Books · China

Recent reads

I’ve been reading a bunch of books lately again including several good ones about India. I’m currently reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, about a slum in Mumbai (Bombay).

However, I can’t go without reading about China so I recently finished Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. It’s written by an American who volunteered for several years in a Chinese city orphanage, where she helped look after many kids. Not surprisingly, it’s full of sadness and frustration, but there’s also a constant sense of hope and resilience. It’s always tough to look after underprivileged kids, and it’s even tougher when many of them are handicapped or have developmental problems. Coupled with limited administrative support and procedures, it’s even harder. Still, the author is able to get kids needed surgery, give them gifts, and even take one home on weekends. The author doesn’t shy away from criticizing local colleagues for things like not letting kids play with toys or being affectionate, but does develop some respect and understanding. Some of the kids are adopted, either by Chinese parents or Americans. Indeed there’s a small number of Western families who adopt Chinese kids, especially girls. While this sounds good, it does demonstrate a problem in society- that of parents giving up female kids due mostly to a combination of poverty and the desire for a male child (the one-child policy prevents many couples from having more than one child). This is a book about the children and the orphanage so there’s not much about China. The author doesn’t name her city due to not wanting to identify the orphanage. There is one striking scene where the author attends her husband’s company Chinese New Year’s dinner and ends up feeling very uncomfortable at the raucousness and being the focus of some attention that she walks out, forcing her husband to follow.

The India books I’ve finished include India Becoming- A Portrait of Life in Modern India and A Place Within- Rediscovering India. I reviewed India Becoming for ARB (see the link at the side) and I’ll mention it later. The latter one is the more interesting and indepth book, written by M.G. Vassanji. Vassanji is a well-known Canadian-Kenyan author whose grandparents are from Gujarat, India. Vassanji is clearly entranced by his ancestral homeland and has visited it several times. This book is an introspective account of his travels and a homage to India. Much of A Place Within is about Gujarat, the province which the great Gandhi is from, as are the author’s grandparents, and Delhi, the capital. Vassanji maintains a strong emotional and cultural connection to India, remarking several times how familiar settings seem compared with his childhood in Kenya’s Nairobi, where many Gujaratis emigrated to in the past. He visits many places, including famous cities like Ahmedabad and Baroda, but also lesser-known ones -Jamnagar, Kathiawar, Somnanth and so on. Gujarat is notorious for being the site of a bloody campaign against Muslims in 2002 sparked by the killing of Hindus on a train by Muslims. Vassanji touches on this, but is very pained by this event. The chapters on Delhi are filled with the city’s vast history. Actually the whole book is filled with history, especially in describing the vivid military struggles between Muslims from the Northwest,  Marathas, and Rajputs, and the later British rule. Vassanji also travels to Kerala in the southwest, Bengal in the east, and Himalaya hill towns such as Shimla and Dharamsala. Yet even at over 400 pages, Vassanji can’t cover all of India, illustrating the vastness of India, similar to China. A Place Within is a very good read, both as a book about India and about a writer reconnecting with his roots. Vassanji’s novel The In-between World of Vikram Lall, set in his native Kenya, and which I read many years ago in Canada, was also a really good read.

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