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Book club India

I joined another book club! I think at every diplomatic post so far I've had the chance to join one and this is the third time I did. I find it interesting that it’s primarily women who organize and join book clubs. The books I normally read aren’t explicitly for a female audience but the books we choose for the club often are but that doesn’t matter—the whole point of joining is to read books I otherwise wouldn’t even give a chance. Here are a couple of books we're reading and discussing, all with an India nexus:


The Palace of Illusions


The first book we read was “The Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I found it almost impossible to get through and if it hadn’t been for my 9-hour flight to the Netherlands I doubt I would have finished it. It’s not bad—it’s just written in a way that puts me straight to sleep. Very detailed and literal. I think it lacks intellectual challenges (I didn't have to look up a single word), playfulness, sharp edges, surprise. It's a pretty tale told from the perspective of a person who is never the driver of the story.


We chose the book for some good reasons though: Indian writer, Indian story. Also, the story is based on the mahabharatha, which is the longest epic poem ever written and one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India (the other is the Ramayana). It’s about the dynastic struggle for the throne of Hastinapur between the Kaurava and the Pandava families. Like Game of Thrones, except with Hindu mythology as part of the storyline.


Books that provide far more purpose than pleasure are always problematic for me because they take too much time but I can’t permit myself to put them away unfinished. My workaround is reading other books ‘in between’ and conveniently forgetting I was trying to read that book about good parenting, or that classic Virginia Woolf novel, or that Russian author altogether. Book clubs help me get to the finish line, with or without the help of Audible.


Maximum City


My next hard-to-finish book was Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. A famous work about Mumbai that everyone here has read or at least heard about. My problem with it was that it's dark and that it's neither new (it’s from 2004) nor historical and thus I wasn't entirely sure why this description of Mumbai’s corruption and criminal underworld still matters so much, especially given the fact that I’m not particularly interested in either local politics or murderous crime. At first it felt the same as reading a book about New York or Moscow years ago, when things were pretty wild and interesting but in a transitory kind of way.



What bothered me most about the first part of Maximum City (called Power) was that it talks about violence and income disparities that will only surprise those who know very little about India and who, by reading this book, will still know almost nothing about India other than extreme figures and anecdotes, which is probably how they view India already because that’s what the media reports on—riots, rape, pollution and poverty. As if there’s something specifically Indian about these things.


Living in the booming city of Mumbai so far (six months only, but still) feels nothing like the dangerous world described in Maximum City—especially not to the well-to-do outsiders this book was problably written for. I came to India because I wanted to view this beautiful subcontinent up close, with all its history, beauty, filth and diversity, and it's been pretty nice. It’s always easy to argue that a country or a city made the wrong choice at every opportunity, and highlighting the worst excesses of a flawed system has always made for great entertainment. Would a less critical book about a megacity like Mumbai even stand a chance? Probably not.


Then I realized what I needed was a more objective and historical description of Mumbai, and found a nice alternative in “A city adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay” by Naresh Fernandes, part of a series of books about big (Indian?) cities. It’s charmingly small and describes the development of Mumbai over the past centuries. At times it feels like a walk through the city, explaining how neighborhoods came to be and what they signify today. Not exactly a page-turner either, but more objective and manageable to read.


However, I'm so glad I picked up Maximum City again and fast forwarded to Part Two called Pleasure. It describes life in Bombay, its amazing streetfood (the absurd love folks here have for vada pav) and the background of Irani cafes. To my chagrin it then immediately turned to stripclubs with suicidal dancers and gangster boyfriends. But wow. The story of a young bar dancer called Monalisa that follows next is gripping. It’s so thorough and well-written. I couldn't put the book down for two days. The story then segues to Bollywood and we learn about how big it is in Mumbai and how the industry works. The author has a remarkable level of insight, having co-written several major films and seemingly having met all the major stars. There's a lot of corruption and censorship involved, because there's a strong connection between the film industry and the gangs, but now we hear it from the perspective of the actors and directors.


The final part of the book left me almost in tears, like a good fat book will do to me. It's about a wealthy Jain family renouncing their ties to the material world by becoming monks. It's an incredible story and Metha doesn't leave us hanging--he follows up with the people, as he does with all the people he follows around and writes about. So I have to agree with everyone else after all. This is an amazing book. Though it really helps when you live here, because without context it all sounds crazy.


Caste


Our latest book club book was Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. Hard to read at times, but important, well researched and fascinating. It's not really about the Indian caste system though, as I'd hoped. It's 90% about slavery and African Americans and 10% about Nazis and Indians. It's a must-read if you're learning about the history of African Americans, or if you somehow still don't quite understand what the problem is today--and why the BLM movement has every right to exist.

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