Thoughts on a few South Asian diaspora books

Books I’ve Recently Read:

An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao

Synopsis: 1947: the Indian subcontinent is partitioned into two separate countries, India and Pakistan. And with one decree, countless lives are changed forever. An Unrestored Woman explores the fault lines in this mass displacement of humanity… In paired stories that hail from India and Pakistan to the United States, Italy, and England, we witness the ramifications of the violent uprooting of families, the price they pay over generations, and the uncanny relevance these stories have in our world today.

Don’t start this book if you’re in a bad (or down) mood; it’s not going to cheer you up. I liked a few of the stories, but some of them seemed too far-fetched or pandering to the exotic image of India. I don’t think men will enjoy this book much; the males in this collection are either terrible or impotent (as in unable to improve the lives of the women and girls in their lives). There is also no mention of the religious (mainly Hindu/Muslim) strife before (or after) Partition; this seemed odd to some of my book club. 

Streets of Darkness by A.A. Dhand

Synopsis: The sky over Bradford is heavy with foreboding. It always is. But this morning it has reason to be – this morning a body has been found. And it’s not just any body. Detective Harry Virdee should be at home with his wife. Impending fatherhood should be all he can think about but he’s been suspended from work just as the biggest case of the year lands on what would have been his desk. He can’t keep himself away. 

This (page-turner) is written by a pharmacist (he kept his day job) who grew up in Bradford, England. If you’re looking for literary, descriptive book re: desis in the UK, this isn’t the book for you; look up Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie instead. This is mystery w/ some desi flavor and interlinked characters who inhabit a city in decline (joblessness, drugs, religious strife, and white power). One of the best threads is the loving marriage between Harry (who was raised Sikh) and his wife (a nurse of Pakistani Muslim heritage). This book may be tough to find (for those in the US, as I learned from those in my book club); it’s available from UK sellers on Amazon. Dhand has already sold the rights to this book (and its sequel), so it will eventually be made into a TV show. 

Books I’m Currently Reading:

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald 

Synopsis: Nineteenth-century Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island, bags heavy with silks from their villages in Bengal. Demand for “Oriental goods” took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey’s boardwalks to the segregated South. Bald’s history reveals cross-racial affinities below the surface of early twentieth-century America.

This book is full of statistics, so it’s not a fast read. I’m in the middle of it now, and will keep on reading. It’s very educational, so I highly recommend it to anyone in the desi diaspora. I wanted to read it a long time ago, but didn’t get around to it. One of my acquaintances, an actor-turned-teacher, Alauddin Ullah, is featured in the book; his father came to East Harlem about 50 yrs ago from Chittagong (now a mid-sized city in Bangladesh).  

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Synopsis: In Afghanistan, a culture ruled almost entirely by men, the birth of a son is cause for celebration and the arrival of a daughter is often mourned as misfortune. A bacha posh (literally translated from Dari as “dressed up like a boy”) is a third kind of child–a girl temporarily raised as a boy and presented as such to the outside world. Jenny Nordberg, the reporter who broke the story of this phenomenon for the New York Times, constructs a powerful and moving account of those secretly living on the other side of a deeply segregated society where women have almost no rights and little freedom. 

I’ve only read a few chapters of this (nonfiction) book, but the topic is very interesting, so I will keep on reading. At the start of the story, Nordberg gets to know Azita, a female parliamentarian in her mid-30s, who has turned her fourth daughter into a boy (Mehran). 

“Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez”

Mexican-American conservative essayist Richard Rodriguez (born 1944) is equally masterful on the page and onstage.  (He’s a frequent contributor to PBS and has speaking engagements all over the Western world.)  Many feel that education is the great equalizer.  Rodriguez argues in this biography (published in 1981) that there is a price to pay for that education.  Rodriguez also believes that class, not race, is the issue that needs to be addressed in our educational system.

As a little boy in 1940s Sacramento, California, he is “Ricardo”- speaking Spanish and sheltered by the protective embrace of his immigrant parents.  He sometimes has to translate for his parents in public.  Once he enters the local Catholic school, he becomes “Richard”-a thoughtful student who finds a keen interest in mastering English and reading great works of literature.  As the nuns suggest, the family begins speaking English at home.  English is the language of the public sphere.  Though they have worked their way up to a middle-class life, Richard notices that his parents don’t speak English with confidence as they did Spanish.  The loss of Spanish is correlated with the loss of closeness with his family.

By junior high school, Richard has read hundreds of books.  He learns about work by delivering newspapers and tending the gardens of his elderly neighbors.   Serving as an altar boy, Richard learns about the rituals of life.  (The author is still sustained by his Catholic faith and regularly attends mass).  As a teen, he becomes “the scholarship boy” and gains admission to Stanford (in part due to affirmative action, a policy that he later speaks against).  A local paper does a story on his educational success; he becomes an example in his community.

One summer, Richard works in construction, just to see what manual labor is like.  He finds himself enjoying it, partly because he’s not bound to this kind of work.  Richard realizes that most of his working-class co-workers make decent livings, unlike the Mexican illegals (who are sometimes bused in for the toughest tasks).  While the other men chat and laugh, the illegals are nearly silent and solely focused on getting the job done as quickly as possible.  Of course, they are paid less than the regular construction workers, but they have no voice to protest.

In college and grad school during the ’60s, Richard continues to excel and meets many wealthy, well-connected people (some of whom become life-long friends despite political and social differences).  As he climbs the Ivy-covered, politically-charged ladder of academia, he wonders what work will fulfill him in the long run.  He also begins to publish articles.  How can he live “a life of the mind” and still remain true to himself?

Richard Rodriguez’s thought-provoking and emotionally powerful book reads like many immigrant stories.  The author grew up in a time when assilimination into mainstream American culture was the key to success.  He lost a lot of his native Spanish, then gained it back after careful study in his early adult years.  In one Thanksgiving scene, the author explains that two of his siblings have married non-Mexicans.   Though Rodriguez’s father (who toiled in physically demanding jobs for many years) never fully mastered English, he was able to work his way up to a middle-class position.  Richard’s mother (who spoke English well) always worked outside the home, and eventually earned a secure position with the city government.  All of his siblings are college-educated and work in professional fields.

This book also delves into our American educational system, which Rodriguez feels puts too much emphasis on improving college education, but not elementary and secondary education.  How can a student succeed in college when he’s poor in reading or lacks everyday math skills?  When Rodriguez goes to speak in inner-city schools, he finds a vibrancy lacking in middle-class, mainly white schools.  The teens are wearing bright colors.  They pay careful attention to their hair, clothes, and personal style.  They are confident in their physical bodies and the author wishes he had been like that as an adolescent.  However, most of these poor and working-class kids (no matter of what race), will find limited opportunities as they graduate high school.