Monday, September 22, 2008

Journey from perfect child to flawed grown-up (Books - In the Land of No Right Angles by Daphne Beal)

How much can we do for other people? Is it possible to make their lives better? Can money accomplish that? Can words? What if their actions show us that they don't want the same things that we do, what then? Does our kindness make their lives better than their autonomy? Or is that just a form of arrogance? Certainly Alex, the narrator of Daphne Beal's novel In The Land of No Right Angles makes her third trip to Asia, this one to India rather than Nepal, with the idea that she can make her Napalese friend Maya's life better. But she ends up with rather different ideas than those she arrived with. What I like about Beal's story is the way Alex, the Midwestern colllege-graduate photographer, comes of age - in her social awareness, in her sexuality, in her spirit. She arrives a perfect child and leaves a flawed grown up ready to begin some kind of life. But I won't tell you how - that is the enjoyment of reading Beal's book.

Another pleasure is its exotic setting and Beal is an adept hand at creating a sense of place.

...I booked a ten-dollar room at the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel, which turned out to have its own kind of charm - a garden cafe, big skeleton keys for the door, and my own pigeonhole at the front desk with a Kathmandu Post waiting for me every morning. The other guests were older than the bakcpacking crowd - thirty-something American couples adopting Nepali kids, artists, and people working there for a few months. I was completely unbeholden to anyone in Neapl for the first time, and suddenly I felt like I could see the city for what it was. I still loved the low rough-and-tumble skyline composed of leaning buildings and temples, whose shapes reminded me of elaborate, winged haridos. I loved the dinging-bleating-rumbling of the streets, the buzzing of the scooters swerving around the rickshaws swerving around the coes. Monkeys visited the flat rooftop outside my window daily, and the street boys in Thamel with their cheeky grins implored, "TigerBalmmadam? TigerBalm? Verygood-verynice-goodpriceforyoumadam!" I lied being justled and stared at and spoken to, compared to the slamon-swimming-upstream sensation of living in New York. but at the same time, something seemed changed and deeply wrong since I'd first spent time there. Before, when people said, ke garne, or "what to do?" it sounded philosophical and good natured. Now it sounded bitter and helpless..

Or her characterization of Bombay's red-light district:

All along the wide street for as far as I could see, women, girls, and transvestites stood in open doorways of crumbling four-and five-story buildings with sagging shutters and barred windows. Wearing grimy, once-bright saries and salwar kameezes and painted-on makepu that melted down their faces in the wet heat...The youngest of them couldn't have been more than thriteen or fourteen, and some of the youngest were Nepali. These girls in particular looked dead to me, with thei caked-on makeup and spidery lashes. Boys and men sauntered down the sidewalk, arm in arm or holding hands, as they did here, and the girls made kissing noises or clicked their tongues as they passed. But there was not even a trace of the seedy glamour that the old Times Square or any other red-light area I knew about (real or cinematic) possessed...

One of the things I enjoyed learning about Napli culture had to do with an idea akin to 'soul,' mon, it is called. It becomes particularly alive in hearing Maya speak of it:

"Does he have a girlfiend?"

"Probably. I don't know."

"If he does," she said, "he'll ruin her the way he does everyone, spoil her mon." That favorite word of hers, of ours. And bigrinchha, "spoil," was the same word used with meat or produce, as if your mon were a bruised mango or a hunk of rancid goat meat. "It's like he has a disease of the mon. You know, I didn't sweat before I met him, and now a stink comes off me."

Finally, this book, although the concerns of its plot were largely domestic - a triangle of friendship and mutual responsibility - one could read it as reaching beyond individuals to how whole cultures relate. It is a story of someone trying to grow up, not by graduating, getting a job and getting married, that is, hitting pre-fab milestones thoughtlessly because that is what she saw on TV. But by trying to learn how others live in and see the world, taking the risk of involving herself in a way of living nothing like her own. Getting herself a little dirty. Forming a view of the world she is going to live in by doing more than reading Newsweek or watching the Discovery channel. I felt like this book, not just its narrator, was forming a view of the world that is about learning compassion for others but also respect. Finally whether country or individual, there are times we may feel free or filled with rightiousness, or even kindness, but we are all contained by boundaries of one sort or another and part of growing up is learning where those are and respecting them.

Here are my other thoughts on reading this book 1, 2, 3.

3 comments:

Myrthe said...

"It is a story of someone trying to grow up, not by graduating, getting a job and getting married, that is, hitting pre-fab milestones thoughtlessly because that is what she saw on TV. But by trying to learn how others live in and see the world, taking the risk of involving herself in a way of living nothing like her own. Getting herself a little dirty. Forming a view of the world she is going to live in by doing more than reading Newsweek or watching the Discovery channel."

Ted, these sentences sum up my life of the past ten years pretty accurately. Even though my own story is rather different from that of Alex (and set in a different part of the world), the way you describe it in that quote is about me as well. Scary! I guess, I should read this book.

Ted said...

Myrthe - Sounds like you have pursued a life worth living, hope it feels that way too.

Myrthe said...

Hopefully, I still have a lot of living ahead of me, but yes, so far I have no regrets of the road taken. :-)