Category Archives: Indian

The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine

Blue NotebookClearly, James A. Levine is a 21st-century Renaissance man. He’s an endocrinologist and professor at the renowned Mayo Clinic, he co-directs Obesity Solutions, a project of Mayo and Arizona State University (where he also professors), he’s credited with pioneering the treadmill desk, he NEATly Gruves … oh, and he also happens to write bestselling novels.

Perhaps he never sleeps – at least not well. He confesses to as much, about the “vivid nightmares” he endured for years after meeting a Mumbai child prostitute in his detailed “Afterword”; although narrator Meera Simhan provides a superb reading, you’ll need to turn to the actual pages for Levine’s not-to-be-missed additional insights, memories, afterthoughts, and more.

As part of investigating child labor in India, Levine found himself on the infamous “Street of Cages” in Mumbai, “one of the central areas for the estimated half-million child prostitutes in the country.” There he saw a 15-year-old girl in a pink sari, writing in her blue notebook. “I’ve found that the mantra ‘Education is the answer’ is invariably touted as pivotal to any solutions. That being so, I could not reconcile the image of a child prostitute who wrote.” Levine’s nightmares repeatedly ended with the specter of the girl standing over him in the middle of night. And so he “finally set out to write her story – it spilled onto the paper” in 58 days and became this, his debut novel.

Batuk, as Levine named her, was 9 when her father sold her to a brothel. Her virginity is auctioned off to the highest bidder and after she’s been heinously abused, she is eventually sent to “Common Street” where she lives in a “cell, with its steel bars … the size of a toilet.” Her best friend is beautiful Puneet, who “occupies the nest two down”: “Puneet is the most valuable of us all because he is a boy.”

“I have been blessed with beauty and a pencil,” Batuk introduces herself. “My beauty comes from within. The pencil came from the ear of Mamaki Briila, who is my boss.” That pencil records her shattering life, recalls the stories she was told as a village child, and enables her to create her own as the only means of escaping her unbearable reality. Summoned to a luxury hotel to be a spoiled heir’s temporary sex slave, Batuk takes what solace she can by writing of the horrors she endures on sheets of hotel stationery. Her literacy will preserve her sanity, even when her body can no longer endure.

As unflinchingly brutal as the novel is, Levine cautions that “[t]he pictures I paint onto Batuk’s canvas … are not fully accurate.” These children’s fates are even worse: “Were the burdens of sufferance to be detailed in their duration and intensity, the book would be agonizing to read. I can only open the door but then leave. I paint these images … and apologize that they are only glimpses. More than that I cannot sustain.” Neither, too, could most readers …

Batuk’s uncompromising testimony haunts with its inhumanity, even as it bears witness to a remarkable young girl’s strength, ingenuity, and somehow, hope. Her stories become her salvation – and will also inspire her audience to enable and ensure salvation for others like her, as well.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Indian, Nonethnic-specific, South Asian

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan

Homeless BirdKoly, the only daughter in a poor, rural Indian family, leaves all she’s ever known to fulfill her duties in an arranged marriage. Once the wedding is over, Koly realizes her family was tricked: her new husband is a sickly young boy whose parents are interested only in her dowry. Paltry as it is, it’s enough to take her dying groom to the holy city of Benares for a miraculous cure, and if not that, then at least a blessed burial.

Just 13, Koly becomes a widow. Tradition bans her from returning to her own family, so she assiduously serves her new family Over the next four years, Koly’s sister-in-law marries and leaves, her father-in-law dies, and her bitter mother-in-law remains unrelenting in her accusations and demands.

Koly dreams of escaping her hungry, belittled, desperate life, but she never expects that freedom will come as a result of abandonment: her mother-in-law leaves her in Vrindavan, a town where too many discarded widows meet their end. But thanks to the remarkable kindness of strangers, Koly is destined for so much more.

Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2000, Gloria Whelan writes deftly of unchallenged traditions that begin with the devaluation of girls which allows for child marriage, abusive in-laws, and ends with disposable widowhood. Whelan empowers Koly to better face her bleak challenges: she is Brahmin-born, India’s highest caste; her mother teaches her a valuable practical skill, embroidery; her father-in-law secretly enables her literacy (the title originates from one of the poems in his beloved Rabindranath Tagore collection). Clearly aware of her younger audience, Whelan invests Koly with the determination to survive and thrive.

Should you choose to go audible, hapa British Indian actress Sarita Choudhury is an ideal narrator as she effortlessly adapts her voice from despair to feisty to hope to resolve to wonder. Her authentic range gives credible plausibility to even the deus ex machina-ending that may give cynical naysayers cause to sigh once or twice, but should ultimately leave most readers exhaling with relief and joy.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2009 (United Kingdom), 2001 (United States)

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Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood by Varsha Bajaj

Abby Spencer Goes to BollywoodOkay, so what are the chances?! Varsha Bajaj‘s exuberant debut middle grade novel begins with a food allergy that sends her teen protagonist, the titular Abby Spencer, to the ER with an anaphylactic reaction. Talk about eerily prescient – less than 12 hours later, I’m repeating Abby’s opening number, Benadryl shot “meant for the baby hippo,” ambulance, and all. Before old age kills me, overcautious doctors will, egads!

“‘No one in my family is allergic to coconut,’” Abby’s mother tells the ER staff. “‘What about Abby’s father?’” is, naturally, the next question the doctor asks. At 13, Abby has spent her life explaining “‘Families come in all shapes and sizes’” when kids voiced curiosity about her absent paternal parent. Sure, she’s wondered, but Abby’s ever-caring mother and doting maternal grandparents have been all the family she’s needed … until now.

That coconut allergy is reason enough to want to know more at least about her medical inheritance. Although her mother is ready with a few answers, the internet ends up providing far more: Abby’s father, who has changed his name since he was a college student in Dallas with her mother, turns out to be Bollywood’s most famous mega-star. After a few fraught phone calls and Skype sessions, Abby’s flying first-class to Mumbai, to a family she never even knew she had … not to mention more glamor and surprises than she could ever have imagined.

Bajaj occasionally tries too hard to make her teen tale contemporary, even as she mixes in Taylor Lautner and Simon Cowell with the 1960s Jetsons and a so-called “PBS voice,” all in a few pages. If nothing else, such references are more likely to unnecessarily date her modern fairy tale. That said, Bajaj carefully presents Abby’s unexpected journey to the other side of the world as quite the eye-opening experience. Mingling with the over-the-top fabulous are important glimmers of reality: the grinding personal price of fame, the paralyzing consequences of tradition, parental neglect however unintended, the extreme poverty amidst vast luxuries that teems throughout Mumbai.

Young readers in search of an international adventure will surely enjoy accompanying Abby on the page. Bajaj’s vivid descriptions of paneer and pooris should inspire repeated visits to an Indian kitchen. Place an order for takeout, then queue up Dhoom 1, 2, or 3. Although no one compares to my Aamir, I’m guessing Abby’s Dad is not unlike Hrithik Roshan: “Dhoom again and run away with me on a roller coaster ride, dhoom again and see your wildest dreams slowly come alive.” Dancing yet …?

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

The Savage Fortress (Ash Mistry Chronicles, Book 1) by Sarwat Chadda

Savage FortressWell, I seem to be totally out of order here: so I read The City of Death (Book 2) first because I had a judging deadline, then backpedaled to catch up by sticking this Fortress (Book 1) in the ears (Bruce Mann narrates well enough, although I think Sunil Malhotra would have been the better choice), only to learn that Ash Mistry and the World of Darkness (Book 3) which hit shelves on the other side of the Pond last summer, doesn’t even have a Stateside pub date scheduled yet!

Harrrummmphhh. Talk about literatus interruptus (especially since Book 2 ended with quite the shocker)! And while it’s true that you don’t need Book 1 to enjoy Book 2, obeying the order will make you more enlightened.

Meet Ash Mistry, your average city teen: “All-day gaming sessions. His mates. McDonald’s. These were the best things in life.” He’s been sent to India with his younger sister Lucky for some cultural rediscovery with Uncle Vik and Aunt Anita. While he might not be British enough back home, he’s certainly made to feel like a London oddity on the other side of the world. Two weeks into their trip, he doesn’t know how he’s going to survive “the oppressive temperatures, the stench, the crowds, and the death.”

And then he lands at the Savage Fortress, owned by Lord Alexander Savage, who has the world convinced he’s nearly a saint with all his many charities. Savage has summoned Uncle Vik and offered him two million pounds to translate ancient scrolls written in a lost language. Hidden behind proverbial curtains, Ash witnesses the exchange with mounting horror; his nightmares becomes real when he literally falls into a hidden portal from which he glimpses his own mysterious past …

“‘I’m tired of being poor,’” Vik initially replies to Ash’s protestations, but Vik’s conscience makes him tear up the check when he catches a glimpse of Savage’s true nature. Not used to being challenged, Savage is less than pleased, setting off a violent chain of events that send Ash and Lucky running for their very lives. Survival will depend on a holy man, a shapeshifting demon, and a street urchin … and the odds just aren’t looking so good.

Who needs video games, when you’ve got deadly monsters chasing you 24/7 in real time? So much for a typical summer vacation …!!!

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012

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The City of Death (Ash Mistry Chronicles, Book 2) by Sarwat Chadda

City of DeathOkay, so we’re skipping ahead here, because I had to read this for a book judging requirement – and, in reading out of order, also confirm that it can narratively stand alone even without its prequel. I can’t reveal any trade secrets, but I can confirm that Book 2 of Sarwat Chadda‘s Ash Mistry series doesn’t need Book 1 (The Savage Fortress), but if you decide to turn back time, you’ll appreciate filling in a few details. That said, to maximize your sense of adventure, I would definitely stick to the 1 – 2 – 3 (3 being The World of Darkness, available on the other side of the Pond, but a U.S. pub date is still pending).

After a serious makeover summer in India, Ash is back home in London with his old friends, starting a new school year. He’s lost his adolescent pudge, learned how to kill with a single touch, and can run to Edinburgh and back in a single night (those nightmares about past lives keep the shuteye away). He might be the reborn “eternal warrior” of Kali, goddess of death and destruction, but he’s also still the same socially awkward teenager he was before his transformation; alas, none of his newly acquired skills are helpful as he fumbles to ask the gorgeous Gemma out on a date.

Then his old friend Parvati shows up to warn him that their nemesis, evil Lord Savage, is after the legendary Koh-I-Noor diamond, part of the British Crown Jewels – it’s the last relic he needs to unlock the secret to eternal life. Savage’s hench-monsters wreak havoc hunting down the priceless jewel, and in the violent skirmish, Gemma dies in Ash’s arms. Bent on revenge – not to mention saving the world yet again – Ash returns to India with Parvati to stop Savage once and for all. His not-so-secret determination to resurrect Gemma repeatedly impedes him from thinking clearly, even as his trust meter is tested again and again. But being a superhero when you’re still just a kid – with ever-growing powers you haven’t quite mastered! – is no easy job, especially when those new skills just might come at the cost of your own humanity.

Chadda updates ancient mythology to fit into a brave new world of instant access driven by cell phones, video games, and the world wide web. Technology might have advanced, but the war between good and evil remains forever timeless: get ready for young Ash Mistry, the latest vanquisher-in-training the world has been waiting for …

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2013

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The Case of the Love Commandos: A Vish Puri Mystery by Tarquin Hall

Case of the Love CommandosMysteries don’t get any more substantially delicious than this: Vish Puri voiced by Sam Dastor as written by Tarquin Hall, with just the right balance of page-turning entertainment and sociopolitical insight. Before you partake, however, you should know that this is #4 in a series; while each installment provides standalone delight, only reading in order – The Case of the Missing Servant, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken – will provide full satisfaction. Yes, they’re that good. So if you haven’t already, go catch up quickly!

Vish Puri, founder and leader of Most Private Investigators Ltd., is the “winner of six national awards and one international, also. … The Federation of World Detectives saw fit to name [him] super sleuth some years back. [His] picture was on the cover of India Today.” But for now, he’s taking a break from enjoying his laurels (although he always has time for a quick snack), as he’s convinced of “‘nazar lag gayi’ – the evil eye was upon him.” He’s actually failed to solve the Jain Jewelry Heist case, and now he’s somehow managed to get pickpocketed as he prepares to embark on a short family pilgrimage. Still, he insists, “‘My radar is working twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, only.’” And much to his wife Rumpi and his Mummy’s disappointment, Puri decides he can’t take that much-needed break, after all.

Puri’s operative “Facecream had never asked for his help before and he wasn’t about to turn her down.” Facecream’s latest assignment for the Love Commandos [a real-life volunteer organization "dedicated to helping India's lovebirds who want to marry for love"] has gone awry: would-be-groom Ram – of the Dalit, or ‘untouchable,’ caste – has been kidnapped from a Commandos safe house and his bride-to-be Tulsi – a “highborn Hindu” – is afraid her disapproving, all-too-powerful father will stop at nothing to keep the couple apart. And then Ram’s mother is found dead, and the case suddenly becomes far more than a missing persons report.

While Puri and Facecream take on India’s illegal caste system, political intrigue in the highest echelons, genome mapping without consent, marriage brokers, that rare ethical lawyer, and an evil Swedish medical director with heinous secrets, Mummy’s off in the remote mountains and shrines chasing a case of her own. Even as she recovers the stolen wallet in spite of being told by Rumpi that Chubby (her pet name for her inestimable son who only begrudgingly ever accepts her good help) did not want her involved, Mummy savvily realizes the pickpocket and his oversized belligerent wife have far greater riches in sight.

As proud as Puri is (when the evil eye has turned away, only) of his most excellent radar that eventually solves all, he’s not above accepting a few new truths. He knows to be humbly grateful (enough) when Mummy shows her sleuthing prowess once more – the chutney doesn’t fall far from the pakora, after all. And although he still frowns on marriage-without-parental-approval, Ram and Tulsi’s commitment to each other teach him plenty about true love … and thankful is he for Mummy, Rumpi, their three daughters, and a “house … filled with grandchildren and laughter.” He won’t be needing any pilgrimages to appreciate his many blessings.

There remains, however, one question left unanswered … oh mighty triumvirate of Vish/Sam/Tarquin: Where’s #5 already??!!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, British, Indian, South Asian

The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey

Sleeping DictionaryAfter 10 installments of her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, DC-area-based Sujata Massey goes historical with her latest Dictionary, published this summer after six years in the making. Dictionary marks the debut of a new series Massey intends, The Daughters of Bengal, each set in India. Given a choice between 500 pages in print or 16-plus hours stuck in the ears, choose the latter: Sneha Mathan’s crisp, enhancing narration adds both authenticity and depth.

From beloved daughter Pom (“our father … would sometimes say that a daughter’s life lengthened a father’s life and that for having three strong girls he might live to one hundred”), to freedom fighter Kamala (“‘you are too valuable to risk being arrested’”), to cherished wife and mother (“he held me as if the past had never happened”; “Your loving daughter, Kabita Zeenat Hazel Smith”), Dictionary follows the trajectory of a determined young woman through two of India’s most tumultuous decades when the sprawling country moves from colonial British rule to violently fractured independence.

Orphaned as a young girl in 1930 when a tidal wave destroys her West Bengal village, Pom is reborn as Sarah, a Christian servant at the girls-only Lockwood School. Alternatively abused and ignored, she tenaciously manages to learn more than the privileged British and Indian students. When she’s accused of a terrible crime, she barely escapes; before she reaches her intended destination of Calcutta, she mistakenly disembarks in the smaller city of Kharagpur where her new life as Miss Pamela keeps her trapped for too many years. By the time she finally arrives in Calcutta and becomes Kamala, she has more secrets than baggage. Her love of books – the only vestige of her truncated childhood – saves her again and again, especially in leading her new friends close enough to be family, fellow citizens committed to a greater cause, and even everlasting love.

Combining history, social commentary, espionage (Massey’s literary reputation thus far is based on thrillers, after all), and love-story-across-race-and-class-lines (British-born, Minnesota-raised Massey herself is hapa Indian and German), Dictionary is an intricate journey that occasionally lingers a bit too long (Kamala’s not-quite relationship with Pankaj), then suddenly speeds through rather too conveniently to its ending (no spoilers!). That said, learning the original meaning and history of the title alone was worth the read, especially as Massey adds her own literary layers. Besides, bumpy journeys can often be quite enlightening, detours and all.

Tidbit: Well, how interesting … look what Google pulled up: this no-relation-to-Massey’s-novel, celluloid Sleeping Dictionary features quite the high-power cast (Hugh Dancy as the dispatched English officer, Jessica Alba as the lowly local girl – I just have to cringe for so many reasons! – Brenda Blethyn, Bob Hoskins!). But it never went to the big screen, landing straight to video in 2003. Has anyone seen it?

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, Hapa, Indian, Indian African, South Asian, South Asian American

The Caretaker by A.X. Ahmad

CaretakerFor you DC-area-locals who were wondering, debut novelist A.X. Ahmad is one of us … I tell you that, not to make stalking easy, but to share with you book group groupies that, according to Ahmad’s website, he just might be available to join your gathering “… if you live within driving distance of Washington, D.C.” Really, I’m just quoting!

Let me also say that should you decide to stalk … I mean request! … him at an upcoming meeting, your groupies will have much to discuss. Caretaker is full of Very Important Topics to deliberate and dissect, from post-9/11 profiling, to military cover-ups, itinerant illegal immigrant workers, racial and socioeconomic hierarchies, political elites, the Pakistan/India divide, the North Korean threat, not to mention the more mundane issues like infidelity, mental instability, and the overprivileged lives of the rich and famous – all reaching boiling point together in one blood-pressure cooker of a ride.

Ahmad’s peripatetic thriller moves back and forth between a disputed glacier border 20,000 feet up in the sky, down to an exclusive island getaway on the other side of the world. His protagonist is a former Sikh Indian Army Captain, Ranjit Singh, who is forced to flee his home country after a tragic military disaster, and eventually lands on the posh Martha’s Vineyard hoping to ride out the off-season with multiple caretaking jobs for owners of empty luxury homes.

Unable to afford to keep his family even in a disintegrating rental, Ranjit risks temporarily relocating to the waterfront estate of a Massachusetts Senator, just for a few days while he attempts to arrange alternative accommodations. The family’s plush enjoyment is interrupted when two men enter overnight, setting in motion a chain of runaway events from betrayal to deportation to murder. Guided by the ghost of a fellow Indian officer and assisted by a terminally ill American veteran, Ranjit’s survival depends on an antique doll, a computer-savvy relative-by-marriage, and an override alarm code of BLUESKY.

If you choose to be aurally thrilled, the inimitable Sam Dastor will keep you running for hours (almost 11, to be more accurate). Dastor’s previous suspenseful experiences – he also voices Delhi-based Tarquin Hall‘s fabulous Vish Puri series – expertly enhances Ahmad’s prose. Hopefully Dastor’s reading days are not fully committed; Ahmad’s website also reveals that Caretaker is the “first in a trilogy,” an enticing promise of more chills and thrills ahead.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Audio, .Fiction, African American, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

LowlandSTARRED REVIEW
Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri‘s (The Interpreter of Maladies) unparalleled ability to transform the smallest moments into whole lives pinnacles in this extraordinary story of two brothers – so close that one is “the other side” of the other – coming of age in the political tumult of 1960s India. They are separated as adults, with Subhash, the elder, choosing an academic career in the United States and the more daring Udayan remaining in Calcutta, committed to correcting the inequities of his country. Udayan’s political participation will haunt four generations, from his parents, who renounce the future, to his wife and his brother, who attempt to protect it, to the daughter and granddaughter who will never know him.

Verdict: Lahiri is remarkable, achieving multi-layered meaning in an act as simple as “banging the edge of the lid three or four times with a spoon, to break the seal”; this, her second novel and fourth title, is deservedly one of this year’s most anticipated books. Banal words of praise simply won’t do justice – perhaps what is needed is a three-word directive: just read it.

Review: “Fiction,” Library Journal, August 15, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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Filed under ...Absolute Favorites, ..Adult Readers, .Fiction, Indian, Indian American, South Asian, South Asian American

I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Arthur Flowers, illustrated by Manu Chitrakar, designed by Guglielmo Rossi

I See the Promised LandArthur Flowers, a “blues-based” performance poet, musician, and professor, introduces himself as “Rickydoc Trickmaster,” to render the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. into a biography for younger readers, as traditional Patua Indian scroll painter Manu Chitrakar brings Flowers’ recitation to vibrant life. Their combined efforts create an outstanding cultural hybrid of unexpected storytelling and graphic traditions. Unlike the majority of children’s titles which celebrate and sustain only MLK’s iconic leadership, this collaboration clearly distinguishes itself by bearing witness (surprise, surprise!) to his stumbles and failures, as well.

Flowers realizes that to understand MLK’s legend is to have awareness of the context in which he rose to prominence: the legacy of slavery, the decimation of a people’s psyche, the continued injustices almost a century after laws were changed. “This is the world into which Martin Luther King is born,” he explains. “This is the world that provide the call he come to answer.”

I See balances the legacy of the epic leader who hit his pinnacle with his defining “I Have a Dream”-speech ["King is at the top of his game"], with his difficult, lesser known personal struggles. Flowers is frank and direct about King’s philandering (his confessions caught on wire-tap by J. Edgar Hoover were sent to King’s family on the day he was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize!), his ego (his tendency to “rather lovingly list” his awards in public), his misjudgments (being accused of “being an Uncle Tom” – although Flowers also argues Uncle Tom “has gotten a bad rap”), and his desperate attempts to revive his declining leadership (“run out of Chicago … and his nonviolence strategy has been immolated in the fires of Watts”).

Yes, MLK was human, after all, Flowers contends. But he also reminds, “The Civil War may have delivered the blacks from slavery, but it was Martin Luther King delivered us from bondage.” With Flowers story told, Chitrakar’s panels finished, “… this spell is done. God’s blessings on us all.” A resounding amen to that.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2010 (India), 2013 (revised edition, Canada and United States)

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Biography, .Graphic Novel/Manga/Manwha, .Nonfiction, African American, Indian, South Asian