Why I loved last week
I read four books last week that I absolutely adored.
The first was The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken by Tarquin Hall, the latest in the series featuring Vish Puri, India’s most private detective.
I’ve been a fan of Tarquin Hall ever since I read To the Elephant Graveyard, an account of his travels in Assam with elephant experts; by now I think I’ve read every book he’s ever written, fiction and non-fiction, including the three Vish Puri books that I adored from the first. But I think The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is the best so far. There’s murder, moustache-stealing and match-fixing – and the case hinges on a part of our history that I am rather fixated on: Partition.
I’m a Sindhi, and I’ve always had a road not taken sort of feeling about the fact that I have never seen the towns and cities and villages of the place where both sides of my family have their roots. Not that I ever want to live there – from what I’ve read about it, it seems entirely the wrong place for a person like myself. Also, I rather like being Indian without a ‘home’ state – I can never be communal because the whole country is mine. I can never be Sindhi first and Indian after. When I define myself in terms of place, I’m Indian and my home towns are Calcutta and Bombay. I love the freedom of that.
But sometimes I wonder what I’d be like if Partition had never happened and I’d grown up in my parents’ home town, Hyderabad. Chances are I never would have lived there anyway, my dad is a Calcuttan born and bred who only ever went to Sindh on holiday with his parents and, I think, wasn’t very fond of the place. But I’d have been there at least sometimes, I’d have had a ‘home’ state, and I wonder how that would have shaped me.
(And often I think about the trip I made to Wagah in 2004, when I looked across a fence guarded on either side by very large men with very large moustaches, and saw no difference in the land. So much bloodshed and heartbreak and inhumanity and upheaval caused by that demand to put up a fence, but there is no difference in the land.)
In The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, someone remarks that no one really talks about Partition. The people who went through it almost never talk about it to other people and their own children and grandchildren. It’s something they’d rather put behind them. I noticed that myself, with my own families and family friends. As a child, the only references to it I ever heard came from my neighbours’ grandmother and a peripatetic aunt of my father, who travelled all over the country, staying for months at a time with one relative or the other because she had no home of her own. She’d lost her husband, home and many members of her own family because of Partition. But other than these two old women, and, of course, the stories in my Hindi literature textbooks, I never heard a thing about Partition, never connected it with myself, till I was much older and consciously seeking information, especially after I read Urvashi Butalia’s book, The Other Side of Silence.
Which made me very intrigued when I finished The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken and moved on to Uncomfortably Close by Lily Brett, a book starring a highly eccentric (and I identified so much with her) middle aged woman, the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Lily Brett, when I looked her up on the internet, is the daughter of Holocaust survivors herself.
Uncomfortably Close is the second of two books starring Ruth Rothwax and her father Edek, both utterly delightful and adorable people. Too Many Men is the first book, but I read that second – I’d borrowed Uncomfortably Close and by the time I got to page 5, I knew I had to read everything by Lily Brett.
The odd thing is, though both books are about the same people, and the second book is built off the first, Uncomfortably Close is not a sequel to Too Many Men. In Too Many Men, which is about Ruth looking for her roots by asking her father to go with her to Poland, visiting the town where he grew up and Auschwitz and Birkenau, the concentration camps where he and Ruth’s mother were placed, Ruth is 43 and single and never wanted kids. Six years later in Uncomfortably Close, in which Edek decides to set up a restaurant in New York together with Zofia, a woman he met in Poland when he travelled there with Ruth, she’s in her early 50s, married, and has three grown up kids.
But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that these are both fantastic books, funny, simply written, with characters you can’t help but love. And for me, having just read The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, intriguing because Indians don’t talk about Partition, they never want to remember it and their kids (mostly) don’t know about it – or know much about it. But the kids of Holocaust survivors are just as damaged as their parents.
Is this a cultural thing, I wonder? Big Bazar showed us that we shop differently from westerners. Do we deal with unimaginable horrors differently too?
Finally, I read The Long Song by Andrea Levy, that tells the story of slaves in Jamaica from the point of view of a slave. I usually avoid books like this, what with my Partition fixation and Holocause fixation, I don’t want to know about MORE horrible things that people did to other people. But when I browsed through book, I was very taken with the writing – and I had to have it.
There was an interview with the author at the back of the book and she said exactly what I thought myself – that she hadn’t ever wanted to put herself through the trauma of researching what had been done to her people. But then she thought about it and realised that however abased they were, the slaves had lives and they had lived them, with ups and downs and humour and happiness and pain and hurt and grouchiness and that was what she wanted to write about. And that was what she did – very well. The Long Song is a breeze of a book. I loved it. Now I want more by Andrea Levy.
Four great books in one week.
Last week was wonderful.