The Clay Cart – Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Vasantasena giving her jewels to Charudatta

Vasantasena giving her jewels to Charudatta

Many years ago, an aunt from LA stopped by in Ashland on her way to visit me here in Portland. She raved about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), but I thought it was the high school English teacher in her that was talking. In fact, the last time I had read Shakespeare was in high school. Due to an unforeseen transfer through three schools, I wound up studying the Merchant of Venice three years in a row. I can quote from that play, but my knowledge of the rest of Shakespeare is quite limited. Then, a few years back, when my kids were active in theater, my husband and I decided to visit Ashland. We discovered that there were some non-Shakespearean plays (a notable one was a slick production of “A Raisin in the Sun”), the town was idyllic with new-age shops and many food choices for vegetarians, and it had a Fourth of July parade that, let’s just say, swerved to the left. The whole family has been hooked ever since.

This year marked a changing of the guard for OSF, with a new artistic director – Bill Rauch, an advocate for community-based theater productions. He succeeded Libby Appel who had been the artistic director of the festival for twelve years. Rauch came with a new agenda – one that included exploring beyond the Western canon. For his inaugural year, he decided to direct a play himself – the Sanskrit play “The Clay Cart.”

One of the hallmarks of OSF is the unique way the theaters are transformed for each production. For “The Clay Cart,” the stage at the Angus Bowmer Theater was made into a circular one. Idols along the circumference of the stage evoked temple carvings. A multitude of lanterns (swaying to depict a thunder storm, once, during the course of the play) hung from the ceiling. An orchestra consisting of a sarod, a flute and tablas and playing East-West fusion music composed by Andre Pluess, occupied a discreet spot in the back. As a multi-ethnic cast walked into the stage to the melody of a male voice singing “May Shiva’s meditation favor thee,” the audience knew that it was in for an exotic treat. The actors touched the ground reverentially to grace the play and as they sang, each adopted a pose of Lord Shiva. Given that the choreographer appointed for the play is Kathak dancer Anjani Ambegaokar, director of Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India in LA, this traditional opening blessing ritual before a performance came as no surprise. In some ways, the whole play was like a dance drama, except that it was in English.

“Mrichakatika” or “The Clay Cart” is an ancient Sanskrit play ascribed to Śūdraka (even though just as it is for Shakespeare, there is some controversy about his authorship). A version translated by the renowned Sanskrit Professor, J.A.B. van Buitenen, was used for this play defined as a prakarana, or social comedy, a play about ordinary people. It’s the love story of Charudatta, a poor, noble Brahmin and Vasantasena, a courtesan who is besieged by the lustful villain Samsthanaka, the brother-in-law of the king. The clay cart is only a minor element of the play – its only role is as a toy of Charudatta’s son that Vasantasena fills with her jewels. More key to the story are the jewels which she entrusts to Charudatta for safekeeping. When these are stolen, Charudatta is distraught that he has failed her trust, and he sets out to compensate her with jewels his dutiful wife donates for the cause. There are more sub-plots – a gambler who becomes a Buddhist monk, a revolutionary who escapes, with events finally leading to a scene where Vasanatasena appears to have been killed and Charudatta, accused of her murder, is about to be executed. Not to worry – theater of that time apparently allowed only happy endings.

With its two-dimensional villain, mistaken identities, star-crossed lovers, witty dialogue (“Wisdom comes naturally to women, but men have to be taught with books,” a character says), the play had all the elements of Shakespearean drama. Where it differed was in the cultural context – bare-chested Brahmin men with their sacred threads and one with even a kudumi (tuft of hair on a shaved scalp), a courtesan who looked like she was straight out of a Ramayana TV serial, a woman, the mother of Samshtanaka carrying a large purse like any woman in modern India, and haunting music with Sanskrit lyrics translated into English. The play also had unusual theatrical techniques that seemed to me to be Brechtian. Pillows are used for scenic elements – a brick wall, a garden of flowers. Actors walking with a curtain hung on a pole represented a carriage, and the actor playing Charudatta (Cristofer Jean), with a frame around his face, represented a painting of himself. Actors removed props during the play, and even interacted with the audience – a gambler goes around the audience begging for gold pieces, and soldiers hunt for an escaped political prisoner. However, later I discovered that Brecht had actually been influenced by Asian theater, and this 2000 year-old play, after all, pre-dates both Brecht and Shakespeare.

I found some criticism of the play, with some people complaining that it was like children’s theater and other critics saying it was not polished enough, but I think that perspective depends on where you are coming from. For instance, the rationale for a romance between a married Brahmin and a courtesan was probably not something a Western audience could swallow very easily. Maybe a play like Kalidasa’s Shakuntala would have fared better. There were also a few cultural discrepancies – the courtesan (played by the gorgeous-looking Miriam Laube) seemed inappropriately playful for her character, and she also painted with her left hand – a major taboo. However, the sheer joy, energy and talent of the cast and crew, the attention to detail, and the incorporation of Indian music and dance by people who were new to those arts, made up for any flaws. Given that there were only a handful of Indians involved in the production, it was a valiant attempt at exploring another culture and an authentic demonstration of ancient Sanskrit street theater.

The five hour drive to Ashland is well worth the trip. Walking through the quaint houses in the neighborhood, exploring Lithia park, eating organic Veggie wraps in Pangea, or even venturing out on a side rafting trip with Noah’s River Rafting make Ashland a fun weekend getaway, even without the plays.

“The Clay Cart” runs through Nov. 2. To purchase tickets call 800-219-8161 or visit http://www.osfashland.org

Maitreya: Everything is lost!

Charudatta: Lost? She did not accept the necklace?

Maitreya: How could we be so lucky! No, she folded her delicate little hands at her forehead and took it.

Charudatta: Then why do you say that everything is lost?

Maitreya: Isn’t it lost? For a cheap gold box, which we didn’t eat or drink up, which was just stolen by a burglar, she has taken a pearl necklace that is the prize of four oceans!

Charudatta: Don’t talk like that, friend; we have but repaid the price of her great trust.

Maitreya: And I have another grievance friend. She winked at her entourage and hid her face behind her dupatta: she mocked me! And therefore, Brahmin though I am, I throw myself with my head at your feet and implore you to put a stop to your disastrous love. A courtesan is like a clod of earth that’s got into your sandal: you can’t get rid of it. They’re right in saying that a merchant who does not cheat, a village council that does not quarrel, and a courtesan who does not grab are hard to imagine.

From The Clay Cart by Śūdraka, translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni

An ancient story of drama, intrigue, skullduggery, passion, violence, lust – there’s a lot to mine from the Mahabharata, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni does it with gusto in the novel “The Palace of Illusions,” the story from the perspective of “Paanchali,” aka Draupadi. I have always wondered how a story of war and revenge could be considered a worthy spiritual text. It certainly is a very difficult premise to sell to the American public. Much harder is to eke romance out of polyandry. Even in India, Draupadi’s relationship with her five husbands has long been the subject of bawdy jokes. But Divakaruni manages to pull it off, even if at times, put in the framework of a novel, it’s a little hard to swallow – one can see how book critics would not be able to buy the whole idea. However, she does manage to skillfully portray a delicate, forbidden romance between Paanchali and Karna.

The novel is a little weak in its setting. Maybe because there is so much of plot to convey, we get very little of a sense of place. She doesn’t seem to have done much historical research about the life and times of people in the story, and it appears to be mostly based on the epic.

Where the book works, though, is in showing the transformation of Draupadi from an innocent child to a vindictive woman. A fresh new viewpoint is the concept of Draupadi herself as the architect of a devastating war, how her own desire for revenge led to a cascade of events that destroyed her life. The relationship between Krishna and Draupadi is another strong theme that runs through the story. We see Draupadi learn lessons from a man whom she suspects to be a divine being. We see her evolve, and ultimately transcend the world of form.

Some of it is a little preachy and sermonizing – italicized excerpts from the Bhagvad Gita are scattered randomly through some of the chapters. But that has always been Divakaruni’s style, and a common criticism of her writing. Her cause used to be the support of abused women, now her goal appears to promote the spiritual concepts of Hinduism, (she is an active member of the Chinmayananda Mission, and invited members to her book reading). This book is also not exempt from a streak of feminism. Draupadi comes out quite superior to all her husbands, and Arjuna is mostly a non-player in the story.

Krishna touches my hand. If you can call it a hand, these pinpricks of light that are newly coalescing into the shape of fingers and palm. At his touch something breaks, a chain that was tied to the woman-shape crumpled on the snow below. I am buoyant and expansive and uncontainable – but I always was so, only I never knew it. I am beyond name and gender and the imprisoning patterns of ego. And yet, for the first time, I’m truly Panchaali. I reach with my other hand for Karna – how surprisingly solid his clasp! Above us our palace waits the only one I’ve ever needed. Its walls are space, its floor is sky, its center everywhere. We rise; the shapes cluster around us in welcome, dissolving and forming and dissolving again like fireflies in a summer evening.

Reviewers often find fault with Indian historical fiction. For instance, Indu Sundaresan, author of the book “The Twentieth Wife,” about Nur Jahan, faced criticism with respect to the character development of her protagonist even though the author was constrained by the facts. A review in the Oregonian also complained about the archaic nature of the language in Divakaruni’s new book, but a reader familiar with Indian mythology would not notice it.

The bottom line though, is that Divakaruni is a seasoned storyteller. She distills the Mahabharata into an enjoyable beach-read for the average person – quite an accomplishment in itself. You clearly see the universality of human nature. If the Iraq war is any indication, it is obvious that mankind is still capable of being involved in a pointless war. People discover the folly of being lost in the material world of power and prestige in the Mahabharata, but the lessons have still not been absorbed by modern man. This book is a pretty good attempt to bring those lessons home, and who knows, maybe Divakaruni will succeed in spreading her message. At least it is a good one.

Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan

What the Buddha Never Taught by Timothy Ward

Transcending the ego is not an easy task. Particularly since it sneaks up on you when you least expect it. You know the feeling. You have been to many lectures, read many books, and feel you have evolved, spiritually speaking. The trappings of material success seem irrelevant to you. But there is just one problem. Other people. They are annoying. You just can’t stand their one-upmanship. You know you are morally superior to them, but they still seem to be able to get to you…there you go again, ego has snared you.

In the book, ” What the Buddha Never Taught” by Timothy Ward, the author wonders who benefits when the ego is transcended. If the ego is vanquished, then who is there to enjoy the bliss of self-realization? As he explains it, using the mind to get rid of itself is like trying to touch the tip of your tongue with the tongue, or trying to see your eye with your eye.

On a spiritual quest, Timothy Ward, a Canadian from Vancouver, becomes a member of a strict monastic order, Wat Pah Nanachat, located in a remote jungle in Thailand. This is a place of complete self-negation, fasting, ritual begging and manual labor. Austerity is carried to such an extreme in the pursuit of ego removal, that even intellectual discussion is forbidden for being too worldly. One monk who was a musician has given up his instrument. This is not a place of love, harmony, bliss or any of those wholesome feelings. Instead, it is a place where a skeleton is a reminder of the transient nature of things and people revere a monk who committed “samadhi suicide”.

Although his original plan was to become a full-fledged monk, gradually Tim starts to see inconsistencies that disturb him. For a place of no ego, there is a distinct hierarchy among the monks. Instead of being true to their values, the monks just try to follow the letter of the law. For instance, it is OK to get novices to kill pests such as ants, or cut weeds, but not OK for the monks to do it. And even then, it has to be done indirectly, by hinting to them rather then specifically ordering them to do so. The most difficult thing for Tim to swallow is the way the original teacher Ajahn Chah who is in a coma is kept alive and paraded around to visitors. He suspects that it is for fund-raising. He cuts his visit short and quits the order.

Reading this book makes you wonder about the nature of existence. You realize that each environment has its own reality. For example, the qualities that would be essential to achieve material success in a competitive world would be a hindrance in a Theravada Buddhist monastery. If accomplishment is prized in the outside world, detachment and self-control is of more value in a monastery. Perhaps both extremes are unhealthy. Following the ego’s lead will clearly lead to all the suffering we see around us. The constant quest for more is clearly not a recipe for peace. Yet creation deserves appreciation, even if it is an illusion. Perhaps the key is to be detached from the drama of life, but treasure the present moment of experience.

Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure by Sarah MacDonald

Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure. Sarah MacDonald

New Years Eve revelry, Diwali, wild disco parties, ashrams, Bollywood, yoga lessons, weddings, heat and dust. Australian Sarah MacDonald experiences this all in her funny, perceptive account of her sojourn in India in the 90’s – an India that is alien to many of India’s diaspora who left the country years ago. This is a very new and different India, and India of “Reality TV shows”, relaxed moral values in young adults, decaying mansions and their owners from a bygone era.

After a miserable first encounter with the third world – travel sickness, beggars, mosquitoes and incompetent bureaucracy, Sarah vows to never visit India again. A prophecy forced on her by a palmist/beggar at the airport rattles her – “You, madam, you come back to India, …….” But she dismisses it vehemently and returns to Australia. Little does she know that the prophecy will come true many years later when her boyfriend Jonathan moves to India to work as a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Unable to stay apart, she resigns her job as a TV reporter and joins him, full of apprehension and little enthusiasm. What follows is a love-hate story of her relationship with India.

The story reads like fiction but the drama of Indian society is way too real. A friend’s mother commits suicide when she discovers the marriage of her daughter to someone of her own choice. In Kashmir the scenery includes coffins and guns. A nasty bug picked up after a Ganges dip leads to a nightmare flu, hospitalization and a prolonged recovery. For Sarah the hospital is a bewildering cocktail of compassion, inefficiency (she picks up stomach flu there) and questionable safety (her fiancé has to be her bodyguard at night). Yet her close brush with death transforms her and instead of making her retreat in disgust it spurs a spiritual quest to discover herself.

Throwing the swords down, the naked blue-black sadhus jump and dance around us and the camera. They are waving, shaking my hand, shivering and doing all too revealing cartwheels. Their faces split into huge grins and their dreadlocks glisten with drops of water….

It’s a meeting of the primal and the prim, the faithful and the foreign, the devotee and the doubter. I breathe in the rapture and joy on their faces, and for a moment I feel their ecstasy. Together we wade in the waters that form heaven on earth.

Throwing the swords down, the naked blue-black sadhus jump and dance around us and the camera. They are waving, shaking my hand, shivering and doing all too revealing cartwheels. Their faces split into huge grins and their dreadlocks glisten with drops of water…. It’s a meeting of the primal and the prim, the faithful and the foreign, the devotee and the doubter. I breathe in the rapture and joy on their faces, and for a moment I feel their ecstasy. Together we wade in the waters that form heaven on earth.Spirituality becomes her theme and in India she finds a multitude of faiths represented. While her discerning ability as a journalist helps her cut through the smoke and mirrors of various cults, her open-minded attitude keeps her compassionate and non-judgmental. She encounters a doomsday sect consisting of only White Westerners, obsessed with sunscreen and kundalini yoga. Their hyperventilation exercise makes everyone feel light-headed, happy and dizzy, but Sarah feels it is oxygen saturation not God realization as the others believe. Another ashram that she visits is like a commercial resort with preferential treatment given to foreigners (at a higher price). On the other hand, she feels that a Vipassana meditation retreat in Dharmasala involving ten days of complete sensory deprivation gives her a glimpse of transcendence.

After a Christmas wedding in Australia her newly-wed travel plans include a trip to the Maha Kumbh Mela where she finds a “bamboo Las Vegas” a man- made street of camps belonging to the various babas. This is an intense course in Hinduism and a chance to observe the bliss of thousands of pilgrims charge into the water for a holy dip at the blow of a whistle. Her smorgasbord of spiritual sampling includes a Jewish group from Israel and the Parsi community in Mumbai. Finally, at the insistence of her Christian household help and her own nagging conscience she goes on a pilgrimage to the Church of Velangani in Tamil Nadu. There she discovers that only in India is Mary (draped in a sari) worshiped as a goddess. Pakistan which she finds “strangely similar to yet oddly different from India” introduces her to Sufism.

This time around she is not a tourist but a resident. For someone unaccustomed to the feudal spirit she finds it a little uncomfortable at first to have a retinue of “servants”. But like many Indians, the multitude of arduous tasks that is required to run a household slowly makes her descend into a luxurious dependency on the help. House hunting is a challenge but in Vasant Vihar, a Delhi suburb, Sarah and her fiancé find a brick two-storied house, the home of a retired colonel.

But the hottest hangout of all is the brand-new Barista coffee shop, part of a chain leading a lust for lattes in this traditional chai town. Each café is contemporary cool combined with eighties nostalgia – teenagers sit in jeans and T-shirts and strum guitars while singing along to Billy Joel and John Denver songs. Karaoke is also catching on, with Western songs regularly massacred. The hot favorite is “Hotel California”- almost unrecognizable when screeched in a strong Hindi accent at double decibels.

But the hottest hangout of all is the brand-new Barista coffee shop, part of a chain leading a lust for lattes in this traditional chai town. Each café is contemporary cool combined with eighties nostalgia – teenagers sit in jeans and T-shirts and strum guitars while singing along to Billy Joel and John Denver songs. Karaoke is also catching on, with Western songs regularly massacred. The hot favorite is “Hotel California”- almost unrecognizable when screeched in a strong Hindi accent at double decibels.Sarah is introduced to the dizzy world of Delhi’s elite. Her friend Aarzoo works for a reality TV show RAAH: “Romance Adventure Aap aur Hum” that tests the relationship of young married couples as they go on an adventure trips. At the home of Shabana Azmi and Javed Akhtar she chats with Priety Zinta and Aamir Khan.

The consumer culture around her surprises her but she is a good sport and joins in the activities of her friends Billie and Arzoo – beauty treatments, shopping, parties and weddings. Yogesh is her yoga teacher who teaches a version of yoga that is more “yogaerobics” set to pop music. From her description of her interactions it is clear that many of her Indian acquaintances treated her differently, each trying to impress her with a Westernized persona. Nevertheless, Sarah’s travelogue has the perspective of a native because of her close friendships with many Indians.

Sarah’s language is… well, colorful and her observations often acerbic and ruthlessly explicit. Nothing escapes her and she doesn’t mince words. Every nuance of Indian society, life style and attitude is described with a great sense of humor but tempered with affection for the culture around her. Her words evoke the sights, sounds, and smells of India very realistically. One can almost feel the intense heat of a Delhi summer. Her blunt honesty is intimidating at first but as a reader follows her through her travels we see her evolving into a different person. In the end India grows on her and she embraces Indian society, accepting India’s contradictions. Her empathy for the people she encounters makes her a likeable person and someone worth getting to know, at least through a book.

Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan

The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa

Gold edged embroidered odhnis, imported crystal collections, hovels and drains filled with “slimy black sludge”. “ The Sari Shop” by Rupa Bajwa is an insightful portrayal of the contradictions of Indian society. “Monsoon Wedding” meets “A Fine Balance”. Squalor and elegance exist in uneasy harmony.

Mrs. Sandhu thought she was as good as anybody now. Never mind her weight, at least she was better than all those thin women with dark, rough skins and mousey hair. A beautiful house, status-family, a caring husband and good looks… what more could a woman ask for? Now, if only the children would do well…

Mrs. Sandhu thought she was as good as anybody now. Never mind her weight, at least she was better than all those thin women with dark, rough skins and mousey hair. A beautiful house, status-family, a caring husband and good looks… what more could a woman ask for? Now, if only the children would do well…Ramchand is like any other anonymous worker in the labyrinthine streets of Amritsar, eking out a meager existence as a salesman in a sari shop. With a roll of the dice, when his parents were suddenly killed in an accident, fate has transported him from a middle class existence as a child into an adult life of servitude to a sari merchant. He observes without rancor the peccadilloes of the affluent ladies around him as they shop for extravagant weddings. As the salesmen roll out exquisite Orissa silks and crisp Bangladeshi cottons, shards of greed and malicious gossip rend the delicate fabric of human kindness. The women, unrestrained by any twinges of modesty, vie with each other to demonstrate their superior socio-economic status. Ramchand observes this all with the detachment typical of the lower rungs of Indian society. Resigned to his own fate, and without a trace of envy towards his decadent customers, he bears the invectives of his supervisor with stoicism.

The only respite for the salesmen is their mid morning snack of tea and samosas. A Sunday movie at the Sangam Cinema Hall is Ramchand’s escape from the quotidian. Dinner with his friends at Lakhan Singh’s Dhaba is another luxury for him, but even there the sad misery of their lives is inescapable. Lakhan and his wife are in perpetual mourning for their two sons that were killed in a political attack at the Golden temple.

To his dismay he found that he could barely read. Any word that consisted of more than four letters caused him trouble. And even when he had painstakingly pieced together the letters and made the word, what it produced was only and empty sound to Ramchand. He rarely knew what it meant.

To his dismay he found that he could barely read. Any word that consisted of more than four letters caused him trouble. And even when he had painstakingly pieced together the letters and made the word, what it produced was only and empty sound to Ramchand. He rarely knew what it meant.He lives a life of quiet desperation, and eagerly grasps an opportunity to foray into a different world. He is sent on an errand to the home of a wealthy industrialist. He returns from his sales visit impressed by the bored dilettante daughter of the house, who plans to establish her superiority over the other society ladies by writing a book. This stirs up Ramchand’s own modest childhood ambition of learning English. Armed with the Complete Letter Writer and a used dictionary he attempts to revisit his childhood dreams of seeking knowledge. The task is daunting. The exercise ‘A letter requesting Payment of an Overdue Subscription to a Club’ has no context for him. He finally gets the bright idea of patiently going through the entire dictionary instead.

Soon however, Ramchand’s already fragile sense of security gets a rude shock when he inadvertently stumbles into a tragic situation involving Kamla, the wife of a co-worker. Her spirit has been slowly crushed by a series of unfortunate circumstances until she has been transformed into a grotesque creature headed for disaster. The iniquities of the society Ramchand lives in shatter his faith in humanity. He is disillusioned by the apathy of the educated upper classes towards the oppressed. Impotent with rage, he sets of on a quest for justice. The strength of this novel is in its realistic story telling with an undercurrent of humor. However, for a powerful story, the plot does not have any twists and turns to intrigue the reader. The writing style is also simple without the literary mastery evident in books by other contemporary Indian writers. This is a thought-provoking debut novel though, and nicely told from the perspective of a compelling character.

Reviewed by Lakshmi Jagannathan

Darjeeling by Bharti Kirchner

The Land Rover worked its way up Tiger Hill. The driver regaled us with his stories of working as an extra in Bollywood films that were often shot there. It was four in the morning and there was a sharp nip in the air. Soon my family – my parents, my brother and I were on the top of the hill. Kanchenjunga rose majestically into the sky, Sikkim was in front, and at its farthest end was Jelap-la, the pass into Tibet. To the left, Everest barely peeped out. The tour guide pointed out the direction of the Khyber and Bolan passes. One could imagine all the people that had penetrated the formidable mountain barrier, coming through the passes since antiquity, only to change the course of history in India. Somewhere beyond the horizon lay China. It may not have been the summit of Everest but it felt like being on the top of the world. Sunrise on Tiger Hill in Darjeeling was one of the highlights of my childhood. A time when life was lived in the present moment, and what a moment that was – to see the glory of the Himalayas at the break of dawn.

Darjeeling is the backdrop of a book by the same name by Bharti Kirchner, a writer from Seattle. Kanchenjunga, painted on the sky, coniferous trees, and “hillsides splashed with rhododendrons” is the setting for this story. It is a tale of two sisters and the love-hate relationship that can often exist between sisters. Tea is also an important ingredient of this story – the growing, the marketing and the making of it. Rivalry, anger and passion add to form a wild cocktail that tears the sisters apart and inflicts irreparable damage on their lives.

Aloka Gupta is a successful journalist in New York, writing for the publication “Manhattan India”. She writes articles and dispenses wisdom for an advice column under the pseudonym of “Seva”. She is a source of comfort to lonely immigrants from the sub-continent as she gives advice on relationships, and provides information ranging from locating a Hindu priest to ordering vegetarian food. She loves her job but her marriage is over. Her husband Pranab wants out, even though she still wants him. Theirs is not the average breakup, though. It is a saga that is filled with intrigue and passion that had begun several years ago in Darjeeling.

Aloka Gupta gazed down from the window of her apartment at the gray-brown bustle of Manhattan’s Fifty-second Street, her thoughts turning to her childhood home and the family-owned tea plantation in Darjeeling. Urged on by the chill of the short autumn days, the tea plants were now forming their third flush of tender shiny leaves, lending a tantalizing fragrance to the crisp mountain air. Eight years earlier, her life and love, like the bumblebees flitting from bud to bud, had been entwined with those bushes.

Aloka Gupta gazed down from the window of her apartment at the gray-brown bustle of Manhattan’s Fifty-second Street, her thoughts turning to her childhood home and the family-owned tea plantation in Darjeeling. Urged on by the chill of the short autumn days, the tea plants were now forming their third flush of tender shiny leaves, lending a tantalizing fragrance to the crisp mountain air. Eight years earlier, her life and love, like the bumblebees flitting from bud to bud, had been entwined with those bushes. Aloka’s ancestors had come on horseback in the 1800s and established a tea plantation in Darjeeling. Her father Bir has been successfully running the business for thirty years and has won many tea awards from the Tea Board of India. As the eldest child in the family, Aloka is given all the traditional honors by the family, much to the chagrin of her younger sister Sujata who resents playing second fiddle. The workers in the tea plantation call Aloka the “tea memsahib”. Into this tranquil scenario Pranab the charismatic new manager steps in to dramatically affect all of their lives. Rebellious and idealistic he wants a new order at the plantation. He foments unrest among the obsequious workers, inciting them to fight for their rights as employees – for adequate pay and medical care.

Matters become complicated when Aloka meets him and falls in love with him. She feels disloyal to her father, but she cannot help herself, and they get engaged. To add insult to injury, when Aloka is away at a wedding, the artistic Pranab – dancer and tabla player impresses Sujata and has an affair with her. The family soon gets to know of their clandestine meetings at Senchal Lake, and Sujata is banished to Canada. Aloka, desperately in love still wants to marry him despite her father Bir’s entreaties to break the engagement. Matters come to a head when the workers riot, and Aloka and Pranab flee together to begin a life in New York City.

Now ten years later, Aloka and Sujata’s grandmother who they call “ThakurMa”, literally, “God Mother” invites them to her eightieth birthday celebration in Darjeeling. Aloka is apprehensive about going back and reopening old wounds. Besides, she has not told anyone about her divorce. Her relationship with her sister has cooled and Sujata can be of no help to her. To make matters worse, now that Pranab is single, he wants to renew his relationship with Sujata who is a successful tea merchant in Victoria, BC. The three characters make their way back to Darjeeling into a hornet’s nest of tension. But this time the sisters are older and wiser and not so vulnerable.

You can tell that multi-talented Bharti Kirchner, a former engineer, was originally a prize-winning cookbook author. The theme of food runs through the novel with vivid descriptions of dishes. When ThakurMa wants the sisters to reconcile and spend time together, she orders them to prepare “channer payesh” a cheese pudding dessert that is so time consuming to prepare that the corner shop doesn’t make it any more. As the sisters stir the milk over a stove they finally start to communicate with each other. The novel is generously sprinkled with Bengali words, some translated, and some not. The author is a good writer of prose, and she portrays the complexity of family relationships quite accurately. However, despite the exotic background and intensity of the story line, the plot seems weak and the novel muted. Some of the characters though real, lack depth. It is a good book for a light summer read, particularly if you are nostalgic for Darjeeling.

Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hildier

I was looking for this book at Barnes and Nobel, a perfect gift for a friend’s graduating daughter. “Born Confused,” I enquired politely at the information desk. A woman standing next to me piped up “Aren’t we all?” If this title was intriguing enough to inspire an unsolicited comment from a stranger, the book matched up to its promise. The latest trend in Indian English literature seems to be the writings of second generation Indian diaspora. We had Jhumpa Lahiri and now it is Tanuja Desai Hidier, even younger, even more in touch with the younger generation and the teen scene in particular. As a parent of a teen who never fails to point out instances of my “ethnocentrism”, this was a book that rang a chord with me.

“Born Confused” is a coming of age story about (as Dave Barry would say) an “Indian Indian girl from America”, Dimple Lala, who lends a refreshing new meaning to the acronym ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). This is not a book with stereotypes and corny jokes about Indian idiosyncrasies. This is an insightful perspective of the tortuous path to self-discovery of a sensitive girl knocked around by the vicissitudes of straddling two different cultures. It taps into the pulse of teenage America – the lingo and the angst, and steps into the mind of a girl with a biting sense of humor and razor sharp powers of observation.

Photography is her hobby and she feels most comfortable looking at the world through her camera lens. For parents of Indian American teenagers this is an eerily accurate picture of an adolescent’s perspective of Indian parents and the world they live in. The description of the dynamics of their interaction in a crisis is hysterically funny and rings a little too true for comfort. Youngsters with strong aversions to science fairs and dance recitals could probably relate to Dimple. Like many an American teenager, her primary goal in life appears to be to invent ingenuous new ways to subvert parental ego-trips.

The story presents the dichotomy of the protagonist’s support system, cousins from her conservative extended family in India and her peers at high school from backgrounds of varying levels of dysfunctional behavior. Dimple’s best friend (and mentor) Gwyn, has a deadbeat dad who has abandoned her and an alcoholic mother competing with her in seeking male liaisons. Unlike Dimple, Gwyn is completely free to graduate to adulthood with none of the restraints of concerned parents.

Dimple takes fashion advice from Gwyn who favors clothes that are several sizes too small for her. This naturally causes all too familiar shopping mall battles between Dimple and her mother. While Dimple longs for Gwyn’s freewheeling lifestyle, Gwyn secretly envies the security and comforts that Dimple takes for granted, pinching her microscopic choli from a lavish sequined silk outfit that Dimple’s mother has obtained for her from India. Of course in her own inimitable way, Gwyn plans to wear this with pants. Cultures rock, collide, and blend culminating in an Indian pop music extravaganza where Gwyn’s embrace of Indian culture (Bhangra and Indian men) makes Dimple strangely resentful.

Of course an adolescent girl’s story has to have heart break and this has lots of it. First the concept of an arranged marriage with the son of a family friend sends Dimple into a panic. She is pining over failed relationships with other boys and a relationship with an Indian boy who listens to Hindi movie songs with her dad seems unthinkable. However, when the suitable boy is found to be not so suitable and appears to be heating it up with her best friend her heart does a quick double take and suddenly the young man is the object of her desire. This is where the story degenerates a bit into a predictable romance.

There are other sentimental digressions, Dimple’s mother’s buried career as a Bharatha natyam dancer, the connection between Dimple’s love for her grandfather and her photography hobby. The Deus ex Machina is Dimple’s photo scoop that brings her romantic relationship with the Indian boy, her Indian roots and American identity all into a tidy dénouement. However, since the target audience is supposed to be “Young Adult” (this is a Scholastic book), happy endings and contrived, neat little tie-ups can be condoned in this book, a witty and entertaining must-read for Indian American teenagers and their parents.

Did they slip a pill in your drink? My mother whispered, scooting her chair closer to mine. I hope at least you didn’t leave your drink unattended. I have been reading how these sick people use this special pill to take the advantage. It puts girls in an amorous state.

Comatose state, said my father. I think he was correcting her, but my mother now pounced on him.

I have been telling you and telling. Now do you believe me? Does it have to happen to your own daughter before you will listen? Oh, my beta…

All of a sudden my father was the enemy and mother had thrown her arms around me in a suffocating hug.

Did they slip a pill in your drink? My mother whispered, scooting her chair closer to mine. I hope at least you didn’t leave your drink unattended. I have been reading how these sick people use this special pill to take the advantage. It puts girls in an amorous state. Comatose state, said my father. I think he was correcting her, but my mother now pounced on him. I have been telling you and telling. Now do you believe me? Does it have to happen to your own daughter before you will listen? Oh, my beta… All of a sudden my father was the enemy and mother had thrown her arms around me in a suffocating hug.

But mainly all my memories of India were memories of Dadaji. When he died the entire country seemed to come unhitched, floated off my mental map of the world and fell off the edge, to mean nothing anymore, just a gaping hole fast filling with water.

But mainly all my memories of India were memories of Dadaji. When he died the entire country seemed to come unhitched, floated off my mental map of the world and fell off the edge, to mean nothing anymore, just a gaping hole fast filling with water.Excerpts.

Finally, I tore open the package they made me save for last. Inside, padded carefully between layers of tissue, was an unbelievably resounding salvar khamees … The deep crimson fabric screamed sanguinely open. The salvar was ornately embroidered with gold and silver and garnet beads and little bells that made a racket even as I lifted it out of the box. All in all it was, in fact, so loud I could hear it…

-It’s even more expensive than Sangita’s said my mother as if she heard me.

Finally, I tore open the package they made me save for last. Inside, padded carefully between layers of tissue, was an unbelievably resounding salvar khamees … The deep crimson fabric screamed sanguinely open. The salvar was ornately embroidered with gold and silver and garnet beads and little bells that made a racket even as I lifted it out of the box. All in all it was, in fact, so loud I could hear it… -It’s even more expensive than Sangita’s said my mother as if she heard me.

You were with boyfriends? Was it this Bobby Shmobby hanky-panky character? How dare you go out with him!

He broke up with me ages ago, Ma.

My god! She cried. How dare he breakup with you? What, he is too good for you? What is wrong with you? You are a homely, lovely, multilingual honors student coming from a good family. No crimes, no history of schizophrenia….

You were with boyfriends? Was it this Bobby Shmobby hanky-panky character? How dare you go out with him! He broke up with me ages ago, Ma. My god! She cried.  How dare he breakup with you? What, he is too good for you? What is wrong with you? You are a homely, lovely, multilingual honors student coming from a good family. No crimes, no history of schizophrenia….

Rice Mother by Rani Manicka

The story of Lakshmi begins in Ceylon in 1916, “at a time when spirits walked the earth just like people, before the glare of electricity and the roar of civilization.” She is a young girl prized for her fair skin, “like a cup of very milky tea” and middle-aged ladies come to appraise her beauty. However, a conniving intermediary tricks her into a marriage to an aging, unattractive widower. She begins a new life in Malaysia far away from her mother and the life she has known. The husband who was believed to be very wealthy turns out to be the opposite. The gold watch he wore for his wedding was borrowed, and the chauffeur driven car that comes to receive them is a favor from a friend. The car slows down at a beautiful mansion, but drives right past it. She is shocked to discover that her new home is actually a dilapidated wooden house on stilts. Just when she thinks that things couldn’t get any worse, she finds out on payday that her impractical husband is hopelessly in debt and at the mercy of moneylenders. “Don’t worry,” he reassures her, “Whenever you need money, just ask me, and I can borrow some more. I have good credit.”

“Shhh,” he warns….”You will wake the Rice Mother.”

“Who?” I demand.

“The Giver of Life, that’s who…. From her altar in the family granary she protects the crops she made bountiful in the paddy fields. She is the keeper of dreams. Look carefully, and you will see, she sits on the wooden throne, holding all our hopes and dreams in her strong hands, big and small, yours and mine. The years will not diminish her.”

“Shhh,” he warns….”You will wake the Rice Mother.” “Who?” I demand. “The Giver of Life, that’s who…. From her altar in the family granary she protects the crops she made bountiful in the paddy fields. She is the keeper of dreams. Look carefully, and you will see, she sits on the wooden throne, holding all our hopes and dreams in her strong hands, big and small, yours and mine. The years will not diminish her.”Rice Mother by Rani Manicka is the saga of a family of unusual cultural heritage, an Anglo-SriLankan Tamil family that has migrated to Malaysia. Told in the voices of several family members the story spans four generations – from Lakshmi, who transforms from an innocent fourteen year old into a domineering matriarch, to Nisha her granddaughter who chronicles their story from a series of taped interviews. Each person has a unique perspective of the same situations. Each bears scars of the devastating legacy of anger left by Lakshmi, which originated in the deception of her marriage and escalated with adversity.

Lakshmi, energetic and ambitious, takes over the reigns of running the household determined to make the best of a bad situation. With the sheer force of her will she lifts her husband from a life of penury into middle-class luxury. She raises chickens, grows vegetables and takes control of the finances. She bears six children even though she never quite gets over her initial bitterness towards her husband Ayah. On the other hand, he loves her unconditionally. Only the children appreciate their father’s feelings. He carves a beautiful wooden figure of her, which she breaks into pieces in a fit of anger. Yet her fierce spirit sustains the family and she loves her children with a passion, particularly her oldest son Lakshmanan. Her daughter Mohini who inherits the looks of an English great grandmother is guarded like a precious jewel.

Tamil and Chinese culture form an interesting multicultural backdrop to the story. When Lakshmi first comes to Malaysia, she is shocked by the disabling bound feet of Chinese women. She befriends Mui Tsai (Little Sister), the young concubine of an old rich merchant Soong. At first Lakshmi envies Mui Tsai’s apparent affluence, but soon discovers that Mui Tsai is nothing more than a domestic slave who is forced to give up her babies to the childless wives of her master. The family prays to Ganesha and kolums, intricate designs made with rice flour, decorate the floors. On the birthday of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of compassion, they visit a Chinese temple. Women wear Benares sarees and silk cheongsams. Weddings involve the tying of a thali chain, and treats for a festive occasion are Indian desserts -“sweet broth”, “kasseri” and “ladhus” even though this Malaysian author spells them a little differently. Lakshmi is introduced to a “strange fruit called durian” with its overpowering smell. In a time of need, wild boar, deer, squirrel, tortoise and even freshly killed python becomes part of their diet. However, there is no real integration of cultures. The sons are wary when they do business with the Chinese.

The already fragile existence of this family is tested further with the advent of the World War II. The family is unable to survive the brutality of Japanese occupation. The children are made to learn Japanese in the schools and girls are dressed as boys to keep them safe. This is an unreal world where the family cowers in fear even though the main targets of Japanese hatred are the Chinese. All their caution however, does not keep them safe from the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers. It soon becomes personal, encroaching on their life with devastating consequences. Tragedy strikes, irrevocably changing their lives forever . Lakshmi’s dreams for her family are shattered and even her ruthlessness is not enough to save her children. The lives of the children unravel, spinning out of control. Relationships fall apart and the pendulum swings. Even the next generation does not escape suffering. Lakshmanan’s daughter Dimple enters into a marriage with a rich man Luke, an orphan of mixed Japanese and Chinese parentage and a casualty of the war. However, this also turns into a slippery path towards darkness.

Mystery and intrigue, war and peace, wealth and poverty, and the magic of a snake charmer weave through this novel. However, some of the issues of family remain universal – the interplay of circumstance and character, and the contradictions of emotions – love and hatred. The characters are all too real and vulnerable. This is a story of the triumph and failure of the human spirit. Only in Nisha, the daughter of Dimple, can the family finally find redemption. Sometimes, the voices of the different people sound the same and the narrative often flows unevenly. Dimple’s story is also a little unconvincing and the stuff of soap opera. However, Rani Manicka tells a good story with poetry in her prose as she describes the lives and environment of people in her native Malaysia. It is an entertaining escape into a different world and a different time.