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A Red Roomer Reads Me!

Why would a Japanese living in the US half the year want to read my book about an Indian Muslim woman’s journey to Pakistan that comes with psychological baggage? Why am I posing this query when I do read Latin American, South East Asian, European and American fiction and non-fiction? In fact, given the new world order – a phrase I do not care about much – this should be a natural desire. India has always been an exotic place. With its progress, it is seen as exotic in quite a different manner. Celebrities still like getting married in our palaces. Pakistan has acquired some notoriety, and because of the Taliban there is much awareness and interest. Therefore, again, why did I pose the question? A few reasons:

1. There is no attempt at exotica; if it seeps in then it is part of the backdrop or real experiences. 
2. No tourist site is without a reference point, often political or deeply personal. 
3. There are references that may seem out of range for an outsider. 
4. There is not too much dry background history, so the reader has to know or trust me!
5. There are extremely emotional moments that even an Indian or Pakistani might find a bit strange. 

So, when Keiko Amano posted a comment (and has put up a review on Amazon too that is slightly different) saying that she had ordered the book, read it and posted her feedback, I was excited and curious. She is not the first ‘outsider’ to read it. There have been a few others, but they were exposed to my political writing and are already in fields that gave them some perspective on the subject. On the other hand, not all Indians and Pakistanis who have read it found a connectivity chord. It makes one wonder what resonates with whom and why? 

I can understand books or articles where the subject has universal appeal, though there has to be a check on the random painting of universality with one brush. We have different opinions about laptops and cellphones, which are commonly used products. How can we then have universal ideas at all about anything? Is the individual identity superimposed on other identities? 

I would like to reproduce Keiko’s reading from the comment and respond because, even if it is about my book, there are factors that may have ‘universal’ appeal! 

"Farzana,

 
I wanted to read your book, "a journey interrupted" for a long time, but I didn't know if I could digest it because I didn't know too many things. But after the tsunami period, I decided to order the book when I got to the U.S. I was excited to order your book. Then I waited three weeks. So, I was very excited to read and finished the book. I cannot say I digested it all, but that doesn't matter. I enjoyed it.

 
Through the scenes and your narrative, I felt closer to the characters and situations although I don't even know any of the Pakistani writers or other well-known people in India and Pakistan. But, all the more, the world the narrator describes drew me to that world. For me, this reading was truly special. Out of all the elements, politic, religion, history, travels, and personal accounts, I trusted the narrator in language. That's the single point I was attracted to this book and still the single point I was satisfied in reading."   

- -

I am intrigued by the reference to the ‘after the tsunami’. At this point deeper probing might not seem appropriate or even germane, but sometimes a natural calamity makes us realise that the world, especially the emotive content of people, are pretty much the same. It nudges us to explore other areas of concern. I could be wrong in this case, but I have experienced this. 

The reference to “characters and situations” in a non-fiction book is gratifying, for that was part of the flow. It is the flipside of fictional characters that are based on real people. In some ways, as narrator, I also became a character. There were moments when it seemed like I was watching myself watching others. The language had to be as fluid and sometimes jerky as it is. Few people – reviewers included – noticed this aspect, much less trusted it. 

- -

"Through this book, I learned many facts. First, I knew many Muslim people live in India, but I didn't know more Muslims in India than in all of Pakistan. Most of my friends probably don't know that. And I was even more surprised to find that 3 millions Hindu people live in Pakistan. I thought to myself, "What a simple imagination I had!" Second, Goa, India, was occupied by Portuguese until 1961. That wasn't too long ago. Third, atomic bomb dropped near Bikini Island was made by Pakistan. In 1954, a Japanese boat happened to past there, and the captain died eventually from high radiation."

- -

One culls facts and all these references are part of the backdrop. Many people are indeed not aware of these, mainly because it is not part of their immediate environment or of any real concern to them even politically. As my subject was about what I called the “amputated limb”, I admit that it was a personal necessity to put things in order inside my own head and deal with the question of minorities in both countries. 

- -

"About terms, I thought it interesting to see such as atheist Muslim or secular government because I thought governments are to operate independently away from religion. I guess I'm taking this kind of things for granted. Historically, Japan has religions, of course, but most Japanese do not go to a temple regularly or listen to monks or read a sutra. So, we have no need to label one another a name related to religion. But by reading this book, I start to understand such needs even if the narrator is against labelling. It made me think."

- -

 

These terms may seem contradictory to those not living in the Indian subcontinent, but they are a part of our very ethos. India is a ‘secular republic’; Pakistan an ‘Islamic republic’ – both are democracies! India has a whole variety of religions and sects; Pakistan has primarily one religion that it abuses. India has a wider choice to abuse. Essentially, it is the idea of a pluralistic society where different faiths live in harmony. It is amusing to see the amount of religion that seeps into politics in India. 

The ‘atheist Muslim’ tag I have had to use because after the riots of 1992 following the demolition of the Babri mosque, the whole idea of secularism went through a change. My name is so obviously Muslim that there was no way out. For most of us who had no religion or at least any ritualistic faith the mere fact of our origin branded us. There is no denying one’s identity but this is only one aspect. Another reason I chose labels in the title and the blurb was to convey clearly where the writer/narrator came from. I did not want to in anyway mislead about intent that it was charting history. I was interested in how history was still affecting the two countries and how the Partition is raw and often renewed. 

- -

"About language, I enjoyed reading Urdu dialogues. Even though I don't know the language at all, I read each dialogue hoping to pick up something. I did, but only 'hai'."

- -

Well, ‘hai’ is often used at the end of sentences and means ‘is’. It was crucial to retain some bits of conversations in Urdu (with translations) because we again enter the territory of common heritage. We share a language and isn’t language a large part of expression?

- -

"About honesty, the author/narrator's voice seeps through, and I just love when her honesty spills humor. A few times, I chuckled, and I didn't know if I was disrespectful. I thought maybe she was serious. One example was in acknowledgement: "I will not thank my mother..." I couldn't help but laugh. Second was "I was lonely." I forgot where it was, but it was the only one. It was not humor, but made me smile. Also, on the narrator's first visit to Pakistan and about to be deported, (P. 15), a Pakistani driver says, "When you return home you can at least tell people you saw the best sight in Karachi." Haven't we all had such experience? And the narrator says, "I did not know what I had ‘seen' since my back was turned to it." I'm giggling as I write this. And about plastic surgery, the question comes up, "Don't the husbands find out later?" The narrator says, "That is the irony. The men hardly notice." This is hilarious, but must be true. I don't doubt it. I stop for now because it will go on and on. But just one more is that a fortune teller says to the narrator, "Men will cause you troubles." And she writes, "You could tell this to any woman in any part of the world and she would agree." Ha ha ha ha ha. Don't I agree more!"

- -

I am glad you noticed the humour; few people think one should draw attention to it in what is primarily a subject of introspection. Let me just say that I was smiling as I wrote most of the phrases/anecdotes you mentioned as well as a few others, including the one about how Indian camels at the Rajasthan border go across and mate with Pakistani camels, whereas people have trouble just managing to visit…that got me into some trouble because the impression was that I was not giving the peace process enough importance. 

It is truly gratifying to see one’s work understood and debated. For, these are the very issues that need to be but are not always brought out in the open. It happened to be the first non-academic book on Pakistan from an Indian Muslim perspective. I should have pushed that point, but it is better that people discovered it on their own…

And before this turns into a review of a review – it probably has – let me end by saying that the thread running through all the feedback, in the media or by readers directly, has been ‘honesty’. Most of that honesty is about myself and may haunt me forever. I guess in that respect, this book is destined for posterity!

- - -

Keiko's review at Red Room:

http://www.redroom.com/userreview/the-most-interesting-book-year 

 

Comments
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Well, now I'm going to have

Well, now I'm going to have to read your book out of sheer conviction. You've always been one of the first to read and comment on my blogs, so it's the least I could do. (Is that a lame excuse or what?)

Let's make a deal. If I can get an autographed copy of your book I'll retaliate...er...reciprocate ...with an autographed copy of The Opus of Amateur Radio Knowledge and Lore. Then I can pose the same question. Why would an erudite, famous Indian columnist care to read a goofy book about ham radio from some guy in Alaska. :)

Blessings and unspeakable success upon your tome.

Eric

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Eric:

Eric:

I would love to claim this among my many firsts, but how tardy you used to be about blogging, remember? (I am still waiting for the one on your Thailand experience.) If anything, you have done the honours here, so if it is the least anyone has to do it is me! Of course, your excuse is lame, as is your "conviction". Unless you have a strong opinion about blog comments...

Let us not make any deals. It should happen out of...er...conviction. Oh, you can still pose the query: Why would an Indian (add relevant adjectives) read about a guy from Alaska who is not Sarah Palin.

Do you still want the book? Unlikely :)

Thanks for the wishes - the book is circa mid-2008 - and, you know, those are always reciprocrated. 

~F 

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I'm Japanese

Farzana,

First, I’m Japanese, not American. I live in the U.S., but I also live in Japan about six months yearly. You’re very patient and kind about my English, and I appreciate it.

Second, I’m glad you have listed the five items. I wanted to be clear about why I like your book so much from the beginning. You helped me in this regard.

1. “No exotica.”
When I pick up a new book, I smell it almost from the first page if it’s there. I wouldn’t buy such book.

2. No tourist site without a reference point.
The ancient sites happened to be there as parts of the story. I was following a journalist narrator all the way, not a tour guide.

3. References out of range for an outsider.
Yes, but if I cannot ignore them during my reading, I won’t be able to expand my view. This is true in reading anything unfamiliar or difficult, and I don’t spend time and money on easy reading.

4. Very little dry background history
After a few years of my blogging, I got to know the author and other Indian authors, so if anything Indian related, I would try to read. Right now, I’m reading “Ancient India” by Nakamura Hajime.

5. There are extremely emotional moments that even an Indian or Pakistani might find a bit strange.
I probably cannot pick up all the subtleties, but it’s a great challenge to my imagination and understanding.

One of the strong connectivity chords I feel is this. Like India and Pakistan or South and North Korea, Japan could have followed a similar fate relating to colonization, dependence on foreign countries, and partition. We’ve been lucky so far, but I feel the danger is always there. We need to watch around closely.

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Keiko: I have linked your

Keiko:

I have linked your review on RR here. I could not access it earlier. Of course, you are Japanese, but because I read that you lived in the US, I assumed you were 'American'. Again, I will refer to how so many expat Indians feel insulted if they are not referred to by their nationality rather than their origins, unless they are writing diaspora literature that is so 'in'! (I have rectified your being Japanese in the post itself.)

I understand that you connected also due to the colonisation angle and how it could have impacted on japan. Interestingly, quite a few Britons seem to find some chord; in this case it is a shared history for a while, irrespective of what role they played. I mean, would we be speaking and writing in English were it not for their influence?

About your reading, I follow pretty much a similar pattern and don't go for easy reading, although I do not care for put-on intellectualism, That I can smell. It takes me longer to smell exotica because Indian noses have become immune to it!

~F

Here is your review link:

http://www.redroom.com/userreview/the-most-interesting-book-year

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By golly, you're right! I

By golly, you're right! I have been remiss about recounting my Thailand experiences. There are some new developments; we just sent some of our intrepid friends back to the region. I shall begin blogging regularly on their exploits, as well.

Thanks for the reminder! This is important stuff.

Eric

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When am I not right?! Great

When am I not right?! Great to see the experiences take the shape of words. 

~F 

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Farzana, I didn’t know

Farzana,

I didn’t know many expat Indians feel insulted if they are not referred to by their nationality rather than their origins. That’s interesting, but it must be difficult for others to figure out.

For Japanese, if they are born here, I call them Americans, but if those Japanese who came to the U.S. after their adulthood and even if they have American citizenships, I would still call them Japanese because most of us just don’t look or act like Americans. I think Japanese are always Japanese whether we like it or not. I don’t know how younger generation feels about it, but I think it’s still the same.

About colonization, language was the reason I brought it up. And I was thinking about endangering national language. Acquired language is plus, of course. But I’m very concern about if we lose our national language little by little at the expense of acquired language.

Thank you for the link. It was very interesting. I enjoyed reading them.

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Keiko: This is the Indian

Keiko:

This is the Indian obsession and even in our cities the more Anglicised we are the more we are respected. Expats proudly claim that they are American or British and although they cannot deny their origins, they prefer being identified by their adopted country.  Yet, they do celebrate festivals and even for little ghettos. There is such contradiction. 

I do respect the need to be a part of the environment you are in, but there is a supercilious attitude towards those 'back home' unless of course they need those back home for their 'inspiration'.

The Japanese and the Chinese too have retained their cultural moorings to a large extent.

Your concern for language is understandable. The children of my cousin do not know any Indian language, although both parents went there as adults.

At home in India, I still speak in Hindi/Urdu with at least the older family members, and I have tried imbibing at least a few other languages.

Thanks. It has been an enjoyable discussion.

~F

PS: After your review, I have discovered that a well-known Indian politician (Jaya Jaitly) has reviewed my book for a journal. It would be embarrassing to ask for it, but I found a small snapshot is there on the net. I have tried to save it.

Here it is: 

 

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The book review by Jaya Jaitly and the bikini

 

Farzana,

The link doesn't appear on my screen.  I'd really like to read it.  I wonder if you can send a Web address.

About the bikini, Vincent made a comment to my eblogger post, so last night, I went over your book.  I made a big mistake in reading, but it was fortunate that I underlined the sentence on page 178.  My concentration is deteriorating, and it proves to me and readers that my comprehension needs big improvement.   Come to think of it,  I  did feel funny after I wrote that comment because I didn't know the Japanese ship incident happed in 1954.  I learned that incident probably ten or 15 years ago, not when I was a child.  I think it had been a taboo in talking about it  for a long time.  A friend of mine was telling me about it and other nuclear tests in whisper after the tsunami.  I had been very ignorant about the whole thing.  But if I felt funny, I should have checked or asked you about it.   I'm sorry about that.  I have removed about the bikini sentences from the review in RR and Amazon and eblogger.

About the contradiction you mentioned above, that's the area I'd like to write stories about.   I think that right after the WWII, many Japanese had such mentality, too, because the country was devastated and very poor.  But people with good head weren't fooled by the condition.  I'd like to write more about it later on although I don't know when that will be.

 

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Keiko: When I read your

Keiko:

When I read your bikini comment on my bikini portion I assumed you were extrapolating with something that you related to in Japan. My reference, as I said, is quite different. I do not have the manuscript on this laptop, but the 'unleashing of the bikini bomb; I referred to in my book is about the first Miss Bikini or such from Pakistan and how she was being made into a 'liberal' face and pushed a nationalistic agenda. As happens often with my writing, I take off from such trivial matters and explore its political dimensions. She was/is an American citizen.

Thanks for clarifying, but I guess this is what makes reading and the to-and-fro so interesting.

When I find the MS, I will post the para.

Regarding Jaya Jaitly's review, it is not on the web and I posted no link; there was only this snapshot. It is in a journal. I found the snippet here:

http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=L8kgAQAAMAAJ&q=farzana+versey&dq=farz...

Re. contradictions, I think it is an area where there is so much to explore and with your background and your 'two worlds', it would make for fascinating reading. As I have maintained, your posts on the earthquake/tsunami and the aftermath are educative and personal, so there would be so much to tap into.

~F

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Thank you

Farzana,

Thank you for the site, and the copy in your previous comment. Looking at the word "Bikini" makes me giggle. It sounds as though we are talking about a sexy novel although I won't deny as much thrill as that.

I also appreciate that some people are looking or reading my blog from Pakistan because of you! I'm thrilled.

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I am so happy to know that

I am so happy to know that you have new readers who will learn something new from your other writings! About the bikini, well, trust me, some people were more than curious about a certain gentleman in my book :) One reader said I should have written about "all the men"! I told him to wait for the memoirs.

~F

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Pakistan

Farzana,

It took only three days to receive the English version of "Mottles Dawn" by Saadat Hasan Manto. "Toba Tek Singh" and "Colder than Ice" are really good. Although I don't know Urdu, I appreciate that he wrote all the stories in the language.

I liked "Interpreter of Maladies" by jhumpa lahiri, but if her book was that successful, why "Mottles Dawn" do not show up in American bookstores?

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Keiko: I really wish I could

Keiko:

I really wish I could be so persistent in my quest to read. Toba Tek Singh is wonderful and I watched a play in Mumbai based loosely on it. Manto's life was such a complex one - and you'd know a bit from my book, although I contrasted it with another writer.

Re. availability, it is not easy to get many of these works in India too, especially translations. Besides, expat writers in English have a huge advantage, not to speak about the marketing by publishers.

Ismat Chugtai has quite a few, but when she wrote 'Lihaf' there was a case against her for obscenity. It dealt, rather boldly for the time, with lesbianism.

She was such a delight and since she chose to live in India and Mumbai at that after Partition, I was lucky I could meet her often.

Since you are looking for some of these books, I suggest you just scour the web. For poetry, this should be fine. There are more likely to be translations available.

~F