Thursday, 24 May 2012

Partitions: Amit Majmundar (Pakistan)

As India is rent overnight into two nations, sectarian violence explodes on both sides of the new border, with tidal waves of refugees fleeing the blood and chaos. Fighting to board the last train to Delhi, Shankar and Keshav, six-year-old Hindu twins, lose sight of their mother and plunge into the whirling human mass to find her. A young Sikh woman, Simran Kaur, flees her father, who would rather poison his daughter than see her defiled. And Ibrahim Masud, an elderly Muslim doctor driven from the town of his birth, limps towards the new Muslim state of Pakistan. As the displaced face a variety of horrors, this unlikely quartet come together, defying every rule of self-preservation to forge a future of hope. A luminous story of families and nations broken and formed, Partitions introduces an extraordinary novelist who writes with the power and lyricism of poetry.

Author Amit Majmudar is the winner of the 2011 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. His first poetry collection, 0, 0: Poems, was published in 2009, and a novella, Azazel, was serialized in The Kenyon Review. Partitions is his first full-length novel. He lives in the United States with his wife and twin sons.

I came across this book, as with many others, as the Kindle Book of the Day and eager as always for a bargain, snapped it up, as it sounded right up my street. I wasn't wrong.

This is an interesting tale of the partitioning of what was once part of India into the state of Pakistan and what happened to four, or maybe five, of her former inhabitants as they attempt to start a new life. Two of these are six year old Hindu twins, who as the blurb says, lose sight of their mother as the three of them fight to board the last train to Delhi. It is not until almost the end of the book, which is narrated by the boys dead father, that we discover what happened to their mother, that she was pulled from the moving train by her former lover, hoping to also start anew now that she was a widow. She does exactly that, but not in the way that her former lover would have hoped, for she makes her own attempt (and succeeds) in joining her former husband. That part of the story though, I will leave you to read for yourselves.

The other two characters are a teenage Sikh girl, whose father would rather poison her than see her defiled, only she cannot bring herself to drink that poison and escapes. Fleeing from her home and everything that she knows, she is picked up by those who would seek to abuse her by selling into her effective slavery or prostitution. However, she manages to escape, and fleeing across some sugar cane fields, stumbles into the arms of Muslim Doctor Masud, who also comes across the smallest of the two twins, who suffering from a heart condition has collapsed due to the strain, while his stronger twin goes to seek help. The four eventually board a bus to Sikh capital Amritsar, posing as one big happy family. 

This was and is a relatively short read given the subject matter, that took me around six days to complete (slowly at first). But as the story speeded up, so did my reading, until I read the final third in just one day. I know little of the formation of Pakistan and the events that led up to it, but the author paints a vivid picture of the aftermath, and in particular the effect that it had on the female population, who found themselves vulnerable and open to exploitation.

The author plays with the four lead characters, like a dance in slow motion, moving them towards each other and then further away before bringing them together almost at the end. The ghost of the twins father is ever watchful, guiding them on their journey without (for the most part) attempting to interfere, but observing gently from a distance. This for me at least, is part of what makes this such a memorable read, for it the supporting cast who in many ways take centre stage, just as in life. I also liked the way that he brought these four characters, each from a different religion together.

Others have described this as a harrowing read, although to be honest, I have read worse. It is though as always, the message behind the words that counts, and for me that message was about unity, for in the end we are all the same, regardless of belief and it is the recognition of this that leads to the unity and ultimate acceptance, that we all crave.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Ali and Ramazan - Perihan Magden (Turkey)

Based on a true story, this novel follows Ali and Ramazan, two boys from very different backgrounds who land in the same Istanbul orphanage. They quickly see eye to eye and fall into a loving relationship as children, bringing light to one another and to the other orphans in their dreary adopted home. Ramazan is a charmer, the school master's unfortunate favorite, the clown among the boys, and the only one with access to the world outside the orphanage's walls. He takes na├»ve, sweet, and quietly intelligent Ali under his wing, and together they blossom in a world all their own. However, at age 18 they are released into the streets of Istanbul to find their own way without the support of the state. Faced with an unaccepting world in which they have no one but each other, Ali and Ramazan each make choices that cannot be reversed, with tragic consequences.

I came across this book while trawling the £2.99 and under section on Amazon, and thinking that it sounded an interesting read, decided to download a copy.

When I read the reviews and saw that it was classified as gay and lesbian I wondered whether I had made the right choice, but as I started to read, I found that the fact that the characters are two gay men is really of secondary importance, for this is a book about relationships in general rather than just sex. The fact that the two lead characters are gay is important, yet not important and I found myself wondering whether I would have read this differently had they not been of this persuasion. In the end it not does not matter, for the sexual aspect of their relationship is not the most central part of the book, it is more about the consequences of their love, and how their time in the orphanage affects them both.

When we meet the two boys, Ali and Ramazan, Ramazan who was abandoned as baby outside a mosque is "top dog" at the orphanage, while Ali is newly arrived, having witnessed the murder of his father at his mothers hands, and her own consequent suicide. An immediate bond forms between the two boys, which as they become older, turns to love. Ali has been abused by the Director of the orphanage for years, and as he becomes older, turns to male prostitution in order to earn money, flaunting his love and sexual relationship with Ali in front of the Director in order to make him jealous.

After their discharge from the orphanage and subsequent national service, they eventually move in together. However, years of life at the orphanage have left them totally unprepared for normal life, and they fall into a desperate cycle of co-dependency and abuse - in Ramazan's case continued prostitution, and in Ali's case substance abuse in order to blot out the pain that Ramazan's prostitution causes him to feel.

Almost too late, Ramazan realises how he feels about Ali and how he has mistreated him, having spent the night with a particuarly demanding client whose promise of riches turns out to be false. The inevitable happens - Ramazan snaps and stabs the man through the heart. In his rush to escape he falls from a sixth floor balcony and plunges to his death. When Ali hears of this he hangs himself at the site of a new orphanage, and so the book ends.     

The book is harrowing in places, and and despite their crimes, one is left in no doubt that the real crime is the one which was perpetrated against both of them, i.e. the way in which they were treated and ostracised by Turkish society. The damage, although perpetuated by themselves, was not really of their making, as the abuse they suffered while at the orphanage was what led them down this path in the first place. This then is more of an indictment of the Turkish orphanage system than anything else.

Author Perihan Magden was born in Istanbul and has written several novels in addition to her regular column in Turkish daily, Radikal. She is an honorary member of British PEN and winner of the Grand Award for Freedom of Speech by the Turkish Publishers Association.