The Truth About Me: A Hijra Life Story by A. Revathi

I only recently came across this book when Bindu added it to her ‘to-read’ books in Goodreads. Luckily for me, it was available in my library. Normally, most of the really good books aren’t available there- so, I was quite happy. Although I wasn’t sure that the book itself would be something that I would enjoy but I was curious, to be honest.

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Hijras have always inspired fear and a bit of apprehension in me since I was a child. For some reason, they always made me uncomfortable, as long as I can remember. This time, after years of being away from India, they invoked the same sense of apprehension if they confronted me on the roads. Most of the time, I would be in an auto, and would just hand over money. This book, I hoped would tell more about their life and the reason why they do what they do.

The book is Revathi’s autobiography. Revathi was born into a working class family in Tamil Nadu. The youngest of three brothers, she was born as Doraisamy. From a very young age, she enjoyed the tasks that were assigned her sister more than her brothers. She longed to be a girl as long back as she remembers. She feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body. All she wanted was to be a woman, to be considered a woman by society. Slowly, getting more and more aware of herself, she meets up with others like her. Her quest to be a woman leads her to a totally different life. A life where she is taunted for her state of being, where she is not accepted by her birth family, and yet she finds a family of her own. She runs away to Delhi in search of a life where she can be herself. All is not rosy there either. She faces trouble and violence of all sorts.

All she wants is to live a life being true to herself, with a little dignity, to be accepted for what she is but that itself seems like a tall order.

The book is a difficult read. It is an honest autobiography which depicts life as a hijra in India. A community that is feared, ridiculed and ill-treated in so many ways. What can a person do when everything seems to be stacked against them. Being considered freaks, unable to gain acceptability in society like the rest of us do, just because they are born in a way that is considered abnormal. It is a peek into lives of our sexual minorities who have struggled so hard to gain acceptance, ill-treated by society, by the law enforcers,shackled by our archaic laws, looked down by their own families, no means of earning a living… Is it a wonder that they have to resort to all sorts of things to keep themselves alive.

Reading this book opened my eyes to things which I knew about only vaguely. The life that they are forced to lead, because of the way our society functions. It just makes me hope that things do change for the better for this community. The life that a lot of them lead is so tragic. It made me feel very helpless.

As I said, it is no easy read. It is sad, tragic and heart-breaking. Having said that it does give an insight to life as a Hijra in India.

PS: Does anyone know how it is for transgenders in other countries?

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May You be the Mother of a Hundred Sons by Elizabeth Bumiller

Another Goodreads recommendation, one that both husband and I loved.

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‘In a chronicle rich in diversity, detail, and empathy, Elisabeth Bumiller illuminates the many women’s lives she shared–from wealthy sophisticates in New Delhi, to villagers in the dusty northern plains, to movie stars in Bombay, intellectuals in Calcutta, and health workers in the south–and the contradictions she encountered, during her three and a half years in India as a reporter for THE WASHINGTON POST. In their fascinating, and often tragic stories, Bumiller found a strength even in powerlessness, and a universality that raises questions for women around the world.’, says the blurb, and it had me hooked from the first page.

Elizabeth Bumillier’s husband’s foreign assignment in India, brought her to New Delhi in 1985. She writes about how she came to write this book, going from a person who knew little about India, to someone who travelled through India, lived in villages and came to understand the lives of women across India. Absorbing it all in, and writing about it in the most non-judgemental manner possible. She writes about the dowry burnings, female feticide, the complex hierarchy that exists, the condition of women in both rural and urban areas. The ironies that is India. Despite the powerful women in the political arena, women, are still facing issues with the most basic of things, health care,safety, basic equality and social freedom. The traditions that bind even the richest families in India to patriarchal norms that have resulted in the deep-seated lack of gender equality in India. Women who make the most of their lives despite all the challenges that they might face, women who adjust, accept their fate, and some who succumb to the challenges they face.

Although it was written over two decades ago, the book is still relevant in so many ways. The way in which women’s lives have not changed at the rate at which one would have expected it to change is evident when we read the book. She explores the lives of successful, independent women in India, socialites, feminists as well as women bound by traditions, and rules, for whom life hasn’t changed much from the time of their grandmothers’. The manner in which she writes, the way she sees it, without being judgemental, or stereotypical makes it a great read. Her observations of life as it is in India for women, across all strata of society, the difference in lifestyles and expectations that could vary so much and at the same time be so similar for women across India. My husband read it. He rarely reads a book these days – he finds reading on the Kindle much more easier,he just couldn’t put it down.

For a book, on a subject that can be sad, and heavy, it was a surprisingly quick and interesting read. A book I would definitely recommend.

Henna for the Broken-Hearted by Sharell Cook

I am an occasional silent reader at Sharell Cook’s blog, and when I found out that she had written a book, it came onto my wish list. A few weeks ago, I managed to lay my hands on the book.

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How far would you go to change your life?

Sharell Cook is 30 years old and living a privileged life in Melbourne’s wealthy suburbs. She has it all: the childhood-sweetheart husband, the high-powered job and plenty of cash to splash.

And it’s not destined to last. Sharell finds herself in a broken marriage, and everything she had taken for granted seems to have changed. Impulsively, she decides to take a break and go to India to do some volunteer work for a few months. Living in Calcutta, a life which was totally different from the time she traveled in India with her ex-husband as a tourist, Sharell grapples with life in India, the frustrations and joys, the unexpected and the normal. She also meets her future husband in India. Reading her book, you start to believe in destiny taking you where you belong.

The book is her memoir of her time in India, the way it changed her, and the way she now leads the urban life of a white Indian housewife. Her journey from what she was, to what she becomes, as she lives in a different culture, which she accepts so open-heartedly. Her transformation, as she calls it. Some of things which even, us, Indians would balk at, she calmly accepts and lives with them. It was fresh take, devoid of the stereotypes one would expect, and without any undue glorification of India either. She writes it as it is, and that in itself is very refreshing.

I loved reading her experiences in India, as she travels through India, lives in various parts, lives a life which is different at the same time, similar to locals. Washing clothes by hand, living through water shortages, temperamental landlords, nosy neighbours, part and parcel of middle class living in India, and accepting it all in a very matter of fact way. I absolutely love her attitude.

What really stands out is the risks she takes, probably because all that she considered familiar had changed after the breakdown of her marriage. The risks she takes in coming back to India, living with the man she would later marry, and her willingness to make the most of her situation, to accept what life has in store for her. It’s not something what most of us would find easy to do. And her attitude towards the changes in her life. Her open-hearted acceptance of the confusion that India can be, and her willingness to be a part of it all.

She literally taker us on her journey, through India, with the wonderful companionship she shares with her husband, and their adventures of various kinds. Living in different parts of India, until they reach the place they end up settling down in – Mumbai. Her husband’s family comes across as such wonderful people, accepting her a part of their family, and doing what it took to get her comfortable. The wonderful bond that she shares with them comes out loud and clear in the book.

If I had to describe the book in a few words, it would – honest and captivating. She keeps the pages turning, you want to know more, and you actually feel sad when it ends. A book I would definitely recommend.

Empires of the Indus: The Story of a River by Alice Albinia

I’ve come to really enjoy travelogues. Of all sorts. This was another Goodreads recommendation, based on the books I have read and rated. The description had me hooked.

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‘One of the largest rivers in the world, the Indus rises in the Tibetan mountains and flows west across northern India and south through Pakistan. It has been worshipped as a god, used as a tool of imperial expansion, and today is the cement of Pakistan’s fractious union. Alice Albinia follows the river upstream, through two thousand miles of geography and back to a time five thousand years ago when a string of sophisticated cities grew on its banks. “This turbulent history, entwined with a superlative travel narrative” (The Guardian) leads us from the ruins of elaborate metropolises, to the bitter divisions of today. Like Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, Empires of the Indus is an engrossing personal journey and a deeply moving portrait of a river and its people.’ says the blurb, and I just had to get hold of it.

Albinia, a British journalist, fascinated by the River Indus, and the civilizations and religions that it spawned around it, travels up the river, from its delta in Sindh, to the place of its origin in Tibet. As she travels through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Tibet, she also narrates history, and links it up to the present world and culture. The Sheedis in Pakistan, who could trace back their ancestors to Africa and to the first African disciple of Prophet Mohammed, the life, and hierarchy of Pakistani society after the Partition, the Aryans and India as it had been. The way of life in India a few centuries ago, when religions co-existed, peacefully. Fascinating tidbits and facts – both historical and contemporary ones. There is a lot more of Pakistan than India, in the book, but that is of course a given, since Indus is almost completely in Pakistan now, but she still manages to link the common history of the region with the mighty river flowing through it, really well. A wonderful mixture of history and culture with Indus as the ever-present protagonist. The river which is mighty, deep, mysterious, divine and a lifeline to those who live by it. For centuries, Indus was more than just a river. At one point in history, conquering the Indus was equivalent to conquering India. The books spans from the Vedic times to today’s world, touching upon Kargil, the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas amongst other important recent developments that impacted the subcontinent.

The author’s meticulous research is evident in the book. And her evident interest in her subject. Conversant in Urdu and Hindi, she is able to converse with the locals, and live like them, fasting during Ramzan, living in their houses during her travel, almost becoming one of them. The author’s enthusiasm, and zeal left me amazed. The journey that she undertook, couldn’t have been easy by any standards, through one of the world’s most volatile regions, potentially one of the most unsafe regions for a woman to travel alone, is one of the bravest things to do. A lot of travelogues have the authors being enraptured by the subject, in this case, she is utterly fascinated and yet objective, fascinated enough to have researched her subject thoroughly, and objective enough to analyze it all, so very well. I just did not want it to end. I wished she could go on and on, I wished I had learnt history reading books like these.

A totally recommended read for anyone who loves travelogues and history – such a marvelous combination, handled in such a wonderful manner! Another Goodreads recommendation, that I absolutely loved.

Return to India by Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan’s memoir of her family’s Return to India process, after living in the US for about 20 years. I knew I had to read to read it as soon as I came across it. To add to it, Smita, heavily recommended it on one of my posts. I just had to get hold of it.

Shoba charts her journey from the time she first started to dream about going to America. Her parents are horrified at the idea, and try everything to stop her. Fate, finally, had it’s way, and she made her way to America as a student, with stars in her eyes, all set to live the American dream.

America gave her opportunities that she had dreamed about. She had come to America to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, but ended up a full-fledged art major trying to do a master’s in sculpture, For Shoba, this was the essence of America’s opportunities.

As Shoba immersed herself in America, she also develops close friendships with her fellow Indian students as well as her American friends. Living her new life, the experiences of being a student on grant in America, studying subjects that excited her, finding funding and help in the most unexpected places, washing dishes to make some money, Shoba is content. Somewhere down the line, she gets married – a traditional, arranged marriage to Ram.

From her happy existence in America, her perspective on living in America starts changing after she became a mother. She slowly started thinking about the ‘India Question’, with more and more of her friends and people around her talking seriously about moving back to India. The country that she had fought to leave, was now, beckoning to her. The culture and society that she had once tried to avoid, was the one she started trying very hard to inculcate in her daughter. There are some hilarious episodes mentioned of how hard she tried to make her daughter ‘Indian’. She calls herself a ‘born again Hindu’, when she drags her family to the temple, she had never before visited, or tried to wear a sari the whole day, for a month, just to make it familiar to her daughter. In her own way, trying to bring India or being Indian, closer to her American born and bred daughter.

While she was passionate about moving back, her husband Ram, was more resistant to the idea. He was less bothered about the parenting worries that Shoba had. She was quite worried about how to parent her daughter, the American influences worrying her tremendously, while her husband believed that with the right values, their daughter would be fine anywhere. They had their discussions, their disagreements, and their concurrence on the ‘India Question’. Finally, after a few years, things fell into place and they did indeed move to India.

So, how did I find it? I really enjoyed her perspective on life in America(or abroad anywhere, for that matter). Her observations of how people behave, some reject India completely, while others become born again Indians. The way she herself changed after her daughter was born, is quite interesting to read. In some places cliched – just the way, we have heard of NRIs behaving, and in some places interesting.

When I started reading this, I couldn’t help wonder if I would find similarities in my situation with what she recounts, but I have to say, her situation, and her reasons for moving back were quite different, so I did not really relate to her story much. It was just reading her story than reading a story that I could totally relate to. Probably because we had not lived abroad for so long, nor had we ever planned to live abroad. Returning to India was a given for us, rather than a ‘question’. Also parenting worries of the sort she had, somehow, does not bother me. Influences of all sorts, would be there in any society, in my opinion. My daughter’s childhood cannot be exactly the same as mine, even if I went back to the town I grew up in, and did everything my parents did. But that is entirely my opinion.

An interesting read, in some places very cliched, but pacy and gripping all the same. The way her priorities changed over the years with changes in her circumstances is very interesting to read. I would recommend it to anybody who likes memoirs although I think I enjoyed her first book – Monsoon Diary more. Would I recommend it to someone who is relocating/planning to relocate to India? I don’t know. Mainly because I could not relate to it at all, but perhaps if you are in a similar situation as her’s you might relate and enjoy it much more. Other than that, as a memoir, it is an interesting read.

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

All through the book, the one question that kept pestering me was, ‘What kept me from reading Bill Bryson for so long?’ Seriously, I cannot figure it out. But then, I’ve done it before as well. I kept away from Harry Potter. No idea why. Just stayed away from it. And then when I did read one, finished four books in four straight nights. Sigh! But better late than never, right?

I picked up this book on a lark, as this was the only interesting book I could find in my apartment complex’s library.

After living in England for twenty years, Bill Bryson moves back to America, his home country. He finds himself a stranger in his own country. The book is a compilation of articles that he wrote for a newspaper about his experiences in America.

I found it extremely funny and loved his sense of humour. A lot of his sentiments, I could identify with because when you move back into your home country after some years abroad, so many things seem different. The things you enjoyed and cherished might not even be part of your new experiences. The reverse culture shock that is part and parcel of moving back to a place after spending time away from it. Having gotten used to the British way of life and terminology, he struggles to remember/find out the American equivalent of things. His British wife and children, though, seem to love America while he seems to be the one having the most difficult time. Rediscovering America with it’s joys and it’s trials, all the while poking fun at himself and others around him, it was a fun read. I chuckled through the book.

Some of the chapters, though did seem dated, after all , this book was written in 1999. Some chapters about computers for instance remind you that this book is of another time. But for most part, it is Bryson’s style of poking fun at the things he observes that stands out. The sentiments and the humour, I have to say, are timeless. Reading the reviews of the book, I realize that this might be one of his not-so-great books. If that is indeed true, I can’t wait to read his other books.

Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman by Devaki Nilayamgode

I came across this book last year, when I was in India, but could not get hold of it. Since then it was on my must-read list of books.

The book is an English translation(by Radhika Menon and Indira Menon) of a Malayam book written by Devaki Nilayamgode, a 75 year old Namboodiri woman. She recounts the life of a Namboodiri woman from childhood. Namboodiri women are called, ‘Antharjanam’, which literally means, ‘People who live inside’. After the age of 6 or 7, Namboodiri women are confined indoors, and not seen even by their own fathers or brothers. Those days, it was common for only the oldest son in a family to marry within their caste. The other sons would do a ‘Sambhandam’ with Nair women, and the Nair women and their children would continue to live in their house and not in the Namboodiri illam. It was common for the eldest sons to practice polygamy for various reasons. There were instances where a man on his death-bed would marry a teenager. Illams traditionally would have unmarried girls, married women and widows of the Namboodiris.

The author recounts her own childhood in a prosperous illam. She grew up in a prosperous illam, and yet her childhood felt almost inhuman. The hierarchy is clear right from the beginning of life. A girl child was never welcomed with happiness. She talks about how they did not even have a comb to brush their hair. Nobody cared about such things. She talks about how her mother never encouraged her or her sisters to have any sort of freedom, as that would not bode well for a life where they would have to live under the shadow of others. Rituals, traditions and rules, made their lives. Some of the things she describes are heart-breaking. Namboodiris could get polluted by getting touched by other castes. During deliveries, Nair women would be attending to the Namboodiri women, so after the delivery, the first thing the poor women had to do was go and have a bath in the pond, to purify themselves. Already weakened by the delivery, they had to make their way to the pond, have a bath before they could be rest at all. As Nilayamgode mentions, nobody spared a thought that often the water would be muddy during the monsoon, and having a bath in that condition might attract infection in the already weak women. Traditions were the most important thing, so had to be followed.

The plight of the widows were particularly sad. They had to pay for the crime of having outlived their husbands throughout their lives. Nilyamgode’s mother was a widow, the third wife of a Namboodiri, but she was respected for her abilities, so she had a slightly better life. Education was practically non-existent for women. Devaki learnt how to read and write, and that was about it. Her sisters started reading books that their brother would slyly pass to them, and that was their only source of reading. It was only when they came in touch with their sophisticated Nair cousins that they realised how different their lives were. The Nair girls would be well-groomed, well looked after, and would even treat the little Namboodiri children with affection – something they never got from their mothers or fathers. She recounts how they would give them pieces of soap, which was treasured and used sparingly to make it last longer.

Fortunately for Devaki, the family that she married it was very liberal and socially progressive. By that time, social reforms and movements had begun. They were focussing on educating women, widow re-marriage, encouraging the other sons of households to marry within their caste.

Nilayamgode writes about how her book will be the last of it’s kind, because change has ensured that there are no longer problems that are restricted just to the Antharjanams. That life today is so much better than it had been a few decades ago. The book brings to focus how much of change has happened, and how change can happen when communities decide for themselves that things have to change – when the change happens from within. Most of the change that happened in the Namboodiri community was because people themselves realized that things have to change in their society. When the society convinced their widowed sisters to remarry, educated their daughters, and encouraged their wives to take control.

I though I was shocked because I grew up in a different time. My mother started reading this book, last week, when she was here, and she was as shocked as me. She had an inkling about the lives of the Antharjanams but had no idea how different it was. My grandmother would have been 86 or 86 now had she been alive today, so around 10 years or so older than Devaki Nilayamgode. They would have grown up in villages quite near by, in families of similar financial capabilities and yet Ammamma(and her sisters) was an educated, empowered lady. So much of variation in lifestyle just because they belonged to different castes.

Isn’t it wonderful how time and progress has brought it to a point where today, everything else being equal, there would be no difference between me and a Namboodiri girl?

A wonderful book. A must read.

Mayada: Daughter of Iraq by Jean Sasson

One Woman’s Survival in Saddam Hussein’s Torture Jail.

Edited to Add: The cover of the book – it completely slipped my mind while posting.

And that is exactly what it is. The true story of Mayada Al Askari, a woman born into a powerful family of Iraq. She had illustrious paternal and maternal grandfathers, and was one of the few highly educated women in Iraqi society. As a divorced mother of two, Mayada was leading a simple life, managing a business printing brochures.

One day, her life is turned upside down when she is thrown into Iraq’s dreaded Baladiyat prison. She has no idea what her crime is supposed to be. She is thrown into cell no 52 which already housed seventeen other ‘Shadow Women’. Women from all kinds of backgrounds, who shared the same fate of imprisonment, torture without trial and execution. They have been condenmed to ‘guilty’ with no chance of a trial – fair or otherwise. Nothing they might say or do, would make any difference.

Mayada had lived a comparatively comfortable life in Iraq so far. Her illustrious family background had ensured that she was educated and independent. Her mother was quite a powerful person in Iraq, until she decided to move to Amman. Mayada had also come in contact with Saddam Hussein during the early parts of his political career, and he had even enjoyed and admired her articles that she wrote when she worked as a journalist. Nothing however prepared her for life in Iraq’s torture jail.

The torture described is horrific. It is unbelievable that people can do such horrible acts to those in captivity. Mayada was comparatively less tortured, but the manner in which the other shadow women were tortured, makes one wonder at how people could even think of it, much less do it.

The women spent their time in jail talking about their stories and the way they ended up in the dreaded jail. They loved to hear about Mayada’s life story and her tales about the famous people she had met. Saddam Hussein and his wife were of particular interest, although they had to be very careful in discussing them. Anybody discussing the President could get into trouble – as if they weren’t in enough trouble already!

Most of the ‘Shadow Women’ had no idea what wrong they had done to land in jail. Only after repeated torture did they realize what was assumed to be their crime. The heart breaking part was that their families had no idea what happened to them, as they were not given a chance to call or let anybody know. Living in a small cell, filled with other women, tortured, tormented and left to die. Despite all that the caring and concerned nature of her fellow inmates touched Mayada. Mayada was comparatively luckier, she was not torture much and managed to get released, thanks to her mother’s connections. Yet her good fortune(comparative) did not attract jealousy or anger in the others – they were gracious and delighted for Mayada.

Even after her release, life was not smooth for Mayada. One can only imagine how it must be for others who were in less fortunate situations.

The book brings to front the life of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, when anybody could be thrown into jail for no reason, or at the very most, the slightest of pretexts. Apparently when Saddam Hussein first came into power, he seemed like he had his heart in the right place, pushing for women’s education and other social rights. Slowly it dawned upon them, his true nature and his true plans..

A very moving and sad book, but one that makes one realize how precious democracy is. So many freedoms that we take for granted are things which people in some countries can only dream about. I’m not sure if I should or not recommend this book to everyone, but if you have read and liked her other books, you should give this a go.

A Year in the World: Journeys of a Passionate Traveller by Frances Mayes

Not having read Mayes, ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, I had no expectations from this book, apart from the fact that TGND loved it, which itself was good enough for me. I wanted to read ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ first, but am still on the waiting list, so decided to go with this one first.

Frances Mayes goes around the world, well, not exactly the whole world, Western Europe, to be more accurate. She and her husband Ed, travel to Spain, Portugal, France, South of Italy, took a cruise on the Aegean Sea, touched North Africa, visited England and Scotland, chronicling their journeys with vivid descriptions of the places, the people, and most importantly the cuisines.

Reading it was a wonderful experience. It took me a longer than usual time to finish this book, because I kept going back and re-reading passages. It made me yearn to go to all those places and live like they did. Rent a house, buy at the local supermarket – which incidently, I always wish for when I am on holiday. Somehow, I always feel like that – that grocery shopping in a place, makes you feel at home. Even in India, when on holiday, I wish I had a kitchen all to myself and could shop and cook- and this coming from someone who normally does not like to cook, is a big thing.

They got invited into kitchens of restaurants, got themselves cooking lessons, rented houses on the internet, only to be thoroughly disappointed when they got to see them- at times. And at other times, loved the accommodation to bits. I loved the way she picked up interesting things like vintage baby clothes for her grandson. I was especially chuffed to read about her visiting some of the places that I had been to and loved. Her descriptions of food, were just fabulous! I found myself wishing that I had it in me to try things out of my comfort zone.

While it was a wonderful book in many ways, I did feel that she was a trifle too judgemental about tourists, especially those on the free cruise that she went on, for instance. It was a little off-putting at times. Despite that, I would still re-read it. It is a very interesting and captivating read.

I would certainly recommend it to people who like to travel(and try local food), but it is a rather verbose book, so it might put off some.