A Biography of Their Imagination: The Man on the Ceiling

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We all dream about our families. Notions drift into our head about their nighttime configurations. Is she still in her room? Or is she lurking somewhere? Does he wander–and does he do so with mind or body?

The world is strange, and it is strangest where it meets the surreal. That surreal underside of family life is what this novel is about. The things hiding under the beds, or in the shadows of the ceiling. The angels that take away or give children to us.

No matter where our family came from–whether we washed up together on a shoreline, or were all born in the same room–we all dream of each other. And we dream each other. Dreams that touch reality, draw back–and then touch again.

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Spiritual Quest or Corny Tourism?

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In “Holy Cow,” a Western woman who never thought much about spirituality and religion moves to India and begins to explore different religious traditions. Yeah, it’s not exactly an original tale. It is, however, written well, by a woman with a nicely wry sense of humor.

I struggled with this book, because I can’t quite decide what I think of Sarah. She goes to a 10-day, free, seminar on meditation and makes it the whole time, in silence. The course she attends includes only Westerners, the two Indian women dropping out within a day. Is that a sign of a touristy sham of spirituality? Thousands of years of religious teachings being boiled into a ten day long seminar that’s really just a trap for Westerners? Or does it mean that the teachings have been adapted into something that Westerners, with a Western cultural background, can understand?
And what is all this talk of “East and West,” anyway?

Sarah, looking to occupy her time while her husband traveled the country and region for his job, explored many different religions in their Indian iterations, including Zoroastrianism, Judaism with some Israeli tourists, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism (and a brief foray into a crazy New Age alien cult). Yet, even as she seeks knowledge, what comes across most when I look back at the book is the distance that Sarah felt. Her status as a woman, often traveling alone, set her apart. She ended up feeling excluded more often than included, and rather than embracing that exclusion and using the perspective it gave her, she chafed under it.

In the end, the problem with the book I simply cannot get over or give Sarah any credit for is her failure to do her homework, and her occasional judgements on people for practicing their faith “wrong.” For example, she complains that the Dalai Lama and monks in Dharmamsala aren’t vegetarian, saying it’s a piece of hypocrisy they’ll need to move away from. Apparently, she is unaware that Tibetans like the Dalai Lama are anemic, and become extremely ill when they attempt vegetarianism. The Dalai Lama only gave up when his doctor ordered him to eat meat.

It’s an exploration of India worth reading, both for its moments of success and failure.

Who Watches the Watchers: Travel Literature

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Travel literature is often an unfortunately self-obsessed genre. “I went here, I had these adventures, I learned about myself.” When done well, a book like that can be excellent, leading to greater understanding of the world and the human condition. When, more often, done badly, it can be excruciating.

Very, very rarely does a book like “The World is a Carpet” pop up in the genre. A book where the writer is consciously rejecting the urge to write about the self, and seeking to know the self through others.

Yet, even as Anna Badkhen rejects the eternal “I” subject in her sentences, she shows more awareness of self than most writers ever manage. She reflects on the city she lived in at one point, and wonders to herself, as she sits on the balcony, “and who watched me?”

Travel is a constant, multifaceted process of give and take between the traveler and the people around her. A westerner who goes to the “East,” to places like rural Afghanistan, is inevitably an aberration. She cannot observe “everyday life,” because merely by her presence she alters that life. Except, at the same time, she is being absorbed into that life, woven into its pattern.

The process is impossible to untangle, and frustrating to attempt understanding–so Badkhen rejects both actions, and instead observes, watches, and writes to make sense of it all. The result is a thing of beauty; the best piece of travel writing I have ever had the privilege of reading.

The Unexpected Colonial Impulse

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A man whose family is from Afghanistan, a Christian who can trace his lineage back to the Prophet Mohammed, moves with his India-born wife from London to Casablanca. Not quite the recipe for the individual colonial impulse–but act like a colonial Tahir Shah does.

The book is a chronicle of what happens when a Westerner tries to move to the (for lack of a better term) “East,” and finds that he cannot have the life he envisioned, exactly the way he envisioned it. Shah and his family buy an enourmous, very old house–located smack in the middle of a slum. At every turn, they find Moroccans blocking their way towards their dream life. The house workers won’t open certain doors and won’t explain why, their first assistant becomes convinced that a jinn lives on her shoulder–and the Shah family refuses even to believe in jinns.

In the end, the year in Casablanca is about learning to bend in order to avoid breaking. To allow Moroccans to do things the Moroccan way, and stop trying to act like an Englishman. To stop denying the jinns and their presence in the world, even if not conceding to believe in them.