Category Archives: Book Reviews

Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions, and the Postcolonial

This review originally appeared in Elevate Difference

The introduction to Alimentary Tracts begins with a Salman Rushdie quote about peppercorns and includes the phrase “symbolic anthropophagy.” Similarly to the first two sentences, the remainder of the book would continue to intrigue and baffle me.

Alimentary Tracts consists of four long chapters entitled “Disgust: Food, Filth, and Anglo-Indian Flesh in 1857”; “Abstinence: Manifestos on Meat and Masculinity”; “Dearth: Figures of Famine”; and “Appetite: Spices Redux,” and one short final chapter, “Remains: A Coda.” The style of writing is admittedly dense, like an over-rich chocolate cake. And at times the meaning seems to be lost in the thickness of the form.

More simply, overall, Roy questions what is eaten, and what or who is involved in the process of cooking, sharing, and ingesting. She provides an analytical investigation of the “gastropolitics and gastropoetics.” Alimentary Tracts essentially asks how aspects of food politics (such as famine) impact identity and history in the colonial and postcolonial periods. Roy argues that “who eats and with whom, who starves, and what is rejected as food are fundamental to colonial and postcolonial making – and unmaking.”

In discussing famine, Roy brings attention to questions of equity and access. In the first chapter Roy provides greater context to Gandhi’s famous protest of the salt tax in India. She also looks at the issue of pollution for high-class Hindu males in food as interlinked to concepts of sex. And, in subsequent chapters, she discusses Mahasweta Devi’s coverage of famine in her short stories and novels.

In chapter two, she discusses Gandhi’s experiments with truth, eating, and abstinence. Humans today have certainly come a long way in acceptance of organic, local, vegan cuisines when compared to when Gandhi first went to England. At that time, open defiance of Hindu traditions were seen as civilized; eating meat and drinking alcohol was just one aspect of the norm.

I found the chapter focusing on appetite to smoothly flow the best. Roy traces the evolution of the term curry, an invention of Anglo-Indians in India, rather than an appropriate description of the various styles of cooking and spices that go into Indian food. Incorporating analysis of cookbooks and Indian writers, she weaves together what seems initially to be a strange combination of concepts.

Its easy to imagine excerpts of this text in a reader on South Asian studies, food politics, literary criticism or cultural criticism; it is nothing close to a cookbook and isn’t meant for light reading. In her introduction, Roy states that the alimentary tracts of colonial and postcolonial India contain lessons for students of literary, feminist, cultural, and area studies. Though the text can be painfully difficult to wade through, that is because it contains much substance.

Confronting Global Gender Justice: Women’s Lives, Human Rights

This review originally appeared in Elevate Difference

Confronting Global Gender Justice provides the reader a refreshing survey, albeit difficult to digest at times, of current issues and debates within the context of women’s rights as human rights. The chapters reflect the lived experiences of women and not just theory masked behind empty words.

Confronting Global Gender Justice is divided into five thematic parts: “Complicating the discourses of victimhood”; “Interrogating practices of representation”; “Mobilizing strategies of engagement”; “Crossing legal landscape”; and “Confronting global gender justice.” With a total of eighteen chapters, each chapter is authored by a different woman or man and thus each has its own tone of voice.

The first part examines the power of myth in the woman-as-victim and looks at the gender dynamics of war crimes. Laura Sjoberg identifies narratives of “the mother, the monster and the whore” used to understand the motivations for women involved in genocidal crimes. The limited agency within violence is also covered, as well as human trafficking and a comparison of how the practice of prostitution and sexuality is viewed through the context of religion.

Using a photographic essay, the poetics of memory, and a discussion of digital storytelling, Part II, “Interrogating practices of representation,” illustrates some ways to process and draw attention to women’s rights as human rights. By looking at human rights through the lens of literature and poetry, author Ricardo F. Vivancos Perez discusses the “vocabulary of human rights” as no longer purely defined in the legal domain. Playing with concepts of production, these chapters widen the discourse of what form the dialogue on human rights may take.

Part III, “Mobilizing strategies of engagement,” combines articles written by people of diverse power locations, from activists and NGO workers in the field to academics. In light of recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, the chapter on “Algerian women in movement” was particularly intriguing due to the interrelatedness of domestic politics and power for women. Part IV, “Crossing legal landscapes,” is comprised of five chapters that range in subject from the plight of women and children with disabilities to the institutionalization of domestic violence in the U.S.

The final chapter is an interview with activist Kum-kum Bhavnani (scholar, activist, filmmaker) that serves not to bring the discussions to a close, but to open them up for further reflection. The volume succeeds in creating a dialogue between theorists and activists. Questions of women’s rights are interrelated with questions of human rights. With its reaffirmation of the feminist commitment to the partnership of theory and practice, I only hope this volume snowballs into more dialogue and action.

Tales from the Yoga Studio

This review originally appeared in Elevate Difference

Tales from the Yoga Studio is, in many ways, the typical story of White women who discover Eastern philosophy (in this case, yoga) and learn how to breathe deeply. Though the women weren’t all from White, upper class society (there was a token Latina and some women who couldn’t afford the yoga class), it essentially contains the trials and tribulations of upper class Angelenos: Which yoga studio to go to today? What to wear to yoga class?

I have had experience attending a wide variety of yoga classes and peeking into the world in which yoga is a competitive sport. I dislike the commodification of yoga, which has become, in this context, devoid of the union of body and mind. In spite of this, I was looking forward to reading a potentially fun drama about a yoga studio.

While there were a few lines that I almost marked to look at later, for the most part I was annoyed with the characters, found the writing lacking a strong voice, and felt slightly impatient to finish the 297 pages. I continued as a result of a sense of wonder that there might be a hidden point that would illuminate itself in the last few pages and make everything seem worthwhile. No such luck.

It could be that, as a woman of color recently returning to the United States from India, the characters of Tales from the Yoga Studio were too preoccupied with their own world. For this reason, I am explicitly exposing my potential bias. There may very well be people out there who would enjoy this novel precisely because of its simplicity. In retrospect, perhaps my expectations were too high.

Tales from the Yoga Studio was clearly not my favorite novel, but for someone who does yoga in LA, may be right up your alley.

Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity

This review originally appeared in Elevate Difference

In its very fragmentariness, Engendering Performance: Indian Women Performers in Search of an Identity serves as an alternative to the traditional scholarly textbook. Engendering Performance seems best utilized as a jumping off point for conversations, further studies and exchanges of the kind found in classrooms of higher education. The authors have purposefully refrained from offering an all encompassing meta narrative in exploring the role and position of gender and women in defining identity through theatre and dance.

In their introduction, the authors note that the concept for the book was developed as they designed a curriculum for the study of the performing arts for The School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi in 2000. The book was born out of a desire to take a critical look at identity and body politics, dipping into a plethora of fields, including history, economics, cultural studies, ethnography, and feminist criticism to pose questions regarding the role of the actress-dancer in colonial and national culture as well as to analyze performance. The book aims to examine the meanings of performative gestures, as well as aesthetic historical codes, in other words, to debunk what history has taught and written with regard to theatre and dance, keeping gender in mind. The authors aim to simultaneously exist outside of prescribed disciplines, while interacting with them. In doing so, Engendering Performance reclaims the voice of the actress, moving against the general concept that the male actor is the voice and the actress is left at the margins.

While I do not come from a background of scholarly writings on theatre and dance, and I may have been lost at certain points when it came to the various topics and theatre- and dance-specific jargon, overall I found the text to be a worthwhile introduction to some of the continual questions and issues that arise within a new field, or a series of interrelated subjects. The book is divided into two sections, the first focusing on “The Story of the Actress” and the second entitled “Of The Woman Dancer.” Each chapter is a different look at aspects of these professions and identities.

The first chapter begins with an examination of the structures and spaces of theatres, while the second chapter discusses the challenge of public and private lives especially in the duality and the roles the actress must play.The authors discuss the custom of prostitutes as actresses, among other issues of space and identity. One chapter also looks at the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) which was initially formed as the cultural branch of the Communist Party, bringing theatre into politics while expanding the role and scope of the actress’ identity. Section two focuses primarily on dance and begins with a critical look at the ancient text of Natya Sastra, called the 5th Veda and seen as a performer’s rule-book. The authors pose questions such as “Who benefits from Natyasastra being the rule-book of gender and class/caste behaviour?” The following chapter takes a closer look at the body and the growing role of the body as a tool for a woman to “speak and write and communicate her-story as opposed to the common history.” In the last chapter, “Tale of Professional Woman Dancer in Folk Traditions in India: Commodification of Dance and the Traditional Dancing Women,” the text looks at the distinct rural and urban identities and the many levels of marginalization.

The final conclusion, instead of serving as a comprehensive overview, is a discussion with Samik Bandyopadhyay, a Kolkata-based critic of art, theatre and film.The intention of “disturbing the dominant narrative” seems to have been achieved, albeit in a fragmented way, which is acknowledged in the final discussion. Bandyopadhyay acknowledges the limitations of such a text; he says, and I agree, that this is an ongoing process. Connecting practice to theory and transcending fixed categories or genres, Engendering Performance takes a step and moves those seeming to encroach on this space, in order to create a new genre of performance studies based on the varied experiences within India.

Seeds of Change

I found Dr. Vandana Shiva’s first book, or rather I found a Xerox copy of her first book, taped together and lovely highlighted with notes (published in 1988), on a shelf in the corner of the library of the Bija Vidyapith categorized as “miscellaneous.” After reading it, I am not sure how else I would categorize it to fit into the neat distinctions of subject matter society reduces interdisciplinary work to. Even her book refused a reductionist reading that would limit it as “ecology”, “water” or “feminism.” It seemed to fit better when looked at holistically.

To look at Dr. Vandana Shiva’s work holistically is precisely why I chose to spend time at Bija Vidyapith. After taking a class (categorized as International Intercultural Studies) called Resistance to Monoculure, I was momentarily swept away by the complex simplicity of how I understood Dr. Shiva’s theories and beliefs. I felt as though I had in essence “drank the kool aid” but I was still a bit unclear as to what it meant practically.

In Dr. Shiva’s first book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India she looks at the deeper meanings of femininity. As Rajni Kothari of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies  summarizes in her foreword: “It is not just a question of women. It is a much larger issue of a new technological basis of economic and cultural exploitation which is crying for a new spirit of democratic resistance against what is undoubtedly considered a changed (transnationalized, corporate, computerized, militarized and televised) model of capitalist growth and integration.” From taking the reader through rethinking GDP, to indigenous knowledge of forests to a discussion of the violence of the green revolution and the fallacy of High Yield Varieties (HYV) seeds, her first book ihelps to lay the theoretical foundation upon which Navdanya (founded in 1987) and her following nine books were built.

Her main point, throughout the book is that those facing the greatest threats, meaning women, peasants and tribals, also have what is needed for survival, “they have the knowledge of what it means to be victims of progress, to be the ones who bear the cost and burdens” and they have the “holistic and ecological knowledge of what the production and protection of life is about.”

As she argues in her final chapter, “The dominant paradigm of knowledge has become a threat to life itself.” What then is the solution? Bija Vidyapith (Seed University) or Biodiversity Farm is part of it. As she recalls how it started in a recent publication, The Story of Seed, “We saw what was happening, and we had to do something.”

Located in the Doon Valley, the organic farm revived land that had been desertified by more than two decades of use as a eucalyptus plantation. It is now home to more than twelve hundred varieties of plants, which includes 500 rice varities, 75 wheat varieties among others. The farm also contains a soil lab, seed farm, and quarters for volunteers, guests and classes.

Presently, the residents include an amalgamation of staff, volunteers, interns and academics pursuing Phd and graduate research from the US, Canada, Portugal, Germany and India. Just this weekend, a group of 50 students from Delhi will be coming for a weekend workshop.

Instead of stopping at theory, Dr. Shiva has shown that it is possible to have a holistic, rather than reductionist approach. She has helped to illuminate what Navdanya is all about – protecting the diversity of life. The farm is a living and breathing reminder, not that another world is possible, but that another way of looking at the world is possible.

Lakshmi Eassey, is currently living in Residence at Bija Vidyapith (Seed University), working on a project interviewing women farmers. In this review, she looks at Dr. Shiva’s first book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India and the foundation of Bija Vidyapith.

Braking News: 1 Bus, 2 Girls, 15 Thousand Kilometers, 715 Million Votes

This review originally appeared in Elevate Difference

Sunetra Choudhury’sBraking News takes the reader on a trip across India to find the elusive Indian voter in both cities and villages. As an anchor and TV news reporter, Choudhury was asked to cover the elections for NDTV on a bus. The election bus planned to travel fifty kilometers each day for sixty days covering 3,000 kilometers. Two teams aboard the bus were scheduled to produce a half-hour show every weekday prior to the May 2009 elections. Though the bus did not travel as planned, the stories and people that come to the surface are worth the adventure. The bus drove to places on and off the map. For locations neglected for years by politicians, just the fact that NDTV decided to bring a bright red bus to their constituency was a powerful symbol.

While the story is entertaining and the writing is clear, Braking News is less about the places and people Choudhury meets on the way, and more about her own journey. As a result, it is easy to become annoyed with the author and her desire for modern comforts, such as a clean toilet. Nonetheless, some chapters are more descriptive than others and reveal the heart of contrasts amidst the Indian subcontinent. The women of Gujjarland insist that Choudhury cut wheat before agreeing to do an interview. At one point Choudhury stops a man on a motorcycle who she believes to be a dacoit (thief) to ask him about the gun he is carrying, and in another segment she interviews people in the village of Shivgarh who have cell phones and DVD players despite having no electricity.

Choudhury touches occasionally on gender and the vast differences that exist for women between the cities and villages of India. For example, in the state of Haryana, she interviews young women who do not vote until they are married. But near the end she speaks to a woman who is living a privileged, single lifestyle. As a woman, Choudhury is allowed into private kitchen spaces where she meets village women on a level that would not be accessible to male reporters. And instead of seeing them all as exploited, she begins to see that they too have power and agency, albeit in a different manner than she experiences.

Choudhury concludes Braking News by arguing that if journalists truly want to report on what is occurring around them, they must go out and see the world. They must be willing to risk being dirty, hot, and tired, which on some level (despite the posh hotels) is exactly what the NDTV election bus did.

Becoming Indian: The Unfinished Revolution of Culture and Identity

Pavan K. Varma’s most recent book, Becoming Indian, argues that cultural freedom has eluded formerly colonized nations, specifically India. He sees a need for a cultural revolution in India. Although it reads at times like an extended opinion piece, Varma makes convincing arguments highlighting the importance of reclaiming language, architecture, and art in a way that empowers indigenous knowledge rather than oppressing it. He examines concepts and examples related to language, architecture, and art with regard to modern Indian history, contemporary events, and personal experiences.

Varma believes that the real strength of empires lay in the colonization of minds, and he views modern history as one that has resulted in cultural and ideological consequences. He explores how English has become a tool for upward mobility and questions the cost, as the loss of one’s own language is seen as a gain in India. He uses the example of young people performing Shakespeare in English with no knowledge of theatre in their own languages to illustrate this pervasive ignorance. He also compares the success of writing in English to the sure failure of writing in Indian mother tongues to illustrate a flaw in today’s Indian value systems. Convincingly, he critiques the concept of providing important information, such as health and traffic signs on the highways, in English.

Although India has been independent since 1947, Varma argues that colonialism persists in the realms of language, politics, and self-image. Varma believes that globalization is leading to the desire for a homogeneous identity. To counteract this, he believes it is important to know one’s cultural roots in order to move forward into the future.

From a feminist perspective, it is interesting to note the ways in which the British have historically seen Indians as effeminate, and thus treated them with less respect. The power dynamics within post-colonial societies are especially tricky as colonization has already permeated people’s minds. According to Varma’s arguments, what may be necessary is not only a contemporary Indian cultural revolution but also one that involves all sectors of society, from the lowest to the highest castes and socioeconomic backgrounds.