Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2015 TBR Reading Challenge: The Travelling Parsi by Kamal Sunavala

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Travelling Parsi by Kamal Sunavala
My Categories: nonfiction, memoir, literary fiction, anthology
Wendy Crutcher's Category: We Love Short Shorts

This book was recommended to me by a Parsi friend of mine, and it has been a delight to read. Before this, the only thing I knew about the Parsis was that they'd produced two of the world's best loved musicians: Conductor Maestro Zubin Mehta and Queen's lead singer Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara).

A little background. In the seven hundreds, when Islam came to Iran, some of the Zoroastrians fled in boats to the distant shores of India. They landed in the state of Gujarat and settled there, adopting the language, food, clothes, and customs. Not completely, of course. They retained their original religious books and practices, married strictly within themselves, and otherwise behaved as all immigrant minorities do to preserve their old culture.

The Parsis, according to my friend and from reading the book, are also fairly westernized as compared to the average Indian. For instance, when the author was a kid, their parties featured meat dishes, whiskey drinks, and ballroom dancing; kids took piano and elocution lessons; far more women wore dresses as compared to the rest of the Indian population which wears saris; their knowledge of music was also of western classical music, not Indian; etc. So while the main language of communication is English sprinkled with Gujarati for the generation in their 50s now and older, my feeling from reading the book is that the Parsis seem to see themselves as separate from the rest of the Indian population. In fact, and unfortunately so, they seem to see themselves as superior.

This is a very broad outsider's perspective reported second-hand as opposed to a sensitive and accurate picture of the nuanced and complex culture of Indian Zoroastrianism. (By the way, Parsis are distinct from Iranis, though both are Iranian Zoroastrians in India.)

This anthology of short humorous memoir vignettes about the Zoroastrian Parsi community is narrated through the satirical voice of a Parsi girl. It talks about community, and the joys, wisdoms, customs, and prejudices that are contain therein. The book starts out as being a memoir of stories, but there's no way Sunavala could've accurately recalled all that dialogue that's sprinkled throughout the book. And given that all Parsi characters in their 50s in her book sound exactly alike, she made those conversations up out of whole cloth.

So this book is a curious amalgam of half-remembered incidences and pure fiction for dramatic purposes. There's no category box you can tick to make this book fit, and yet, the book pulls together and is an entertaining read for the most part. It's also informative—you get a good flavor of this minority culture from India.

I did find a few of the vignettes to be downright mean-spirited, which is the danger of humor. What is uproariously funny can quickly turn into uncomfortable silence. It felt like Sunavala had a couple of ideas, got carried away, and ran down rabbit holes with them. Judicious editing would've helped curb this tendency.

I also felt that overall, Sunavala didn't mean to portray a sympathetic or empathetic look at her culture, but a more satirical and pointedly critical one. This also made the humor come across as mean-spirited. Sometimes, vignettes written in this vein were wrapped up with upbeat conclusions, which were out-of-sync with the tone and content of the pieces. A pity.

That said, I enjoyed this little book. I recommend it to anyone wondering about India's Parsi culture or just wanting a quick light read.