experiences with the guard: that he asks for money, that he blasts his television and radio all day, that he coughs up his lung all night, etc. She even told us that once she was coming home late from work and he had already locked the gate and went to sleep. She rang the bell and woke him up, but he refused to open the door. But she said he even got spiteful, he turned the light on, and smoked a bidi, but wouldn’t open the door and even turned off the bell so she wouldn’t keep ringing it. Luckily, she knew another renter upstairs who came down and convinced him to let her in. She said she complained to her landlord about this until they finally gave her an extra key for one of the gates – but before that, she said she would be out with friends and would have to run home early just so she wasn’t locked out by the doorman! How crazy is that??

For Robin and I, the doorman has really become to represent more and more the way we are dealing with the inconsistencies and maddening parts of India. If Sobitha is the warm and fuzzy part of the service sector — the way she clucks over us like a mother hen, taking special care to make sure she comes every day since we are new to India, the doorman is bitter — and rightly so — with his lot in life and his shitty job. More than anything, I want to have compassion for this man. He is obviously poor – he lives on a cot in the garage of my building for goodness sake. The neighbor told me he only gets paid like $2500 rupees a month ($55), for a 24 hour a day job. That comes to barely $4 rupees an hour. When he locked me out of my own building, my first impulse was to get him fired. I mean, he’s doing his job poorly and making my life inconvenient, yet — at the end of the day — he works for me. What our neighbor told us, is that if we were to replace him, a new 24-hour security guard like him would be closer to $5000 rupees ($100) a month and that the other condo owners don’t want to pay more, (even though we would pay more in a heartbeat.) We basically aren’t going to pay him more — so he is unhappy, or pay anyone else more to do a better job, so we’re stuck with a sort of bad situation all around. In the meantime, I have brought him down a thick blanket, aspirin for his fever, inquired after his needs.

At the end of the day, all I can do is set an intention to be kind to him and continue to try and process carefully, as always, the disparity and power dynamics around me.


Books I’ve Read (second half of 2010)

It’s mid-day here in Kolkata — though it looks more like dusk from where I’m sitting at our dining table. It’s been drizzling here on and off for the past few days and it reminds me of December in San Francisco (just 20 degrees warmer). I am listening to the sounds of people and dishes and televisions from the two neighboring apartment buildings, along with the gossip of the drivers and assorted doormen who gather outside on the curb — and the constant wing-flapping and cries of crows.

We have slowly been making the apartment ours: we bought a new quilt from this amazing NGO in Ahmedabad, and yesterday bought a new tablecloth, mats and lamps — all in tones of pink and red and purple. The new lighting worked almost instantly to make us feel happier. We have plans to replace the curtains and perhaps reupholster the couch and kitchen chairs. We have even grander plans for removing cabinets and opening up more space in the apartment, but we’ll wait a bit on those.

There’s a lot going on in India and the world, but I wanted to dedicate some time to books I’ve read this past year. So much of what I want to do with this time in India is try to build up some practices that perhaps will stick afterwards. For some time, I’ve been wanting to get more into processing the books I read and sharing them with others, as a way to impact my own writing. I am really interested in creating a regular online presence here to write about books — as I had been doing over the past years at Hyphen and Fiction Writers Review — but in order to do that, I wanted to do some calisthenics by writing about some of the books I’ve read this year. (I guess this is also my response to all the “Best of 2010″ lists that are being published this month, and also a bit of a gift guide to anyone looking to buy books as holiday gifts, though these aren’t all new books.)

When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books)

By Rebecca Stead

I read about this YA book in the NY Times, for having won the Newbury Award, and liked what I heard about it both being grounded in reality and somewhat magical. Set in New York City in 1979, it is narrated by Miranda – a sixth grader – who tells us about a series of extraordinary events that happens in the Fall and Winter of her year. Some of the extraordinary events are pretty realistic, like having her working class paralegal mom get an appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid. In fact, kindof like Vikas Swarup’s Q&A – the book that Slumdog Millionaire was based on – When You Reach Me’s chapter titles are category questions, like “Things That Burn” and “Things You Keep Secret”. Miranda is dealing with her best friend Sal, who lives in the same apartment complex, no longer talking with her after getting beat up one day. In Stead’s book, Manhattan is still a somewhat gritty place for youngsters to live – no hyper-consumerist Gossip Girl here – and Stead details Miranda’s latchkey existence beautifully. Though it isn’t mentioned directly, Miranda herself is obsessed with Madeliene L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and that book — with its exploration of time travel — hovers above this one. I really appreciated that and have been inspired to do the same with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Though, I feel like the strength of the novel is more with Miranda’s day-to-day existence than the fantastical — I like that the book holds space for both.

The Invisible Circus (Anchor)

By Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan was all over the literary media this year with her new book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I was looking up at the San Francisco library when I came across The Invisible Circus. Also set in the 1970s, the book follows 18-year-old Phoebe who has been living in the shadow of death – her father’s of cancer and her sister’s more mysterious death in Europe – for nearly a decade. When her quiet San Francisco life with her mother is shaken by a revelation, Phoebe takes off for Europe, to follow in her sister’s footsteps and discover the truth about what happened to her. This book was especially interesting to me because I’ve been half-heartedly chasing after a dead friend over the past few years, more in my head than anything else, and so the novelistic possibilities of the journey are especially rich to me right now. I also began reading this book after I left San Francisco and soon, Phoebe left too and her reminiscing and homesickness for the fog and hills matched mine perfectly. This is a GREAT book for anyone on a journey, especially one away or towards San Francisco. Phoebe spends most of the book small, afraid and quiet – almost maddeningly so. I wanted to reach in the book and shake her, which I think meant Egan did a great job of setting you up. Then when Phoebe breaks out of her shell – both in a AMAZINGLY awful acid trip and then a beautifully vivid sexual awakening – I was rapt. This book really moved me with its deep meditations on mourning and generation change and wanting to be in the center of everything. [I guess this kindof bad movie version, staring Cameron Diaz as Phoebe’s sister came out back in 2000, but I wouldn't recommend it.]

Shutter Island (William Morrow)

By Denis Lehane

Sometimes Robin and I read books together – we trade reading back and forth, usually before going to sleep. We usually chose books that we know are being made into films, so then we can go see the movie as well. Last year, we read Revolutionary Road (maybe one of the best books I’ve ever read) and The Reader, and this year thought we’d try Shutter Island, since it looked like such a fun Scorcese flick from the previews. The book was eerie and chilling and set up the locked room mystery nicely – island psychiatric prison, big storm, missing prisoner, experimenting ex-Nazi doctors, etc. Mystic River was an amazing story and I’ve been interested in Denis Lehane ever since then and was excited to read some of his work and check out the pacing up close. We were definitely gripped by the book and found ourselves discussing what exactly was going on even when we weren’t reading, which was a good sign. Lehane’s writing is swift and not un-literary, but the most fun was in trying to decode the characters (who to trust, etc). I’d kind of like to go back and really carefully read the book again and outline exactly when Lehane leads you astray and when he gives you real clues. I’m not saying that I want to write a mystery or a crime novel, but I think any writer can learn a great deal from a well-told story. The movie was pretty close to the book, but couldn’t quite pull off the caper as well, and after seeing both Shutter IslandInception, I got pretty tired of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio wandering around looking lost, confused and in protracted mourning.

Miles From Nowhere (Riverhead)

By Nami Mun

This book contains 13 gut-wrenching stories about Joon, a Korean American runaway on the streets of New York City in the 1980s. This is one of my favorite examples of the collection of stories as novel, with the narrator journeying backwards and forwards in time to reveal characters and incidents who are sometimes heroes and sometimes junkies and then sometimes dead. This is a book that I read super fast, waiting for the worst to happen and then for some kind of redemption. This is another book that I want to read again, slowly, to savor the way each story unfolds — even though some of it is absolutely horrifying — and then read again to learn how to do the damn thing.

Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives (Free Press)

Edited by Elizabeth Benedict

This is an amazing and inspiring collection that would make a great present for a teacher or a student of writing. (I’m totally inspired by creatively-themed anthologies like this one — it should be a writing exercise: come up with a list of five anthologies you would edit.) Alexander Chee’s piece about Annie Dillard in this collection blew the top of my head open and changed the way I edit my own writing, along with making me wish I could be a student of both Chee’s and Dillard’s. But the book also helps cement the idea that one can be a student of any writer, just through careful reading. Just like Eklabya of the Mahabharatha, who made a clay statue of the great archery teacher Drono and studied at it’s feet, I will make an effigy of Annie Dillard out of post-it notes and burn incense in front of it every morning. Or, just read her books obsessively. (If you haven’t read A Writing Life, do it now.)

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty-Pleasure TV (Seal Press)

By Jennifer Pozner

I’ve always been a Reality TV whore, both repulsed and disgusted by the genre, and this book broke it down for me excellently. Media critic Jenn Pozner carefully analyzes mainstream reality shows like The Bachelor and America’s Next Top Model to show how media companies and corporations are collaborating to create a misogynistic backlash on television. The book does a great job of making you angry and making you laugh, and even comes with some great ideas about how to do grassroots media education in your own home. I’ve already written about it here, but wanted to give it another shout out since it was one of the few non-fiction books I read really closely in the past six months.

Never Let Me Go (Knopf)

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Oh my god, why did I not know the truth about Kazuo Ishiguro before this year??? (To confess, I think (the movie) Remains of the Day came out in the height of my adolescent anti-British period. I was 15 and only believed in passionate declarations of emotion and could find nothing interesting about a repressed butler. Oops.)  But, anyway, Never Let Me Go is really about the complex relationships between three characters — Kathy, the narrator, and her school friends Tommy and Ruth — that build up over years and come to heartbreaking final conclusions. This is one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read and one of the best arguments for the discarding of any labels of genre on any writer. (And I thought the movie captured it all as well as a movie can – the acting was grand and of course you lost some of the nuance and surprise of the novel – but still amazing.)

The Magicicans (Viking)

By Lev Grossman

I would kind of see this book out of the corner of my eye at bookstores, but didn’t really think much of it until I heard Lev Grossman read at Writers with Drinks in San Francisco this summer. (Other people on the list included Tobias Wolf and Andrew Lam – did I mention I miss San Francisco and that I’m sorry I disparaged you in my final months?) Grossman was funny and the section he read about a lonely magician who had recently graduated from a more adult Hogwart’s-like institution instantly intrigued me. A fast and engaging read, Grossman, like Stead, also makes his main character – the lonely and lovable Quentin – obsessed with a recognizable literary treasure. In this case, it’s C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and while the book focuses mostly on the training and transition to adulthood of a bunch of super-smart magic school kids, the book also surprisingly goes to the next level – literally – in a surprising third section, setting us all up nicely for a sequel. Grossman tells a great story about personal growth and love and betrayal and magic, but is also hilariously adept with pop culture and sci fi references. Highly recommended.

Before you Suffocate Your Own Damn Self (Riverhead)

Danielle Evans

Ever since reading Danielle Evans story “Virgins” – originally published in The Paris Review — in a Best American Short Story anthology from a few years ago, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this book. In fact, I would often go back and read “Virgins” — a story about a two teenage black girls coming of age in (and around) New York City — over and over, again, to figure out how she got the balance right, which details to include that let us know so much about the relationship of the three main characters in such brief strokes. There is a scene where the two girls dress up and go into the city to a club, and Evans masterfully breaks down the whole situation, from the dance floor to the drunken bathroom make-up fix-up to the moment the narrator realizes her friend is in over her head. Brilliant! Before You Suffocate Your Own Damn Self was my last book purchase before leaving the US and I’m so glad. I ended up reading the book in Ahmedabad, while sick and unable to do much but drink fresh lime sodas and lay around, and it was the perfect rabbit hole to fall into. (In fact, I think it might have even helped cure me.) The stories focus on young women of color — mostly black — who are dealing with the burden of being smart in a world where that is rarely valued and the failures of their families to protect them and love them and vice versa. How amazing to read a whole collection of short stories — SHORT STORIES! Where mostly white people do very little!! — all about women and men who I felt like I could have met in my life. How awesome to read a short story collection that I would want to teach at both a graduate school level and a high school level! There is the story of a bi-racial girl sent for the summer to her racist white grandmother’s house, and the pregnant college girl whose roommate is selling her eggs to upgrade her wardrobe, and then the returned Iraq soldier whose babysitting ward loves to go to the mall and get makeovers for tweens … all of the characters negotiating the mores of sexuality and race in the 21st Century. I loved how the characters were smart and painfully self-aware — the girl who goes back to her ex-boyfriend — even though he (a white boy) has moved onto a new “ethnic” artist — because she knows he will always let her in, or the little girl sent to live with her racist grandmother, how she uses the story of that summer as cultural cache in college, uses it until she realizes how she is using it. There is a real complexity there that I feel like I have been searching for in contemporary American literary fiction. (Also, this book, Nami’s book and this upcoming author make Riverhead the coolest publishing company ever!)


Kem Cho?

I’ve traded the yellowing colonial balustrades of Kolkata for the crumbling stone darwajas, or gates, of Ahmedabad for ten days. Robin’s Ranchod Mama (Uncle) and his family (wife, sons, daughter-in-law, grandson, dog, mice, chipmunks) live in a wonderfully ramshackle old collection of rooms and ladders in the Old City, a neighborhood full of old mansions and blue doorways.

Gujarat is supposedly one of the richest states in the Indian nation due to infamous Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s support for industrialization. In fact, the Tata Nano (India’s Smart car) factory, that was originally going to be not far from my family’s ancestral village in West Bengal, was relocated to Ahmedabad after Leftist strikes supporting displaced farmers made it impossible for the deal to move forward.

I’m not sure if I thought, then, that the streets would be lined with gold, but perhaps I thought that the streets would be paved a little smoother, that the city would have more of a shine of newness and industry, but perhaps India can’t pull off that look. Ahmedabad’s streets are chaotic, nothing of the colonial grid-making of Delhi and Kolkata here, and there are cows and camels — but mostly cows — sharing the narrow streets with auto-rickshaws and bicycles and scooters and wedding processions, etc. Though, I did see the concrete signs of industrialization when driving out of the city — a row of smart looking factories with awards of excellence on wooden plaques outside abutted a river thick with the bright pink and gray foam of industrial waste.

The lack of colonization also means that English has less of a stronghold here and I am reduced to a lot of smiling, nodding and pantomiming. Gujarati is two steps removed from Bengali — certain words exactly the same and others seemingly from an entirely different root language. I realize how much of my personality is trapped in language: sarcasm, witticisms, idiom. In Bengali, my personality shifts again and I become someone new — less cynical perhaps, more innocent, still learning the spaces in the language for lewd jokes and poetry. In Gujarat, I have both the burden and privilege of not knowing 75 percent of what is going on at any given time.

My time here continues to be filled to the brim with people and experiences. I fell ill a week ago — the India special — and am only just feeling back to normal, which has made everything that much harder to process. The dehydration sapping my brain cells from any efforts to process things rationally, but my body also appreciated the two afternoons that were spent in dark, quiet rooms. I realize that I’ve been in perpetual motion for over a month and I think the illness was as much a result of that as it was whatever bacteria I ingested.

The most exciting part of this trip is connecting with the NGO Manav Sadhna, where Robin has spent years volunteering and his cousin-brother Jagat Bhai runs an amazing vocational arts program with youth from the nearby slums. Manav Sadhna is housed directly next to, and on the principles of, the Gandhi Ashram here on the Sabramati River. You can see Gandhi’s room where he spent many years writing and organizing for what would become the brunt of his work on the Independence Movement.

Robin will be working closely with a group of youth — 10-12 year olds — who are mounting a large scale dance drama production about one-ness, led by Nimish (Nimo) Patel, who some of you might remember from here. Nimo has been working closely with the young people for nearly a year and was hosting an overnight (18 kids!) at his house for the group when we first arrived in Ahmedabad. We were able to visit a dance practice and also accompany the group to a Mother Theresa home for the destitute and dying, where the children handed out biscuits and a sweet-faced nun named Sister Mary Joseph led me upstairs past the destitute to sit for a few moments with the dying. In these few meetings, I am already so inspired by Nimo’s process with the young people, which is about a wholistic improvement in their lives through creativity (and so much more that I am not ready to articulate yet). It reminds me very much of Raj Jayadev’s work with Silicon Valley De-Bug, in that it is about building community and process and not about product. [Not that product-based youth work doesn't also have it's own pluses ... having space from my work is helping me think things through for the first time in a long time and hope everyone will allow my ramblings here.]

I spoke with one of the founders of Manav Sadhna today about my own experiences working with young people over the past few years and how to connect when I am back in Ahmedabad in April. In the next few days, I hope to visit a street school program, a blind school and a leper colony to see where I can fit in my own ideas of how to empower these young people. I was also told about how to connect to the adult prisons and the juvenile justice centers here, where the rehabilitation is very much focused on yoga and meditation. I am especially excited to work towards bringing out my dear friend Josue Rojas to collaborate with Jagat Bhai and bring some of the graffiti and mural skills he has been spreading throughout the Americas to India. Robin or Nimo said today that Manav Sadhna was an incredibly fertile place where if you plant a seed, everyone will shower it will love and power and it will grow bigger than you ever imagined.

When we weren’t in Ahmedabad, we were visiting Robin’s parents’ ancestral homes, both sprawling extended family homes anchored on sweet shops. In his father’s home, we witnessed a special ritual aarthi, or candle lighting prayer ceremony for the goddess Kali Ma in a small temple his family has taken care of for years. It was a family reunion of sorts and as some 75 people gathered outside, Robin and I — along with some high-ranking family and children and the priest — squeezed into the small wrought-iron encased temple where literally hundreds of cotton candles soaked in oil and ghee were lit. Then, when the bhajans and drumming and bell-clanging and fires were at their peak, one of Robin’s aunts channeled the spirit of the goddess and went into a kind-of spiritual trance, during which she spit up blood-red kum-kum powder from her mouth and conjured a handkerchief from her throat, all while dancing and waving her hands in the fire. I’d never seen anything like it, (except for a recent yoga retreat I went to with my mother in Centerville, Ohio during which a former burlesque dancer embodied Kali Ma — but that was much more playful and this was much more … Pentecostal.) It was amazing spectacle though and Robin captured it beautifully on film. My own spiritual ardor either increased or dissipated — I haven’t quite decided yet — when burning oil from one of the flaming candles being swung around  dripped onto my leggings and burned a holy hole into my thigh.

Otherwise, we endured the joys and the trauma of interacting with family that are removed by continents and oceans and years and missed births and deaths, but who are suddenly up close and personal — the dust of their feet smeared across our foreheads in order to make it all up. Robin has had less time with his family in India than I have with mine, so the legions of cousins are more like strangers, but mostly sweet strangers who give up their beds for you. The Indian concept of hospitality continues to humble me and I owe much of my survival this last week to a long list of Aunties who cooked for me and fretted over me in the universal tones of love.

Today, we spent the afternoon walking through the slum that Manav Sadhna works closely with — a hot, dusty, powerful experience. When we first walked in, we crossed over a river of open sewage and Nimo pointed out some kids — maybe seven years old — who were wading through it in shorts with no shoes. He explained to me how if they have a cut on their leg that it would immediately become septic. But everyone greeted us with smiles, invited us in to sit in their tin-roofed shelters and the children all ran to greet me and shake my hands with smiles and hellos. I am so thankful that I have the opportunity to do some work here in whatever way it will shape up.

For our last few days in Ahmedabad, we are staying in Nimo’s spartan apartment not far from Manav Sadhna and I’ve been writing this while Robin and Nimo and the kids are at dance practice. It is the first time I have truly been alone, with the doors closed, for a week. Outside, a wedding band was blaring horns and melodies and then an arsenal of fireworks was set off, now the sounds have mellowed to the usual honks and hawker cries and construction. Dusk is falling and in a little while I’ll go meet up with Robin and Nimo at the Seva Cafe, where we’ll volunteer our time to feed people who will pay it forward.

The culture of service here is infectious and I know it will change the way I think about the world, but sometimes it seems at odds with the selfishness of creativity. I could only finish writing this by coming into this locked room. I came to India to find such a room and spend as much time as I could locked up in it. Yet, I know that service and especially youth work is about time and consistency and giving … Ahhh, the contradictions of India are pretty much the only thing you can count on to be truly consistent.

P.S. ‘Kem cho?’ is Gujarati for ‘How are you?’