Sari, not Sari by Sonya Singh

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Just last week, San Jose Mercury crossword featured the 4-letter answer Ghee for clarified butter. More than Roti, Naan, Goa, Taj, or Agra it made me sit up and think: Have we Indians finally arrived on the publishing scene?

Then I saw Sonya Singh’s book displayed front and center (New Fiction) in the Los Altos library. A coincidence or what? And please know, I just finished seeing second season of Bridgerton (twice as many views as season one)! So, dear reader, bear with me, this writeup is a book review and more…

Ten years ago, Sari, not Sari would not have seen ink (digital or otherwise). It is unabashedly, unapologetically about embracing being brown. And loving it.

Like some Indians, Manny Dogra can pass for white. Then she has an identity crisis and using that plot pivot, Sonya Singh, with a deft, light touch, paints the joys of Indian culture, complete with Auntie-ji and Uncle-ji. The author touches on the burden of being Indian too, but more to forestall the negative voice by acknowledging it; not in a judgmental way.

The publishing industry, long a bastion of the Bookers and (un)Commonwealth prizes could recognize Arundhati Roy but not R.K Narayan. A. Roy is a powerful writer, no doubt. But that is not the point. India Currents recently carried a youth opinion piece ‘Stop Writing Brown Characters for White Audiences‘ – a brilliant recap of Indians being portrayed on film/TV. I won’t repeat it here. What I do want to stress is that Bridgerton (cited in the article) didn’t happen overnight. Internet didn’t happen overnight; streaming didn’t happen overnight. Big changes happen because small changes happened before. Stereotypical characters paved the way for Kate and Edwina so they can have a Haldi ceremony and not just be random brown faces.

Kudos to Sonya Singh for writing her book the way she did: the characters are not deep; not intellectual; but they are beautiful, and they are proud. The book is not Booker material (thankfully) and I am glad because Romance is the largest selling genre, and Manny Dogra-Sammy Patel will redefine what it means to be Indian in America.

The House on East Canal Road by Neerja Raman

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“An evocative, well-imagined portrayal of late-colonial India through one family’s eyes.”
— Kirkus Reviews

The House on East Canal Road Kindle Edition
My new book – kindle and paperback

“Raman has an eye for historical detail, like Kishan’s assessment of a train car (“clean symmetrical lines, padded leather seats, side panels adorned with windows…the coach, designed and built by the American Car & Foundry Company…”), and a solid grasp of the real history that shapes the lives of the fictional characters.

The writing is strong…the thoughtful exploration of the experience of colonialism makes the story a rewarding read…”
— Kirkus Reviews

ABOUT THE BOOK

Born into poverty, Kishan Chand Das marries his childhood sweetheart and builds a fortune, but in 1905, when India is firmly in the grip of the Raj, he abandons it all to fight British rule. His young family’s survival is threatened. Willful Leela—his teenage daughter-in-law—and errant son Ishaan, gather the pieces but when the aged patriarch dies from beatings inflicted at a peaceful protest, the family is once again torn apart.
Journalist son Adrith leaves home to rouse the nascent Calcutta underground with fiery speeches and joins a revolutionary army. Fearless, outspoken, convent-educated Anita becomes the third generation Chand to continue the freedom fight, but she falls in love with the enemy—handsome Sergeant Ludlow. Can she, her family, and India, survive the hastily drawn line on a map far away, that cleaved houses, loved ones, and neighbors alike—the price of independence? (less)

Moments in Transition: Stories of Maya and Jeena by Neerja Raman

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Honorable Mention: Judge, 29th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards:

Structure, Organization, Pacing: This book is exemplary in its structure, organization, and pacing. The structure of the chapters/parts aid in a compelling organization of the story or information. The pacing is even throughout and matches the tone/genre of the book.

The book itself is pretty short, broken into digestible anecdotes, but doesn’t lag or felt rushed. Both key characters get about the same amount of “screen time,” which is important for comparative stories.

Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar: This book has spelling, punctuation, and grammar corresponding with the region of the world from which the author hails (ex. British English or American English) or with where the book is set (including slang, vernacular, or dialect). These choices are intentional and implemented consistently throughout with few, if any, errors. No glaring errors that would detract from the story. A missing period or style-related variation here or there, but again, nothing that would put a serious dent in Raman’s skill or reputation as a writer.

Production Quality and Cover Design: This book is exemplary in production quality and cover design. The physical materials, printing, and binding are of professional quality and traditional industry standards. The typesetting and page layout (including illustrations, images, or figures) are easy to follow, thoughtfully designed, and error free. The cover appears to be professionally designed and is compellingly related to the content/genre of the book.

This cover is eye-catching and colorful, but the details are rich without being overly busy or hard to take in. The physical elements look and feel professionally assembled.

Plot, Story, or Topic Appeal: This book is exemplary in its choice of topic or theme of the story. It is unique but still has strong appeal for most readers in its intended genre. If the book is fiction or narrative nonfiction, the book is well plotted. If the book is poetry or prescriptive nonfiction, there is a cohesive theme or delivery of information.

At times heartbreaking and at others humorous, Raman has written a book that just about any reader could relate to in one way or another. And yet, there is a distinct cultural appeal that both intrigues those of us less familiar with Indian tradition and manages to connect the characters in their similar experiences, creating an analogy for readers who have experience with other cultures.

Character Appeal and Development: This book is satisfactory in character appeal and development. Most main characters are developed and have appealing or interesting aspects but could use more complex motivations. Secondary characters may have a purpose but have few unique characteristics.

Realistic, relatable, distinct in that they are their own people but it’s easy to see how the author made sure they grew together in a sense. I think the shorter length of the book is the main contributing factor to there being limits on the development of the other characters.

Voice and Writing Style: This book is exemplary in its voice and writing style. It has a unique voice, and the writing style is consistent throughout. The style and tone are also consistent with or will appeal to readers of the intended genre.

The exposition flows like a conversation: not overly embellished but not plain or nondescript, either. The physical descriptions themselves are woven in so seamlessly that picturing everything comes naturally, and Raman paints a vivid portrait everywhere the story takes us.

In a few explanatory sentences, please share with the entrant 1-3 things that you enjoyed or that readers will find compelling about this book and why.

One of the things I liked most about this book was how authentic it was. Everything that happened to the main characters was both ordinary and unique, in that it could happen to anyone in the world, but Raman made the experience a once-in-a-lifetime instance because of the way her characters reacted. It felt like an intimate glimpse of someone’s everyday, not just an essay describing the way a few people conducted themselves and dry explanations for why it was so.

In a few explanatory sentences, please share with the entrant 1-3 of the most important aspects that need to be improved for this book to be more appealing/useful to readers and why.

I would suggest loosening up the dialogue in some places. Even Jeena, with her social awkwardness, came across as a little over the top in that respect in a couple of her interactions. Otherwise, keep an eye out for the small stuff, like a missing period now and then. But, things like that sneak by all of us from time to time, so I’d still say that this book has very little Raman would need to improve upon to increase its appeal.

From Neerja Raman: I am honored to awarded Honorable Mention and grateful for the detailed feedback from a professional at Writer’s Digest. I especially appreciated the comments about structure and plot which is quite unique in having each short story be complete in itself, yet all stories are connected and reveal the characters and plot over a large period of time. The book is available on Amazon in kindle and paperback

Roundabout of Death by Faysal Khartash

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I picked up Roundabout of Death for its title. The word roundabout conjures up modern day chaos of Arc De Triomphe in Paris and for me, growing up in small-town colonial India, also old-world serenity. The objective of entering a roundabout is to exit and get on with the journey. But what if the exit leads to death? Faysal Khartash’s title sums up the book beautifully yet it doesn’t divulge any of the story. It is brilliant. To know about women who slip in and out of burkhas through the course of a bus ride, about men who rob you of dignity by forcibly cutting finger-nails when they could just as easily shoot you, about cafe-goers who patiently wait for the bombing to ease before going vegetable shopping, about fathers who pay bribes so their sons may exit the roundabout of death, you will have to read the book. Its sparse prose impacts the soul more than a sentimental rendering of the tragedy that is the Syria. The original Arabic title translates to Roundabout of Death Between Aleppo and Raqqa but other locations are referred to in the book and the topic is too great in scope to be limited by geography. Max Weiss translation with the shorter title is perfect.

Roundabout of Death - by  Faysal Khartash (Paperback) - image 1 of 2

Usually, I don’t read books about the Middle East because the ones I come across are written from a western mindset. But this one, I asked myself, is a Syrian author and the title is great so why not? I am glad I did. Roundabout of death is a fast read, with vivid descriptions of what it means to live in a warring state. But its strength is also its weakness. I was totally engrossed in the lives of the narrator, his wife and his son yet the author could not help me understand why any of them did what they did. Why they were so meek when they should have been brave and so brave (as at checkpoints) when I would have packed up and died. Sentences like bombings are no good because they cause the women to wail do not draw me to the author. Book reviews talk about the destruction of Aleppo, about the loss of a major historical masterpiece. For me the greatest loss is the impact of war on people; they put up with anything to survive. In doing so everything is lost.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

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The Henna Artist is a rip-roaring “delicious” (aka sexual-tension in every one of its 342 pages) entertainer, but what makes it unique is that it refuses to pander to the stereotypes about India. Yes, the author takes advantage of our fascination for India’s fabulously quirky royals, but she does not stop there. She recreates an era that is broad in scope and yet vivid in details that are uniquely Indian. For instance, did you know that Henna has medicinal properties? In hot weather it is a natural cooling agent, among other things. Henna art also serves to illustrate the point that our ancient knowledge (science or literature) survives in the practices of the poor because the English educated are living Shakespeare and Hollywood. These days when India’s traditions, deliberately or out of ignorance, are miscast into sound bytes The Henna Artist teems with characters for whom caste is not as a trigger for hate, violence is no excuse for victimhood, rich-poor dynamics is not entrenched; good and bad coexist. Another aspect the author illustrates well is the importance of relationships to Indians. Lakshmi builds her business by learning from her mother-in-law (no saas-bahu drama); Malik is loyal (no religious trauma); Radha seeks out her sister. Yet modern methods are good too – as illustrated by my favorite character Jay. It is a retelling that resonates with what I know of India; not what has been penned into vogue by the intellect-erati. And it is one of the few books about India’s middle class (Lakshmi’s father lost everything fighting the British) that took advantage of its cultural heritage to create the largest, diverse democracy in the modern world. We are probably the last of the generation whose parents lived through that period of history so I feel time is running out for us and I am so glad Alka Joshi wrote this book. And made it eminently readable.

Our book club met Alka Joshi over zoom and we thanked her: “Your personal journey up to this point, your very entertaining story of how “The Henna Artist” got published, and the challenges you encountered along the way kept us all thoroughly engaged.” What also resonated with me was a sentence about “…changing opinions through fiction….”.

I love the cover, by the way, not the least because its title image is one I was thinking about using myself. But it does not apply to my book and it is perfect for The Henna Artist. Thanks to my book club, I found out in time! I happened to be looking for colorful, happy, grand images about India that are also historical and there aren’t that many and I am still thinking about it. Also, I am encouraged that someone may read my upcoming book (The House on East Canal Road is historical fiction in 1900-1947 India; just before where The Henna Artist starts, expected late 2021) now that Alka Joshi has kindled an interest in India not associated with romanticizing the Raj.

In an interview Alka Joshi says, “… I had a very hard time as a child reconciling the India of my childhood with the India of America’s perception…”. With this book she has gone a long way in changing that. Congratulations.

I look forward to reading Ms. Joshi’s next two books and seeing the movie (TV series).

Passage West by Rishi Reddi

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My daughter, born and brought up in California, not far from Yuba city, recommended Passage West. She said I would like it; I thought she said that because the book I am writing now is historical fiction. I resisted. I know all about it, I said. She bought the book and gifted it to me.

Passage West is about the Sikh migration to USA (and Canada) and it is the first fiction set in that era, I have read. One cannot be Indian in the bay area in the seventies and not have eaten paranthas from Yuba City or heard personal stories. By now, 50 years later, a body of non-fiction has been published and I did a “walk through time” of their journey in an imaging show. I relate to their history in a personal way; it is so close it not only history but also my story. And the story of every immigrant.

I worried a fictional account would trivialize the time. Hence my resistance.

I was wrong to worry. Passage West excels in all the ways only fiction can : empathy for multiple viewpoints, complex personalities, and actions seemingly contradictory made relatable. Reddi does not fall into the trap of dehumanizing her characters in favor of history; she does not push a point of view; or paint characters who need redemption; or present ones to be vilified. We are humans first and history second. She tells a darn good story that will reach many more people (who will learn history in the process) in a way they can relate than any non-fiction ever can.

By necessity, the cast of characters is large but for me the names and language add authenticity though I understand it may be daunting for some. Also Reddi touches lightly on some topics, for example the Gadar movement, and so the subtext may not be accessible to readers unfamiliar with the Indian struggle for freedom. However, given that her historical landscape has tentacles into every aspect of world politics, I think she has achieved a marvelous balance between detail and sweeping saga.

I thanked my daughter. It was interesting in so many ways, I said.

And she said : I never knew any of this history.

Whaaat? She doesn’t remember the drives to Yuba city to see the fruit trees abloom? or the makki roti and saag! The present flies and becomes past in the blink of an eye.

Passage West: A Novel by [Rishi Reddi]
And I love the title of the book – Passage to India having been staple diet for Indian high schoolers.

Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

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by Vivek H Murthy

As a rule I review fiction on this site but Dr. Murthy’s book is an exception because if there is only one non-fiction you read in 2021, it should be Together. Though published pre-COVID, concepts and suggested action applies to creating connections in this era of masks and social distance. The human need for community he says, is hardwired; grounded in evolutionary underpinnings and if unmet, loneliness is the self preservation symptom of “lack of belonging” or a “genuine connection with people”. Since evolutionary time the narrative of rugged individualism and the pursuit of self determination, a belief that we alone shape our destiny, is at odds with our hardwired needs and affects everyone. Dr. Murthy cites personal experience and examples from the medical field to illustrate that the issue is widespread yet personal in how much togetherness each individual may need. He introduces a “third bowl” concept – not deep so we meld into a stew but one where we retain our individuality and not so wide that we become separate entities. My favorite part of the book was the Circle Framework based on 3 types of relationships everyone must have: Intimate, Relational, Collective. One critical aspect of the framework is that all three types of relationships must be present; only one intimate relationship (say a couple) can be as burdensome as hundreds of the collective – say through social media platforms.

For most people it is not easy to open up and start sharing or to ask for help and the problem becomes worse when we are lonely. Men’s Shed is an example activity that facilitates communication. In giving one can receive and in receiving one can give. In these days where COVID guidelines impose physical distancing we can do a better job of social media or other digital platforms to seek and give “Togetherness”. In this context I adapted his circle concept to my life to see if it would work. I listed my inner circle of 5-15 people who are closest, and I might spend 50% or more time with. My usual way of keeping in touch was hosting dinners/book clubs/gardening/theater/group hikes. We have moved our book club online; instead of dinner we do happy hour or play games on zoom. Like others if I need help (or am in a position of giving help) it is hard to pick up the phone and ask. However, the benefit of proximity can be had with some form of regular digital communication. We may not realize it, but somebody organizes an activity like Men’s Shed. With digital media we ourselves bear the responsibility of creating social contact. Using his guidelines I did the same exercise with the other two categories. I found that I have not been able to keep up with people in the relational circle (professional, travel related, Facebook etc.) but the collective circle communication (family in India, my writing buddies etc.) has improved (yes – zoom and facetime!)

A coach, scientist, author, and professor zoom into a bar: Catch Michele Bolton, Raji Pillai, Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan and Neerja Raman on a panel discussion for Together on February 21, at 4:00 pm. sponsored by Silicon Valley Reads and Indian Business and Professional Women. (IBPW is a non-profit support network that promotes education, leadership and self-development through seminars and workshops.)

Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World - Murthy, Vivek H

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel

With its inimitable style If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel took me by surprise. I read it because it was our book club selection (I am compulsive that way) and because I am into short stories these days having just published my own book of short stories.

The title story is about two brothers and their physical, emotional and intellectual differences; gripping in language and style. Crisp: “He was my guard. If a child my age happened to be harassing me at school, Deepak would would wait for him on the playground.” It has a nice arc about how they grow apart as they mature into adults and then catch up (sort of) again as families do. Indian families. But then family is named Deepak, Deepika and Deep. Is that funny?

In a nutshell – First generation Indians, a community that has prospered through hard work and/or intellect and are comfortable with their “foreign” culture have born a new generation – not American, not Indian – that feels shackled (to use the kind of word Mr. Patel would use) by its heritage and bounty. This new generation wants to experience the country of their birth the way others who are not Indian do. Much of this rebellion is expressed through “in your face” language (I can’t quote here) and situations (I kept thinking of the show Fleabag) and is compulsive reading. However use of sexual scenes to express every emotion other than love may define a moment but does not help develop basically good characters that people the stories – of any heritage.

Needless to say I am quite conflicted. Its characters seem driven by their physical or environmental needs without any moorings in sight. So I feel for them. Yet they don’t fall off the mental wagon (except in one story). Huh? What did I miss? I wanted to know more about them and also less. But one thing rings true – we can never know another person. It is true.

But that is why we read fiction (what I don’t understand, I can imagine) and not biographies.

Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo

I picked up this book at the library because I was looking for something different. And a different new author. Boy did I hit the jackpot.  Animalia is of epic scope from a literature perspective though the animals are pretty much restricted to pigs and people (not the whole animal kingdom as the title suggests). Other than an occasional rat, Animalia: A Novelrabbit, duck or snake the author’s preoccupation is shit – food that goes in and comes out as mountains of shit. Literally it is shit. Then of course there is the other half – metaphorical – need I say it again – shit. Sometimes other body fluids too. But even with all that, there is room for lyrical prose, deft characterization, stinking stys and a harsh indictment of modern society that makes the mean poverty stricken landscape of yore (in rural France) seem like the good old days.

Enough to turn you vegetarian. I found the detailed descriptions of pig-farming reminiscent of movies I have seen on the atrocities of beef (or chicken) farming so from that perspective I am not sure if I found something new in the book.  But what is most commendable and fascinating about Animalia is the travel through time – the poor pathetic family that grows from owning one pig to a rich even more pathetic family that owns a gazillion pigs. Their transition and the damning effects of war on society are the bigger picture in the story. For that it is a must read. And if I ignore half the words in the book dealing with shit and associated activity, the other half of the words are sheer poetry.

I give it a thumbs up but read it at your own risk. I wish the author had managed to find some beauty in the bleakness because that is how life is. But he doesn’t.