Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Brothers Brar

Confession: I have never read The Brothers Karamazov in its entirety. It is entirely possible, in fact, that no one living has read the book in its entirety--even those who turn every page have, I suspect, let their minds wander for paragraphs at a time, the way I tend to skip out on hours of what's going on in my immediate surroundings to think about food.

I like the idea of the book, though. Though I haven't actually read it, I'm struck by the concept of exploring a given time and place through the trajectories of different brothers. Where do they go? What do their choices say about what the crises of their time were? About what universal human questions mean in a specific time and place?

That core seems to be what's driving Ranbir Singh's The Brothers Brar. The book starts in rural Punjab on the eve of Indian independence, in a family where the fourth of seven sons is about to be born. Subsequent chapters jump back and forth in time as you watch the lives of the boys unfold. The old ways of life are collapsing and in their place communism, religion, and emigration are options. I'm only about a fourth of the way through the book and already the world's a stage for these characters: one is moving from post-doctorate to post-doctorate appointment, trying to find a place for his science in the U.S.A. One has risen in the communist party ranks and is moving all around India, though tensions with the government are rising. Another married a foreign girl, but can't seem to stay away from India and is still fiercely loyal to the family. One is still making his living off the soil, but is beginning to think about moving away from the family land and the obligations that go with it.

It's a pretty intense read, and a good catch-up for anyone who wasn't paying close attention over the last half-century. Makes me wonder: with so much excitement just a generation or two ago, what's next for those of us who are still young? What paths will history offer to our brothers and sisters and us?

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