Friday, February 29, 2008

The TamBrahm Bride

The title intrigued me as well as the theme which is about a typical arranged marriage among TamBrahms, so I hunted this book down at Landmark and read it last week. Overall, it is a good description of the arranged marriage process - the 'viewing of the girl', the ritual of making her serve tea or coffee, and the stupid questions asked, e.g. can she sing? Who cares - and how's it going to affect her marriage if she's tone deaf? The equation between the Boy's side who are to be venerated, and the girl's side, who are always meant to be eager to please. The horoscope-matching business - as if some random matching of two horoscopes can guarantee peace and felicity in a marital home. The focus on the looks and complexion of the girl, while the boy is only to be evaluated on his education and job...It was a great capture of all of these.

However, I did feel that characterisation suffered at the hands of the incidents needed to make the plot move on. One didn't really end up getting a good understanding into the heroine or her family and certainly there was no character development. I find myself wondering whether that would be the case in real life as well, i.e. with someone who's not only agreed but happy to go through the arranged process, would the person really change while going through it? I'm not really sure of the answer, especially because anyone I've met who's had an arranged marriage has pretty much only met 1 or 2 people before deciding on it, whereas the heroine here meets some vast number of eligibles. Plus the epilogue was really not required - it was quite pointless.

More interesting than this was Mahashweta, a book by Sudha Murty ( yes, the Narayana Murty one). it's about the problem of Leucoderma and how it can impact people's lives, how little knowledge or understanding anyone has of the issues. The heroine has a love marriage with someone from a much richer family and is tolerated by her MIL but later, when she develops Leucoderma, she is shunned by everyone including her parents and her husband. She eventually goes on to settle in a cosmopolitan city and comes to accept what has happened as for the best. I had no idea that this medical ailment was considered such a big deal and that people with it were treated so badly, so it was a real eye-opener.

The book is also very evocative of the nuances of daily life in a small town and the big city, and using simple language, charts the graph of the heroine's life. It was a great read, but my only complaint is that at the end, when the heroine meets someone who wants to marry her regardless of her problem, she says she has given up on that side of life. I would have been fine if the protagonist had said she wasn't in love with the guy but to have given up on a normal married life because of her past seemed defeatist to me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Books I read last week

I read a mish-mash of books last week, ranging from historical biographies to a fantasy-chick-lit. First, the Fantasy chick-lit...was a book called If you coulod see me now by Cecelia Ahern, a 25 year old author who's written 4 books already and whose book PS I love you has just been released as a major Hollywood film. I love a certain genre of fantasy book, where the wisdom is contained in simple little nuggets, like The Little Prince, which is far and away amongst my favourites. Cecelia Ahern's book while not quite as exalted is in the same genre. It is an intensely likeable book full of little incidents and windows upon what really matters in life. It is absorbingly written and one starts feeling for the main characters immediately. It is a book with whimsy, fun and frolic and yet with a message, and is a quick read. It is certainly one I'll be picking up again whenever I need a pick-me-up sort of book.

The historicals were mainly Jean Plaidy's - Victoria Victorious about Queen Victoria, written from a first-person perspective, The Haunted Sisters about the daughters of James II( son of Charles I of England who was beheaded by the Roundheads), Myself my Enemy, about Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I and in some ways a key instrument in causing his downfall by her insistence on Catholicism, The Goldsmith's Wife about Edward IV's mistress Jane Shore and The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. They were all fascinating reads, though after going through them, I find myself all the more thankful that I'm a simple member of the proletariat rather than an aristocrat - they just had too many things to live up to and too many expectations imposed on them.

Victoria comes across as not a very shrewd ruler, led hither and thither by her personal likes and dislikes of the ruling Prime Minister of the day and content to listen to her husband whom she elevated into the status of a Saint who could do no wrong. She was a lively, fun-loving person with a temper until Albert came along and with his rather priggish attitudes towards life, made her also more and more prissy until she was unable to take a joke, which may explain why the phrase "We are not amused" is the chief one associated with her. Victoria also had little or no grasp of politics or policies, as per the book, and was content to either listen to Albert and her Prime Ministers on most state matters. Even on issues like the fact that Victoria's mother had tried to usurp her place in terms of importance and forced her to be rude to the King and Queen of England had to be swept under the carpet and Victoria's own resentments sat on because Albert was shocked that Victoria did not think everything her mother did was perfect.

She was also so completely in thrall of Albert that she didn't even bother to protect her own children from his sometimes harsh behaviour. Maybe it's because I'm a mother myself, but I found it impossible to understand why she let Albert treat the Prince of Wales so harshly - any tutor or governess the PoW ever liked was sent or taken away from him and harsher and harsher ones found so they could drive learning into his head. His powers of charm, liveliness and ability to love and protect his brothers and sisters were ignored or belittled, and anyone who spoke in favour of the PoW was promptly banished, while Albert continued to run him down and punish him with both rod and scoldings and harsh treatment. No wonder the PoW ran wild when he grew up! Frankly, Albert does come across as a rather dislikeable gentleman.

The Haunted Sisters and Myself My Enemy are about the Stuart reign. The Haunted Sisters was a rather shocking book in that it was the story of King Lear all over again - the two daughters of James II turned against him, mainly for their own ambition and sided with their husbands or friends who had personal ambitions. The two sisters too turned against each other both because they had advisors whose gains lay in the enmity of the two sisters and because they both nursed ambitions for the throne of England. Henrietta Maria's story is yet another proof, if I needed one, that anyone who becomes too dogmatic about religion and insists their own way is the only way is bound to cause trouble for themselves and for other people. One of the reasons I like being Hindu is because one of its basic tenets is that there are many roads all leading to God and that neither is better or worse. Catholicism has a lot to answer for in its dogmatism, from the Inquisition to the attempts to proselytise, to the disdain for other religions and the way the church reacted to Hitler's policies. It's a bit ironic that anyone with wide tastes is said to have 'Catholic' tastes when it's amongst the least embracing religions.

The Goldsmith's Wife was a glimpse of the Plantagenet period at its height, when Edward IV ruled. There was witchcraft and treachery and strife amongst the brothers, leading to a possible fratricide by Edward of his brother Clarence who was supposed to have died in a butt of Malmsey. Jean Plaidy believes in the anti-Tudor theory that the sons of Edward IV were done away with by Henry VIIth, rather than Richard who certainly thought they were royal bastards but loved them as his nephews. It's always been one of the fascinating mysteries of English history and of the Tower of London, as the Beefeaters will tell you when you visit. It makes me want to re-read another book written on this subject by a detective fiction author, Josephine Tey, called A Murder in Time, which had a fascinating theory, if I recall correctly. Interestingly, in this book, Plaidy makes the point that Richard was the last English King - and if you think about it, it's true - the Tudors were Welsh, the Stuarts Scottish and the Hanovers German. So Britain had its last English king way back in the 1500s.

The Other Boleyn Girl was brilliantly written and has made me curious about more books by Philippa Gregory. It was a very detailed portrayal of life at King Henry the 8th's court, with its scheming, jockeying for power, ambitions and the making of a tyrant who thought any of his desires was justified because it was 'the will of God'. I had never thought much about Mary Boleyn, Henry's mistress before Anne who eventually married him. The depths to which ambition can take you and the description of the long, long courtship dance which Anne had to perform to hold the King's interest long enough to marry him and the barren fruits of that marriage are incredibly well described and too me away into a world where I could heard and see the swishing silks and velvets, furtive whispers behind the doorways and the singing and dancing of the royal court. I hope the film releases here soon - if it's a good adaptation of the book, it should be a spectacular film, though I'm not sure about Eric Bana playing Henry the VIIIth - he looks too thoughtful and intelligent, whereas Henry was a sensual, selfish man given to self indulgence rather than reflection.

If you like historical fiction, read the Plaidys. If you're in the mood for high drama and intrigue, read The Other Boleyn Girl. And if you're in the mood for something fun and whimsical, go for If You Could See Me Now.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Indian Cuisine Book - Updated review

Haven't had much time or mindspace for cooking lately, with Puddi's illness and hospitalisation. But she's fine now, back to being the family dog ( i.e. begging for scraps off everyone's plate, no matter what they're eating!) and her usual zany self. I celebrated her return home by brewing up a pea soup with spinach greens sauteed with garlic, but haven't done much else.

But I came across this interesting book which I started reading while nursing Puddi in hospital. It's by an Indian food writer settled in the US ( Chitrita Banerji) who specialises in Bengali food but was on a self-imposed quest to find out more about the origins of the different styles of cooking in India. Her chapter on Bengali food, especially that served at weddings made me slurp deliriously, even though I'm vegetarian. I of course immediately turned to the chapter on Karnataka food which I admit was a bit of a let-down because it hardly mentioned the varied types of cuisine and was not informed or knowledgeable enough, in my opinion.

Sadly, the book mysteriously vanished after I had completed these two chapters and I could neither find it in the hospital room or at home so I assume it's vapourised into that great library in the sky. I'll have to buy myself a new copy because I found the little that I dipped into quite intriguing...
Finally found it in a mixed bag at home and finished it. I found it a little disappointing, to be honest, because while the quality of writing is good and the descriptions evocative, the author has a tendency to relate everything back to Bengali cooking, which really was not the point. Even when she goes to have Karnataka cuisine in Bangalore, she spends more time marveling at a Bengali sweet shop which has been there for a while. It was an interesting one time read but certainly not a re-reading type of book. for that, I prefer Madhur Jaffrey's Tastes of India, where she covers different regions in great detail, telling us about their cooking, the evolution of those styles and then shares recipes from people who are from those regions, so that they are authentic.