30 June 2009

The Age of Shiva

Author: Manil Suri
Pages: 454
Publisher: Bloombury
Price: 399
Published in: 2008

First things first. I think Manil Suri has a tremendous flair for creating drama and an astonishing ability of penetrating into human psyche. Which means, at certain points, The Age of Shiva touches the brilliance of V S Naipaul's A House For Mr Biswas in portraying human despair and chaotic family life with all its colourful and despicable characters. The author's biggest strength lies in creating interesting set pieces and keeping the narrative moving at a frenzied, rapid-fire pace. The language is simple yet wonderfully descriptive. All of this makes the book quite a compelling read.

And yet, the sum total does not add up to make this as ambitious a book as it would like to be.
For one, Manil Suri’s attempt to give the book an epic scale even while keeping it intimate is not always convincing. Spanning a period of 40 years since India's independence, the story somewhat awkwardly weaves in everything from episodes from the partition, the socio-political events around Nehru's time, the Emergency...all of it is there. Now, not all these events have a direct bearing on the characters which is what makes it nothing more than a contrivance. Then there is the evocation of myth, traditional rituals like karwa chaut explained in great detail. All of this makes the story a 'spiced up' Indian fare but authentically served nevertheless.

As I mentioned, Manil Suri has an acumen for dramatic plot points, which should make him a great script writer. The story's main thrust is on the mother-son relationship, so the author makes the unusual but intriguing choice of having the nondescript Meera as a narrator, addressing the story to her son, Ashwin. There are strong undercurrents of oedipal love as the reader will discover in the first page itself.
"Do you know how you thrust your feet towards me, how you reach out your arms, how the sides of your chest strain against my palms? Are you aware of your fingers brushing against my breasts, their lips trying to curl around something to hold on to, but slipping instead against my smooth flesh?"

It's a shock beginning and it would be easy to think of such writing as being titillating. No doubt, the author is a bit of a flame thrower - but the emotional audacity in Manil Suri's work is undeniable. And this is where the 'Shiva' allusion come in. It refers to the myth about Parvati creating her own son, Andhaka to keep her company in the absence of Shiva. That's the only connection here, so it's not really a title that encompasses the entire essence of the book. Not a strong allusion.

Meera, as she recounts her story, is the less fortunate daughter of the influential Sawhneys. Her elder sister, Roopa - blessed with superior looks - is pampered at home and she loses no opportunity in taking the nastiest jibes at her younger sibling. By a quirk of fate, however, Meera ends up marrying the guy who Roopa was going around with. Meera feels no particular love for Dev - though his quiet charm is attractive to her- and her decision to marry him is almost entirely driven by the fact that she managed to whisk at least one thing out of her selfish sister.

Meera, after being used to a lavish lifestyle, suddenly finds herself in very modest surroundings. Dev has a joint family, comprising a sympathetic mother-in-law, a vicious sister-in-law (Hema), Dev' brother Arya and his wife, Sandhya. (Surprisingly, Dev, who one supposes to be a very charming, articulate man going by the affection the two women shower on him, is relegated to the sidelines by the author). It's a bitter sweet life that Meera leads here, feeling frustrated at one point and at another time warming up to the affection she receives.

Meera's father, a well-to-do publisher and a proud rationalist, becomes an imposing presence in her life - something that she comes to grudge soon. Meera and Dev move to Bombay, so that the latter can try his luck as a singer. For all this while, there seems to be absolutely no passion between the couple. That is until their son Ashwin is born and things vastly alter. Dev- who so far is portrayed as a wimp - starts to acquire some positive shades, taking to fatherhood effortlessly. Meera - who so far was a picture of stoicism - is emboldened after turning mother. She sees her son as the sum total of her life, her only achievement and she would let nothing come in the way.

The book poignantly and sensitively portrays the lives of men and women - crushed and confused by their lot in life. The most heartbreaking episode is of course that of Meera's intense love for son, her conflicting emotions when she has to unwillingly separate their beds, her utter despair to see him move on with his life. These moments are wonderfully emotional and it's astonishing how Manil Suri can delve so deep into a woman's heart (his being gay could have a part to play here possibly).

The book really - for all its ambitions - is about a woman and her relationship with the men in her life. And to that extent, The Age of Shiva is a very engaging read. Not that it has no flaws. First of all, the novel has too many hateful characters - the kind of loathsome creatures that are hard to imagine. Again, there are other characters like Arya, Biji and to an extent Paaji that come across as being more real. In all this Meera's father's character (Paaji) is probably the most interesting one but the author burdens him with too much to do. He's supposed to be the political voice of the book and he single-handedly alters his daughter's fate at not one or two but five or six occasions. Otherwise also, some of the characters seem to slip out of their roles and behave in an unlikely manner.

Yet, The Age Of Shiva proved to be a riveting read where I'm concerned. It has some wonderful passages, great exchanges and superb conflicts.

-Sandhya Iyer

24 June 2009

Book Review: Home

Author: Manju Kapur
Publishers: Random House
Year Of Publishing: 2006
Price : 395
Pages: 337

Family Matters

In this story set in Delhi's Karol Bagh family, every kind of tradition - no matter how outdated--- is followed. Honour comes above all individual aspirations and a woman's status in the family is solely judged by her ability to give heirs.
At a time when joint families are out of fashion in India, Kapur's choice of subject for 2006 is a bit suspect. But then given their perennial appeal on television channels, maybe not. And Kapur writers well, keeping the narrative engaging for more part. Yet, to see this household as a microcosm of what today's Indian homes represent would be a mistake. The long explanations of Karwa Chaut, the mythological tale of Savitri and how she brings back her husband Satyavan's life back from Yama and so on - all weaved within the story - give the awkward feeling that Kapur intends in some ways to cater to a foreign gaze or expatriates who staunchly preserve the idea of India being untouched by time and still rooted in age-old traditions.

Yet, for all its familiarity and a certain feeling of datedness, Home manages to sustain as a narrative purely because of the vivid characters that are introduced and enumerated in such colourful details. Also, being a woman, Kapur can penetrate better into the petty jealousies, insecurities and compulsions that play a major part in the joint-family set up. The author is acutely conscious of the complex mental make-up of her women characters and reveals the many unsaid emotions that they experience. Compared to the women, Kapur is less preoccupied with the men, so they largely remain in the sidelines.

Even if joint family as a concept is fading, Home's appeal is retained somewhat because all said and done, many of the values and conventions that it upheld haven't entirely disappeared. Also, it's an interesting character study or sorts, in a setting where human proclivity is understood better than anywhere else.

The story kickstarts well with Kapur tracking the fortunes of two sister - Sona and Rupa. The former gets married into a well off trader family, Banwarilals, while Rupa marries modestly to a junior government officer. Each one believes the other is luckier, with Sona especially whining about the step-motherly treatment she receives for being childless. The first 100 pages or more are free flowing, with standard descriptions of how newly married life would be in a joint family. The entire premise of this family life (as well as the book) is based on a woman's ability to bear a child, preferably male - so every daughter-in-law who comes into the Banwari family finds her status judged according to this one standard alone.

This obviously becomes repetitive after a point, and it's a surprise how the novel still manages to keep you glued. There are some bright spots for sure. Kapur cleverly overturns situations just when you think you know what's going to happen next. And it works because the rest of the novel doesn't shy away from stereotyping. So Sona's childless state is coincided with the death of Sushila- the daughter of the house and she leaves behind Vicky, her only son. One would imagine Sona to be delighted but she shows disdain towards the boy and finds it painful to accept him when he is thrust upon her by the elders. At this point, one can't fully comprehend her emotions and you presume Vicky would turn out to be the dark horse of the family. But none of that happens. And in fact, Sona's fears of the boy's nature are justified. This is one of the plus points of the novel.
The best and most poignant part of the novel is the character of Nisha - the prized daughter of the family --- who is the only one to put up a mild battle against the regressive attitude of her family.

For most part, Kapur presents the joint family system as both the preserver and destroyer of an individual. In Nisha's case, the effect is adverse and the irony is heightened, as her life takes an unexpected turn for the worse. Fate delivers a cruel blow to her, first when her love is thwarted by the family, as the boy is low cast and poor and second, when she suffers from a peculiar skin disease that robs her of her initial good looks. Meanwhile, from being the centre of the family's attention, Nisha is suddenly relegated to a inferior position because other younger daughter-in-laws come into the family. Nisha is unmarried, not as pretty as earlier and this is the time when the joint family set-up especially seems to crush her spirits.

The ending again beautifully brings out how life can look up again - with a slight readjustment of one's expectations after suffering a blow. Nisha finds her happiness when she least expects it. But this is a conditioned 'happiness' and she succeeds in the terms she has been taught to believe in. The system wins.
Manju Kapoor's attempt throughout the novel is only to 'show' but never 'tell', so the whole book is pretty much descriptive of what goes on, rather than any incisive, ironical commentary. The authorial voice is hardly there, so you are left to gather what you want from it. This is somewhat disconcerting - because it makes the narrative dispassionate and detached even at places which could do with some sharp satire. This makes the tone of the book very flat and it's only in the second half -with Nisha's character - that the irony gathers some steam.

The novel works because it holds your attention and you are keen to follow the fortunes of all the characters. Also, it's nice to see Kapur using very simple language, with the understanding that her characters are actually speaking in Hindi. No frills, nothing. It's basic English that adds a nice texture to the setting.

15 June 2009

Brief thoughts on Anita Desai's Diamond Dust

Title: Diamond Dust and Other Stories
Published in: 2001
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 224

Lot of imagery, lyricism in the language, and very descriptive, so Desai isn't always the easiest authors to read - especially if you don't necessarily have much patience for dreamy, languorous prose.
The first story actually put me off with its dialogues. When one is describing Indians in a distinctly urban Indian setting, the language must sound more or less authentic (with some desi words interspersed etc). But Desai gets them to talk stilted English, which mars the effect of an otherwise engaging theme.

But the next few stories get better. There's a great deal of artistry in the book, the themes are varied, the language is exquisite at points (and yet metaphors are forced.) There is great emphasis on imagery and visuals and there are at least two stories that are unforgettable. The Rooftop Dwellers about a single girl's predicament in a big city like Delhi and Winterscape, a evocative tale of two sisters, their shifting fates that ultimately become one, are both brilliant and testimony to Desai's undeniable writing prowess.

07 June 2009


The Tamil ticket

Author: Anand Mahadevan
Publishers: Penguin

Price: 199
Pages: 274

One of the most striking aspects about Strike is that it has this delightful vein of humour that runs throughout the book. 

 Set in the late 80s, Strike revolves around the quotidian life of a Tam Bram (Tamilian Brahmin) nuclear family in Nagpur. The novel follows the life of 12-year-old Hari and his somewhat painful initiation into adulthood. Much of this is evocative of R K Narayan's wonderful novel, Bachelor Of Arts (BOA) and its teenage protagonist Chandran, who tries to broaden his horizons and look beyond the comforting but conservative setting of his Tamilian upbringing. Much like in Bachelor Of Arts, in Strike too, Hari, on one occasion, teams up conspiratorially with his buddy, Mohan to see an adult film - Ram Teri Ganga Maili .

But unlike Narayan’s in BOA where he points towards the limitations of human aspirations and how one learns to nogociate within that space, Mahadevan’s ideas actually run contrary to that.

Early on, Hari has to fight his urge to try out the 'much-vilified' non-vegetarian food when his Bengali neighbour serves him with crisply made fish. He eats it, only to see his mother raise hell and make him vomit it all out. His grandmother steps on it accidentally, falls on the hard ground and dies. So the family - along with their Kollu tatha (great grandfather) - embark on a train journey to immerse the ashes in the Ganges.
Most of the action in the novel happens in the train, where Hari's curious mind starts to question many of the adult practices, only to be shushed by his mother. He wonders how the Ganges can be considered clean when so much dirt gets thrown into it. The adult world is somewhat satarised from the prism of Hari's enquiring, non-judgmental view. Mahadevan is especially uncharitable towards the women characters - starting from Hari's own mother whom he mostly portrays as typically orthodox and nagging. He also observes how women in his colony who seem to suddenly become sexually uninhabited on Holi day.

In the days leading to his uncle's return with his American wife to their maternal home, Hari is both amused and surprised seeing his mother and grand mom poking some fun at her expense. "If they are so upset with mama, why are they making so many sweets," asks Hari innocently. "To make him feel guilty," says his grandpa crisply.

The men in comparison are portrayed with far more affection by the author. The men in the novel always understand things and are less fussy. Whether it is Hari's father Girish, Kullu tatha, grandpa, all are presented as calm, empathetic beings.

The central episode in the book again revolves around a second train journey, which Hari undertakes with his mother. Lots of small things happen, charming vignettes. The story doesn't really move ahead but the author keeps the narrative interesting, introducing a discussion on MGR - the matinee idol of Tamil cinema and the then Chief Minister, carried out by co-passengers playing cards. There's interesting Tamil folklore that is talked about by the women, even as the trains chugs along. This is also where Hari has his first sexual encounter with a eunuch!

All of a sudden, the passengers hear about MGR's death and the next thing they know, the train has been stopped by strikers - the actor's fans. This part is inspired from the real-life seige that happened in 1987 and Mahadevan as a child was travelling in that train along with his parents.
An amusing episode occurs when Hari's uncle brings them sharkara pongal (sweet rice) since the train has been halted. In fact, he brings enough for the whole compartment since the order was taken in his factory before MGR died and a holiday was declared. The rioters are livid as they think sweets are being distributed on the day of their Idol's death.

The last part is a bit cumbersome to read. Hari wants to check out the machine inside the train and this ends in a needless tragedy. Also, the narrative shifts gears unannounced. It no longer remains a story seen through Hari's eyes.

Yet, since most of the book hints at the conformist, pious and non-adventurous nature of his Tam Bram family, it's an ironic twist of fate when the family is advised to move base to Canada, following the train incident. From being over cautious, now the family is fored to throw caution to the winds.

Mahadevan novel is an entertaining novel about Indian sub-culture - the Tamilian ethos - recounted with both affection and wry wit. The flavour really comes out in the author's description of food - with delectable images of South Indian delicacies.

Interview with Anand Mahadevan
1. The seige is a real-life event and I believe you were part of that train....

The novel came slowly to life sometime in 2002-2003. I was just beginning to think about writing as a career and wanted to capture a time of strong personal and public emotion. And without a doubt, the most "revolutionary" moment I could think of was the strike in 1987 when MGR passed away and life itself seemed to drain away from Tamil Nadu. I was in the train then, a nine-year old with his family and I have vivid memories of being stuck in that train for hours, the iron carriages heating up intolerably as the water in the toilets ran out and the pantry car attendants barricaded themselves inside when the food ran out. In fact the Ashok Leyland factory next to Ennore station did send us vats of chakra pongal (rice sweetened with jaggery and cashews) as food. I had been up exploring with my brother - we were pretty much given the run of the platform and the train back then - and I still remember the visceral shock of coming back to my parents compartment (my father had fetched us) to see our mother eating the pongal. Usually -and how traditional we were! - she would wait till we had all eaten, but that day the stress had worn her out. The rules with which we had grown up had changed, and I remember that still and wanted to capture it with as much truth that I could bear to bring upon it. So the public revolution is the death of MGR and the dreams he wove together with light and sound on the silver screen, the private revolution I chose to cast as a sexual revelation for my pubescent protagonist Hari. Once these elements were set, I started creating a world before and its destruction through the strike.

2) The Tam Bram sub culture was an integral part of R K Narayan's works. But while he seemed to appeal for a certain passivity and comformism (In Bachleor Of Arts, Chandran is soon made to realise the limitations of his horizons and he backs off), you do the opposite with your book - almost satarising the community's lack of adventurism, isn't it? The more they try to be cautious, they seem that much more vulnerable to accidents - all externally brought about. For example, Savitri's chain gets stolen, there's fear of Hari's arrest and finally the family has to move out of India. It seemed you were making a statement there.

R. K. Narayan's works are clearly infused with much greater insight into the workings of Tam Bram sub culture than mine are, partly because I was raised in Maharashtra (Nagpur, Pune) rather than in Madras and I did leave India at age seventeen and so missed a large part of the adult interactions in this world. There is also the difference in time to consider with Narayan's stories set in a more timeless India. I wanted my hero Hari to be a provocateur in the sense that he channels disturbance into the family and the novel by allowing himself to experiment. His sense of smell, taste, sight and hearing are not yet restricted by cultural norms and no-go areas and thus he reveals the futility of his family trying to barricade themselves behind physical walls of concrete and mental walls raised with tradition and ritual. I wanted to question that system through Hari and reveal the parts that the adults had blinded themselves to through the child's eye.
I feel that Tam Bram is a warm and rich sub culture that is very supportive of its members (as long as they toe the line) but ultimately an exclusionary culture that still embodies the collective memory of an old India with clear caste and class delineations which may or may not have existed. Some aspects are quite at odds with the rich democracy ofIndia now and I could not reconcile the two in the pages of the novel, hence the flight out of India for my characters.

3) You yourself moved to Canada later on....was that the impulse behind having the family and Hari 'uprooted' and moved to another country? Or could it be read as Hari's journey to an 'open world' - a new world without the shakles of the past - something he seems to be at odds with all along?

There were several reasons for the move to Canada in the novel. I was struggling to match up Hari's actions on the page with their consequences in the context of the Indian community then. His actions had grown to have impact in the adult world around him and yet he remained a child protagonist, an actor in the adult world without recognition or power. And rather than trying to wait for him to grow up and return to these days as an adult (and face Radha, Vishu and theother characters - which I felt would turn the novel into a morality play but which happens in an entirely new and plausible way in RebeccaNesvet's theatrical adaptation of The Strike called revolutions perminute), I took the route of escape from India - one that many TamBrams have used to find greener pastures, but in this case it is a punishment for both Girish, who never evidenced a desire to leave, and for Hari, who is cut from everything he knows to start all over in Canada. It is a form of a "golden-cage" punishment, attractive on the outside, but still without the freedoms he is used to in India.

4) I read somewhere you mentioning that Hari's attraction towards other young men is a kind of surrogate sexuality to give release to his sexual urge. You say that this may not be because of his orientation but because of the fact that there is/was a taboo if one were to be caught doing anything with a girl. Is that what you wanted to convey? Because there is a definite chance of it being read as Hari’s homoerotic feelings. Personally, I think a lot of boys/girls are confused about their sexuality when they attain puberty. Were you alluding to that predicament as well?

I think of Hari's sexuality as being queer rather than gay. As you point out, he is very young at 12 and so doesn't quite fit into our adult conceptions of sexuality as straight/gay. Rather I think he is still very much experimenting with his sexuality and the newly discovered idea of maleness. And of course as sex is a taboo topics amongst the adults he is curious and yet scared of it all. I think what I meant earlier was that it was (and still is for the most part) taboo for young boys to hang out with girls and so there is a homosocial environment into which the budding sexuality of children is allowed to express itself. So the "hanky-panky" occurs among same sex social groupings not necessarily because the kids are homosexual but because it is just socially easier. I do think that Hari goes beyond this and has a queer sense of sexuality and over the course of the book becomes much more comfortable with alternate sexualities like Radha the hijra represents, but I still am not sure what his adult sexuality would look like.

5) I thought you, almost refreshingly, do not extol mothers. Here of course, you make Hari’s mother the primarily the object of satire and save for maybe one charitable mention, she's mostly presented as nagging and typically orthodox. On the other hand, the elder men in the book are all uniformly kind, gentle and understanding.

I must be honest here, I felt I was writing from a young boy's perspective who does not want to be coddled and thus has a slightly more cruel perspective on his mother's affection than is warranted. I did not want the mother to be a caricature of a nagger neither be a "mother India" type figure of kindness and love. I wanted her to be frustrated with her own lot and have human frailties too but which are hidden from Hari for the most part because he is a boy's boy. He enjoys the company of men and boys because he finds them to be less complicated than women - and in that he is a boy more than anything else, after all the other boys and men have experiences closer to his own. Hari is also at the stage where girls and women both frighten and excite him and so there is a reticence to engage with them.
6) The fact that you use a lot of Tamil certainly brings a certain flavour to the narrative. But I'm curious why you haven't explained any of it in a Index?
My editors and I took the conscious decision to try and impregnate the text around the Tamil words with the meanings of the words themselves. In the North American edition, the Tamil words are italicized for a western audience but we chose leave out the italics for an Indian audience. I also feel that in India, we never really stick to one language. Our conversations borrow freely from the multitude of languages and the richness of such vocabulary is a non-issue in verbal communication in houses, in the media and on the streets. I wanted to make it a similar non-issue on the page. Yes, the reader may be unfamiliar with the dictionary meaning of the word, however, the flavour of the word will not escape them as they read the sentence in the context of the storyline. That is my hope.
7) Many NRI authors when they talk about experiences in their home town tend to be sentimental. Somehow, even though you have a fondness for the Tamilian culture, you chose to go in for a tragi-comic form -where even serious scene is treated in a wry, irreverent, funny way. Is that how you percieve life itself?
I do think life has its serious moments and it has its funny moments. In this novel I was trying consciously to think about the actions as a child and my own childhood was filled with moments of such adventure and fun that I could not keep that sense of joy far from Hari. But your question is rather astute and I am reminded now of the fact that in the novel that I am currently working on, one of the characters says to another, 'It's true, life is a tragedy if one only feels it, one must think about it to turn into a comedy.'
I am nostalgic about India in the sense that the India I remember growing up in, barely exists now. But I also think that is a good thing. India needs to move and change just like us NRIs need to grow and open in our new homes and lands. The love for the country of our birth, its richness of culture and smells, and the warmth of its people will remain with us as long as we remain on earth, but I do think that one must never forget that such warm blankets of nostalgic memory sacrifice living in the present for the dreams of the past.
8) One quibble I had. I was wondering why you left the thread about Hari's friends (Mohan, Anamika) mid-way, never refering to it again.
I agree with your quibble, I too wanted a way for Anamika and Mohan to return, but what would they say to each other? I look at the Strike as being a cesarean cut, one that has severed Hari from his childhood. And with the trauma of this experience he has changed more than his friendscan imagine. In truth, I do feel that they would have accepted him back without question, and that their friendship would remain strong, butthat Hari would be the one to hold back, to be on his guard, to check himself lest he taint them with his experiences.

9) Also, the whole novel is from Hari's prism but towards the end - after the train accident, the authorial /adult voice just takes over. How do you percieve this sudden shift?

Yes, there is a dramatic shift in voice (although the remarkable point here is that while Indian reviewers note this with some sadness, Canadian reviewers have accused me of not making such a shift in voice at all and demand it instead!) because of the dramatic shift in Hari'splace in the landscape of the story. It is as if an earthquake has happened that has changed the social order. The moment of revolution turns the narrative topsy turvy and affects the way the story is told as much as what happens in the story itself. My inspiration for this was from a German novella written long ago by Heinrich von Kleist called Das Erdbeben in Chile where he uses a physical earthquake to show the breakdown of classes and civilized ethos.
The change in voice is also meant to suggest the change in power, as a child living in a child's world, Hari has a voice, an agency and anability to effect change within it. But as a child, he is voiceless and bewildered by the events. In the trauma of the events at the trainstation in Ennore, Hari goes silent, his actions are primeval in this adult world and the narrative now belongs not to the child's world but rather to this new world that Hari has cast himself into.

10) Would love to know what you will be writing next

I am currently wrapping up a manuscript looking at the lives of two cousins, both from a Sufi mystic family that has a hereditary role in taking care of a shrine in Pakistan. One goes to London and becomes radicalized and the other goes to America and becomes westernized. Both return to Pakistan and are forced into conflict over the land and lucrative revenue from the shrine and must reconcile their personal growth and ambition with their obligations to family and religion. The story is partly inspired by the struggles faced by a Pakistani friend of mine in the post 9-11 world. In working on this novel, I had a chance to visit Pakistan (a few weeks after the Bombay blasts) and I was surprised by the sheer generosity of the people and the horror they felt at the actions of the militants. My hope is that we can, as a people, begin to erase the boundaries that separate us and learn more about how similar we are through conversation rather than through wars and bullets.

11) A little about the literary works that have influenced you

I tend to read widely, growing up under the influence of the magic realists but also with a strong awareness of German literature and music(one of my majors at University was German); I read Indian authors with great interest and now am quite pleased to see the roster of Pakistani writers who are adding balance to the South Asian narratives that have dominated world literature. I tend to read books where a writer wields a formidable pen in the English language, not just in terms of plot but in terms of the sheer beauty of the prose. I am referring to authors like Shirley Hazzard and Andre Aciman published by FSG in New York who clearly are in love with the English language and whose books you want to take to a quiet corner so you can read them out loud to yourself.

04 June 2009

The Thing Around Your Neck

The choke within

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Pages: 218
Publishers: Harper Collins
Price: 299

My initiation into African literature started with Ama Ata Aidoo’s No Sweetness Here, a raw, deeply poignant collection of short stories that spoke of a land reeling under the after-effects of colonial rule and a population tormented by its past and inability to recogonise itself.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book, The Thing Around Your Neck, again a collection of short stories about Nigeria, comes almost 40 years after No Sweetness Here. And yet, much like Ama Ata Aidoo’s portrayal of a beleaguered population, reeling under a primitive mind-set or not being comfortable in their own skin and hence aping the West, Adichie’s book too touches upon many of these issues.

If Adichie’s brilliant last book, Half Of A Yellow Sun was a deeply affecting document of the Biafran war of the 60s and early 70s, her new book has the action shifting to America –where the author herself spends most of her time now as a professor. The past seems to weigh heavily upon all the characters, which makes them uncomfortable even if they’ve moved to a new world (US). In The Arrangers Of Marriage, a newly married girl is constantly urged by her husband to speak and act like the Americans, because that is the only way ‘they will be accepted’. He changes both their name to something that the Americans will find easy to pronounce. He insists that she eat ‘pizza’ and not cook Nigerian food, as he doesn’t want them to be known as ‘the couple who fill the building with smells of foreign food’
Adichie’s portrayal is a cruel one, one that mirrors the third world’s western fixation. But beyond that, it is also a very sad story where one would rather debase and toe the line in a rich country than revisit the horrors of their past.

The book’s title story, The Thing Around Your Neck is about a young Nigerian girl trying to make a living in America. Her new boyfriend is White, rich too. However, the excesses of the country and its abundance start to choke her, especially when she thinks of the rigours in her own country. The pain of the past is too deep for her to embrace the new world.

Every story that Adichie recounts is deeply evocative of the country’s past. Even personal stories have characters that are uncomfortable with their present because they has a gory past to hide. Tomorrow Is Too Far, Ghosts and The Shivering are all stories about longing and regret.
Adichie is also critical of present-day Nigeria and her disgust clearly comes out in Cell One, where she talks of police torture and cultists. There are also observations about the corrupt education system and so one – where you can slip a brown envelope and get an ‘A’

However, her most acerbic and hard-hitting story is Jumping Monkey Hill, where the author points out at the westerner’s need to stereotype Africans and other third world countries. An African Writer’s workshop, helmed by professor Edward Campbell, is held to encourage local English writing talent in the continent. However, Campbell dismisses many of the stories calling them either ‘irrelevant’ or ‘passe’ . When someone writes about lesbianism, he says that ‘homosexual stories of this sort aren’t reflective of Africa’. All this while Campbell keeps making passes at one of the female students, Ujunwa. The other contests notice his behaviour and explain to her that ‘what he felt for her was fancy without respect’

Every story carries a wealth of information about Nigeria and its socio-cultural evolution. Adichie’s stories are all deeply personal and political at once. Her easy style of writing – free of fuss – but with a keen understanding of human proclivity – is what makes this 31 year old one of the most important and engaging writers of her generation.