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.

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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.

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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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