Friday, 26 June 2020

"School's out for summer..."

It’s the last day of school, and my last day of work until my return on August 31, and while I’ve been working from home these past few months, being off for the summer will mean that I can freely read during the daytime without feeling guilty, so I’m hoping to get through that huge pile of books I picked up from the library last week.  Because of the book I read this week, I’ve made a steaming cup of steeped chai in a small pot on the stove rather than my usual tea, and, of course, I’ve got a delicious Date Bar to go with it.
I read a debut novel by Toronto writer Farah Heron, The Chai Factor.  I’m not sure where I heard about this book, but after last week’s depressing reading experience, what I really needed was a light, easy read that would make me feel good.  And let’s face it, even if the cover, with its bright tangerine background, pictures of an ornate teapot and a guitar, and silhouettes of a man and a women didn’t suggest a love story, then the fact that the word “chai” was in the title was certain to make me smile, as we all know that there’s no better way to lift your mood than a good cup of tea.   Amira Khan is a thirty-year-old woman of Indian descent who is taking the train home to Toronto to finish a project that will hopefully earn her a Masters degree in Engineering.  Her much younger roommates at school were not offering the peace and quiet she needed for this, and she is looking forward to hunkering down in her basement apartment at her grandmother’s house and really applying herself.  When the train breaks down and the passengers are forced to wait in a small train station for a replacement, a creepy guy in a shiny suit makes rude sexual advances towards her, and the red-haired, flannel-shirted, suspendered lumberjack-type guy she saw on the train comes to her rescue, claiming to be her boyfriend.  But rather than appreciate the help, she is offended that he thought she would not be able to defend herself, and when they continue their journey sitting in opposite seats, there is a definite chill in the air, but also a spark of sexual tension.  Reaching her destination, Amira heads off to the library to work on her project, as it is due in two weeks.  When she returns to her grandmother’s house, she is horrified to discover that the rest of the basement rooms have been rented out to a barbershop quartet in town for a competition.  In fairness, she came home early and didn’t tell anyone, so she can’t really complain, but this situation is less than ideal.  What makes it worse is that the red-haired guy from the train, Duncan, is a member of the quartet.  What follows is Amira’s experiences over a two-week period as she tries to complete her school work while not developing a relationship with Duncan.  She also faces challenges returning to the engineering firm where she had worked for four years before taking a leave of absence to further her education, but the new director seems to be not only racist but also sexist. Oh, and one of the quartet is gay, but he’s still partially in the closet with some members of his traditional Indian family.  And Amira also wants to protect her eleven-year-old sister, Zahra, from experiencing the racism and sexism that threatens to dull her enthusiasm and steal her innocence.  She meets adversity and challenges seemingly on every page, and she is so filled with anger that she doesn’t seem to be able to enjoy anything, except maybe her time with her old friend Reena.  Can she find a way to overcome her anger and learn to deal with situations in a more constructive way?  Will she and Duncan get together?  Will Sameer ever tell his family that he’s gay?  And can Amira protect Zahra from the unpleasantness of life?  All of these questions and more will be answered if you stick it out to the very last page.  My first thought was that the plot of this book was not as light and romantic as I had expected.  Amira had so much anger at the world that it was at times overwhelming.  At nearly 400 pages, I felt that this book was overlong, and some of Amira’s rants, as well as the passages describing her conflicting thoughts regarding her feelings towards Duncan, could have been edited.  With all the drama surrounding the completion of her degree, getting involved in a potential relationship, and deciding whether to go back to work at her old firm where things seem to have changed significantly, but not for the better, I was reminded again and again how fortunate I am to be an older adult in a happy relationship, with a job I love, living in an environment where I don’t experience racism or sexism.  I think I now have a bit of an insight into what it would be like to face these challenges on a daily basis, but of course I will never truly be able to understand it, since, as Heron points out, I can just take my equal footing for granted.  I guess my conclusion would be that this book is a bit overlong, but certainly worth reading.  And, of course, the making of chai is an integral part of the story... *smile*
That’s all for today.  Get outside and enjoy the sunshine, but remain socially distanced!
Bye for now…
Julie

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