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I have read both of Jhumpa’s earlier books. I enjoyed them both, and the movie based on The Namesake. Those stories and the writing made for excellent reading, and the underlying theme of Indian immigrant nostalgia was one I could relate to at some level. Unaccustomed Earth has all of the nostalgic elements of her prior work. But it compares poorly in story and characterization with its kin. This is not to say that the book is a bad one, rather one that does not quite live up to the expectations set by the previous books.

5 short stories, and one trio of linked stories make up this book. They deal with relationships, mostly; a widowed father in love, a sister that suffers from self-guilt at her brother’s alcoholism, unrequited love. The characters are all either immigrant Indians or their children caught up between cultures and places. They are well-educated, and their academic credentials and Ivy League affiliations are reinforced, with every tale, to the point of odiousness. The immigrant parents have loveless marriages and dwell in the nostalgia of their homelands to the extent that you wish for them to return back, but Jhumpa rarely relents to offer the reader such respite. For she has a larger role for them. They have to see their kids through their Ivy League advanced degrees, reminding them that they are wasting their careers if they drop out or quit their profession. The kids, for their part are quick to shake off the shackles of their upbringing as soon as they leave home. They end up as adults, unsure how to deal with their parents, and their relationships or marriages outside of the diaspora offer the occasion for conflict and awkwardness where it involves their parents.

It is the above characterization that is my main grunt with this book. It draws out the immigrant nostalgia – the incomplete adaptation, the prosaic existence, the generational and cultural gap – to a rather excessive degree. Yes, we (and I mean those that reside in a country different from the one where they grew up) have our moments where we go back to the memories of the places we left behind; the people, the events, that hypothetical alternate existence if the leap across the oceans had not been made. But it is not a constant phlegm of moroseness that surrounds us every living moment, not the way Jhumpa makes it out to be, or at least not, I hope, for most of us. Another reader of the book may have a different perspective, one that I may have missed in my reading of this book. The book does not dilute the fact that Jhumpa is a wonderfully talented writer. Despite the characterizations and weak plots, her style retains that distinctive quality that made her prior books so worthy of praise.

“Old wine in new bottle”, Parth had said about Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns that followed his bestseller, The Kite Runner, “but you can squeeze the Afghan agony only so much.” Replace the situation-borne Afghan agony with the choice-borne agony of the Indian immigrant, and the description fits this present book. One hopes that in her next opus, Jhumpa redirects her talents to a different, more refreshing theme.

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.. to a new pad that I found out the hard way today.

  • It takes more time than you think it does – this is a known human cognitive bias called planning fallacy, if that makes you happy.
  • You will most likely have more stuff than you think you do – the mind may be an awesome calculator of numbers, but it is a bad estimator, particularly when it has to rely on vague visual information.
  • What you thought was minimalist living was really a large apartment. In this context, Galileo is known to have said, “Give me a large enough space, and I’ll make stuff disappear.” Ok, I made that up, but it helps make the point.
  • Boxes are hard to distinguish when not labeled to indicate their contents. And I don’t mean that in a demeaning way – not to boxes.
  • It takes more time to assemble stuff than to disassemble them, just as it takes more time to dig a hole than to fill it. This may also explain why moving out has been, in my limited anecdotal experience, easier than moving in.
  • For those of us who believe that we have inherited certain key traits from our hunter-gatherer forebearers, there is good and bad news. The good-news is: yes, we have. The bad-news: just the ‘gatherer’ trait.
  • Never underestimate the agony that stairs can cause you when moving. As Churchill emphatically put it, “Never, never, never”. No kidding. He did say that, and it was followed by the words “give up”. But if you are carrying one side of what felt like an 100-pound futon up a narrow flight of 22 stairs, you cease to think, let alone remember what Churchill had to say about not giving up more than half a century ago.
  • Cut your coat according to your cloth, and pack your boxes according to your sloth (read: ability to carry them)
  • If you are going to be involved in the moving, and I mean physically carrying stuff and not lording over your movers telling them what they know better than you, warm up and stretch a bit, or your body will ache, badly. I am experiencing it right now for not having remembered this in good time.
  • Get a good night’s sleep prior to the move.

In a Charlie Rose interview back in 2000 when the book was published, Ishiguro’s refers to ‘a child’s way of viewing the world that is frozen in time’. This phrase best summarizes When We Were Orphans, Ishiguro’s fifth novel that was published 5 years after his Booker winner Remains of the Day.

The year is 1930. Christopher Banks, the book’s main character and narrator, is a detective in London, and a highly regarded one if we are to believe his version. Despite his evident success at solving important cases that have been the source of his renown, there is one unsolved case that is always at the back of his mind until he takes it up – that of the disappearance of his parents when he is about 9 during the time they had been living in Shanghai. Banks is packed off to London after his parents’ disappearance, and here he is cared for by his aunt. While he does not state so, one is inclined to believe that this underlying desire to resolve the mystery of his parents disappearance is what leads him to take up a career as a detective. Through the course of the narrative, we are given a version of the world as Banks views it. We are introduced to his closest childhood friend, Akira, whose family lives in the neighboring house and their exploits as kids. We find out that his father worked for a British company that imports opium into China, while his mother is opposed to the wide-spread opium addiction that her husband’s line of work has brought to the region. Knowing what he tells us, we form an opinion of what may have happened to his parents – one that we hope Banks sees as well. We must remember though, that what we are told is entirely made of Banks’ view, drawn from his own memories. Ishiguro elaborates on this style in this interview:

I wanted to actually have the world of the book distorted, adopting the logic of the narrator. In paintings you often see that. Expressionist art, or whatever, where everything is distorted to reflect the emotion of the artist who is looking at the world. It’s kind of like that. The whole world portrayed in that book starts to tilt and bend in an attempt to orchestrate an alternative kind of logic.

To think of the book as simply a detective story is to overlook Ishiguro’s fine writing style that matches the polite prose of the early part of the 20th century with the clarity of modern expression, much like his earlier work, Remains of the Day, that is set around the same time period. In fact the book hardly gets into the details of any detective cases, they are merely alluded to. In the Charlie Rose interview mentioned earlier, Ishiguro talks about how he had to throw away about 160 pages in the middle of his book that was written up as a detective story within the main narrative, because he felt that detective fiction was not his forte. Instead, what we see in When We Were Orphans is a certain commentary on childhood where everyone conspires to create a fantastical world of goodness, one that is shattered at some point in one’s life, and then one sees the world for what it really is. Ishiguro’s protoganist in the book, despite being perfectly comfortable in the social world of adults, is frozen in a certain memory of his childhood and is yet to come to terms with reality. Ishiguro refers to this motif in this interview, where he says:

Universally we all want to conspire to make children believe that the world is a kind of place it in’t actually is…
As adult we have some nostalgic memory of the time we lived in that little childhood bubble and we believed that the world was this sweet little place with fluffy toys and smiling adults

Certain reviews of the book have commented on the slow narrative in the first part of the book. It is this part that I found to be more engrossoing – thanks to Ishiguro’s wonderful flow of words spoken through his narrator. Ishiguro’s characters, both in this book, and in The Remains … represent a certain reality of what we see around us and perhaps even experience, and yet they themselves tend to be oblivious of it, sticking instead, rather rigidly to their beliefs. To read Ishiguro is to befriend his characters, to hear them speak, to reflect on what they tell us, and to understand a bit regarding life that they come to realize only too late.

On April 5, 1992, Bosnian Serb forces laid siege over the city of Sarajevo. Almost 4 years later, the siege was lifted. During this period, the besieging forces shelled the city on average over 300 times a day, with snipers positioned to shoot at civilans and defenders alike from their upper ground in the hills. When the conflict ended, most of the city was destroyed – the national library, the opera house, the tram system, electricity, places of work, means of livelihood. An estimated 10,000 of the city’s inhabitants were dead, 1,500 of whom were children.

In Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Dragan, one of the 4 main characters in the book, a baker by profession on his way to the bakery, stares at the dead body of a man that he had earlier witnessed being shot by a sniper bullet. A press photographer has positioned his camera to capture that image.

There is nothing in a dead body that suggests what it was like to be alive. No one will know if the man had unusually large feet, which his friends used to tease him about when he was a child. No one will know about the scar on his back he got from falling out of a tree, or that his favorite food was chocolate cake…

None of this will ever be said again, has simply vanished from existence. But these are things that make death something to be mourned. It is not a disappearance of flesh. This in, and of itself, is easily shrugged off. When the body of the hatless man in shown on evening news to people all over the world, they will do exactly that. They may remark on the horror, but they will, most likely, think nothing of it at all

The cellist, another of the 4, watches a shell blow up a bakery where people are waiting in a queue, killing 22. He decides to play Albinoni’s Adagio at the spot of the explosion for the next 22 days – one for each person killed. Kenan, a former accountant and now without means, has to make a long walk to the brewery to fetch water for his family – wife and 3 kids, and an old neighbor much disliked – running the risk of being shot by a sniper en route. Arrow is a sniper employed by the defenders of the city to counter-attack and kill the shooters in the hills. Through the parallel narratives of these 4 individuals, we are presented an image of what it is like to be in a city ravaged with conflict – one where normal existence is something yearned for, where the future is nothing more than an expectation of the past, and memories blend into dreams.

The narratives involving Arrow are the ones I found most riveting, perhaps because unlike Dragan and Kenan, who move about in constant fear and are tinged with a sense of self-guilt at ensuring only their own survival and those of their families, Arrow has the ability to retaliate, to protect. In preventing the cause of suffering, she justifies in her mind the act of killing. She hates the people on the hills for what they do, rather than who they are, but over time she wonders if there remains such a distinction. She is brave like the cellist that, despite the high risk he runs of being killed, plays his music day after day.

The cellist’s act of playing music, seemingly foolish at first instance for putting himself in harms way, represents a defiance against letting the situation around him change who he is. The music represents what it means to be human, to be alive. It is a moving melody of life that rises above the cacophony of death, of destruction. This makes the cellist the focus of the book’s title despite his limited presence in the narrative. The cellist reminds one of the violinists in Titanic, the movie, that play their violins while the ship is sinking and people about them are in chaos.

Galloway’s writing style is clear and crisp. He does not draw out grief till it overwhelms you, nor does he narrate without passion. It is the perfect blend of words that deliver what they are meant to, no more, no less. Neither are the words Bosnian or Serb mentioned anywhere. Instead the besiegers are simply the ‘men on the hills’, and those defending the city are referred to as the defenders. Sarajevo, despite the elaborate description of the city that Halloway paints, could be any place in the world, any place caught in strife between those on the fringes and those within. At a time, when where brief outrages at flickering images of conflict on screen are easily forgotten with a flick of a button, The Cellist of Sarajevo is a grim reminder of what it might feel like to be in conflict, and makes a compelling case for protecting that joie de vivre we so easily take for granted. For oursleves, and for everyone else.

A wrap-up of all that remains to be spoken of the trip, so I can conclude these promised updates, and allow my blogsistence to move on.

Puno, Peru: Our last stop in Peru – one borne out of necessity than purpose. The bus from Puno would not reach us to the Peru-Bolivia border while the immigration offices on either side were open, which meant that we had to stay over and take a bus the next morning. Puno is a lively small town, visible in its peopled streets, shops and public squares, and their accompanying chatter and banter. Notable culinary mentions include empanadas at the local bakery, and delicious Chinese food at a Chifa (local reference for Chinese food/stall). Many of these chifas seem hole-in-the-wall good cheap eats, in character quite like the (indo)-chinese street food stalls one finds in Bombay.

Copacabana, Bolivia: After a bus-ride tracing the outline of Lake Titicaca that included an interlude of getting off at the Peruvian border, going through immigration, walking the 500+ feet to the Bolivian side, going through the Bolivian immigration, and boarding the same bus again, we reached Copacabana – not to be mistaken with its more famous namesake in Brazil. A visit to the impressively expansive and white basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana was followed by a boat ride to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) – an island off the town that has Incan ruins. The part of the island we visited was unimpressive. The boat ride over the calm waters of the vast water body that is Lake Titicaca, the largest lake by volume in South America, was worth the while. Culinary exploits included trying the Trucha (local trout) and tortilla espanola – spanish omelet made of potatoes and eggs that has little resemblance, except for their circular shape, with the flatbread tortillas that one finds in US supermarkets.

La Paz, Bolivia: As one walks around the witches markets in La Paz, where dried llama fetuses are displayed alongside ceramic figurines of Viracocha and the Condor, charms of good fortune and energy, and beyond into the numerous shops selling everything from yarn and clothing to pirated dvds and cds, one is left with the feeling that the whole of La Paz is one large bazaar. We stopped for a meal at the Star of India, British Indian cuisine we’re told, where if you finish up your full order of vindaloo, you get a t-shirt that says ‘I survived the most dangerous vindaloo’. I went for a half-order, and I am glad I did not take on the challenge of a full one. The first few spoonfuls seem inane, the intensity of spice rising in a gradual tolerable crescendo. It takes a few minutes for the chillies (and I don’t know what kind is used) to deliver their sudden and complete coup d’grace.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia These salt flats of Uyuni are a bumpy overnight bus ride south of La Paz, and by bumpy I mean you-better-have-an-empty-stomach-or-you’ll-puke bumpy. The site is more than worth the pain to get there. Standing on those salt flats amidst a vast white plane of white that extends into the eternity on all sides is an experience that words, or for that matter even images, can hardly capture. Watching the sun set in the distant dark and white horizon is serene, mystical.

Argentina From Bolivia, we crossed over to Argentina, spending a brief half-day in Salta before visiting Cordoba Cordoba is a university town, complete with old buildings, bookstores (great titles, unfortunately for me, all in Spanish), and mostly comprised of students. The town of Alta Gracia is a few hours commute by bus. We made a day trip there, renting and riding bicycles in the countryside which is beautiful except for unconstrained vicious barking dogs, and making it in time to see the Che’s house, now a museum. From Cordoba, we went to Buenos Aires, a capital city that, for want of a better description, quite like the cities in Europe. Most of our time in Buenos Aires was spent wandering about, sitting in cafes, watching a tango performance, in short, just taking it easy. All the backpacking and bus rides left us craving for relaxation, and we found it here. And then we flew back to LA.

That’s it folks, and thanks for your patience through this stretched 3-month long narration of a 2-week trip. Perhaps a rushed description, I apologize. Feel free to comment if you plan a trip and have any questions, and I’ll be happy to respond with what I know. On a related note, a quick bit on the logistics: we made our hostel reservations through hostelworld.com. TACA, LAN, and Aeromexico are some of the key airlines that have flights to South America. I found LAN to have lower prices on the spanish version of their website compared to the English version for the same flight itinerary – quite lame, really, because they have fares in USD displayed on both, and they don’t seem to have any geographical restrictions for either site. In almost all big cities, and most of Peru and Argentina, we found people whose English lexicon was far better than our travel Spanish, so language was not an issue there. Can’t say the same for Bolivia. Knowing the language helps you connect with people, and enhances your travel experience. I quite envied some of the travelers we met that spoke fluent Spanish, and regretted not having given myself enough time to learn the language.

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