Summer Reading

So what have I been reading this summer, you ask even though you most likely did not?  There is no rhyme and little reason to my list. Let’s see.  Well, my daughter has a big collection of V.S. Naipaul, an author she researched heavily for a senior paper.  She is not what I would call a big fan, nor am I, but I do like his writing style and find his explorations and opinions of the world intriguing.  So I’ve been reading Naipul.  I started with a book on India, then Islam and am currently reading a collection of essays on his travels:  The Writer and the World.  Next, I plan to read some of Naipaul’s fiction.  I have three on deck:  Magic Seeds, A Bend in the River and Half a Life, a book my daughter particularly enjoyed.  I’m reading Trout Fishing in America again, by Richard Brautigan.  I go back to it from time to time for inspiration.  I’m also reading a free e-book on my cellphone: A Hazard of New Fortunes by William Dean Howells.  It’s a bit of a trip reading a novel on my phone, especially one written in the 1890’s.

A Must Read Bengali Novel: Pather Panchali

I’ve read books about Indian history, books set in India and a book on the life of Gandhi, all written by outsiders.  V.S. Naipaul’s India, a book I just completed, is a critical look at post-colonial India in the 70’s.  Naipaul, a Hindu born and raised in Trinidad traveled to India in 1975,  during a State of Emergency that would last for three years, to chronicle a country struggling with social and political unrest under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.  Naipaul writes of a crippling caste system which preserves and perpetuates poverty.  He gives an unflattering critique of the Hindu concept of dharma (truth to oneself) that he believes has prevented India from breaking the chains of colonial oppression and launching a cultural and technological renaissance.  While I don’t have the expertise to weigh in on the issue, I can say with some certainty that the India of today is not the country it once was in the 70’s and that Naipaul’s premise seems to have been proven wrong.

I’ve read E. M. Forster’s, A Passage to India and Kipling’s Kim, set in Lahore, then a part of India prior to Independence and the Partition of Punjab.   Both novels written by Englishmen capture a period of time in India during British colonial rule.

Until recently though, I had never read any authentic Indian literature.  Thanks to a friend who has traveled extensively in India with her family, I have just completed the Bengali novel she gave me upon return to the country,  Pather Panchali, Song of the Road by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. The back cover describes it as a masterpiece.  And it is.  At the risk of diminishing its beauty, I have to compare it to the Sandra Cisneros’ classic, House on Mango Street or to the brilliant film, Cinema Paradiso.  The work is a loose collection of stories from the perspective of Opu and Durga, the children of a poor Brahmin family struggling to survive, plagued by poverty, mother nature and the cruelty of unsympathetic neighbors.  We experience rural village life in India through the two young siblings.  Though poor and relentlessly teased, Opu and Durga find joy and wonderment in everyday life.  Their adventures are as captivating as those found in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The book may not be in your local library, but it is available for purchase on-line and is a must read.  And if you can find a copy of the film based on the story directed by the famous Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, buy it, or Netflix it.  The film marked Ray’s debut in 1955 and it won a number of international awards including recognition at Cannes.  In addition to countless National Film Awards, Ray won an honorary Academy Award in 1992 and has made  several “Best Directors of All Time” lists.

Pather Panchali, Song of the Road.  Pick up a copy and you’ll soon be singing its praises, as you shed a few tears trekking through the rural Indian countryside with young Opu as your guide.  And if you are patient, you just might see a train or learn to fly.

Hugo Wants Press Not Peace

President Obama and Hugo Chavez, the photo hungry egomaniacal former Lieutenant Colonel and current President of Venezuela (for life it seems) met twice at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.  According to the Newsweek Blog The Gaggle, President Obama introduced himself to Chavez and reportedly said “¿Como estas?” Later as a meeting of the Union of South American nations was about to begin, Chavez presented President Obama a book highly critical of the history of  U.S. and European foreign policy and colonialism in the region in a obvious ploy for press attention.  Obama later said jokingly that he thought the book was one that Chavez had written himself and that he should have given him his own book in return.  The history book entitled Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina, or the Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano has been translated into English.  If Chavez had really intended Obama to read the book, he would have presented the translated version.  Obama neither reads nor speaks Spanish.  What is clear is that President Chavez was simply grandstanding.  The book itself does not bother me.  In fact, it is probably a good read and contains a Latin American perspective on the history of colonial domination that American policy makers and diplomats should understand.   It is a book that I would like to read.

If I could present a book to Obama, it would be Howard Zinn‘s classic work,  A People’s History of the United States.

An interesting side note:  The host country of the Summit is Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of Nobel Prize winning author V.S. Naipaul who writes of the damaging effects of colonial domination on the colonized.

In retrospect, I think Obama should not have accepted the book because it was clearly intended to embarrass him and the U.S.  Back in the early stages of the presidential debates, then Senator Hillary Clinton said that she did not want to be used as propaganda by enemy leaders and would not just sit down with Hugo Chavez or the Iranian President without some preconditions.   Maybe the preconditions for President Obama’s attendance at the Summit should have been “no gifts”.