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 on 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). 

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North by Northwest (1959) starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, & Martin Landau

While filming Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock described some of the plot to its star/frequent collaborator James Stewart, who naturally assumed that Hitchcock meant to cast him in the Roger Thornhill role. This time, the director wanted Cary Grant, who he thought looked younger (though, at 55 y.o. was 4 yrs older than Stewart). By the time Hitchcock realized the misunderstanding, Stewart was so eager to play the lead that rejecting him would’ve caused a great deal of disappointment. Hitchcock decided to delay production until Stewart was already committed to Anatomy of a Murder before officially offering him the North by Northwest role. Stewart had to turn down the offer, allowing Hitchcock to cast Grant.

Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself “slightly” killed. -Roger describes himself

A Madison Ave ad man, Roger Thornhill (Grant), finds himself in the world of spies when he is mistaken for someone named George Kaplan. A British man, Philip Vandamm (James Mason), along w/ his henchman Leonard (Martin Landau) and others try to kill Roger. In a meeting room somewhere, a group of FBI agents (headed by The Professor), are discussing the dilemma of Mr. Kaplan- a decoy, not a real man. Roger investigates, though even his mother is skeptical, and eventually gets framed for murder. He manages to flee the police and runs on board the 20th Century Limited (a train) headed for Chicago. Roger meets a beautiful blond, Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who decides to hide him in her sleeper berth. He wonders why she’s being so helpful. Vandamm and his men continue to pursue Roger. 

The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no  desire to make love to her. -Roger admits sheepishly

What makes you think you have to conceal it? -Eve asks, matter-of-factly

She might find the idea objectionable. -Roger explains

Then again, she might not. -Eve replies

Though this film is fast-moving and efficiently made, MGM wanted the film cut by 15 mins (to be under 2 hrs). Hitchcock’s contract gave him control over the final cut (which is the most power that can be given to a director). Eva Marie Saint said that Alfred Hitchcock was unhappy with costumes MGM had designed for her, so marched her to Bergdorf Goodman (a department store) and personally picked out clothes for her character. When Landau’s character first sees Grant’s, he comments: “He’s a well-tailored one.” All of Landau’s suits for the film were made by Grant’s personal tailor. The clothes are fabulous (esp. the black and red floral evening dress worn by Eve in Chicago). Grant even has a shirtless scene, proving that clothes don’t only make the man. 

[1] This film has something for everyone within it: a little comedy, a little romance, great snappy dialogue and action… 

[2] There is great acting and a great story. You should be engaged and intrigued, and always surprised and what will occur next. 

[3] Of course the famous crop dusting plane scene and the Mount Rushmore chase are terrific. The former is really more notable for the amount of time taken to build up to the action than the action itself, while the technical work on the latter still looks pretty good. 

[4] Roger Thornhill is one of the best roles Mr. Grant played, during his long career. His chemistry with Eva Marie Saint is perfect. 

[5] Cary Grant’s debonair manner is displayed to the full in this film, even though the peril that his character goes through would cause any normal dude to break into a maddening sweat. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Two Faces of January (2014) starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, & Oscar Isaac

[1] In turns enchanting, brooding and cowed like a cornered animal, he [Isaac] plays the perfect James Stewart character in this Hitchcockian homage.

[2] The narrative is very well-balanced and restrained from the hyperactive traps of modern cinematic storytelling.

[3] Not so much a morality play as a tale of amorality, this psychological drama makes for a movie that is moody and deeply satisfying.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The principal relationship in this film (referred to as “a reto reworking of film noir” by one viewer) is between two men (one of them married; the other drawn to his wife). Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is a rich American touring Greece w/ his younger wife, Colette, (Kirsten Dunst). The man who is intrigued by them is young tour guide, Rydal Keener (Oscar Issac), who is also American (yet able to blend in w/ the locals due to his language skills). Chester reminds Rydal of his father, who recently passed away, and w/ whom he had a difficult relationship. At first, Rydal thinks he has the upper hand; soon he realizes that he may have taken on too much by offering the couple his help. Who is the true con-man here? 

Adapted by the director, Hossein Amini (who is British-Iranian), from a novel by Patricia Highsmith (The The Talented Mr. Ripley; Strangers on a Train), this film is an atmospheric, well-acted thriller set in beautiful locations (Athens, Crete, and Istanbul) w/ great (’60s) costumes. Amini knows how to heighten the tension as the film goes on. This film is tightly edited, which adds to its effectiveness. The music fits very well w/ the action, too. You can watch it on Netflix.