Thursday, August 13, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

Media: Book
Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Genre: Fiction

I had resigned myself to spend long hours at the San Francisco International airport. I was tired after a long and hectic day and was hoping to catch up with some good sleep on my flight. The announcement that my flight would get delayed by a good three and a half hours made me resume my battle against boredom half-heartedly. I was browsing through news-stands for some beam of interest to save myself from falling into usual torpor of such situations when I came across this one. I have not really followed Lahiri's work in any depth though she is frequently credited with churning out bestsellers.

It is a collection of short stories centered around NRIs, mainly people of West Bengal in India, and their experiences on the U.S. continent (Lahiri is from Bengal herself and currently lives in Brooklyn , NY). It makes for a tolerable read. I quite liked the first story and it remained my favorite of the collection even after finishing the book. The author is definitely adept at capturing emotional dilemmas and intricacies of human mind and heart. The last three stories which form the second part of the book are also quite moving. They are independent accounts of experiences of two characters - Hema and Kaushik. Eventually the reader discovers deep connections in their stories as their paths cross unexpectedly.

I will recommend this book for a one-time read. But like many others in its league, it brought me yet again to this unanswered question - do the stories that aim to touch our heart necessarily need to be sad ... ? Most of them failed to do so but I still wasn't able to have a sound sleep on my flight.

Banker to the Poor

Media: Book
Author: Muhammad Yunus
Genre: Non-fiction

This was a present from my family on my M.S. graduation. The book is the story of an idea that started small and evolved into a movement, that aims to provide a novel economic solution to one of the most practical problems of the world --- poverty! The crux of this tale is about provision and impact of microfinance for the poor --- the idea that a little and timely help to the poorest of the poor can help them break the vicious circle of poverty and lead a life of dignity is really quite simple and practical. However, it has more to it and hence I abstained from restricting it to the genre of books on rich theories of microeconomics.

The first two chapters are totally autobiographical in nature. The childhood reminiscences of author leave you with a Malgudi-day like feeling (most of us R.K. Narayan fans would be familiar with this). The tale is so simply and wonderfully told that I didn't feel even a tinge of bitterness at the author's description (then a child) of partition of India in 1947 amidst chants of Pakistan Zindabad. He amalgamates you completely in his journey and you are hooked.

The real story of Grameen Bank* - the movement which has lifted millions of people out of poverty since its inception - starts in chapter 3 with author's return to Bangladesh in late 70s. You and I who have the luxury of reading and writing blogs in our spare time without worrying about two square meals a day are introduced to an existence which has to battle, struggle and win over the threats imposed by ruthless poverty everyday. The evolution of Grameen, starting from a small project in the village of Jobra to an international movement covering 2.5 million people worldwide is charted out with the ingenuity of a master storyteller. (You have to trust me for that, I am the first one to doze off on seeing reams of data and figures .) The author weaves an engaging tale of human triumph over the most hostile circumstances with application of concepts of banking and microeconomics as aides in this battle against poverty - of course with a twist. The reader is able to maintain the same level of involvement with the narrative be it the description of extraordinary lives of the ordinary people which were touched and changed by the Grameen movement or an account of bureaucratic and financial hurdles Grameen had to overcome to reach where it is today (anyone who has walked the official corridors in India would be painfully aware of this).

It also breaks some important and persistent myths, - I subscribed to some of them too before reading this book. For instance, contrary to the popular perception the repayment rate of loans by the poor is the highest. Most of us suffer from a subtle social arrogance which may sometimes manifest itself as distributing cash or alms to underprivileged on religious occasions or the like and any thought of such people recompensing our 'charity' is almost unthinkable. This book gives a reality check - the poor can be most ardent of workers and most faithful borrowers. They respect and cling to a ray of hope which can pull them out of their harsh reality and this makes them infallible to many temptations which, in fact, the privileged lot is more susceptible to.

I think this book should be read by one and all . Even if someone is not interested in the philanthropic aspects, it surely holds some lessons for all of us.

* 'Grameen' is a Hindi word which means 'of the village' (village is called 'Gram' in Hindi).