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.

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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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