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Asra Nomani
By Nitish S. Rele

“DAUGHTERS OF KERALA”: 25 short stories by award-winning authors, translated from Malayalam by Achamma C. Chandersekaran, published by Hats Off Books, pages 196, $17.95.

Kerala, the south-western coastal state of India is beautiful and unique in many ways. Its exceptionally high literacy level of 92 percent sustains a culture that engenders a rich literary tradition worthy of translation.

According to Modern Language Notes, “Translators … gave English readers the world.”

In keeping with that statement, “Daughters of Kerala,” translated from Malayalam by Achamma.C. Chandersekaran, attempts to share with the reader the life of a people in a small state in India. With only about 32 million people, it is home to less than 3 percent of India’s population. Sentiments and thoughts once isolated by the indigenous Dravidian language of Kerala -- Malayalam -- are shared with the English speaking world in this collection. The stories reflect the lives of the three major religious groups, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. In addition, there is a recollection about the once prominent Jewish community in Cochin. As the title suggests, the selection is meant to highlight the struggles and triumphs of Kerala women.

The original stories, written over a period of seven decades, depict the progress women have made from oppressive, rigid social mores to a more open society that exerts different pressures.

The earlier stories such as “In the Shroud” and “Underling” seem unreal today, especially the ways in which women were subjugated not only by men but also by what they believed. After reaching puberty, a woman was not to see or be seen by any man other than her husband. At the same time, men could have as many wives as they could support. A man of 60 taking a young woman of 20 as his third or fourth wife was not uncommon. The tragic part is what the women believed. They considered their husbands almost as their god and did everything they demanded. “He may be old and ugly. But he is her husband, her god for this life. Then why doesn’t she love him and worship him?” Lalithambika Antharjanam asks in “In the Shroud,” (page 158)

“Wooden Dolls” and “One Still Picture” are stories of women determined to be independent and working hard for their livelihood.

Stories written in the ’80s and ’90s have different themes. In “A Rest House,” “Rosemary,” “The Lullaby of Dreams,” “Ghare Baire,” “Riddles in Life” and “Arya Reborn,” we read about married women dreaming about other men and having affairs and divorce; and college students experimenting with drugs. The sense of right and wrong has changed. Neglected wives whose husbands were too busy to take time for them, looked elsewhere for affection and understanding.

Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, being rich did not get the woman out of the kitchen. In “Amma,” the man of the house had an ‘aristocratic stipulation’, only Amma was allowed to do things in the kitchen and dining room, servants were not (page 47). Having servants to help her out did not release the woman from kitchen duties. She was found dead in the kitchen and the doctor who performed the autopsy found her dead body to be “very old…as if death took place months or even years ago … yet the body had not deteriorated” (page 49). Is the author accusing Amma’s husband of transgression that transcend time and matter? A similar theme runs through “A Rest House” where the wife felt like her husband’s “housekeeper, except for social occasions at the college, when she was an adornment.” (page 29)

“When Big Trees Fall” was selected to represent the thousands of women from Kerala who answer the call to become nuns and serve people around the world, including those in Mother Theresa’s congregation. Even if we may not approve of the method used to save the Sikh woman and her son from angry Hindus, the Superior of the convent saved two innocent lives without hurting anyone else.

“Love Story” by the same author is unique in that a woman being possessed by the spirit of a man who died suddenly, interacts with him as if he is alive. Achamma.C. Chandersekaran was co-translator along with R.E. Asher of three novellas by the late Vaikom Muhammad Basheer for the UNESCO Program of Representative Works.

The book “Me Grandad 'ad an Elephant” was well received in India and elsewhere. For more information, e-mail or visit “Daughters of Kerala” is available at and or by special order from a book store.

Asra Nomani
By Nitish S. Rele


You got to admire Asra Nomani. The woman has got guts. And despite two recent death threats, the Mumbai-born journalist and author is determined to challenge tradition by advocating women-led prayers in mosques around the U.S. In fact, she has finished the first phase of the Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour, which has met with a mixed response in different American cities.

Women-led prayers in Boston, Washington, D.C. and Toronto went quite peacefully. “In San Francisco, we had to pray behind a wall,” said the 39-year-old in a husky and soft voice. “At a Seattle mosque, men refused to pray with us and began to harass us. And at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles, the people in charge sent a woman to physically remove me. We are dealing with an entrenched discrimination against a woman’s right to live in faith and tolerance.”

The daughter of Indian parents Zafar and Sajida Nomani moved to the U.S. when she was just 4 years old. She was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia before she ventured out to write a book “Tantrika: Traveling the Road of Divine Love” and work as a Wall Street Journal correspondent. But it was a journey to Mecca with then-infant son Shibli that inspired the single mother to write the recently released book “Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”

Nomani discovered that she was following the 4,000-year-old footsteps of another single mother, Hajar, the original pilgrim to Mecca and mother of the Islamic nation. “It is sad that so much of the freedom enjoyed for centuries by women has been wiped out by the conservative brand of Islam practiced today,” she said. “It gives the West a false image of Muslim women as veiled and isolated from the world.”

Upon returning from the Mecca pilgrimage, Nomani dared to walk through the front door of her hometown Morgantown, West Virginia mosque and pray in the main section of the mosque, which is reserved for men. This set off a firestorm of controversy, protests and death threats, resulting in the mosque excommunicating her. Regardless, the fight continues.

And it could very well spill into India, where “Stand Alone in Mecca” will be published by HarperCollins later in the year. “There are obviously a lot of issues with the interpretation of the Islamic law in India,” she said. “I am supportive of some of the women’s activities already happening there. Women-led prayer in mosque is at the top of my list. And when was the last time we heard of a woman pundit? Spiritual leadership has for too long been the domain of men. That has to change. Woman just can’t stay in the ghettos anymore.”

What are Nomani’s memories of Mumbai, the city of her birth? “As a child, I distinctly remember these dance halls across the street where Gulf sheikhs would come to be entertained by the mujra girls,” she reminisces. “Little boys could venture out to play but we girls weren’t allowed to step outside.”

For more information Nomani, click on her Web site:

FODOR’S INDIA, $23.95, 620 pages
By Nitish S. Rele

Looking to visit India this summer? Or maybe planning a vacation to the country of your birth in December? Well, don’t forget the updated and fifth edition of “India Fodor’s,” which was recently released.

For 2005, the over 600-page travel guide is packed with the usual information on not just where to stay or when to go, but also great itineraries, pleasures and pastimes, calendar of events and smart travel tips.

For convenience, the book is divided into 12 regions: The Himalayas, Delhi, North Central India, Rajasthan, Bombay and Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Hyderabad, Orissa and Calcutta.

Here are a few samples of some of the regions:

The Himalayas: Ride an elephant through Corbett National Park or escape from civilization in a yuk at Ladakh Sarai.

Bombay and Maharashtra: Marvel at ancient cave paintings at Ajanta and Ellora or soak up the hullabaloo of Marine Drive’s at Chowpatty Beach.

Goa: Gambol among the church ruins in gorgeous Old Goa or find a private nook at Dudhsagar Falls.

And there is more. Much more to succumb to your animal urges, worship religious sites, spice up your trip, dazzle your eyes or just lose yourself into the wonder that is India.

“Fodor’s India” ( is one travel companion you would want to tag along with you to India, especially if you are heading out on vacation after visiting your hometown. Enjoy the journey and the book.

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