Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth

Goodreads Review: Ba slipped the gold bangles from my wrists. The gold ones were plain so I didn’t mind taking them off, but I loved wearing my milk-glass bangles and the lakkh bracelets.

"A widow can't wear bangles,” she said. "They are signs of a woman's good fortune. When your husband dies it's over."

"What if my good fortune comes back?"

“It doesn’t.”

Pretty as a peacock, twelve-year-old Leela had been spoiled all her life. She doesn't care for school and barely marks the growing unrest between the British colonists and her own countrymen. Why should she? Her future has been planned since her engagement at two and marriage at nine.

Leela's whole life changes, though, when her husband dies. She's now expected to behave like a proper widow: shaving her head and trading her jewel-toned saris for rough, earth-colored ones. Leela is considered unlucky now, and will have to stay confined to her house for a year—keep corner—in preparation for a life of mourning for a boy she barely knew.

When her schoolteacher hears of her fate, she offers Leela lessons at home. For the first time, despite her confinement, Leela opens her eyes to the changing world around her. India is suffering from a severe drought, and farmers are unable to pay taxes to the British. She learns about a new leader of the people, a man named Gandhi, who starts a political movement and practices satyagraha—non-violent protest against the colonists as well as the caste system. The quiet strength of satyagraha may liberate her country. Could she use the same path to liberate herself?

My Review: What a beautifully written book. With so many thoughts expressed with the intricate placement of words, it was hard for me to read quickly reading as after I'd finish a particularly thought-provoking sentence. I'd pause, reread the sentence, then look around my room so I could absorb the statement before writing it down on a sheet of notebook paper.

We listened to many stories that if you wrote them in the sky, they'd fill it up and there'd be no room left for the stars. - page 111

All of the loose ends were swiftly tied at the end of the book like a present and I felt complete after reading it. There weren't any questions left unanswered, except one. What happens to Leela now? In some books, the questions need an answer. Why did the protagonist do that? Where are they going? Why did they decide to get back together with him? But here, the answer wasn't necessary. I didn't need to know, and in fact, I'm happy the author didn't provide an explanation.

The rest of the day slipped from my hand so swiftly that I wrote it down in my notebook, "Happy times are light and fast, sad times are heavy and slow. They all end, though, and what remains is me. Just me." - page 165

The overall idea of this is hard for me to grasp. Not because it isn't explained well. But because this practice is actually continued in society in India. That the idea of equality between men and women is radical, and in a small town like Jamlee, this story has happened before. I knew about pre-arranged marriage, but I haven't heard the flip side, of what happens when there is a woman widow. Even though I may not agree with it, I do understand that different cultures have different customs.

Having a female widow in Indian culture is looked upon as having bad luck. There's even a word for it: raand. It's also a term for "widow," but used as a derogatory term. And if you're a female child widow, like Leela, you're not allowed to marry again and you must resist temptation or else shame the family. The subject matter is chilling without being chilling.

When I look at American society and the fact that celebrities, as well as people not featured in the news, can get married and then divorce after a period (a day) only to marry someone else, it makes me think. A lot. Of course, I think people should marry and divorce whomever they want at any time interval they want. Their marriage and divorce is not my business. But to read books where marriage is forced and divorce is not an option, it's a little unnerving and it seems like Americans are just throwing away the sanctity of marriage. And the fact that gays who love each other can't marry yet complete strangers who just met can marry and then divorce is a bit ridiculous. Sorry, that's my own personal opinion.

Anyway, back to Leela and Keeping Corner. This book opened my eyes to a time and culture that was different than my own and I really enjoyed that. I love learning. I love the beauty in words. And this provided a complete completion of both.

Leela was in the highest cast, brahman, in Indian culture. She had wealth, gold bangles and jewelry, and long, thick hair. When she became a widow, she traded in her lavish clothing for a chidri, a woman's sari worn in Gujarat, no jewelry, and she had to shave her head. I think it's extraordinary. I wish my copy wasn't a library book so I could place it on my bookshelf. Rating: 5/5

When she came to the part, "A widow's arms are forever quiet," she stopped and took me in her arms. "I'm glad you've filled your sounds with feeling. It makes you aware of who you are. As you go on writing and expressing your thoughts, it'll open up a whole world inside of you. Your inner self is like an onion: you keep peeling it, and a new layer is always there."

It was strange to think of my inner self as an onion, and it was impossible to think of a journey I could be taking while keeping corner. - page 261

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