If she hadn't been born in Iran in the early '70s, maybe Ghazal Omid wouldn't have been raped by her brother. Okay, maybe she would have been. Brothers rape their sisters everywhere. Omid knows this, even as she describes -- in her memoir, Living in Hell (Park Avenue, $26.95) -- how hers did it "again and again," starting when she was twelve, making her "kneel and perform oral sex on him for what seemed like hours." But in another country or culture, she argues, she might have had some escape route: somewhere to turn, someone to tell. Her devout mother, who "loved him so dearly [while] I only existed ... wouldn't have believed me and could have killed me in an 'honor killing' with little danger of being convicted." Omid didn't even dream of telling her father: "After all, he too had raped his own sister."
There's no such thing as a good place to be raped, but Iran in the '80s had to be one of the worst. Omid's fears were as real as the black and navy-blue raincoats and scarves that she and all young women were ordered to wear in the 140-degree summer heat. As real as the hearing loss she incurred from too much head-pummeling by her siblings and mother. The Iran of Omid's youth was a place where unmarried couples were arrested for riding in cars together: Another brother once gave a girl a lift across campus and was faced with three choices: expulsion from his university, 25 lashes and jail time, or forced marriage to his passenger, whom he barely knew. He chose marriage.
Had she simply been born and raised somewhere else, Omid might have dodged a life dissolved in self-loathing, "feeling dirty in every vein," fueling fantasies of murder and suicide.
Sometimes heritage isn't about warm fuzzy feelings as you beat the taiko or slice a pumpkin pie. Because just as where and when you're born, and to whom, inspire pride and the snap-crackle-pop of solidarity, those particulars of your birth also often preordain your hardships. Identity politics is a luxury of the here and now.
Sometimes heritage hurts.
Had Damodhar Jadhav not been born into India's lowest caste -- the Dalit or untouchable caste -- at the dawn of the 20th century, he might have gone to school, scaled the socioeconomic ladder, or even been allowed to set foot in the temples of the Hindu religion that his family had followed for generations but which, ironically, decreed his kind fit only for hauling bovine carcasses and transporting human dung. Had his wife Sonu not been born an untouchable in India, too, perhaps she would have been allowed to glimpse her reflection in a mirror sometime before reaching adulthood, would not have married a stranger before age ten, would not have been brutally punished for touching an upper-caste family's food-tray, would not have endured a more-or-less forced religious conversion in her forties. Presumably she would also have been able to read her son Narendra Jadhav's book, Untouchables (Scribner, $26). Illiterate, she can't.
Had Jane Shilling not been born into the British middle class in the middle of the 20th century, then the new leisure-time hobby she adopted as a top London journalist and single mom wouldn't have become the subject of heated protests and summarily outlawed. The Fox in the Cupboard (Touchstone, $24) is part memoir, part elegy for the life and times of a blood sport.
What kid hasn't stomped away from a shrieking parent or stared at a midnight ceiling certain of having been stolen at birth -- swiped fairytale-style from some castle or schooner or flowing-fruitpunch planet? Omid and the Jadhavs might just as earnestly, and vainly, have yearned for a Union City tract house. It's hard even to imagine their tiny horizons, the steel cage that was their sense of doom. One day on the prayer mat -- trying, as she says, "to test the water" -- Omid asked her mother what should happen to "women who fall into a trap and do bad stuff." Looking up, her mother replied that "they should kill her with stones or put her in a large sack and throw her into a pit with a wild bulldog." No surprise, really: "I had heard of this punishment being carried out by families in Isfahan."
Hers is a grueling tale, told in the racing and insufficiently edited prose of someone still in flight. Now a Canadian citizen, Omid writes of persecutions, premonitions: of a past, a family, a country that inspire only relief for having been cut away.
Untouchables, with its scenes showing families working together to fight prejudice, is a warmer if sometimes a bit more hectoring read. Told alternately in the voices of the author's mother and father -- allegedly reconstructed from the latter's sketchy memoirs, written before he died in 1989 -- it recounts their activism in a liberation movement led by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Columbia-trained Dalit hero and publisher of the first Dalit newspaper, Mooknayak or Voice of the Dumb. Poor but hardworking, the elder Jadhavs organize rallies, lead marches into temples strictly off-limits to their caste, and finally follow in Ambedkar's footsteps by becoming Buddhists. With Hindu higher-ups refusing to adopt reforms -- and continuing to teach that Dalits are born low-caste because of bad deeds done in past lives -- Ambedkar "spoke of our suffering under the hegemony of the upper castes," and vowed to "embrace a faith that gives us unreservedly equal status." The doctor declares: "I will not die a Hindu."
Conversion comes hard for Sonu, who is so poor that her name means "gold" but she's never worn any. She loves her Hindu gods: "Only they could save us from calamities. ... I had never failed to worship the idols every single day. ... I washed them with my tears when my children suffered ill health. ... You are out to kill my faith," she rails at her husband in a rare display of rage. In the end she accedes -- "I am the insignificant Sonu, always nodding her head to whatever you say" -- and finding solace in the Buddha statuette's serene smile. Her son, the author, is an internationally renowned economist; his siblings are successful too, but he warns: "The 3,500-year-old caste system in India is still alive and violently kicking. ... When you meet a person in India today, your caste will quickly be assessed from your family name." Sure, Dalits "are no longer required to attach brooms to their rumps to wipe out their footprints as they walk." Untouchability was constitutionally abolished in 1950, but laws have little hold on hearts and minds.
That's exactly what Shilling learned soon after she had gotten good enough at horseback-riding to join the local hunt. A British tradition dating back four hundred years, hunting merges nature, athletics, ritual, fashion, fellowship, and even has its own musical score: "the eerie, eldritch sound, part scream, part hoot, part yodel, which is the huntsman encouraging his hounds: 'Eleu, leu in, leu leu little bitches.'" En route to a hunt, "our ties neatly knotted and fixed with gold pins, our jackets brushed, our hair impeccably sleeked and netted, our boots polished to a parade gloss," Shilling is ill with happy anticipation. Four hours of racing through the woods later, "I ate my plate of bacon and baked beans and drank my mug of sweet tea and a delicious fatigue crept over me, as though I'd successfully completed some enormously difficult and worthwhile task. It was like nothing I had ever felt before."
Unfortunately, a hunt also entails hounds tearing live foxes to bits. That's why increasing numbers of protesters -- "the black-shrouded army with its narrow, mailbox eye slits" -- confronted Shilling and her friends: "'Whore!' they said in low, intent voices as they passed us. 'Cunt!' 'Murderer!' One of them was holding up something heavy and slippery inside a plastic supermarket bag." Hunting was banned nationwide in 2004. Shilling mourns it. She acknowledges the moral quandary: She loves animals, adores her pet cats. Yet she longs for a lost way of life that she never would have dreamed she'd someday adopt, whose destruction has been hailed as a victory in the class war. Shilling misses its regimens, misses racing through a gorgeous forest with its "tumbled swags of nightshade berries that threaded the autumn hedges, juicy and red as coral beads or drops of blood." This woman is such a powerful evoker of scenery that she could write about crumpled napkins and make you like it. For the sake of her own happiness, if only she'd been born affluent a hundred years ago. For the sake of foxes and class warriors, it's lucky she wasn't. But that's the damn thing about heritages. They just won't hold still.
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