Monthly Archives: August 2013

‘The Feast of Roses’ by Indu Sundaresan

feastThe days could be really hectic, your back might be breaking and your eyes get that vacant, hollow look, but you still breathe. In my case, I still read. Women dominate this week, finished two, third one on the verge of getting done. So, let me start from the enigmatic, some say manipulative, beautiful Mughal queen, Mehrunnisa, better known to the world as Empress Nur Jahan.

This is the second of a Trilogy, the first one traced the story of Mehrunnisa from her birth, through how she is smitten by Prince Jahangir, then gets married off to a soldier and ultimately how the dream of her life comes true when after being a widow and the mother of a child, she becomes ‘The Twentieth Wife’.

‘The Feast of Roses’ takes off from where the first become ended, Mehrunnisa is now the undoubted favorite of Emperor Jehangir and now she wants absolute control over the zenana and eventually the Mughal Empire as well. People are left wondering how a 34 year old mother of a child can so enrapture the Emperor to an extent that she is given an almost equal footing over the court proceedings, where no woman has ventured out before her. The author has beautifully explained it through her story.

The angst of a mother and the haughtiness of an Empress, her undying hunger for absolute power at any cost and her determination to destroy whatever stands in her way, even her daughter’s happiness is so well brought out in words. The details of the palaces, the costumes and the riches paint a very vivid picture, at places you feel as though you are watching a colorful period movie. The strength of love between the Emperor and his beloved is so strong that he is even willing to bear the ridicule of his courtiers. But then, it is this same Emperors son who built the most famous tribute to love, the Taj Mahal.

As in its prequel, Indu Sundaresan has caught the thoughts, emotions, mind and soul of her characters in its essence and portrayed them brilliantly. This is the story of a woman who fought against all odds , through sheer will power. She comes across as manipulative and ruthless in many places, but then to reign supreme in a harem of eight hundred odd wives and concubines, one has to be and act far above ordinary. I loved the book for its language, detailing and the characterization. I learned more about Mughal history from these books than in my school history class.

Verdict : A must read if you love historical fiction / romance. Or, read it if you just like good stories, forget the history part.

4/5

‘The Mad Tibetan: Stories from Then and Now’ by Deepti Naval

mad tibetan

Over the years, Deepti Naval has remained one of my favorite actors – simple, subtle, down to earth and totally classy. Her short stories are also more or less like her. Drawn from real life, characters that we might have seen somewhere along the way and set in scenarios that many of us are familiar with, the stories are told in a straight from the heart, no frills style.

‘The Piano Tuner’ leaves us with a sense of melancholy while ‘Sisters’ transfers the pain of their helplessness to us. ‘Premonition’ left me a little confused as to what it meant , while ‘Birds’ again ends in a sad note. ‘Bombay Central’ shows us the strange turns that life can take and ‘The Morning After’ is a tale of hope.

The next four stories are more of memoirs and I loved these the best. ‘D’ is about how she meets a childhood friend and a situation that many of us would be familiar with, the difference is in the fact that the author here is a celebrity. The title story ‘The Mad Tibetan’ is about someone whom we would have met in the bustling streets of any city as well as the calm bylanes of a village. She meets this mad man in a far off , almost deserted place in Ladakh. The scenery is captured beautifully in her words.

‘Thulli,’ in my opinion is the best of the lot. Deepti drags her friends one night to the infamous streets of Kamathipura and she sees that intriguing face of the protagonist Thulli at a window. Her story , in Thulli’s own words, told in a very matter of fact way, catches you by the throat. She and her girls are so resigned to their fates and they accept it stoically. The place and the people would remain with the author for a long time. Their life is so well summed up in Thulli’s own words,

“they make sound all the time, but we don’t hear anything anymore. “

‘Balraj Sahni is about how she meets the great actor for the first time and  ‘Ruth Mayberry’  about a screen writer who has been writing that one screen play for seventeen long years and how the wait ends.

The overall feeling of the stories is a little melancholic. I thought it reflected the t shades of emotions that we see in the author’s eyes – a tinge of sadness and that feeling that she is somewhere far away.

Verdict : Not a ‘must read’, for sure. You can pick it up as a light read and finish it in less than a day.

3.5/5

‘Between Shades of Gray’ by Ruta Sepetys

gray shades

Let me get it right at the outset. This book has nothing even remotely to do with the infamous Grey series. In fact. nothing could be as dissimilar.

15 year old Lina leads a happy life with her parents and younger brother in their home in Lithuania even as rumors of a Russian invasion wafts in the air. Until one day when her father fails to return home from work and soldiers come knocking at their door the next day. She, along with her mother Elena and brother Jonas is taken on a train journey that lasts almost eight weeks.  For a family that has led a luxurious life, life in a boxed compartment where people are packed in and the only way to relieve themselves is through a hole on the floor, it is a hell that they could have never imagined even in their worst dreams.

The story takes us to a beet farm in Siberia where they are made to work in the most extreme and pathetic conditions and from there to the polar tundras by the Laptev Sea(northern coast of Siberia) . The conditions in which the captives are expected to live has to be read to be believed. Lina is a gifted artist and she keeps track of the places, incidents and people through the sketches that she guards defiantly.

What makes the book enjoyable is the little acts of goodness that keep the hopes up for a group of otherwise condemned lot. The tale also tells us how even among the cruelest , there could still be a shimmer of light. What captures you most is Elena’s hope and belief that her husband will find them and  that keeps the will in them to survive at any cost. She teaches her children not to judge anyone or what they do. She is truly what the soldier Kretzsky describes her as , ‘Krasivaya

“It means beautiful, but with strength,” he slurred. “Unique.”

The pain and longing of a first love is beautifully captured in the evolving relationship between Lina and young Andrius. The author has beautifully brought out the emotional dilemma of a helpless boy where he tells Lina why his mother is doing what she does and why he cannot do anything about it.

The persecution of the Jewish race by Germans is something even a small child would know, so much has been written and discussed about it. Some of the books that I’ve been reading in the recent times have taken me through hereto unknown stories and perspectives of the word wars. I am left wondering how many more could be there from each part of the world. What do these wars finally achieve?

The author’s father was a Lithuanian military officer. In the author’s note she says how even after the war was over how “Speaking about their experience meant immediate imprisonment or deportation back to Siberia”. Ultimately, what the book leaves you with is a never ending sense of hope and peace. In her own words,

“Some wars are about bombing. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing. In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, the three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity. They chose hope over hate and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light. Please research it. Tell someone. These three tiny nations have taught us that love is the most powerful army. Whether love of friend, love of country, love of God, or even love of enemy – love reveals to us the truly miraculous nature of human spirit.”

Verdict – A quick read that packs quite a punch. Gives one more view of the II World War, from a Russian side

4/5

‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

shadowSome books  grab your attention by its title, some enthrall you by its story, a few by the beauty of the language, yet others by the setting, then others by the characters and certain others by the narration or plot. When all these come together in a book, you lose your heart to it,totally. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I haven’t read something like this in a long time.

Young Daniel wakes up one morning screaming for his long lost mother, and his  father , who runs a bookshop that specializes in ‘rare collectors’ editions and secondhand books’, takes him to a run down palatial building. As the large wooden door is opened and Daniel is ushered in to

‘A labyrinth of passage-ways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive, woven with tunnels, steps, platforms and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry.’

His father welcomes him to the place….

“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel……This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume that you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.  This place was already ancient when my father brought me here for the first time, many years ago. Perhaps as old as the city itself. Nobody knows for certain how long it has existed, or who created it. I will tell you what my father told me, though.

When a library disappears, or a bookshop closes down, when a book is consigned to oblivion, those of us who know this place, its guardians, make sure that it gets here. In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader’s hands. In the shop we buy and sell them, but in truth books have no owner. Every book that you see here has been somebody’s best friend. Now they only have us, Daniel. Do you think you’ll be able to keep such a secret?”

I was hooked.

A wine-coloured leather bound book choses Daniel, one that he had never heard of before .  He hadn’t heard of the author, either. ‘The Shadow of the Wind’ by Juilan Carax. The ten year old’s life is never the same again.

Daniel is so captivated by the book that he wants to get hold of other books by the author. Not many had heard of the author and the strangest fact is that someone else also seems to be searching for Carax’s books only to destroy them. As Daniel grows up and as he tries to learn more about Julian, his life seems to mirror that of the elusive author. The multitude of characters that have gone through Julian’s life seem to be connected to Daniel as well, in one way or the other. The impish Fermin, Miquel and Jorge who were once Julian’s best friends, Fumero who is manically unscrupulous, Isaac the guardian of forgotten books and his ill fated daughter Nuria, the ethereal Penelope who is Julian’s only true love – each one of them has their own story that is inevitably bound in some way or other to Julian and each one is so strongly etched , they remain with you long after you have finished reading the book.

This a story within a story , imperceptibly ties to each other. Julian’s life, is set mostly in the background  of the Spanish civil war .in the author’s own words,

“As it unfolded, the structure of the story began to remind me of one of those Russian dolls that contain innumerable diminishing replicas of themselves deep inside. Step by step the narrative split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections.”

If stories have colors, this one would be a dak brown, with shades of light in between.  There are many plots and so many characters and each is linked to the other like the weaves of a lovely and complicated tapestry. Almost throughout the book, you feel as though you are walking down the dark and gloomy streets of a war torn Barcelona with buildings around you that seem to house ghots and vampires, the imagery is that vivid. There is intrigue, revenge, murder, cruelty, mystery and passion. Then there is also love, compassion, passion and hope. It would not be out of place to say that it is almost Shakespearean in plot and characterization.

The book is also a treasure house for quotation lovers. Here are a few..

“There are yokels out there who think that if they touch a woman’s behind and she doesn’t complain, they’ve hooked her. Amateurs. The female heart is a labryinth of subtleties, too challenging for the uncouth mind of the male racketeer. If you really want to possess a woman, you must think like her, and the first thing to do is to win over her soul. The rest, that sweet, soft wrapping that steals away your senses and your virtue, is a bonus.”

“Television, my dear Daniel, is the Antichrist, and I can assure you that after only three or four generations, people will no longer even know how to fart on their own. Humans will return to living in caves, to medieval savagery, and to the general state of imbecility that slugs overcame back in the Pleistocene era. Our world will not die as a result of the bomb, as the papers say – it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything, and a lousy joke at that.”

“The words with which a child’s heart is poisoned, whether through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul.”

The icing on the cake is that its all set in the background of books, old bookshops, ancient libraries and most of all people who adore the written word.

Verdict:  A must read for anyone who loves well laid out plots, strong characters and captivating narration , in short for anyone who loves a well written tale. For me, this is a ‘to be read again’ one.

5/5

Why does she read?

Wanderlust at home

boy_girl_reading_book

The girl had never seen a shop like that before. It was slightly dark, the walls were hidden behind rows and columns of books, old and weary. The smiling man who was talking to her father noticed the wonder in her eyes, pulled down a small book and said, “take it, you can read and give it back to me.” And thus she crossed the doors to a wonderland where she still remains, happily lost in that magical labyrinth.

Years have passed by, people have asked her time and again why she refuses to come out or what is it that keeps her so enthralled. She was so busy travelling across places, meeting and talking to characters from across the world and sometimes even from outer space, sharing thoughts, learning new things, that she never thought it was necessary to even think of the why. For she believed some joys…

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‘The Buddha in the Attic’ by Julie Otsuka

buddha The story of a whole generation in less than 130 pages, difficult to believe, isn’t it?  Yet, this book , all of eight chapters, covers the life saga of a group of Japanese mail order or picture brides as they were called.  A group of young and some not so young women on a ship that is taking them to a land of promises and men they have seen only in pictures.  They are confused, anxious, scared and most of all hopeful of escape from a life that would otherwise have been condemned to penury and boredom.

The narration is what catches you by the throat. There is no single protagonist, the whole story is told in first person plural, the collective and all encompassing ‘We’. Their life is divided into and completely told in about eight chapters, starting with their experiences in the ship, the first night with the husbands who are nowhere near to the picture that they had painted in their hearts, the whites around, their children, the masters and the mistresses and so on. Their story starts to end with the second world war, when anything even remotely Japanese is seen with suspicion and hatred and finally how even the smallest trace of a whole race fades into oblivion.

The strong punch that Julie Otsuka has packed into a small wine glass is so potent, you are left with a strong ache for almost each of the hundreds of characters that she tells us about. You can read the life story of a person in a single sentence,..

“One swore she would one day marry a preacher so she wouldn’t have to pick berries on Sundays. One wanted to save enough money to buy his own farm. …One wanted to plant a vineyard….One could not wait until the day she got off the ranch. One wanted to go to college even though no one she knew had ever left the town. ..One wanted something more but could not say exactly what it was. …One wanted her own room, with a lock on the door…One wanted to become an artist and live in a garret in Paris….One wanted to become a doctor…. One wanted to become a star. And even though we saw darkness coming we said nothing and let them dream on.”

Verdict : A poignant life tale, read it for the interesting narrative style and the sad, shocking story that it tells us.

4/5

‘The Chosen’ by Chaim Potok

chosen
I chanced upon this gem of a tale in the course of a search for an age appropriate book for my 11 year old son. Set in the background of the United States during the second World War, era, the story starts with a baseball game between two rival Jewish schools. The match predictably ends in an injury that portends the beginning of a life long friendship between two boys – Reuven and Danny.

Danny and his father has a very strange relationship that Reuven finds to be very cold and strange. Having been brought up by a father who is very open in his interactions and is liberal in his outlook, he just cannot fathom why things are as it is with his friend. The growing friendship between the two boys is very obvious in the narration, what is hidden and what is more relevant is the strong influence of the fathers on each other. Reb Saunders, Danny’s father do not approve of Reuven’s father’s ideologies, but he acknowledges and even encourages the friendship. It is as if each father nudges their offspring towards the other, its a subtle message of love that they have for their sons, their deep longing to see the boys finding happiness in their lives.

Reb Saunders comes across as an extremely orthodox and rigid person, and this is in stark contrast to David Malter who considers his son as an equal and treats him so. The story covers a period of about six years and takes us through the coming of age of the two boys. It tells us how religious bigot-ism and changing political situations can affect even the closest of relationships and how true friendship can stand the test of time and trials. More importantly, it portrays the deep love a father has for his son, the price that he is willing to pay is that very relationship that he treasures the most.

What I loved the most is the easy connect between Reuven and his father and how he guides the confused youngsters towards their true destinies.

Verdict : A must read for young boys and their fathers , as well for mothers and daughters 🙂

‘Caravans’ by James A. Michener

caravans
Reading James Michener is like learning Geography with a brilliant professor who can bring the most arid of things to life. ‘Caravans’ is set in the rustic Afganisthan of forties or fifties. Ellen Jasper, a non-typical American woman, who got married to an Afghan engineer has disappeared somewhere in that mysterious and dangerous country and her parents haven’t heard from her for some time. Mark Miller, working for the American Embassy, is sent on a search mission to find what happened for her and to bring her back, if possible.

His journey, along with his aide Nur, who is supposedly an Afghan spy, takes the reader through the arid and beautiful desert land that Afghanistan was and still is. The people and the incidents on the way reminds us of a pre historic era rather than early / mid twentieth century. Most of the characters remained a mystery to me. Nazarulla, the Afghan engineer whom Ellen got married to , the imperious Shah Khan and his ‘modernistic’ son and many like them seem to be caught helplessly between two times and cultures. The character of Ellen was the most baffling, that she is running away from a boringly structured and predictable life is understood. But, what she wants remains as much a mystery to her as it is to the reader. She also seemed a bit callous to me, moving from one man to another in her search for some elusive thing in the horizon.

The two characters that I loved were the gypsy leader Zulfiqar and his beautiful daughter Mira. Zulfiqar has no qualms in using others for his agenda and Mira – she is one of those pure souls that knows only to love and without conditions. She knows the limitations of falling in love with someone who is so different from her, yet she choses to enjoy each moment for what it is worth. To me, she seemed to be the antithesis of Ella.

What made me love the book is the sheer depth of the narrative. Michener takes you on a journey into the interiors of a forbidden land, through its vast and beautiful drylands, its strange and barbaric customs and in some places you get a glimpse of why certain things are the way they are. One cannot but think again and again that what he describes wouldn’t be that different from what we hear of Afghanistan today.

More than the book, it was the note to the reader that intrigued me. It gives us a view of the country in the late sixties and early seventies. The author says, “Few nations have experienced a more spectacular growth and change during this period than Afghanistan….Foreigners have been visiting this country with ease and frequency….In 1959 women were allowed, even encouraged, to dispense with chaderi in public”…..so difficult to believe isn’t it ?
Makes it even more sadder when you think of the present situation.

How little we know of people and places….

Verdict – If you are someone who loves detailed narratives of people and places, specially the Middle East, this is a book that you will enjoy immensely. Michener is a story teller who sure knows how to keep his reader’s attention with him. The thoughts come later.

‘The Tiger’s Wife’ by Tea Obreht

tigers wife

A debut novel that won the Orange Prize for fiction, ‘The Tiger’s Wife’ is the story of a doctor, his grand daughter who happens to be a doctor as well and various other characters, mostly from his childhood. Natalia is on her way to an orphanage across the border when she comes to know of her grandfather’s death in an obscure village. As she tries to piece together fragments from her grand father’s life, the author takes us through the lives of some seemingly strange characters – the deathless man, Luka the butcher, the apothecary and the young girl who come to be known as the ‘tiger’s wife.’

The narrative is brilliant, you feel as though you are walking the path with the characters. The reference to ‘The Jungle Book’ is what made me pick the book up, but then I realized that was a mere prop for at least one of the villagers, in this case, the grand father as a boy, to know what the devilish animal was. The story of Luka, how he turned from a soft, almost girlish boy to a terrorizing husband and butcher, was captivating. The apothecary’s story was a little dragging, though. As for the deathless man, I really could not understand what that was all about, maybe I have not reached that stage of mysticism yet.

As one of the reviewers said, this book would have been really enjoyable as a collection of short stories, each separate story was so well woven. As for the ending, did not even realize I had reached there, it was that abrupt. It maybe a contradiction, but in spite of all the disconnects and loose ends, this is a book that I really enjoyed reading. Isn’t that what good story tellers do to you?

Verdict – If you are the kind of person who would enjoy the journey, relishing the sights, the smell and the tastes along the way, not caring about how the destination is going to be or even where it is, go ahead…