The week in reading 11/15

This weeks fare of one  fiction (paper book) and one non-fiction (e-book) was very satisfactory. ‘A golden age’ is the much awarded, debut novel by Tahmina Anam, a talented writer from Bangladesh. I had really enjoyed her second book, ‘ The good muslim’ and this one did not disappoint. The common theme in both books is the 1971 war of liberation, and its impact on the lives of the people. While ‘the good Muslim’ dealt with the responses of the family, especially Maya the sister, of a young man who gets gradually drawn into the orthodoxy of the Muslim faith,  the central theme of this book is the love of a mother for her children and the sacrifices she can make. The protagonist, Hamida, is an ordinary woman who rises to extra-ordianary heights to protect her children. It is a simply told and well recounted tale with very real characters. A readable and enjoyable book.

Colin Thubron, one of the great contemporary travel writers, is one of my favorite authors, . This book published in 1987, is based on his lone travel through China. He learnt Mandarin just for this trip, and I’m not sure how he got the permissions to travel as he did!! But he cycled, walked and used the train to get to the length and breadth of the country in the early years after it opened up to the world. Thubron belongs to the breed of traditional travel writer, who lived the experience in every sense of the word. This allowed him to intermingle with the ordinary people and provides a wonderful insight to the experiences of the people to the post-1948 years.  I recently read Jung Chan’s “Wild swans’ – it gives a vivid account of these years, from the perspective a member of the genteel elite, who witnessed the transition from the 1920s to the 80s. But, Thubron’s acquaintances, give another world view. Also, his own candid, account of the Chinese as seen  with pre-conceived notions and prejudiced Western view give a great perspective of what keeps ‘East is East and West is West, and the twain shall never meet” so relevant even a century after Kipling wrote this. He is often guilty about his response to situations and people, but at the same time cannot understand the Eastern way.  And similarities with things as they are here in India is striking – the strong desire for family (most people he met had never known an unmarried adult), the emphasis on sons are even more universal than for us Indians. But, I felt that even with all the barriers of language, food etc… the ordinary Indian and Chinese peasant are not too far apart.

Almost 3 decades later, things have changed much  here and I’m sure even more so in China. Large parts of China, unlike India, had been at various points in history swept into a single entity by rulers of that time. The overall Confucian ethos and thousands of years of mental conditioning  probably facilitated the great Revolution and helped the rulers to have their sway on one and all. But the great cultural influence of a people cannot be wiped away by a few years of a different philosophy, however compliant people were at the time.

Thrubron’s  transformation to a more sympathetic view at the end of his sojourn which was helped in no mean part that he has a natural leaning for Buddhism ( or so it seemed to me), makes for extremely interesting reading. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in modern China or for travelogues in general.

I have read his more recent account of his exciting travel along the “Silk Route’ and of his visit to Mt Kailash (To a Moutain in Tibet) with equal enjoyment.


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