Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Do you long for the Blessed Virgin?

The Blessed Virgin, Virgin Mary, Our Lady, Holy Mother, Mother of God, Earth Mother, Mother Goddess, she’s all one and the same, and lots of people like her a lot.  I read somewhere she’s most popular with middle aged women who were raised Catholic, but no longer feel the attraction to that church.  I will confess to being one of them.  So, when I came across Stealing Fatima, by Frank X. Gaspar, at the library, I had my own small miracle. 

I chose it simply because I’ve never been sure of how to pronounce Fatima, and I thought the book might give me an idea.  I will also confess I’ve been recovering from an illness, and my energy is low and I’m easily distracted.

I should have realized from the author’s name, Frank X. Gaspar, that maybe the book is about the Portuguese  story concerning ‘Our Lady of Fatima’, or maybe I saw that on an unconscious level and that’s why I grabbed it.  That was a story I have long cherished.

If I’d known the novel is about a Catholic priest and his quest for an ornately carved statue, I might not have picked it up.  I’d have expected too much sentimentality or dogma, so I’m glad I got to this novel with an open mind.  Manny Furtado, the priest, is bothered by a prank he and his best friend committed when they were teenagers.  Angry at his domineering father, the boy Manny convinces his friend to help him steal the statue his father has proudly purchased for their parish. This mischief might not have added to much, but the next day the best friend reports to the draft board, and he doesn’t keep in touch.  Manny is also drafted into the Vietnam war, and it is the war that causes the major damage to these two young men.

The novel is set in the present, with Manny as an aging troubled priest working in his childhood village in New England.  The town he grew up in was once so isolated that even though teenage boys had heard of draft resistors, they couldn’t imagine themselves as being able to pull off such a citified act.  All of their parents were Portuguese immigrants, the fathers supporting their families as fishermen, as they had in the Old Country.  Life was impoverished and hard.  Manny and his generation are now astonished at the wealthy, sophisticated people ‘from away’ who pour in to buy ocean front homes and open boutique hotels.

His parish consists of a motley crew of original inhabitants and a few eccentrics.  Although one of the main characters is obsessed with experiencing a miracle, Manny expects very little from life.  This novel explores the meanings of miracle, the many ways of perceiving miracles, and miracles in this book do happen, as unlikely and impossible as that may be.

Stealing Fatima is funny and charming, yet it deals with serious issues.

Our Lady herself makes her presence known, and if you like to bathe in Her presence, and you’re not attached to dogma or sentimentality, you will enjoy this book.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

What are you remembering on Remembrance Day?

Today is a good day to think about the causes of war.  Especially because a lot of us are feeling skittish about multiple recent attacks on people seen as ‘symbol’s of the West, done by members of a certain religion (actually a religion with multiple strands but all lumped together into one pot.)  As I read The Song of Kahunsha, by Anosh Irani, I am again reminded how nationalistic bigotry is begun.
People may claim they are committing their acts of violence to prove their own god is better than their enemy’s, but when their god forbids violence, questions of their piousness arise. 

In this novel, an imaginative and kind boy, Chamdi, lives in lonely despair in an orphanage.  Surrounded by images of Hindu gods and Christian saints, attended to by a Muslim woman, he wishes she were his mother, but although she does her best, she can’t mother him when the demands on her are so high.  Her eyes are red from weeping, as the orphanage no longer has a sponsor and will be sold by the descendants of the original sponsor.  She and the children will be turned out.  He runs away, believing himself to be a bad boy breaking her rules, especially when he must turn to begging and thievery to survive on the Mumbai streets.

Although the matron had quietly told Chamdi that gods like Ganesha were probably made up, he chooses to believe they are real, although he’s puzzled that the life size Jesus statue doesn’t ever answer him, and the Hindu gods don’t seem to be protecting the innocent as well as he hoped.
Living with other beggar children, he becomes ‘owned’ by Anand Bhai, a filthy thug who treats his parents badly.  Chamdi is appalled by the thug’s cruelty toward his beggars and spies, and his disregard for his parents, whom Chamdi wishes were his own.  Anand justifies his nastiness by telling Chamdi that when he began his lifestyle, he too was shocked by what he saw, but once he damaged his first victim, his heart hardened, so he was free after that. 

Although Anand’s mother makers her living by creating tiny statues of Hindu gods to be sold on the street, she has not been able to influence Anand to be a better human.  She intercedes on behalf of the children, but fearfully, and without success. 

Although Anand is clearly without morals and performs nary a poojah, he works for the worst underside of a supposedly religious but clearly nationalistic front.  To the chants of “Jai Maharashtra” he murders a young Muslim family, on orders from above.  He arranges the job cheerfully and tells his co-conspirators they must retaliate against the killing of a Hindu family by Muslims a few days earlier.  He looks forward to the rash of further killings these revenge killings will cause.  Thoughts of religion, compassion, morals never enter his picture.  “Jai” is usually followed by something to be revered, such as a god, or a guru, not a national state.  That these people place their national state above their religion is telling of the philosophy that allows people to kill in the name of their god. 

Can you imagine shouting “Hail Alberta” or “Honour Missouri” and going on to kill neighbors who don’t seem Albertan or Missourian enough? Just  because they don’t belong to the majority’s religion?  We would wonder what kind of religion would promote such behavior…

So how does all this fit into Remembrance Day?  If we can remember that people who commit violent acts to spread religion really aren’t religious at all, we are less likely to blame the wrong people.  Blaming the religion for nationalistic behaviors is unfair, and leads only to further bloodshed.  Lest we forget. 

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Are you on a collision course with vengeance?

The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, by Padma Viswanathan

Terrorist acts beget more terrorist acts, retaliations so horrifying, sins jumping across to the next perpetrators, down the line, till it’s our own family members dying nasty deaths at the hands of someone out to get revenge.
In The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, the narrator is a lonely middle aged psychologist, gentle and kind, but also struggling.  He is emotionally shut down after the deaths of his sister and her two children, his niece and nephew.  Their deaths were the result of the Air India bombing in 1985.  The plane departed from Vancouver, BC, en route to London and then New Delhi and Bombay.  The Canadian authorities responsible for investigation and persecution fumbled and bumbled, the trial not beginning till April of 2003.  Almost two years later, two of the accused were found not guilty, the third plead guilty and got a five year prison term, which was later extended due to further charges of perjury. 

Although this novel is not historical fiction, it contains elements of the Canadian trial, along with historic details of tragedies and pogroms in India which were the catalyst for this tragedy.

Ashwin is now researching how people cope with the aftermath of a tragedy, which leads him back to Canada to witness the trial and write about individuals who have been affected..  He has largely buried his own feelings regarding his family’s loss, when he becomes infatuated with a family whom he is researching.  He sees the weirdness and even the humour of his infatuation with the family patriarch, who reminds him of his father, his sexual attraction to the man’s very proper wife , and his sexual attraction to their eldest bewildered daughter.  Yet he is helpless to resist his ‘crush’ on this family, whom he interviews and writes up in his case studies as his ‘subjects’.  Even uncomfortable with describing them to himself as ‘subjects’, he wrestles with his own stifled emotions.

The writing is exquisite, and Ashwin’s insights are keen. Noting another ‘subject’s’ spiral into vengeance, Ashwin writes in his journal: “Daily life depended on the suppression of a person’s worst fears.  Bereavement kicked open the doors to let the demons swell, stretch their tongues, show their fiery eyes.”  The loss is so maddening, it naturally leads to further bad decisions.  This character becomes a focal point for worry by the rest of the characters at this point.

The Canadian government and many people don’t work hard at consoling the bereaved, either.  After the bombing, the Canadian Prime Minister sends a telegram of condolence to the India's Prime Minister, despite the fact the people on board the airplane were all Canadian born or naturalized.  Although their origins, or ancestor’s origins were Indian, they were Canadians.  The author suggests this denial was a factor in the government’s failure to pursue the criminals, bring them efficiently to trial, and find them guilty.  Not only are the characters disillusioned by these factors, but scalding racial insults further take their toll.
Despite the grim historic realities in this novel, there are moments of humour as well.  The family and others whom Ashwin interviews live in a fictional town, Lohikarma, BC, which surely resembles Nelson, BC, a town so interesting it’s worthy of this characterization. 

In reality Nelson is a small city of mostly pink faces who purchase Indian groceries, practice yoga, use Sanskrit phrases among themselves, even when meeting strangers, and use ‘Namaste’ as a standard greeting.  The proportion of population who’ve travelled to India is astonishingly high, so it’s not surprising that Viswanathan created this bigger and better version of Nelson, her Lohikarma.
Has she been to Nelson?  Was she intrigued or appalled?  Her painterly descriptions of the lake, European types practicing Eastern traditions, steepness of sidewalk stairs cut into mountain sides, and the beauty of the town depict a fondness for the place, if not a sense of bewildered head shaking.

At one point, Viswanathan reveals a conversation and reaction between two characters,“ ‘where is mind?’ he enquired, aflame with insight.  ‘Is it here?’ he wanted to know, pointing at his temple… I resisted the urge to point at my elbow, my ass, my open door.”  The plot of this novel bounces around unexpectedly and paints a vivid description of the people, town and its environs.  It’s a fun read, compelling but painfully serious too.

This book probes the human psyche when hell bent on vengeance, but it illuminates with kindness and humour.  If the beast of vengeance is about to devour you, this might be a therapeutic novel for you to read.  Or perhaps you could pass this title on to someone who’s been a worry to you lately?

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Are you kissing a frog?

“The Frog Prince”, by Robert Coover, in the January 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker

Every myth has its underlying purpose to somehow keep society functioning.  I suppose the one about women kissing frogs prevents them from failing to reproduce.  After all, you kiss the abomination, get in enough physical contact, and bonding hormones kick in and he starts to look good, or at least not that bad, then next thing you know you're having offspring.  
But practicing a behavior because it keeps a society functioning on an evolutionary scale doesn’t work that well for the individual.  Sometimes it’s better not to reproduce, than reproduce frogs. 

Our society is more tolerant of single women than it has been, but there’s still a massive push for all women to find a permanent partner, even if he’s not that great of a guy. 

Sex and the City used to handle this theme.  We watched gorgeous, well off, educated professional women who were so anxious for a romance they’d settle for some goof living in a basement apartment who had a part time unskilled labour job.  The modern, much harsher equivalent of that program, Girls, explores similar themes, with Hannah involving herself with a dubious character who makes me cringe, and want to invite her over for tea and cookies.  I’d like to mother that girl…

Robert Coover’s short story “The Frog Prince” captures the phenomenon humourously. I won’t give it away, especially since the story fits on a single page. 

But if you’re questioning the relationship you’re in, or the one you’re about to leap into, read this story.  No need for purchase, just click and read.  Read this story and remember Coover’s depiction of the frog prince, that  “all he wanted was to be a frog again”.

Fast, modern, hallucinogenic and insightful, this short story delivers therapeutic value for any person about to get involved with the wrong partner, male or female. 

The New Yorker prints excellent short stories and intelligent articles.  Get yourself a subscription.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Are you a stranger in a strange land?

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller

Immigrants often feel unwelcome in their new land.  Out of step with the prevailing culture, maybe not fluent enough in the local lingo, serving the wrong food to guests, it must be intimidating.  When I step into other culture’s activities, I’m forever wondering if I’m offending anyone by clapping my hands the wrong way, having my feet pointed in the wrong direction, using a Kleenex in public. 

It’s so easy to make cultural mistakes.  I recall being less than grateful when an Ismaili couple invited my family to a New Year’s Day brunch.  They had been living in Canada for years, so I suppose they believed themselves to be acculturated to Canadian customs.  They weren’t, quite.  They served us wieners, grey broccoli and cornflakes on a table that had been decorated with pieces of linoleum.  I tried to hide my shock as best as I could, telling myself they weren’t, they couldn’t, they wouldn’t be purposely trying to offend me, but my oh my.  Imagine their dismay at my troubled and conflicted face during what should have been a wonderful morning.  I would have given them more slack if they’d recently arrived, or were making very little money, but neither was their case.

I often think of how easily any of us make similar mistakes when entering another culture.  Note to immigrants to Canada: never ever serve wieners, grey broccoli and cornflakes on a special, holiday morning.  In fact, never serve those items to guests, ever. 

But these are hardly cultural crimes. The whites in Africa during Apartheid made much bigger mistakes. They behaved so ruthlessly that eventually they had to form armed convoys just to get to the grocery store.  Serving grey broccoli to the resident Africans might not have been welcomed.  But it was their own callousness and cruelty that led to their eventually having to resort to military tactics merely to buy their broccoli.

Don’t Let’s go to the Dogs Tonight details some of the shocking behaviors committed, but goes further.  In this novel arrogant and highly dysfunctional British parents subject their young daughters to incredibly harsh conditions in Apartheid Africa, because back in Britain, they can’t lead a lifestyle that involves servants or beautiful vistas seen from large homes.  They would have to live like commoners if they lived in Britain, and that would not do.

This novel has a wonderful irony in that you’d expect the daughters would grow up like princesses among paupers.  But the large homes they move into, and then lose, and move into again, are moldy, rusty and decrepit.  There are servants whose living conditions resemble slum conditions, so they must be resentful and envious of their white bosses, but we readers living in a middle class Western lifestyle are horrified at the ramshackle poverty this British family faces. 

Despite the parents’ racial superiority, lack of common sense and arrogance, they have some good qualities.  Their sense of humour endears the reader, a little bit.  At one point the mother points out a “small plague of missionaries” who are about to enter their property.  Two profusely sweating men in white shirts, ties and black pants are struggling to catch their breath while introducing themselves.

Since the men are of European descent, the mother invites them in, and allows them to take seats in the dilapidated living room.  The red faced still huffing men immediately start frantic scratching, as they’re sitting on the flea infested furniture that is normally reserved for the dogs. 

Their eyes brighten when the youngest daughter, the narrator, brings a pot of tea into the room.  They are bewildered when she serves it to several dachshunds, who have been staring these men down for having stolen their chairs.  When one of the missionaries remarks that he’s never witnessed dogs being served tea, the mother says “How extraordinary!”

Despite the frequent humour in the novel, the girls do live in terrifying and hostile conditions.  Born in what was then known as Rhodesia, they love their land passionately, regardless of the political changes.  Much more open to democracy than their parents, they appear to have a future in what they believe is their homeland. 

But their parents have no desire to be integrated into the land they have emigrated to.  They could not care less about being welcomed.  Consequently they don’t suffer in the usual sense from cultural isolation, because their answer to unfriendly neighbors is just to shoot them if they become a tad too unwelcoming.  The parents are remarkably well armed.  So as long as they can legally remain armed, they’re content enough.

It’s the daughters who are torn between their parents’ views and the unfairness of how the neighbors are treated.  Although neither daughter desires to be fully integrated into their homeland, they want to be safe and welcome.  

If you feel like a stranger in a strange land, this could be a therapeutic book for you to read.  It won’t give answers in how to live in these conditions, but perhaps a few insights.  It is a fascinating read.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Do you long for your birth mother?

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Does anyone truly know the circumstances of their own birth?  Even if you look exactly like your parents, and  even if your DNA test confirms they are your parents, you never really know how your parents reacted to their first realization that there you were, eight or so months before you made your entrance.

I knew a woman who came from a loving and stable family, where she was the youngest, and was always spoiled and adored.  After her mother died, her much older sister informed her that actually, she’d been a ‘mistake’ and their mother had been shocked to discover her pregnancy, most unwelcome.

With some glee the sister explained that their mother had informed her that she was always to make her baby sister feel welcome, that they all would make the child feel welcome, as though she was planned and expected all along.  As the grandmother in Secret Daughter tells herself, “One’s actions must proceed the emotions one hopes to feel.”

But to have no idea who your parents are, neither mother nor father, nor what their circumstances were, that must be the hardest.  Whether you’ve been adopted by a loving family or not, questions must linger.

In Secret Daughter, Kavita gives birth to a baby girl under terrifying circumstances.  She is married, and even goes on to have a second child with her husband, but the baby girl cannot be kept at home.  Keeping the female child alive, and giving her what she can nearly kills Kavita, but she endures.  Naturally the baby girl never finds out how she came to be in an orphanage, although she eventually finds the orphanage from which she was adopted. 

I thought of this book when I met a young Indian woman in Leopold’s CafĂ©, in Mumbai.  She was apologising for her Swiss accent, although she spoke beautifully.  She told me she was in Mumbai to find her birth mother, or at least information about her.  Her quest was unsuccessful, although she seemed content and cheerful, and happy to at least acquaint herself with her mother country.

Where birth records allow, there are people finding their birth parents, and sometimes the meetings go well.  Sometimes not.

I know another woman who was surprised by an email from her eldest brother who had been given away at birth, although his parents eventually married and had many more children.  Her mother was quite unhappy that he had tracked her and her family down, and exposed the secret.  His siblings welcomed him, and the mother eventually relented, and welcomed him too.

In every case, a mother’s reason for giving up her child is painful.  Asha goes through the hell of hoping her mother is a saint, a hero, a martyr, then a cold and callous creature who simply couldn’t be bothered to keep her.

This novel tracks both Kavita’s journey and Asha’s.  They actually cross paths at one point, but naturally they have no idea, no suggestion of recognition.  Asha will never find her mother, although she learns a few details about her that only bring her more pain.  Even so, the search benefits both mother and daughter, eventually.

If you’ve lived this story, it might be therapeutic to read this novel.  If you’ve come across other novels that have helped you, please drop me a line.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Does religion frighten you?

Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji

An old saying goes, ‘God invented spirituality, but Satan invented religion.’  How is it that a set of ideas that were meant to elevate can actually destroy?  It must be that when individuals create a religion, they earnestly believe that what they construct is for the betterment of their community. 

And yet over time, the idealism becomes twisted.  Going with the flow becomes staunching the flow, brutally if need be.  Submission becomes attack.  Turning the other cheek means throwing stones.  Feeding the poor means cutting back on food stamps.  The list is endless.

In Vassanji’s novel, the main character is a disenchanted Sufi.  Unlike most other young men disenchanted with their parents’ religion, Karsan is expected to follow in his father’s role, which is to be the living avatar, the God, of his followers.  He is in line to be the next Saheb of Pirbag. 

Most young people have more freedom to explore other religious philosophies, but Karsan’s inheritance is so constraining to him that he abandons his Gujerati village, family, beliefs and culture to pursue a Western lifestyle in the United States and then Canada.  He seeks freedom, although he’s not entirely sure what that means.  He questions the Godliness of his father, and is certain that he himself can never take on such a role.  He doesn’t feel pure enough, doesn’t believe enough, doesn’t control his emotions enough.  He cannot take on this absurd weight.  While studying literature at Harvard, his American friends can only joke about how back in that village, he was to have been the living God, something incomprehensible to them, and to himself.  Karsan and his friends aren’t terrified of religion, they just find it irrelevant and a bit weird.

Yet The Assassin’s Song certainly pinpoints the more terrifying aspects of religion.  Neighbors committing atrocities and murders on neighbors, countries waging war against one another, all in the name of whose religion is best.  In this novel Vassanji traces some of the history of religious bloodshed in and around India, all so appalling and ironic.

Meanwhile, back in Gujarat, are the riots where Muslims are brutally murdered.  Karsan’s father’s version of Sufiism is a path between the Hindus and Muslims. The Saheb maintains that a mystical view of oneness is the only side to take.  The non-Sufis, and even some of the Sufis, would prefer a more concrete approach, and are frustrated with his refusal to take the material world seriously.  Militant Hindus disregard his beliefs, seeing him and his community as purely Muslim, the enemy.  Finally, despite Karsan’s father trying to reason with a mob drunk on blood, red wine and bhang, or maybe because of his trying to reason at all, they attack and kill him, and then move on past the gates to the hundreds of followers he was trying to protect. 

Years after Karsan has left, he returns, sitting in the shrine’s compound at night, still hearing what must have been echoes of the murders.  Pirbag is smashed and desecrated.  Yet some followers have survived, if that word can be used.  They welcome him with hard work and garlands. 

Perhaps when his father originally named him as successor, instead of his more pious younger son, he knew exactly what he was doing.  The one who fears what religion can do is likely the one to handle it most gently. 

As far as literature therapy goes, The Assassin’s Song won’t turn you off religion.  It will just remind you to see the dangers inherent in believing in any religion without question.   It will also remind you of the true purpose of religion, which is surely to instill a sense of reverence, not just toward one’s own religious figures, but toward the creator, the creation, the self, the neighbor, and the other.  When we revere something, or someone, we have a tendency to behave mercifully.  Surely this is what's best for any community?