Sunday, October 6, 2013

Buddy reads and re-visiting India

 With this week's blog we travel back to colorful India. We resume our discussion on culture and castes. Our first stop brings us to an unnamed large city and rural area inhabited by a Parsi population. This is the focus of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. While Dina Dala, Om, his uncle, Ishvar, and the student, Maneck, are moving on with their lives, we will proceed to a current buddy read of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Our cultural journey continues with a look at an Indian wedding and the accompanying exotic dishes.

Although the characters inhabiting these books belong to different rungs of Indian society, there is a connecting thread, both are buddy reads. I finished A Fine Balance earlier this year, reading it with my friend Mary from Goodreads. Mary added a whole another dimension to my interpretation and understanding of the book. My reading experience was greatly enhanced for reading this with her.

I'm currently reading A Suitable Boy as part of a buddy read that I am leading with the Goodreads group, You'll Love this One. For those of you who know me well, you know that I am a huge fan of buddy reads. I don't recall every being part of a buddy read that didn't enhance my enjoyment/knowledge of the book at least a little and usually a lot. If you haven't ever taken part in a buddy read, its worth trying at least once!

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

 "You see you cannot draw lines and compartments, and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair." (The proofreader) paused, considering what he had just said, "Yes," he repeated. "In the end, it's all a question of balance."

This paragraph encapsulates what A Fine Balance is about. Society attempts to put each character in their
Rohinton Mistry
own compartment. For the orphaned Dina Dalal, its her brother, Nusswan, trying to shove her into a "good marriage" or keeping her hidden away in his house, a virtual maid to his wife and family, if she chooses not to marry. As her life of bucking the culturally accepted roles unfurls, Dina faces more and more attempts to compartment-alize her life. She faces her prejudices, distrust of others and need to rely on others. It is much easier to follow society's rules and expectations, but Dina puts her energy into bucking them.

Maneck is a student who comes to board with Dina when campus life becomes unbearable for him. He finds himself face-to-face with the need to act when challenged with the neediness of the tailors, Dina and others. Maneck's compartment centers around the desire of his aging parents to see him through trade school as a backup occupation to running their small family-owned store and cola-bottling business in the mountains. Maneck feels trapped by his parents' expectations.

Parsi gathering
Om and Ishvar, uncle and orphaned nephew, inhabit an entirely different sphere in society. They come from a small village of refuse-gathering outcasts. When Ishvar's parents place him with a Muslim tailor in another town, they bust out of the compartment they were placed in. Much grief follows, but Ishvar and his brother, Om's father, persevere and eventually win over their village. When tragedy strikes, Ishvar takes Om to the big city, residence of Dina Dalal, and offers her his tailoring skills.

Om finds himself squeezed by the rules of tradition in regards to marriage, his desire to be like Maneck, carefree and playful, but required to sew in order to survive. He rebels against his lot in life and inability to ascend to a higher level of independence.

Although sad things happen in this novel, there is much to be learned about India's history, Parsi culture, the castes and the futility of the Indian government of that time. The book offers the reader to glimpse Indian society through several sets of eyes inhabiting different backgrounds and positions in it. I highly recommend this book to around-the-world readers and anyone interested in reading about India.

A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth

Since I am only 300+ pages into this 1500-page volume, my focus will be on a wedding that is depicted in the opening chapters. I found the symbolism and food captivating! The following descriptions of the festivities inspired me to dream a little about what it must have been like leading to a search for pictures to bring more perspective.
Vikram Seth

...It was a little untraditional, Lata couldn't help thinking, that Pran hadn't ridden up to the gate on a white horse with a little nephew sitting in front of him and with the groom's party in tow to claim his bride....He was now placing a garland of dark red, heavily fragrant roses around her sister Savita's neck - and Savita was doing the same to him. She looked lovely in her red-and-gold wedding sari....
The welcoming ceremony completed, bride and groom moved together to the middle of the garden, where a small platform, decorated with more white flowers and open to the auspicious stars, had been erected. Here the priests, one from each family, and Mrs. Rupa Mehra and the parents of the groom sat around the small fire that would be the witness of their vows...
Exchange of garlands
Now that the exchange of garlands was over, the crowd paid no great attention to the actual wedding rites. These would go on for the better part of an hour while the guests milled and chattered round the lawns...they exchanged births and deaths and politics and scandal under the brightly-coloured cloth canopy at the back of the garden beneath which long tables of food had been laid out...
Servants, some in white livery, some in khaki, brought around fruit juice and tea and coffee and snacks to those who were standing in the garden: samosas,
kachauris, laddus, gulabjamuns, barfis and gajak and ice-cream were consumed and replenished along with puris and six kinds of vegetables...


....Friends who had not met each other for months fell upon each other with loud cries, relatives who met only at weddings and funerals embraced tearfully and exchanged the latest news of third cousins thrice removed...

If you are anything like me, looking at these pictures and reading the description of this wedding makes
you wish you were there! Doesn't the
food look delicious? Here are some
more pictures for your virtual culinary journey.
galub jamun

One has to wonder how many days it took the servants to prepare these foods. Most don't look like they would be something that could be prepared too quickly especially for a host of guests.

More wedding visuals....The barbaric children from rustic Rudhia ran around yelling as if they were playing pitthu on the farm. And though the plaintive, festive music of the shehnai had now ceased, a happy babble of convivial voices rose to the skies and quite drowned out the irrelevant chant of the ceremonies...


I hoped you enjoyed this culinary and cultural tour to an Hindu wedding as depicted by A Suitable Boy. Consider yourself cordially invited to join in our buddy read discussion of this book!