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Posts from the ‘Reviews’ Category

Fasting For Ramadan

by Kazim Ali
(Tupelo Press, 2011)

Cover Fasting in RamadanIn Fasting for Ramadan, Kazim Ali journeys into the various physical, spiritual, and philosophical transformations one undergoes while fasting for Ramadan. The book encompasses two separate observations of Ramadan, chronicling Ali’s experiences in 2009 when he kept an online blog of his spiritual and fasting process, and also in 2007 when Ali first attempted to capture the experience of Ramadan in diary form.

In this collection, Ali’s essays range from detailing his struggles with staying active and inactive during the Ramadan period, to his relationship to the exterior world and his own body, to beginning to understand the outline of his own spiritual life. At times the essays, which are marked by lyricism, veer toward sentimentality, too much listing, or a preoccupation with the mundane. However, it is this focus on the minor details of one’s daily existence and the forced attention Ramadan brings to the practices of awakening, exercising, eating, working, and meditating that allow some of Ali’s pieces to become quiet and illuminating gems—-that is, prisms into the machinations and uncharted areas of one’s own psyche and spirituality.

What makes this collection of essays especially exciting is the way in which Ali confronts his own body and his relationship to religion and spirituality. Below the surface of the daily accounts there is a startling and uneasy confrontation with one’s own mortality, which Ali at first acknowledges quietly and then begins to own during the course of his abstinence and fasting. In the 2007 diary, Ali explores the fragility of the body through the surgery and slow recovery of his partner, Marco. In the meditative silence of the 2009 Ramadan and in the various kinds of physical and psychic hungers the observation forces the individual to confront, Ali begins to look more closely at his relationship to his own body. He writes, “Our tendency to live in terms of ‘one time,’ distant from our present, always thinking about something else, either looking backward or looking forward, may have some relationship to the animal fear of being alarmingly present in the corporeal body. Because to be really present in the body, to breathe it, to use it, to stretch it and feel it, not just once, but over the course of weeks or months or years, to feel it age, to know its character, is to know: that the body dies.”

This “animal fear of being alarmingly present in the corporeal body” is the anxiety that lurks beneath Ali’s essays as he journeys through the worlds of hunger, abstinence, and reflection. As he begins to interrogate the needs of the body and its limitations, Ali ponders how aging, the body in decay, and the inevitability of death shapes understanding of his actions, sense of self, and present moment. His ruminations demonstrate how the physical body can be a conduit connecting the physicality of daily life to a more meditative, spiritual realm.

Moreover, in trying to grasp and define the contours of his own spirituality, Ali comes to some of the most startling and refreshing conclusions about his own religion and selfhood. At one point in the 2007 Ramadan essays, Ali ponders whether his religious practices, in which he observes the abstinence period of Ramadan but abstains from a daily prayer ritual, make him “Muslim enough.” This anxiety of seeming less culturally or religiously Muslim creates an undercurrent of tension in Ali’s 2007 journals.

Even during the 2009 Ramadan fast, when Ali invites his students over to join him in breaking the fast during an evening iftar meal at sunset, a few of his students ask for a room in which they can pray, and Ali leads them to the small room where he practices yoga and meditates. At the makeshift altar, there are statues of Buddha and Ganesha, which he explains are used during his meditations but which he removes for the benefit of his students. Later the question of “why I felt the responsibility to explain myself” haunts Ali’s mind. As a practicing student and teacher of yoga and as a young man who comes from a Muslim-Indian family, Ali weaves together a variety of religious and cultural narratives, from the varying practices of yoga to the symbolism of Buddha and Ganesha to the story of Ismail and Hajira to his own vegetarianism and complex, technology-fueled modern American lifestyle. Although Ali may worry if he is authentically Muslim, South Asian, American, spiritual, or artistic enough, it is his embrace of the diverse and varying set of customs and cultural values comprising his own reality that make Ali authentically human and make his journeys into Ramadan, and into himself, such a pleasure to read.

rita-banerjee1Rita Banerjee teaches modern South Asian literatures, Bengali language, and art house film in Munich. She received her PhD in comparative literature from Harvard this year. Her creative work has been featured in VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Catamaran, the new renaissance, and the Fiction Project.

Crossing Black Waters

by Athena Kashyap
(Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2012)

Cover Crossing Black WatersIn her debut collection of poetry, author Athena Kashyap references “black waters” to evoke two separate “crossings”: the first, when the author moved to the United States from the country/city of her formative years, and the second, when her great-grandfather uprooted his family from Lahore and made the crossing to India.

Embedded in the poems, which move back and forth between the Indian subcontinent and America, is a longing for “home” that is realized in the mind. However, when the poet finally returns to her abandoned family home in Pakistan, she finds that what was left behind is just “half of everything.” Even the fulfillment of her longing is faltering, uncertain: “Of all the seeds planted / by great-grandfather in Lahore, / only trees remain— / clinging on.”

The backdrop of San Francisco, on the other hand, represents a more abstract existence, an occupation rather than a belonging, a perpetual halfway house. Kashyap declares her position succinctly: “I am knot.” There is a sense of slow loss in her America-centered poems, in a country where, according to the poet, she is so free that she floats away: “I am diluted, having left one world to live and travel in / others. My skin grows permeable, breathable.” It is at this plane of osmosis, of skin as filter, that the experience of America occurs. Her poems situated beyond the black waters absorb the local, but the specifics of a home left behind intrude: the taste of tandoori, of sweet Gujarati food, snippets of Hindi film songs, and the memories of Mumbai trains all collide with the present.

The poem “Zero Generation” addresses immigrant loneliness as a collective experience, in that it speaks to those who “long to belong, but also long to return / back to where we once belonged.” The desire for making a world in a foreign land is inherent, but described here is an immigrant experience that just does not settle, and Kashyap’s poems simmer at this cusp. She references a popular line from a film song, “Aye dil, hai mushkil jeena yahaan,” which translates to, “My poor heart, how difficult it is to live here!” While the “here” in the context of the song refers to Bombay, the author borrows the expression to refer to life in America. This move by the author achieves the effect of making the hard reality of urban living there—or here—universal.

Kashyap writes of sundering, separations, crossings, reunions, and uncertain reconciliations. The break with an imagined home is never forever; return is always a possibility yet remains unsatisfying whenever it occurs. Crossing Black Waters is a many-layered book about the simultaneity of multiple existence that is becoming more frequent in our modern world, where all our online networks are no substitute for being “there,” and being there is no longer an end in itself.

Mustansir DalviMustansir Dalvi teaches architecture in Mumbai, India. His translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s poems from the Urdu, Taking Issue and Allah’s Answer (Penguin, 2012) was runner-up for the 2012 Best Translation Prize at the Muse India National Literary Awards. Brouhahas of Cocks (Poetrywala, 2013) is his first book of poems in English.

Karma Gone Bad

Or How I Learned To Love Mangos, Bollywood and Water Buffaloes
by Jenny Feldon
(Sourcebooks, 2013)

Cover Karma Gone BadFor an immigrant such as myself, who moved from a big city in a developing nation to battle the loneliness of living in the United States, I was eager to read Jenny Feldon’s reverse experience. In the mid-2000s, Feldon and her husband Jay, both twenty-seven years old, have been married less than a year and reside in Manhattan, where Feldon’s life is quite fulfilled with Starbucks, her dog, yoga, her blog, and her novel-in-progress. Then Jay’s company transfers him to Hyderabad, India for two years. Feldon has misgivings from the get-go. Despite the chance to, as she says, “ride elephants and visit the Taj Mahal,” she admits zero interest in traveling outside America. She also refuses to be practical. Although an expat guidebook advises taking only essentials on the plane, Feldon insists on packing designer shoes and cocktail dresses.

When the couple arrives in Hyderabad, a man tries to steal Feldon’s white YSL handbag; the drive to their apartment is an equally unnerving experience. By the end of their first day in the city, Jay falls ill with the strange chikungunya fever. He recovers soon enough and begins to settle down, but Feldon falls apart.

One could easily commiserate with Feldon’s misery and confusion. When I moved to the United States, I also felt unmoored—I had thought all of the US was some version of New York City and San Francisco combined. In much the same way, Feldon expected a glamorous expat lifestyle only to realize that India is not a brown version of Sex and the City (though I wonder if she would have adjusted any easier had she been able to let go of her preconceptions).

Many of Feldon’s complaints will strike the reader as all too valid—constant food poisoning, or being constantly pawed and photographed in public because she’s white and blue-eyed. India is dirty, dusty, and hot, with mosquitoes, stray dogs, and buffalo wandering city streets. Feldon, a coffee addict, can’t find a decent cup of coffee anywhere, not even at Café Coffee Day (a Starbucks-type place), and the plastic to-go lids melt. She tries to be part of the expat social scene but, just like the Indians, most of the other expats stare at her out-of-place designer dresses and shoes.

It is only after a serious threat to her marriage, and only after Jay reminds her they have six months left in India, that Feldon perks up enough to be curious about the country. It’s a pity that this turnaround happens in the last fifty pages because those experiences are interesting: she hires servants; she takes an interest in her driver Venkat’s sweet love story; she meets a savvy local, Anjali, and Feldon’s world opens up; she starts practicing yoga again; she gets some “retail therapy” at an old spice bazaar; she braves a local grocery in order to make Jay chicken soup; she visits a local orphanage.

That said, Feldon’s exotification of third-world poverty is disturbing. She sees beauty in the world after meeting a slum family, interacting with an orphan girl, and seeing a little barefoot errand boy. Does Feldon experience the same beauty when witnessing poverty in the US? In many instances, I was unsure of what to make of her tone. In the following passage, she goes to the cinema to watch a Bollywood film, but is she being funny or flippant?

The final credits of Dhoom 2 rolled, and I stood up, wiping a tear away with the back of my hand. I’d loved it. Well, loved it . . . but didn’t really get it. Why was everyone so happy and dance-y when life in India could be so unspeakably hard? . . . Here was something Indian I could get on board with: glitz and glamour and fairy-tale romance.

Can Feldon truly not see that Dhoom 2 is as much an escapist fantasy for her as it is for any Indian? That an American and an Indian share a common humanity? Ironically, Feldon decides she wants to be a Bollywood superstar, and to that end, starts taking Hindi lessons.

Feldon sees everything through the dichotomous prism of “her own self” or that of the “other” in an irreconcilable way. This is a shame, given that she otherwise offers social commentary, such as her focus on the Indian obsession with skin color and the glass ceilings imposed by caste, which prevent Venkat from living the American dream of rising above one’s circumstances. Venkat, who is Hindu, dislikes Christians and Muslims and yet has close Muslim friends. Feldon takes note of his hypocrisy, but she does not question it. When Hyderabad is under terrorist attack, Feldon allows Venkat to have the last word: “Muslim peoples no good people . . . No more Muslim meaning no more problem,” without any discussion or debate regarding his point of view. Is Feldon’s silence because of her lack of understanding of the social dynamics, or does she simply not think Venkat’s views may have consequences?

Feldon demonstrates deeper introspection when she writes of America; her words are subtle and nuanced. She is most engaging when she writes about her parents, in particular her relationship with her father, a man who comes across as a solid, decent human being and a very wise parent.

It would have made for a stronger memoir if Feldon explored what India meant to her, for better or worse. The subtitle, How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood, and Water Buffalo, is misleading. “Love” ought to have been replaced by “tolerate” or “accept.” Many threads are left unfinished; for example, I would like to know why Monsoon Wedding is her favorite film and how she finally figured out how to do the laundry. As it is, Karma Gone Bad is a quick read written in the same clean, simple style as Feldon’s blog, and so will certainly appeal to her existing fans. It portrays an India that is confusing but not really demystified.

Soniah KamalSoniah Kamal was born in Pakistan, raised in England and Saudi Arabia, and lives in the US. Her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, is forthcoming in 2014 and her short stories and essays have been published in the United States, Pakistan, India, and Canada. Soniah is in the MFA program at Georgia State University, where she is the recipient of Paul Bowles Fellowship in Fiction.

The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry

Edited by Sudeep Sen
(HarperCollins India, 2012)

sensudeep_harpercollinsbookofenglishpoetryThe HarperCollins Book of English Poetry is an ambitious collection of works by eighty-five contemporary poets of Indian origin spread across the diaspora. The selected works reflect diverse nuances of verse, ranging from pantoums, sonnets, ghazals, sestinas, haiku variations, Bhartrhari shatakas, prayer chants, hymn forms, prose poetry, mosaic pastiches, and longer versions of lyric narratives.

Editor Sudeep Sen, a renowned poet, has limited the entries in this volume only to poets born in the postcolonial era (post–1950), presumably to avoid names which have been synonymous with the genre of Indian English poetry in the past, such as Dom Moraes, Nissim Ezekiel, Kamala Das, and Keki Daruwalla.  This collection is indeed replete with several novel and captivating voices, like Anindita Sengupta, Anupama Raju, and Tishani Doshi, to name a few. Over ninety percent of the poems are previously unpublished and secured solely for this collection. One does wonder about the significance of the photograph of a blue, rustic, bolted door on the book’s cover. On closer inspection, the latch hasn’t been shut although the door itself is locked. The image is engimatic, perhaps in harmony with the publisher’s attempt to synchronize this project with the celebration of the sixtieth year of India becoming a republic.

The poems are presented in alphabetical order according to the poets’ names, and the shift between radically different styles is, at times, surprising. On subsequent readings, one tends to appreciate both the diversity and the commonalities in subject matter. The mythological references in several poems are a happy congruence, although not a vertex of this anthology.

Poet Daljit Nagra, in his characteristic bold voice, delights with “Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy–Machine!!!”: “To flesh a poem / You rifle through / Your store of imperial / Word-dying / To blood that hoard / Swotted . . .” 

And Chitra Divakaruni, an acclaimed writer of fiction, enthralls with ekphrastic verse in “The World Tree”: “The tree grows out of my navel. Black / As snakeskin, it slithers upward, away / From my voice. It spreads / Across the entire morning, its leaves / Tongues that drink the light. It has ground / Its heel into my belly.”

Anand Thakore, a Hindustani classical vocalist, keeps close to the original formal style of Urdu in “Ghazal.” Anjum Hasan’s polyphonic verses in “No Solace” transition back and forth from poetic to prosaic form. Bold experimentation is especially evident in Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s rendition of Bhartrhari shatakas (inspired by the sixth-century Sanskrit grammarian and poet) and Amitava Kumar’s long verse narratives. H. Masud Taj, a performance poet based in Ottawa, Canada, constantly works around philosophical and social circumferences of poetry and architecture. An architect by trade, his verses are appealing visually, as in “Flamingo.”

In an era of open-mic poetry nights and self-publishing options, anthologies such as this one constitute a much-needed benchmark of panache. This anthology serves as a conglomeration of assertive, fresh voices, a long way off from the rich inherent, albeit stringent, tradition of Itihasas and Puranas. These are voices to reckon with in a world that is constantly on the move, a world that is merging into a subtler, indistinct identity, even as we speak.

Divya Rajan‘s latest work is forthcoming in Contemporary Indian English Poetry, edited by Dr. Paula Hayes. She has served on the editorial teams of The Furnace Review (poetry), Asian Cha (poetry), and The Best of the Net anthologies (2010 and 2011: nonfiction, 2012: poetry). She lives in Chicago.