[BOOK REVIEW] The Migrant Report by Mohanalakshi Rajakumar

51zDMW4XrrL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_It was with some trepidation that I started on The Migrant Report by Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar. A murder-mystery set in a Gulf state (**shush!**), involving lower-income migrant workers.

These were my 3 main fears:

  • The book would remove the invisibility cloak migrants in the Gulf don, only to reveal a negative characterisation.
  • It would tug at the stereotypical emotional strings of the migration narrative. 
  • It would dehumanise them.

Two of those fears were completely misplaced. And, yes, there were those emotional strings of family, ailing mother, poverty, but only to the extent a work of fiction demands.

First with the good stuff:

  • Every character in the book is sketched with great sensitivity and nuance. As in her earlier works, Mohana’s brings a lot of insight and layers to her male characters. Be it fresh-off-the-boat Manu, or the well-meaning but always in trouble Daniel, or Ali, the Qatari cop, and even Nasser who only makes the occasional appearance. She wills us to fall a little in love with these strange men.
  • Not one for great details or long-drawn out scenarios, the author still manages to vividly represent the many relationships in the book. Cindy and Sanjana, Maryam and Daniel, Daniel and Sherif, Manu and Santana, Maryam and her family, Maryam and Ali. She brings out daily frustrations and stifled aspirations even within brief exchanges between the characters.
  • It requires courage to write a book such as this. Not just about migrants, but the secret lives of expatriates, while still being one. That she has done well, mining the experiences of her many years living in a Gulf state herself.
  • The book manages to not bracket migrant workers as being completely helpless, and shows them as resourceful people. Without being patronising, it manages to show them as strong people, even if in weak situations.

What could have been different:

  • The book is self-published, hence does not have the advantages and resources of a publishing house. It could do with a good bit of editing and proofing. Chronology of events is mixed up in places. Also, its Gandhi, not Ghandi (Americans!).
  • The book covers a wide range of plots and lives and the author seems to have rushed through it in many places. Spending a little more time on some of the scenarios would have enriched the book the mysterious happenings at the labour accommodation; Manu and Sanjana’s relationship; Maryam and Ali’s interaction; the disconnect between Cindy and Paul.
  • At several instances it seemed like the writer thought of a great idea, but instead of developing it, just drops it there between the pages, running away to meet the next shiny idea. Maybe that’s what a sequel would address. Maybe.
  • While the expatriate environment and that of the Arab household has a sense of familiarity, the brief look into Nepal and the labour accommodation seems borrowed. More research would have helped.

I am not sure I would classify it as a crime-thriller. Not yet.

Do pick up the book, it’s definitely a good read. I read it in just a day and a half. That’s not to say it’s an easy read. The loneliness of the characters, their struggles and the faint reflection of our own lives will leave you thinking about the sequel.

PS: May I also suggest you pick up Love Comes Later & Dohmestics by the same author? They both give rarely available insights into life in the Gulf.

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[BOOK REVIEW] Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of the Dalai Lama

51b2TjcrtxL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_The book was first published a quarter century ago (edition I read was the 1998 one with a new foreword) and much has happened since.

Over the last few months I have been reading several books on Buddhist philosophies, and to my surprise this one impressed me the least.

Maybe it’s in the telling, more than the teller, but there were contradictions that even on the premise of the ‘middle path’ seems too strong to ignore.

On the one hand The Dalai Lama believes that politics and religion go hand in hand, and expects (rightfully) that the world pulls up China on its b***s**t. On the other, he distances himself from global politics that beg reprimand. After all, he is not just a religious leader, but the head of state, albeit in exile.

Or maybe because I expected to know more about his journey as a Buddhist, not just his journey. Clearly this reader was seeking philosophical answers, not political discourse.

What I enjoyed most about the book are the stories from his childhood. The escapades of the little boy – newly-discovered reincarnation of the the 13th Dalai Lama – in a monastery full of ageing men.

Once his political journey begins, with the Chinese and then away from them, into India, the story lost me.  His, in comparison to his compatriots, has been a privileged life, and he acknowledges it quite openly. Because there just isn’t enough depth to that part of the story, and enough insights into Buddhism when things are toughest, I felt a little cheated.

It’s probably time to read the other books the Dalai Lama has since written, and as a compendium his story and philosophy would make a greater impact.

 

[BOOK REVIEW] Weak face, a failure, hierarchal… whom are we talking about?

“With a weak face, hesitant in court, polite in print and courteous in conversation, [he] yet represented the first challenge to European domination in Natal.”

If you were to read just that one line, who would spring to mind as the [he]?

Gandhi Before India is a joy. There is no other way to describe the book and its narration. I would like to think I’ve read enough about and by Gandhi to know who he was; Yet, page after page, it became evident that it was the Mahatma that I grew up reading about, not Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the man.

There are charming insights into Gandhi as a young man, neglectful of his duties as a householder, taken in with his many friendships (the bromances of the time, so to speak).

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Amongst equals for a while

Not till he came to India did he really collaborate at an intellectual level with his countrymen, but by then he was the leader and on a pedestal… going well ahead of even his mentor Gokhale. On the other hand, his friends and influencers who worked on him, chipping away and polishing him up, were predominantly European. Be it Henry and Millie Polak who lived with Gandhi and Kasturba; Sonja Schlesin, his secretary; Annie Besant and other theosophists and ‘vegetarians’; Hermann Kallenbach, the rich man who gave fuel to Gandhi’s ideas of commune.

The author comments: “‘Revolutionary’ for a coloured couple and a white couple to live in the same house. […]

For Gandhi to befriend Polak, Kallenbach, West and company was an act of bravery; for them to befriend him was an act of defiance.”

Gandhi until he left Kathiawar had little worldly exposure, and was not much of a scholar. In England, studying to be a barrister, he was exposed to world that was at once both in conflict with the principles he grew up with and in sync with the curious mind he possessed.

Guha writes: “Leaving Bombay in 1888 a small-town Bania with the habits, manners and prejudices of his caste, six years later Gandhi had become a Hindu who befriended Christians and worked for Muslims while organising political campaigns in – of all places – Natal.”

While many aspects of his personality became broader, some became deeper. For instance, his move from cultural/religious to ethical vegetarianism was in England, through his association with the Vegetarian society.

His food habits became almost fetishes later on. There’s a charming anecdote of meetings in a high-end London hotel where he had everyone eating peanuts and oranges, leaving behind a mound of shells and peels.

But even before his activism began, in England, as a student, he moved in the circles of Theosophists and Vegetarians, one amongst them.

Guha notes: “In any case, the Englishman in England was less prejudiced than the Englishman abroad. In India, an Englishman was marked out as a member of the ruling race. Wherever we went, there were a ‘large number of dark-skinned men ready and willing to serve him in numerous ways’.”

Given that Gandhi’s belief in hierarchy of civilization continued for many years, one wonders if his indignation in South Africa was because of the inclusive manner in which he was treated in England. Would he have felt the same way, had he moved directly from India? After all, even in South Africa, it was the rights of fellow-Asiatics that he fought for, not the ‘kaffirs’.

About South Africa and the world today too

Make no mistake. The book is not Gandhi’s biography alone. It is also a searing commentary into the beginning of apartheid in one of the last settler states in the world.

Olive Schreiner, a South African author and supporter of Gandhi wrote: “The problems of the twentieth century will not be a repetition of those of the nineteenth or those which went before it. The walls dividing continents are breaking down: everywhere European, Asiatic and African will inter-lard. […] It will not always be the European who forms the upper level.”

We now know how naively optimistic she was.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Indians were seen as the main threat to creation of a settler state on the lines of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, where whites dominated over a submissive native population.

We see the same fear now, don’t we? With migration in other parts of the world, of other ethnicities as well.

Living in the GCC, the book is a reminder that historical patterns are repetitive. Be it how cities develop or how governments run.

In the first issue of Indian Opinion, in June 1903, Gandhi writes, in South Africa, “if an European commits a crime or a moral delinquency, it is the individual: if it is an Indian, it is the nation.”

Sounds familiar? Remove nation, and insert religion?

Or this. Joseph Chamberlain who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies (1895) a liberal politician, on the franchise bill that did not distinguish between the “most ignorant and the most enlightened of the Natives of India,’ … “A bill which involves in a common disability all natives of India without any exception and which provides no machinery by which an Indian can free himself from his disability, whatever his intelligence, his education, or his stake in the country… would be an affront upon the people of India such as no British Government could be a party to.”

In the distinction he seeks itself is a prejudice so deep-rooted. Isn’t that what’s happening in Palestine and Israel?

An English surprise

What took me by surprise was also how liberal England was in England, even if it didn’t extend that to its colonies.

The author writes: “In Britain it was assumed that, with guidance and patronage, a select group of Indians could come to keep the company of white men.”

Chamberlain himself sat on government benches with Indian colleagues (Dadabhai Naoroji and then Mancherjee Bhownaggree).

A 1884 agreement signed in London guaranteed the rights of Her Majesty’s subjects to trade and live where they pleased in South African Republic. Indian traders asked only that this clause be honoured.

The wealthy shall prevail

But SA constitution states in no uncertain term that there could be no equality between the whites and coloured races.

And the crown seemed incapable of influencing SA in any substantial manner. The SA constitution prevailed over all else.

Of course, this could be because Transvaal accounted for than a quarter of world’s supply of Gold in 1898.

And now black gold rules.

Quoted in the book is an interesting description of Johannesburg in early 1900s, by Flora Shaw: “It is hideous and detestable, luxury without order, sensual enjoyment without art, riches without refinement, display without dignity.”

There was an overwhelming preponderance of men in Joburg: 2:1 Male: Female ration. 10:1 amongst black population. The social diversity was enormous.

“A city were ‘everybody came from somewhere else, social arrangements had to be constructed from scratch and everything was up for grabs.’”

Dubai? Doha? What parallels shall we draw now…

A narration of love

Ramachandra Guha writes about his subject with great authority and brutal honesty (exposing the man’s failings of which there are quite a few). The narration is also frequently curious, making juxtapositions on Gandhi’s intent when none was on record; There is a longing to know more, and he promises it in the next installment Gandhi After India.

More than anything, the story is written with a passion one would reserve for a long-term partner, lovingly dissected.

Guha writes: “Memories are notoriously misleading, not least because memories are notoriously fallible. When he wrote his autobiography in the 1920s, Gandhi was a great Indian nationalist, the symbol of a country struggling for political freedom. How to explain to himself or to his readers why, back in 1902, he had left the motherland once more? In truth, the decision to leave for South Africa was mandated not by the mysterious ways of fate*, but by the mundane facts of failure.”

The making of a feminist

But, first a parenting lesson. Harilal, his son, after having a decision made for him, tells Gandhi: “You did not allow me to measure my capabilities; you measured them for me.”

Oops! Guilty. The wont of parents to take decisions that they think is best suited for their child.

Now about us, women.

Though his mother was an influential figure in his childhood, Gandhi was no feminist. Not till much later.

And he was goaded down that path by his wife, friend (Millie) and his secretary Sonja, mainly.

There is an interesting exchange between Gandhi and Kasturba, when Gandhi decided to return the gifts (including jewellery) he received on his first departure from Durban. His wife protests. Gandhi says it’s not for her to decide what to do with gifts presented to him. Kasturba rebukes: “But service rendered by you is as good as rendered by me. I have toiled and moiled for you day and night. Is that no service?”

What a sharp and true comment that is.

Millie who shared he home with Gandhi was also quite critical of him and Indian patriarchy.

When Gandhi recounted the story of Savitri to Millie, she said the story actually proved her point. “In Indian mythology, it appeared ‘woman is made to serve man, even to wrestling with the God of Death for him’. In myth and in reality (seeing how Gandhi treated Kasturba), Millie found Indian women ‘always waiting on the pleasure of some man’.”

Years later, in 1934, Gandhi says: ‘When I was in South Africa, I had realised that if I did not serve the cause of women, all my work would remain unfinished.’

Eighty years later, where do Indian women stand?

 

 

*Not much success in the Indian courts. Could not break into ranks of well-known lawyers.

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: QUIET BY SUSAN CAIN

“From a culture of character to a culture of personalities.”

That’s the one line from this book that keeps whirling in my head.

Self-help books, motivational blogs, coaches and guru actively encourage you to aspire to that ‘personality’ ideal, and profess to help you achieve it.

Not this book. It digs deeper into the people we are, what moulds us, what makes us and what makes us tick.

As Susan Cain writes, there is the ‘extrovert’ ideal that all of us are forced to embrace. What’s so wrong about not being that? Of being more introverted, more reflective, less loud and forceful?

In the world we live in now, to be an introvert is seen as a disability that has to be righted. Reflection, deep thought, analysis need to be sacrificed in the altar of presentations and larger-than-life personalities.

Wait… you don’t have to. The book not only explores the power of introversion, but also brings those personalities (characters) who have achieved global success without the chest thumping.

When Nat High first spoke of the book, I asked to borrow it. He was generous enough to gift me a copy. Thank you.

The key take back from the book, for me, was that I could stop being apologetic about what didn’t come naturally to me. Yes, we have no choice but to create an extrovert persona for crucial public interactions. But for the large part of how we choose to function, it’s best to do so with our innate strengths, instead of trying to work on a weakness upon which we attempt launch our lives.
It was at an MBTI (am an ENTP/J) workshop some years ago that I realised how close to the introvert mark I am. Just a couples of points across. Ambivert, that’s me. I hate labels, but this sounds cool.

Ever since my school days, people automatically assumed I am an extrovert, and so I accepted that label. So all that social anxiety that I suffer before going into a non-work socialising gig with strangers I put it down to low self-confidence. As I grew older I realised that it wasn’t low self-confidence, but a reluctance to spend hours with people who were not ‘mine’.

In time, I became more mindful of those who look ‘painfully’ shy. They probably just fall into the extreme of the introvert scale. And then I started enjoying their company so much more, I would seek them out (and they me). That joy of communication one-on-one, with someone who loves to listen as much as they love to be heard, is unmatched. Do try us. And do read the book.

If you are on the introvert scale, it will give you comfort. If you don’t, it will help you understand us better.

BOOK REVIEW: Zealot by Reza Aslan

A book on Jesus of Nazreth should be reviewed on Christmas day. I am cheesy that way.

Zealot

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazreth is both the first book of Reza Aslan’s that I purchased and the first audiobook I’ve ever listened to.

Zealot helped me make up mind about two things:

First, I am not a ‘purely’ audiobook person. I loved listening to this one, but will soon have to get an ebook or hard copy, to be able to flip pages and re-read sections and commit to memory phrases and names…

Second, religion is scary. It’s not for me.

Reza Aslan in his book No god, but God* says religion is not faith, religion is the story of faith. (That’s something I get completely and see it in the lives of the most faithful, be it of mono- or poly-theistic religious dispensation. They always put their faith over rituals.)

So, Zealot is the story of people who sought a different story to guide their faith. It’s a fascinating narration of Roman rule, power of the clergy and Jesus of Nazareth. Even more fascinating is the building of myths and stories to empower faith, after crucifixion of their prophet. The roles played by Jesus’s brother James and both the apostles who knew him personally and those who didn’t, and the debatable claims about Jesus’s life by Paul. As per Aslan, Paul is amongst the first to envision Christianity as a religion.

This book has been controversial in that it says Jesus was a passionate and zealous Jew, and not the man of peace that Christianity now makes him out to be. There have also been disagreements with the author on his reading of the New Testament.

Since I am neither well-versed in the Testaments nor have read in great detail the counter-arguments, I consumed the book with the simple familiarity of a Hindu-born irreligious person who schooled in a Catholic convent.

Zealot speaks of Jesus the revolutionary from Nazareth, before he became Christ. The life of a man when he was still in control of it vs. the history of a man as his followers sought to write it.

Zealot is a reminder that everything that is to happen has already happened, and stories of violence, cruelty, abject poverty, vulgar wealth, goodness and humanity are cyclical. But with every cycle new martyrs, new heroes and new villains are created. Some cycles are more powerful than the rest, they give birth to set-in-stone narratives… religion.

Listening to Zealot, for me there was an echo of another book that addresses the duality of Jesus: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. That book again distinguishes between the human and the divine, and is well-worth a read too.

I learnt a valuable lesson as a writer, listening to this audiobook; it underscored the importance of metre in all types of writing, not just poetry and lyrics. Aslan reads the book, or to put it more accurately, recounts a story. You realise then that why some writing is so compelling, while others barely manage to ride on the merit of its content.

*My current read.