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The Rediff Special/ Arthur J Pais in New York
An Indian gypsy & her 'Sound Of Language'
February 26, 2008
Amulya Malladi, who describes herself as a gypsy (she's had homes in Hyderabad, Tennessee and now in Denmark), has set her fifth and latest novel in Denmark. And like her previous novels including The Mango Season, her new book, The Sound Of Language, has a strong woman, in this case an Afghan refugee in Denmark, at its center.
Raihana, who has fled war-torn Afghanistan, has to fight hard to make a living in Denmark. More important, she has to find a place for the new country in her heart. As part of her immigrant requirements, she must engage in a praktik, a set of programmes including work, Danish language classes and other activities designed to help her join Danish society. During the course of training for a job, she meets a beekeeper, Gunnar, who is struggling with his own demons. His condition is made worse by the death of his wife. She and Gunnar form what looks at first like a distant friendship
As the novel, which like Malladi's previous books is also published by a division of Random House in America, progresses, we realise that Gunnar and Raihana are not going to have a romantic relationship. But their growing bond and Raihana's strong efforts to create a meaningful life for herself give the novel quite a bit of strength.
The Sound Of Language is also one of Malladi's better received books. Though the influential trade publication Publishers Weekly panned it, it garnered many good reviews, especially from The Boston Globe. "A quietly powerful story about a young Afghani woman adjusting to a new life in Denmark," The Globe wrote, "Malladi's story of two wounded people beset by prejudice has a ring of authenticity. The Sound of Language is finely written, spare but eloquent, sensitive but free of false sentiment."
"My novel is about a unique friendship between two people who cannot communicate clearly with each other because they don't speak the same language," Malladi, 33, says. "This is a story about immigrant life in Denmark. And, most importantly, this is a story of courage and of stepping beyond the confines laid down by society and culture and finding something precious and important - happiness."
She said that after moving to Denmark with her Danish husband over five years ago, she had the urge to write about that country. The local media wrote about her novels published in America, England [Images] and other countries. "I wanted to set a novel in Denmark and wanted it published across Scandinavia," Malladi says.
Perhaps the novel would not have materialised if she had not started learning Danish. "I took a few Danish language classes and met many refugees there," she said. "I was curious as to how they lived in Denmark. I'm an immigrant, and I can go back to my home country whenever I want with no real repercussions. Most refugees can't go back home - home is a war ruin and they yearn for it in a different way than I do. Also, Denmark is a difficult country for immigrants. If I found it hard with a Danish husband, a family network, education and employment, I wondered how a refugee with none of my advantages felt."
When she first moved to Denmark, Malladi was used to not understanding what people were saying. "Every state (in India) has a different language, different clothes, different cuisine, everything," she said in an interview. "But as an adult, it's strange when you go to a place and you have no idea what people are saying around you. I started to think about that and, as I started to live in Denmark, I started to see how immigrants are treated, how refugees are treated, how different it is from the United States."
Since refugees are required to speak the difficult Danish language, the isolation they feel is compounded, Malladi feels, in a way that she too has experienced to some degree. "I want to tell a story about them, how brave they are and how effortless they make it seem," she explains. "They come here, they get in, they start learning the language and start working and building their lives. They want the same things everybody else does - better lives for themselves and for their children. I'm very impressed with the women I've met; they've fought hard to have the lives they have. They're very brave."
She has been asked often: Why a beekeeper? Why not a carpenter or an electrician?
"The answer was simple," she says. "I associated the Danish language with the buzzing of bees, and hence I chose to make Gunnar a beekeeper." In the back of her mind, she thinks she knew that making Gunnar a beekeeper would serve her well because her husband's uncle is a beekeeping expert. "He taught me everything I know about beekeeping plus he went through the entire manuscript to mark all the beekeeping mistakes," she says.
Apart from learning about beekeeping, she says, she had also to learn about life for refugees in Denmark, about Afghan culture, and the challenges the refugees faced. It was also very important for her not to sound strident about race relations.
Malladi is quite vocal about rising racism in Denmark, especially in her criticism of the neo Nazi young men and women.
"I did not want to sound as if I was preaching in my novel and condemning all Danes," she mused in an interview. "I was not going to give the Danes a piece of my mind about how racist they are - because not all Danes are racist. I think that was a difficult balance - to ensure that I was true to life in Denmark and not in 'over-react' mode.'
From the start of her writing career, Malladi says, she has been interested in writing about women who find themselves in difficult situations and yet seek to create their own destinies. She likes the way a former editor characterised her works as "about women who are displaced and are trying to find their places in society."
Though women have the more important roles in her novels, she does not ignore male characters, she says. So when we get to know Raihana deeply, we also get to know Gunnar quite well. And, through him, the better qualities in Danes.
'I think he gives her confidence, and she starts to feel that she can be him, that she can have that life, that it's not unattainable,' Malladi explains. 'To me, Gunnar is a very special character. I meet a lot of racists in Denmark, but I meet a lot of people like Gunnar. I based him on my father-in-law, who, I think, would not hesitate if he had to teach anybody anything. He would be fine with it, and he would not have to even think about it. He would be open to it� I wanted to show, through Gunnar, that not all Danes are horrible people, because they're not."
In the final reckoning, The Sound Of Language is the story of a unique friendship, she asserts. "Every language has a sound and beyond that sound is acceptance and that's what my book is about," she says. "I hope that those who read it will re-evaluate any prejudices they have, and I hope very much that they will start to question how their governments treat refugees and immigrants. But most importantly, I hope that my readers have a good time reading this book - that they are entertained (and then run to re-read all my other books!)."
She may not set another book in Denmark soon, for she is going to be busy with her first Bollywood novel, says Malladi, who loves Hindi films. It could, she feels, also be her most entertaining book.
"All The Colors In Between is set in the San Francisco Bay Area and is about an Indian woman, Naina, who is going through a divorce (Indians don't divorce), her American and white stepmother (her father married Miranda a year after Naina's very Indian mother died), her best friend (a black woman who's dating a slimy Indian man who will never marry her) - and last but not the least, her dead great aunt, a famous actress in black and white Bollywood, who haunts Naina's dreams, visiting her on black and white Hindi movie sets," she says.
"Between a Bollywood director screaming CUT in her black and white dreams; her future ex-husband promising to wage war against the much-needed divorce so that he doesn't have to tell his parents; and her attraction to her cousin's husband as well as a man whose name she doesn't know, Naina has to navigate treacherous emotional minefields and grow up," she says. "I'm having a great time working on All The Colors In Between; it's a good change from my last two books, which were quite serious.Malladi, whose favourite films range from Guru Dutt's Pyaasa to Farah Khan's [Images] Om Shanti Om
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