Category: Book Review

A Review of Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal

When one thinks of Indian Ocean one imagines the golden beaches of Maldives being kissed by the sun-warmed water of Indian Ocean. One rarely (if ever) thinks of how this body of water could have shaped human history. Mr.Sanyal has, in fact, taken the said body of water as his subject and written a full book on its influence on human history. The basic premise of the book is how Indian Ocean region was in a constant state of flux and the movement of people around this region influenced human history.  A couple of things need to be clarified before I start with the review. The word in the title is “human history”, not the history of a country or continent, but of the human race as a whole.Second, when Mr.Sanyal is talking about the Indian Ocean, he includes the large body of water stretching from the coast of Africa to Australia and even includes the Persian Gulf and South China Seas. So all of us who are used to coloring the Indian Ocean as a thin strip of blue at the bottom of India map might have to do some mental re-labeling.

The introductory chapter of the book lays down the reason why the author decided to undertake this massive work. There are also two underlying principles in this book. First the emphasis on matrilineal heritage (surprising, especially in a country like India where women come at the bottom of the ladder) and second is looking at history from a coastal perspective rather than from an inland, big city point of view.

The author then takes us right to the beginning of the human race( well the title does say human history), the migration from Africa and even dips into genetics to show how we are all inter-related (a sad fact for those who believe in racial superiority!). The book follows the merchants of Meluha, who left their mark as far as Rome, till Kharavela who carved out a huge empire in Orissa and took revenge on Pataliputra. It then delves into the history of Sri Lanka; the importance and influence of Kalinga all the way into South East Asia. Other highlights of the book include the settlement of Madagascar by Indonesians (something I was unaware of), the spread of Islam, the importance of Temple guilds of South India for trade with South-East Asia and the rise of Chinese naval might under Zheng He. It finally reaches the modern age with the advent of Europeans in the region when they turned the Indian Ocean into their personal playground for dominance. The last chapter of the book is aptly named “From dusk to new dawn” which deals with the geographical and political relevance of Indian Ocean today.

It is an exhaustive piece of work spanning the full course of human history and a major chunk of the world, yet the author has managed to keep the book under three hundred pages without losing any of the pertinent facts or skipping of eras.The Indian Ocean is the main hero of the book, it is shown as a complex eco-system where each country influences the other and there is a constant intermingling of people and culture. Therefore, on one hand, you have the Indic influence on Khmer script and on the other the import of areca (supari) into India from South-East Asia until it became a  ubiquitous part of Indian society. Similarly Sri Lanka can claim one of their oldest rulers to be from Kalinga while Nandi Varman II, the great Pallava King, was of South –East Asia, possibly Kadaram.

It is an extremely well-researched book with an exhaustive list of sources should you want to double check some fact. One thing which I love about Sanjeev Sanyal’s writing is his engaging narrative style usually for subjects which are not everyone’s cup of tea. Even in this book, he has used anecdotes and characters which keep the reader engrossed throughout. One might say that oral history is not really the backbone of research, but I think that oral history forms the backbone plus adds flavor to research. Oral history, backed by facts, is used by Mr.Sanyal, which is what makes this book such an interesting read. He has also not hesitated to point out the feet of clay of some of our historical heroes (with facts of course)! The other plus point is the tongue-in-cheek remarks in between the narrative, so you have to look out for them. If I have to be nit-picking then I would say that I would have preferred a few more maps and diagrams to break up the narrative in certain places. Plus more reference to the coast of Gujerat (though that area really stands out in the Harrapa age) during 5th to 10th century.

Indian History is vast and complex, going back thousands of years. Most of the history taught to us in schools is from the great kingdoms point of view, so while we have a good knowledge about the Guptas, Chauhan’s and the rise and fall of Delhi, hardly anyone of us knows about Vasco Da Gama’s tactics to spread Portugal’s tentacles into India or about Kharavela’s revenge from Pataliputra. Marthanda Verma and Kharavela are heroes brought into the limelight by this book.

I can give credit to Mr.Sanyal for helping me learn more about my country and my region’s history.

The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad

Twinkle Khanna started her literary career as a weekly celebrity blogger for Time of India. Her first book Mrs.Funnybones raced to the bestseller list in no time and this is her second book. With rather a simple cover page consisting of mangoes and a girl reaching out to them, it hides the complexity of the book.This book is a collection of four short stories, simple on the surface, but with deeper depths, if you look for them.

The first story is about Lakshmi Prasad, a young village girl surrounded by the despondencies of everyday rural life. The simple farmer, his poverty and the need to provide dowries for his daughters. The stark ugly truth about India, of why the girl child is so unwanted for and the Lakshmi Prasad’s revolt against this. The story drives home the need for the empowerment of girls so that we can rise above the ills of dowry system and girl infanticide. The lesson is simple to learn, empower the girl to change the society.

The second story is Salaam, Noni Appa. Noni Appa is a simple soul, who has led an exemplary life. She likes the respect with which people on the street would say to her “Salaam, Noni Appa”. Her relationship with her sister Binni can only be understood by someone who has siblings.The pushing, prodding, teasing, commenting and the underlying layer of love and affection for each other. The incident where Noni, matter-of-factly tells Binni to eat Kayam Churan as Binni had eaten mutton patties underlines their relationship so well.  There is, however, a loneliness in Noni’s life. Her dressing up for her departed husband on what would have been their forty-eighth wedding anniversary had a subliminal poignancy; you could feel Noni’s sadness and love for her husband. Anandji, on the other hand, is as alone as Noni, even though his wife is alive and kicking ( or screaming in this case).  Both of them finding companionship and affection for each other comes as no surprise. There is courage needed to understand and accept the fact that you have limited days on this planet (even less if you are on the wrong side of sixty) and to take a conscious decision to spend those days with the person making you happy.  Anandji and Noni had that courage to accept that they were happier together and this is what made it such an endearing love story.

“If The Weather Permits” is the darkest story amongst the four, where the weather on the wedding day is the barometer of whether Elisa Thomas’s wedding will last or not. Elisa Thomas’s story is about a young woman who refuses to be boxed in and thus baffles her Malayali Christian parents. Her parents have one and only goal of seeing her married off to a good Christian boy of their community. In the words of her father “Deaf and dumb, but a man is a man is a man”. Therein lies the problem, the urge of Indian parents to marry their daughters to a man whom they, the parents, rather than the girl, think is suitable. Failing to get a man from their community they are ready for any man, but the girl needs to be married. Even a girl as free spirited and independent as Elisa succumbs to marry Chacko if only to get her parents off her back for some time. Of course that she repented it almost instantaneously comes as no surprise. The story challenges the conventional mindset of the need for marriage for women to make them complete.

The best story is of course saved for last “The Sanitary Man from a Sacred Land”.  The story is of Bablu Kewat’s crusade to provide low-cost sanitary napkins to the women of India especially in the rural areas. Bablu’s journey started with his need to provide his wife with safe, hygienic and low-cost sanitary napkins which soon developed into a crusade. He was however abandoned by the very people for whom he had sacrificed everything. His invention ultimately becomes a tool for social change and female upliftment. Inspired by a true story Bablu Kewat’s story is inspiring as he kept bouncing back whenever life knocked him down. And always comes back up with a smile. He shows exemplary values and courage in returning to the same village from where he was kicked out off. The irony of the villagers who once vilified him, welcoming him back with open arms after he becomes famous is not lost.

The author takes you through her descriptions to rural Bihar, Ismaili Bombay, Christian Kerela and semi-urban Madhya Pradesh. The descriptions are vivid, you can almost see Noni Appa clinking her glass with the one of her husband’s in her pearls and chiffon sari. The author’s writing is not defined by her metaphors or extensive vocabulary.One might even say that her writing is too simplistic. I will agree, the book cannot be classified as a classic but a vacation read. However to dismiss her out of hand would be unfair to her and her stories. The beauty of her writing I think is simplicity. The stories are straightforward, true, but if you look closely they are all about women and the need for them to be in charge of their own destinies. The characters strong and identifiable. What is exceptional about her writing is the way she infuses humour in the most common occurrences but still, manages to raise pertinent issues.

That is where Ms.Khanna has scored, she has turned the “Aam Admi” and made him/her the HERO!

Jorasanko ~~A Book Review

I eagerly look forward to Sharjah International Book fair every year. A book fair is like Aladdin’s cave for a book nerd like me. The timing of the book fair is also perfect as it comes about three to four months after I have returned from India and am itching to go to a bookstore for new haul. I have picked many books from the fair some very popular, some relative obscure, some which were a chore to read and some which I fell in love with, just like Jorasanko. Jorasanko was an impulse purchase, the cover looked familiar, but the main selling point was author Chitra Banerjee’s (my favourite) appreciation on the tittle page. Turning the book back I realized why the title and cover looked so familiar. The cover design has “Head Study” by Rabindranath Tagore and the book was all about the Tagore’s!!!

The book starts with the author’s note describing the reasons for the start of Pirali Brahmin clan and its customs leading to how the Thakur’s of Kolkata became the Tagore’s of Jorasanko. After laying the groundwork the story starts with Genu (full name Jnanadanandini, a mouthful) coming into the Tagore household in Jorasanko as a child bride of seven years. The story then follows the lives of the huge household from 1859 to almost the turn of the century. The rules of abarodh, their breaking down, the tradition of child marriage, its ills on young girls, the rise of Brahmo Samaj and the Bengal Renaissance. All this is painted through the inhabitants of Jorasanko which was a crucible for the start of new customs, traditions and even fashion.

The main protagonists of the book are the ladies of the house. Sarada Sundari, lazy and indolent, devoted to her husband, entrapped by the rules and customs she was brought up in. She measures her value with her beauty/fairness and her fertility, the two parameters which later become her benchmark for giving or withholding love to her daughter-in-law’s. Jnanadanandini, her second daughter-in-law, who grew up under Sarada Sundari’s critical gaze and was always found wanting. She finally became a trail blazer, breaking the traditions of abarodh and stepping out of the house. Being the wife of the first Indian ICS officer, Satyendranath Tagore, she had an enviable position and influence on the rest of the women of Jorasanko. She is also credited with devising the way saree is worn in the modern times. Kadambari, the fifth daughter-in-law of Sarada Sundari, forgotten by her husband who never realized her true worth and always eclipsed by Jnanadanandini. Mrinalini, the youngest daughter-in-law and wife of Rabindranath Tagore. Quiet, placid Mrinalini who always supported and was extremely devoted to her husband.

Even though the story spans long years, it moves quickly drawing the reader into the world which is alien and yet very familiar. The women of today might have stepped out from their homes but are still bound by the rules of society which values them on their beauty, complexion and  the ability to bear sons (at least in India), just like the women of Jorasanko. The characters are well-etched, not always likeable but yet stay with you even after you have closed your book. The author paints such a vivid picture of life in Bengal of those times that once or twice I actually thought I was in that era. There is a beautiful description of Kadambari making “paant” and I could actually taste the tamarind in it. You can also imagine Sarada Sundari, sitting on her four-poster bed, chewing paan and playing cards.

There is however an underlying sadness/darkness in the book. The women are more liberated and progressive than the rest but still not completely free. They are still constrained by their husband’s or their father-in-law’s rules. If Jnanadanandini was lucky enough to have Satyendranath Tagore, who actively encouraged her to break the taboos and step out to come into her own, there was also Tripura Sundari who was denied her husband’s property for being a childless widow. The pathos and the anguish in Kadambari’s life is heartbreaking. The men even though brilliant in their respective fields are somehow lacking as husbands (like Jyoti or Robi) or even empathy like Debendranath.

However the fact of the matter is all the characters, good, bad and the grey in between ensnare you. You realize how brilliant, talented and powerful the Tagore men and women were. Starting from shipping magnate Dwarkanath Tagore, who had the Midas’s touch with money, till his youngest grandson the great Rabindranath Tagore; they were an exceptional line of people.

The author has managed to create a slice of history disguised as fiction. You see the Bengal renaissance, the breaking down of rules regarding women, new fashion etc. in this book. Since all the characters are entwined in Indian History you sometimes forget that the book is a fictional account.  Even though the incidents might have actually taken place the circumstances or events or even the behavior of characters of that time is unknown. That is where the difficulty for the reader comes in since the book has been so well written that you actually have to keep reminding yourself, its fiction!!!

In fact after reading the book I felt like wanting to go to the mansion in Jorasanko and seeing for myself where the palki of Genu must have been set down.

 

Sita – An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana

 

I was first introduced to Ramayana when my grandfather told us post dinner stories from it. The second introduction was of course the serial Ramayana on television on Sunday mornings ( something not to be missed at that time). The first book on Ramayana that I read was C. Rajagopalchari’s Ramayana. This book is a must have on the reading list if you want to know the story without any religious baggage that comes with this story. Being a practicing Hindu, Ramayana is a big part of my life and I have read Tulsidas’ ShriRamcharitamanas too, but  more as an extension of my faith  rather than for any literary pursuit. So one wonders what is new about this book Sita written by Mr.Devdutt Pattnaik. The author has picked a topic about which almost all the Indians know something about and a few have very strong opinion on it too. So what new dimension can the author add to the topic??

Ramayana’s story is not new; it is about a young Prince Ram, beloved of his parents and his countrymen of Ayodhya. The prince is exiled to the forest for fourteen years on the orders of his step mother Kaikeyi who wants her son Bharat as the King. The loyal brother Lakshman and Ram’s loving wife Sita accompany Lord Ram in his exile. The lovely Sita is abducted by the demon king Ravana and taken to Lanka. Lord Ram then raises an army of monkeys helped by Sugriva and the ever faithful Hanuman. The traitor Vibhishana tells the secret of Ravana’s long life and thus helps Lord Ram in defeating Ravana. Lord Ram returns victorious to Ayodhya to be crowned as King. Sita however is cast out of Ayodhya later by the Lord Ram after aspersions were cast on her reputation. Sita finally returns to the bosom of Earth leaving her two sons Luv and Kush with Lord Ram. It is a tale of love, of brotherhood when one brother gives up the throne for the other brother and he also refuses to accept it. It is a tale of loyalty, of following the elder brother, come what may. It is a tale of the victory of good over evil. Above all it is a story of Dharma. Dharma must be followed irrespective of  the circumstances or personal feelings. Ram as a son followed his Dharma by accepting Kaikeyi’s demand to go to exile. After the war Ram, the King, following Dharma asked his wife to prove her chastity even though Ram, the husband, loved her. Ram , the King, cast out Queen Sita , as he understood that his Queen had to be unblemished, even though the husband Ram was always faithful and true to his wife Sita.

This is book is an illustrated book (Mr.Devdutt is quite well-known for adding them to his books). There are small drawings on almost all the pages, almost like folk art. These depict scenes from the narrative in a rather simplistic manner. Even though it doesn’t add anything more to the narrative it does make it visually quite appealing.

The language used in the book is simple and easy to understand without losing any of the complexities of the characters or the situations. Rather than black or white, the characters are portrayed as humans with human emotions. Even though the core story is the same with a few new sub plots the end of each chapter has a few notes giving the source from where the author has taken a particular incident or situation from. Some personal observations are also included which gives the author’s perspective and interpretation. Some readers might find these notes a bit distracting and might break the flow of narration but since they are given in a bullet-ed box my recommendation is to skip if you don’t like the interruptions. These notes make you realize how many times this simple tale has been told and re-told; each region and narrator adding their nuances to the story. I found the idea of notes really good as they are not as cumbersome as foot notes. We already do know the story but now you know the source of a particular story. Mr.Pattanaik’s interpretation to some of the situations also gives a fresh perspective to some incidents.

The author has done a commendable job by narrating the story in a matter of fact manner. He has shown Lord Ram to be a morally upright man for whom upholding the dharma is very important. Even when Lord Ram was cruel in casting out his wife he somehow does not come across as a villain. Sita on the other hand, contrary to the weepy, wailing lass shown on television, is shown as a strong protagonist. Considering Sita is the embodiment of Shri, the female goddess, this avatar is more palatable to me.

The book had many incidents and sub-plots taken from folk sources or regional re-telling and not only Valmiki Ramayana. These added a different flavor to the book. Especially Sita’s imprisonment in Lanka, rather than being morbid and weepy has been shown in a more positive way. So even though Ravana is trying to woo and seduce Sita, Sita on the other hand is visited by the ladies of the royal household and taken care off. The story of Shanta lord Ram’s sister was also new to me (in fact Shanta has more than a passing reference in the book). Even when Sita is cast out by King Ram, she is not portrayed as weak and helpless. Rather she is shown as a strong woman who understands the actions of her husband and even chooses to forgive him.

There are many incidents when this book picks the regional retelling than Valmiki’s version and hence it is more comprehensive. This is not a religious book but just a re-telling of a story which is now a divine epic for the Hindus. (The book actually has lots of references from the Jain re-telling too). Lord Ram is not portrayed as god per-se in the book, but the book does talk about dharma and the difference in the approaches of Bhrahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (that theme is recurrent in Mr.Devdutt Pattanaik’s books).

Final verdict?  Read it if you want a different perspective to the tale, specially if you have never read the Ramayana this is a good book to start. It is also a good read for those who want to know the sources behind some of the stories in Ramayana .

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A REVIEW

 

This is the story of Yoginder Sikand travelling through Pakistan over a period of one month as an individual. There is also a postscript about his second visit after a few years  for a conference where the circumstances of his stay were absolutely different.

I had bought this book during the Sharjah Book Fair. Its cover and back page had attracted me. To be honest I had bought the book thinking that it will about the author’s discovery and search for the part of the family in Pakistan (though the back cover does not mention anything about that, so my bad). It was a tossup between this one and the other which was about a Pakistani in India!

The book starts with the background of the author’s family who were originally from Pakistan. They had escaped the horror of the massacre of partition but the scars and the longing for homeland remained. It travels with the author for his quest for a Pakistan visa (no easy task) and journeys from Lahore to Gujranwala to Hyderabad to Uderolal and Mohenjo-Daro.

It tries to portray Pakistan though the eyes of the author and his interactions with the people he comes in contact with. It tries to be an honest book and the author does try and write the way things are rather than sugar coat it.

The story starts with the young Mr.Sikand being told tales about Pakistan from his maternal grandmother who was born and brought up there but escaped the horrors of the partition as she was already married and living in Ooty by that time. The grandmother had escaped but it had affected her and even though she missed her birthplace the partition had filled her with intense dislike against Pakistan and Pakistanis. It was this dislike which she tried to fill her young grandson’s mind with. The said grandson however grew up to be a socialist and questioned his grandmother’s beliefs and wanted to find the truth himself.

For a north Indian Punjabi Pakistani side of Punjab has held a great allure for me to. Like the author I too feel that the people of the subcontinent are inexplicably tied to each other. The children in India are ingrained and educated to dislike and mistrust Pakistan (and vice versa too I am sure). And that is what this book is about. The author rebels against this mindset. Even though he and his friends have this idealistic view of visa free travel between the countries of subcontinent I do believe that is time both the countries moved on. Jingoistic words to drum up patriotic fervor have not done either of the countries any favour and they both need to focus more on their development.

The author is a socialist who has written a lot about religious conflict and communalism. Even though the book is portrayed as look into common Pakistanis the emphasis seems to be more on the poorest of the poor and also on the untouchables of Sindh. That story seems to be the same on both sides of the border (even though India has “reservations” the people who really need it are still languishing).

It is a beautifully descriptive book, the people and the places are described so wonderfully that you feel like you are a by-stander rather than just a reader. The conversations he has with random people, their stories, their aspirations move you, sometimes even too tears. Here I will make a special mention of the story of Khurshid Khan Kaim Khani, which proved humanity is still alive in this cruel world. The thread of longing for homeland runs through the book and strikes a chord.His descriptions of the shrines of Shahbaz Qalandar and the tomb of Jhooley Lal are so eloquent that you feel that you are there.  You can almost hear the qawalis and feel the fervor of the people thronging it.

When he writes about the lack of sanitation in the cities you can almost smell the stench (read the passage about his train journey from Lahore to Hyderabad). You give a chuckle when you read his interview with the high commission officer for visa (same bureaucracy like in India). You feel his gratitude when Maulana’s family welcomes him and makes sure that he gets home-cooked vegetarian food throughout his stay in Gujranwala.

And the best part about the book it is not at all judgmental.  It doesn’t sugarcoat the facts true but neither does it point fingers.

If I have to point out inadequacies in the book I would say that I would have loved t if he had tried to find out more or made more effort to contact the family members left behind. Also the end is a bit filmy and whimsical for my taste.

However one lesson I did learn from this book and that is to look ahead. History (my passion) is great but we need to learn from it, take lessons from it so that we don’t repeat the mistakes and look ahead.

 

The Conversation

~~~~Book review of The Gita (for Children) by Roopa Pai

I am not a trained writer nor a reviewer of books but I do read a lot and love recommending them to friends and family. I had been planning to review a book for my blog for quite sometime now and this was one book that insisted that I pick up my pen.This  review is an attempt to put across my feelings and thoughts about this book.

Gita by itself is a vast huge topic, to write about it in 260 odd pages and to be able to get the message across loud and clear is a huge achievement. Ms.Roopa Pai take a bow! You have taken a complex concept (yes, I would like to call it a concept ), one which is the most valuable part of our Hindu,nay, Indian culture and present it in a simple, easy way that even a teenager would love to read this book.

A good book is one which keeps the reader engrossed,it compels the reader to keep turning the pages and never close the book before it’s over. This book is one those books. It’s not a thriller or an adventure book, its is about a religious scripture but never does it becoming boring or preachy and keeps you involved. It is written in an engaging manner almost as if the author was talk to you. The target audience (as the tittle suggests) are children, more specifically ages ten onwards and the author given such examples which they can understand and relate too.

Ms.Pai  has started off the book by writing why Gita is still relevant and important in today’s day and age. She has gone to give a gist of the story of Mahabharata so that even if the child is unfamiliar with the story , they can have a little heads up.The  illustrations by Sayan Mukherjee add spice to the book and help keep the kids involved in such a serious topic. The facts given along with everything keep the mixture interesting,specially look out for the fact about number 18!

The author then moves on to “The Conversation” as she calls the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna.The one fact that really stood out for me is that how she related all that Krishna said to Arjuna  to modern times, we even have Batman in the book!! All this I think makes it very relatable ,  bringing the message of Gita closer to children and to us too. However you should not think that this book just has some some funky examples ,each chapter does have at least one “shloka” in Sanskrit with its meaning in english, keeping it all in perspective. So not only are you reading a readable(!!) version of Gita but also reading a few shlokas of the mahakavya.

The charm of the book is that it is wonderful and engrossing read for the adults too. Admit it if original Bhagwad Gita was given to us most of us would struggle to read it , let alone understand it. Even the various versions  that I have come across are heavy tomes requiring seriousness and total dedication to understanding it. This book does the work of igniting our interest , it makes us want to know more , explore more about the truth. It shows us the path and asks us to choose, whether to follow it or not.

I would recommend this book to everyone as it shows us the beauty of truth. It shows us what God really wanted us to learn and how. This shows us the true beauty of our religion and our country.