Reading Anna Karenina

 A feAK_coverw weeks ago, I started re-reading Tolstoy’s classic, Anna Karenina.  I am reading the Pevear and Volokohonsky translation, the recipient of the PEN Translation Prize and an Oprah Book Club selection. I picked up my copy at the local library, where it was on sale for $3. For once, a paperback beats a Kindle edition for price (the Kindle edition is available for $10.72). At $3, this edition is a steal, as graceful and stately as a Russian ballet.

Speaking of the ballet: this being a used copy, I found inside it what looks like an old ticket to the Bolshoi Ballet, or at least a counterfoil, which the previous owner must have left inside the book. I use it as a bookmark. It looks like a currency bill. I was startled to find it there, a piece of paper that takes me right back to Russia in an instant, much like the book itself. In an odd way, quite the madeleine moment, although I have never been to Russia, much less to a performance by the Bolshoi.

In what I read last night, Anna returns home from a party at Princess Betsy’s late at night, where her odious husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is awaiting her, to talk to her about her “behavior” that evening. Her “behavior” consisted of sequestering herself with Vronsky at the party, in full view of St. Petersburg paparazzi. To give her husband credit, at least he tries to talk to her about what had happened instead of boxing her ears in or throwing her out of the house or outright accusing her of infidelity.  Anna, of course, prevails, declaring that she is tired and that there is nothing to talk about, even though there most certainly is. One sees Alexei losing ground very rapidly in front of Anna’s calm demeanor and repeated declarations that she is “sleepy.”

 Of their relationship after this, Tolstoy writes: “Outwardly things were the same, but inwardly their relationship had changed completely. Alexei Alexandrovitch, such a strong man in affairs of state, here felt himself powerless. Like a bull, head lowered obediently, he waited for the axe that he felt was raised over him.” It is interesting that for all his facility with words, Alexei is never able to say what he needs to say to Anna. Her secretiveness and deceit in effect rob him of speech.


Reading Literature Increases Our Capacity for Empathy

I read in the NY Times’ health blog yesterday about an interesting study from psychology researchers at New York’s New School For Social Research demonstrating that reading literature can improve your empathy skills.  This was conducted as a scientific study, by giving each participant a few pages of a literary work to read, and then testing how they fared on “mood recognition” — identifying moods in pictures of people’s eyes. The researchers, a psychology professor and a graduate student from The New School, found that after reading literature for a few minutes, people performed better on the test.  The findings were published in the journal Science. 

What was interesting was seeing which books were classified as “literature” by the study. The literary selections included Anton Chekhov, Louise Erdrich, Wendell Berry, and Alice Munro, among others. The “non-literary” selections included Danielle Steele and Dashiell Hammett.

That science can be used to measure the effects of literary writing, even for a few minutes, is, to say the least, fascinating.

An idea for another study: measure the effects of reading literature via a hard copy of a book versus reading on Kindle. I wonder if the result will be the same.

There Was A Country, by Chinua Achebe

Last night, I started reading Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was A Country. Thirty pages into the book, I am marveling at the simplicity of his writing, at how matter-of-factly he describes the conflicts between Christianity and the religion of his ancestors, his education, and British colonialism in West Africa. He presents the colonialists in a very positive light, as committed educators rather than as oppressors. The voice is a voice of experience and wisdom, that of an old man calmly reflecting on his life and on the history of his country.

The Green Card

My American Idyll was recently interrupted by a dose of reality by the Department of Homeland Security: the green card interview. I have been waiting to become a permanent resident for a long time, but chance just didn’t favor me on two separate occasions. Then, out of the blue, I married a naturalized American citizen (born in India), and the path to the green card opened up for me, just like that.

In retrospect, the granting of my green card, which allows me to live and work in the United States, occurred with very little fanfare; so cut-and -dry and legalistic were the proceedings that it was actually anticlimactic. How was the immigration officer to know that I had waited for this day since I was 7 years old, when my family left the United States for our home in England, only to eventually move even farther away to India when I was 9? To him I was just another green-card-by-marriage application.

We started out early in the morning of July 17th for the USCIS office in Tampa, which is where the interview was held. The waiting room was quiet, filled with dozens of hopeful green card and citizenship applicants. There were some “foreigners,” like ourselves, but the room was largely filled with Hispanics, most of them there for their citizenship interview. Our appointment was at 10 am. We were in the building by 9. 10am came and went; soon it was 10:30, and then 11, and my name hadn’t been called. I had a sense of foreboding, and an all-too- familiar paranoia soon engulfed me: what if the USCIS had made a mistake and there was no record of me in their system? What if they had decided to postpone the interview and had failed to inform us? I was beginning to convince myself that something was going to go wrong.

But here is where I give the USCIS credit. Their staff were polite and helpful, and one officer managed to go inside the interview area, confirm that my name was on their list, and inform me that they delay was because one of the interview officers was on leave that day. “They will call you soon,” she said to me reassuringly.

A gruff, stocky white man, who had earlier chided a couple because one of them couldn’t speak English, called out my name. A mild sense of doom returned — he had seemed to me the least likable of all the immigration officers we had seen that morning, and he was going to interview us? Oh no.

I prepared to approach the doorway, when he stopped me and said that my husband was to go in first. He would interview him, and then they would call me in. I handed my husband the file with all of our papers and photographs of our wedding, knowing that my fate –our fate — was hanging in the balance. It’s true that we were both confident that the interview would go smoothly, because our application was solid, but now that the moment had arrived, I was unnerved.

A short while later — maybe 10 minutes? — I was asked to go inside. I beamed at the officer, determined to project warmth and confidence. I had to take an oath to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He quizzed me for a while about how my husband and I had met, when and where, asked me about my step-son, and then proceeded to verify several details in my application. Everything seemed to be going well. He was pleasant and even bantered with us about some restaurants in our neighborhood in Florida. Finally, without much further ado, he pronounced that everything seemed to be in order and that he just needed to get the higher-ups to sign off on the application.

That was it. He soon came back with a letter declaring me to be a legal permanent resident of the United States of America and informed me that the actual green card would be in the mail soon.

Three and a half hours after first entering the USCIS office that morning, I was now, finally, a legal resident of the United States.

The Everglades, Southern Florida

Last weekend, casting around for something to do that would involve a “long drive,” we decided to explore the Everglades, southern Florida’s breathtakingly wide expanse of swamps, mangroves, and prairie land that stretches almost the entire span from its west to east coasts. Our first stop was Captain Doug’s airboat tour near Marcos island, which took us at a good speed through the watery mangrove swamps. Madhu posed with a baby gator before we got into the boat, and a short ride later, we encountered a friendly but lonely raccoon who came out of hiding to meet and greet us and be fed by our boat captain. Disappointingly, we didn’t see any other wildlife, except for some birds (cranes and pelicans).

We drove up to the Big Cypress National Preserve after that, further east on I-41, and caught fleeting glimpses of a Manatee. We also went on a long 2-hour hike through the woods on a hiking trail running the length of Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park — again, not much wildlife to speak of, but we did see some interesting birds, and later that day, I caught a glimpse of a stately bright-red Cardinal.

The next morning, bright and early and shortly before dawn, we commenced a long drive to the Shark River Valley, the other end of the Everglades, near Miami. That was to be the highlight of our sojourn through the Everglades: we had planned to go on a 15-mile bike ride through this part of the forest. The trail was paved and easy to navigate, and it etched a circular path along which saw a lot of alligators sun-bathing with their eyes closed and mouths half open. Some of them were giant reptiles, and in places there were whole packs of them, partly submerged in the swampy water. From the observation deck we also managed to spot a couple of turtles. The ride back to our starting point was a bit more difficult than the ride in, because the wind was blowing against us, and our bikes didn’t have gears, so we just had to pedal doggedly until we covered the remaining 8 miles of the trail. But we did it, and were none the worse off for it.

Having made it this far east, we decided to plug on further along I-41 and hit Miami. The contrast between biking amidst alligators and negotiating Saturday afternoon city traffic on a Miami freeway was stark, to say the least! But we caught some spectacular views of the Miami skyline, and then headed out to Miami Beach, where we enjoyed a view of the Atlantic while sitting on the beach and reading our books for a couple of hours.

I drove most of the way back from Miami to Bradenton and have finally overcome my fear of the expressway 🙂 I am now on my way to becoming a gator-spotting, road-hogging beach bum. Starting to feel at home in Florida!

A View from Florida

Marriage and a chance relocation have brought me 10,000 miles from my native India to the sunny climes of western Florida, in Bradenton-Sarasota. While the palm trees lend a familiar tropical flavor to my new surroundings,  the challenges of driving on the right-hand side of the road, the expansive shopping plazas, and the manicured and landscaped lawns confirm for me that I am indeed back in the United States of America, right at the time when election fever is mounting and the debate over health care is once again at center stage. The last time I was in the United States was right before Barack Obama was elected, in the summer of 2008; there will be another 9 months of suspense before we know whether Obama is going to make it back into the White House next year. Speculation is rife. But while  the election drama unfolds, my husband and I are enjoying our explorations of this coastal nook of Florida. One thing I like about this state is that there are large bodies of water everywhere; even outside our apartment, overlooking the balcony, there is a large pond that ripples gently in the breeze all day long, giving this area a resort-like quality. Living here is like being eternally on holiday.

We’ve been to two beaches so far: Siesta Keys and Lido Beach. Both have vast expanses of white sand and pure, clean waters. The sea gulls and pelicans are very tame here; they fly close to the shoreline and are seemingly unafraid of humans. The sunsets at the beach are spectacular; a few weeks ago we actually watched the sun dip below the horizon at Lido Beach against a reddish-orange backdrop. The beaches were not crowded went we visited them — in fact they were somewhat deserted. But I am sure that the sands will be teeming with vacationers when my first summer in Florida eventually rolls around.

So far, we have visited:

The Dali in St. Petersburg (; Orange Groves and Winery (; The Pier at St.Petersburg; International Plaza in Tampa; Sarasota beaches; Downtown Sarasota, where we hung out at the 5 O’Clock Club ( and listened to The Bonesha

kers after downing a shot (only one!) of tequila. We’ve eaten well at Main Street in Lakewood Ranch and have sampled some offerings from the Sarasota Film Society, most notably The Artist and A Separation.  We even managed to catch some classical piano music (Chopin’s works, played by Russian pianist Eleonora Lvov).

Next on the agenda: The Everglades.