Photo: man bathing river India

A man changes his clothes after bathing in the Betwa River, Orchha, India.

Photograph by Tomas Munita, The New York Times/Redux

By Don George

December 2008

Book of the Month:
In the Convent of Little Flowers, by Indu Sandaresan

In the wake of the outrageous terrorist attacks on Mumbai, our heart goes out to India, setting for this month's Trip Lit journey. The first time I visited India, I flew straight from six months in order-obsessed Japan into the chaos of Calcutta. Had that been my only stop, I might forever think of India as simply a place of blinding dust, deafening cacophony, and soul-shocking poverty. Happily, I ventured on, from mountain-crisp Darjeeling in the north to palmy Trivandrum in the south, via exquisite Agra, holy Aurangabad, and bountiful Bombay. By the end of three weeks, I had begun to build a context to understand Calcutta and the rest of that country's exhausting, exhilarating kaleidoscope. And I had learned that the fundamental challengeof travel in India is understanding the contradiction-encompassing Indian worldview.

In this quest, Indu Sundaresan's moving collection of short stories, In the Convent of Little Flowers, is an illuminating guide. Sundaresan is well known for her best-selling historical novels, The Twentieth Wife, The Feast of Roses, and The Splendor of Silence, but in her new book she turns her revealing prose on the contorted relationship of past and present in 21st-century India.

In "The Faithful Wife," a big-city journalist travels to his rural roots to witness and intervene in the community-sanctioned sati—immolation on a deceased husband's funeral pyre—of a 12-year-old widow. "Fire" portrays how a young woman's tradition-bound family reacts with archaic brutality when she tries to run away with her Muslim boyfriend. "The Most Unwanted" captures the conflicting feelings of a father whose unmarried daughter brings her baby boy into his household.

These stories are portals into the Indian soul, revealing the breaches and the bonds that delineate the relationship between rural and urban India, and the intricate play of ancient stricture and modern striving in contemporary life. Many of Sundaresan's main characters break with tradition in the search for self-fulfillment. The most striking example of this is in "The Hunger," the last story in the book and my favorite, about a middle-aged married woman who discovers herself—and the courage to liberate that self —through a chance meeting with the 15-years-younger wife of a junior executive in her husband's company.

Born and raised in India but now living in the United States, Sundaresan evokes her native country's social stresses with an unflinching eye and a critical mind. The stories within these pages are brilliant, penetrating, painful, disturbing, and compelling, shards of a much larger and mesmerizing mosaic—just like travel in India.

New Book Roundup: Coffee Table Books for Holiday Giving

Anglophiles would appreciate unwrapping these two books this holiday season: One Hundred & One Beautiful Towns in Great Britain, with informative write-ups by Tom Aitken and full-page photos on quaint places from Penzance in Cornwall to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides; and London, an oversized photographic ode to the English capital's parks, architecture, and neighborhoods, by photographer Richard Bryant. Author Peter Ackroyd provides an introduction to this limited-run edition, which includes seven gatefold spreads. Meanwhile, fans of Eire can relive damp nights warming up with a friendly pint in hand with The Irish Pub, a photo-driven tour by James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury of Ireland's favorite public houses, urban and rural, venerable and contemporary. Robert Frank: Peru gathers together for the first time the complete series of photographs taken during the legendary photographer's 1948 visit to Peru. Frank's black-and-white shots captured the country's dramatic panoramas and weathered faces. Painting at the Edge of the World: The Watercolours of Tony Foster contains vistas of the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helens, a coral reef in the Maldives, and other natural wonders—all painted onsite (or underwater, as the case may be), endowing Foster's works with immediacy and authenticity.

Reading Matchmaker: If You Like...

…Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, try the author's latest memoir, Things I've Been Silent About. The book recounts Nafisi's growing up in the Iranian capital, with a father who served as mayor of Tehran and a mother who was one of the first women elected to the Iranian Parliament. Nafisi's complicated family life is interwoven with the country's own political and cultural upheavals. Soulful and outspoken, Nafisi gives her readers another intimate glimpse into a little-known country.

Short List: New & Noteworthy

Fidel's Last Days, a thriller by Roland Merullo about an assassination plot against Fidel Castro, set in Miami and Cuba.

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, acclaimed historian Mary Beard's in-depth re-creation of daily life in Pompeii.

In the Footsteps of Marco Polo, the companion book to this winter's PBS series of the same name, about two friends from Queens, New York, Denis Belliveau and Francis O'Donnell, who set out on a close to two-year, more-than-25,000-mile adventure tracing Marco Polo's route through the Middle East and Asia.

One Last Thing: African Insights

Africa is a favorite subject for coffee table tomes, but I have rarely come across as compelling a package of photographs and essays as Living Africa, a new book by Steve Bloom. In more than 200 photographs, South African-born Bloom showcases a mind-expanding spectrum of African landscape, wildlife, and humanity. He has a gift for making us re-see the familiar from an unfamiliar perspective—a hippo attacking a wildebeest, lions fighting, a man feeding a hyena. His portraits—from bright-painted Wodaabe tribesmen in Niger to head-lamped Mozambican miners to lip-plated Suri women in Ethiopia—are especially stunning. Beyond their art and eloquence, Bloom's essays and images are graced with extraordinary passion and compassion. They brought me back to previous African adventures—and inspired the desire to explore the continent even more.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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