China with kids – Chengdu

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When we began casting around for summer vacation ideas, we started off with a beach holiday in the Philippines and ended up with Chengdu and Xian in China. I have long felt that we should be taking the kids to (mainland) China, seeing as we live in Hong Kong and China is basically both our backyard and the mother ship. V and I have been to Beijing and Shanghai, so we looked further afield.

What sold V on the idea was the possibility of travelling between cities by train. We pretty much planned the trip around that, looking at where we could get a reasonable (in terms of number of  hours spent) time on the train to and fro. China has a great high speed network, but perversely we wanted a slower train that would give us an overnight journey. This is fuelled by V’s nostalgia of train trips in India, an enthusiasm I do not share because I am scarred by the toilets and my later experience with creepy men. But I went along with the overnight train journey plan because I figured a) the kids would enjoy it b) V was being like a kid himself c) I expected China trains would be better than India trains (though I did wonder about the toilet). V and I had travelled up to Shanghai from Hong Kong by train but at my insistence by first class cabin with our own private loo. (More on the train later)

So, after some back and forth, we settled on Chengdu as the base, basically because a) pandas b) spicy food, and then figured that the train to Xian gave us a doable 16 hour journey (please note, the super fast journey is 4 hours so we were voluntarily taking the scenic route), plus Xian is home to the Terracotta Warriors and yummy food too. Priorities.

We flew to Chengdu with Cathay Dragon, which surprised us by having a full in flight entertainment system. Here was our Chengdu itinerary:

1. Day 1:Jinli Street

We arrived in Chengdu airport and queued up for a taxi. Took about half an hour to get to our hotel, Fraser Suites (more on that later). We were pretty tired, but I dragged everyone out to Jinli Street. As we neared, V started to get excited because it seemed pretty buzzing. Jinli Street is right next to the Wouhouci Temple which is an attraction in itself, but one we skipped because we are fairly familiar with Chinese temples.

As we entered the street, one of the first teashops on the right advertised the Sichuan opera face-changing show. The show had just started, but I jumped on it despite the fairly exorbitant fee of 50 yuan each, because I wasn’t sure we’d get another chance. Turned out it was a good thing we were a little late, because the first part was a tea ceremony explained in Chinese and I don’t think the kids could have sat through the whole thing. Luckily, after about five or so minutes, the woman did a dance with the long-spout copper teapot. She also asked some volunteers to come try posing and pouring from the teapot which demonstrated that it was no mean feat.

After that was the highlight – the Sichuan opera face changing (which I was beginning to think was not going to happen). It was absolutely fabulous, though the kids said it was a tad scary. The best place to watch Sichuan opera is Shufeng Ya Yu, and I would probably have loved this show considering how spellbound I was in the 5 minutes sampling I got, but I doubt the kids would have sat through an extended show, leave alone one that started at 8 pm. Nevertheless, I was glad we had that experience.

While the tea shop proper looked quite nice, the little hall in the back where the performances were held was a bit cramped, hot and according to V dirty, so maybe shop about a bit, but definitely go for one of these shows if you can’t do the full Sichuan opera performance.

We then wandered down the lane, and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the trinkets which were quite well priced. We skipped buying anything then, but later we bought these little plastic face-changing toys for 20 yuan each which kept the kids entertained a lot.

Everyone was flagging and we thought the restaurants looked touristy so we took a cab back to the hotel. In the mall opposite, we found reasonably priced options and had delicious noodles and dumplings.

Day 2: Leshan Buddha

This is a huge Buddha statue carved out of the mountain face during the Tang dynasty. It is a Unesco World Heritage site, the biggest carved stone Buddha in the world.

We went on a Sunday, not the ideal day, but my plan was to avoid the panda sanctuary on a Sunday. We left as early as possible, which was around 8 am. To beat the crowds, go earlier. We ended up eating KFC at the station before setting out to the Buddha, which meant we were further delayed.

There are two ways to take in the Buddha – hike up the mountain, then descend to its foot, or take a boat ride. Because of the kids, we planned on the latter. However, when the taxi dropped us off at the pier, we found out there were no boats that day due to the squally weather (the slight rain was actually a blessing as it meant it wasn’t too hot). So we jumped into another taxi to the entrance to the Buddha itself. The distance is walkable, but we didn’t want to chance wandering around cluelessly.

We were apprehensive about time, since we had booked our train back at 3.30 pm which gave us about 3 or so hours to complete the whole thing. Nevertheless, we couldn’t not see the Buddha so we started climbing. The climb wasn’t too onerous, and there are little niches with Buddhas to look at en route, until you reach the point from which you begin your descent.

Here we realised there was a massive queue that looked like a stampede waiting to happen. It was the reason I had wanted to skip the climb and do a boat instead, but seeing the human jam in person made me even less inclined to join it with the kids. Fortunately, at that point, you can actually get good pictures of the Buddha head.

This is also the entrance to a large temple complex, which we explored instead, and it was pretty nice.

After wandering around a bit, we descended and took a cab back, skipping the restaurants that could have been lunch options on the way.

Entrance fee to the Buddha complex: 90 yuan

Getting there: Take a superfast train from Chengdudong Station (Chengdu East) to Leshan and then a taxi to the Buddha. It’s about a 1 hour train ride and a 20 minute or so scenic taxi ride.

Train cost: approx. 80 yuan per adult (less for kids) for a second class ticket. Taxi from Leshan sation to the Buddha: 40 yuan. There is also a bus, no. 3, but we figured a taxi was faster.

Tip: Book train tickets back to Chengdu while booking the train to Leshan or you may not get your preferred time.

Day 3: Panda sanctuary (or Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding)

This was my main agenda. On the advice of just about everyone, we attempted to get there at 7.30 am which is when the pandas get fed and when they are the most active, after which they reportedly just do a panda and go to sleep.

There was already a fair crowd there when we arrived, but nothing compared to the hordes that arrived later, so that’s another motivation for an early start.

There is a shuttle to the panda enclosures, but the queue looked long already, so did the 10 minute or so walk, which is very pretty, through bamboo arches. We were rewarded with our first sight – five panda yearlings actively (for pandas) chomping on bamboo. One of them was lying on his back and eating, which immediately became my life’s ambition.

After staring at them for a while, we moved off in the quest for more, sidestepping water gushing downstream. We found the red panda enclosure where we spotted two active “raccoons” as Mimi called them.

We then queued up for the incubator area of baby pandas which are basically pinkish rats with white bristles.

After this, we made the mistake of stopping at an enclosure where a park attendant was hacking bamboo pieces, ostensibly for an imminent feeding. So we waited … and waited… and the kids got hot and angry. Nothing happened, so after 20 minutes (!) of fruitless waiting we left our prime vantage point and proceeded to another enclosure but the kids began clamouring to leave. I had not had my panda fill, so I was not happy, but I was outvoted. Luckily, while leaving we saw some  pandas in amusing sleeping positions – one with his foot up in the air, the other two high up in trees.

Although not as long as I would have liked, this was the highlight of my trip, confirming the panda as my soul animal.

Tickets: 58 yuan a person

Chen Mapo Tofu

Since we were done with the panda sanctuary fairly early, we decided to venture out for lunch to one of the iconic Chengdu restaurants. It is located in quite a touristy area, but the shop itself is humble and our entire meal of mapo tofu, 3 steamed rice, kung pao chicken, steamed dumplings and spring rolls (the only one to avoid) cost 79 yuan. I loved the mapo tofu, although Mimi had a meltdown and we later had to get her cha siu faan (bbq pork and rice, HK style) from a Hong Kong-style restaurant in our hotel mall.

There are several branches but the one I picked out was in Jinnui, and turned out to be in another interesting area full of jewellery shops and tea houses.

Renmin Park

I was determined to see this park, so dragged everyone out in the evening. It is just by the metro station of the same name, and home to tea houses where people while away their time and clumps of dancing aunties.

The other attraction is the “children’s arcade” which has a number of mini rides for the kids. Despite my best efforts we got there around 5.30 pm when a number of the rides were closing so definitely try to get there earlier. Or maybe not, because this way we could restrict the kids to two rides each.

I would have liked to walk around the super beautiful park more, but it was late so we got home.

The train

So as mentioned earlier, a big motivation for our trip to China, was the train ride between cities. Unfortunately, when we got to the station, we were informed that that train had been cancelled – just like that. The only option was to get a refund and book a superfast train to Xian.

This was a disappointment, and a bit of a complication because we would arrive in Xian that night rather than the next morning. So we had to book an extra night at our hotel, which was now much more expensive. Luckily, the hotel was nice enough to give us the same room and rate when we arrived.

It was a bummer; on the positive side, even though we didn’t speak the language (except for me in drips and drabs), we were able to get our refund, rebook tickets and get to the new station all in good time.

We booked our train tickets through China Highlights.

Where we stayed in Chengdu: Fraser Suites

We had a twin room delux, which was spacious and had everything we needed including a washing machine that we didn’t use. The toilet was bigger than one of our bedrooms as was the walk-in closet. The kids loved the room.

It was also well located, connected to a mall (admittedly with a lot of luxury products but also some restaurants, including the abovementioned Hong Kong style restaurants). Opposite was a mall with a Carrefour and many more restaurant choices, as well as Starbucks, KFC etc. The room rate included a good buffet breakfast.

Staff at the hotel we very helpful. The hotel has a pool that we didn’t end up using, much to the kids’ irritation. It’s entrance is off the main road which means that one may not get the full flow of taxis, so it can take a little while (maximum 10 minutes) to get one, but we always got one. It’s also a short walk to the Jinjiang metro station, but we only used it once.

Taxis

I had heard that it’s hard to get taxis in some Chinese cities, and people generally use car hailing apps, but we didn’t really have a problem. The only thing is to put down all your addresses in Chinese.

Coming up: Xian

I’ve tried to write down details that might be useful to travellers in addition to general rambling but feel free to ask for more information in the comments.

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Chick Lit blog

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After some thought, I’ve decided to move my chick lit posts to a separate blog. I’ll still post a link to them here, and post non-chick-lit book stuff here, but I’d appreciate it if those of you who are interested in chick lit follow that blog.

The first few posts will be a repeat of some of my first few chick lit posts here. I will make it clear here when the post is a repeat.

I’m still tinkering with the layout – WordPress seems to have done away with the theme I’m familiar with – so bear with me.

Please read the first post, which describes my chick lit journey, here.

What is the point?

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I recently edited a column in which a guy basically said – and I paraphrase – universities should focus on producing cheap labour for employers. These comments are part of a larger discourse in Hong Kong – and possibly the world – in which universities are seen as failing if they do not prepare graduates for the workforce.

The thing is, preparing people for the workforce is not the job of the university, in its historical sense. The university’s task is to educate. Full stop. If that education proves useful to the workforce, so be it. But if it doesn’t, that is not really the problem of the university. Education involves equipping young people with knowledge and hopefully the skills to acquire more knowledge.

Our modern universities are built in the European tradition, which distinguishes between universities (which perform the above function) and polytechnics which impart professional knowledge. But now it’s like people want the universities to be polytechnics, because otherwise what is the point?

Indeed. There is no point in universities in the true sense in a world in which everything is quantified in monetary terms.

In the past universities had patrons, just as the arts had patrons, because enlightened people recognised the value of funding the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. There was prestige in funding something beautiful or wondrous for its own sake. But also, there was the understanding that these pointless pursuits could sometimes yield results that would shatter human understanding and change history.

***

I also edited a letter by a student who bemoaned the growing utilitarianism of Hong Kong society – the idea that anything that doesn’t have an easily identifiable use is immediately worthless. I’d wager Hong Kong has always been utilitarian because it’s modern origins lay in commerce and in hardy people surviving by pursuing material goals. It is a pragmatism that is admirable.

But as Hong Kong has grown more prosperous, there is a seed of the desire for more. For the chance to do something that is besides the point, of doing for doings sake. And if any place has the money to fund such ventures Hong Kong has.

But still, you have people like that illustrious columnist insisting that everything must have its use … or go.

***

I am married to a man who asks ‘what is the point?’ Of a PhD for example. Spending years on something that doesn’t seem to have yielded any result to speak of.

The tedium of replying to these questions.

Before I was married, my husband’s sister asked what the point of literature is. At least architects build something, she said. She is an architect.

I recalled my iconic poet/teacher Eunice De Souza who firmly told us: “I’m not here to teach you how to sell toothpaste.” (Although many of her students did go on to do the many versions of selling toothpaste in the media).

I channelled Oscar Wilde and said: “There is no point. All art is quite useless.”

To her credit, she was silenced.

***

“What is the point of reading?” the husband asks, with just a touch of defensiveness.

The questioner in me can countenance the questioning of everything, and yet, I find this question more heretical than heresy itself. Nevertheless, I felt the need to engage with it.

The discussion was not so much about the point of reading but about whether one could gain the same knowledge without reading. I accept that there is certain forms of knowledge that are best gained through hands-on learning. For example, I never quite got why people need to do a two-year course or god forbid, a Bachelor’s degree, in journalism, when one could pretty much pick these skills up more effectively on the job. The fact that media organisations in Hong Kong screen resumes for even internships based on this ‘journalism degree background’ is another story. Admittedly, there might be some technical things to learn – though bizarrely in India the journalism courses were teaching software that was not used in newsrooms because the more updated programmes were too expensive probably – such as operating cameras and editing film for broadcast journalism maybe. And there could be some communication theory that would of of course. Frankly, I think journalists would benefit most from a cultural studies programme, which is actually worth three years of study, but I wouldn’t say it’s essential to being a journalist. But I digress.

Apart from the practical knowledge, there is more abstract knowledge – the kind one studies in a BA programme under the Humanities disciplines or some of the pure sciences – that as of now is contained in books. Some of it can be extracted and packaged in other media, which is what happens in classroom. But after a point, if you want to go deeper, this is not going to work. You are going to have to read the original – which is contained in a book. (I do not differentiate between listening to an audio book and reading here). There may come a time when books stop being the major source of knowledge – when people put their original ideas down not in paper but in film maybe – but you’d still have to grapple with book-knowledge if you want to go backwards in history.

The thing is, I don’t know a single person who has that kind of abstract intelligence, who does not read a lot.

So, it appears that the husband and I represent these two different forms of intelligence. And we each hold the other form in slightly less esteem. Ironically, this difference of intelligence was probably the very thing that attracted us to each other. But such is marriage.

***

Unfortunately, the job market prioritizes degrees, even when the degree has no real connection to the job. It’s possible that employers would prioritise work experience over degrees, but how to get work experience without a degree? It’s a vicious cycle.

This is the fault of employers, who instead of interviewing people and seeing if they seem bright enough for the job, judge them with a piece of paper. In the process, there is pressure on the piece of paper to conform to the job market, which is a pity.

***

In related reading, this.

Oceans 8

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oceans8

I’ve pretty much stopped watching Hollywood movies mainly because I find them stupid and choc a bloc with unpalatable stereotypes, but about once or (gasp!) twice a year I might find a film or two to get excited about.

Like Black Panther or Last Jedi. Note that these are superhero films or thereabouts; in these it’s easier to suspend disbelief.

The run-up to the latest Ocean film convinced me to give it a shot; a star cast of women featuring Cate Blanchett – I could get on board with that.

I thought it could be a chick flick that I could go to with a gang of girls, except none of the said girls were up for it, most because the weekend I wanted to go didn’t work but one because the reviews were bad.

Which they were though some feminist blogs did have positive things to say, from which I took heart.

In the end, I dragged V which was not the best choice. My thoughts:

1. Sandra Bullock always has an ‘interesting’ nose but it was particularly noticeable here. Is it possible she had some work done to it, or that her face as thinned too much. I unfortunately have to agree with V that in some shots she looked like Michael Jackson.

2. Both Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock had too much make-up on. If you can see the foundation, it’s not a good sign. What were the make-up artists and cinematographers thinking?

3. I have a girl crush on Cate Blanchett but I don’t know whether it was because she was acting in such a stupid film – and it was a stupid film – that she came across as a bad actress. She just didn’t inhabit that character.

4. With the huge budget, you’d think the screenwriters would have tried a bit harder with the plot. The first bit when Sandra B walks out of Bergdoff Goodman with stuff she didn’t pay for after unsuccessfully trying to return them didn’t make sense to me. Don’t these products have barcodes? Also the part where she pretends to be a couple who just checked out, don’t hotels always check IDs? Did I miss something here? Did the filmmakers think the audience would have never shopped in a department store or checked into a hotel and so wouldn’t know better?

5. Rihanna and Awkwafina were good. The latter especially. It was obvious they were ticking racial boxes and they still missed a Latina.

6. Speaking of which, Mindy Kaling’s Hindi accent was atrocious; I don’t think how the lady speaking to her kept a straight face. They would have done better to hire Priyanka Chopra

7. The film did pick up once the Met Gala plot got underway.

8. I now have a crush on Sarah Paulson instead of Cate Blanchett

9. There was some gay subtext with Sandra B and Cate and I wished they’d gone to town with it.

10. Anne Hathaway can act, and is also attractive which is suddenly a surprise to me.

I came away not entirely irritated and somewhat entertained so it was not a complete loss. It seemed like a waste that with presumably a big budget and a great cast, they couldn’t have done better.

Have you watched the film? What did you think?

Chick Lit Hall of Fame: Girls of Riyadh

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In this series, I write about chick lit novels, focusing on chick lit outside the Anglo-American context. I started out calling this series Indian Chick Lit Hall of Fame, but I’ve realised that I’m going to be reading and writing beyond that geography, and just because  these are novels are neglected by the Western world, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a place in global chick lit listings.

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The novel: Girls of Riyadh
Author: Raja Alasanea
Published in: 2007 (orginally in Arabaic, translated into English)
Publisher: Fig Tree (a Penguin imprint)
Claim to fame: A chick lit novel set in Saudi Arabia

I should have read this novel during my PhD, but not so surprisingly, I didn’t have time. Having read it now, I have mixed feelings about not having read it earlier. On the one hand, it would have enriched and broadened by analysis (I referred to a study on this novel, but didn’t end up reading it); on the other, it may have changed my entire focus.

Either way, I’m glad I got my hands on it because I LOVED IT.

I totally did not expect to love it, and that’s why I kept putting off reading it (even though given my PhD specialisation I knew I had to read it). I expected it to be a superficial brand-name-dropping Sex and the City sort of thing. It was not.

Yes, the four women at the centre of the novel – Sadeem, Michelle, Gamrah and Lameez – belong to the ‘velvet class’, the Saudi elite, and yes, within the first few pages, one of them refers to her dress being Badgely Mischka. But the book also has stunning poetry, religious verses, social critique and what we love best about chick lit – a reflection of the lives of young women, their struggles, their loves and their friendships.

Like all other chick lit novels, these women are single and the pressure they are under to marry is similar to Indian women. The difference here is that more than Indian chick lit, the question is ‘how’ and not ‘if’ or even ‘when’. Like Indian chick lit, though, there is a ‘love’ versus ‘arranged’ marriage dichotomy, except that despite their elite status and relative freedom, most of these women will have arranged marriages – or at least marriages that absolutely cannot go ahead without family approval.

How these women go about finding love, and how they come up time and again, against the strictures of their society, is the subject-matter of the novel. In her wonderful study of love in new Bollywood cinema, Sangita Gopal, points out how love has always been a trangressive force, possessing the capacity to upset the social order, and she shows how Hindi cinema contains this force by reconciling the individual and society. The transgressive power of love comes up time and again in Alsanea’s novel.

But how does this trangression even take place? Isn’t Saudi Arabia supposed to be one of the most repressive place in the world for women? Because, you know, what else would it be given that the women have to go about dressed head to toe in black, right? Okay, we know they are apparently shod in couture underneath, which they reveal only in the presence of women, but that only makes them weirder, right?

My first window into wealthy Saudi society Princess by Jean Sassoon would have me believe this. Fabulously wealthy, yes, repressed and ultimately terribly sad and not-so-latently barbaric – also yes. There is a little vignette in Almost Single along similar lines – exotic princess, rich but unhappy. The recent detention (assisted by our very own Indian coast guard if you please) of the princess from the UAE seems to confirm this view.

Of course, reality is a bit more complex, and Girls of Riyadh exposes this. We meet our protagonists at a wedding where, yes, the women are separated from the men (and again, this should not be utterly unfamiliar to us in India where Muslim communities are not the only ones to practice this segregation) but they are dressed to the nines and dancing seductively. Women dancing with abandon, and generally letting their hair down, again, should not seem so strange because isn’t this every farewell party in a convent school and generally, why we have girls nights out?

Yet, it is not exactly the same, and Alsanea doesn’t present it as so either. At the wedding, at some point the men came rushing into the room “like arrows” with the groom and the women hurry to cover themselves (this is apparently part of the ritual). Only the groom stayed, though, while the men went home leaving the women to continue the party late into a night (a reversal of expectations). Later, when the girls unique pre-wedding celebration (their version of a bachelor’s party – they eschew the Western form because in their community it would involve inviting everyone and including a famous Arabic singer, which would not only be expensive but also too cliched), they drive to a mall and are besieged by young men trying to pass them their numbers.

This is how young men and women ‘meet’ – the men hold up cards with their numbers, the women memorise them and call them if they so desire and their romances are conducted over the phone and if possible, the internet, often without meeting but very intense nevertheless. The behaviour of some of these men (e.g. following the girl in her car) might seem stalkerish but their advances are not exactly unwelcome, because it is the only way.

Did you notice I said ‘drove’ to a mall? But Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive, right? Well, as ever, women find a way to get around these things. Michelle, who is half-American, learnt to drive and because the cars have highly tinted widows (to prevent men peering into them), they have the advantage of making the driver invisible to the outside too. The point is not to say things are la la la – they’re not – but that people always find ways to circumvent repressive laws.

Moreover, on this excursion, a young man presents himself, and joins them by pretending to be a relative. So while apparently there are security guards who may question men who are with women, this is easily dealt with if the women are willing to say that that man is a relative. The whole rakhi brother syndrome, if you please.

And what of these men? As our protagonists meet and fall in love, they are often disappointed by the objects of their affection, who ultimately refuse to defy their families in the name of love. And while the narrator has no sympathy for these characters, the novel exposes that it is not only Saudi women who are trapped in their social system.

Apart from the young single women, I found myself drawn to the aunties, a category I’m increasingly fascinated with, now that I’m one myself. In a patriarchal society, some older women – such as the mother of a man who ditched one of the girls and Gamrah’s mother – wield a fair amount of power. There is Lameez’s mother, who stomps into her school and insists the principal stop picking on her daughter. And most intriguing of all, is the divorced woman next door who hosts their conversations and sometimes their rendezvous.

The treatment of divorced women caught my attention . The aunty next door is reviled more for the possibility of her son being gay, than her divorced status and she continues her job as a school teacher. When a man divorces a woman, this is almost accepted as par for the course by the family, and there doesn’t seem to be the possibility of them not taking her back (as some Indian women seem to face) although life becomes harder from her as she becomes a suspect person, a walking display of sexual possibility because of her limbo state – single but not ‘pure’ – and so her family must closet her till she is married again. Even if she is pregnant, it is taken for granted that she and her child will be taken care of by her family, and even her ex-husband’s family might show interest in the child. In some ways, it seems like the society makes provisions for divorced women.

Apart from the four protoganists, there is a fifth character – the narrator. The entire tale is apparently related in a series of emails and I initially found this is a little annoying. However, later, I realised that the purpose of the narrator was the reflect the comments of society on the story. Thus, she comments on reactions from both conservatives and liberals alike, and people from different sections of society, and responds to them. She notes that it is the women who respond most angrily to her story and the men most sympathetically, for example.

The narrator is also a critique of readerly fascination with the author and the reader’s tendency (a tendency especially pronounced in chick lit, which as realist fiction presents itself as a direct reflection of life) to identify the author with the protagonist or in the case of multi-protogonist novels, to guess “which one the author is.”

Throughout, it is clear that this is a religious society and that the women live according to their interpretations and engagements with a religious code. But it is pointed out that there are varying levels of engagement with religion and that this engagement is split along gender lines so that conservative men’s engagement takes different forms from conservative women’s. Our four protagonists are of a liberal bent, but even the most bold of them, might after marriage, decide on her own to adopt the hijab.

Finally, I happened to read some reviews of the novel in the West and I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that what these Western reviewers took away from the novel was that it was not feminist enough, because basically the women did not throw off “Islamic fundamentalism” (when none of them were fundamentalist in the first place, so why or how would they throw it off?) or for the crime of seeking liberation in setting up a party planning business (failing to recognise how radical this step is, especially for a divorced woman). In his groundbreaking book Orientalism, Edward Said shows how the West created it’s self-image in contrast to an uncivilised and barbaric Other and how Western modernity – and colonialism and its ‘civilising’ mission – is predicated on this contrast. In the reviews of this novel, I see that Orientalism is alive and well.

Did I love this book simply because it is unfamiliar, as a friend once suggested might be why I enjoy watching any mainstream Hong Kong film?* Is it simply the novelty of the new? It is possible that I gave the book more leeway because of my pleasure in being immersed in an unfamiliar culture. Sure, the translation was not perfect – even the translator had problems with the final text, raising interesting questions about who owns a translation – but increasingly, I find myself favouring these imperfections that remind you that you are not in your same-old Anglo-American dominated context.

Finally, while many of us in India also like to think of Saudi Arabia as the weird Other and that we are “so much better off”, are we? I recall my encounter with a Saudi man on a flight. He was sitting next to me and we got chatting when I needed change to buy my Airport Express pass. On hearing that I was flying alone to meet my fiance and he would not even be meeting me at the airport, he said surprised, “I thought Indian women were like our women.” I paused and said, “There are lots of different kinds of Indian women.” My point was not that Indian women are much more liberated than Saudi women, but that there were in fact lots of Indian women living not dissimilar lives to Saudi women (yes, we have fairer laws in general, but personal life is still regulated by the different religious laws in India) and in fact, I could be the exception.

Let’s keep this in mind when we read the book, how we are more similar than we think, and how there’s work to do in our own backyards.

*This same friend also said he enjoyed the Twilight movies, so I might take his view of things with a pinch of salt.

 

 

 

Like mother, like daughter

For the longest time, V has been saying Mimi is just like me. Not always at the most flattering times. I have refused to accept it.

I did not think Mimi looked like me, and I sure as hell didn’t think her hurricanes were inherited from me.

As she grows, though, I do see the physical resemblance. I didn’t notice it before because, as ever, I was fixated on her nose which is flatter and broader than my sharp one. But her eyes, her wide smile, her hair, yes, are mine.

Her tantrums?

See, I don’t deny that I have a propensity to lose it and yell. To even throw things across a room in frustration. But these are new traits, that I developed after I got married and had my buttons pushed one time too many.

They shocked me, and would shock anyone who knew me as a child and young woman, because I was known for my calm and controlled personality. Drama queen was never  my personality type.

Now though.

Is it possible that a child is a mirror image not of the mother as a child, but of the mother as adult? Not through observation, because Mimi was a drama queen and stubborn as hell from her infancy. Her super-strong character, a force of nature, as it were, was noticeable too early for it to be nurture. Is she a carbon copy of her mother, not as she was and as she believes her essential personality to be, but as she became?

I recall something my mum always said. A child whose mother is unhappy during her pregnancy will inherit that angst. My mother lived with my father’s parents when she was pregnant with my sister and my sister was a moody, clingy, cranky child. When I came along, my mother had moved to her own home, and although she struggled to manage everything herself, she was at peace. I was by all reports a smiley, easygoing child (which is why I struggle to associate Mimi’s personality with my own).

When I was pregnant with Mimi, I was pretty much depressed. So it seems like the transfer of darkness has come to pass.

Or it could be that Mimi is just me, just as I am now. I really do have my own little minime.

 

Almost Single

almost single

This is the novel by Advaita Kala, who went on to write televisio and movie scripts, that gets mentioned the most often in connection with “Indian chick lit”  and that’s probably because it’s pretty classic in following genre conventions.

The novel is basically a compilation of the shenanigans of Aisha, the protagonist, and her group of friends – Misha, Anushka and a gay couple Nic and Ric – as they live it up in the city. Aisha works in a hotel, which gives her an inside view into the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and she and her friends partake of a more modest version of the same.

For a single girl, we never get a description of the mundane parts of being single – like paying the rent and maintaining your own house and coming home to an empty apartment. We never even get a description of the apartment.

Instead, Aisha’s life is lived outside, in cafes, clubs, nightclubs and terraces. We have a more intimate portrait of the hotel in which she works than her home. She can apparently finance all this – and buy a Rohit Bal sari – with her customer service executive salary. Okay.

If the nitty gritty of being single may not be entirely realistic, the novels provide a series of anecdotes depicting the highs and lows of being single – being footloose and fancy free but also the not-so-fun pressure to get married and the vague suspicion from the neighbours that one is somehow a scarlet woman. The pressure is not entirely external though – these women feel that need to take matters into their own hands and find a mate.

This is a characteristic feature of neoliberalism – an economic model in which private enterprise takes its own course and survives in a market with little government intervention. Ideologically, this means that each individual is responsible for themselves, a DIY approach to life down to how we fashion our own selves.

The distinct way in which Aisha and her friends pursue ‘remedying’ their single state is symbolic of what it means to be a young, single, urban woman. They get on dating websites, but Aisha has an astrologer in speed dial. They also have a havan (which they fuel with alcohol) and meet a holy woman, who it turns out drives a Mitsubishi Lancer. There’s all this not-so-latent tradition-modernity stuff going on. The biggest indication of this is Aisha wearing a sari over jeans.

The other striking aspect of the novel’s depiction of the single life is the close-knit circle of friends. In this, the novel is very Sex and the City. The things the friends do – Sunday brunches at a five-star hotel but also taking revenge on errant exes and helping each other dress for special occasions – but also the discussions about their love lives.

The most interesting character in the novel to me was Anu, Aisha’s friend who separates from her husband. We see flashes of her life only in terms of revengeful antics, but there is real pain and in the end development there that would have made an interesting story in itself.

The book also pointedly includes a gay couple, somewhat ridiculously named Ric and Nic. While this inclusion is in fact a genre convention, it is also tritely done – they are fashionistas, they make lascivious comments, they like the good life. One of them proves to be more adept at traditional femininity that the girls themselves – winning a nosy and disapproving neighbour over with his skill at choosing vegetables. Eve Sedgwick has warned of the ‘inversion’ trap where a gay man is seen as an inverted woman – and I think Nic (or is it Ric) falls into this.

On the surface, these women want to get married, but there is a latent unease with tying the knot. There is not a single happy  couple in the novel – except tellingly the gay couple Nic and Ric. Aisha herself seems ambivalent – she pursues Karan, dolls up in a sari to impress his mother, but also seems reluctant to actually commit.

Maybe it’s because Karan is so … vague. At least on paper. I couldn’t really get a clear sense of him – in the way that we get of Anuja Chauhan’s heroes, for example. What makes him attractive – apart from being wealthy, good looking and somewhat arrogant and in control. Basically, he is the bare bones of the Mr Darcy figure, but not fleshed out at all. This is not unique to Kala’s novel; a number of chick lit novels have love interests who are a conglomeration of certain traits, without being fully formed people. It is like the authors have a fantasy man in their heads, but can’t completely write them into reality except as an outline of a person. This does have the advantage of making the female characters much more central, which I can’t complain about, even if it does make the romance slightly unconvincing – as if the protagonist is in love with a cardboard cutout.

This lends itself to the sneaking suspicion that the novels are less about love and more about being single – they depict the single life more fully and realistically than the romance, with the mandatory happy ending almost coming as an aftermath, a tick the box to readers’ expectations. The result is that being single seems more realistic and even fun than the thing the novels are supposedly progressing towards – being coupled.

Have you read the novel? What did you think?
Is being a single woman in India mostly a footloose and fancy free experience, interrupted by annoying questions about getting married?
What does being ‘almost single’ mean?

 

 

 

What would Frida say

I recently came across this poem:

FRIDA TO MARTY MCCONNELL

Leaving is not enough; you must
stay gone. Train your heart
like a dog. Change the locks
even on the house he’s never
visited. You lucky, lucky girl.
You have an apartment
just your size. A bathtub
full of tea. A heart the size
of Arizona, but not nearly
so arid. Don’t wish away
your cracked past, your crooked
toes; your problems
are papier mache puppets
you made or bought
because the vendor was so
compelling you just
had to have them. You had
to have him. And you did.
And now you pull down
the bridge between your houses.
You make him call before
he visits. You take a lover
for granted, you take
a lover who looks at you
like maybe you are magic. Make
the first bottle you consume
in this place a relic. Place it
on whatever altar you fashion
with a knife and five cranberries.
Don’t lose too much weight.
Stupid girls are always trying
to disappear as revenge. And you
are not stupid. You loved a man
with more hands than a parade
of beggars, and here you stand. Heart
like a four-poster bed. Heart like a canvas.
Heart leaking something so strong
they can smell it in the street.

***
— Marty McConnell

I had a vague sense of deja vu, as if I was reading the wrong peom, and then I remembered this:

FRIDA TO SHARANYA

Sleep wherever is most convenient for you.
Whoever and whatever is left in the morning,
take home. Be kind. All the world is yours for
the taking, long as you know that your little heart is
theirs for the breaking. Leave lipstick on their
china and on your letters. Make sure they know
that you’re a mariposa, blue as copper sulphate,
or blue as the sea, blue as a baby stilled too soon,
darling wench, and you never really intend to leave.
Set love free like a boat with neither oars nor anchors.
Trust it. Don’t trust yourself. Accept every familiar
that comes, even if one happens to be a goat. Forgive
less of people. Remember that things come in triptychs.
Be magnificent, like Coatlicue. You only owe it to me,
but break a mirror now and then, if you can afford it.
Kiss as much as you want to, and as few. Be difficult.
It will make you more desirable. If it will help you to
let him go, cut off your hands. They will grow back.
You don’t need them. You don’t need him. The older
you grow, the more you will amputate. Dance on stumps
if you have to, but don’t stop. Wear one item of red
every Wednesday and when death comes for you,
you will go as his bride. Burn every bridge you ever
built, and build as many as you possibly can. The one
that takes you home will be the last one standing.
Sing over the bones. Go slow.
Don’t forget me.

***
— Sharanya Manivannan

 

The lesson is clear. In times of heartbreak – of any kind – ask yourself: “What would Frida say?” and proceed accordingly.

For the record

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The day before yesterday, my son received this letter from a classmate:

“Dear N, You are my secret boyfriend. I liked you like forever! But please don’t tell anyone.”

They are seven.

V says I am the one imputing an adult meaning to it, and they are just friends. I think it is a little more than that. At 5, Mimi blushed whenever Nene’s friend’s name was mentioned. Later, I noticed that she reacted like that to all Nene’ besties, all the boys anyway. I believe these feelings are more special than “just” friends. but they are not grown-up attraction either. Yet, the language they use to convey the feelings is adult. Where do they learn it?

Yesterday, Nene asked me if he could go to the little girl’s house for a playdate. I said: sure, but her mum has to ask me. I am reading Tudor fiction and feel like the King’s mother.

Last night, I dreamed that we unexpectedly – at V’s suggestion – landed up at the friend’s door for a playdate (without scheduling first). The station names were in Hong Kong, but the train and the place we landed at were Indian. The friend lived in a Parsi colony, even though she is Korean.

Make of that what you will.

Growing with them

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When one’s children are young, one ends up pandering to their interests. One does a lot of things – playing with toys, trips to the park, playdates – that they enjoy and that you take varying degrees of pleasure in because of the pleasure they get out of it, but it may not really be your thing. Disneyland yes; trips to the doggie patch to accost unsuspecting dog owners for permission to pet their pet, maybe; visits to the indoor playroom not so much.

As they turn five, however, one gets to share genuine interests. For example, Harry Potter. I had started reading the books to Nene – Mimi couldn’t focus as much without the pictures – and I allowed them to watch the first movie. Even Chamber of Secrets we decided was too scary because of the basilisk parts. But recently, I found them watching clips on YouTube and they kept pushing me to watch the movies, and I let them on the condition that they fastforward any part they find too scary.

The result is that we can have endless conversations about Harry Potter mythology. I am a Potterhead so this comes easy. I explain parts to them that they don’t understand, but I also use it to reinforce values that I think are important. For example, “Did you notice what Lupin’s friends did when they realised he was a werewolf? They didn’t abandon him.” When I read the Harry Potter series, it struck me that the books encompassed my personal morality in a way that no religious text had. It encompassed the Christian ethic but in some ways surpassed it by complicating it, or at least updating it. It provided a backstory for evil, for example. And I find indeed the books helping me parent as I thought they might; I hope this continues.

I am also reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories to Nathan, another book with a number of powerful messages – about the value of storytelling, about intellectual fascism. Mimi went through a phase where she was obsessed with “the real” and non-fiction because “fiction isn’t real” even though she actually enjoys fiction more than non-fiction. The tyranny of scienticism came home to roost a little to early in the distinction between fiction and non-fiction at school. I tried to explain to her that fiction is important too, but she wasn’t buying it. Maybe she needs a dose of Haroun too.

Nene is one of those who genuinely enjoys non-fiction. One of his bedtime reading choices was a book about minerals, which had us going through the entire periodic table. I find myself learning things I never knew, and being refascinated by science (well, I was  independently on a quantum physics binge which this ties into so it worked out well). And the periodic table is rather pretty. But I’m glad we’re back to

Nene is also into Monopoly and we have regular sessions on weekends. He is more into it when he wins though. And he and I learnt to play chess at the same time, and parry with each other. Though I end up beating him, and so he’s not that into it.

Mimi is into craft, which I don’t mind, but I’m not crazy about. I would like it better if we could colour together – now that she can finally stay in the lines – but her preferred colouring mode is both of us doing the same picture, which is not mine.

In sports, Nene is now into Formula 1, and watches the races with his dad. Both the kids were into gymnastics and ice-skating and watch these with me. In real life, Nene is a sporty kid, who basically masters sporting stuff easily. Mimi not so much, though I have noticed recently that she likes to dance.

There are those that say we should cherish every moment with our kids. I’m not a believer in that. I did not cherish the exhaustion of parenting a newborn, breastfeeding, waking up every two hours at night, changing diapers. I loved my kids and I did what it took, but I did not enjoy every minute and I’m not going to pretend I did. But as the kids grew into toddlers and especially now, the quality of my enjoyment of time with them has changed, sometimes we hang out as peers.