Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Strike Against the Spanish

By Beth Green

A warrior largely ignored in the West, Lapu-Lapu was a chieftain in the 1500s who is celebrated in the Philippines today. His claim to fame?

Image from Rare Books Division,
He killed Ferdinand Magellan.

Most children in the West learn about Magellan, the Portuguese sailor exploring for Spain who set out to find the westward route to the Spice Islands around the tip of South America. But I’m betting not so many of our readers remember the warrior who commanded Magellan’s downfall.

Here in the Philippines, especially in Cebu City where I now live, Lapu Lapu is a national hero. I’ve been reading quite a bit about him—though I’m guessing there’s more I haven’t learned yet!—and I’d like to share here something about this daring man who fought a foreign invasion.

At the time of Magellan’s death, Lapu-Lapu (his name varies a bit in the annals of history, but this is the currently used version), was a datu, or ruler, of Mactan Island. Mactan is a small island, which in present day is ringed with imported sands and fancy resorts. It’s connected to Cebu City, the oldest city in the Philippines, by two bridges and a lot of economic ties.

Speaking of economics, Magellan arrived in the Philippines looking for spices, directions to spices, and more spices. Oh, and converts to Christianity. Those were good too. He didn’t have much luck with the spices here, but the ruler of Sugbu (now Cebu City) and his queen decided they’d throw in with the newly presented deities and get baptized. Now named Carlos and Juana, they set the stage for Catholicism to enter the Philippines, and even now, more than 500 years later, it is the most popular religion in the country.

Carlos and Juana’s neighbor Lapu-Lapu wasn’t in such a big hurry to change his old god for anybody new. (Some web-pages I’ve visited suggested Lapu-Lapu was Muslim, other sources disagree.)

Either because of the question of converting to a foreign faith was abhorrent to him,  because he didn’t like these weird-looking sailors in their strange ships, or possibly because he had a feud going with Humabon-now-named-Carlos, Lapu-Lapu refused to bow down to the might of the foreign ships, sovereign, or god.
Lapu-Lapu Memorial Statue. Image by

One source quoted on Wikipedia suggests that Magellan may have made a faux pas when approaching Lapu-Lapu as well. Magellan may have approached the islands with the idea that the ruling classes were structured like those in Europe. That thinking would have led Magellan to believe that Carlos was more powerful than Lapu-Lapu because the latter controlled a lesser population on a neighboring island. However, to get to Cebu City harbor, ships would have had to pass through a narrow channel between Cebu Island and Mactan Island. Therefore, Lapu-Lapu probably was more powerful than Carlos because of his strategic location even though he had a smaller population under his command, or so the theory goes.

Anyway, whether Lapu-Lapu disliked Magellan because he felt the European was disrespectful, or he just had a bad feeling about the newcomers, when Magellan told him that he’d attack Mactan Island if Lapu-Lapu didn’t swear fealty to Spain, Lapu Lapu called his bluff.
Magellan was accompanied on his round-the-world cruise by an Italian adventurer, AntonioPigafetta. Pigafetta kept a faithful diary of events that occurred along the way (and unknowingly discovered the international dateline when he got back to Europe and realized he was a day off in his diary), and it’s from his account that we get most of our details today. Lapu-Lapu’s locals asked for one more day’s leniency before the battle so that they could gather more troops and make it a fairer fight. In fact, though, they had plenty of fighters, but they wanted a little more time to dig some traps before the Spaniards disembarked.
Mactan and Cebu today. A fluvial parade. Image by Storm Crypt

Magellan and his men were at a clear disadvantage from the beginning. First, the men on shore were fighting for their homes and freedom. And, once Magellan ordered his men to set fire to huts in the village, I can imagine any locals who were initially ambivalent about fighting the foreigners decided that Lapu-Lapu was right to attack. Second, the Spanish were wearing heavy armor in a humid climate. However, because of the reefs and shallows around Mactan Island (I’ve been scuba diving there several times) Magellan couldn’t bring his ships Victoria or Trinidad close enough to shore for either the ship’s guns to come into play or to get the Spanish fighters off easily. Even using smaller vessels to get nearer, the foreign troops had to exert themselves wading through water over their knees to get to the beach—while Lapu-Lapu’s townspeople rained poisoned arrows and bamboo spears on them from relative comfort. The Spaniards weren’t wearing armor on their legs, and—you’d have seen this coming if it were a movie--Magellan caught a poisoned arrow in his leg. 

Realizing he was done for, Magellan ordered the rest of his men (Pigafetta among them) to retreat, and they watched in horror as Lapu-Lapu and his freedom fighters hacked Magellan to bits with long knives.

Today, Lapu-Lapu is remembered in the name of a town on Mactan Island, which still guards the waters of the Cebu City harbor. His statue stands in the square, and legends have cropped up around his story.

But, perhaps the greatest token of his fame as a warrior is his depiction on the PhilippineNational Police badge, representing “the symbol and embodiment of all the genuine attributes of leadership, courage, nationalism, self-reliance and a people-based and people powered community defense.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Don't Mess with the Missus—Central Asia's Women Warriors

By Kelly Raftery

I know what I should do when asked to write about a famous warrior. I should tell you about Manas, who united forty tribes to throw off an oppressive regime and create the Kyrgyz nation. Or, if I wanted to stay in the neighborhood, I could tell you about Uzbekistan’s Tamerlane, who conquered much of Central Asia, the Middle East and Russia. I could write about the Grandaddy of them all-Genghis Khan, who began life homeless and hungry and ultimately ruled an empire that stretched from the Caspian to the Sea of Japan.  

Central Asia does not lack for warriors. And, given that the ones I have listed above are little known in the Western world, I really should pick a warrior and give a good overview. Instead, I would like to introduce you to Central Asia’s women warriors. 

Amazon on horseback. Red-figure neck-amphora, ca. 420 BC.  From the State Collections of Antiques, Munich.
Ancient Greek tales introduced the world to the idea of a race of barbaric women warriors that came thundering out of the Steppes on horseback. Mythic hero Hercules was sent on a mission to steal the Amazon Queen's golden girdle, but instead he fell in love with her. Hercules returned from his mission golden girdle in hand, though not obtained by force. These tribes of women were said to be a savage, matriarchal society in which a girl could not take a husband before she had made her first kill in battle. Greek artists were fascinated by the idea of a race of women warriors and their representation can be found in their art and writings. 

Statue of female warrior
from ancient Rome
Until very recently, the idea of a Bronze-age female dominated culture was considered a myth that simply grew more fanciful in its retelling. Only in the last century have archaeologists begun to excavate kurgans-or burial mounds-in Russia and Kazakhstan that suggest there is more than a bit of truth in these myth. Among recent discoveries are graves of women that contain weapons along with jewelry. A bronze arrowhead nestles alongside ornate gold earrings in one grave. The bones of one thirteen- or fourteen- year-old girl showed a bowing of the legs, an indicator that she had spent much of her young life on horseback. Both Russian and American researchers continue to excavate and find tantalizing clues to this ancient civilization. More information can be found here and here.
Moving forward in history, it should be noted that Genghis Khan’s daughters played an integral role in administering his empire. While his sons were sent forth to acquire new territory, it was his daughters who were sent to rule over conquered peoples and establish the communication and financial networks that were key to the Mongols’ success. Khutulun, one of Kublai Khan’s nieces was a prominent warrior in her own right, supporting her father’s rule of Central Asia. Stories say that she would ride directly into an opposing army to kidnap a warrior before anyone could prevent her from taking a captive. Khutulun even set forth a challenge that she would only marry the man who could beat her in a wrestling match. Eventually she did marry, though as a result of political necessity, not due to a loss. 
To bring our topic full circle, I would now like to introduce you to Kyrgyzstan’s woman warrior, Kurmanjan Datka.  A teenaged Kurmanjan was sent to the head of a neighboring tribe as a bride. On her wedding day, having met her groom for the first time, she fled, breaking with tradition. Kurmanjan first fled to China and then later returned to her father’s camp, where she met and fell in love with a powerful military leader and politician who had taken the title of datka-which means general or lord. 

After thirty years of marriage, Kurmanjan’s husband was killed during political infighting. Kurmanjan assumed her husband’s role both politically and militarily. She was given the title of datka and recognized as the legitimate leader of the Kyrgyz people by the neighboring khanates. Kurmanjan Datka withdrew from public life after the Russian annexation of her territory and the subsequent execution of her favorite son. 

Kurmanjan Datka with one of her sons, early 1900s.

To me, the most notable warriors of Central Asia are the ones who are often lost to history, the ones who bore children and did battle in equal measures.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Suvorov's Science of Victory

By Lina Zeldovich

Александр Васильевич Суворов
Said to be one of the few commanders in history who never lost a battle, Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov (Александр Васильевич Суворов) had waged wars on nearly every nation that shared borders with the Russian empire. From Turks to Prussians and from Swedes to French, Suvorov had a spectacular and surprisingly long military career for someone who spent his life on the frontline.

No one in his family expected little Sasha Suvorov to become a soldier. A sickly child who spent much of his time in bed, Alexander was deemed unfit for a military career by his father.  Vasiliy Suvorov, a senator and a general-in-chief, knew the army reality all too well, and didn’t think his frail offspring could withstand the hardship. But, captivated by the battle strategies and tactics, Sasha devoted his time to studying the works of renowned historians and military figures – from Plutarch to Cornelius Nepos to Julius Caesar. Determined to join the army despite his ailments and his father, he put himself through vigorous exercise to improve his health and his strength.  

When Sasha was 12, he met General Hannibal, a Russian military commander most known for being a great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, the famous poet. Taken by the young lad, who, in addition to his fascination with martial arts also spoke French, German, Italian, and Polish, Hannibal convinced Suvorov senior to let his unwavering offspring pursue his passion.

And true passion it was. Alexander Suvorov spent more than 50 years of his life on the battlefield. He made a colonel by 33, a general-major before turning 40, and a field marshal a few years later. He led the Russian troops through many a battles in their war with the Ottoman Empire, took part in the famous siege of Ochakov, and won a great victory in a clash at the river Rymnik, for which Catherine the Great bestowed on him the title of Count Rymniksky. In terms of awards and insignia, Suvorov earned pounds of medals and a slew of regalia–from Military Order of Empress Maria Theresa to Alexander Nevsky, and a couple of pages worth of titles: Count of Rymnik, Prince of Sardinia and even Count of the Holy Roman Empire. His last title, which he earned at the age of 70, was generalissimo, the highest military rank possible.

In between marches and sieges, Suvorov penned The Science of Victory, a manual on how to do it right, in style and with flare, which has been used as the holy bible of combat stratagem by a few generations of militants. He coined a few famous sayings venerably recited by Russians to this day, literally and figuratively: "What’s tough in training is easy in a battle" and "Perish yourself but rescue your comrade!"  

Alas, at the end of his career, Suvorov fell out of favor with the royals: Catherine the Great’s son Paul I took offence at the warrior’s sharp tongue. After a few years of forced retirement, Suvorov was called to lead the troops against Napoleon but despite his burning wish never met him in a battle. He is, however, famous for crossing the Alps in winter, a maneuver historically achieved only by Hannibal. Alas, the move was not to wage a spectacular attack on the French but to save the greatly outnumbered Russian troops. Still, that was the maneuver that netted Suvorov his title of the fourth generalissimo of Russia, only days before his death. He never rested on his hard-earned laurels–Tsar Paul, true to his dislike of the old soldier, skipped the ceremony. (Vasily Surikov later painted the legendary Suvorov’s Troops Crossing the Alps, now in the Tretyakov Museum in Moscow.)

Warrior’s luck wasn’t as favorable to Suvorov's son, Arkadiy, who followed his father’s footsteps into the military stardom. Fighting the Turks where the undefeated patriarch did twenty years earlier, he drowned in the very river Rymnik that had brought his father so much fame.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Bollywood with a Twist

Author Shobhan Bantwal is an award-winning author of six novels, multicultural women's fiction with romantic elements, branded as “Bollywood in a Book.” Alli offers a review of Shobhan’s latest book, The Reluctant Matchmaker, here. Her debut novel, The Dowry Bride, won the Golden Leaf award in 2008, and The Unexpected Son won the 2012 National Indie Award for Excellence. Shobhan’s short fiction has also won honors and awards in nationwide competitions, and her articles have been featured in The Writer Magazine, Romantic Times, India Abroad, India Currents, and New Woman 

As a teenager growing up in the sleepy, dusty little town of Belgaum in southwestern India, it was inevitable that I would be influenced by Bollywood, the affectionate and slightly mocking term for Bombay Hollywood (Bombay is now referred to as Mumbai). India churns out more movies each year than any other country in the world. Why? Because a movie packed with action, emotion, songs, dances, and a dramatic love story offers the perfect escape from the poverty and despair that plague India's masses.

Movies are highly popular in India. People save money for tickets, then stand in long lines in the blistering heat or soaking rains of India to see their favorite heroes and heroines on the big screen. In recent years, Bollywood movies, with their color and spice, have even charmed many American movie-goers. Some recent examples are Bend it like Beckham, Slumdog Millionaire, and Monsoon Wedding.

As a young adult, I was an avid reader and fan of popular American and European fiction. I was puzzled as to why the exciting Bollywood tales could not be adapted to books. If America could have its Harlequin and Great Britain its Mills and Boon, why couldn’t India have its own version of romance fiction? After all, Indian movies are basically romances, and India is the land of the Kama Sutra, the only known ancient primer on the art of love-making.

After waiting in vain for decades for an Indian romance author to emerge, I decided to write "Bollywood-in-a-Book" myself—at the ripe age of fifty. By then I had made a happily married life and a successful career for myself in the United States. I call my writing career a “menopausal epiphany,” because it was a delightfully unexpected bonus, not unlike a late-in-life baby. My books are women’s fiction peppered with emotion, drama, romance, and lots of cultural detail—many of the essential elements of Bollywood.

However, when I first started out as a starry-eyed, aspiring writer around 2002, I had no idea how difficult it was to break into the tough fiction market. I had naively assumed that mailing copies of my manuscript to various publishers would stir interest in my unusual ethnic stories. Alas, I had to face the harsh realities of acquiring a reputable literary agent, editors and their stringent requirements, publishing houses and their many submission rules. Back then, self-publishing had a stigma attached to it, so I was not willing to follow that route to publication.

In my long quest for the perfect agent to represent me, I was supremely lucky that the late Elaine Koster, a wonderful and iconic agent-publisher, loved my unique fiction and signed me on as a client. She sold the rights to my books to Kensington Publishing, a mid-sized New York publisher that is still considered the largest privately owned publishing house in the world.

As a former publisher, Ms. Koster had published famous names like Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and Toni Morrison, and as an agent, she represented noted New York Times’ bestsellers like Khaled Hosseini and Kimberla Lawson Robey. Although Ms. Koster sadly passed away in 2010, and the agency has shut down since then, I will always remain deeply grateful for her warm support and expert guidance.

I have had six novels published by Kensington to date, all featuring Indian or Indian-American characters. The themes range from hot-button social issues like dowry and female feticide in contemporary India to sweet and romantic stories about second-generation Indian-Americans born and raised in the United States and facing the unique challenges of straddling two diverse cultures. My books have reached thousands of readers in North America as well as many other parts of the world. The feedback I receive from my readers about my rare tales that combine arranged marriage with romance and social interest themes is indeed heartwarming for me and my family.

The Reluctant Matchmaker, my latest novel, is a vivid blend of contemporary Indian-American culture with an unconventional romance. When petite Meena finds herself irresistibly attracted to her strikingly tall boss, Prajay, a man who's determined to find a statuesque bride to complement his remarkable height, how can Meena convince him that she is his perfect soul-mate? Is she willing to make some sacrifices to win the giant's heart?

The book trailer and excerpt for The Reluctant Matchmaker can be found at along with information about my other books, videos, contests, recipes, photos, and reviews. Also, visit my Facebook page at

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Life's Little Changes - A Review

By Edith McClintock

Last month, I packed up and shipped off my worldly belongings to Washington, DC. In the process, I lost my sister’s cat. We scoured her neighborhood for five-days looking for the poor skittish thing. We climbed over train tracks, looked under porches, inside blackberry bushes and homeless camps. Cages at the Humane Society. Craigslist. At my sister’s request, I even visited a psychic’s office. But eventually, I had to give up and wave goodbye to my sister and family. I shed tears along the entire length of the spectacularly scenic Columbia River gorge that bisects Oregon and Washington. Into Idaho and Wyoming. For the cat, myself, all the things I’m going to miss while my nephew and niece grow up.

I’m moving overseas.

The just returned cat.
Just before arriving in Denver, I learned the cat had finally come home. I was relieved. I continued driving—more than 3,000 miles in total—through Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and West Virginia, finally stopping in Maryland. I began searching for a place to live. I met a woman whose granddaughter has been missing for three years. I felt guilty about my stress over a missing cat. I started a new job/training. I ironed a lot of suits. I re-remembered how to plan and pack for a commute. I spent weary, nauseous hours on the metro. I got to stare out at the Capitol dome all-day during training and drank too much coffee. I spent every free hour searching for a place to live.

And what a fun process that was—turns out DC has a tight and very expensive rental market along with at least one truly mental Georgetown lady with an English basement to rent. I learned not to say things like: “Are you going to paint or clean the apartment before I move in?” or “Is a cat okay?” or “You do know the windows in the bathroom don’t actually close?” In fact, I didn’t get several apartments I bid on. I grew worried. So when the crazy Georgetown lady from Craigslist sent me twenty-plus phone calls and emails over a one-hour lunch, I wavered. I made excuses. I considered still going to look at her place. Just in case. But ultimately I made the right decision. I canceled my appointment and received this in response:

i apologize you are demented but we keep forks here to gauge cats eyes out and linens to smother them in so sorry this wont work out for you because you are psycho and will make sure everyone knows you are a complete and total waste of everyones (expletive deleted) time.. you lame (expletive deleted) your excuse was not even creative in the least.. and lose that number its a friends phone as mine was lost in the linens and towels cats suck like their crazy owners.. stay at your paretns hoouse you are gonna be picked up soon by the man in the straightjacket and who the hell is named edith anymore?? LOL!!

Yeah. But the next weekend I finally found a place to live with a fantastic landlord and in a beautiful, walk-able neighborhood near a metro stop. I slept on a blow-up mattress for a few days and waited for my worldly belongs to arrive. I was in the midst of unpacking said worldly belongs when my laptop died. The Apple store told me my precious laptop was vintage, gone, that I should just toss it away. I spent a few days pondering my options, processing the loss. I bought a new computer. By then, I was way behind on a project for work and spent every evening of this past week catching up. Which leads me to my point: I’m tired. My brain is on information overload from work. I haven’t read a book, watched a TV show, or seen a movie in months. I need to exercise.

But still, I tried. At the moment, I’m working next door to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and since I’ve visited a few times for lunch (and it has a great, although not cheap, café with native foods from the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso-America, and the Great Plains), I decided to attempt a visit to the actual museum today and write a review.

But still, I’m tired. And it’s impossible to grasp any substance during a 20-minute jog though a packed museum, much less a Smithsonian museum. My brain is not currently capable of much synthesis. I remember colors, masks, teepees, some beautiful horses, and lots of videos of Native Americans dancing. Something about Carib Indians. The kid’s area seemed fun—it made me miss my nephew.

But it’s free. It’s on the mall next to the Capitol building, so no doubt it’s worth a visit if you’re in DC—definitely for the café—and I’m pretty sure for the actual museum. I’ll go back one day soon, attempt a slightly slower amble through the exhibits, and get back to you.

Since it’s best to end on a positive note (and a little personal promotion), Monkey Love and Murder is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. And for those of you overseas, the Book Depository has a discounted version with free shipping anywhere in the world.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Dance Like A Man—A Theatre Review

By Supriya Savkoor
Lillette Dubey and Vijay Crishna
Even in the bustling international milieu of the Washington, D.C. metro area, Indian plays in English are a rarity, and maybe that’s part of the appeal, but I love Indian English theatre. So lucky me when Mahesh Dattani’s Dance Like A Man recently came to the Maryland suburbs (which, on a side note, is a surprising hub of great indie theatre).

One of the main draws for me was that the play was both acted and directed by the amazing Lillette Dubey, whose brilliant film performance you may have seen when she played the mother of the bride in the celebrated indie gem, Monsoon Wedding. (Another fun fact: Dubey at the time was roughly the same age as the actress who played her daughter, making her smooth, graceful performance all the more astounding).

Like the best of Indian plays in English, Dance Like A Man too is character driven, peeling back layer after interesting layer about not only its characters but about, among other things, gender roles, choices (including the lack thereof), and one’s place in the world.

The story begins when Lata (played by Suchitra Pillai) brings her unassuming  fiancé (played by Joy Sengupta), home to meet her parents, who live in the home of Lata’s late grandfather, who was a much-admired freedom fighter, helping free India of its colonial shackles. Lata, like her parents (played by Dubey and Vijay Crishna), is a classical dancer, in the style of Bharat Natyam.

Suchitra Pillai and Joy Sengupta
That’s the backdrop. The story, however, is told in brilliant, suspenseful flashes between the present, in which the newly engaged and obviously ambitious Lata is on the brink of establishing her career, and the past, in which the parents were building their own careers and their marriage.

The play was dubbed in the local market as a comedy but, while it has many moments of humor (particularly as the new fiancé figures out how to navigate through the quirks of his betrothed and her parents), it’s full of ever-heightening tension and suspense as the characters explore where they’ve come from, where they’re going, and where their true loyalties and devotions lie. Indeed, it’s brilliance hails in part because of the outstanding performances of the four actors who take two acts and 90 minutes to pull you through half a century in the life of one family and their countless challenges, mostly self inflicted.

If you get a chance, you must see this play, and chances are good, you’ll have an opportunity at a theatre near you. The actors have given more than 400 performances of this play that has traveled around the world countless times. You name it—Muscat, Amsterdam, New York, Brussels, Kuala Lampur, Singapore, Auckland—the play has been there and is most likely coming back. The New York Times puts it best: “Seeing acting of this quality is transforming ... and even if the play becomes disturbing at times .....joyful!”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Reluctant Matchmaker—A Book Review

By Alli Sinclair

I love reading books written by Indian writers as I find the prose, culture and the intricacies between the character’s relationships captivating. When Supriya suggested I give one of Shobhan Bantwal’s books a try, I jumped at the chance. Shobhan has written six women’s fiction novels that cover the issues affecting Indian women living in India and the United States.

I chose THE RELUCTANT MATCHMAKER, Shobhan's latest "Bollywood in a book," as its premise intrigued me instantly. Set in America, Meena Shenoy is a single, thirty-one-year old who works in PR for an Indian-run technology company. Even though she’s barely five-foot tall, Meena literally falls for her boss, Prajay Nayak, who towers over everyone. When he asks to meet her privately, she thinks he’ll confess his undying feelings for her. Instead, he wants to enlist her excellent PR skills and act as his marriage consultant to find him a bride who is no less than six-feet tall.

Reluctantly, Meena embarks on this project, all the while battling her romantic feelings for the man who is intent on finding an “Amazon in a sari.” Woven in with Meena’s story, are a wonderful bunch of characters, including Meena’s elderly Aunt Akka who drinks booze, eats meat, and decades ago shunned tradition and married for love. Akka is Meena’s voice of reason and pushes Meena to follow her heart and not let anything, including height, get in the way of her dreams.

Meena’s brother, Maneel, has his own challenge when he falls in love with Naseem, a successful woman who happens to be a Muslim. Meena’s Hindu parents have a hard time accepting the relationship.

Meena’s parents are in favor of a traditionally arranged marriage for their daughter who is about to be put on the shelf, but Meena is determined to find her own man. She dates a couple of men and tries to fall for one of them, but she can’t shake her obsession over her boss, Prajay, whom she thinks views her as his petite and fragile marriage consultant.

I’ll leave it there, as I don’t want to spoil this fabulous read. Shobhan does a wonderful job of addressing karma and whether it’s possible to change one’s destiny through Meena attempting to mold her future but she’s constantly challenged by the actions of others.

The main characters in the book are of Konkani descent, and I’ve yet to find other fiction written about these Indo-Aryan people. The author, Shobhan Bantwal, is Konkani as well, and this is the first book she’s written focusing on Konkani characters. Her knowledge about their views on marriage and tradition gives an interesting insight into the Konkani culture.

THE RELUCTANT MATCHMAKER is a fun read while also addressing issues affecting people torn between traditions from their old country and adapting to the lifestyle in their new land. It’s a fine balance and can easily send one toppling head first into either camp. This dilemma, of course, is handled wonderfully in THE RELUCTANT MATCHMAKER while taking the reader on an exciting journey with the main character, Meena, and her amusing family. This book is perfect for readers who like a mix of culture, traditions, and romance. I’m looking forward to reading more of Shobhan Bantwal’s books!

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Separation: Scenes from a Failed Marriage

By Heidi Noroozy

It’s an undeniable fact: Life in Iran can be hopelessly complicated. Economic sanctions and the nuclear issue aside, ordinary Iranians from all segments of society endure massive hardships just to get through the day. Nothing illustrates this circumstance better than A Separation, the Iranian movie that won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film earlier this year.

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi (who is also the man behind Fireworks Wednesday, which I reviewed here), A Separation is the story of a crumbling marriage—on the surface, at least. Like so many aspects of Persian culture, there is far more to the situation than meets the eye.

Simin and Nader are a middle-class couple from Tehran who live in a wealthy, North Tehran neighborhood with their 11-year-old daughter, Termeh. Simin wants to emigrate to a country where her daughter will have a chance for a life far better than what she faces in Iran, with its government-mandated piety and economic hardships. Nader refuses to leave because his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, is dependent on him for daily care. Simin files for divorce, but her petition is denied since the grounds she gives (her husband’s refusal to leave the country) fall short of the 12 reasons a woman can state for divorcing her husband (such as spousal abuse, abandonment, or drug addiction). Denied their divorce, the two separate, and Simin returns to her mother’s house. Termeh remains with her father and grandfather, clinging to the hope that, if she stays behind, her mother will return and everything will be well again.

Through an acquaintance, Simin finds a helper willing to look after the old man while Nader is at work. Razieh is a devout woman from a working class family with one small daughter and another baby on the way. She faces a religious dilemma when it turns out that Nader’s father is incontinent and she must bathe him, violating the Islamic rule that forbids a woman from touching a man who is na mahram, not her blood relation. Razieh’s husband, Hojjat, is an unemployed cobbler with a short fuse and a lot of shame at his inability to support his family. Razieh doesn’t tell him she’s taken the job—legally, she’s required to get her husband’s permission to work outside the home—for fear that, in his pride, he won’t consent.

The arrangement seems to be working fine until the day Nader comes home from work early and finds Razieh gone and his father lying unconscious on the floor, tied to the bed. Some money is also missing from a bedroom. When Razieh returns, Nader has worked himself up into a rage and orders her to leave. She refuses to go until she can clear her name and prove that she’s no thief. Furious, Nader pushes her roughly out the door.

Razieh suffers a miscarriage and loses her baby. She claims that Nader pushed her down the stairs outside his apartment. Her hot-headed husband, Hojjat, accuses Nader of murdering their baby, a charge that would carry the death penalty if the accused man is convicted. The case hinges on whether Nader knew Razieh was pregnant. If he did, his rough treatment of her would be a deliberate act leading to a murder conviction under the law. If not, he is guilty of a lesser charge.

Nader’s best hope would be to pay blood money, a provision under Islamic law where a convicted murderer can pay compensation to the victim’s family and avoid execution. Hojjat and Razieh are willing to accept the blood money, which would go a long way toward solving their economic difficulties. However, Nader won’t pay it because doing so would be an admission of guilt, and he insists he’s innocent. Instead he files a petition against Razieh for endangering his father with her neglect. With emotions running high, the situation threatens to get out of hand.

There are no heroes in this story. No villains, either. Both parties have a potentially legitimate claim, assuming they can prove their allegations. And everyone has secrets that complicate matters. Did Nader know that Razieh was pregnant and lied to protect himself? Or even because he’s indifferent to a baby born into a poor family, people of a class inferior to his own? That’s what Hojjat thinks, and this belief adds fuels to his anger.

Razieh is hiding her own secrets. What was so compelling that she had to leave Nader’s father alone and tied to the bed? Did her miscarriage have another cause? Maybe Hojjat found out that she’d taken a paying job without his permission and beat her, causing the miscarriage. So now she wants to pin the blame on Nader. That’s what Nader suggests.

In this complex tale, with its high-tension pacing, each wrong decision entangles the characters in a hopelessly snarled web that threatens to engulf everyone around them.

Underneath the movie’s complex plot lies a bitter social commentary—the idea that the harsh realities of life in Iran have made these events inevitable. Farhadi shows a world in which religion collides with economic hardship, deepening fissures in a society where modernity coexists uneasily with traditional values. But he also provides a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary Iranians, who pursue the same dreams and suffer the same disappointments as people everywhere.