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Jonathan: What I’m Reading, What I’ve Read

April 20, 2011

I’ve been averaging about a book every two weeks while I’ve been here, and it is time to share.  The books I’m reading and the books I’ve read.

What I’m Reading:

The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri) – FICTION
The life of a first generation American with a funny name attempting to negotiate Bengali and American culture.  Sound familiar?  The writing might not be great, the but the story is fantastic.  There too is a movie of the same name.

What I’ve Read:

Indian Summer (Alex von Tunzelman) – NON-FICTION
One of the most engaging history books I’ve ever read, it tells the story of the fall of the British Raj during the summer of 1947.  Perhaps most interesting, however, are the deep and uncompromising analyses of the key players: Nehru, Ghandi, Jinnah, and Mountbatten.  Amongst the delicious and alarming gossip: Louis Mountbatten’s wife Edwina and Nehru were engaged in a deep relationship (perhaps physical, perhaps not), Ghandi praised the Nazis for their determination and resolve, and Jinnah felt uncertain with the Muslim nature of Pakistan at the very moment of partition.

Midnights Children (Salman Rushdie) – FICTION
Perhaps the most important Indian writing in English, Rushdie tells the story of India through the curious life of a man born on the midnight of Indian independence.  His use of magical realism is genius, after all the real India is partly magical and absurd.  The writing is fantastic, the story engaging, and the insight profound.

God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy) – FICTION
Another Indian writing in English, the novel focuses on christians in Kerela, examining issues of caste, class, religion, and Naxalism (the Indian brand of oppositional communism which borrows heavily from Mao).  I found the writing and characters to be a bit melodramatic, but it is an excellent quick read.

In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India (Edward Luce) – NON-FICTION
The writings of a British journalist, the book examines modern India in relationship to recent changes in politics, economics, and culture.  Providing a sharp critique of those who view India simply as spiritual (yet without denying that it does influence it), Luce examines the successes of India’s managed globalization, along with the tremendous challenge that come with being the largest democracy in the world.  It is particularly insightful for those who have examined China’s rise (for which I recommend Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler).

Pedagogy of Hope (Paulo Freire) – NON-FICTION
I didn’t read it here in India, but I’ve re-read passages since I’ve arrived.  Borne out of Friere’s experiences with adult literacy programs in Brazil during the mid-twentieth century, the book examines education as a process of revolution, transformation, and justice.  It is one of the guiding books of my ideology, and has heavily influenced much of my work (including the “Power and Effort” curriculum for Jatan).

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Audre Lourde) – BOTH and NEITHER
Audre Lourde’s biomythography has nothing to do with India, but does tell the story of a first generation American with Caribbean roots seeking community and justice in New York City.  Coming out of feminist and queer theory, Lourde’s book is tremendous and beautiful.

And a movie…

Udaan (2010) (Directed by: Vikramaditya Motwane)
As an introduction: Bollywood movies, while fun, are notoriously superficial.  New wave Indian cinema seeks to address the vapid, escapist, nature of the Indian film industry through more subtle and poignant pictures attacking social problems in a more responsible way.

Just a quick aside: there was a seminal moment in Indian film in the mid-twentieth century when it became abundantly clear that films approaching social issues were consistently flopping at the box office.  The reason, of course, is that if you are a poor rickshaw-walla or village farmer, the last thing you want to watch is a film about a village farmer who becomes a poor rickshaw-walla.  Wet sari dances and shoot-em-up scenes are much more appealing. But moving on…

By far my favorite Indian film is Udaan, the story of a young man attempting to reject social norms and expectations to enter commerce or engineering and instead pursue his dreams of drawing.  Less of a coming of age story and more of a tale about the breakdown of India’s most sacred institution, the family, it is the movie that every Indian knows about but has not seen.  It won a number of awards, and is internationally available (yes, even on Netflix).

If you are interested in a quick comparison of substance, check out the Bollywood film Three Idiots (or 3 Idiots, but the grammatical error irks me), which essentially approaches the same issue but with less punch, more love story, and a catchy soundtrack.  It is, however, one of the most popular movies in India, an excellent example of typical Bollywood fare, and a lot of fun.

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