Saturday, July 28, 2012

Take a Chance

Title: Take a chance Where love means taking a chance whether you like it or not
Author: Alison Wong
Author's blog: Think Write, not Wong, Alison
Available on: Amazon (including Kindle edition) and others

Gist of the book, as on GoodReads:
A contemporary romance with a setting in England - a northern suburb, York and London. Hannah is a British Chinese who returns to England to reunite with her sister who she hasn’t seen for twenty years. Their re-union results in a series of chance meetings with Hannah’s ex-fiancĂ© Julian, who she ran away from eight years before. Can she find more than sisterly love and fall for Julian again? Or should she challenge her family values and let a little heavenly help and fate decide? If you love happy endings, read Take A Chance.

My views:

Second or third generation immigrants are often torn between the need to follow the traditions of their countries of origin and also the need to gel with the culture of their adopted country. As Alison Wong, author, portrays in this book, when it comes to marriage, it is likely that their family or society would like them to settle down with someone having the same origins. Is it fair to sacrifice love? Take a Chance, is about being given a second chance to take hold of the reins of one's life and follow one's own heart.

The author herself is a British ethnic Chinese, having lived in both England and Hong Kong. Thus, she is able to capture extremely well the setting of England and the cultures of both these countries, especially the traditional Chinese culture.

Hannah, who is the main protagonist in this book, is grieving over the death of her younger sister Jo, who has lost the battle against cancer. Her funeral is neat and quick and soon done with. The loss is too much to bear, and Hannah gets a sign from a little blue butterfly. Yes, this blue butterfly is perhaps Jo, appearing as a guardian angel to guide Hannah on a life changing journey.

So Hannah packs up her bags and decides to go visit Maddie, her best friend in England and also suddenly makes this brave decision to see her sister Rosalyn, whom she has not heard from since the past twenty years.

Years ago, when Hannah was still growing up, Rosalyn had run away from home, without even completing her studies to marry a 'non-Chinese'. All ties with Rosalyn were broken the day she left home.

They were all then living in England. The step taken by Rosalyn made the parents even more determined to ensure that their other two daughters toed the line. Jo and Hannah's life and career was all laid out for them. When Hannah finished her graduation, the family moved back to Hong Kong. It was drilled into them that they must succeed in their careers, marry someone richer and having a higher status, who is of course - not a foreigner.

Emotions of sorrow, frustration, anxiety, confusion and joy are very sensitively dealt captured in relation to each character in the book.

In fact, while Hannah's father came across as quite dominating and someone set in his ways, given how sensitively his character is portrayed one could understand that he is only trying to protect his girls and uphold the traditional Chinese culture. He does not want them to interact with 'outsiders' especially boys, to ensure that they marry within the community. But he does so from an unshaken belief that this is best for them.

When Hannah sets foot in England, in a twist of faith, not only does Hannah meet her sister and the wounds begin to heal, but she also bumps into her ex-finance Julian.

While years ago, she had got engaged to Julian -- they were students at the same University. Yet she ran away, because of a misunderstanding as regards his relationship with his childhood friend and more so because she did not have the will to go against her parents wishes. When she meets him again, she initially to run away yet again.

Fortunately this time, Maddie, her University friend and Rosalyn help her realise that she needs to live her own life and not live a life as dictated to her by her parents. Jo, the guardian angel also sends subtle messages.

When Hannah has to decide whether or not to marry Julian, Rosalyn tells her: "... Remember you are ultimately in charge of your life. If its Julian you want, marry him. If it's going against everything that upsets your values about love and marriage, still marry Julian because your values aren't yours, they're Mum and Dads."

The ending is a happy one, when Hannah finally is able to express her true feelings and tell Julian that she loves him.

I do not per se, read romantic novels, yet this was not a Mills and Boon kind of story. The dynamics of the need to break free and follow one's heart, make it an endearing read.

Alison Wong agreed to an interview, it is interesting to read the author's concept about love and of her inspiration behind this book.

1) What inspired you to write this book?

I had three inspirations:

Firstly, there aren't many chick-lit style books about British-ethnic Chinese falling in love with their countrymen/women. I wanted to write a story about a British-ethnic Chinese lady, Hannah who loves and is loved by an Englishman, her ex-fiance Julian whom she hasn't seen for eight years. If you grow up as a second generation or third generation Chinese in an adopted country there is often the chance you would fall in love with someone outside your culture, is this not true? Moreover, I wanted to describe a love story where Hannah flutters about with her conscience: should she fall in love with someone who isn't Chinese and obey her parents' ideals about finding the perfect man, or should she fall for the man who is already perfect for her even if he isn't Chinese? Secondly, I wrote Take a Chance in memory of my sister who died before she was able to find love. It is my present to her. Finally, I realised life is short and my sister had many dreams she never had the chance to achieve. My dream was to publish my book. I achieved it and that's good enough for me.

2) The book takes the reader from England to HongKong, any reason for choosing these interesting countries as settings in the book?

It actually starts off briefly in Hong Kong and is mainly set in England due to the nature of Hannah's love story, background and her need to reunite with her estranged sister in England. Of course, she ends up reuniting with her ex-fiancé too.

3) How would you define love? Do you believe in it? What would you like to tell a reader who is cynical about love?

Love is in the stars. I strongly believe in destiny. Two people who are meant to be together are chosen by fate to be together for a reason. How do you know the person is right for you? When you know that something is missing when you are not sharing with that person. If you are cynical about love then love has many chances you have to explore. You can't expect love to find you or meet your expectations or needs. Love means not changing a person or a partner. It means team-work. Once you've found that fit, then fate put you together for a reason. don't expect love to find you. You have to listen to it and find it in the right place, at the right time with the right person.

4) What's the next writing project on your plate?

I'm dabbling with a second novel and see where it takes me.

5) How has your past vocation as a teacher helped you in your new writing career?

It's helped me tremendously with grammar, writing skills and proofreading. I'd like to reserve editing to the professionals. I'm my worst critic. How would I rate Take A Chance? It's not my best work since I still need to consider whether writing is a new career is for me. Who knows? There are so many priorities in life. As William Shakespeare said: "There is nothing either good or bad...But thinking makes it so."

6) Which is your favourite romantic novel and why?

Pride and Prejudice. Need I explain? In one sentence: Elizabeth Bennet vs. Mr. Darcy equals sparks.

Author's bio: Alison Wong was born in Hong Kong but grew up in England. She is a graduate of Lancaster University, England and has a Masters Degree in T.E.S.L. from Hong Kong. Having taught English for 14 years she left teaching to become a housewife and writer. Alison now divides her time between home and writing novels. She lives in Hong Kong with her husband and son.

Thank you Alison for the book and for the interview.

Source of the Photograph: I photographed these roses some years ago, at the annual Lalbaugh flower show in Bangalore, India.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Second Choice

Title: The Second Choice
Author: Lakshmi Menon

Author's blog: World of Books and Travel
Available on: FlipKart, Amazon (including Kindle) and other online stores and bookstores

Gist of the story on GoodReads: Pavithra was happily married to her sweetheart Anand and they have a three year old daughter. But most unexpectedly misfortune strikes and shatters her life.

A year later, Pavithra's father finds a suitable groom for his widowed daughter in Venu and she was forced to marry him. Venu is a father of a seven year old daughter and his paralyzed wife willingly divorced him and forced him to marry Pavithra, expecting to have a normal family life for them. Though Pavithra tries sincerely to earn her step-daughter's love and affection, she fails miserably in her attempt.

Do they regret their decision of this marriage and take a divorce, or decide to stick together? Will they fall in love each other gradually? Will their children have a secured life, as they had hoped?

My views:

This is a book about a woman of substance - Pavithra. The author, Lakshmi Menon has beautifully captured Pavithra’s growing maturity. From a timid young widow, totally dependent on her ageing father, she transforms into a person who is able to deal with the challenges of a second marriage, win her step daughter Indu over, continue to be a wonderful mother to her own daughter Anu, recognise the issues that her second husband Venu is dealing with and be a true sister to his first invalid wife Soumya. She learns to stand on her own feet not only financially but also emotionally and in realises that by giving back , one gets a lot more in return.

Both Pavithra and Venu enter into a second marriage, for the sake of convenience. Venu needs a mother for his growing daughter Indu and Pavithra’s father, makes her realise that her four year old Anu needs a father and she needs a husband to protect her. After all, Pavithra hadn’t even finished her graduation and would not even be able to find gainful employment anywhere.

Thus, begins their new journey. Venu is still in love with Soumya, his invalid ex-wife (she became paralysed during childbirth and divorced Venu, forcing him to enter into another marriage for his own sake and for the sake of their daughter). Pavithra wants to be forever loyal to the memory of her deceased husband and college sweetheart Anand. Thus, their marriage is just a platonic union.

Pavithra faces many challenges, Indu is brainwashed by a childless neighbour, who used to find solace in tending to Indu. There are financial challenges, Venu shies away from sending a monthly allowance to his ex-wife who needs the money for her treatment. Pavithra, does not like this.

She cajoles her father into sponsoring completion of her education and with the help of another kindly neighbour (in fact the only kindly neighbour, Mrs Joshi), Pavithra manages to find a temporary job in a bank, which later luckily translates into a permanent job. This gives rise to other problems. Venu doesn’t like her working. Is the real reason, that his role as a breadwinner is challenged? Or is it something else. Pavithra does some soul searching and realises, that Venu has fallen in love with her and wants to have a proper marital relationship. Moreso, she realises that she too has begun to care for and love Venu. A new chapter thus unfolds.

Then, there is a sudden twist in the story. I will not add spoilers by saying anything more, but Pavithra continues to be true to her ideals and values. She does find fulfilment, but by following an unconventional path.

The book has dealt beautifully with the entire range of complex human emotions and the interactions between not just Venu and Pavithra, but between all the characters in this book. The setting of a middle-class family in urban India is also realistically portrayed.

(Note for my blog readers from overseas: Marriages in India are different in various ways. It is the entire family who jumps into the fray, in arriving at the decision about whom one should or should not marry. Arranged marriages, where a marriage takes place after a few meetings between the boy and girl, continue to be the norm. Arranged-love marriages are the latest trend. Here the couple are introduced to each other by family elders, but the decision on whether or not to marry is left to them. Re-marriages, while on the rise, are not as common. The scenario is slowly changing).

Having read this interesting book, I decided to reach out to Lakshmi Menon with a few questions about her foray into writing, her inspiration behind this book and much more. Here is the interview.

1) Tell us something about yourself and your foray into writing?

I’m a bilingual writer,a native of Kerala and am settled in Bangalore. I began my writing career in Malayalam (regional language of my home state Kerala) and then slowly drifted to writing in English. I remember jotting down my thoughts in the form of stories as early as my teenage days, which prompted me to do courses in Journalism and Creative Writing, after my graduation (BA). I wanted to be a journalist, but ended up in choosing an administrative job, to give enough attention to my family, which gave me some free time to pursue my passion of writing - on a freelance basis and reading.

2) I understand this is your first novel, even as you have written children's stories and short stories earlier. How different was the experience of writing a novel?

Though The Second Choice is my first English novel,I have already published a novel in Malayalam, my native language. It was published about 20 years ago, titled "Veendum Yatra" in an esteemed magazine, as a continuous (serialised) story. When I got an interesting plot I wanted to write a story about it. As I started writing I found that it was going beyond the scope of a short story. Seeing my confusion, my husband advised me to express my ideas as it came without bothering about its length and breadth, and I was surprised to see that it was gradually taking the shape of a novel. But writing a novel in English was not that easy which took quite some years to complete it, due to added family responsibilities and lack of time.

3) What prompted you to write this book?

One day I came to know about a sad situation of a little girl whose mother was paralysed and her father was taking care of everything at home all alone, and her mother’s repeated requests to her father for a second marriage. The condition of this family, which I learnt about, was in my mind for quite some time until I decided to put it into words in the form of a story based on that plot and adding my own imagination.

4) Which is your favourite part in this book?

It is difficult to answer this question as many parts of this book are dear to me. Indu’s understanding of her step-mother’s love and Pavithra’s patience and self-assessment of her relationship are some of the parts close to my heart.

5) In this day and age, with increasing divorce rates (divorce is no longer a stigma) what is the essence of a successful marriage?

I agree with you. In today’s world divorce is increasing in an alarming rate, which is really a matter of concern to the society. I strongly believe that mutual trust, respect and understanding as individuals and partners of a life journey, taking major decisions together, forgetting and forgiving each other’s mistakes and shortcomings, frequent self-assessments in thoughts and actions, making sacrifices for each other, are some of the essential elements which can go a long way to make a marriage successful.

6) Do you think re-marriage is on the rise, especially among the older generation? Does it make sense, given that old age homes are coming up enabling people to live a comfortable life amidst others their own age and also be well taken care of?

I think re-marriage is on the rise not only among the younger generation, but among the older generation also. I don’t think anything is wrong in that concept. I feel that when an individual desires to have a companion in her/his lonely life, age shouldn’t pose a problem. But if an individual prefers to spend his/her twilight years in the company of the age group in a comfortable old age home, he/she should be allowed to take this decision. However, the elders should not be forced to take shelter in an old age home, by their children. That is very painful. On the other hand, if they prefer to choose a companion in the old age, that idea too should be well respected, without any criticism.

7)What are your future plans, in the writing sphere?

At present, I’m engaged in writing my next novel. After this, I would like to write a travel-related book based on my personal experiences. An educative book for the children is also in my mind.

Thank you Lakshmi for the book and for your insightful replies.

Source of the Photograph:
Downloaded from Flickr and used as per the terms of the Creative Commons License.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Poor Little Rich Slum

Title: Poor Little Rich Slum: What we saw in Dharavi and why it matters
Authors: Rashmi Bansal and Deepak Gandhi. Photographs by Dee Gandhi
Available on: FlipKart and other stores including a Kindle version

Rashmi Bansal is one of my favourite Indian authors and Poor Little Rich Slum is another inspiring book written by her jointly with Deepak Gandhi.

When overseas visitors land in Mumbai, they appear shocked at the slums which they spot along the highway en-route from the airport. Why, even visitors from other parts of India tend to stare open-mouthed and ask: How do these people live within the four walls of plastic sheets or rusty tin sheets? And most of us 'pucca' Mumbaikars (i.e. - long-time residents of Mumbai) are just immune to the squalor and prefer to ignore it.

At the same time, within all of us, there is a grudging admiration for the grit which the slum dwellers display, their ingenuity and deep rooted desire to thrive in this big bad world of Mumbai.

There are many who come to Mumbai, with stars in their eyes, hoping to make it big in Bollywood, others escape beatings at home and catch the first train to the only mega city they have heard of, i.e. Mumbai. Poverty, drought, floods or other natural calamities and/or unemployment drive others to Mumbai. At any given time of the day or night, you can see them, arriving from outstation trains (at times ticket-less), either in groups or alone, looking scared yet determined, often carrying a bundle of clothes or just the shirt on their backs, all looking for a new future in this big city.

Countless debates are held on whether these immigrants should be sent back, on how Mumbai is bursting at the seams and cannot afford to 'tolerate' more immigrants, absorb more slumns, or how the slums result in various illegal activities be it brewing liquor or gambling dens. Yet, perhaps this city is what it is, because of the masses of people who dare to call it their home.

This book is a tribute to the spirit of can do, of entrepreneurship, of the willingness to march ahead despite all odds. The book takes you into the lives of many people, living in Asia's largest slum - Dharavi.

The entire book has been divided into four sections, viz: (1)Dharavi, What Ees?; (2) The Incubator; (3)The Cauldron Of Change; (4)The Future. Each of the sections contain stories about people surviving or at times successfully thriving in Dharavi.

While the authors have done wonders capturing each and every story in detail, the photographs make it all come alive.

To begin with the authors narrate the story of The blind men and an elephant. Each person was right and then again, not quite right.

Similarly, "The outsider is blind to the drudgery of Dharavi -- he chooses to see a colourful, chaotic, creatively inspirational mess." Beneath the seething mass of humanity, of un-imagined challenges, there is a silent unsung revolution -- a
revolution of energy and enterprise and the book captures it vividly.

The authors conducted a survey among 210 students from two prestigious Mumbai based colleges, viz: Wilson College and Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies and posed three questions on where the students would prefer to use donate Rs. 100. Three choices were given for such a donation and 65% of the students said it would go towards helping the starving in Darfur, only 6% were in favour of using it for slum development and the balance opted for children's education. Not many realise the need for slum development, there is a total apathy towards the non-availability of toilets or clean water, including drinking water, just because some slum-dwellers have T.V. in their homes doesn't mean that they are having a comfortable existence.

Jameel Shah's story - Factory of Dreams, seems to have captured many hearts, with an extract available on

Today, Jameel is an entrepreneur making dancing shoes for the Bollywood stars of the likes of Bipasha Basu. It took all of ten years, a lot of grit, hard work and determination to become a successful entrepreneur who now employs people. Of course there was an element of luck thrown in, by way of an introduction to Salsa, that sowed the seeds of his enterprise. This is how Dharavi grows, on the concept of paying it forward. Those who make it, generate jobs for others and Dharavi continues to hum.

Within the complex maze are also outsiders. Those who had the option of not being here, but are here for a reason. Take Srini for example. His story is aptly captured in the chapter - Less is More. Srini volunteers for Teach for India. A lot of love and patience has helped him ensure that his students take an interest in learning, especially in learning English. Of course, his innovative concepts of putting coins in a box, when pleased with the students performance (to be used for a treat later) or prize rewards of marbles -- which no young lad can resist, played a huge motivational role. Or then, there is Soaib Grewal, a graduate from the Rhode Island School of Design, who has set up a social enterprise that aims to introduce clean water techniques in Dharavi. A water purification tablet sells for as little as Rs 1 and then there are the high end filters which sell for more than a thousand bucks. Creating awareness about the need to drink clean water is taking time, but this enterprise is determined to do its bit.

Sprinkled in the book are so many amazing stories, of Rani who got a loan from SBI via a self help group and who with some tailors sews women's blouses, or Panju now the owner of an Udipi restaurant (one which sells South Indian fast food like idli and dosa) who continues to live in Dharavi but in a redevelopment flat and not under a tin roof, or that of Jocking Sir, who has decided to take matters in his own hand and work towards redevelopment of slums by carving out an area of the proposed buildings under the redevelopment scheme for commercial use. By selling the commercial space funds will be available for redevelopment. Then there are Faheem and Tauseef who have set up their tour agency -- Be the Local which provides the tour of Dharavi, who better than them to show us what Dharavi is truly about.

Each person here, holds his head high and like Jameel who is dreaming of a sea-facing apartment, dreams and works towards a better tomorrow.

This book is a MUST READ and no review can fully capture all that it has to offer. In addition contacts of most people whose stories have been covered in this book have been provided. I only wish that the book contained an index. Further, while a few snatches of conversation/thoughts in Hindi (India's national language) of those who stories are contained in the book are transliterated in English, the book could have provided a translation of the same as a footnote, to help an international audience.

Photograph in this blog post has been used as per the terms of the Creative Commons License. It has been downloaded from

You may also like to check out the interview with Rashmi Bansal on BlogAdda.

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