Ah, India. How I love you, with all your brilliance, colour, clamour, spirituality, beauty and squalor too. The two years I spent in your embrace, which sums up exactly how it felt to be there, will never be forgotten – I learnt so much, experienced so much, and grew so much, and I can never adequately express my gratitude. Namaste.
For those who don’t know, I went to India in early 2013 to do volunteer work with an NGO based in the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat for three months… and stayed much longer. In the beginning, I admit, I was overwhelmed by pretty much everything – a tidal wave of seething humanity, dust and dirt, inexplicable noise and outrageous traffic hits you like a sledgehammer when you’re accustomed to living in the West. More immediately, I was working in a large slum, and yes, people, a great many of them, do indeed live cheek by jowl in shanties constructed from whatever they can find – or sleep on the ground when they can’t. Here’s a view of ‘my’ slum from the main road that passed it.
But I grew to love it, with all the craziness it entailed, and managed to do a bit of travelling around while I was there too, including visiting places very much like the town in which this rather moving book is set – and meeting people very much like the characters in it as well. I can honestly say I met with so many lovely people – and the occasional weird and crazy ones too, but isn’t that true of everywhere in the world? Although I must admit, it’s the only place where I’ve been harassed by a six foot eunuch in a sari…!
This is not one of Mum’s Books, but one I was kindly gifted by a member of the Mum’s Books Book Club over on Facebook after I expressed an interest in it; it arrived in the post this morning and I simply couldn’t wait to read it! Fortunately for me, it was a sunny day, the first in ages, and that’s all the excuse I need to sit in the sunshine with a book – and what a book! Consumed in one sitting, it really is a quite extraordinarily concise and beautifully written tale of five days in the lives of a group of disparate characters in a small temple town on the Bay of Bengal – plus the reason one of them has returned to Jarmuli, seeking answers about her past.
It opens with three older Indian lady friends taking the train down the coast from Calcutta – and the fourth in their bunk compartment, a girl, Nomi, also heading for the same town but for a completely different reason. Anuradhi Roy’s rendition of the conversations between Latika, Gouri and Vidya, the older ladies, is wonderful, as are the sequences where they pay visits to the local temples, and the people they encounter. The story takes place over five days, one of which is the festival of Shivarathri, a very important day in the Hindu calendar, and which the ladies find they have completely forgotten about while eating ‘steaming piles of rice, dal and vegetables’ in a dhaba when they should be fasting.
Thinking of Shivarathri brings another ‘slum’ memory to mind that I’d like to share with you. It’s not a great photo, but here are some little boys I found building their own temple for the festival out of mud and debris. They were so proud of it – and this is exactly how they chose to pose for the photo, I had nothing to do with it.
Be warned. This book does deal with some disturbing topics, especially in the passages relating to Nomi’s search for the truth of her past, and it is, very sadly, true to say that there have been, and still continue to be, horrific cases of child abuse and sexual violence in India, as the author herself says in her post script. But if you would like a taste of the colour, chaos, brilliance and squalor I spoke of at the beginning of this, jump into this book,which as always, I am now ready to pass on to someone else who’d like to read it.
I would also highly recommend Rohinton Mistry as an author who brings a very real slice of India to your reading chair, wherever that may be – ‘A Fine Balance’ remains to this day one of the most moving books I have ever read.
Here’s a quick link to purchase this amazing book on Amazon – and in the interest of full disclosure, purchasing via this link will help me continue to fund the Mum’s Books Project! So, thank you!