BETWEEN THE ASSASSINATIONS by Aravind Adiga
The assassination of Indira Ghandi occurred in 1984 and that of her son in 1991. The series of stories that make up this book are set during this time period. In many other parts of the world social and economic happenings were happening apace, but in India, nothing much changes. The more it changes, the more it stays the same. Aravind Adiga has followed up his Man Booker prize winning 'The White Tiger' with an equally hard hitting collection of stories detailing the wretchedness and hopelessness of the lives of the average Indian in an urban setting.
Adiga has made up a small city, Kittur, somewhere on the south-western coast of India, north of Calicut and south of Goa, in the state of Karnataka. Having lived in a south Indian city much bigger than this one, the city of Kittur is very true to life I felt like I had been transported back to the city that I had lived in - the traffic, the markets, the squalor, the dirt, the desperation of the lives the vast majority of people live. The south of India being very Hindu, the caste system and its role in directing the lives of the minions who are born into it, dominates the stories and characters that Adiga has created. He is not a fan of the caste system and the appalling injustices that result from it, and neither does he come up with any solutions to fix it. Having lived there, some twenty years after this book is set, I also don't think there is any way to fix it. And this of course is the tragedy of the life of the average Indian.
Adiga transforms the reader into a tourist, treated to a guided tour of the city. At the beginning of each of the fourteen chapters the reader learns a bit about that particular part of the city, and then Adiga launches into the wretched life of yet another impoverished person. The stories are not interlinked by characters, but by the awfulness of their existences. It is compelling reading, the characters are beautifully drawn, their lives written with love and compassion, but also utter hopelessness.
THE GINGER TREE by Oswald Wynd
This novel was first published way back in 1977, and has been reprinted several times so must be a popular story! This book was given to me to read by an elderly couple, her Japanese and he European. They were married in Japan some 47 years ago, such a mixed marriage being unusual for those days. They suggested I read this because it gives a lot of insight into Japanese society from around 1900 to WWII. Things of course started to change in Japan after the war, but prior to that very little had changed for hundreds of years.
The story is narrated by way of a diary and letters by a young Scottish woman, Mary Mackenzie, who is sailing out to China to marry an army man. She has decided to marry to get away from Scotland and the unexciting life she has there. The marriage of course is a disaster, despite a daughter being born, and Mary has a very brief affair with a Japanese career soldier, gets pregnant, is ostracised from the expat community in Shanghai and flees to Japan. She remains in Japan until 1942 when the book ends. Over the years Mary experiences all sorts of traumas and trials and ends up making a very good life for herself in Japan, becoming financially independent, which I imagine was a most unusual accomplishment for any woman of that time, let alone a European one in pre-war Japan.
So the story is relatively trite, and the characters are fairly predictable, but the best thing about the book is the insight we get into pre-war Chinese and Japan society and how Europeans fitted in or didn't. I found it difficult to completely engage with this story, mainly due to its style of narration. Mary sends letters to her mother in Scotland and to a French woman whom she met when living in China. The rest of the story is via diary entries. So we have a very personal and intimate narration style, but I felt very detached from Mary and how her life was unfolding. I almost felt like an observer rather than a confidante of her. Nevertheless a good read which gives a good insight into a society and time most people would know little about.
WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROM by Joe Bennett
Who would have thought that the story of a pair of underpants bought from that icon of New Zealand retail, The Warehouse, could be so interesting. Underpants are an article that we, in 1st World countries regard as essentials. Virtually all our clothing purchases are discretionary, but underpants are things that we ALL wear, it is the universal garment, the one garment of necessity that we all wear. Sure you can buy at The Warehouse or you can buy at a top end lingerie shop. But I expect that almost all of them are Made in China. Let's not get too picky with the likes of La Perla and so on! So Joe has an epiphany and decides to find out exactly where his special Warehouse purchased undies come from.
And what unfolds is a fascinating journey giving us an insight into modern day, China. He travels firstly to Shanghai, where amongst other sights and sites he visits, he goes to the world's largest, and it is very very large, container terminal. The authorities casted around for a suitable site close to Shanghai. An island offshore was deemed suitable, the long standing residents were sent somewhere else in China, a 30km bridge was built from the mainland to the island, and this massive, huge container terminal was built. On it are HUGE warehouses stocked full of every single item that the Western world uses in its daily lives. It is absolutely mind boggling. Joe travel throughout China to find out where and how the elastic in his pants is made, and where the cotton is grown, harvested and spun. Throughout his travels his observant and keen eye documents everything going on around him, the lives of the people, the massive upheaval taking place with the millions migrating from the rural areas to the urban areas for the dreadful manufacturing jobs they feel they need to have. He has plenty to say about the far reaching, overwhelming power and influence the government has over the lives of the common man, as well as the indomitable, uncrushable spirit of the common man to better himself and maintain his personal dignity in the process.
After reading this I begin to understand the powerhouse that is the Chinese economy in our capitalist and materialistic world. They own us, and every other Western country too. I expect that one day China will own the world. It really makes me wonder that we are so far out of touch with our world and immediate environment that we have resorted to even importing frozen veges from China. Read this and it may help you rethink your shopping habits.