Eating Wasps by Anita Nair: Stories of Strong but Flawed Women Painted With Desire

I spent a major part of 2018 reading non-fiction titles. It was only recently that I decided to take a break to savour fiction and as destiny would have it, the two titles I picked have been so close to reality that for a moment I felt that these two might as well be classified as non-fiction for their closeness to the bitter truths of life.

The first book was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

I had first read The Kite Runner almost a decade ago. While it had left me shaken then, rereading it as a parent, has been an altogether different experience.

The second title I picked was Eating wasps by Anita Nair.

Eating Wasps by Anita Nair is a contemporary fiction novel that portrays stories of strong but flawed women painted with desire. Read a detailed book review with quotes from the book on my blog.

The blurb on the book read:

“In a small town by the river Nila, a thirty-five-year-old writer kills herself. No one knows why. Fifty-two years later, an antique cupboard in a private resort opens to reveal a frightened child. And the mystery begins to unravel.”

Going by the blurb of the book, I had been anticipating a thriller with a dose of horror.

Little did I know that I was in for a sneak peek into the Pandora’s box that we (the whole society) works hard to keep shut.

The beautiful cover of the book highlights the title in form of wasp shaped motifs embroidered around a pair of lips painted in the bold red, hinting at the fact that the book is a collection of stories of women. The droplets of blood blotted near the lips seem to signify how the book is held together by the powerful observations of a dead writer who had committed suicide under mysterious conditions.

The book’s interesting title draws its inspiration from an incident from the narrator, Sreelakshmi’s life. However, in a broader context, the title reflects the heartbreak, the loss, the giving in, the indulgence of desire and the acts of courageously stepping in the forbidden territories of life.

The bone of Sreelakshmi’s index finger, a 35-year-old woman who committed suicide,  was picked from the embers of her pyre and hidden away in a pen case in the false back of a cupboard.

As the bone changes hands after being discovered by a child hiding in the cupboard, it reads the minds and relives the memories of its bearer.

Thus begins the sequence of stories from the lives of Megha, Urvashi, Najma, Liliana, Molly and Theresa, Radha, Rupa, Maya and more.

Sreelakshmi (the narrator) and Urvashi’s stories are given more room than others.

Sreelakshmi’s story is allowed to come a full circle, giving the reader a complete view of the circumstances and her life choices that led to her suicide with pieces of her life interspersed in between other stories.

There’s a soul trapped in the bone, waiting to be set free from the painful memories and ties of the mortal world. This introduction right at the start of the book sets the tone for a plot treading to unleash horror.

“Ghosts and writers are more alike than you think. We can be what you want us to be. We can hear your thoughts even if you don’t tell us. We can read the silences and shape your stories as if they happened to us. And I was both: a ghost and a writer.

And horrors unfold. Not in the form of supernatural entities but hidden within the unspoken, secretly brushed away feelings of violation, suppression and emotional trauma women of all ages and from all walks of life carry within their hearts.

The soulful revelations are the life and blood of this poignant collection. Complex feminine experiences expressed with brutal honesty, make these stories feel closer to life.

Eating Wasps by Anita Nair is a contemporary fiction novel that portrays stories of strong but flawed women painted with desire. Read a detailed book review with quotes from the book on the blog.

The characters in the book are connected by their location, a hotel in a small town by the river Nila.

What really bonds them with the reader is their courage to face the formidable nemesis, challenging its authority and rising up to rebel and try to live life (or end it, in Sreelakshmi’s case) at their terms.

Do they all succeed?

Do they perish?

It is what remains to be experienced in the journeys of the various characters.

What makes this book stand out is the portrayal of the unvarnished realities of life. In the echoes of the suffering souls, the reader finds solace in the realization that they aren’t alone in feeling so.

“Once after I helped myself to the kanji we have for dinner every night, I dropped half a bottle of salt into what was left in the vessel. I am a blind woman. Such accidents are bound to happen. I thought it was time she tasted some of the salt from all the tears she had made me shed. “

These are the stories about women whose lives didn’t go the way they would have wanted. Of the resilience, they need to conjure up every day to get a move on. Of having to put on a brave face even when they were quaking within.

Eating Wasps by Anita Nair is a contemporary fiction novel that portrays stories of strong but flawed women painted with desire. Read a detailed book review with quotes from the book on the blog.

The book sings of heartbreak and loss; of temptation and giving in. In short, the book highlights what it means to be a woman, day in and day out.

Anita Nair’s narration evokes emotion and pain that’s sure to linger long after you put the book down. Blending in of the caste, class, age and religion with ease adds to the charm of the book.

The book features characters from the 1960s and also from the modern era whose lives is greatly impacted by Instagram, YouTube, Tinder and more.

The rich language, vast vocabulary and lucid narration make this book an experience to cherish.

Halfway through the book, I longed to see how the lives of the many women would cross paths or how they will help Sreelakshmi seek solace.

However, the climax of the book gifted me the understanding of why the author chose to leave the many stories with open endings.

I particularly loved Najma’s story, where a young girl was attacked by toxic masculinity in it’s most brutal form. Yet, Najma chose to fight back and to live life at her terms.

“When was the last time Ammi had bought herself something nice, Najma wondered. When had she ever allowed herself to want something? Desire is a luxury, she always said. Not that that desire was evil or wrond, but it could cause heartbreak.

‘Should I get a burkha?’ Najma asked Ammi.
She frowned. ‘Why would you need one?’

Najma laughed. She felt relieved, and blessed. Her Ammi couldn’t even sign her name, but she was more progressive than some of those women who came to talk about female wmpowerment. Her Ammi made her feel that she had every right to be who she was.”

Another favourite is Maya’s story.

Her struggle being a single parent caring for her autistic son, the self-recrimination that seemed to linger even in her sleep, jolted me from within.

“But she felt a crack appear each time a stranger eyed her 95-kg son as if he was an ungainly animal, a baby hippo perhaps. Mostly they turned the other way when she spotted them staring at him. But if it was an acquaintance, the voice would ring with a “Hello Naveen!” Unnatural, syrupy sweet and laden with false emotion: ‘Let’s show Maya that we are blessed with a benevolence of heart, and how much we feel for her.’ Sometimes she felt as though she couldn’t bear to go on any longer. “

Who is this book for? 

This book is a welcome companion in the times when the #MeToo movement is already causing a stir in the world empowering women to stand up for themselves and voice the hurt, the soaked up anguish that has been haunting them for a long time.

This book gives a message to all women living in fear and rage that they aren’t alone. There’s hope and that their voices matter.

I’d like to end my review with a quote that sums up my experience of reading this book.

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.”

― William Styron

About the Book: 

Title – Eating Wasps
Author – Anita Nair
Publisher – Context (Westland Publishing)
Genre – Fiction
ISBN –  978-9387578722
Pages – 260
Price – INR 599

About the Author: 

Anita Nair is the author of several novels, including The Better Man, Mistress, Idris: Keeper of the Light and Alphabet Soup for Lovers. She has also authored a crime series featuring Inspector Gowda.

Anita’s other books include Malabar Mind, a collection of poems, Goodnight & God Bless, a collection of essays, and six books for children. She has written two plays and the screenplay for the movie adaptation of her novel Lessons in Forgetting, which was part of the Indian Panorama at IFFI 2012 and won the National Film Award in 2013. Her books have been translated into thirty-one languages around the world. She is also the founder of the creative writing and mentorship programme, Anita’s Attic.

Rating: 4/5

*Disclosure:  I received a review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. 

Head here for more book reviews and my review policy.

 

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua: Memoir of a Strict Mom

Before I became a parent, I had a clear vision of what kind of a parent I wanted to be. I had hoped for a lot of changes from the way my parents had raised me. Though discipline and obedience were absolutely non-negotiable.

Fast-forward to the time when I became a mom and my child was around 2 years old. While I was still struggling with the nuances of motherhood, one thing that stood tall was my kid’s feisty, spirited personality.

She had an untameable spirit and nothing (no amount of bribing, pampering, cajoling, yelling or even threatening) could make her change her mind. Except, giving her control over a situation sometimes helped defuse her temper or sway her decisions.

Things haven’t changed much since then.

I sometimes feel, raising Pari is quite similar to trying to tame a feral horse. Our home is often an all-out warfare with the fact that Pari has inherited my hot-tempered, quick-witted, fast-forgiving personality.

With a child who challenges my authority at every step, I have learnt to adapt myself to become a parent who always offers her child choices.

However, I can’t help but be worried if I’m doing enough as a parent by not being a strict mom.

Am I robbing my child of the possibility of being successful by not pushing her hard enough?

The answers to all these doubts came to me from Amy Chua’s controversial parenting memoir, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother.

A detailed book review of the parenting memoir of a strict mom, Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Here I share the quotes and the lessons learnt from this must-read book for everyone. #theerailivedin #bookreview

I spotted this book among the titles recommended to me by Amazon.

The blurb on the book reads:

An awe-inspiring, often hilarious, and unerringly honest story of one mother’s exercise in extreme parenting, revealing the rewards—and the costs—of raising her children the Chinese way.

All decent parents want to do what’s best for their children. What Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother reveals is that the Chinese just have a totally different idea of how to do that. Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions and providing a nurturing environment. The Chinese believe that the best way to protect your children is by preparing them for the future and arming them with skills, strong work habits, and inner confidence. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother chronicles Chua’s iron-willed decision to raise her daughters, Sophia and Lulu, her way—the Chinese way—and the remarkable results her choice inspires.

Chua demands as much of herself as she does of her daughters. And in her sacrifices—the exacting attention spent studying her daughters’ performances, the office hours lost shuttling the girls to lessons—the depth of her love for her children becomes clear. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is an eye-opening exploration of the differences in Eastern and Western parenting—and the lessons parents and children everywhere teach one another.

While researching about the book, I had a chance of reading Amy Chua’s Wall Street Journal article and the criticism the book received.

I’d like to begin by clarifying that the book is not a parenting prime.

It is a witty memoir of a Chinese immigrant mother who shares her journey in her parenting years clearly outlining her views on how do Chinese mothers raise successful children.

Amy Chua both defends and questions her parenting methods throughout the book, and she accounts for her generalization of “Chinese” and “Western” mother right in the first chapter.

The book draws inspiration for its title from the fact that Amy Chua was born in the year of the tiger as per the Chinese zodiac and this book records her life as being an obsessive, strict mom who is determined to help her children achieve success and greatness in everything they do.

The author has been widely criticised for her parenting style and the immense pressure she subjects her daughters to.

I could feel a connection, an understanding, a bonding for Amy’s choices and parenting style having been raised in a similar way.

Maybe, all Indians and perhaps most Asians can connect with Amy’s style of parenting.

Here are some things Amy Chua would never allow her daughters to do:

– have a playdate
– be in a school play
– complain about not being in a school play
– not be the #1 student in every subject except gym and drama
– play any instrument other than the piano or violin
– not play the piano or violin

These rules had no exceptions and there was no room for any excuses in Amy’s home.

The truth was that Amy’s daughters, Sophia and Lulu would never have had time for a playdate. They were too busy practising their instruments (two to three hours a day and double sessions on the weekend) scoring straight A in all subjects and perfecting their Mandarin.

The book holds an important place in the current times when we can see so many children buckle under the constant pressure of expectations from their parents.

“Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn’t get them, the cChinese parent assumes it’s because the child didn’t work hard enough. That’s why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and improve from it.”

In a  world that values only the successful, the achievers, failure is not even considered an option.

In Amy’s pursuit of helping her girls achieve excellence, things begin to fall apart. This comeuppance is the reason why this memoir left a lasting impact on me.

Besides the similarities in our personalities, the outlook of the author’s parents and the strikingly similar personality traits my daughter shares with Amy’s younger daughter, Lulu made this book an enlightening read for me.

Unlike parenting books, that tend to get preachy, this memoir helped me see the cultural reasons behind why we, Asian parents, parent the way we do.

I learnt why being a strict mom comes so naturally to me, despite the constant emphasis on the importance of trying to respect our child’s individuality, being more supportive of their choices while providing positive reinforcement from all parenting books and articles on the Internet.

The book makes for an interesting, witty, breezy read with never a dull moment. The book reads like a fiction novel with nuggets of wisdom for the parents at every bend.

This book hit home for me because:

– It introduced me to the many possible explanations about why the strict parents (like my parents and myself) choose to be so.

– How our culture affects the way we parent.

– What is the best approach when raising an iron-willed child like my daughter.

The book teaches many priceless lessons:

Most activities are not fun unless you’re good at it.

“What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it. to get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”

 You can’t get good at something without practice. Through practice, every single day of the year is a must.

“Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence. Once a child starts to excel at something – whether it’s math, piano, pitching or ballet- he or she gets praise, admiration, and satisfaction.”

Practising something you aren’t good at isn’t fun, and you may need external motivation, coaching and lots of willpower to make it more enjoyable.

“The praise and admiration the child gets builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.”

While verbal encouragement can give you confidence, great results give you a lot more confidence.

“As a parent, one of the worst things you can do fr your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.”

The book wouldn’t have impressed so much if it had been written entirely from a parent’s perspective. The author has taken the time to acknowledge the various episodes where she’d override her children’s desires and preferences, break promises in the hope of helping them (her children) achieve greatness.

What really balances out the tiger mom’s obsessive parenting misadventures is the rebellion of her daughter, Lulu. How Amy learnt that it was time to draw the line to her overzealous, often tortuous ways of making her kids excel is something, many parents can take a learning from.

The author has succeeded in painting an almost complete picture of two styles of parenting. One, strict and authoritarian and the other where the parents believed in individual choice and valued their children’s independence, creativity and questioning authority.

This balance comes from the fact that Amy married an American Jewish, who had been raised with values very different from her own.

There is no denying that at times, Amy’s parenting style feels suffocating when she insists on her daughter’s practising the piano and the violin every day, even on their overseas vacations and on many days past midnight.

But you can’t help but notice that the author is a caring mother. Despite the rebellion from her kids, she doesn’t give up. The Tiger Mom’s parenting style is different and builds immense pressure on her kids but because it is backed with love, you can see the children survive it and excel (exactly the way their mother hoped they would).

The author’s irresistible passion for life and her honesty shines bright and makes this an unputdownable read irrespective of whether you agree with her parenting style or not.

Who is this book for?

I might not agree with the author’s parenting style but I strongly recommend this book, not only to parents but everyone who has been raised by strict parents. Asian immigrant parents (settled in the western world) will particularly feel a connection with Amy’s thought process and preferences.

If you’re a parent, irrespective of your style of parenting, this book is a must read to give you an insight into what it feels like to be raised in a strict environment. This book gives a taste into what goes on in the process of pushing kids too hard in the pursuit of excellence.

About the Book:

Title – Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Author –Amy Chua
Publisher – Bloomsbury Publishing
Genre – Memoir
ISBN –  978-1408822074
Pages – 273
Price – INR 196 (Explore the best deal at Amazon

About the Author: 

Amy L. Chua is the John M. Duff, Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School. She joined the Yale faculty in 2001 after teaching at Duke Law School. Prior to starting her teaching career, she was a corporate law associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton. She specializes in the study of international business transactions, law and development, ethnic conflict, and globalization and the law. As of January 2011, she is most noted for her parenting memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Rating: 4/5

*Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

7 Reasons Why You Must Read “The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told” by Muhammad Umar Memon

My grandfather was well-versed in Urdu and Persian. He used to spend a lot of time reading books written in these languages. What particularly drew me towards his love for poetry & stories written in Urdu and Persian was his eagerness to share all he read with his family and friends.

Unfortunately, I was pretty young when he left me with the longing to learn these languages. Though I never got an opportunity to learn them in the future, my eagerness to savour the translated versions of Urdu and Persian literature has grown over time.

This is why I picked this book at the very first opportunity, almost six months ago.

I couldn’t bring myself to review this book, despite promising it every time I shared its pictures.

This was because I found myself incapable of capturing the beauty and the wholesome experience this masterpiece collection delivers.

In my repeated attempts to review this book, I reread the book in entirety or in parts many times.

Today, though am not fully convinced my review can do justice to this book, I am determined to write it.

7 Reasons Why You Must Read "The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told" by Muhammad Umar Memon. In this book-review on my blog, I share why I loved this book. Translated from Urdu to English this anthology of 25 stories that keep the reader hooked while taking him on a roller coaster of emotions. #theerailivedin #bookreview #bookstagram #books #translatedbooks

Let’s begin with the blurb on the book:

Every story in the anthology illustrates one or the other facet of the form in the Urdu literary tradition. But even more than for their formal technique and inventiveness, these stories have been included because of their power and impact on the reader. Death and poverty face off in Premchand’s masterpiece ‘The Shroud’. In Khalida Asghar’s ‘The Wagon’, a mysterious redness begins to cloak the sunset in a village by the Ravi. Behind closed doors and cracks in the windows lies desire but also ‘a sense of queer foreboding’ in Naiyer Masud’s ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’. The tragedy and horror of Partition are brought to life by Saadat Hasan Manto’s lunatic (in ‘Toba Tek Singh’) and the eponymous heroine of Rajinder Singh Bedi’s ‘Laajwanti’. Despairing, violent, passionate, humorous, ironic and profound—the fiction in The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told will imprint itself indelibly on your mind.”

I believe this book deserves to be read and talked about widely because of a number of reasons:

1. The Beauty of the book:

The beauty of the book spans from its artistic cover to a careful selection of poignant stories that stand true to the book’s title. This book is undoubtedly a compilation of the finest stories I have read.

2. A compelling introduction that opens doors to the history of the Urdu literary fiction:

The book’s introduction gently yet generously shares the history of fiction writing in Urdu. I was amazed to note how the exceptionally rich in poetic creation, Urdu literature lacked fiction of any kind until the dastan (that was majorly an oral and anonymous composition) was finally written down and printed in the nineteenth century.

Starting from the era of Dastan and dastan-gos, Muhammad Umar Memon takes the reader through the chronological history of Urdu literature. He also introduces the readers to the stalwarts, their contributions and hereto unknown insights about Urdu Stories.

The book also has a separate section sharing brief introductions to the life and works of the many authors and the translators whose writing adorn this anthology.

“Altogether then, the short story is essentially a borrowed form in Urdu.

Despite its technical and thematic wealth, the Urdu short story has remained less widely known among South Asians of different linguistic backgrounds. Since English alone enjoys the status of a shared language among these readers, it is inevitable that one reaches out to them through English. Hence this collection.” ~ The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told

3. There has been a deliberate attempt throughout not to talk of women writers as a distinctive group: 

I was both impressed and amazed by this unbiased approach. The author claims to have handpicked the stories based solely on his personal liking, trying to achieve a balance between the realist, traditional type of short story and its more daring modern counterpart.

“In this age of rampant discussions, partisan or otherwise, of divisions and subdivisions, of cultures and subcultures, of liberation and identity, the only decent way to show respect to half of the humankind seemed to lie in not identifying it as a marked species.

Woman and man are part of a single continuum, and to think otherwise is downright vulgar. Urdu literature is an act of imagination. And whoever heard that man imagines better than a woman, or the other way round?” ~ The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told

4. The translation from Urdu to English has been done keeping in mind that the reader knows little to no Urdu: 

This is particularly important for readers like me who wish that the intricate details of the plot, period and characterisation not be lost in translation. The author has taken due care to cite Urdu titles sparingly.

While an attempt has been made to discuss some stories and authors who aren’t part of this anthology with the intention of outlining the history of the Urdu fiction in its entirety, the author has succeeded in saving the book from degenerating into a textbook by eschewing annotations or glosses except in a couple of instances.

5. The anthology is a kaleidoscope of emotions:

The twenty-five stories in this book represent a fine collection of human emotions, relationships and facets of life that poignantly transgress the borders of anger, disbelief, disgust, despair, longing, fear, desire, death and poverty.

6. The short stories surprise with their freshness and contemporariness:

Many of the stories have been written almost a century ago, yet they pretty accurately capture the ideologies of the modern day societies. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the fact how human beliefs have stood the tests of time, despite the constant evolution of the cultures and societies.

The Wagon written by Khalida Asgar in 1960, captures the insensitivities of the city dwellers towards the environment and the villagers that can be seen prevalent even in today’s times. I was startled by the mention of global warming in this short-story which clearly hints at how some writers were visionaries and well ahead of their times.

Of Fists And Rubs by Ismat Chughati is a hard-hitting, gut-wrenching tale of botched up abortions that highlight the timeless tragic scene of the human societies that haven’t changed much over the years.

7. It is impossible to pick a favourite story: 

The success of this well-curated, wonderfully translated anthology lies in the diversity of each of its succinctly titled, twenty-five stories that makes it almost impossible to pick a favourite.

The stories are of varying lengths, portray a variety of settings, evoke a different emotion at the turn of every page often blurring the boundaries where one short story ends and another begins.

The book is a page-turner, that draws you in right from the introduction. The rich vocabulary and the lucid narration makes each story linger long after you’ve put the book down. This delightful book is best enjoyed in small morsels because most of its stories are emotionally exhausting.

The stories that particularly stood out for me include:

The Shroud by Munshi Premchand – I was taken by surprise when I learnt that the author whom I solely related to his contribution to Hindi literature was, in fact, the first professional short story writer in Urdu. This story featuring a lazy, poor, father-son duo is a masterpiece of wry humour and clawing irony. It left me with a bitter aftertaste while marvelling at the compelling, dispassionate and objective narration.

The Shepherd by Ashfaq Ahmad – I was intrigued from the start by a teacher’s dedication to help his student excel and by the student’s continued defiance. The teacher’s patience is exemplary while the turn of events, in the end, are what make this story unforgettable for me.

Laajwanti by Rajinder Singh Bedi – The story portrays the devastating effects of partition, domestic violence and the conflicting, fragile desires of a woman’s heart.

Toba Tek Singh by Saddat Hasan Manto – This short story narrates the plight of lunatics in the pre-partition period. This entertaining story revolves around the plight of a lunatic who is left wondering which side (in India or Pakistan) shall his town lie post partition. This story was made into a feature film by Bandung Films, London.

Who is this book for?

I highly recommend this book to everyone who loves reading translated books, is looking for a refreshing anthology that’ll leave you emotionally drained long after you’ve put the book down or is looking for a book that’s nothing like any anthologies they’ve read till date.

About the Book: 

Title – The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told
Selector & Translator of Stories –Muhammad Umar Memon
Publisher – Aleph Book Company
Genre – Fiction
ISBN –  978-9383064076
Pages – 346
Price – INR 699 (Explore the best deal at Amazon)

About the Author:

Muhammad Umar Memon is a professor of Urdu literature and Islamic studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is a critic, short story writer and has translated numerous works of Urdu fiction, of which the most recent is Collected Stories: Naiyer Masud.

Head here for more book reviews and my review policy.

*Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.