Category Archives: Indian African

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 Magic of Saida by M.G. Vassanji

Magic of SaidaPoisoned and hallucinating, a Canadian doctor lies in a hospital in the remote town of Kilwa in Tanzania. A stranger happens to hear a few brief details of the man’s outrageous story, and decides to introduce himself to this doctor with an Indian name – Kamal Punja – but an African appearance. From that chance encounter unravels a fantastical tale that covers multiple generations and continents … and begs an answer to the question, “Do you believe in magic?”

Kamal is the only child of an African woman whose Indian husband disappeared from their lives. His favorite childhood playmate is a young girl named Saida whose ancestors include a poet and warrior, a traitor and patriot in whose lives reflect the violent, tumultuous history of a repeatedly colonized land. At 11, Kamal is suddenly, wrenchingly separated from his mother and everything familiar when he’s sent to live with a paternal uncle in the capital city of Dar es Salaam. There he learns to be Indian first, eliding his African origins. That he never forgives his mother for what he considers betrayal and abandonment remains a disturbing, haunting element throughout.

Kamal grows into an educated young man of relative privilege, sent to university in neighboring Uganda, and yet he never loses sight of Saida’s presence so far away, certain that they will one day be united. Caught in the latest political upheavals overtaking his country and continent, Kamal lands in Canada where he becomes a successful doctor. Now solidly in middle age with a highly successful practice, married with two grown (completely Westernized) children, Kamal’s longing for his past brings him ‘home’ to Kilwa, desperately in search of answers about his beloved Saida.

M.G. Vassanji, who has twice won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize (the inaugural 1994 award for The Book of Secrets, and again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall – my personal favorite), surely draws on personal experience: born in Africa of Indian descent and Canada-domiciled, “If pressed, Vassanji considers himself African Asian Canadian,” his biography states on his personal website. “[A]ttempts to pigeonhole him along communal (religious) or other lines, however, he considers narrow-minded, malicious, and oppressive,” his biography also warns!

As much as Saida is a sweeping epic, it also proves to be a clever allegory of returning to the past to catch a glimpse of alternate versions of the present: had Kamal stayed in Kilwa, he could have been Lateef; had he pursued a literary degree, he could have been Martin; had he been trapped in some sort of colonial service, he could have been Markham; had he chosen to become a local doctor, he could have been (the ironically named) Dr. Engineer. The many ‘what-if’s of his life beg the ultimate question, who might have Saida been had she lived the life Kamal once promised her …?

Tidbit: If you’ve read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, you might be struck by some uncanny similarities – I certainly was! Saida is the better-written novel; Heartbeats arrived Stateside last year with a decade-plus of international bestseller status … choices, choices.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2013

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

I is for India and Geeta’s Day: From Dawn to Dusk in an Indian Village by Prodeepta Das

Although both of these colorful books are fine standalone titles, pairing them makes for a much richer introductory experience to the boundless diversity of India: first read I is for India (part of Frances Lincoln Children’s Books‘ peripatetic “World Alphabet” series) for a country overview, then focus in on one young girl’s village life as detailed in Geeta’s Day.

Author/photographer Prodeepta Das‘ tour starts with “A is for the Alphabet children learn at school …,” that is many alphabets which represent the multiple languages used throughout the sprawling subcontinent. “B is for Bullock cart” used for transporting goods, while “E is for Elephant[s]” which today are used less for carrying heavy goods and more and more are (thankfully) protected in national parks.

“J is for Jilabi, a mouth-watering, crunchy yellow sweet,” while “L is for Lassi, a refreshing yoghurt drink” and “R is for Rice, which we eat boiled, fried, or made into cakes and puddings.” Hungry yet? From celebrating Diwali to hands intricately decorated with Mehndi to reading the Quran to enjoying the most beautiful Umbrellas to consulting the Zodiac about a baby’s future, I is for India is a vibrant journey through India’s culture and people.

In Geeta’s Day, Das’ focus zooms in on his native state of Orissa, as he introduces 6-year-old Geeta and her extended family in Janla, “a small village like any other Indian village.” Mornings begin with prayers at dawn, followed by bucket baths and breakfast. On the way to school, Geeta passes the local tradesmen and stops to share flowers with the mali (gardener). A day at school lasts through the afternoon, and Geeta comes home to find vendors who go from house to house selling everything from jewelry to fish to ice cream. She swims in the village pond and floats paper boats down the rain-soaked streets. She enjoys the evening meal with her family, listens to sacred verses from the Bhagavadgita, and falls asleep to the distant sounds from the nearby temple filled with evening singing.

Into Geeta’s seemingly idyllic day, Das’ also includes a few reality checks: “Free school meals were started recently to encourage children from poorer families to come to school,” and “Geeta’s village has a number of tube wells sunk deep in the ground, which pump up safe water for drinking and cooking.” In the “More about India” section at title’s end, Das writes – at just the right level for younger readers – about India’s tumultuous colonial history and its restrictive caste system, balanced with a celebration of family, Bollywood, and the many Indian words that have become part of everyday English vocabulary.

I confess: I’m still in my pajamas as I write this, ahem. Go ahead … plan a pajama-clad tour to the other side of the world tonight, complete with snuggled-up kiddies by your side.

Readers: Children

Published: 2004, 2010 (United States)

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, .Nonfiction, Indian African, South Asian

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Truth: if not for Sunil Malhotra, I would never have finished Abraham Verghese‘s bestselling first novel, Cutting for Stone. Immediately opened upon receipt more than two years ago, for some reason, my bookmark never moved beyond the first few chapters …

Timing mattered: I realize now to fully appreciate Stone, I first had to read Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste (for Ethiopian political context), The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (for medical background), and Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (for an overview of women’s societal maladies). Then Sunil Malhotra’s mellifluous narration embodied the characters (after which, with his many talented voices still in my head, I returned to the page because my eyeballs are quicker than my ears).

The final result is, in a word, wondrous.

On September 20, 1954, conjoined twin sons – “tethered together” at the head by a “short, fleshy tube” – violently enter the world in Missing Hospital’s Operating Theater 3 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Born to an Indian nun who dies, and a British surgeon who vanishes in shocked stupor, they are named Marion (for the pioneering American gynecologist) and Shiva (who was “all but dead until [his adoptive mother-doctor] invoked Lord Shiva’s name”).

Now at 50, Marion Praise Stone examines his life: the twins’ Ethiopian childhood intertwined with their nanny’s daughter Genet, their cleaving when Marion is forced to flee their homeland, his training in a New York inner-city “Ellis Island hospital” (far removed from a more genteel “Mayflower hospital”), the shattering events that lead to reunion, and his ultimate trip back home. His telling repays a debt: “What I owe Shiva most is this: to tell the story. It is one … which I had to piece together. Only the telling can heal the rift that separates my brother and me. … Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed. To begin at the beginning …”

And thus the prologue ends and the epic begins. Over the next 500-plus pages (or 24 hours if you let Sunil woo you to the end), ShivaMarion will vividly inhabit your imagination; Verghese makes sure their residence is long-lasting, using his formidable literary skills to both unravel and bind the twins’ story amidst the chaos of immigration, colonialism, missionary life, political occupation, and so much more. More remarkable, however, are the small reminder seeds Verghese plants chapter after chapter, scenes so unforgettable that the tiniest triggers will cause you to envision ShivaMarion once more long after the final page: a hurt thumb, Middlemarch, helpless puppies, stalled motorcycles, even The New York Times.

Wait no more. Be ready. Be haunted. Be enthralled.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009

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

The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

My first reaction a few chapters into Uma Krishnaswami‘s latest middle-grade romp of a novel was, ‘Take me, take me! I wanna move to Swapnagiri, too!’ Dini and her family’s South Indian adventures hadn’t even started yet, and I was ready to pack my bags … all sorts of wondrous memories of wandering through Keralan tea plantations (chasing fresh elephant tracks at sunrise!) made me announce to the hubby I’m heading for the hills! At least in my reading world … oh, if only!

Eleven-year-old Dini  has a rather sparkly happy life, living in Takoma Park (a Maryland suburb just outside Washington, DC) with two doting parents. Turn the pages, and you’ll see how illustrator Abigail Halpin perfectly infuses her with mischievous charm (just look at that beckoning cover for proof!).

Dini undoubtedly has the perfect best friend, Maddie, who shares her love of all things Bollywood, especially the magic of filmi megastar Dolly Singh. The girls are shocked, then devastated when Dini’s doctor-mother announces she finally got the grant she’s always wanted – her tenacious sixth time applying! – to work in a medical clinic for women and children in tiny Swapnagiri (which means “Dream Mountain”) on the other side of the world …!

Forget Bollywood dance camp for the BFFs … Dini and her family are off in two weeks, for two whole years. Everything happens quick-quick and Dini finds herself installed at Sunny Villa, adjusting to a brand new life filled with fun-loving monkeys, curry puffs (with chocolate), and quirky new neighbors and possible friends. Best surprise of all: Dolly Singh is hiding out somewhere in Swapnagiri and Dini and Maddie (thanks to the magical connection of the internet) are going to figure out how to find her.

Krishnaswami’s extensive cast includes dedicated mail-people (going postal here has a tenaciously helpful new meaning!), a grumpy young girl who sounds more like a bird (any number of birds!), a talented pastry chef eyeing a Guinness World Record, a filmi studio executive missing his precious star, a broken-hearted would-be lover, and a rattling electric car that mysteriously plays Bollywood tunes which even the most talented mechanic can’t seem to control. Thanks to Dini’s excellent direction, Krishnaswami’s newest production is most definitely a well-scripted, energetic, serendipitous delight.

Readers: Middle Grade

Published: 2011


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

Migritude by Shailja Patel

Given the sheer number of books that arrive in the mailbox, I rarely pick up a title and start reading immediately. But something about Migritude (debuting from fabulous indie publisher Kaya Press: ‘Smokin’ Hot Books’!!) demanded ‘read me NOW!’ Once opened, I could hardly put it down.

Shailja Patel defies easy check-it boxes. She’s not quite African because even after multiple generations in Kenya where she was born and raised, ‘brown’ people can’t feel safe as they watch their Ugandan neighbors violently expelled during Idi Amin’s reign of terror. She’s not at all Indian as she’s never lived there in spite of Gujarati relatives. She’s definitely not British in spite of her UK college education. And she’s not quite American as real Americans are never made to wait a frightening four hours for parents to emerge through customs after they have been held without cause.

Her artist’s life, too, is not easily defined. She’s a poet, storyteller, performance artist, activist … and her first book reflects her hybrid, morphing creativity: “A battered red suitcase holds my trousseau – 18 saris collected by my mother, to give to me when I married,” Patel begins. “Migritude is the mantra that unlocks the suitcase, releases the stories.” She’s a peripatetic migrant with attitude to spare … welcome to Patel’s unique Migritude.

Those once hidden stories debuted to live audiences in 2006 and became a globe-trotting performance that combines the price of colonial history, family chronicles, mother/daughter exchanges, personal journey, and voices of women from around the world who dared speak out. From the imperialist commodification of Kashmiri into cashmere, mosuleen into muslin, ambi into paisley, the rebirth of chai as “a beverage invented in California,” Patel breaks open violent, destructive history, both distant and far too near.

To her performance recorded in ink and paper comprising the book’s first quarter, Patel adds a companion “Shadow Book,” which she describes as “an extended debrief with an old friend: an accounting of behind-the-scenes and after-the-fact stories, memories, and associations … to illuminate Migritude by offering context.”

In the third section, Patel includes the “poems [that] are the soil in which Migritude germinated” – from “What We Keep” that gives voice to a fragile elderly aunt teaching her to make “good puris,” to “Eater of Death” in which a desperate Afghani mother mourns her husband and seven children murdered by American bombs.

In the final, shortest section, Patel includes an “idiosyncratic” chronology of political and personal history, and ends with two interviews because “[a] good interview, like a good poem, throws up surprises and discoveries for its participant as well as for its readers.”

Lucky readers are certainly in for ‘surprises and discoveries’ here. Close the book and your first reaction most likely will be ‘I WANT TO SEE!’ Stay tuned: her skeletal website as of this writing is still under construction, but surely a tour schedule will be included … see you at the theater!

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010


Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Drama/Theater, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, .Poetry, Indian African, Indian American, South Asian American

Child of Dandelions by Shenaaz Nanji

child-of-dandelionsWhen the brutal dictator Idi Amin violently grabbed power over Uganda, he declared in August 1972, that within 90 days all Indians would have to leave the country. Part of Uganda’s population since the 16th century, Indians played a vital role in the development and growth of the East African economy.

Fifteen-year-old Sabine and her family, multigenerational Ugandans of Indian heritage, cannot believe the mandate will be carried out. But as friendships are tested, relatives and friends vanish, and violence and murder rule the day, they must make life-changing decisions with alacrity – and hope that these hasty decisions will save their lives.

Review: “In Celebration of Asian Pacific American Month: A Survey of New & Notable Books,” The Bloomsbury Review, May/June 2008

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2008

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Filed under ..Middle Grade Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Fiction, Indian, Indian African, South Asian

Magic Seeds: A Novel by V.S. Naipaul

Magic SeedsNobel Prize-winner Naipaul continues Willie Chandran’s life story from Half a Life. After 18 years in Africa, Chandran is in Berlin with his more capable sister but ends up in India as part of an underground guerrilla movement and then in jail. Once out, he returns to London, a newly republished author – still in search of his true place in the world and his true self.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, January 6, 2005

Readers: Adult

Published: 2004

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

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji

In Between World of Vikram LallCalling himself “quite an ordinary man” even as he tops his country’s List of Shame, Vikram Lall recounts four decades of his “in-between” life in Kenya. A third-generation African of Asian Indian descent, he is not African enough, and certainly not on par with the ruling whites. A horrific childhood tragedy determines the rest of his life, leading him eventually into hiding in faraway Canada.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, October 28, 2004

Tidbit: Vassanji was a guest at SALTAF 2005 (South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival), a much-anticipated, highly-attended annual fall event sponsored by the Smithsonian APA Program and NetSAP-DC.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2004

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

The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir by Sudha Koul

Tiger LadiesKoul captures the lives of four generations of women in her native Kashmir, a tiny country caught between India and Pakistan since the Partition of 1947, the year of her birth. She weaves a magical childhood filled with mouth-watering scents, folk tales, and family celebrations together with the unresolved political and religious battles that threaten the very existence of a most fragile region.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, August 29, 2003

Readers: Adult

Published: 2002

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Indian, Indian African, South Asian, South Asian American