Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book Review : Jaya

Title : Jaya - An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Author : Devdutt Pattanaik

Publisher : Penguin India

ISBN : 978-0-143-10425-4

A friend of mine gave 'Jaya' to me to read and going by the first instinct, I read the back cover of the book and what I read greatly intrigued me, fascinated me, captivated me and enthralled me, despite the fact that I have heard the story many times atleast in bits and pieces from different sources, watched almost every episode of the BR Chopra's serial by the same name on television, read it as a part of our school curriculum in one of the middle classes and later read some other interpretations of the story - as told by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni in 'Palace of Illusions' and the brilliant parallelism to the current scenario that Gurcharan Das drew in his 'Difficulty of Being Good'.

Without much ado, I think I should just copy the gist of this great epic as is shown on the back cover:

The Mahabharata is an ancient Hindu epic where:

A son renounces sex so that his old father can remarry

A daughter is a prize in an archery contest

A teacher demands half a kingdom as his tuition fee

A student is turned away because of his caste

A mother asks her sons to share a wife

A father curses his son-in-law to be old and impotent

A husband lets another man make his wife pregnant

A wife blindfolds herself to share her husband's blindness

A forest is destroyed for a new city

A family is divided over inheritance

A king gambles away his kingdom

A queen is forced to serve as a maid

A man is stripped of his manhood for a year

A woman is publicly disrobed

A war is fought where all rules are broken

A shift in sexuality secures victory

The vanquished go to paradise

The victors lose their children

The earth is bathed in blood

God is cursed

Until wisdom prevails

I do not feel the need to give even a small glimpse of the story here. The one of its kind epic, unmatched, unparalleled, abundant with all possible forms of emotions and feelings, very rightly lives up to the fame of 'what is here can be elsewhere, what isn't here cannot be anywhere else'. Such is the vastness of this epic. It has been a great research topic for many religious gurus, research community, warriors, businesspeople, sociologists and even after thousands of years since its inception, there is a lot that we all can learn from it. One of the significant parts of the epic, the discourse between Nara and Narayana - Arjun and God at the beginning of the battle - the Bhagvad Gita (presented as 'Song of the God' here), teaches the doctrine of life, the ultimate knowledge of being in the transient world.

Devdutt's book covers a wide range of plots and subplots in a very detailed manner while at the same time keeping it brief so that the main story line is not forgotten in the details of the subplots. Some of these short stories are very self contained and can be a good source of stories to read to children. Since Mahabharata has been written, translated and interpreted by many and in many different languages, there are many variations in the main story as well as the tertiary streams of stories that join the main saga. At the end of each chapter, the author has summarized some of these variations, cultural influences on the narrative and elaborated upon some specific portions even further.

Jaya is an extremely well written story presented systematically in 18 sections and 108 chapters maintaining just the right balance between detail and brevity. The readers will find many of their doubts getting answered as they go along, even the reason why this book is titled 'Jaya' and which victory is actually the one that is being referred to here. Weaving the tales from classical Sanskrit and regional and folk variations make it an enriching and enlightening reading experience. How can I forget mentioning the line illustrations by the author himself beautifully capturing the essence of the chapters - they work as the icing on the cake.

Some of the excerpts from the book which I really want to share here:

  • Vyasa classified the hymns and created four collections - Rig, Yadur, Sama and Atharva. On completing this monumental task, Vyasa has this inexplicable urge to write a story, one that would convey the most abstract of Vedic truths to the simplest men in the farthest corners of the world in the most concrete of forms. The gods liked the idea and sent the elephant-headed Ganesha to serve as his scribe.

Ganesha said, "You must narrate without a pause." This would ensure that what Vyasa dictated was not adulterated by human prejudice.

"I will", said Vyasa, 'provided you write nothing unless it makes sense to you. This ensured that all that was written appealed to the divine.

  • The war between Kauravas and Pandavas was about Dharma and not for justice. And dharma is not about justice, it is about empathy and wisdom. Dharma is not about defeating others, it is about conquering ourselves. Everybody wins in dharma. When the war at Kurukhsetra concluded even the Kauravas went to paradise.

  • Neither the Pandavas nor the Kauravas learnt the lessons of - futility of rage and the value of forgiveness - something that ultimately cost the Kuru clan dearly.

  • Story of Ram, Ramayana speaks of a model king and his model reign. The Mahabharata by contrast, is more about imperfect kings and their imperfect reigns. In the Ramayana, Vishnu upholds rules as Ram while in the Mahabharata, Vishnu changes rules as Krishna. In the Ramayana, God is king while in the Mahabharata, God is kingmaker.

  • Krishna offers Arjuna two things : what he is and what he has. Arjun chooses what Krishna is. Duryodhana is happy with what Krishna has. This divide between him and his, me and mine, what one is and what one has, is the difference between seeking the soul and being satisfied with matter.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book Review : A Walk To Remember

Title : A Walk to Remember

Author : Nicholas Spark

ISBN : 978-0-7515-3894-6

If you are looking for a sweet, simple, emotional and touching love story which can be read in one or two sittings, you have picked up the right book. I was exactly looking for one such book and thankfully had one right on my bookshelf in the 'to be read' category.

The story begins with fifty-seven years old Landon Carter reminiscing about his days forty years back when he was 17 years old and how that year completely changed his life for good. He introduces us to a small town Beaufort in North Carolina where he was in high school with Jamie Sullivan - the daughter of a widower minister of the local church. Being in a small town like Beaufort, they knew each other right from their preschool days but Landon never felt the need of acknowledging Jamie's presence as he never considered her to be 'his type'. Jamie was a 'good girl' who loved her father dearly, liked to carry Bible in her hands all the time, read the Bible during lunch time, went to orphanage to help the kids and abstained from socializing in the way other young adults of her age did.

As the fate would have it, they both find themselves together on more than one occasions, initially by the turn of events later by their own volition. They share their dreams, aspirations and passions with each other and strangely Jamie nurtured a very simple dream to get married in the Church full of people where she could walk the aisle and her father could give her away to her groom. Landon could not comprehend how a girl as brilliant as Jamie could have such simple aspirations in her life. Gradually their acquaintance bloomed into friendship and later to love. Everything felt just picture perfect but Jamie had one secret and she wanted to shield Landon from that. But does she succeed in doing the same and does she get to live her dream in reality?

Nicholas Sparks brilliantly captures the emotions of human heart which will tug the readers hearts but strangely falls short on the passion that this kind of story desperately deserves. As it is, the author is adept in the art of writing flawlessly and enthralling the readers till the last page but I felt something missing as I turned the last page over. I was reminded of one of my all time favourites 'Love Story' by Eric Segal but 'Love Story' had everything to make it to the list of classics which unfortunately 'A Walk to Remember' lacked.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review : A Beautiful Lie

Title : A Beautiful Lie

Author : Irfan Master

Publisher : Bloomsbury

ISBN : 978-1-4088-0575-6

When I read the review of this book on SaffronTree, I knew I have to read this book very soon. Being born in a family where the bedtime stories ranged from mythology, highlighting the glorious past of India, the freedom struggle, to the first hand experience of the turmoil of partition, it was inevitable to harbour a deep desire to know more about that time and the incidents which led to the unfortunate time of division of a great nation. And to satisfy that craving, what better way than books. So whenever I got a chance, I read many books (fiction or non fiction) on freedom struggle and partition of India written by stalwarts of literature like Khushwant Singh, Amrita Pritam, Gulzar, Gurchanran Das and likes of these. This summer, while having some relaxed time in my native place, I overheard my mother narrating her personal experience of the partition to my children on their request. It was hard for them to comprehend the country as a colony of Britain, the hardships that freedom fighters underwent but most of all how one day some people were told to leave their homes all of a sudden by just drawing a line on the land where there was none.

'A Beautiful Lie' is a story set against the backdrop of extremely volatile situation of the months leading to the eventful midnight when India attained freedom which came with an exorbitant price of partition. The readers are introduced to deep friendship of five boys in their teens - Bilal, the protagonist, Manjeet, Chota and Saleem, all of them in their most cherubic selves enjoying their carefree school days.

What impressed me most about the story is that this is one of the few ones which bring out the special loving bond between a father and his son. Bilal's world completely revolves around his dying father and he is determined to go to any lengths in order to shield/isolate him from the stark reality of that time if it could buy just a few more days for his father or reduce his father's distress of seeing the country bleeding. To live this lie, Bilal finds himself in many sticky situations but his courage and grit to make even the impossible possible sees him through, even if it means involving many other people in the lie or publishing a customized newspaper for a certain pair of eyes, he does all.

The way Bilal's character is etched, anyone will fall in love with him, a character sure to stay with readers for a long time. The parts where Bilal's tryst with truth/lie are brought to the fore are admirable and will surely encourage the readers to introspect a little. As the story progresses, there are many strong characters along the way, who win the admiration of the readers - Bilal's wise father - a voracious reader, the teacher Mr. Mukherjee, the Doctorji and all of Bilal's friends.

The story is very well narrated till almost the three quarters of it but fails to carry it to the same scale till the end. The crispness that the tension of the final hour deserved is mired by the confusion created by many small incidents towards the end. But for me, the best part was a letter in the Epilogue of the story.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Book Review : Miss New India

Title : Miss New India

Author : Bharati Mukherjee

ISBN : 978-0-618-64653-1

Anjali Bose or 'Angie' is introduced as a 19-year old, born in an orthodox middle class family in Gauripur - a small town in Bihar, India. This does not conclude her description, she also happens to be attractive - not the traditional Indian beauty though, very smart, ambitious, extremely fluent in English and with some streaks of rebelliousness. Her expatriate English teacher, Peter Champion identifies these characteristics of hers and encourages her to dream big beyond the almost predestined arranged marriage on the cards for her. From time to time he boosts her self-esteem and stimulates the desire in her to write her own destiny rather than watching her destiny being written silently without her consent. But finally it takes one disastrous experience in the marriage market which was enough to push her to take the extreme step of leaving the confines of her home to set off to Bangalore . Bangalore - one of the fastest growing cities in India, the new IT hub, the land of realizing the dreams.

Anjali sets her feet on the new promising land with Peter Champion's money and his introductions to a couple of contacts of powerful people who could help her in forming small footholds initially. She finds herself in a huge crowd of aspirants to be call-center service agents who are given American names, taught to speak like Americans, familiarized with America's geography - in short, trained to comfortably put up the garb of a regular American for specified working hours. Her Bangalore tryst turns out to be a huge roller coaster ride where - she is seduced into the freedom and modernity that the city has to offer to its inhabitants, the trickery of one of the co-residents pushes her into troubled waters and the gloomy side of independent life does not remain alien to her.

Some of the characters in the story just add more clutter and confusion without going anywhere and give an impression of half thought-out and half-baked effort. The character portrayal and the description of relationships that the protagonist has with her family, her teacher and her friends lack believability and depth.

Despite aiming to be a story reflecting the predicaments of many wannabes from small towns struggling to make it big in life, the narrative falters miserably. On many occasions it takes drastically melodramatic turns leaving the whole story line far removed from reality. The story spanning 300 odd pages bringing out the journey of Anjali Bose should have been able to establish some connection of the readers with the protagonist, on the contrary, the readers are left with no feelings whatsoever for a puzzled and lost Anjali.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review : Elephant In The Tree

Title : The Elephant in the Tree

Author and Illustrator : Mallika Nagarajan

Publisher : Katha

ISBN : 978-81-89934-66-8

Story of a little girl Mahi who enjoys eating her favourite fruit - mangoes (who doesn't?) and while relishing the luscious fruit once, she wonders how it would be if there were no mango trees? And the same night, she could not believe her eyes when she spotted a seven-trunked elephant in the tree and soon enough the same elephant was standing in front of her with a unique request. The Tree of Life which makes all life possible everywhere, is sick and needs help and the elephant thinks Mahi can join him in saving the tree.

This request melts Mahi's heart and she embarks on the journey with the elephant to the most amazing world that she has ever seen. But everything everywhere in that world was pale, brown and sad.

They both quickly get to work and their relentless efforts start bearing fruits and soon the world which had become lacklustered because of dearth of water starts breathing life, the Tree of Life was colourful and bright again with leaves, fruits and flowers.

The magic had worked and they had accomplished their mission.

Through this exercise Mahi realizes the importance of trees in our lives and she resolves to use the same Tree Magic to make rain and save our world too. During her holidays she plants the seeds of each mango that she eats and later is joined by many of her other friends in this endeavour. She even finds a secret friend who visits her often.

Yes, we all can be miracle workers and join the mission of saving our world by planting more magic Trees.

Katha books always offer beautiful illustrations with riots of colours which are sure way to have dedicated young readers spending hours and hours savouring the details of each picture.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Book Review : Flute In The Forest

Title : Flute in the Forest

Author : Leela Gour Broome

Publisher : Puffin

Age Group : 12+

There are some rare books which stir some chords deep inside the heart and after reading such books, I just sigh and wish I could also write something so beautiful, something so pristine and something so soul stirring. Oh well, atleast I am writing about one here.

'Flute in the Forest' is one of the most sensitively written stories of a thirteen-year-old girl - Atiya Sardare, the only child of her estranged parents. Her mother, a famous dancer succumbed to the lure of exciting stage, left the family behind when her hopes of seeing Atiya as a world renowned dancer got shattered following the polio attack that left Atiya physically handicapped. Now Atiya lives with her father - the forest officer in a jungle in Southern region of India.

But her handicap or her loneliness does not hamper her adventurous spirit in any way rather this spirit of hers often encourages her to explore the paths inside the sanctuary many times even without the knowledge of her father. She feels most comfortable in the natural surroundings amidst lush green silent trees and the world of big and small animals. She is well conversant with the ways of jungle and its innumerable creatures.

While on one such secret trips, she gets to hear the most mellifluous music of a flute being played in a distance which enthralls her so much that she resolves to learn to play flute herself. But she knows her father detests any kind of music in the house in the fear of losing another loved one to the temptation of the stage.

Atiya soon finds out that the player of that sweet melodious flute was none other than a very bad tempered mean old man whom she likes to call as 'Ogre Uncle'. As the fate would have it, she starts learning to play flute from the same Ogre Uncle and surprisingly these teaching sessions lend a blissfully calming influence on the dreaded rogue elephant - Rangappa and Ogre Uncle himself - the physicallt dissimilar yet very similar duo. Atiya finds a loving patient friend in Ogre Uncle's daughter - Mishora. Atiya's flute-playing adroitness brings an unprecedented inner peace to herself and manages to transform the opinion of her father too. It feels as if the magic of the musical notes originating from Atiya's flute weaves a blanket of calm, peace and love everywhere and everyone seems to find the answers to many personal unanswered queries.

Despite having dealt with a few sensitive subjects in the narrative such as - a physically handicapped girl as the protagonist, the mention of her mother leaving the family to follow her passion to dance, a terminally ill Ogre Uncle and finally a death - the book is very positive. The story is the true celebration of 'The Happy Spirit'. I was reading the last chapter on my way back from a very satisfying trip to Rishikesh and I still can feel

the same goose bumpy feeling that I experienced then while reading it. This is what a perfectly well-written moving stories do to the readers.

I am sure this charming story will touch the same inner chords of young readers as it did mine.

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