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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jai Hind! India's Revolution in Freedom of the Monsoon

I encountered Malika Ghandi reaching out to readers on Goodreads to promote her historical fiction, Freedom of the Monsoon.  I consider it important to give a chance to new indie writers when they have work that seems unusual to me.  I also thought this was a good opportunity to read a novel taking place in India dealing with how the British Raj was brought to an end.  I had never read about this period in India’s history.  So I expected to learn a great deal from this book, and that this would provide me with substantive content for this blog. 

It's from Freedom of the Monsoon that I learned that Mahatma Gandhi developed his philosophy of satyagraha as a result of facing apartheid in South Africa.  I located his book  on the subject in pdf format, Satyagraha in South Africa  Readers should be aware that this book is almost five hundred pages in pdf.

Before I read Malika Ghandi's book I already knew that the satyagraha approach  has been a model for many protest actions since then.  I could see its continuing influence in this book.  The echoes of the Quit India movement in demonstrations during the 1960’s and in recent actions of the U.S. Occupy movement were clearly visible.  Satyagraha means non-violent resistance.  Yet the response of the authorities to non-violent protest can be violent which can result in protesters fighting back.  Reading how violence arose from non-violence in India has helped me to understand how it happened in local Occupy actions.  One evidence for the continuing  influence of satyagraha in India is the wheel in the center of India's flag.  According to The Flag of India on I Love India. com , the 24 spoke wheel in the center of the flag of India is called the Ashoka Chakra.  This web page quotes Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's  first Vice President as saying that the Ashoka Chakra wheel symbolizes "the dynamism of peaceful change".  It seems to me that the satyagraha philosophy is all about peaceful change.  It is much admired by enlightened people throughout the world.

Another cross-cultural commonality that I found in Malika Ghandi’s book  was the divo or “divine flame” that is lit by families for their departed members.  Catholics light candles for the dead in churches and on home altars.  Jews light Yohrzeit candles to mark the anniversaries of family deaths. 

The character perspectives in Freedom of the Monsoon were intimate and powerful.  I identified with the struggles of nearly all of these characters.  When we see Pooja and other women suffer abuse, we realize that India had problems other than being colonized.  We also see English who are portrayed sympathetically, but it’s obvious that these were exceptional individuals who are capable of treating people of another culture as equals.  I also found it interesting to read about English characters speaking of India as a refuge during WWII with London having been devastated by bombing.  That is not a point of view that had occurred to me previously. 

This novel  briefly deals with the Sepoy Revolt of 1857. It was an event that occurred about fifty years previous to Freedom of the Monsoon.  Sepoys were soldiers from India who had been conscripted into the British military.  Although their revolt had a number of causes, it was precipitated by gun cartridges that were greased with cow and pig fat. Since Sepoys  needed to bite the cartridge to release the powder, the beef grease was offensive to Hindus who consider cows sacred, and the pig grease offended Muslims who are forbidden to eat pigs. Wikipedia states in its article on Mangal Pandey, the Sepoy who began the revolt, at Mangal Pandey on Wikipedia  that this was only a rumor, and that these cartridges were really greased with beeswax and linseed oil.  There are notes included with that section of the article that point out that there are no sources given for this information.  There is also a well-sourced Wikipedia article at  Indian Revolt of 1857  which confirms that some cartridges were greased with animal fat. This illustrates that Wikipedia is selectively useful, and that the Sepoys had a legitimate religious discrimination complaint.

My only problem with Freedom of the Monsoon is that Goa, a city in India that was ruled by the Portuguese, seemed to be portrayed as if it were idyllic.  I recognize that a book that is tightly focused on character perspectives will only show you the viewpoints of those characters.  Nevertheless, Malika Ghandi presented historical material about the British Raj and how the people of India were impacted by it.  I would have appreciated seeing a bit of historical perspective on Goa.  A historical fantasy called Goa: Blood of the Goddess by Kara Dalkey which I read some time ago, deals centrally with the Inquisition in Goa in the 16th century.  A page at about the Portuguese Conquest of Goa  says that the Portuguese massacred the entire Muslim community when they first occupied Goa, and that Hindus in Goa were forcibly converted to Christianity from 1540-1759.  Tolerance for Hinduism was established in Goa in 1759 when the Jesuits were banned, but it doesn't erase the fact that Hindus had been persecuted in Goa for more than two centuries.  Wouldn't this history have an impact on how Hindu Goans would have viewed Portuguese rule?  I am also aware that Goa and other Portuguese colonial possessions did not join the rest of India in independence in 1947.

Although I feel that my criticism of the portrayal of Goa is significant , I think that the novel as a whole is a strong one.  I was moved by the characters' experiences.  I would also like to thank Malika Ghandi for teaching me so much about India's history and culture.

I really liked the fact that Hindi and Gujarati words were linked to their English translations in the glossary.  This was a very user friendly format.  If I had been reading a print version of Freedom of the Monsoon, I would have spent extra time searching through the glossary rather than going directly to the right word.  Through this glossary I was able to build a small vocabulary in Hindi and Gujarati.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Saudi Arabian Serial Killer Mystery

Some of the readers of this blog may have been thinking that I've gotten too academic lately.  Sorry, folks.  This blog is meant to reflect the variety of my reading.  I need to do better at this.   So I am posting my review of the mystery I recently read.

Kingdom of Strangers is the third in a mystery series by Zoe Ferraris that takes place in Saudi Arabia.  This is my choice for Saudi Arabia in the Around the World challenge on Goodreads.  It's also the best of  the series at this point.  I was intrigued by the first book, Finding Nouf , because it brought us into the world of the Bedouins.  The second switched the primary viewpoint to Katya Hijazi who I find more complex and sympathetic than Nayir, the main protagonist of Finding Nouf , but I otherwise found it unmemorable.  In this third book, Ferraris unites intense character drama with social commentary and cultural insight.  So it's not only better fiction, but more provocative than the previous two volumes.

The narrative is enriched  by a switching of perspectives between Katya Hijazi and Ibrahim Zahram who are both investigating a serial killer case that is centered on women who emigrated to Saudi Arabia for employment.  There is a great deal of focus on the exploitation and abuse of these women.  I imagine that many readers will think that the title refers to the foreign labor which has become a large proportion of the population of Saudi Arabia.  Yet as I read about the lives of the protagonists and the secrets they kept from those closest to them, it seemed to me that Saudis are also very much strangers to one another.

From a cultural standpoint, I learned a great deal about Saudi culture.  There were so many unique aspects of  crime investigation in this environment.  They might arise in other Islamic nations, but there are variations in the approach to Islam throughout the Islamic world. One would not expect that criminal investigation would be the same in Egypt, Turkey or Pakistan as it is in Saudi Arabia.  Much is made of the incredulity of the detectives working with Ibrahim Zahram over serial killings happening in their country.  They were convinced that serial killers are an American problem.   Mystery lovers who have read widely certainly know better.

I was most fascinated by the types of dreams.  I think that the difference between Rahmani and Istiqara is that Rahmani are unexpectedly sent by God while Istiqara are requested as the answers to a prayer.  Both are gifts from the divine.

The practice surrounding Istiqara seemed to warrant further research.  Here are some resources for those who are interested in learning more:

Islamic Academy  where it was suggested that one should pray for the dream for up to a week, but stop when you received an answer.  There were also interpretations of the significance of colors in the dream.
Sunni Path Islamic Academy where it is stated that Istiqara is a prayer for guidance and a dream isn't necessarily the form of guidance that the petitioner will receive.  This site also advises that it is permissable to have someone else who is a particularly devout individual to do these prayers for you. 
Dua'a Site  When I searched for a definition of Dua'a, the results I received seemed to indicate that it means prayer, but it also means the practices surrounding prayer.  This site told me that prayer for Istiqara could include the use of a rosary.

Since I hadn't previously heard of Islamic rosaries, I did a search on that subject.  Here is what I found.

Islamic Rosary Beads on Wikipedia  This article revealed that there are two standard lengths of these rosaries and that like Catholic rosaries they have been utilized to count repetitions of a prayer.  Yet it also said that some Wahabis consider the use of a rosary too un-traditional a practice, and that they are used most often among Sufis.  I am aware that Sufis are persecuted heretics in some Islamic countries. 



Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dissertation on Afro-Native Literature

 I blogged about Crossing Waters in the post "Is There A Place For Afro-Natives?" in June.  I found When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote by Jonathan Bradford Brennan among the references in Crossing Waters.  I feel fortunate to be able to obtain this work by Brennan on interlibrary loan from San Francisco State University library.  It's a doctoral dissertation, and not very widely available.

In his literature review, Brennan discusses an article on Mardi Gras Indians.  Mardi Gras Indians are a New Orleans cultural phenomenon that interests me a great deal.  They are largely African-American. Those who participate in the Mardi Gras Indian  "tribes" often don't claim to be of Native descent. I've encountered them in books and films about New Orleans.

 Brennan states that Congo Square in New Orleans (which became a major focus of Voodoo activity) was originally a Native sacred site.  Brennan gave no source for that information and did not specify what Native people considered it sacred.  This means that I needed to do some research.  I found a page from the Historical Marker Database on The Congo Square Marker   .  The inscription reveals that Congo Square may not have been the exact location of the sacred site. It is in the vicinity of the place where the Houma Indians celebrated their Corn Festival before the French colonized Louisiana.    Brennan theorizes that the 19th century drumming in Congo Square may have started as an Afro-Native practice because the Houma probably had drummed there.

  I found a report on the Houma  at Report on the United Houma Nation  which indicates that some Houma have been of mixed African and European descent.  I also found a page called Who Were the Houma Indians?    It states that the Houma were decimated by European diseases and that the U.S. government does not recognize the 11,000 people on the Houma reservation as descendants of the Houma.  One reason why they aren't federally recognized is the Afro-Natives among them.  Another is that their original language disappeared.  The Houma now speak Cajun French.   The Bureau of Indian Affairs has an obsession with racial purity that has such devestating impact on Afro-Natives.

In this context, I had a flash of intuition about the well known Mardi Gras Indian song now called "Iko Iko" which Brennan mentions briefly .  He calls the chorus a nonsense chant, but the chant contains the French word  "annĂ©e" which means year.  Wikipedia says in an article that requires verification( Iko Iko  )that it was originally sung by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford who called it "Chack-a-mo" which became "Jackamo".   Crawford said he took two Mardi Gras Indian chants and combined them to create that chorus. It's interesting that "Chack-a-mo" looks like it might be related to Chakchiuma, the name of the Indian nation that the Houma broke away from.  The Wikipedia article has various re-constructions and translations of this chorus based on speculations that the chorus might be in a Native American trade language called Mobilian Jargon, Creole French or Yoruban.  To these possibilities, I would add my speculation that it might have been a Houma chant which unfortunately can't be reconstructed or translated since the language has disappeared.

I was interested to learn that French slave traders captured Natchez Indians and shipped them to Haiti.  So when their bi-racial descendants came back to Louisiana, they were Afro-Natives and their traditions were both Natchez and African.  Brennan cites Voodoo scholar Maya Deren as saying that Petro spirits and the practices associated with them in Voodoo were of Indian origin.  I understand Petro to mean fiery as opposed to the Rada spirits which are cool.

Wikipedia says that the theory that Brennan seems to support about the Lumbee being descended from the Croatan has been discredited. Tracy Hudgins disagrees.  She is a Lumbee descended woman who says on her Google site, The Lumbee Indians, The Lost Colony and The Goins Family that the Lumbee are composed of a number of peoples including the Cherokee, Cheraw, Tuscarora and the Croatan as well as African-Americans and European-Americans. Some believe that the Croatan were multi-racial.  Brennan states that the Croatan were an Indian, African and European community. "Croatan" was the message left on Roanoke island by the Lost Colony.  Such a message can be interpreted in various ways.  I suspect that Brennan is one of those who believes that the Lost Colony of Roanoke survivors joined the Croatan, and  that their descendants could therefore be alive today among the Lumbee.  According to Tracy Hudgins, there is evidence of this in the form of Lost Colony surnames among Lumbee families.  DNA testing would confirm such a claim.

 Brennan's ideas are certainly provocative.  I enjoyed doing research on the topics that he covered.   I am also interested in reading some of the Afro-Native books he discussed.  I'll have to get hold of Alice Walker's Living By The Word and Clarence Major's Such Was The Season soon.



Thursday, July 5, 2012

An Amelioration of Audism in Japan

Many books of scholarship contain introductions that describe the content,  explicate the book's theme and the concepts that are developed to illustrate that theme.  Diversity in Japanese Culture and Language edited by John C. Maher and Gaynor Macdonald contains such an introduction.

 According to the introduction, this anthology deals with how difference is problematic in Japanese culture.  The editors state that Japanese cultural institutions can cope more easily with the presence of foreign otherness. It is far more problematic when there are Japanese who exhibit traits or behavior that differs from the majority.    The essay I found most illuminating is "The Deaf and Their Language--Progress Toward Equality" by Noboyuki Honna and Mihoko Kato.

I am aware of the difficulties that deaf Americans who communicate via ASL have had with recognition of the legitimacy of their language in deaf education and in society at large.  I discussed this issue in my June post on this blog "Discrimination Against The Deaf: Then and Now".  More recently, I added a postscript about the use of the term "audism" to that post.  Please see that postscript for my research on the definition of audism and how it has evolved.

Noboyuki Honna and Mihoko Kato reveal the structure of Japanese Sign Language (JSL) in an effort to show that it is a separate language.  I was especially fascinated to discover that there is more than one type of sign language in Japan.  As a result of my online research, I have learned that  JSL is a family of sign languages with regional variants that Japanese deaf individuals use to communicate with each other. Historically, interpreters have used a different form of sign language at an event to simultaneously convey spoken Japanese to deaf individuals while it is being spoken.  The sign language that interpreters have used  parallels the structure of spoken Japanese.  Wikipedia calls this Manually Signed Japanese.  JSL is structurally different from spoken Japanese.  The article in this 1995 book implies that it's impossible to use JSL in interpretation because of its differences from spoken Japanese.  I think it likely that such a view is an example of audism.  I found a 2002 article by Karen Nakamura in which she states that JSL is more similar to Japanese than ASL is to English.  Apparently, in the 21st century using JSL for interpreting spoken Japanese is no longer considered so impossible.  Many interpreters in Japan now use it.

The Wikipedia article on JSL discusses the increasing interest in JSL by hearing people including the wife of the Emperor's second son known as Kiko Princess Akishino.  I think it likely that her prominence has influenced Japanese society to view JSL more favorably.

Here are the resources that I consulted in my research for this post:

Wikipedia on Japanese Sign Language

Wikipedia on Kiko, Princess Akishino

About Japanese Sign Language by Karen Nakamura

Karen Nakamura has also written a book on JSL which I found on Goodreads at:

Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity

I will need to read Nakamura's book in order to have a deeper understanding of the deaf community in Japan and the role of JSL within Japanese society as a whole.


Monday, July 2, 2012

A Mystery of Fatality During a Folk Practice

A mystery that focuses on an obscure folk practice in South Queensferry, Scotland sounds like it would probably be a cozy one.  Like most  cozies, there is a great deal of small town life with the usual sorts of characters.  I expected the folklore content to be the aspect of this novel that I would find most interesting. Yet there was more simmering beneath the surface of  South Queensferry than I had imagined.

Below is my review of The Burry Man's Day by Catriona MacPherson.

The Burry Man is a man covered with burrs who walks about the town of South Queensferry once a year receiving offerings of money and whiskey.  This is an actual folk practice that is still alive in South Queensferry. Catriona McPherson portrays the Burry Man as a subject of controversy.  In her book, some citizens of South Queensferry disliked the Pagan nature of the practice.  Temperance advocates objected to all the quaffing of alcohol. In an author's note McPherson states that this opposition to the Burry Man was her invention to add drama to her tale.  

In the 1920's, when this novel took place, the festivities were also dampened by the losses that many families suffered in WWI.  For this reason, The Burry Man's Day shares common themes with some of the Maisie Dobbs novels by Jacqueline Winspear that also deal with the impact of WWI, and can therefore be considered somewhat darker than the typical cozy mystery.

Unfortunately, McPherson's heroine, Dandy Gilver, seems rather shallow compared to Maisie Dobbs, nor does she have the elegance and devil may care unconventionality of Phryne Fisher, the 1920's mystery heroine from Down Under created by Kerry Greenwood.  I found Dandy Gilver far less appealing than either of her fictional contemporaries.

Yet the folklore and WWI aspects did keep me reading.  The resolution was unexpected.  It also added depth and power to the novel as a whole.  I was glad that I read it and would be willing to read another by this author provided that the case deals with elements that attract my interest. 

                                                    Resources About The Burry Man

Those who are interested in learning more about the Burry Man, can consult the following web pages:

The Burry Man Writers Center  Scroll down for an account of the walk of the Burry Man from 1865 and a You Tube video of the Burry Man's walk in 2011.

South Queensferry's Pagan Plant Spirit This is a page on the Flora Celtica website that describes the custom, the plant from which the burrs are derived and the possible origins of the Burry Man in the context of Pagan religion.

All Hail The Burry Man! is a British folklore blog by Leah Gordon.  At the far right of this page is Leah Gordon's account of  her experience of the Burry Man.

Burry Man Article in The Scotsman A description of the walk of the Burry Man in 2009 which deals with how the Burry Man custom is viewed in South Queensferry.