My latest reading trend - books set in India. I'm devouring them like kheer. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever. I can't get enough of the people, the culture, the religions, the food and spices, the brightly colored saris and white cotton angarkas, the textures of the landscape, the sounds of the temples, the smells of the thick, dusty heat of summer and the drenching monsoon rains... The writing is rich with colors and sumptuous flavors, each word a golden feast for the mind.
Which is a nice change from the sere countryside, freezing temperatures, and bitter winter winds of my reality.
Recently I've read "The Man Who Died Laughing", "Mistress of Spices", "Queen of Dreams", and "Keeping Corner". When I ordered Keeping Corner from Amazon, I thought it was an adult book with a young protagonist, but it's a book written for a young adult audience. I was not disappointed in the slightest, once I began reading.
Leela is twelve and lives in the small town of Jamlee in Gujarat, India. The youngest of two children, her 21 year old brother is away teaching at a college in the city. Though whip-crack smart, Leela is a bit spoiled by her parents and her childless aunt and uncle, but not so much you want to smack her. She's wheedling and prone to pouting when she can't have her way and completely convinced the world orbits around her. So in other words... she's twelve.
Despite the fact that in 1918 life in Leela's village seems untouched by world events of the past 100 years, India outside her village is changing rapidly. Her country is in the grips of a terrible drought, the world is at war, and Mohandas Gandhi begins his crusade of satyagrah to protest the treatment of his people by the English.
But those major events just barely intrude into Leela's life. She's more concerned with attending parties and the town's annual fair, giggling with her friends, and cajoling her mother into buying her a some lovely bangles and tasseled hair ribbons to go with her new sunset-red ghagri-poulka.
It just goes to show that, for the most part, twelve year-old girls are the same no matter the time or place.
However, there is a difference - a big one - between Leela and today's pre-teen girls. Leela was engaged at two years-old and married at nine. Her husband is a boy in the village by the name of Ramanlal. Despite being husband and wife, Ramanlal and Leela still live with their parents and aren't allowed to so much as hold hands or speak to each other without a chaperon. Just on the cusp of discovering boys (beyond the "Ewww, yuck! Boys!" stage), Leela's beginning to be intrigued by the idea of her looming anu, a ceremony of celebration when she will leave her parent's home and go to live with Ramanlal and his family.
That is, until the unthinkable happens and Ramanlal dies, ending Leela's hopes and dreams for the future and turning her into a pariah. Widowed before she is even truly a wife, Leela is expected to "keep corner" and stay in the house for an entire year during the initial mourning period. Which doesn't sound that bad, until it is gradually revealed to Leela and the readers exactly what it means to become a widow in her society. Not only can she not step foot outside for the first year (not even into the yard. Basically her home becomes a prison), but her head is shaved bald (forever), she is only allowed to wear a dull brown sari (forever), all physical adornments are taken from her (never to be worn again), and when she is finally allowed outside people in the community shun her (because widows are the worst kind of luck). Oh, and she's never allowed to marry again. Ever.
So that's it. Life is pretty much over for Leela.
Or is it?
This story, based loosely on the author's great-aunt's experience of being a widowed child bride, is one of a girl beginning to question a society's conventions and traditions that she'd never recognized before. Leela learns that knowledge is not only power, but taking advantage of an education can also provide freedom. I enjoy stories that encourage ladies of all ages to capitalize on their intelligence - a characteristic that is devalued in many societies that prize a woman's beauty over her brains. It's was also refreshing to see that Leela took into account her family and their feelings as well and wasn't just rebellious without a care as to how it would effect her relations. She understood that her actions were a direct reflection on her family and could have a detrimental effect their social standing in the very close-knit community.
She refuses to be a victim of circumstance. With judicious use of her intelligence, resourcefulness, sensitivity, and determination, Leela works to make her condition and the condition of other women in Indian society better. Now that is a story with a happy ending.