Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Places In Between by Rory Stewart

ISBN 0-15-603156-6
The Places In Between by Rory Stewart
Harcourt Inc.
Pages: 299

"The Places in Between" has a great narration of travel. Rory Stewart writes this with the juxtaposition of a sage, writer and comedian. He philosophizes, sees the depth of character in humanity and has a sense of humour despite many odds.

Stewart's travels in Afghanistan were fraction of a much longer journey, a walk across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. However, in this book we only get a glimpse of his walk from Herat to Kabul. Walking through bitter cold, in snow, it almost seems an impossibility to complete the journey but he does it for us to read about it.

Stewart dresses up in Shalwar Kemis worn by most Afghans. He merges into them. Only difference being he does not have a beard. He loves those Afghans who are not always welcoming. In his own words, despite sometimes being "greedy, idle, stupid, hypocritical, insensitive, mendacious, ignorant and cruel, these people never attempted "to kidnap or kill me" — even though he “epitomized a culture that many of them hated." For average citizens of Afghanistan, some of whom had worked for or aided the Taliban, he beholds with admirable calm.

Stewart, who speaks Persian, has no illusions and is mater of fact mostly. Armed only with a wooden staff tipped with a metal nub foraged from an old Soviet armored personnel carrier, he begins his journey with two companions who are rather forced on him. He is at times accompanied or escorted by villagers along his trek. He even ends up with a full-time companion, a retired fighting dog "the size of a small pony" that is earless, tailless and has more gums than teeth. Stewart names him "Babur." Together they face the toughest part of the journey, through deep snows, blizzards and mountain passes. At times Stewart must almost literally drag Babur along. Stewart commendably does not give in to sentiment. He is about to collapse from cold and exhaustion, "half buried in deep powder," he looks up to see Babur barking at him. "His matter-of-factness made me feel that I was being melodramatic. If he was going to continue, so would I."

Babur's 16th-century autobiography, the "Baburnama," is among the books Stewart packs, he following a route used nearly 500 years before by Babul the first emperor of the Munhall Empire. The quotations from Baburnama are a delight. He draws the parallels at numerous instances.

While some villages appear relatively unscathed from years of warfare, others have been severely damaged or traumatized. The effects of war appear even in geographic descriptions. Afghans refer to many places and locations by some tragic or brutal event that occurred there, not by physical attributes.

The loss of great cultures is evident by the villagers looting and the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Talibanis.

The Places in Between uncovers and revels in the diversity, strains and struggles of the people, their land and culture. It is a fascinating journey into a place as diverse as Afghanistan. A man’s walk brings all of it alive for us. We get a very good glimpse into a world wholly unknown to us.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom by John Follain and Rita Cristofari

Zoya's Story: An Afghan Woman's Struggle for Freedom

John Follain and Rita Cristofari

ISBN: 0060097833
ISBN-13: 9780060097837

HarperCollins Publishers

Zoya’s Story, vividly brings to life the realities of growing up in a Muslim culture, the terror of living in a perpetual war zone, the pain of losing those she has loved, the horrors of a woman’s life under the Taliban, and the discovered healing and transformation that lead her on a path of resistance.

Although she is only twenty-three, Zoya (not her real name) has seen and suffered more tragedy and terror than most people experience in a lifetime. Born in a land ravaged by war, she loses her parents when Muslim fundamentalists kill them. Devastated, she escapes from Kabul with her grandmother and starts a new life in exile in Pakistan. She joins the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), an organization that challenges the crushing statutes of the Taliban government, and she takes destiny into her own hands, joining a hazardous, secret war to save her nation.

Fear of violence had become a part of the fabric of life, a day-to-day reality, whether from male fanatics among her people, the invading Russian soldiers, or, soon-to-be, American bombs and military men. In her school, from the age of fourteen, Zoya learns the meaning of democracy, human rights and feminism from the teachers of the school in Pakistan.

Soroya, one of her teachers taught her that "politics was not about long discussions among . . . politicians; it was about talking to poor, ignorant, and backward people and showing them that they had a future."

Zoya finds her strength through RAWA, and has since been a dedicated underground activist, based in Pakistan. She has been back in Kabul several times and witnessed the devastation caused by the Taliban, including a "cutting of hands," the punishment for stealing, held at enforced mass gatherings at the former soccer stadium..

John Follain and Rita Cristofari, tracked Zoya down to write her story for us. They met her in secret fully well knowing her life is still in danger.

Zoya says at the end of her story, "If peace returns to my country I would like to go back and walk the destroyed streets of Kabul, the sun shining not on a burqa but on my face. I would think not of the past but of the Future."

Despite her suffering, she has a positive vision for her country. That is what makes this book very interesting. A must read book.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

ISBN: 0-385-47454-7

Anchor (1994)

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe's first novel, was published in 1958. This book tells us about a great, brave, kind human spirit," is often compared to the great Greek tragedies. It deals with the age-old struggle between unyielding traditionalism and the winds of change.

Mostly, it is about the effects of British colonialism on a small Nigerian village at the turn of the century. A simple story of a "strong man" whose life is dominated by fear and anger, it is written with incredible economy and subtle irony. Uniquely and richly African, at the same time it reveals Achebe's keen awareness of the human qualities common to men of all times and places.

The Ibo religious structure consists of chi--the personal god--and many other gods and goddesses. There is an issue here of fate versus personal control over destiny. For example, Okonkwo's father is sometimes held responsible for his own actions, while at other times he is referred to as ill fated and a victim of evil-fortune. The threads of the story follow a circular fashion, as opposed to a conventional linear time pattern. This is what makes it very interesting. Life is never linear but circular. The villagers believe--or maybe pretend to believe--that the "Supreme Court" of the nine egwugwu is ancestral spirits. In fact, they are men of the village in disguise.

Nature plays an integral role in the mythic and real life of the Ibo villagers, much more so than in our own society. Certain barbaric acts are followed as twins are abandoned and children are mutilated. These are done to appease the Gods so that no evil takes place. Okonkwo rejects his father's way and is in turn, rejected by Nwoye. The lives of Ikemefuma and Okonkwo are seen to be parallel to the extent that they both have fathers whose behaviour's are judged unacceptable.

I could identify with it in more ways than one as Hinduism too follows in a parallel way. We have Gods pertaining to every aspect…fire, wind, Earth etc. Hindus too believe in fate or destiny. Difference is, we believe in Karma too and changing the fate with our actions. Hinduism too believes that our ancestors come to bless us on certain days of the year. They do not interfere or anything but, they look on us from above. However, no living being impersonates ancestors. The rural population is still dependant on nature. Even now, Human sacrifice is rampant in some interior parts of India. Many tribes still follow the ancient Gods unquestioningly.

Things Fall Apart, though written almost 50 years back, has much to teach us even today. Nothing has changed in some parts o the world. Time stands still for them. Every day is a struggle and accepting something new is never easy. Though this has a tragic ending, it still teaches us about those basic human values of bravery, fearlessness and indomitable human spirit. Instinct for survival works very strong under any circumstances.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder

ISBN: 1 85799 733 6

Paperback Edition published in 1996 by Phoenix, division of Orion Books Ltd.

The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, is an interesting and modern fairy tale that pleases young and adults readers alike.

Twelve-year-old Hans Thomas lives alone with his father, a man who likes to give his son lessons about Life and has a penchant for philosophy. Hans Thomas' mother left them both when he was four to `find' herself and the story begins when father and son set off on a trip to Greece, where she now lives, to try to persuade her to come home. En route, in Switzerland, a dwarf at a petrol station gives Hans Thomas a magnifying glass and the next day he finds a tiny book inside a sticky bun, which can only be read with a magnifying glass. Hans Thomas reads the sticky-bun book in the back of his father's car on the way from Norway to the philosopher's homeland using the magnifying glass the dwarf gave him. Hans plays solitaire also with the pack of cards his father bought to obtain the joker. He finishes the sticky-bun book in Greece. By then Hans Thomas knows more about the philosophers, his own family and the mystery contained in the tiny book that binds everything together.

There are two flows in the story -- now and the past. In the journey to Greece, where 12-year-old Han's mother is, the little boy discovers the origin and the story of his family. The story of the book reveals itself fundamental to Hans-Thomas understanding of the trip and of his own life.

How did the book come to be there? Why does the dwarf keep showing up? What is the significance of the playing cards, most of all, the Joker? It is all very bewildering and Hans Thomas has enough to cope along with the overwhelming prospect of seeing his mother. Now his journey has turned into an encounter with the mysterious or does it all have a logical explanation?

Jostein Gaarder explores all these along with those questions, which have fascinated philosophers through the ages, using a child's journey through reality and mystery to create a world within a world, a story within a story, allowing the listener to form his or her own answers.

A fascinating adventure, unifying the threads of philosophy, fantasy and reality.