Saturday, September 12, 2020

I review Anne Tyler's novel Redhead by the Side of the Road


This is the story of a man in his early 40s whose existence flits between feeling lonely and alone. The two states are not diametrically in opposition to each other, but they are not the same either. The difference is important and central to the story of Redhead by the Side of the Road.

Micah Mortimer’s life has not panned out as he had wanted. Starting as a bright computer science student, going into a startup tech business with a wealthy partner, he walked away to end up as Tech Hermit answering random calls from people who need their computer and printer problems fixed. He lives in a basement apartment of a building rent-free in exchange for serving as the manager. The youngest after four sisters, Micah can’t seem to hold on to a woman although even before he became a teenager “not even fully aware of sex, he had already longed to have a girl of his very own.”

The latest disruption, the one we witness in the narrative, is caused by a young boy, Brink, a runaway, who shows up outside Micah’s patch one morning out of the blue, claiming to be his son because he learned that Micah was the love of his mother’s life when she was young. Quick math puts that speculation to rest, but Micah ends up acquiescing to let him use the guest room just when Cass, his woman friend, is dealing with the fear of being evicted. Cass sees that as a signal from Micha that she is not welcome to move in with him, and no pleading, no amount of explanation would help change her mind. The case is closed. That’s the thick of it.

Micah, in his moments of solitude, looks back, wondering why women would leave him on one pretext or another. There are differences between Cass and him, but they are minor. There’s more care for the suffering in Cass’s worldview than that of Micah’s and he knows it, but their relationship has worked so far because both, as adults, recognize and respect each other’s physical and emotional space. But is there any place in Micah’s world for flexibility, for bending of the rules?

Anne Tyler, one of the most loved American authors of more than 20 novels, does not let the narrative either spin out of control or descend to irreversible tragedy. For the most part, it simmers on a constant low flame. The runaway boy is reunited with his mother and adoptive father, who develops respect for Micah. Cass takes Micah back. Brink’s mother and Micah’s college sweetheart, Lorna Bartell, is allowed to share her perspective with Micah of how and why their relationship fell apart.

This idea of a clash of perceptions between how men and women see certain events unfolding around their lives seems like a common theme now and brings to mind Clifford Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley, whose protagonist, Aiken, has a similar problem vis a vis the two most important women in his life with a far more serious issue on hand.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Moazzam Reviews Clifford Garstang's The Shaman of Turtle Valley for Heavy Feather Review

"What to Aiken’s mind has always been a matter of betrayal from Kelly when she left town and eventually married after Aiken joined the army, Kelly’s perspective shatters his sense of self. Their last love-making moment, she considers rape."

There’s been a lot of talk, at least since Trump’s victory, about the poor Whites left to rust and rot due to our neoliberal economic policies pursued by the two political parties. We often get stuck with an image of illiterate redneck pockets unable to cope with the evolving nature of modernity and corporate greed. There’s a risk of dehumanizing which must be avoided despite political differences. Clifford Garstang has done a decent enough job to explore the good, the bad, and in-between by focusing his lens on a family whose presence in a small idle place called Turtle Valley, Virginia, goes back generations. For now, Garstang goes after the current  generation with Aiken at the heart of the story.

According to one view, America keeps a certain part of its population illiterate and poor, Whites and non-Whites, on purpose to be used as cannon fodder for its imperial wars around the globe. Without any regard for their well-being afterwards if they’re lucky enough to return in one piece. It is not rocket science to see the connection between the Korean War and onward to a rising number of veterans ending up homeless on American streets, begging or going insane. So it is only natural that Aiken, the younger son of Henry and Ruth, joins the army to be deployed to Kuwait and Iraq around Desert Storm. Luckily his deployment is short, though he has his share of war trauma but it has spared him more or less. Before he can quit the army, however, his second deployment takes him to South Korea, where he befriends an underage young woman interested in practicing her English with American soldiers and gets her pregnant towards the end of his tenure.                                      

  The novel opens with Aiken loading his truck with few of his belongings in order to move in with his parents while contemplating how best to stay in touch with his four year old son, Henry named after his father, a Navy veteran, and how to make sense of the distance which has opened up regarding his Korean wife.

You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

My Re-evaluation of noted writer Altaf Fatima's Urdu Novel Chalta Mussafir

When novelists take on historical events or embed their characters into watershed moments of history, they complicate narratives peddled by the state, and even historians, whose primary concern revolves around countering a popular narrative set in motion by state actors via textbooks, patriotic songs, popular media and compromised journalists. 

  A historian’s focus is on facts extracted from primary or secondary sources offering a counter-narrative. For example, in the US ‘the no taxation without representation’ narrative persists. Some historians have however argued that the fear of losing slaves caused the revolution. There were slave rebellions. Then King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding white settlers from usurping more land from the natives.  
Historian Gerald Horne argues that the revolution was, in fact, a counter-revolution spelling disaster for African Americans and Native Americans. When novelists enter the fray, they draw a narrative arc with ordinary humans at the centre. Altaf Fatima’s novel Chalta Mussafir was written about a decade after Pakistan army’s unconditional surrender in Dhaka. 

  Except for the weak ending, I loved her book Daskat Na Do (The One Who Did Not Knock, translated finely by Rukhsana Ahmed) for its diction and for situating two outsiders at the heart of the story. One would think that a decade was a long enough time to gain perspective about an emotionally charged moment in history, and weigh official and unofficial narrative and counter-narratives to offer an undidactic lens. An equal number of Hindus and Muslims don't have to die and en equal number of perpetrators of violence should not should not also be lined up. Since no one has a complete grip on the truth, the author must look far and wide.
ad the rest Here

Monday, March 2, 2020

My review of I'm From Nowhere by Lindsay Lerman


Towards the end of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the chief butler at Darlington Hall, reconciles himself to the realization that by agreeing to live a subservient life, he couldn’t even make his own mistakes. “Really, one has to ask oneself, what dignity is there in that?” Lindsay Lerman’s central character, Claire, of her powerful debut novel I’m From Nowhere, struggles with a somewhat similarly existential pang when John, her husband, suddenly passes away at a young age. In Lerman’s sensitive and compassionate hands, Claire juggles, for days since John’s death, the twin emotions of grief and identity crisis. Claire is barely thirty years old. That only complicates emotions further. Two of their friends, Andrew and Luke, are present at the funeral silently polishing their sexual and/or romantic bait. Both men, in the past, have made their attraction to her clear, risking their friendship with John. That Claire never confided in her husband about Andrew’s advance or Luke’s love letter lest that rupture the friendship among men, served to prop up her self-esteem, which serves, in essence, as the novel’s dominant, if not central, theme.

You can read the entire review here.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

A Punjabi short story by Virk



Image result for shahid mirza art
artwork by Shahid Mirza

 Those who’d seen believed Kamla to be twenty to twenty-five years old. In reality her age 
lay somewhere between thirty and forty. The age deception resulted mostly because of her 
well-kneaded figure; she wasn't plump or thin, neither too tall nor short. Since white attires sat well 
on her lighter skin, that’s what she’d often wear. Although she wasn’t that young anymore, a 
man approaching her from behind couldn’t resist getting his fill of her.

Those who toil away in offices have limited words for gossip, bragging. Their experience is 
restricted. Heads bowed, scribbling words down on paper isn't worthy of much. Kamla’s husband 
Manmohan Lal, however, could brag on account of his wife. His wife stood a class apart on account 
of her beauty whether it was at a gathering or a train station while seeing off a fellow officer 
being transferred, or some other occasion happy or sad where men and women had gathered. 
Manmohan Lal couldn’t contain himself within his clothes.

He was rightfully proud of her. Besides being attractive and well-mannered, her character was 
also beyond blemish. Those who kept news did gossip about the wives of others, but never a 
word about Kamla. There was nothing to talk. Manmohan Lal went on official trips occasionally 
to check on accounts of offices in other areas. Those trips could last awhile. Eight, ten days. Kamla 
did feel lonely, bored. The life of a wife is no life without the husband. The house seemed like a
circus devoid of an elephant or a wedding procession without a groom.

It’d been five days since Manmohan went away. Three more days before he returned – days heavy 
as mountains, days bereft of taste. The house, food and everything around her was the same as 
usual, but Manmohan’s absence turned the days into milk from which cream had been extracted.

An old milkman used to come by to deliver milk, once in the morning and once in the evening. 
He’d put down his bucket next to the kitchen door. He’d release the handle of the bucket from 
his grip, letting it bang against the metal rim. That’s how he announced the event of his 
“Get you milk!” he'd holler. Holding the container, a maidservant would emerge from the 
kitchen and he’d start pouring milk into her container. One would then hear the thumping sound 
of his slipper retreating and the play would come to an end.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Poem by Athena Kashyap

Letter from a 17th Century Devadasi to her Ghungaroos

Image result for devadasi

Together, we entered hushed halls packed
with luminaries--our king, head priests,

war heroes, the richest traders, and my lover,
soft chimes of your multitudinous bells in solid gold 

tied to the pillars of my legs, scores of eyes
within each bell roving side to side, gazing out

at the world, awake and awakening. 
My companion through my greatest triumphs, 

tender intimacies, my legs guided you, taming 
your wild energy. My arms, twin arcs of desire,

framed my head and chest; my back, 
an undulating bow, the string so taut it emanated

waves of desire, vibrations that permeated
the room, zeroing in on my lover. He’d sit 

entranced through our dance, shuddering
at the climax when both my feet pounded the ground

so hard your cries rang out as your myriad bells split
open the air so that, momentarily, one could not even

breathe. The halls are silent now, have been 
for many hundreds of years, great love a thing

of the past. My spirit never left though, wandering 
these lonely hallways where once love lived.

Today, a new hall has taken its place, one
where celluloid screens of men and women

enacting love, play and replay all day and night. 
Women gyrate obscenely, miming

empty songs that emulate the grunts
of hogs in heat. How it makes me laugh--

they forced our schools of love shut
for this! Worse still, the women who bear

the name of our tradition--Devadasis--
evergreen wives of God

are now mere prostitutes, unwanted 
by their mothers and fathers,

sold as meat, for men to appease
their lust. Desolate, desolate, I cannot even

cry, my throat parched with grief. Your bells
are silenced now forever. I did it myself, 

smothered you in the softest muslin cloth,
covered your eyes, muted your bells

buried you deep under these very floors.
Remember our times together--the whole

of me moving to the whole of you,
your myriad chimes, creating a dance

of love and life, the crowds’ thunderous
applause growing louder, louder--

until the last quiver of muscle and bell is spent
arousing love for the long night ahead

(with the author's permission)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Old Reviews
Act of liberation or trap

Immigrant dreams
Short Girls gives a rare insight into the making of a modern America
By Moazzam Shiekh
Finally there's a novel about short people, a narrative that situates the idea of shortness at the centre of the Luong sisters' lives. The novel contains chapters named after Van and Linny. After we learn in the opening chapter that Van Luong's husband Miles (a fourth-generation-Chinese-American) has moved out, very little happens in the following pages. Linny has been having an affair with a white man, Gary, who is married to a white woman, with two little children. The Luong sisters have grown diametrically opposite to each other's personality. That sets the tone for an émigré novel.
The novelist offers two extremes of the immigrant experience. If Van is the geek, Linny is the slut. If Van is shy, self-conscious, unconfident, insecure, Linny is aggressive, daring and flirtatious. If Van is political (learning Arabic so she can help deportees, is aware of the anti-Middle Eastern wave), Linny is only sexually alive, creative (helping her employer with ideas for new dishes). Van lives in suburbs, understands the system, its ruthless inequality. Her interest in becoming a lawyer began in college "when she first learned about Vincent Chin, the Chinese American who had been beaten to death in 1982, by an autoworker and his son who ended up serving no jail time." Linny doesn't buy into the system, can't stand suburbs. But as Toni Morrison says: "Everything is political."
Vietnamese immigrants carry a unique cross in the US. Most arrived as refugees, a status that resulted straight from their colonial tragedy. They first defeated the French, later the Americans as they tried to keep Vietnam shackled. The French and later the US tried to crush the will of a people. Just as the West created the Mujahideen out of Afghan refugees, the Western powers created a fifth column in Vietnam. Though the two narratives turned out different, the price the two populations paid was similar.
So here is the fix: you are a refugee, but refuge is in the country that waged a decade long war on your people, killing over 3 million. The world acknowledges the US as the aggressor; modern scholarship holds America guilty of genocide, not to mention the unimaginable destruction of land, culture and families. That's the context in which the Vietnamese entered the US, first as refugees, later immigrants and finally as citizens. This novel shows a daring break from silence as it fleshes out a different narrative at the risk of being called ungrateful. The novel doesn't simply highlight difficulties faced by immigrants but is critical of the US foreign policy. When Miles questions his wife regarding her insecurities and nervousness, her answer that their first home -- the refugee camp -- faced a prison complex, is not only painful but deconstructs the American Myth.
Image result for bich minh nguyen
Author Bich Minh Nugyen
The un-political Linny, too, feels the burden of the affair. As Nguyen explores the relationship, Gary becomes a metaphor for America. The well-off Gary, married to a tall, good-looking Prentice, only seeks a sexual relationship, rendezvousing at motels and odd places. Linny has never dated a Vietnamese man, grows uncomfortable of the affair, assessing the psychological implications. While she feels demeaned, her lone consolation is that she has never allowed Gary into her apartment. Her bedroom is uncontaminated. But, then, he forces his way into her safe refuge, and sleeps with her. The politics built into this scene reminded this reviewer of an Urdu classic, Anandi, suggesting you can banish prostitution from the city, but you can't kill the city inside prostitution. The bedroom scene is multi-layered, not just hinting at a possible rape but at how difficult it is to fight off the influence of American imperialism. You may be attracted to its hugeness, its whiteness or repulsed by its aggression, its greed; it is there in your face. At least, as an immigrant.
As the non-linear narrative unfolds, the reader learns of the sister's relationship with their father, Mr. Luong, an inventor, deeply aware of his short stature. Worried about the shortness of his daughters and of others, Mr. Luong invents the Luong Arm that can reach longer distance, the Luong Eye that can see above and beyond a taller person's head, and the Luong Wall with adjustable height. While his girls have manoeuvred their way out of his patriarchal grip, they feel affection for him, who, despite having risked his life moving to America, has never applied for the US citizenship, up until now.
The narrative builds itself towards the Citizenship ceremony. Miles was expected to accompany Van to the party afterwards. But the split is permanent. Miles is gone, gone for someone who's the opposite of Van, in terms of personality attributes, someone who, like Miles, is Chinese American and carries the confidence of the third or fourth-generation American, is tall, elegant, and graceful. In fact, her name is Grace. When alive, their mother had said, "You can be the famous Trung sisters," alluding to the two sisters who rebelled against the Chinese rule. Van's painful but clean break-up with Miles remaps that history.
Soon the sisters re-connect, emotionally, are helping each other with moving on in life. The father does not go ballistic on hearing of the divorce. Van moves into a smaller place, resolving to fight for justice as a lawyer. Linny meets Tom, a Vietnamese family friend. The attraction is mutual. The frozen attitude to "Vietnam, a scary unknown" begins to melt.
While Short Girls deals with important issues, there is no lyricism in the prose. Despite the non-linear narrative Short Girls offers little artistic tension. Though the author injects her knowledge of library, legal and pop culture, they fail to evoke much. The lack of complexity in the prose lowers the impact. But the novel has a rare insight into the making of a modern America, good and bad. It's important that the novel never stoops to preaching or sentimentality. Nor does it exoticises Vietnam. And that's a rare feat.