Sunday, January 20, 2013

A book talk across continents: from Leaving India to Japan, America, Spain, and France

This conversation & blog post is inspired by the plan to read more globally for a year. The conversation starts and returns to the book "Leaving India", but also includes general thoughts and notes on reading, self-discipline, migration, history, arranged marriages, and some other books, like Yoshihiro Tatsumi's "Fallen Words" (Japan), John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" (USA), "Stone in a Landslide" by Maria Marbal (Spain) and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's "The Little Prince".

For me, the plan to read more globally already shifts my focus, like when looking through the TV program and noticing a China documentary, which then turned out so fascinating. And I think I found a good starting point for myself: a memoir by an Indian writer: “Leaving India – My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents” by Minal Hajratwala. I looked for her blog, and found this note on writing, it took her seven years to write the book, and in the post she writes about writing – which speaks to me especially now that I am back at revising ny own book about India, "Masala Moments":
“Sometimes people tell me it must have taken 'a lot of discipline' to spend seven years writing a book. Nah. I hate the word 'discipline.' .. I prefer my writing hours to be fueled by enthusiasm, desire, excitement, joy, great food, treats, an inspiring environment, and/or an urgent need to figure everything out.”
link: why self care matters for writers

Your blog post about the reading challenge is amazing, with so many good resources and connections there.  I took a photo of my first book yesterday and put a brief blog post together this morning:  

Getting a jump on the reading challenge, and also exploring graphic storytelling, I read a Japanese book, “Fallen Words” by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. It is a remarkable dunk in another culture, which I know is one of the objectives of the challenge. To me it was a perfect start to exploring other cultures through books. Fallen Words is a graphic book of stories that draw on (forgive the pun) traditional forms of storytelling. (more: fallen words)

Leaving India looks like a very good find.  I will be interested in what you think of it. That is a wonderful quote about discipline!

The “Leaving India” book, I read the first chapters now, and it is outstanding. I hadn’t really known much about it. It was basically the title that reaches out to five continents that made me pick it. And as it turns out, it is like a reflection of time, reaching back to the days of the British Empire and sketching a picture of life in India that explains the migrations of family members to other countries, like Fiji and South Africa. Which sounds like exotic choices, and left her wondering how that happened.

In her research and the interviews, she learns that one of the main reasons was that at one point slavery turned illegal in the British Empire. But a lot of plantations and early factories needed cheap labour. So migration programs were made, promising poor and often illiterate Indians work in other places in India, but the contracts they signed with a fingerprint then turned out to be 5-year iindentured work in other countries of the Empire, like Fiji and South Africa. I didn’t know about that. And the South African chapter includes the story of Gandhi – who started as a lawyer in South Africa, and worked against the unfair racial laws and restrictions of the Indians there. It’s like a carpet of time, woven from a family tree.

Yesterday I looked for a video with the author, something that gives an idea of her personality and her voice, and of the book (it's something I started to do, watch clips of authors to hear their voices. It's like an extra dimension to writing).


Thinking of it, I guess you would enjoy the read, too. It’s like listening to some elder tell a long family story that reaches into history. A bit like Forest Gump in that respect. Maybe your library has it?

And books: the editor of “The Books They Gave Us” has a year end's post up, on finding and sharing books:
“We find the right book, whether someone gives it to us or we find it on our own, and our imaginations seize the chance and run wild. Our souls are free. Ideas let that happen. ... Sharing books helps this to happen. We live our lives half in public, half in private. Others see us reading, and we share books with others.” 
(Here’s the blog post, it starts with a question about favourite book blog entries, and then moves to this open end: )

What you said about YouTube: I think the internet in general and Google and wikipedia specifically are like YouTube in that way.  You can use them to  add dimensions when you find an author or anyone really.  There are two actresses that I was curious about and it turned out they both sing.  it was interesting to know that and to find them on YouTube and hear them.

I looked on the library site and they do have Leaving India. Thanks for the idea. Libraries are good places, I picked it up and had time to read the first pages. It is fascinating about the village genealogists with their big books recording important events of families over many years, and he is sorry that their books are not there at the moment.  and the stories of the origins of the family mixed together with the mythology of the religion. There is a real sense of the place in her writing. This is a good book. Thanks for finding it!

'Leaving India,' I am glad your library had a copy, and that you are enjoying the read. I had the same feeling after the first pages: she has a wonderful way to make the places and times come alive, to take the reader into India – and later to Fiji, and South Africa, and all the other places.

And libraries: I visited the local library yesterday. They had a shorter book that looked interesting, the life story of a farmer’s woman who lived in Spain. It’s a brief book, but so much included in it, the English title is: “Stone in a Landslide” by Maria Marbal. Here’s the description:
“The Catalan Pyrenees at the beginning of the last century: 13-year-old Conxa is sent to live and work for her childless aunt in another village. Years of hard work follow. Eventually she finds love and happiness with Jaume. But the civil war causes havoc and Conxa moves to Barcelona. It is here that she, now an old woman, sits down to tell us her story. Written in the voice of a perceptive person who has no formal education... It’s a poetic, timeless voice, down to earth and full of contradictory nuances.”
In some ways, the book also connects to Leaving India: when it came to family life and society, life in the Pyrenees back then (and also in many other rural places in Europe) wasn’t really so different from village life in India: There were traditional structures of how-will-inherit, who-to-marry. Marriages were arranged, too. Life was about making ends meet under sometimes harsh circumstances, and the youngest sibling would later take care of the parents. The world out there – it was far away.

And while sorting my bookshelf, I arrived at my copy of “The Little Prince”, and opened it – such a beautiful tale. So I’m reading this one, too, and put a short book video together for the "what are you reading" series, it starts with the Leaving India book, moves to the Spanish book, and ends with the Little Prince:

This Catalan book seems very interesting.  To have a view of a long life through years of such historic change, the view of a not privileged person, it is intriguing. 

The Little Prince is such a delight.  I liked his other book, too. Wind, Sand, and Stars.  But read them a long time ago. He has an interesting biography, too.

One thing that is so good about Leaving India is how it begins. It is the sketch of the movement of history at that time. The background on families weaving with cotton, and then how industrialization and colonization together changed all that for the weavers in India.And the ‘push and pull,’forces that push people to leave India and forces that pull them to specific other places. She could not determine the exact combination of forces that led her ancestor Motriam to Fiji. And how he stayed with cloth, and learned a tradeas a tailor, and then used it to open a business and expanded it with family members. 

It reminds me of here. Many of the independent motels that you find in this country are owned and run by Indians. No matter where you are, no matter how tiny the village or how far from a community of Indians, there you will find a small motel with a name like Budget Inn and it will be run by a family of Indians. And mostly I think this happened during my lifetime. And it turns out there is a book about this, which I have not read yet: "Life Behind The Lobby" Of Indian-American Motels

"Leaving India": the Map of  Migrations included in the book
It is also telling, I think, that those big books of family history had no names of women in them. This quote made it so clear: "My Mother's family is considered 'small,' meaning that it has had a scarcity of sons."  The family tree is constructed on sons.  Really it is the same in our culture where preserving the family name is the goal and the family name is the basis of the tree.

I can't help thinking of this terrible rape case and discussions I have seen about women in India. One news story on NPR explored the connection between the cultural tradition of valuing male children, and now that there are ways to increase the chances of having male and not female children, the ratio of males to females is skewed away from nature's 50:50 to a population where there are millions more males than females. This influences many aspects of culture. and may be an underlying factor in the behavior of males. Behaviour that cannot be excused, but to change it requires understanding it. (I looked for this particular program and did not find it, but if you google it there are a lot of references.)

The rape case, it is main news here, too. It's so disturbing to read about it. One news article here noted that it might be easy to say it's something that happened abroad, but of course Europe has its own issues, too, which only rarely make headlines - like last year at the Olympics, when I blogged about the article that put it into words: "Sex trafficking and slavery becomes cultural target at this year’s Summer Olympics in London".  (more here).

And the image of the family tree, what is painful to me is that female names aren’t included in the family tree, only the male names. As if the female half of a family is a nameless shadow. But what a book. So glad I found it. And it’s so carefully put together. It must have been an incredible task to accomplish, also with the question: What to write? What leave out? What might cause a family crisis when you put it into words on a page?

Will go and read the last passage of Leaving India now – the final chapter is about her own life story. Such a fascinating book.

Also, I am still reading “The Little Prince”, trying to read only some pages a day to make it last longer. From outside, it looks so tiny, a mere 80 pages, and even all those drawings included in that - but there are so many moments to the story, so many life reflections woven into those pages.

It is so true about the women in India.  Nameless like shadows in the family history.  I agree that in writing this book she had so much to consider and plan.  And even after deciding what to include, she crafted a very engaging story.  She gave good thought to how to make it interesting, a good read.

One thing that strikes me about it today, after reading some about South Africa, is the discrimination they faced in addition to every other obstacle and difficulty. Just the language and leaving home and family would be enough, even if the destination country welcomed them. But South Africa and other places consciously made it difficult at every step along the way, from first arrival to where they were allowed to be, to legal issues like marriages not being valid. Being considered sub-human and treated that way, or even worse. One thing that this makes me realize is how this continues today for immigrants.  You and I have not experienced it on our journeys, being free to go anywhere we choose.  But for example, my friend from Mexico and others there have difficulty getting visas to visit here. And the difference between being white and black in this country is well documented. Immigrants in many countries today face all kinds of discrimination, subtle or not subtle.

She makes all this very clear, yet she is telling the stories of real people, her relatives. And what amazing people they were, with such courage and determination, who lived and flourished despite these negatives.  I think one thing that might have prepared them for this in some way is the caste system they came from in India, where the discrimination was very open and formalized. Otherwise, how could they bring children into such a situation? 

The theme of racism – it also reminded me of John Steinbeck and his book “Travels with Charley”. Towards the end of his journey, he arrives in New Orleans, at the time when the first schools are by law made to also open their doors for non-white pupils, who arrive in buses – greeted at that time by demonstrations, with mothers included, who shout insults at the black girls, and those mothers are called “Cheerleaders”.

Map of Steinbeck's trip, with the New Orleans scene included,
the review is here in this blog 
Steinbeck goes there to witness that, and walks away shocked and disturbed. Later he comes to talk with a man at a resting place out of town. And after some small talk, this dialogue starts, with Steinbeck asking about the situation:

"What's going to happen?" 
"I don't  know. I just don't know. I don’t dare think about it. Why do I have to think about it?  I'm too old. Let the others take care of  it.”  .... 
"My wife told me of an old, old man who said: 'I remember a time when Negroes had no souls. It was much better and easier then. Now it’s confusing.' ”
“I don’t remember, but it must be so. It is my guess that we can cut an divide our inherited guilt like a birthday cake. Surely my ancestors had slaves, but it is possible that yours caught them and sold them to us.”
.. I guess that is what it makes it so difficult to address and change racism: it means that a society has to acknowledge the accumulated guilt of the past, all the pain inflicted on soulless persons that now happen to also always have had a soul. it’s easier to avoid that altogether.

The Steinbeck book is very revealing. Shocking, that passage about they had no souls. How could anyone think that way?  And yet, as you said, it was a culture, it was everybody you knew and your parents when you were growing up.  With that kind of cultural momentum, it is amazing how it changed, though not completely, but dramatically and really in one generation.  so there is a great capacity for cultural change, I guess that is what I am saying.  But as you pointed out, it is not an easy thing to bring about.  Gandhi, Martin Luther King, what would have happened without them?

On the subject of cultural differences, I think it interesting about the arranged marriage, with horoscopes and relatives interviewing prospects. It could be argued to be a better way or a worse way than what we are accustomed to.  Would your parents have found the right match for you? When you were 16, say?  It's not a fair question, because they were not raised for that role.  It is so different, it is hard to try it on mentally. Yet it works for millions of marriages. 

The arranged marriages: during my travels in India, I talked about the them in two longer conversations - once with a man, and once with a woman (at the wedding i was invited to), and they both explained to me that the base concept really is that it’s not 2 single persons who get married, but 2 families who get married, and have strong ties afterwards. And that the idea is that you get married first, and then fall in love. We also talked about divorces.. and both were shocked how many people divorce here in Europe, even though it is the other way round: you are free to fall in love, and then you can marry your loved one. So there also was this thought that this free choice also seems to bring unhappy marriages. Of course, there is much more to both approaches, but I remember how summing it up that way was surprising.

And on another note, about Leaving India – I thought I might put together our dialogue as a kind of book review, or?

I like that explanation, the union of families.  It makes sense when you put it that way. Of course, it may not be so true here that families become closely joined by a marriage.  And it is interesting about divorce rates.  I think there are different concepts of what a marriage is, even the marriage between the couple themselves.  A big topic.

Oh, that is a nice idea about the review of Leaving India.  Yes, please use our dialogue if it helps.


It's Monday! What are you reading? This blog post is inspired by the blog series "It's Monday! What are you reading?" which is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. participating blogs are listed in this Linky Book List

Previous reading blog entries are collected here: bookshelf: currently  reading... there also is a visual bookshelf, just click it to get there:

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