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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Vinita Agarwal Reviews Jayanta Ray’s a Slice of Life

Vinita Agarwal Reviews Jayanta Ray’s a Slice of Life

A Slice of Life - No Soft Drink!

A Slice of Life is the third book penned by veteran writer Jayanta Ray. The book is akin to a travelogue of a retired couple's trip to the east coast of USA in the context of attending their daughter's commencement or graduation ceremony. Ray takes the readers on a pleasant ride to all prominent points of interest in New York, Boston and Orlando. He also takes them on a visit to all the fascinating sights in Disneyland. Add to that delectable descriptions of food - home cooked or eaten at plush restaurants or had off the street vans or at a pizzeria, the author involves the reader at every step and it adds to the travel-diary like feel of the book.

Title: a Slice of Life
Author: Jayanta Ray
Publisher: Frog Books, Mumbai
Country: India
ISBN: 978-93-83562-12-1
Published Year: 2013
Pages: 158
Genre: Fiction
The novel is narrated in the first person, mostly by way of emails exchanged between Rajiv - the father who lives in Hyderabad and Antara, his daughter who resides in New York where she is pursuing an MS in Computer Science from NYIT.

Antara sends her parents a loving invite by email asking them to join her to be with her for the commencement ceremony. She writes to them saying that after the function they could all take an exciting vacation around the East coast of USA assuring them that she has enough saved up to take her retired parents on a much deserved holiday.

And so Rajiv and Paromita - Antara's mother - embark on the journey. Ray describes their journey in detail.
" I do not know how aged parents regularly brave this arduous journey across the Atlantic, as they are often required here to babysit for their grandchildren – a proposition that is cheaper than engaging a babysitter there.", he remarks.

The trip to the states becomes a canvas for Ray to express his opinions on various social, economic and political issues. His pertinent and barbed observations lend spice to the slice of life that is America
Ray makes pithy comments on the contrasts between American and Indian societies.

"...students in India enjoy the luxury of focussing on their studies alone, but their counterparts abroad must struggle hard to make both ends meet without losing focus on their studies. Hard facts!", he writes at one point.

"This is NY. Here people are running after dollar from morning to evening. The scent of money, plastic or otherwise, makes people crazy. No time for emotional journeys. In India, you see poverty near traffic signals, temples etc. Here too, you’ll find people asking for a dime near subways or hotels, the difference lies in their numbers and the modus operandi..." is another hard hitting statement the author makes through Antara's speech.

At another point in the book, he writes about the diaspora of people residing in the US and the myriad use of English as a result of that:
"English language is nobody’s personal property. There are Chinese-English, Puerto Rican-English, Spanish-English; Indian-English with all its sub-varieties, Korean-English etc., and all are accepted modes of communication in the US. Even the kind of English that the European colonists and the African settlers in the US speak does make the queen shudder..."

He elucidates, tongue in cheek at one point:
"...the way the Asian and other emigrants are procreating, I feel that the day is not far-off when they would reduce the whites and the blacks into a minority there and maybe..."

And when he refers to the scene back home he says, one sees
"... rather shocking images of people peeing against the longish wall facing our condo on the main street. Not a pleasant sight to watch! Thankfully, the pee- pee business is limited to male population only. ...Are they all diabetic or don’t like to use pay toilets or have a special affinity for walls à la the dog and lamppost?... Being insensitive to the surroundings is an integral part of the Indian psyche."

At one instance he makes a pointed dig at the over dependence on social media and electronic networking. He says
"I think the day may not be far off when the NRI sons and daughters would witness the last rites of their parents being performed in India via Skype, shedding virtual tears in the US."

The parents relationship with their daughter comes across as caring, compassionate and completely understanding of her mind and heart. Ray has done well to characterize this Bengali couple in the mould of typical warm-hearted Indian parents, immensely and justifiably proud of their offspring's achievements.
Ray is somewhat of a master of the art of pacing his book. The reader gets an almost hour by hour account of the itinerary being enjoyed by the family during their travel. He throws in the case of Antara's friend for good measure - whose father is arrested for corrupt practices and the friend is forced to abandon her studies midway and return home to Hyderabad which Ray terms as the 'corruption capital of India'. Perhaps the author wants to underline the fact that the tentacles of corruption can reach across borders and have far reaching and devastating consequences.

Ray transfers his own sensitive heart to Rajiv when he comes up with meaningful one liners like - " I think one should avoid beautification of poverty,".

‘Yes! America is very critical of developing countries that exploit human labour and where human rights are almost non-existent. But it would encourage import of consumer items from the countries where the basic tenets of human lives are compromised. Be it in the dingy lanes of Metiabruz on the southern fringe of Kolkata or in Taiwan where workers packed like sardines in 10-ft x 10-ft room toil day and night, producing readymade garments, or assembling electronic goods for a pittance. It is another matter that middle men on both sides of the Atlantic would earn attractive commissions and the US government would turn a blind eye to such rampant forms of exploitation."

The story progresses with Antara's life after the parents return to their home city. She is offered a job and subsequently an assignment in Bangladesh. This gives Ray an opportunity to exemplify the wonderful warm heartedness of the citizens of this country and its commendable overall development as a nation.
The daughter even falls in love with an Indian boy and the reaction of the parents is mildly indulgent and broadly accepting of her choice. What becomes of her love story is better unravelled by the reader himself by reading the book!

The innocuous facade of the book is really a guise adopted by Ray to express poignant feelings on many burning topics. For example, in one passage, he remarks about America that
"This country hardly produces any consumer goods but relies heavily on imports from developing countries where labour is cheap. Even the president is imported."

Or at yet another place
"The infamous Watergate tapes were released after the expletives used by Nixon were deleted. Otherwise, it would have put the US president in a very bad light. Not that our politicians are any better but we don’t have such elaborate recording system."

Antara too chips in with her thoughts on brain drain:
"Baba, you know, back home there is always a talk of brain drain. However, this is actually a gain. Most well to do expats think of doing something for their country. Also consider that the opportunity of professional education in India has certainly increased because of the US-rush.’

‘Coming to your point of brain gain, I can certainly give the example of LV Prasad Eye Hospital in Hyderabad, where almost all medical equipment and diagnostic facilities have been procured with donations from NRIs from the US. And it’s a leading eye-care hospital in Asia.’

‘This New Jersey doctor whose daughter is a friend of mine and the other co-donors would soon insist on the proof of project implementation. Surprisingly, quite a few of these successful NRIs maintain public persona, which is different from their private face. Their holier-than-thou-attitude does help them preserve a nexus of interests, especially with the powers that be.’

The story has its share of sentimentality and nostalgia like when Rajiv comments on living far from your own land:
"I fully agree with you that people prefer living in their own familiar nest than living away from the usual milieu. It is like cutting oxygen supply to them. ...You remember grandma always pined for the earthy smell of monsoon rain, the dingy lanes, and the cacophony of rickshaw pullers in her hometown that was miles away from our place."

And in another paragraph the author exhibits innate Indian values when he advises his daughter on the issue of marriage.

"From life’s cycle there are two things that one cannot control, i.e. birth and death, but one can always have a say on other aspects. Remember that despite your living in the US, in our society marriage is a lifetime bond; any talk of divorce and separation is taboo. So, don’t take any hasty decision, only to repent later."
The narrative is rife with many political punches, some even delivered also by the otherwise quiet mother, Paramita:
"With education and a slightly better livelihood one is less likely to push drugs or lead a violent life,’
‘But,... the drug cartels won’t allow that to happen. After all, their favourite recruiting targets are the youth with little education; and through them the Mafioso spreads the net.’

All in all a book that's lightweight, easy on the mind and has some worthwhile commentary on out social milieu and it's plethora of problems like loneliness, old age homes, corruption, environment, values, education etc. This is one book that you can hold lightly in your hand but not so lightly in your mind because it delivers much more beneath the surface than above it.
In dreaming a life
That we never had,
Fighting, and blaming fate
For it was never meant to be; ...
Death of A Dream, 
From a poem by Sami Kabir 

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1 comment:

  1. A visit on the medical professional is actually an intimidating special occasion for most people. Top Private Hospitals in Hyderabad also happen to be colored within white to show sanitation and also effectiveness.


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