Memoirs, Parsi Literature, and Mystery

First published March 31, 2009 in’s Art & Culture section.

Coming out of a rather heavy lunch yesterday, and knowing that my column was due in less than 24 hours, my food-drunk mind started thinking: maybe I should rename my column “I’ve Been Eating Lately…” instead. That got me thinking about the relationship between reading and eating.

I have a tendency to snack while reading. For some reason, I feel that reading becomes a more complete activity with a “few” snacks. You could say that I am a two-handed reader: One hand to turn the page, and the other to pop something into my mouth.

What is more, I seem to connect the subject matter of the book I am reading to whatever snack I choose. For example, when I read a book by an Indian author, or about India, I find myself craving Indian food. Ditto for Chinese and Italian. This is especially true of books in which food is a central theme.

Of course this is not an ideal situation. Let me tell you: snacking while reading is not a good idea if you want to maintain a healthy weight. Lately I have figured out a way to keep my mouth busy while reading. I make myself a pot of herbal tea and sip my way through the book.

I believe that this habit of mine is simply a way I have of engaging all my senses while reading. I tend to live inside the story I am reading. I see the characters, hear their voices, and smell the air. It makes the experience more sensually holistic.

Speaking of eating, this month I have read a wonderful memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert called Eat, Pray, Love. It is about the author spending a year in Italy, India, and Indonesia, searching for balance in her life after having experienced a traumatic divorce.

In Italy, she gave herself four months to experience pure physical pleasure through food. In India, she continued a spiritual journey that she had started shortly before her decision to divorce her husband, by spending four months in an ashram. An ashram is traditionally a Hindu hermitage, but can also refer to a place specifically created for people to retreat to for spiritual enlightenment under the guidance of a religious teacher, or guru.

Finally, she spent four months in Bali, Indonesia in order to find a balance in her life between pleasure and spirituality. And in Bali, she rediscovered love.

Gilbert’s memoir, which was painfully honest in many places, got me thinking about the genre and wondering: can Muslims write memoirs? How honest and open will they be? I am definitely not suggesting here that Muslims are not honest, but I am trying hard to imagine a Muslim man or woman writing about their emotional and spiritual struggles with the same degree of openness as Gilbert.

There are simply too many factors at play when the author is Muslim that make it doubly difficult. One factor is the Muslim community and its tendency to pass judgment. Another factor is whether non-Muslim readers will judge Islam itself if the memoir portrays the author’s struggle to come to terms with some belief or practice.

There are quite a few memoirs out there by Muslims, but to be honest, I have not had the opportunity to read any of them. The latest Muslim memoir, written by British author and blogger Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, was published earlier this year. I haven’t read Love in a Headscarf yet, but I have been hearing good things about it, and I would be interested to see how “open” she is in her writing.

Another reading habit I have is the tendency to immerse myself in the works of one writer for a while. If I discover a writer, I like to read everything they have written that is available to me. One such discovery for me this month is the Indian author Thrity Umrigar.

Umrigar has written four books so far, but I only managed to get a hold of two of her novels: The Space Between Us, and If Today Be Sweet.

I need to be very clear here. I love writers from the Indian subcontinent, or with an Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan background. I have been a long-time fan of Amitav Ghosh, Bapsi Sidhwa, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Rohinton Mistry. This admiration is not, I think, the result of my having lived 11 years of my life in Bangladesh and India. It is simply because I believe that these writers use the English language in refreshingly novel ways that I do not find in other writers.

Now Umrigar, Mistry, and Sidhwa add another level to the novelty of their writing. Not only are they sub-continental Anglophone authors, but they are also from a Parsi background. I was first introduced to Parsi literature when I met Pakistani author Bapsi Sidhwa in my university in India. Her books introduced me to a worldview and culture I had been completely unaware of.  I would recommend Ice-Candy Man (also known as Cracking India), about the partition of India, as a good starting point for anyone interested.

Parsis are, simply put, Zoroastrians, known to Arabs as the “Majoos”. They fled from persecution in Persia and carved a small place for themselves in India about 1000 years ago. It was there that they became known as Parsis. They pride themselves on having integrated completely in Indian society while having maintained their own traditions and culture.

Considering the challenges of integration that European Muslims have been tackling recently, the experience of the Parsis becomes even more interesting, especially as they number approximately 100,000 (worldwide).

However, what interested me in both Umrigar’s novels was not the fact that she came from a Parsi background and wrote about Parsi characters, but rather, her insight into human relationships. In The Space Between Us, Umrigar portrays the relationship between a house-maid and her employer with a poignancy and almost brutal honesty that took my breath away. She manages to show how this relationship is both intimate and distant, and honestly exposes prejudices.

In If Today Be Sweet, Umrigar skillfully draws us into the world of a widow and her relationship with her dead husband. Although dead, her memories of her husband help her move on with her life. To be honest, I enjoyed her earlier novel more, and thought that the story in If Today Be Sweet took a long time to unfold. I found it ironic about the story that the most solid character was Rustom, the dead husband. I thought it was a pity that more space was not given for him.

A point that Umrigar does not shy away from is the way the “Third” World, especially the East, sees America. The eyes of the immigrant are constantly aware of the differences. For the main character, the food in America is tasteless, and while America undoubtedly is superior in terms of material wealth, India is a morally superior culture, with family values at its center.

Whether or not the reader agrees with the main character’s ideas depends on each reader’s own experience and background. In one of the most interesting passages in the book, the main character reflects on American values,

This thing in their Constitution which we used to mock in India — the pursuit of happiness or some such thing — maybe it really did something for people to have such a preposterous idea embedded in the Constitution. Maybe it gave them the freedom to feel they were worthy of happiness, that being happy was something they didn’t have to apologize for or feel guilty about. (pg. 151)

Finally, this month I also read Zoë Ferraris’ debut mystery novel called Finding Nouf. I will not say too much about what I thought about the book here, as I am planning to review it later. I will say however, that I really wish more Arab and Muslim writers would start writing their own narratives.


One response to “Memoirs, Parsi Literature, and Mystery

  1. A lot of memoirs are presumptuous mixed with a bit of fiction here and there, to add some sugar and salt for a taste of flavor. But Eat Pray Love is different. It is honest in its purest sense, and in some way has elevated self-deprecating humor to a higher level. The message that Gilbert tries to convey in the book is both universal and enlightening that at times it haunts me. It is too bad I didn’t have a chance to meet Ketut in Ubud the last time I was around in Bali; the time was too short, hopefully the next time around inshaallah.

    Indonesian bookshelves are now full of memoirs written by self-conceited arrogant people who think they would sell millions of books about their life once they achieve success. But that is not necessarily the case, as people are more inclined to reading a memoir with some fictionalized accounts. This explains why Laskar Pelangi found its place in the hearts of millions of Indonesian readers. The English translation of the book will be published by Penguin in January 2013, with the title The Rainbow Troops. Perhaps you’d like to check it out to see how an Indonesian writer, who is also a Muslim, wrote his childhood memories in a beautifully poignant prose?

    Subhan Zein

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