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A View from the Tent…

I am a big fan of Huffpost Books listings/recommendations, therefore it was only natural that when they twitted about 10 Absolutely Incredible Historical Women, I would sit up and scan through it, for the next set of my must reads. While the list documented some  traditional heroines like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison, there were also some interesting choices like Orlando by Virginia Woolf (I mean Orlando becomes a boy half way through the novel!!!). However the one book that for sure got my attention was “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant and its protagonist Dinah. I mean the book was historical fiction, set in ancient Cannon (Remember my Masters was in Middle Eastern Studies) and it’s narrated by a Jacob’s daughter – Dinnah. Huffpost Books when synopsizing the book stated “To call it provocative and rebellious is an understatement; it pushes against patriarchy and suggests an ancient and empowering role for women and women’s sexuality.” I had to get the book!

The book as I previously mentioned is a first person narration by Dinnah, daughter of Jacob, great-granddaughter to Abraham, of the first covenant with God fame. The book begins with the story of Dinnah’s mother and aunts, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Biliah and their marriage to Jacob. It follows the well documented story of Jacob who worked for 14 years as a slave for Laban so that he could marry Leah and Rachel and the birth of Jacob’s sons and his only daughter – Dinnah. Dinnah describes her childhood as the only girl and her early initiation into the Red Tent where the women spent their 3 days during their menstrual cycle and her closeness with Joseph, Rachel’s son. The narration follows Jacob’s decision to leave Laban’s patriarchy and to make peace with his brother Esau before finally settling on the outskirts of Shechem. In Shechem, Dinnah who had begun assisting her aunt Rachel is summoned to the palace to help in the birth of the new baby by the King’s most recent concubine. In a departure from the Bible which spoke about “defiling” of Dinnah, Dinna talks of her falling in love with the Prince of Shechem and consenting to spend the night with him and agreeing to becoming his bride. This action leads to tumultuous results, including the murder of her husband and all the men of Shechem by Simon and Levi, her brothers, her escape into Egypt and the birth of her son, of finally finding peace and settling down with Bian the carpenter and travelling back to see a dying Jacob, under the protection of Joseph, who is now the Vizier of Egypt, after being sold to slavery by his brothers.

Now for the review – The book begins very well – Dinnah speaks of how a daughter must always talk about the mother to better explain her own history. She also mentions about her fleeting refernce in Bible- her being “defiled” and the vengeance wrecked by her brothers and how that is not the complete or the true story. It grips you right at the start and forces a reader to read on. But I think that is where the promise of the book ends.  While the descriptions of the ancient land are both accurate and well researched, I have to yet find the reason for naming it the “The Red Tent” – the book proposes liberation of women during their menstrual cycle which intrinsically is supposed to mark independence and rebellion for women from patriarchy; but I did not think that the author really emphasized on this spiritual aspect as much as the physical details, which we all could have been well spared off! Nor is the passing of the red tent and its ritual which metaphorically and may in actuality mark the end of liberty that women in pre-modern world enjoyed clearly delineated or expressed. The author talks of Jacob’s growing dislike of the red tent as well how the daughters in law of Leah and Rachel refused to follow the rituals of the red tent, but that is in passing; the reader is left to make or not make his or her own inferences. I felt that the significance of the red tent and the fact that it stood for rebellion and independence from a male dominated society was lost, especially by the end of the book, when we went to Egypt and saw the reconciliation between Dinnah and Joseph etc. Not that the entire book is bad – the characters of Leah, Rachel, Zilaph and Biliah are really well-rounded and their kindness, jealousy and humanity, all of which comes through very well in the narration, making them real and extremely likable. I did not understand Rebecca’s arrogance – I am not a Biblical scholar but I never thought of Rebecca as arrogant. Jacob’s character again I felt was weak, but that’s something I felt even when reading the Bible. My main disappointment was again with Dinnah’s character – she seems to be constantly dependent on others for her fate – the only empowering action was to marry the Prince of Shechem. While I know that historically in patriarchies, women fundamentally had little if any choices, but this is a work of fiction and all the while Dinnah whose voice the novel purports to give stands quietly either because she is scared or in awe or is too enraged. She does not speak!!! She simply narrates and that to my mind is not a sign of empowerment!

Read it as you may feel differently. Again the book had several promises, but they simply did not get fulfilled!

On Becoming a Brook…

I know I have taken another one of my hiatus from blogosphere, but that can be completely attributed to my illness which kind of took a turn for worse this one month and threw all my grand plans and projects in a tail spin.  It was hardly a pleasant time and I am glad some part of it is over. And therefore I am back and ready with my endless prattle and updates and all the unbound enthusiasm of embracing everything that I can fathom!

I could do a book review of the several that I read over the last month, but since this is kind of like my welcome back blog, I thought I will keep it light and frothy and kind of give you a breezy update on all the “exciting” things that have happened in my life!

I naturally read a lot during these weeks – some of the books on top of my head which I read through were Paris by Edward Rutherford, Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCright, Miss Majoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, Perfume y Patrick Suskind, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, a travelogue called Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller by Raza Rumi and finally two on history – The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman and the iconic Band of Brother by Stephen Ambrose. I have also been reading some poetry and have discovered anew love for Emily Dickinson (whom I always loved) but also a respect and deep enjoyment for Tennyson. Maybe because he is optimistic and forward and his descriptions are so idyllic, whatever from not liking Tennyson to devouring Tennyson has been needless to say a very pleasant journey. Regarding the books, naturally you will be subjected to the reviews in the upcoming weeks!

Speaking of Band of Brothers, I finally watched the series during my illness – one of those days when I was too weak to even read and yes, I know it’s more than 10 years old and where was I burying my head and all that. My only apology is that it was first aired when I began college and being new in dorm, I did not want force my audienceship on all. Anyway the only thing that I was trying to say is I loved the series; the fact that it was a historical piece naturally helped; but I think one of the main reasons why I so loved it was the authenticity and the lack of one man ship – since the series was based on a company of soldiers and not a piece of fiction, there was no one hero, but rather a company of heroes. And yes, I read the book first and saw the series later!

I will end here and I will confess – I was kind of worried that after not writing for more than a month, I will struggle to put words on paper; but I have made a profound discovery, that if you really like doing something, you will thrive, no matter how and no matter where. And while, practice does improve the form and the application, the original self-sustaining love of what one does, will carry one through, through ages!

On that very happy note, I will leave you with a poem by (Yup! You guessed it) Lord Tennyson – I especially found these lines very close to my heart (I have highlighted them in bold) and thought was apt for the occasion – I will chatter and survive!

THE BROOK – By: Alfred Tennyson

I come from haunts of coot and hern,

I make a sudden sally,

And sparkle out among the fern,

To bicker down a valley.

By thirty hills I hurry down,

Or slip between the ridges,

By twenty thorps, a little town,

And half a hundred bridges.

Till last by Philip’s farm I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on forever.

I chatter over stony ways,

In little sharps and trebles,

I bubble into eddying bays,

I babble on the pebbles.

With many a curve my banks I fret

by many a field and fallow,

And many a fairy foreland set

With willow-weed and mallow.

I chatter, chatter, as I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may comeand men may go,

But I go on forever.

I wind about, and in and out,

with here a blossom sailing,

And here and there a lusty trout,

And here and there a grayling,

And here and there a foamy flake

Upon me, as I travel

With many a silver water-break

Above the golden gravel,

And draw them all along, and flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on forever.

I steal by lawns and grassy plots,

I slide by hazel covers;

I move the sweet forget-me-nots

That grow for happy lovers.

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,

Among my skimming swallows;

I make the netted sunbeam dance

Against my sandy shallows.

I murmur under moon and stars

In brambly wildernesses;

I linger by my shingly bars;

I loiter round my cresses;

And out again I curve and flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on forever.

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