Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

"The Marriage Bureau for Rich People,"
by Farahad Zama is an easy to read, interesting story about a retired teacher, Mr. Ali, who opens a matrimonial agency to keep himself busy. It takes place in the coastal Indian city of Visakhapatnam (the author's birth city), in the state of Andhra Pradesh. What struck me about this story was the way Zama portrayed a truly multicultural, harmonious co-existence among people of different religions. The author did not assume that the reader was familiar with local, or cultural norms and took care to explain or detail them whenever possible, such as the offering of water to guests, or the details of Muslim and Hindu wedding rituals.

It was apparent that the author drew upon his background in developing his characters as they were very believable, and the descriptions of local temples very realistic. At first, the idea of a marriage bureau might seem very 'old world', but the individual stories illustrated universal, timeless emotions. The wealthy doctor, salesman, and divorcee were each seeking to find a life partner, and sought out Mr. Ali's help. I enjoyed the different aspects and similarities of their stories. The idea of personal ads is not a new one, but some western readers may be surprised at the bluntness of matrimonial ads. In India, matchmaking for marriage is a huge business. There are very successful websites solely for this purpose. It was interesting to see Mr. Ali start his business without a list of clients, computer, or employees and turn it into a success.

Mrs. Ali is glad at first to finally have something that occupies Mr. Ali during the days, but then wishes there wasn't such a disruption to her day due to her husband's home-based operation. Mr. and Mrs. Ali's son Rehman is an unmarried engineer who leads protests against the government in support of villagers and farmers. Zama weaves in Rehman's story of social conscience and responsibility in the face of mass corporate growth in Indian cities. However, this is not a political book, and the story does not preach.

The story is also centered around Mr. Ali's assistant Aruna, an unmarried Hindu Brahmin girl from a very simple, modest upbringing, who needed to abandon her Master's degree in order to financially help her family. The story is simple, yet not overly sweet. Zama shows how communities of all faiths share the common values of love, duty, honor, and family. The most interesting, and refreshing aspect of this story is to read about regular neighbors of all different faiths, interacting and really co-existing together as a community while maintaining their culture. The story shows how caste, and religion while important when selecting suitable marriage partners, become only personal qualities when looked at in terms of a larger community. This is a good, clean, funny, and uplifting story to read. It was nice to read such a novel for a change!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

“The Weight of Heaven,” by Thrity Umrigar is a gripping story about Frank and Ellie, an American couple, trying to come to terms with the loss of their young son. The reader is immediately pulled into the couple’s pain of losing a child, but the story is not only about a family overcoming grief. The characters’ personal struggle, their relationship as a couple, and the impact on the community around them are the complex ideas that Umrigar weaves into a compelling story.

Frank and Ellie carry their grief to India when Frank accepts a job posting there, and hope that the change will help them heal. Frank is tortured by his loss, and blames his wife’s carelessness as contributing to their son’s death. After moving to India, Frank becomes obsessed with his servant’s young son Ramesh.
The story describes how Frank, desperate to fill a void, uses Ramesh as a replacement for his own son.

Meanwhile, his wife Ellie, allows this obsession to continue, thinking it will heal Frank somehow, and gives in to Frank’s ideas of always including Ramesh whenever possible in their own personal lives. I found this to be a bit unbelievable. Ellie is an educated therapist by profession and at some point would have stopped Frank’s unhealthy behavior and asked him to seek help!

Ramesh’s parents, Prakash and Edna, and their feelings towards their employer’s interest in their son were well explored. Prakash resented the intrusion of a strange American man taking such interest in his son, providing things he could only dream about, and slowly pulling him away. Edna welcomed the attention her son received, and saw this as a way to give Ramesh a bright future that she and Prakash could never provide. Prakash, Edna, and Ramesh were very believable characters, with very believable feelings. Just as Umrigar did in "The Space Between Us", she made the reader connect emotionally with characters of different socioeconomic classes on a human level.

Ellie becomes involved in charity work, helping the local women and children, and is well liked by all. She also seems to adjust to India and is much better at moving forward with her grief. Frank’s character seemed to be spiraling deeper into his obsession. It was also unusual when Frank and Ellie would take the boy with them during special occasions, especially holidays, leaving Prakash and Edna behind. Wouldn’t it have been easier to take Ramesh’s family together? Here again I thought that Ellie should have convinced her delusional husband Frank to do so, and found it a bit unsettling.

Frank’s inability to cope becomes a growing snowball, and the reader can feel the tension in the story increasing. The interactions between Frank, his workers, and his wife take a back seat to his obsession with Ramesh. This was very compelling, and I found it easy to become engrossed in the storyline, despite my disagreement with some parts.
The characters, their inner turmoil, and complexities were very eloquently developed. I didn’t mind that some choices didn't seem to fit because the story flowed well and kept me wanting to see what would happen next.

There were some unexpected twists in the plot when the couple deals with the locals, befriends a professional Indian couple, and Frank tries to run a business in India. Umrigar touched on topics of multinational corporations and their impact on the local people and environment, plus the corruption and abuse of power. The characters and their struggle stay with you long after you finish reading the book. This was a very well written story, a great book for a book club selection, and I recommend it highly.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi

"Serving Crazy with Curry," by Amulya Malladi was one of the most absorbing yet easy to read stories I have picked up lately. The main character, Devi, attempted suicide at the start of the novel, and the rest of the story explored her relationships with her family, the choices she made in her life, and the outcomes. The rather dark subject of suicide was very thoughtfully handled in the story, with very believable feelings and outcomes. It was obvious that Malladi did her research into this topic because of the care with which she described the thought process before the attempt and the aftermath. The characters' thoughts and actions were very touching, yet not melodramatic.

The story took place in the Bay Area, so places around Palo Alto, Redwood City, and the rest of Silicon Valley were mentioned throughout the book. Devi's father, a successful, semi-retired affluent founder of a technology company has two daughters who were very different from one another, yet shared many common family values. His eldest daughter Shobha was the perfect, well educated, successful executive of a technology company, and was married to a Stanford professor through a marriage arranged by her family. The contrast of following traditional ways, doing what was expected of her in terms of education and success, and yet living a very modern life, is something that many immigrants from all cultures can identify with. I found Shobha's outspoken and rather gutsy attitude mixed with self-doubt, insecurities, and need for acceptance to be very universal traits.

Devi, in contrast, seemed to be about total freedom, living life the way she wanted, and yet suffering because she could not handle the outcome of her choices. Devi's character's inner turmoil after being involved in another failed start-up company, poor choices in her personal life, feelings of inadequacy, and wanting to accomplish something in life amid the family's affluence will speak to many trying to find their way in life.

Their mother, Saroj, was a traditional immigrant stay-at-home mother who came to the Bay Area before the tech boom, raised two daughters among the newly-affluent Silicon Valley immigrants. Malladi used Saroj's character to describe the deep traditional Indian values, how parents deal with grown children raised in America, and to show that ultimately it is love and family that matters above all else. I liked that many of Saroj's lines were hilarious. Many will recognize the views expressed by Saroj's character!

Throughout the book, Devi's character experiments with cooking fusion food during her recovery. It was interesting to see how therapeutic cooking can be for many. The relationship between food and family is universal. The family's healing process was beautifully described around the gatherings for Devi's cooking.

Malladi is a great storyteller. The haunting scene when Devi is discovered was very touching and capable of moving you to tears. The book was full of priceless one-liners that had me laughing out loud, and a couple of unexpected turns to keep it interesting. There was the right amount of humor, the keen insight into the serious topic of suicide, and the very believable cast of characters. I really enjoyed this book, it was a pleasant surprise, and a very good read.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thai Sticky Rice and Mango Dessert recipe

Ever since I moved to North Carolina, I've been craving the Sticky Rice with Mango dessert from Salathai Restaurant on State Street in Fremont, California. We've tried a few Thai places around Cary but haven't found a satisfyting version of this wonderful dessert. Would you believe I found the ingredients for this dessert readily available at our local SuperWalmart store? I was eager to get home and try out a recipe that I had been saving for several years (but didn't need to actually use since so many terrific Thai restaurants were available in Fremont!) Although not as great as Salathai, this recipe did satisfy my craving. It will have to do until I find something better locally, or visit Fremont again! Here's the recipe:

Thai Sticky Rice with Mango Dessert Recipe

1 cup glutinous rice (or called sweet rice)
1 1/2 cup water
1 13 oz can coconut milk

1 1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 tsp coconut flavoring

2 tsp corn starch dissolved in few drops of water

1 ripe sweet fresh mango

Wash and soak rice in 1 1/2 cups water for 1 hour, do not drain. Add 1/2 cup coconut milk, pinch of salt, and 1/4 cup sugar. Bring to a gentle boil, cover, cook on very low for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile make the sauce:
Warm over medium low heat: remainder of the can of coconut milk, pinch of salt, 1 cup sugar, 1 tsp coconut flavor. Add dissolved cornstarch and thicken over medium heat, do not boil.

To serve: put a little of the sauce on a plate, ladle a scoop of the rice onto the sauce, pour a ladle of sauce over the rice. Arrange sliced mangoes on top and serve. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

"The White Tiger," by Aravind Adiga was a provocative novel about a downtrodden servant-class entrepreneur who comments about his own personal story within the current conditions in India.The story took place in Gaya District of Bihar, New Delhi, and Bangalore and was laced with plenty of 'black humor' for comic effect. This theme of disparity between the classes in this the story was very much in line with Umrigar's The Space Between Us and Swarup's Q & A among others. Frankly, I wasn't looking to read yet another story about the conditions of the slums in India and the painful struggles of the poor, but reading only the first few pages of the story caught my attention.

This book was written as a series of letters from Balram, our protagonist, to the Premier of China who is expected in town on a state visit. Adiga tries to capture the tone and language of someone of Balram's socioeconomic class and disposition. The humor, wit, and racist remarks are sharp and sure to spark heated conversations, and controversy. What kept me reading the story was Adiga's storytelling. There was just enough suspense that it made me want to keep reading, even though the subject was not pleasant. I was curious and was drawn into Balram's story. There were questions of morality, judgement, and humanity faced by our protagonist and I wanted to see where his choices would take him.

Adiga brought to the table many topics that are difficult to face regarding the downtrodden, corruption, and abuse of power in India. Some have even called the book unpatriotic, and have argued that Adiga has no authority to write about such a subject as he is from a wealthy, educated background. I think that regardless of his background, he has brought to the forefront a modern take on a very old topic of class disparity and corruption. He has thrown in the high-tech outsourcing boom in Bangalore, commercial development in Gurgaon, and Indians returning back from the U.S. as a backdrop to highlight the controversies that India deals with everyday. After all, this is a work of fiction, a story to entertain and perhaps to get people to think about these issues from a different viewpoint, and maybe lead to progress.

If you get past the fact that extreme poverty and social disparity exist in India (as in many countries in varying degrees) then you find Adiga's characters with their survival instincts and complex 'entrepreneurial' spirit rather intriguing. I thought this was quite an interesting novel, and would recommend it for sparking interesting debates.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran

"The Red Carpet - Bangalore Stories,"

... a novel by Lavanya Sankaran

Bangalore, the "Silicon Valley" of India, was the setting for Sankaran's debut collection of stories. The author's New York investment banking background, U. S. education, and the return to her birthplace of Bangalore gives her a unique perspective to illustrate life in a "post hi-tech boom" Bangalore. Sankaran describes the contrast between the ultra-traditional, orthodox views and the younger, contemporary, upper-middle class, hi-tech crowd. She describes how the people juggle having one leg in each lifestyle, and try to discover who they really are amidst the money, freedoms, and cultural restrictions. Indeed, the city's changing environment, due to the influx of money and talent from a modern India and the technology sector, has a life of its own, and is almost another character by itself.

The eight stories were loosely related; one character linked in a minor way to the protagonist in another, and the entire book flowed well together. In "Bombay This", the story showed how a financially successful, American educated, modern man finally allowed his parents to 'arrange' introductions for prospective marriage partners. How he analyzed, considered, and reacted to the different choices before him was explored within the context of a modern Bangalore setting. I found the story very interesting and think Sankaran could expand this story easily into a full length novel.

In "The Red Carpet," Sankaran described the relationship between a private chauffeur and his employer. I could envision many of the people I knew in the Bay Area, who moved back to living in Bangalore, responding and reacting in a similar fashion as Mrs. Choudhary. The descriptions of Raju's reactions to his employer's non-traditional, modern lifestyle were very believable.

"Alphabet Soup" was a story that would resonate with many who left India several decades ago and have raised their now college-aged children in America. Graduate student Priyamvada, returned to a modern Bangalore for a visit and really discovered herself. The story showed how her young, unmarried cousin in India, despite being raised in a very traditional Brahmin-caste home, casually broke even the strictest traditions. I think this story illustrated beautifully the way immigrant households absorb the customs of their adopted homeland, retain the traditions of their own culture, and try to balance the two worlds. This story reminded me of many families who are very succussful at retaining their traditions, others who denounce the traditions totally, and the majority who find a comfortable balance. It showed me how lucky Priyamavada was to have been exposed to both cultures, and to have a choice of how to live her life freely.

"Mysore Coffee" was a very interesting story that could have easily taken place on Wall Street. The story described how a professional businesswoman working in investment banking in Bangalore interacted with her Indian and American co-workers, handled office politics, her own emotional baggage, and career. A well written story of a woman juggling serious issues in her life.

"Apple Pie, One by Two," was a very unique story about American educated, Indian born, high-tech start-up founders. Many will relate to the ups and down, the choices, and dilemmas that many successful workers faced when India's Silicon Valley and outsourcing boom occurred. A very interesting story that also could easily be made into a full length novel.

I think it's clear that I enjoyed Sankaran's short stories. She has a very keen perspective and accurate insight into contemporary Indian Americans, in the U. S. and those in India. I look forward to a full length novel from her in the near future.

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click here.

Have you read this book? What was your opinion? Click on comment and tell me!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Eat, Taste, Heal by Dr. T. Yarema, Chef Brannigan, D. Rhoda

An Ayurvedic Cookbook for Modern Living

"Eat, Taste, Heal," by Dr. Thomas Yarema, M.D., Chef Johnny Brannigan, and Daniel Rhoda, is more that just a cookbook. It is an introduction and educational guide to Ayurveda (which means "Life Knowledge" in Sanskrit.) In the ancient Vedic texts, a balanced life was described in terms of the mind, body, senses, and soul. Naturally it follows that food is a vital part of that balance.

The book's first half describes the concepts of Ayurveda: the different constitutions of each person, tools & techniques, life cycle balances, Yoga, and the medicinal use of food and spices for common ailments.

The second half is a modern gourmet cookbook with uncomplicated recipes. The recipe's effect on each constitution and whether it will aggravate or decrease the condition is clearly indicated. They also show how to modify each recipe slightly to suit each person's condition. I enjoyed the mouth watering pictures of such recipes as: Soft Tacos with Spicy Black Beans & Mango Salsa, Biriyani with Mint Coconut Sauce, Ratatouille, and Trumpet Dosa.

I was surprised to see fish and chicken recipes as I thought Ayurvedic recipes would be strictly vegetarian. There were only a few non-veg items such as: Seared Sesame Trout with Coconut Curry Sauce, Charmoula Bass, and Broiled Salmon with Almond Dill Sauce.There were desserts and beverages too!

For as long as I can remember, my mother and I have enjoyed adding fennel, cardamom, and ginger in the water used for our regular cup of black tea. Many times we drink the water with only the spices, and no black tea, to soothe a stomach or sore throat. I learned from this book that this tea is a good "Vata Tea" for my constitution.

I grew up with family remedies such as turmeric for an inflamed throat, mint tea for sore stomach, and cloves for a cough. The book listed these, among many others, as a good way to use herbs and spices as home remedies for common ailments.

The book's simple food-based recipes for home remedies used in treating acidity, arthritis, PMS, insomnia, and headaches were really interesting and easy to follow. I will be keeping a note regarding those tips in my recipe book for sure!

This modern book based on ancient knowledge is aimed at a western palate. I know my family will enjoy many of the recipes in this book, and I will definitely be trying them out!

To purchase this book from Barnes and Noble click

Do you have any home remedies to share? Click on comment and tell me!