Category Archives: Book reviews

{S} Book review: Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant

From the back cover:

Servants of the Goddess weaves together the heartbreaking, yet paradoxically life affirming stories of five devadasis – Women, in the clutches of an ancient fertility cult, forced to serve the gods. Catherine Rubin Kermorgant sets out attempting to make a documentary film about the lives of present-day devadasis. Through her, we meet and get to know the devadasi women of Kalyana, a remote village in Karnataka. As they grow to trust Kermorgant and welcome her as an honorary sister, we hear their stories in their own words, stories of oppression and violence, but more importantly, of resistance and resilience. Kermorgant becomes a part of these stories and finds herself unwittingly enmeshed in a world of gender and caste bias which extends far beyond Kalyana, all the way to Paris, where the documentary is to be edited and produced. Servants of the Goddess is a testament to women’s strength and spirit and a remarkably astute analysis of gender and caste relations in today’s rural India.

My view:

Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin KermorgantFor some reason, I thought that the cult of devadasis was over. I was wrong. Through this eye-opening book, Kermorgant draws the readers’ attention to devadasis and their plight.

Forced into the tradition due to poverty, kept there due to their superstitious beliefs, devadasis have largely been pushed out of temples except during traditional pujas and ceremonies. They’re forced into a life of prostitution, plying their bodies either in their village or in red light districts in Mumbai and Delhi. And every year, thousands of girls are dedicated to the system, a majority of them by their own families.

The book shows us glimpses of their life and their beliefs, but it falls somewhat short.

I tend to compare any book of this nature with Mayank Austin Soofi’s absolutely brilliant Nobody Can Love You More: Life in Delhi’s Red Light District. He creates an emotional connect with the people who populate his pages – right from the prostitutes to the pimp – without moralizing or philosophizing. And this is exactly what Kermorgant’s book lacks. It reads more like an essay on “this is why I could not present my documentary the way I wanted to – the reason: an Indian partner who could not overcome his prejudice against untouchables and devadasis.” And so, she portrays herself and only one of her translators as sympathetic to the devadasi cause, while everyone else was blinkered and blinded by their own prejudices. And while that may be true, her constant lament against them takes away from the hard-hitting story that this could have been.

The sad thing is that there are kernels of hard-hitting writing throughout, but they get lost in her larger narrative of the documentary shooting and editing process. Had she focused on the devadasis, telling us about their lives and their stories, the book would have had a much more profound impact.

Having said that, I would still recommend this book – just go into it knowing that there are hiccups to the tale.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher, but the review and opinions expressed are my own.

Book Review: The Hunt for Kohinoor by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

Art historian Mehrunisa is back. This time, the fight is more personal – finding the Kohinoor (a set of documents that will help India to avert a major terrorist attack) is the only way she can be reunited with her father, a man she thought was dead. Thrust into the high pressure world of espionage, where no one is as they seem, Mehrunisa finds herself in Pakistan, trying to hunt down the Kohinoor.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Babur Khan – a hard-lined jihadi who enforces strict Sharia laws and promises to get rid of the Poppy pashas and infidel Americans –is also hunting for the Kohinoor to ensure that India doesn’t get its hands on the document.
Also thrown into the mix is the CIA, who are also after the Kohinoor as it could help them in the war against terror.
Against these formidable opponents, will Mehrunisa be able to find the Kohinoor in time? And if she does, will she be able to get it to the RAW commanders in time?
Someshwar delivers another fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat thriller with some interesting history, Pashtun culture, and a bit of geo-politics thrown in. I have only one complaint with the book – the American side of the story wasn’t developed at all. The agonizing of the American station chief and the tension she built up as the American spy was to fly out from Afghanistan wasn’t followed up in the rest of the novel. The American spy makes a fleeting appearance in Pakistan – and the station chief gets a passing mention towards the middle of the novel. In an otherwise well-plotted story, this was the biggest lose end. Despite this, it is an interesting read, and I will be looking forward to Mehrunisa’s next adventure!

Book review: Exposure by Sayed Kashua

“The moment the lawyer opened his eyes he knew he’d be tired for the rest of the day. He wasn’t sure whether he’d heard it on the radio or read it in the newspaper, but he’d come across a specialist who described sleep in terms of cycles. Often the reason people are tired, the specialist explained, was not due to insufficient sleep but rather a sudden awakening before the cycle had run its course. The lawyer did not know anything about the cycles – their duration, their starting point, their ending point…”

exposure_sayed_kashuaStarting slowly, languidly, Kashua sketches the plot and characters in broad, bold, sweeping strokes.

There’s the lawyer, an Arab-Israeli with a thriving practice and an image to uphold, driving around in his luxury Mercedes, with a fancy house in a pricey neighborhood, monthly dinner meetings followed by a salon discussion, where the menu is decided on the basis of the impression it will create on guests. So when it is their turn to host dinner, the lawyers’ wife decides to serve sushi from the most expensive Japanese eatery, Sakura. That is also the day the lawyer’s life starts to crumble. Because before picking up the sushi, the lawyer stopped at a bookstore, where he picked up a second-hand copy of The Kreutzer Sonata, in the pages of which he finds a love letter written in Arabic…in his wife’s hand.

Then there’s Amir, a young, painfully shy social worker who recently completed his degree and started working at a clinic in the Arab sector. His room mates hold down two jobs to make ends meet, which means he’s almost always home alone. In desperation, he agrees to takes up a second job – as a night-time care taker for a comatose young Jew. Then along comes Leila, a young intern with whom he falls in love. But being as painfully shy as he is, instead of saying anything to her, one day he just puts in his resignation and leaves his day job. Soon, his room mate decides to go back to his village, and now all he has is Yonatan, the young comatose Jew he is taking care of. So he starts spending his days roaming around the city and his nights going through Yonatan’s things, learning more about this Jewish boy he is looking after.

The novel raises a lot of questions – Can you change the value system that you were brought up in, where a woman’s honor is a direct reflection of yours? What is identity – a name, a nationality, a piece of paper? Can you unlearn how to be an Arab? Become something else – maybe a Jew – instead? To what extent does your imagination play up, what scenarios does it build, do you believe your imagination more than the facts that are laid out in front of you? Is there an end to suspicion and jealousy?

Some of these questions are answered. Some are questions you, as a reader, have to answer yourself. And some questions will haunt you long after you finish reading the book.

Masterful, immensely believable, a look into a different culture, a land that’s still in strife, a novel of love, loss, life…lies, deceit, betrayal…rising from the ashes and never being able to free yourself from the chains that bind you.

In a nutshell: Very highly recommended!

Book Review: A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiWhen Ruth picks up a piece of flotsam that has washed up on the beach near her home in British Columbia, little does she know that her life will be changed. For in that package, which at first glance looked liked a jellyfish, is a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a diary, a bunch of old letters in French, and an old watch.

The diary belongs to 16-year old Nao Yasutani, who wants to write the story of her 104-year-old anarchist, feminist Buddhist grandmother. But she ends up writing about her life, the unimaginable ijime (shame) she faces in school, tidbits of Zen wisdom from her grandmother, and the sheer heartbreaking despair of life – both she and her father want nothing more than to commit suicide.

As Ruth is drawn into Nao’s world, she finds herself spending all of her spare time trying to track Nao down. She desperately scrolls through information online to try and find out if Nao or her family feature in the tsunami casualty list; she runs a number of searches to try and corroborate some of the stories from Nao’s diary; and in her quest, she forgets that a decade has passed between the time that Nao wrote the diary and it washed up on the beach near Ruth’s home.

But there are a number of unexplainable phenomena that start occurring as Ruth reads Nao’s diary – strange dreams featuring Nao’s grandmother, the appearance of a Japanese jungle crow, and most alarmingly, vanishing information from Nao’s diary – the last of which is unconvincingly (for me) explained by quantum physics.

Nao’s story of her return to Japan from Silicon Valley, where she spent her formative years, and the bullying she faces in her new school are horrifying. Her father’s despair at being unable to find a job and his many attempts to commit suicide provide a further backdrop of gloom. Into this sorry situation, Nao’s grandmother brings in a breath of fresh air. Her nuggets of Zen philosophy ultimately sustain Nao, and are what really lifts this book to a different level.

Filled with footnotes – mainly to explain some Japanese phrases and concepts – and 6 Appendixes, which deal with everything from the concept of Zen time to Schrödinger’s cat and quantum physics, the book is a meditation on time, on shared humanity and the search for meaning. Even though a few things are contrived and some concepts are unconvincing, it’s a very interesting read. Recommended!

 Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: A Serpentine Affair by Tina Seskis

Can I let you in on a secret? I have seen the devil, and I know its name. Come closer, so I can whisper it in your ear.

{ NetGalley }

Really. It is the devil! Because every time you promise to be good, to not get tempted by another book you simply have to read and to hell with all the other books that are piling up alarmingly on your to-read pile, there it is, with a shiny new book that you just cannot resist. And so you succumb, over and over and over again.

The other night, I had almost made my escape. I logged off the site before I could give in to temptation. { Yay me! } But before I could pat myself on the back, I saw this book by an author whose debut novel I loved. And there I was, begging to be let back in. To request an advance reader copy of Tina Seskis’ A Serpentine Affair.

Tina-Seskis-A-Serpentine-AffairSeven old friends. One annual reunion. Countless feuds. How do friends stay friends for more than 25 years when there is so much to feel aggrieved about?

Juliette and JoAnne have never got over one of them sleeping with the other’s boyfriend. Sissy secretly blames someone for the death of her husband. Natasha knows one of them is having an affair with her partner. Siobhan annoys everyone. Katie is annoyed by everyone. Camilla desperately tries to keep the peace. So when their picnic in the park goes horribly wrong and one of them ends up in the Serpentine, who knows what really happened? And just what secrets from the past are about to unfold, changing everyone’s lives forever?

Seskis weaves together the stories of these seven women skillfully, moving from the past to the present, from one woman’s story to anothers history. There’s Juliette’s search for her birth mother; JoAnne’s stint as a bookseller in the US, from which she returned a changed person; Natasha’s seemingly perfect life that hides a dysfunctional marriage; Sissy’s trauma when she finds out that her husband has cancer; and Katie’s struggle with anger issues.

As we meander through their past, events are coming to a head in the present. The women drink too fast and eat too little, tempers flare, personal demons are wrestled with and old secrets start to tumble out of the closet. By the time the evening draws to a close, the women don’t seem to notice or care that one of their friends is missing, and that sets in motion yet another nightmare.

Seskis brings her characters alive and excels at giving them deep-seated flaws and vulnerabilities. I also loved the way she touched on a number of social issues – the far-reaching psychological consequences of rape; the breakdown of morality; and the deeply dysfunctional life that can hide behind a super successful public persona – without bogging down the narrative or coming across as preachy or judgmental.

Seskis juggles the stories of her numerous characters with aplomb. And though it might get a bit difficult to keep track of all of them, the rewards for staying with it are rich indeed. With this book, which comes on the heels of her debut novel One Step Too Far, Seskis proves that she is an author to look out for.