Monday, December 06, 2010

Book Review: Curses in Ivory

Curses in Ivory traverses three generations of women as seen through the eyes and memories of Sreya. The 3 main characters are Sreya, her grandmother Hansabati and mother Regina. The minor but still important characters are her mothers sister Queenie, her Fathers brothers wife Brishti and her sister-in-law Nilima.

The curse supposedly has its origin in the time of Hansabati's mother-in-law Kamala and carries on in various forms through the Rai Bahadurs family.

This novel is a subtle yet wonderful exploration on the status of women across 4 generations in West Bengal. Societal norms, the prevalence of purdah, the British influence, the lowered status of women who lost their mothers or were orphaned, the overwhelming obsession for a male heir all of these are explored in this novel.

Curses in Ivory is a relatively easy read but will leave lasting impressions on the reader. The slow decay of once wealthy households holding on to their past. Family secrets - explosive if revealed but even more destructive if concealed. Arranged marriages where pre-teen spouses grow up together and office romances that lead to marriage. The changing fabric of society reveals itself in the course of this book.

While Curses in Ivory is not chicklit, women readers will be more appreciative of the subtleties in the story telling and the implications of events.

Anjana Basu's story telling flows very smoothly and there are minor differences in the flow depending on which characters perspective is being put forth. The poetic turn of phrase around Brishti is the most palpable.

While not in the league of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay or Satyajit Ray, she still succeeds in bringing an older Bengal to life.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Book Review: Disgraced by Saira Ahmed

Picked this book up on a whim, as it seemed to be in the vein of Jean Sasson's books. It promised a glimpse into the life of a young British-Pakistani girl growing up in a traditional Muslim immigrant family  in the 1980's.

Was it a good book? Well, it won't win any awards for the writing, but the story did make me empathise with her. It created an emotional response in me and isn't that what good writing is supposed to be about?

Saira is brought up in an ultraconservative Pakistani muslim family that lives in Britain, where the entire extended family is involved in the family garment business. Men rule the household with iron fists and women are treated as property to be used and abused.

The danger for someone unfamilar with Islam reading the book, is seperating what stems from religious practice and cultural practice,  since Saira herself is not sure of the distinction. Bullied into submission from a young age by all the men in her family, it is not possible for her to question any of their actions or decisions.

However, after being forced into an abusive arranged marriage with a distant family member on a trip back to Pakistan, she slowly summons her courage and uses all her wits to escape back to Britain where she finally lands in a safe house. It is here that she glimpses an alternate way of living her life and starts working outside the family business and outside the traditional ghettoes.

Unfortunately this respite is only temporary as she loses her job for no fault of hers and is forced to come up with money to pay off the debts incurred by her family. Her parents who keep sending money to relatives near and distant, back in Pakistan and her older brothers drug addictions.

The only way she can make money fast enough to repay the interests on the debts of the loan sharks is by selling herself as an escort. It is during this phase that Saira oscillates between guilt of doing something haram, even though her intention is halal - to help her parents.

The story ends abruptly  when she stops herself from committing suicide for the sake of her daughter and manages to follow her original dream of designing fabrics and textiles. A more "respectable" job.

The book gives the reader a glimpse into a slice of Saira's life. There are definitely a lot of questions, I would have liked answered. How does her family travel so frequently between UK and Pakistan if they are constantly in debt and money is tight?

A reader unfamiliar with the "extended familial responsibilities"  concept in the sub-continent, would have many more questions as to why a lot of the personalities in this book, behave or react the way that they do. In that manner, Disgraced isn't very illuminating. But it is a story that might have been repeated in a number of immigrant families from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka to the UK. It is a story that deserves to be heard.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Book Review : Yajnaseni - the story of Draupadi

This is a translation of the work of Oriya writer Pratibha Ray on the story of Draupadi. This tale portrays Draupadi in a completely different light from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's Draupadi, in Palace of Illusions

I feel this book has lost a lot in the translation. The first half of the book was very diffcult to get through. The language is clunky and for someone unfamiliar with the multiple names for Arjuna, Krishna, Yudhishtir and Draupadi, the characters can be extremely confusing.

The translator Pradip Bhattacharya, is an IAS officer and the text of the first half is very heavy with convoluted sentences which made me feel like I was reading a bureacuratic report. It takes until the second half, for Bhattacharyato get into his groove and start writing a bit more naturally which really helps the story flow more smoothly.

Pratibha's Draupadi/Yajnaseni/Krishnaa is a woman trapped by circumstances. First having given her heart to Krishna (then told by Krishna himself that her destiny lies elsewhere) and then to Arjun, she is forced to split her time as a wife between 5 husbands, each with their own personalities and peculiarities.

A pre-occupied Yudhisthir, a demanding Bhim, Arjun who blames her for accepting his brothers as her husbands (for not saying no to the suggestion, although he himself didn't), childlike Nakul and Sahadev. Each husband needing to be treated differently according to his temparament. It is easy to empathise with Ray's Draupadi and feel sorry for her predicament.

To love Arjun and want to be his alone and yet have to spend 80% of her time with her four other husbands. Plus Arjun's long travels, as penance for intruding on the privacy of Yudhisthir and Draupadi, to gain astras from the different devas while marrying different princesses along the way. The final straw is when he marries Subhadra and brings her back to Indraprasth, before Draupadi herself has had the chance to be a wife to Arjun (in Ray's sequence of events). Yet, she manages to reconcile herself to all of this with the help of Krishna's council.

In this interpretation of the Mahabharath, Draupadi and Krishna share a spiritual level of trust and love that her five husbands accept and understand unquestioningly. Draupadi, even instructs one of Krishna's wives on how the wives have got it wrong in their constant fighting to possess Krishna for themselves, while what they should be doing is surrendering themselves to him.

Karna is not the flawless noble hero, but an insecure man who nurses his insults and loses no opportunity to rub salt in Draupadi's wounds, even though he also saves her life at one point of time.

Ray, bases her novel on the Mahabharath by Vedvyas and the Oriya Mahabharath by Sarala Das. She also adds a few incidents from her imagination and mixes up the sequence of some events to help her own narrative.

Although Draupadi is one of the five satis, she is often insulted as the one with five husbands and hence implied to be a woman of loose character. Ray's objective in writing this tale was to clear this "negative" interpretation of her and to give her the honor she deserves for holding the Pandavs together and being an "agent of change" in her time.

Also published on

Yajnaseni - The Story of Draupadi

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Book Review : The Hadrian Enigma - A Forbidden History

The Hadrian Enigma - is a story of love, intrigue, politics, and scandal set in pagan Rome and Egypt, about 130 years after Christ.

The story is based on real characters and falls in the genre of speculative fiction. It starts with the discovery of the body of the Bythinian youth Antinous rumored to be Caesar Hadrian's lover or eromenos. While history says that his death was an accidental drowning in the Nile, George Gardiner weaves a story of intrigue around the incident that is quite entrancing.

The tale is revealed as a series of depositions to Special Investigator Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus who is charged by Caesar, to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Antinous within 2 days.

Within the first few pages, it seems the suspect is so evident, that you wonder why the story runs to 476 pages, but as you read along, you realise there are many more players in the mix.

Gardiner has written an interesting and gripping story, but I do wish the editing was tighter. Given that large parts of the book are third person reports, a lot of the minute details included seem superfluous and out of place. He seems to have suffered from a typical writers problem of having done extensive research and then wanting to include as much of the details as possible into the end product.

The language keeps oscillating even when the same person is speaking, from high brow Latin and Greek peppered sentences (sending one scurrying to wikipedia and to American colloquialisms like "that guy".

Font sizes change suddenly and inexplicably, quite often. Words are underlined for emphasis, which left me feeling like I was reading a manuscript or a draft, rather than a final copy.

While the novel is based on the same sex relationship of Caesar Hadrian and Antinous (currently deified as the God of Homosexuality by some) and marketed as a male-male romance novel, it isn't a turn off to the average reader who wants to read it as a mystery novel. What is vexing though, is the repeated use of the word "crutch" when the author actually means "crotch". Whether this is a problem of the "spell check" software or new slang (I checked which did not imply any such meaning to the word - crutch), I'm not sure.

Its an extremely readable story, shedding insight into the life and times of a not-as-renowned Caesar, who had one of the most peaceful and prosperous reigns of his dynasty. It's a page turner, once you get past the initial Greek and Latin terms. I just wish the editing could have been tighter. Then this book would have really stood out for me.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The latest book from the Philip Pullman stable, being called in certain quarters as the Gospel according to Philip.

The plot is based on an innovative concept - that Mary gave birth to twins - Jesus and Christ. In Philips narrative Jesus starts out as the mischievous one, getting into trouble which his quiet, academically oriented brother Christ keeps getting him out of. But then Jesus goes into the wilderness and returns as a preacher and Christ follows him around discreetly chronicling his words and deeds and yet giving a "twist" to the tales to make for better reading. And these twists are what are commonly accepted details today.

Pullman draws on various sources and uses commonly accepted "facts" and twists them around in this book. It is an insight into how details "might" have changed in the re-telling.

For eg: the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana is offered a possible explanation of Jesus shaming the chief steward into producing the wine that he had hidden away to sell on the side.

While staunch Christians might find the book blasphemous, Pullman disclaims the book with "This is a STORY" in a large Gold font on the back.

The writing style is extremely simple and may come as a shock for those who enjoyed the complicated storylines and concepts of his Dark Materials Trilogy. The book makes for extremely easy reading with short simply written chapters.

Pullman also finds time to denounce the current child abuse scandal being faced by the church in the words "prayed" by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. For me, it is this chapter written as a monologue of Jesus - trying to communicate with God - that holds the crux of the book. The whole point of writing this book, seems to be concentrated in this chapter.

As someone who was brought up on the Bible and has read up on the beliefs of the orthodox churches too, it was very easy to correlate all the incidents and compare them to their "original" tales. I would be interested to hear from someone who is not that well versed with the "original material" who has read this book. Did you find it confusing? Did any of the tales seem irrelevant?

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Book Review : The Other Queen

This is my first book by Philippa Gregory and I admit that it was the movie version of "The Other Boleyn Girl", that got me interested in her as an author.

While I knew the basic outline of the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, this novel still kept me engrossed. It brought to life characters from history in a way that only movies seemed to be able to do until a few years ago. It is wonderful the way so many new authors are re-looking history in the form of personal stories. It humanises the past as no text book or ledger of facts and figures ever can.

This novel tells the tale of Mary Queen of Scots from 3 perspectives between 1568 and 1587, with a few flashbacks thrown in for good measure. Bess, a self-made woman who has used husbands as stepping stones to the higher ranks of aristocracy until her current rank as "My Lady Countess of Shrewsbury". Her current husband George the Earl of Shrewsbury, forced by a request from Queen Elizabeth, to keep Mary under house arrest in his home and Mary, Queen of Scots herself.

Bess is a woman constantly worried about the finances of housing Mary, who though a prisoner is also a Queen and has to be treated as such. The Earl slowly finds himself falling under Mary's spell and Mary manipulates everyone around her to try and get what she wants.

Unfortunately for Mary, (as you all know) things did not work out for her. But Philippa's novel has done a wonderful job of bringing her to life. Not as a helpless twit at the mercy of political machinations, but a young woman entrapped by birth and circumstances to spend most of her life as a prisoner, but never giving up on hope and the desire to free herself and rule her own country.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Book Review : Wildwood Dancing

This book by Juliet Marillier was left behind by an American friend who was visiting. Its teen female fiction.

Fantasy and Romance all mixed into one.

I found it way more interesting and the story telling style was far superior to Stephanie Meyer (I admit I read all 4 parts of the Twilight Saga in 2 days). Its a wonder that Juliet Marillier hasn't got more acclaim.

Wildwood Dancing actually had a story to its name. Teen angst and young love is portrayed way better in this book than any of the Twilight books. One of the heroes here is also the bad boy who is actually good.

Wish they would make this into a movie. It would be so beautiful. I can just imagine the fun the costume designers would have.

If you have teenage sisters or daughters, I would highly recommend the author. I'm trying to get more of her books but they don't seem to be sold in India. Oh well, will wait for a foreign trip or a visiting friend.

Book Review : Sister India

Peggy Payne is a travel writer and her attention to the tiny details when traveling come through in this book, her fourth.

My husband who has lived and worked in Varanasi for almost 5 years, found it suprising that a "foreigner" could grasp the essence of the city so well.

Sister India is a work of fiction, which tells multiple stories of the guests at the Saraswati Guesthouse managed by the formidable Madam Nataraja, but the true hero/heroine of this story is the city of Benares/Varanasi itself.

Historically, one of the Holiest cities in India, a lot of "foreigners" visit this city on a quest. Each ones quest may be different. Some find answers, some do not. Some pass by as tourists ticking off another city off their list, some stay back and become a part of the teeming multitudes of the city.

A bundh call by the city officials as a consequence of the unrest following a murder with religious tones forces the inmates of the Saraswati Guesthouse into closer quarters than normal. The forced isolation sets each one on a journey of the discovery of their self, leading them to remember incidents in the past that moulded them into who they are today.

Would recommend the book to anyone who is visiting Benares and wants to get an idea of the city before arriving, a lay-of-the-land so to speak.

Book Review : The Immortals of Meluha

Part 1 of the Shiva Trilogy from Amish Tripathi. One of the first books by an Indian author to be introduced by a viral video on youtube

The story of The Immortals of Meluha is set in 1900BC and operates on the premise that Shiva was a mortal, a simple man whom legend turned into God.
Amish summarises his fundamental premises as:
I believe that the Hindu gods were not mythical beings or a figment of a rich imagination.
I believe that they were creatures of flesh and blood, like you and me.
I believe that they achieved godhood through their karma, their deeds.

With these premises, an interesting read is assured.

While parts of the story are rooted in mythology and some parts are corraborated by history - like the description of town planning by the Meluhans - most parts are pure speculative fiction.

The story is very interesting and keeps you gripped. I don't want to reveal too much of the plot here, so let me try to avoid that while sketching out the basics.

The Suryavanshis are the descendants of Lord Ram who have created an extremely stable society based on strict rules and regulations. An ideal state except for a few rules that Shiva finds unfair. Shiva is a Tibetan immigrant, invited to Meluha (the land now known as the Indus Valley Civilisation) and slowly recognised as a saviour and deliverer from evil.

The evil being the Chandravanshis - who live on the opposite side of India in Swadweep between the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, that also holds Ayodhya - the birth place of Lord Ram.

At times the philosophy in the book sounds like it comes from the Matrix - "You don't earn a title after you have done your deeds... It doesn't matter what others think. It's about what you believe. Believe you are the Mahadev and you will be one"

But there are some statements that make you think and reflect and question previously held assumptions. Amish belives that the cry of Har Har Mahadev actually stems from the thought Har ek Mahadev - Each one of us, has it in us to be a Mahadev.

A lot has been said about the language in the book. While the setting is 1900BC, the language is 21st century AD, with Weapons of Mass Destruction and Departments of Immigration. At times it is difficult to reconcile the two. Amish in an interview said that he had a huge struggle with his editor/publisher about this issue. He wanted the dialogue to be more authentic and his publisher wanted it more modern.

I can empathise with the editor/publisher. The language makes this an easy book to read and will defintely increase sales. But purists searching for authenticity will be disappointed.

Personally I enjoyed the book. I can't wait for books 2 and 3. I have my suspicions, but will try and be patient. :)

He says Book 2 will only be out next year as his day job keeps him busy. Amish, chuck the day job, don't keep us in suspense for that long!

Should you read this book? Definitely. But if you hate cliff hangers (which is how this part ends) then you may be better off waiting for all the books to be released before starting on this.

As a teaser, the first Chapter is freely downloadable from

Take a quick glance. If you are in the least bit interested in Mythology, I guarantee that you will be intrigued.

Also published on

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book Review : One Amazing Thing

The latest offering from Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni - it is a set of short stories strung together with a common narrative much like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that is referenced in this book.

The basic setting of the book is that nine people are trapped in the basement of an Indian Consulate in the US during an earthquake. With limited supplies of food, oxygen and light and unable to get out themselves, they are forced to rely on each other to keep up their spirits and morale.

Uma, born of Indian parents in the USA (who needs a visa to visit India), suggests that they tell each other a story of "One Amazing Thing" that happened in their lives.

The initial sketchy characters reveal the depths of their layers as each tale unfolds.

What is really interesting to me is how Divakaruni has tried to shed light on the same issue from different perspectives. Take for instance, the heavy book that Uma carries with her to the consulate, that she needs to review for her class and hopes to read while making use of the time spent waiting at the consulate. Malathi, a recent arrival from small town India to USA, to work at a secretarial level at the Consulate interprets it as a brash young girl, trying to show off her college education.

It is these insights into the various individual interpetations of events based on each characters past experiences that makes this book a fascinating read.

An ex-army vet, a second generation Indian muslim in a post 9/11 America, an estranged American couple, Uma, Malathi, an Indian Chinese emigrant and her talented grand-daughter (who didn't even know that her grandmother spoke English!) and an Indian bureaucrat at the Consulate. Each brings a different tale to the table.

Some are touching for their bravery, some bring understanding, some leave more questions than before. Romance, courage, hopelessness, helplessness, frustration, promise, hope - no matter what the underlying theme of their story is, each one is a powerful tale taking the readers and the listeners on a journey to a different time and place.

The book is an easy read, but the stories stay with you for awhile because they are human and touching.

There has been some criticism of this book in the USA as to why the trapped individuals wasted their time telling tales instead of brainstorming their way out of the situation. I think that stems from the stereotypical way each culture reacts. In General, Americans are action-oriented and the host of disaster movies from Hollywood have heroes whose sole focus is on rescuing themselves and those closest to them. Indians are more pragmatic/fatalistic in their actions and if initial efforts aren't successful, then further consequences are left for a higher power to decide.

The ending is a bit abrupt and doesn't tie up all the loose ends. But isn't that what life is like?

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Book Review: The Indian Epics Retold

I had been looking for a translation of Ramavataram - Kamban's Ramayan since I read In Search of Sita, when I came across this collection by R K Narayan. This book is a collection of 3 of his books - a translation of The Ramavataram, The Mahabharath and also his collection of short stories "Gods, Demons and Others"

Looking at the size of the book, I should have realised that I would only be getting an abridged version, but I was so excited to see an English translation of the Ramavataram, that I did not think twice before picking it up.

The Mahabharath in this book is a compressed version (18 chapters of the Bhagavad Geetha are compressed into 5-6 paragraphs) of the main incidents and there isn't anything spectacularly remarkable about that section.

Narayan conducted an indepth study into the Ramavataram to fulfill the dying request of an uncle. Kamban himself is said to have spent every night studying Valmiki's Sanskrit version and every day writing thousands of lines of his own poetry in Tamil. He described himself as "I am verily like the cat sitting on the edge of an ocean of milk, hoping to lap it all up". Unfortunately Narayan has only translated this epic in an abridged format.

A few minor variations I found from the Valmiki Ramayan include the reasoning attributed by Kamban for Ram killing Vali from behind a tree. However this was too short a version to appreciate Kambans other variations (if any). I will have to look for a more comprehensive translation. Perhaps Shanti Lal Nagar or P S Sundaram.

Both these translations, while not what I was looking for, are a quick and easy read for those who want a brief introduction to the Indian epics. Easy to read, covering the main highlights of both.

However I really enjoyed the third section of this book : "Gods, Demons and Others" These short stories help tie-in a lot of characters referred to in the main epics. Told in the form of the narrative of a village bard/story teller, they include the stories of : Lavana, Chudala, Yayati (stories concerned with a discovery in the realm of the spirit), Devi, Vishwamithra, Manmatha (depicting a process of sublimation), Ravana, Valmiki, Draupadi (incarnation of God to destroy, inspire and assist), Nala, Savitri, the mispaired anklet, Shakuntala (wives who overcame obstacles to regain lost husbands), Harishchandra & Sibi (ideal rulers)

Most of these are stories of characters from the epics including that of Shakuntala. This version is slightly different from the Kalidasa version Abhijnana Shakuntalam which is more popular in the South. The Mispaired anklet is a Tamil classic.

What might seem suprising to those unfamilair with Indian mythology is that certain characters (even if they aren't Gods) are present at different periods of time. Like Durvasa (of the famed temper) whom the Kauravs sent to visit the Pandav's in vanvas in the hopes that he might curse them, the same Durvasa who blessed Kunti with the mantra for calling upon a God to beget a child, is the same one who cursed Shakuntala. Sages like Vyas, Valmiki, Vishwamitra make guest appearances all over the epics.

I was at a gathering the other day, where some mothers of young children confessed that is was easier to let their kids read Disney comics rather than Amar Chitra Katha. The problem being that, if their children read stroies from mythology and asked for clarifications on characters and incidents, the mothers did not have the knowledge to answer them immmediately.

A collection like this, is like a Cliffs Notes to update the reader on all the major events and characters of these epics. So its ideal for someone who wants a quick introduction to the epics or an easy refresher. For me, I am still searching for more comprehensive translations to better appreciate regional variations in the stories.

Also published on

Narayan sums up the yugas very succintly & I would like to record that here:
Each yuga lasts 3000 celestial years. One celestial year is 3600 human years. Hence the 4 yugas cover 43,200,000 mortal years. Each of the 4 yugas possess special characteristics of good and evil.
In Kritayuga, righteousness prevails universally.
In Tretayuga, righteousness reduces by a quarter, but sacrifices & ceremonies are given greater emphasis. Men act with material and other objectives while performing rites instead of with a sense of duty. A gradual decrease in austerity.
In Dwaparyuga righteousness diminishes by half. some men study 4 vedas, some 3, others 1 or none. Ceremonies are multiplied as goodness declines. Disease and calamities make their appearance.
In Kaliyuga, righteousness, virtue and goodness completely disappear. Rites and sacrifices are abanadoned as mere superstitions. Anger, distress, hunger and fear prevail and rulers behave lke highwaymen, seizing power and riches in various ways.

So what do you think, are we in Dwaparyuga or Kaliyuga?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review : In Search of Sita

In an introduction to this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Devdutt Pattanaik aptly summed up the dillemma facing authors who want to write about the Ramayan and its principal character - Shri Ram.

"When in India, if you write about Ram, you will invariably be gagged by someone. If you say something positive about him, the left wing will get all upset and call you patriarchal. If you say he was a good husband, the feminists will jump in to say that he was definitely not a good husband. If you say anything negative about him, the entire right wing gets upset and says that he is a God, how can you say anything against him?"

This anthology however, is a collection of stories on Sita. The Sita, who Ram is the husband of, not Sita - the wife of Ram. There are different themes within this anthology, but the common thread running through them all is the attempt to envision the tale of Sita from a perspective different from her supporting role in the popularly known Valmiki Ramayan/Tulsi Ramayan(Ramcharitmanas)/Ramanand Sagar televised versions.

The ideal of Sita who is held up as a role model for Indian wives (aadarsh patni) is that of a woman who followed her husbands directives unquestioningly, who got into trouble when she dared cross the line (Lakshman Rekha). A woman on the sidelines, silently suffering and enduring, helpless and unable to control anything that happened around her. Absolute submission.

However in the many regional variations of the Ramayan that abound across India and abroad, there are other aspects of Sita's personality that shine through.

There are 33 different essays in this anthology, broadly divided into four sections. The first deals with commentaries on Sita - vs other women in the epics, as Gauri/Kali, as Janaki. My favourite from this section is: Reba Som's essay on Gandhi's vision of the Indian woman as Sita vs Nehru's ideal of Chitrangadha for the Indian woman to emulate.

The second section, is dialogues with personalities who have explored Sita through different media. Sonal Mansingh(dancer), Indira Goswami (Jnanpith awardee, Ramayan researcher), Madhu Kishwar (founder editor of a woman's journal), Nilimma Devi (Kuchipudi dancer), Madhureeta Anand (documentary filmmaker), Nina Paley (animator and producer - Sita sings the Blues)

The third section deals with different versions of the Ramayan from Himachal to Assamese, Bengali to Telugu. Interesting variations crop up based on regions. For eg. in the Mahasuvi Ramain, Sita's culinary skills are supposed to be at the root of her abduction. Superior culinary skills being equated with superior home-making skills - highly prized in the Pahari culture.

The final section deals with Creative Interpretations, including paintings and speculative fiction. Kumudini's "Letters from the Palace" is brilliant in its narrative and thought. Here the story is told in letters from Sita to her mother, just by describing the saris that she wants from Mithila.

The importance of a collection like this, is that as Namita Gokhale says "Mythology in India is not just an academic or historical subject, it is a vital and living topic of contemporary relevance"

Extremely engrossing, not at all a stuffy academic treatise that it might be mistaken for, its extremely readable. This collection has defintiely created a strong desire in me to read as many versions of the Ramayan as possible. Not just as a story or mythology but as an insight into local customs, mores, social structure and fabric. My only constraint is that I will have to look for versions that have been translated into English. Kamban (Tamil), Kandali (Assamese), Krttivasa (Bengali), Vilanka (Oriya) are just where I hope to start. I'm open to recommendations for any other versions too. Drop a comment.

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Book Review: Palace of Illusions

For the first time, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni writes about Indian mythology rather than just characters influenced by it or stories inspired by mythology.

In the genre of speculative fiction, she retells the story of the Mahabharata from Draupadi's point of view. Draupadi plays an essential role in the epic. If not for her, perhaps the Pandavas might not have lusted for revenge against their cousins as much.

Divakaruni takes the commonly known episodes of Draupadi's life, starting with her "birth" from the fire with Drishtadyumna and the prophecy at her arrival, her swayamvar and subsequent marriage to five husbands, her laughter when Duryodhana accidently falls into a pool in her palace at Indraprastha, her being staked and lost in a game of dice and the attempt to disrobe her in front of Dritarashtra's entire court and the miracle by Krishna, Krishna's assistance at the time when Durvasa and his numerous sages arrive at the Pandava's residence during vanvas, Kechakas infatuation with her and his death at the hands of Bhima during their year of being incognito, the loss of her 5 sons in the war and her being the first to fall by the wayside when she and the Pandavas begin their trek towards the heavens.

With this framework, Divakaruni fills in the blanks. What did Draupadi think about being the "girl who will change history"? What was her relationship with her father, her brother, her mother-in-law, her 5 husbands?

The introduction of the character of her nurse - Dhai Ma - helps to bring in a lot of background and history, which are narrated as stories. Divakaruni's Draupadi is an immature, impatient feminist who is filled with anger and the desire for vengeance (against Drona on behalf of her father and then the Kauravas).

She paints Kunti as a controlling mother who did not want to let go of her hold over her sons hearts and the obedience she commanded from them. Kunti in "The Palace of Illusions" constantly tests Draupadi and chastises her often.

The feminist Draupadi bemoans her empowerment of being granted 5 husbands yet having to follow an arrangement which has rules made by men. - 1 year in turn with each husband while attempting to put the others out of her head completely. She says "instead of a boon which turns me into a virgin before I begin my year with the next husband, I would have much preferred to be given the boon of forgetfullness - being able to forget the time I spent with the other 4 while I am with my current husband".

While the Mahabharatha has many strong female characters, Kunti, Draupadi, Gandhari, Amba, Subhadra they do not have much of a voice. Divakaruni attempts to give that voice at least to Draupadi.

This is a brilliant work of fiction and definitely worth a read.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review: Cuckold

After Ravan and Eddie I was itching to read "Cuckold" as this is a book that Kiran Nagarkar himself considers his masterpiece. In the midst of packing and leaving, I did not have the time to buy or read the book. On subsequent visits to India, we bought up all the latest best sellers (Egypt takes time for new books to be relased due to censorship issues) but sadly the Cuckold lost out in the race to my baggage, primarily because of its size and weight.

Once we moved back to India, this was one of the first books that I picked up. The premise itself had seemed very interesting. A fictionalised biography of Maharaj Kumar of whom little is known except that he was the son of the famous Rana Sangha of Mewar and the husband of Meerabai(hence the title).

Nagarkar has carried out a lot of research into Rajput history of those times and he sets his story against the backdrop of real events.

Although Nagarkar says "I was writing a novel, not history. I was willing to invent geography and climate, start revolts and epidemics, improvise anecdotes and economic conditions and fiddle with dates. As luck would have it I didnt get a chance to play around too much except in the case of the main protagonist, about whom we know nothing, but the fact that he was born, married and died"

The period during which Meerabai lived was momentuous. Rana Sangha her Father-in-law had united the in-fighting Rajputs for the first time, Babur was showing interest in conquering Hindoostan, Rana Sangha's kingdom was surrounded by the hostile Lodi Dynasty in Delhi, Muzaffar Shah II in Gujarat and Sultan Mahmud Khalji II of Malwa.

Nagarkar has used known incidents and woven them into his tale. His hero Maharaj Kumar is a brave warrior and a forward thinker who plans many grand and innovative schemes like a water and sewage system for the fort, a brilliant tactician who prefers to watch his enemy in action and then plan an attack as opposed to the straight on confrontation preferred by Rajputs of those times, who ultimately becomes a victim of his circumstances.

The book is a wonderful introduction to Rajput history and culture which can reinvigorate interest, in someone who has been inured to history by lacklustre textbooks.

Politics, scheming, spies, romance, affairs, eunuchs, concubines, cheating wives, dancing queens - this novel contains them all. Nagarkar is a wonderful story teller on the lines of the bards of yore. Each characters development is well etched out and their actions become completely believable.

Its a wonder Bollywood has not yet seized on this book. It would be a far more gripping story than Jodhaa Akbar.


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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book Review: First Family

The main story was rather gripping, engrossing, unravelled well and was generally well put together, but I found the digression into the story of one of the Private Investigators on the case, completely extraneous. It did not explain any behavior relevant to the case, nor did it shed any light on the main plot or add to it. It was just a distraction from start to finish.

In general, I do like Baldacci's writing style, but I wish he had edited out this substory in this particular book, it just slowed the pace down, while the rest of the story was racing. I'm not sure if this story would be of more interest to someone who had read Simple Genius or Split Second, because those are some of Baldacci's books I haven't read yet. But this book still works well as a stand-alone.

At 658 pages, the book is a little unwieldy for reading in bed, but great for travel time reading in a car or a plane.

Plot synopsis is that the 12 year old niece of the First Lady has been kidnapped and everyone the FBI, the Secret Service, Private Investigators hired by the First Lady are racing to find the child, before it is too late.
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