Sunday, September 30, 2012

21 Before 21

I like to think of myself as an avid reader. I almost always have a book in my bag and there is nothing that makes me happier than spending long hours in a bookshop or library. For me, there is something mystical, something magical that lies within the pages of books. A form of escape from the numerous worries of the world? Maybe. But more than an escape, they are also an avenue to reach out, explore, discover things for oneself. Curiosity, a sense of wonder, amazement- that would define books for me. However, I have realized that I'm not reading as much as I would like to, and to say that it is because of a lack of time would be a poor excuse. If only I used the time I spend in worrying and complaining, or even random facebook stalking (ahem, ahem) on reading instead! So, I decided to take things on track and promised myself to read more- I decided to come up with a list of 21 books and see whether I can finish reading them by the time I turn 21. I do hope I will be able to catch hold of these books, but anyway my goal is simply to finish 21 books, and these are the books I would like to read by then. Here's the list:

1) Autobiography of a Yogi
I have read this book in parts, but I really don't think one can claim to have read it unless it's read in its entirety. At one point in time, this was the world's most translated book, and from the few chapters I have read, it has immensely powerful lessons in spirituality.
2) Does He Know A Mother's Heart?
In this book, Arun Shourie discusses the one question that haunts many: 'If there really is a kind, compassionate, all-knowing God, how can there be extreme suffering in this world?' The book also describes his own experience as the father of a child, diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
3) The Great Indian Novel
Shashi Tharoor, in this book, uses the Mahabharata to explain the story of India's Independence, and its journey following the first few years of freedom. According to Tharoor's website, the title of the book itself refers to the Mahabharata- Maha, meaning great, and Bharata being an ancient name for the land beyond the Indus.
4) City of Djinns
I am a big fan of William Dalrymple. I loved reading The Age of Kali, Nine Lives, and more recently, From the Holy Mountain. Naturally, this book should be on my list! City of Djinns tells the rich history of the city of Delhi, beginning with the Moghul dynasty.
5) Fantastic Mr Dahl
The biography of one of my most favorite, favorite writers, Roald Dahl! The title of the book is in reference to one of Dahl's most popular books for children, Fantastic Mr Fox. :D
6) Reading Lolita in Tehran
The book narrates Azar Nafisi's journey as a professor at the University of Tehran, and her forming a 'secret' book club consisting of seven of her female students in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Till now, I have never been able to get hold of this book for some reason or the other! :/
7) Once Upon a Time in The Soviet Union
This book, by Dominique Lapierre, describes his journey across the roads of erstwhile USSR. At a time when it was difficult (almost impossible) for foreigners to get free travel passes in the Soviet Union, Lapierre and his photographer colleague, document what it must have been like to live behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
8) City of Joy
Another book by Dominique Lapierre. This is the incredibly inspiring story of his journey in the slums of Calcutta, and why it truly is a city of joy. (I've read an excerpt of this book in another book called A Thousand Suns and I found it so humbling!)
9) Chanakya's Chant
I just cannot understand how I missed this book. I stumbled across it a few days ago, and the plot sounds ingenious to me! Ashwin Singhi, in this book, tells us two parallel stories- one of Chanakaya, the 'cold, calculating and cruel' strategist, creator of the Science of Wealth, who succeeds in making Chandragupta the emperor of the Mauryan kingdom, and the other of a modern day Chanakya, born 2500 years later.
10) The Miracle
The book by Irving Wallace, is a fictional take on miracle cures that many people believe can be performed by the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. This is another book that I have been hunting for ages but to no avail. :/
11) The Immortals of Meluha
12) The Secret of the Nagas
I have been wanting to read the first two books of the Shiva Trilogy for AGES. And I'm yet to get hold of them.
13) Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion
I stumbled across this book while reading a few course related case studies. Intrigued by the description of the book, I went on to read an excerpt and I found it really inspiring. The book tells us the story of the Aravind Eye Hospital Group in India, and the incredible journey of its founder, Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy, who is popularly known as Dr V.
14) Life of Pi
15) To Kill a Mockingbird
These two books have been on my shelf for a very long time, but I have somehow not got around to reading them yet.
16) The Emerald Route
This book by the master of Malgudi, RK Narayan, is an account of his travels in the lush, green regions of Karnataka. But to simply describe it that way would be gross injustice to both the writer, and the book. Sample this book review: http://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-emerald-route/
Again, this is another book that has long eluded me. :/
17) The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone
18) Pax Indica
I really don't think anyone else can talk about India or 'Indianness' better than Shashi Tharoor. I've read India: From Midnight to the Millennium which describes in detail India's journey till today. (One of my favorite chapters in the book talks about 'Scheduled Caste, Unscheduled Change' and perfectly explains the caste cauldron that India is drowning in.) These two are Tharoor's more recent books on India, Pax Indica being released just a couple of months ago.
19) Ruby of Cochin
I cannot remember how I came across the book. I only remember reading an excerpt and hunting for the book ever since, but again to no avail. The book, by Ruby Daniel, tells the story of the Cochin Jews.
20) Lament of Mohini
Again, I stumbled across this book a few days ago. I am currently reading Anita Nair's The Better Man, and was curious to find other recent works of fiction by contemporary Indian writers. This book, by Shreekumar Verma, tells the story of a royal Kerala household, spanning five generations. The reviews seemed very interesting to me!
21) Is Paris Burning?
I came across this book while reading A Thousand Suns, where Dominique Lapierre describes his partnership with Larry Collins and how the duo began writing books together. Is Paris Burning? was their first book as a team, and the title is a reference to the question asked by Adolf Hitler to his general on the eve of the Liberation of Paris. Lapierre and Collins later interviewed the general, Deitrich von Choltitz, who refused to follow the Fuhrer's orders to burn Paris.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on Tolerance

The dictionary defines tolerance as 'a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc.,differ from one's own'. Now imagine using its verb form in a sentence- for example, I can tolerate you. Meaning, your presence is a nuisance, but yes, I can still live with it. It doesn't sound nice to me, because you are merely willing to tolerate me, not accept me for who I am. I could be black, white, brown, or yellow; gay or straight; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic, or even atheist...You wouldn't be able to empathize with me, you wouldn't agree with my views and we wouldn't meet eye to eye, but you can still put up with me, and we could at least agree to disagree. And yet, today, being able to tolerate is the least that we can do. Sure, if we could put aside all our differences, and move from mere 'tolerance to acceptance to (even better) celebration of differences', we would be living in utopia. But somewhat ironically, it seems as if we have even lost this ability to tolerate. While the human race, supposedly progressive, should be moving forward from tolerance to the highest form of celebration, it appears to me that we are actually regressing.

Why do I sound so pessimistic? Well, it's got to do with the release of the trailer of a movie titled Innocence of Muslims, released a few days ago on Youtube. The director of the movie went by the name of Sam Bacile, allegedly an Egyptian American although he claimed to be Israeli-American. There are several rumours about the actual identity of this director, but I don't think none has hitherto been proved true.Well, the nationality or the religion of the director doesn't matter so much (at least to me) more than the fact that this film has been made with the sole purpose to enrage, infuriate the faithful. It was built on the ugliness of hate. As simple as that. He neither apologized nor felt much remorse for what he did. On the contrary, he still believes in his mission, and that is what disgusts me.

I genuinely find it difficult to believe that a person could actually have so much hate for someone, just because they happen to follow a different religion! And really, is religion even something over which we should fight? I agree that organised religion is more about an identity, a feeling of belonging to a particular group united by common beliefs and practices, influenced by cultural norms, and it is not just about God. However, isn't God still the centre of every religion? And after all, isn't God the same, no matter what name you call Him by? I remember as a child I was confused over whether I should call Him Krishna, like my parents, or Jesus, like Sister Sheeba who taught me math in primary school. As an answer to this confusion, Appa used an analogy- A lady has many roles to play in her life. She is a daughter, a mother, a sister, and a wife. Accordingly, different people call her by different names, but no matter what name is used, the lady remains the same. In the same way, God is the same, no matter what name you use. Well you may or may not agree with me over this. After all, if you cannot see my point, you still have your God, and I still have mine. I simply fail to see why there should be so much hatred towards someone whose view of God happens to differ from yours.

To be fair, the reactions to this video are also quite disturbing. Protests and riots, mostly across the Middle East, resulted in injury, and sometimes even death. While it is true that the religious sentiments of many have been hurt, is violence of this nature the solution to the issue? It saddens me to think that we have foolish hate-spewers like Bacile or whoever he is on the one hand, and then we also have people who react impulsively, fuelled by anger and no surprise, hate again. The wise ones told us a long time ago that hate begets only hate. And yet we don't learn. When did we become so hateful?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Ring (55 Fiction)


Tina fumed at the loss of her ring. She was sure the maid had stolen it. Tina saw her eyeing it the other day, enviously, wistfully. And now it was gone! She’d teach her a lesson. Enraged, she dragged the sheets off the bed. Something fell. It was the emerald ring, sparkling in the light.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses- My Thoughts


I came across Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses at a second hand book sale. I had heard of Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife before, but somehow hadn't been able to read them, so I was somewhat sceptical about picking this book, which happens to be her third. However, my insatiable urge to buy something got the better of me and I soon found myself clutching a slightly worn out copy of The Hundred Secret Senses, with yellowing dog eared pages. And then the book found its way to my bookshelf and lay forgotten for a long time.

I rediscovered it last month, and lost myself in its pages. The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of Olivia Laguni, born to a Chinese father and an American mother, and the complex relationship she shares with her Chinese half-sister, Kwan. After her father's death, her mother promises to take care of his elder daughter from an earlier marriage who has been living in China- and that was how Kwan came to America. Olivia finds Kwan's presence annoying, frustrating, mostly due to her lack of familiarity with anything western: By the first grade, I had become an expert on public humiliation and shame. Kwan asked so many dumb questions that all the neighbourhood kids thought she had come from Mars...She'd say 'Who this Popeye Sailor Man? Why one eye gone? He bandit?'. Added to this, Kwan also had some rather eccentric ways. She claimed to have 'Yin' eyes through which she could not only see but also communicate with ghosts.

Olivia grows up, constantly embarrassed, always irritated with Kwan. In retaliation, she is often mean, even spiteful to her sister. For example, when Kwan asks her about the American name for the delicious pear fruit they ate one night, Olivia says 'Barf' and covers her mouth to stifle her snickers. Poor Kwan rolls this new word over her mouth and says, 'Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate taste!' I was somehow reminded of the relationship between Amir and Hassan in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Amir, convinced that the illiterate Hassan would not be able to learn or appreciate more advanced literature due to his status as a Hazara which ranked low on the Afghan social ladder, would only read out to him the misadventures of Mullah Nasruddin. And whenever Hassan stopped to ask him the meaning of a new word, just like Olivia, he would mock at his ignorance. Like the time Hassan asked him the meaning of the word 'imbecile'. Amir said, Let’s see. ‘Imbecile.’ It means smart, intelligent. I’ll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile.’ Just like how Hassan never seemed to understand how spiteful Amir was, and how he continued to admire him, Kwan also adores her sister and showers her with love- it would always make Olivia guilty later.

 There is something endearing about Kwan. The way she fusses over the rather selfish inconsiderate Olivia, calling her Libby-Ah all the time (she was never able to say Olivia), or the way she went on about her story from another life about a one-eyed Chinese girl called Nunumu and her American missionary friend who went by the name of Miss Banner. Or the delightful way in which she speaks broken English. Or maybe how she could still continue to like, even love, her half sister despite all the hurt. The more I read, the more I began to dislike the protagonist Olivia. Although I could see traces of myself in her, and it was possible to empathize with her, it was really difficult to like her. Maybe that's why I was more drawn to Kwan's character?

The book's turning point is a strange twist of fate which leads Olivia, her estranged husband Simon, and Kwan make a trip to China. Returning to China after nearly thirty years, Kwan helps Olivia explore her real roots, and it is here that Olivia understands what Kwan means when she keeps talking about ghosts and a hundred secret senses.

The description of the village back in China, Olivia and Simon's courtship, and Kwan's story from the other life are delightful. Whilst I found the story within the story, relating to Kwan's other life slightly weary at the beginning, it soon picked up pace, thanks to certain colourful characters like the missionaries whom the locals called Pastor and Mrs Amen. There is one part of the book where Kwan (thanks to her Yin eyes) has a hilarious conversation with the ghost of her deceased aunt, Big Ma. However, there are other parts which I found quite long winded, and thought could have been better dealt with, for example, a chapter on Kwan's childhood friend Buncake. But it is made tolerable by traces of humour- Big Ma's friend, Du Lili, explains why she chose to remain a spinster, Many times I'm glad I never married. Yes, yes, what a lot of trouble, taking care of a man. I heard that half a man's brain lies between his legs, hah!

I wouldn't call this book a brilliant read, but there is something about it which does strike a chord. I found parts of it dreary, parts of it which didn't really weave into the plot, but there were also parts that did bring a smile to me, and despite the rather bittersweet climax, I was somewhat able to relate to the hundred secret senses. In the beginning, when Olivia asks Kwan what she means, the conversation goes like this:

Olivia: What do you mean, secret sense?
Kwan: Ah, I already tell you so many times. You don't listen? Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten. Same kind of sense like ant feet, elephant trunk, dog nose, cat whisker, whale ear, bat wing, clam shell, snake tongue, little hair on flower. Many things, but mix up together.
Olivia: You mean instinct.
Kwan: Stink? Maybe sometimes stinky-
Olivia: Not stink, instinct. It's a kind of knowledge you're born with...

Olivia understands at the end- If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them any time with our hundred secret senses. Indeed, our loved ones do not really die, unless they are erased from our memories, fading away into oblivion. I understood this to mean that as long as we are able to cherish them in some way, some memory, they continue to live on. Profound message, yet I feel the book could have avoided a number of rather tiresome episodes. All in all, it isn't a bad read, but it isn't amazingly brilliant either.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

21 Before 21

I like to think of myself as an avid reader. I almost always have a book in my bag and there is nothing that makes me happier than spending long hours in a bookshop or library. For me, there is something mystical, something magical that lies within the pages of books. A form of escape from the numerous worries of the world? Maybe. But more than an escape, they are also an avenue to reach out, explore, discover things for oneself. Curiosity, a sense of wonder, amazement- that would define books for me. However, I have realized that I'm not reading as much as I would like to, and to say that it is because of a lack of time would be a poor excuse. If only I used the time I spend in worrying and complaining, or even random facebook stalking (ahem, ahem) on reading instead! So, I decided to take things on track and promised myself to read more- I decided to come up with a list of 21 books and see whether I can finish reading them by the time I turn 21. I do hope I will be able to catch hold of these books, but anyway my goal is simply to finish 21 books, and these are the books I would like to read by then. Here's the list:

1) Autobiography of a Yogi
I have read this book in parts, but I really don't think one can claim to have read it unless it's read in its entirety. At one point in time, this was the world's most translated book, and from the few chapters I have read, it has immensely powerful lessons in spirituality.
2) Does He Know A Mother's Heart?
In this book, Arun Shourie discusses the one question that haunts many: 'If there really is a kind, compassionate, all-knowing God, how can there be extreme suffering in this world?' The book also describes his own experience as the father of a child, diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
3) The Great Indian Novel
Shashi Tharoor, in this book, uses the Mahabharata to explain the story of India's Independence, and its journey following the first few years of freedom. According to Tharoor's website, the title of the book itself refers to the Mahabharata- Maha, meaning great, and Bharata being an ancient name for the land beyond the Indus.
4) City of Djinns
I am a big fan of William Dalrymple. I loved reading The Age of Kali, Nine Lives, and more recently, From the Holy Mountain. Naturally, this book should be on my list! City of Djinns tells the rich history of the city of Delhi, beginning with the Moghul dynasty.
5) Fantastic Mr Dahl
The biography of one of my most favorite, favorite writers, Roald Dahl! The title of the book is in reference to one of Dahl's most popular books for children, Fantastic Mr Fox. :D
6) Reading Lolita in Tehran
The book narrates Azar Nafisi's journey as a professor at the University of Tehran, and her forming a 'secret' book club consisting of seven of her female students in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Till now, I have never been able to get hold of this book for some reason or the other! :/
7) Once Upon a Time in The Soviet Union
This book, by Dominique Lapierre, describes his journey across the roads of erstwhile USSR. At a time when it was difficult (almost impossible) for foreigners to get free travel passes in the Soviet Union, Lapierre and his photographer colleague, document what it must have been like to live behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.
8) City of Joy
Another book by Dominique Lapierre. This is the incredibly inspiring story of his journey in the slums of Calcutta, and why it truly is a city of joy. (I've read an excerpt of this book in another book called A Thousand Suns and I found it so humbling!)
9) Chanakya's Chant
I just cannot understand how I missed this book. I stumbled across it a few days ago, and the plot sounds ingenious to me! Ashwin Singhi, in this book, tells us two parallel stories- one of Chanakaya, the 'cold, calculating and cruel' strategist, creator of the Science of Wealth, who succeeds in making Chandragupta the emperor of the Mauryan kingdom, and the other of a modern day Chanakya, born 2500 years later.
10) The Miracle
The book by Irving Wallace, is a fictional take on miracle cures that many people believe can be performed by the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. This is another book that I have been hunting for ages but to no avail. :/
11) The Immortals of Meluha
12) The Secret of the Nagas
I have been wanting to read the first two books of the Shiva Trilogy for AGES. And I'm yet to get hold of them.
13) Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World's Greatest Business Case for Compassion
I stumbled across this book while reading a few course related case studies. Intrigued by the description of the book, I went on to read an excerpt and I found it really inspiring. The book tells us the story of the Aravind Eye Hospital Group in India, and the incredible journey of its founder, Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy, who is popularly known as Dr V.
14) Life of Pi
15) To Kill a Mockingbird
These two books have been on my shelf for a very long time, but I have somehow not got around to reading them yet.
16) The Emerald Route
This book by the master of Malgudi, RK Narayan, is an account of his travels in the lush, green regions of Karnataka. But to simply describe it that way would be gross injustice to both the writer, and the book. Sample this book review: http://thatandthisinmumbai.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/the-emerald-route/
Again, this is another book that has long eluded me. :/
17) The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cellphone
18) Pax Indica
I really don't think anyone else can talk about India or 'Indianness' better than Shashi Tharoor. I've read India: From Midnight to the Millennium which describes in detail India's journey till today. (One of my favorite chapters in the book talks about 'Scheduled Caste, Unscheduled Change' and perfectly explains the caste cauldron that India is drowning in.) These two are Tharoor's more recent books on India, Pax Indica being released just a couple of months ago.
19) Ruby of Cochin
I cannot remember how I came across the book. I only remember reading an excerpt and hunting for the book ever since, but again to no avail. The book, by Ruby Daniel, tells the story of the Cochin Jews.
20) Lament of Mohini
Again, I stumbled across this book a few days ago. I am currently reading Anita Nair's The Better Man, and was curious to find other recent works of fiction by contemporary Indian writers. This book, by Shreekumar Verma, tells the story of a royal Kerala household, spanning five generations. The reviews seemed very interesting to me!
21) Is Paris Burning?
I came across this book while reading A Thousand Suns, where Dominique Lapierre describes his partnership with Larry Collins and how the duo began writing books together. Is Paris Burning? was their first book as a team, and the title is a reference to the question asked by Adolf Hitler to his general on the eve of the Liberation of Paris. Lapierre and Collins later interviewed the general, Deitrich von Choltitz, who refused to follow the Fuhrer's orders to burn Paris.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts on Tolerance

The dictionary defines tolerance as 'a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc.,differ from one's own'. Now imagine using its verb form in a sentence- for example, I can tolerate you. Meaning, your presence is a nuisance, but yes, I can still live with it. It doesn't sound nice to me, because you are merely willing to tolerate me, not accept me for who I am. I could be black, white, brown, or yellow; gay or straight; Christian, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic, or even atheist...You wouldn't be able to empathize with me, you wouldn't agree with my views and we wouldn't meet eye to eye, but you can still put up with me, and we could at least agree to disagree. And yet, today, being able to tolerate is the least that we can do. Sure, if we could put aside all our differences, and move from mere 'tolerance to acceptance to (even better) celebration of differences', we would be living in utopia. But somewhat ironically, it seems as if we have even lost this ability to tolerate. While the human race, supposedly progressive, should be moving forward from tolerance to the highest form of celebration, it appears to me that we are actually regressing.

Why do I sound so pessimistic? Well, it's got to do with the release of the trailer of a movie titled Innocence of Muslims, released a few days ago on Youtube. The director of the movie went by the name of Sam Bacile, allegedly an Egyptian American although he claimed to be Israeli-American. There are several rumours about the actual identity of this director, but I don't think none has hitherto been proved true.Well, the nationality or the religion of the director doesn't matter so much (at least to me) more than the fact that this film has been made with the sole purpose to enrage, infuriate the faithful. It was built on the ugliness of hate. As simple as that. He neither apologized nor felt much remorse for what he did. On the contrary, he still believes in his mission, and that is what disgusts me.

I genuinely find it difficult to believe that a person could actually have so much hate for someone, just because they happen to follow a different religion! And really, is religion even something over which we should fight? I agree that organised religion is more about an identity, a feeling of belonging to a particular group united by common beliefs and practices, influenced by cultural norms, and it is not just about God. However, isn't God still the centre of every religion? And after all, isn't God the same, no matter what name you call Him by? I remember as a child I was confused over whether I should call Him Krishna, like my parents, or Jesus, like Sister Sheeba who taught me math in primary school. As an answer to this confusion, Appa used an analogy- A lady has many roles to play in her life. She is a daughter, a mother, a sister, and a wife. Accordingly, different people call her by different names, but no matter what name is used, the lady remains the same. In the same way, God is the same, no matter what name you use. Well you may or may not agree with me over this. After all, if you cannot see my point, you still have your God, and I still have mine. I simply fail to see why there should be so much hatred towards someone whose view of God happens to differ from yours.

To be fair, the reactions to this video are also quite disturbing. Protests and riots, mostly across the Middle East, resulted in injury, and sometimes even death. While it is true that the religious sentiments of many have been hurt, is violence of this nature the solution to the issue? It saddens me to think that we have foolish hate-spewers like Bacile or whoever he is on the one hand, and then we also have people who react impulsively, fuelled by anger and no surprise, hate again. The wise ones told us a long time ago that hate begets only hate. And yet we don't learn. When did we become so hateful?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Ring (55 Fiction)


Tina fumed at the loss of her ring. She was sure the maid had stolen it. Tina saw her eyeing it the other day, enviously, wistfully. And now it was gone! She’d teach her a lesson. Enraged, she dragged the sheets off the bed. Something fell. It was the emerald ring, sparkling in the light.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses- My Thoughts


I came across Amy Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses at a second hand book sale. I had heard of Tan's The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife before, but somehow hadn't been able to read them, so I was somewhat sceptical about picking this book, which happens to be her third. However, my insatiable urge to buy something got the better of me and I soon found myself clutching a slightly worn out copy of The Hundred Secret Senses, with yellowing dog eared pages. And then the book found its way to my bookshelf and lay forgotten for a long time.

I rediscovered it last month, and lost myself in its pages. The Hundred Secret Senses tells the story of Olivia Laguni, born to a Chinese father and an American mother, and the complex relationship she shares with her Chinese half-sister, Kwan. After her father's death, her mother promises to take care of his elder daughter from an earlier marriage who has been living in China- and that was how Kwan came to America. Olivia finds Kwan's presence annoying, frustrating, mostly due to her lack of familiarity with anything western: By the first grade, I had become an expert on public humiliation and shame. Kwan asked so many dumb questions that all the neighbourhood kids thought she had come from Mars...She'd say 'Who this Popeye Sailor Man? Why one eye gone? He bandit?'. Added to this, Kwan also had some rather eccentric ways. She claimed to have 'Yin' eyes through which she could not only see but also communicate with ghosts.

Olivia grows up, constantly embarrassed, always irritated with Kwan. In retaliation, she is often mean, even spiteful to her sister. For example, when Kwan asks her about the American name for the delicious pear fruit they ate one night, Olivia says 'Barf' and covers her mouth to stifle her snickers. Poor Kwan rolls this new word over her mouth and says, 'Wah! What a clumsy word for such a delicate taste!' I was somehow reminded of the relationship between Amir and Hassan in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner. Amir, convinced that the illiterate Hassan would not be able to learn or appreciate more advanced literature due to his status as a Hazara which ranked low on the Afghan social ladder, would only read out to him the misadventures of Mullah Nasruddin. And whenever Hassan stopped to ask him the meaning of a new word, just like Olivia, he would mock at his ignorance. Like the time Hassan asked him the meaning of the word 'imbecile'. Amir said, Let’s see. ‘Imbecile.’ It means smart, intelligent. I’ll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile.’ Just like how Hassan never seemed to understand how spiteful Amir was, and how he continued to admire him, Kwan also adores her sister and showers her with love- it would always make Olivia guilty later.

 There is something endearing about Kwan. The way she fusses over the rather selfish inconsiderate Olivia, calling her Libby-Ah all the time (she was never able to say Olivia), or the way she went on about her story from another life about a one-eyed Chinese girl called Nunumu and her American missionary friend who went by the name of Miss Banner. Or the delightful way in which she speaks broken English. Or maybe how she could still continue to like, even love, her half sister despite all the hurt. The more I read, the more I began to dislike the protagonist Olivia. Although I could see traces of myself in her, and it was possible to empathize with her, it was really difficult to like her. Maybe that's why I was more drawn to Kwan's character?

The book's turning point is a strange twist of fate which leads Olivia, her estranged husband Simon, and Kwan make a trip to China. Returning to China after nearly thirty years, Kwan helps Olivia explore her real roots, and it is here that Olivia understands what Kwan means when she keeps talking about ghosts and a hundred secret senses.

The description of the village back in China, Olivia and Simon's courtship, and Kwan's story from the other life are delightful. Whilst I found the story within the story, relating to Kwan's other life slightly weary at the beginning, it soon picked up pace, thanks to certain colourful characters like the missionaries whom the locals called Pastor and Mrs Amen. There is one part of the book where Kwan (thanks to her Yin eyes) has a hilarious conversation with the ghost of her deceased aunt, Big Ma. However, there are other parts which I found quite long winded, and thought could have been better dealt with, for example, a chapter on Kwan's childhood friend Buncake. But it is made tolerable by traces of humour- Big Ma's friend, Du Lili, explains why she chose to remain a spinster, Many times I'm glad I never married. Yes, yes, what a lot of trouble, taking care of a man. I heard that half a man's brain lies between his legs, hah!

I wouldn't call this book a brilliant read, but there is something about it which does strike a chord. I found parts of it dreary, parts of it which didn't really weave into the plot, but there were also parts that did bring a smile to me, and despite the rather bittersweet climax, I was somewhat able to relate to the hundred secret senses. In the beginning, when Olivia asks Kwan what she means, the conversation goes like this:

Olivia: What do you mean, secret sense?
Kwan: Ah, I already tell you so many times. You don't listen? Secret sense not really secret. We just call secret because everyone has, only forgotten. Same kind of sense like ant feet, elephant trunk, dog nose, cat whisker, whale ear, bat wing, clam shell, snake tongue, little hair on flower. Many things, but mix up together.
Olivia: You mean instinct.
Kwan: Stink? Maybe sometimes stinky-
Olivia: Not stink, instinct. It's a kind of knowledge you're born with...

Olivia understands at the end- If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them any time with our hundred secret senses. Indeed, our loved ones do not really die, unless they are erased from our memories, fading away into oblivion. I understood this to mean that as long as we are able to cherish them in some way, some memory, they continue to live on. Profound message, yet I feel the book could have avoided a number of rather tiresome episodes. All in all, it isn't a bad read, but it isn't amazingly brilliant either.