The Ramayana

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Ok, so I haven’t ever read the Ramayana (or even the Mahabharata) officially, most of it has been drummed into my head by my mother, who is an accomplished Kambaramayanam exponent (Ramayana in Tamil), apart from a small Hindi version we had in school. I first stumbled upon Ramesh Menon when I read his version of the Devi Bhagavatam about four years ago, and quite liked how he amplified all the interesting story-bits and kept the philosophical parts short.

The versions closest to the original of all the scriptures and epics of Hinduism are published by the Gorakhpur Gita Press in Sanskrit, usually accompanied by either an English or a Hindi translation, but the language is usually too complex and technical, and my patience while reading most Hindu epics/mythology is virtually nil, because everyone knows the main outline of most stories, and it can get a bit tedious rereading the same things again and again.

So I embarked upon Ramesh Menon’s Ramayana with more than a tinge of skepticism; after all, he would be walking down the same literary path that hundreds have trodden before him, how good could it be? Very good, as it turned out. There were a lot of things that I had forgotten about the Ramayana, and Menon’s version reminded me of the depth of the epic. His writing is lovely, and very attractive, literally. I couldn’t stop reading it once I began, even though I knew what would happen next.  Here, for example, he describes the good omens that preceded Rama’s birth:

The ice on the Himalaya began to melt as the sun drifted north again and spring returned to Bharatavarsha. This was no common spring, but wore rainbow-hued lotuses in its hair, flowers that bloomed once in a thousand years. A hush of expectation lay over Kosala’s capital. The clear pools were covered with lilies. The flowering trees that lined the streets of Ayodhya drooped to the ground; they were heavy with new leaves in every shade of green and untimely, extravagant flowers. A Malaya breeze blew across the kingdom, carrying the scents of the spring through the city and up into the apartments of Dasaratha’s queens.

Menon’s greatest strength, though, is his characterisation. Rama of Ayodhya, as everyone knows, is no ordinary man, being an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself, but Menon, as in the original epic, successfully portrays him as a man with human limitations and material constraints, because Rama himself, beyond a faint foreshadowing, has no idea of who he actually is.

Another, deeper anxiety stirred in his heart, for no reason he could name. Something malignant seemed to mock him, from far away, but quite clearly.

However, it is Menon’s Ravana and his descriptions of Lanka that I loved the most. As is accepted in most versions of the epic, Ravana is no evil (at least not completely) ugly villain, he is a great devotee of Lord Shiva, tall and handsome in a very rakshasa (except when all his ten heads are on display) manner, is accomplished at the Veena, and a good king to his people. It is not until his sister Surpanakha, with evil intent, poisons his mind with images of the most enchanting Sita, that he invites doom upon himself (Here, however, Menon credits rakshasa Akampana with this brainwashing).

Upon this throne sat the Master of Darkness. In a weird cone upon his neck were ten heads of varying features and sizes, all of them savage. Ravana was a monster, the most sinister and powerful rakshasa. Nothing about him was ordinary; all his ten heads thought for him…those heads were like an inverted bunch of macabre fruit. The one at the very top was the smallest and the most vicious; it was entirely puerile and malignant.

This is different to the public perception of his ten heads, which are usually perfectly aligned in a row; this is the first time I have heard of it being compared to a malignant bunch of grapes.

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What I look like when my brother has eaten all the chocolates

Another scene where Ravana lashes out at Sita for not yielding to him even after six months of capture is pure dramatic gold. You can almost feel the love and lust this demon harbours for the beautiful wife of another man, and for a second I almost sympathised with him.

She said, “I am the wife of another man, Rakshasa, and my husband is my life. How can you even think of me as becoming yours, when I am already given to Rama? Given not only for this life, but forever, for all the lives that have been, and all those to come.”
He looked away from her. Not that he saw anything except her face, even when he did. But he could not bear what she said. Never had he encountered such chastity, and to believe in it would mean denying everything he had lived for. A smile curving his dark lips, Ravana turned his gaze from her.

There were a few caveats I had, though; there are times when the prose became so poetic, especially in the descriptions, that my eyes automatically glazed over quite a bit. More importantly, the author’s attitude towards Rama is nothing short of worshipful, as befits a proper religious text, and although I didn’t mind it as such, I don’t think it would appeal to everyone. Unless the reader believes that there was a Rama whose wife was abducted by Ravana, and that vanaras (cross between monkeys and humans) helped Rama to kill Ravana, I don’t think it will work. Think of it, if you will, as reading the Bible or the Quran.

Menon has covered almost all the mini-stories within the epic, and also includes two seemingly unrelated stories in the appendix, of how Vishwamitra became a Brahmarishi (this is really interesting), and an alternate story of Sita’s birth, in which she is said to be Ravana’s and Mandodari’s daughter.

So I really liked this version; it’s attractive enough to hold a modern reader’s attention and covers all sub-stories without making it feel like a drag. If you actually want to read Hindu mythology, then Ramesh Menon is your man.

P.S. Really liked this hilarious short story on Ravana and Vaali by Lavanya Mohan .. 😀
This is Book 12 in the Brunch Book Challenge (soo I’m halfway there, review-wise), my Twitter handle is @sindbadrose, and the challenge is at #BrunchBookChallenge.. 🙂

 

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These Old Shades

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Another day, another Heyer, but this one was a bit of a disappointment, despite the high Goodreads rating.

So The Duke of Avon is walking on a Paris street one night, when he bumps into an ill-treated youth who looks suspiciously like the Duke’s deadliest enemy (our Sherlock deduces this based on youth’s red hair, violet eyes and black eyebrows; a few more colours and fellow would have looked like a rainbow), so the Duke, doing exactly what any sane person would do in such a situation, decides to adopt the youth as his page. Turns out the page is actually a girl (the page himself didn’t know this until now.. WTF), and the Duke then has a lot of fun converting the page into a society debutante. Obviously he marries her later, because why not.

I couldn’t take to this book at all; it is nowhere near The Grand Sophy in terms of humour, there is too much seriousness, too much idol-worship, and a whole lot of suspension of disbelief. The plot would have made for a very good 1980s Hindi movie; beautiful orphan getting adopted, then turning into girl, then turning out to be adopter’s enemy’s child. In case you were wondering, this is not a spoiler, because less than halfway into the book, I could predict exactly who was whose daughter/son and also how the blasted plot would end. There was just one suspense point that Heyer had to keep secret till the end. Just one. That also she could not manage.

I just couldn’t buy the relationship between the protagonists, which seems to consist of an unbelievable amount of hero worship. The page, whose name is Leon/Leonie, worships the ground the Duke walks on, and after a point it gets very irritating. Yes, yes, we get it, he saved you, yes, we get that he is rich and handsome and older by 20 years; but that is absolutely no excuse to behave like a faithful dog.

The Duke sat down by the bed, and snapped his fingers to Leonie, who came at once to sit at his feet.

If some guy tries to snap any of his fingers at me, I’ll personally break all of his fingers into little bits and pieces and become Angulimala.

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Highway robber Angulimala with a necklace of his victim’s fingers.. *devilish grin*

And there is a lot of peeping. A lot. Always this Leonie is peeping up at the Duke, or peeping through the hedge, or peeping at nothing in particular. Possibly spectacles for this kind of peeping disorder had not been invented yet. We shall never know.

Leon peeped at him through his lashes.

She peeped up, and the roguish dimple appeared.

The roguish dimple peeped out for the first time. (this line is obviously technically incorrect)

Leonie ventured, peeping up at him.

Peeped round the corner of the screen.

And how on earth are you supposed to peep up at someone? I suppose it’s meant to sound cute, but really, all this peeping is very annoying.

There is a bit of Heyer’s trademark humour scattered here and there in a few lines, but they are few and far between. I frequently found myself wishing someone would break the extremely narcissistic hero’s nose, who, by the way, like Lord Vishnu, seems to have an abundance of names (Avon, The Duke, Justin, His Grace, Monseigneur). Each time he conversed with someone it took me five minutes to work out how many people were there in the room.

I liked the Paris setting though; it reminded me a lot of The Scarlet Pimpernel and its French-revolution-based sequels (on an aside, I absolutely love those, they are so very melodramatic, and always the Scarlet Pimpernel manages to outdo the crafty M. Chauvelin).

So, really, this book was not much to my taste, but if you don’t mind a bit of finger snapping, hero-worship, and older man-younger girl romance, dear reader, go for it.

Quotes to remember:

Leonie stopped, and peeped up at the Duke uncertainly.

P.S. This is Book 11 in the Brunch Book Challenge, my Twitter handle is @sindbadrose, and the challenge is at #BrunchBookChallenge..🙂

The Grand Sophy

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So I was on a chick-lit-drive recently, and chanced upon a couple of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. I had read her Black Sheep and Venetia a while back, and wasn’t very impressed with either of those, but decided to give her another try based on the Goodreads ratings.

“Little” Sophy, daughter of diplomat Horace Stanton-Lacy, is sent to live with her aunt’s family (consisting of aunt, uncle, cousin Cecelia, cousin Charles, cousin Hubert and sundry unremarkable children) while her father is away on a mission. Turns out Sophy is not “little” in any sense of the word. She is tall, weird looking (but still pretty enough, coz this is a romance), is a chronic problem-solver, and, as any netizen worth his photoshopped profile pic would put it, has the swag.

I loved this one. It’s good fun, and Sophy is such a dramatic and unpredictable heroine, even the reader has no idea whom she’s going to shock next.

Heyer has a good sense of humour, and this is reflected in a few almost Wodehouse-ish lines, as well as the situations Sophy finds herself in. A melodramatic tête-à-tête with a Jewish moneylender which involves a lot of not-really empty threats and a nice little gun was my particular favourite, although it seems to have offended a lot of people on Goodreads with its negative portrayal of Jews.

The insinuation that he would not welcome a visit from a law-officer seemed to wound him.

‘Augustus,’ announced Cecelia, putting up her chin, ‘will be remembered long after you have sunk into oblivion!’
‘By his creditors? I don’t doubt it.’

I did find myself wishing for a few more lines of this sort. Heyer is funny, but never quite reaches anywhere near Wodehouse, which, I suppose, is a tall order for anyone except Plum himself, but still, considering that they were both contemporaries, some of his brand of humour does seem to have seeped into Heyer’s writing.

Her characters are really quite well-done too. Sophy is wild and unpredictable, but lovably unapologetic about her behaviour, and Charles is rather stiff-necked and haughty, at least in the beginning. But the one sketch I liked the most was that of Augustus Fawnhope, lover of Sophy’s cousin Cecelia, a very poetic and sentimental personality, and the type of person Wodehouse would have called a sop. Fawnhope reminded me very much of Madeleine Bassett, and even behaves similarly.

Mr Fawnhope having become rapt in contemplation of a clump of daffodils, which caused him to throw out a hand, murmuring: “Daffodils that come before the swallow dares!”

‘It is you!’ announced Mr Fawnhope, staring at her. ‘For a moment, as you stood there, the lamp held above your head, I thought I beheld a goddess! A goddess, or a vestal virgin!
‘Well, if I were you,’ interposed Sir Vincent practically, ’I would come in out of the rain while you make up your mind.’

The climax, involving a farmhouse, gruntled and disgruntled amours, a few ducks, pigs, and rain, is absolutely hilarious, and finishes the story off with a bang.

Dear reader, if ever you are given the chance to read only one Heyer, let this one be it.

Quotes to remember:

‘I never indulge commonplace thoughts,’ said Sir Vincent. ‘Not, at all events, in relation to the Grand Sophy.’

P.S. This is Book 10 in the Brunch Book Challenge, my Twitter handle is @sindbadrose, and the challenge is at #BrunchBookChallenge.. 🙂

Shadow of the Moon

Ok, so this one (also by M M Kaye) I picked up almost immediately after The Far Pavilions, with a couple of light books in between.

So Captain Alex Randall is sent to England by the Commissioner of Lunjore to accompany the latter’s betrothed back to India, an orphan named Winter who naively worships the Commissioner, not knowing how terrible a person he actually is. Obviously, Alex and Winter fall in love (after a fashion) and go through a truckload of trouble, in between all the intrigue of the 1857 Rebellion.

Since I read this one and TFP (The Far Pavilions) so close together, I couldn’t help comparing them, and unfortunately Shadow of the Moon doesn’t come off favourably at all. At its best, it feels like a treatise on the 1857 Rebellion, with a pinch of rather dispassionate romance thrown in, and that’s about it. Apparently Kaye wrote this first, but her agent liked TFP more, so that was published first, and with good reason. TFP is almost an epic, it encompasses a huge amount of history and romance, along with excellently etched out characters. Shadow of the Moon, sadly, ended up reading like a pastiche of TFP, even though it was written first. There is much more obvious British superiority here, and what is, even today, revered as a hugely patriotic deed (the 1857 Rebellion) in India, is written about as a crime/mutiny to be suppressed.

The India that had once seemed to her so glamorous and beautiful a country began to wear a different aspect, for she knew by now that underneath that glamour and beauty lurked undreamed-of depths of cruelty and terror, just as the graceful minarets and gilded domes of the palaces rose above narrow, filthy streets and the squalid hovels of the poor.

The contrast between our great cities and the squalor of the East must cause such visitors the greatest amazement.

Since the average native of the country, though for the most part careless of death, possessed a disproportionate fear of being painfully wounded.

Oh dear. Just you tell that to the warriors of Rajputana.

The characters are rather unremarkable. Kaye tries to make hero Alex Randall think exactly like Ash in TFP, but it just doesn’t work, primarily because we have no idea who Captain Randall actually is, or anything much about his past. The heroine, Winter, seems to be somewhat of an English-Rose-cum-doormat and I couldn’t sympathise much with her either. That left only the villain, Kishan Prasad, who is a gracious nobleman at the forefront of the Rebellion plans, and who, rather frustratingly, won all my admiration and empathy. This is one of the very few books that put me in this dilemma of being unable to see from the author’s point of view, because I identified more with the villains than with the ‘good’ people.

Usually a thrilling love story goes a long way in redeeming bad plots for me, but unfortunately in this case the romance was also rather dry and very uneventful. In fact, Alex doesn’t even realise he’s in love with Winter until a few days after a one-night-stand (yes, with her only, thankfully); upto then he keeps thinking of her as a burden, which is ideally not the stuff great romances (or any romance, for that matter) are made of.

The Far Pavilions worked because the romance propelled the plot and tied up all the knots neatly, and this one fails because the Rebellion propels the romance, and it is just not enough. It would probably have been better if there had been no love story at all, then Kaye could have written about the Rebellion and its horrors (oh the irony) to her heart’s content.

It is not all bad, however. There is a lovely story about Winter’s English mother and Spanish father in the very beginning; that was the part I liked the most. It is a beautiful story, and more in tune with what I thought were Kaye’s sensibilities. So read the book if you must, dear reader, for the writing is absolutely fantastic, but you would, I suspect, enjoy it more if you knew nothing about India; then it would probably feel more exotic and enchanting than disappointing.

Quotes to remember:

When churls rebel against their native prince, I arm their hands and furnish the pretence, and housing in the lion’s hateful sign, bought senates and deserting troops are mine – Dryden

Somewhere within those walls, a shadow among shadows, the last of the Moguls – an old, frail, withered pantaloon, stripped of all power and King only in name – shuffled through the marble magnificence of the palace built by Shah Jahan, composing Persian couplets to fill his aimless days.

As long as these people were divided by their castes and their creeds into antagonistic factions they would always be at the mercy of a conqueror, but if they once combined they could stand against any from sheer weight of numbers. But they will never combine. Never.

P.S. This is Book 9 in the Brunch Book Challenge, and my Twitter handle is @sindbadrose, the challenge is at #BrunchBookChallenge.. 🙂

Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard

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Ok, so I’ve been on a bit of an India spree of late, mostly due to the Brunch Book Challenge. I stumbled upon this one while sifting through Indian authors on Goodreads. I haven’t read any of Kiran Desai’s work before, although I have read one of her mother’s, Anita Desai’s Fasting and Feasting. Kiran is mostly known for her Inheritance of Loss (Man Booker Winner), and that being (or seeming to be) the kind of famous-but-heavy-and-depressing book I generally tend to avoid, I was a bit reluctant to begin this one, but turns out I needn’t have worried; this is a hidden gem of a book (on an aside..why isn’t stuff like this more famous?).

Anyway, Sampath Chawla, our hero, is born, rather auspiciously, on the very night that it begins raining after a long drought in the village of Shahkot, and everyone is convinced of the baby’s future greatness. But years pass, and Sampath is now a dull and uninteresting boy with an uninteresting job, until he chucks it all to climb up a tree and inadvertently becomes a sadhu of sorts. The premise alone lends itself to all sorts of comic possibilities, and Desai does full justice to it. I haven’t read anything this hilarious since Anuja Chauhan, at least not by an Indian author.

The language is impeccable, and Desai is wonderfully satirical and funny at all the right places. Here is a gem of a conversation between Sampath’s father and Sampath’s doting grandmother, Ammaji:

‘But the world is round,’ said Ammaji, pleased by her own cleverness. ‘Wait and see! Even if it appears he is going downhill, he will come up out on the other side. Yes, on top of the world. He is just taking the longer route.’

‘He is not taking any route, I tell you. He has missed the route altogether. He is just sitting by the side playing with flies.’ Mr. Chawla turned back to Sampath, who had closed his eyes, imagining a long and peaceful sleep in a cool dark place. ‘Come on,’ his father urged him. Get ready for work. It’s nine o’clock. Why are you still sitting here like a potato?’

The writing (I really cannot this stress this enough) is top-notch. Desai has got hold of the pulse of India – its small towns. This description of Shahkot in the heat is a particular delight, in that it encapsulates many of the vagaries of life in a small town (and sometimes in cities), along with the havoc the weather wreaks in people’s lives:

The heat softened and spread the roads into sticky pools of pitch and melted the grease in the Brigadier’s moustache so that it drooped and uncurled, casting shadows on his fine, crisp presence. It burned the Malhotras’ daughter far too dark for a decent marriage and caused the water, if it came at all, to spurt, scalding, from the taps. The bees flew drunk on nectar that had turned alcoholic; the policemen slept all day in the banana grove; the local judge bribed an immigration official and left to join his brother in Copenhagen. Foreigners in their tour buses went home, while Shahkotians argued for spots directly below their ceiling fans.

The character sketches are fantastic (I’m running out of superlatives now), and the interaction between the characters and their backstories alone would have made a nice book, without any need for a story as such. Mr. Chawla is sensible and normal, a proper government employee. His wife, Kulfi, is slightly, err..off her rocker, and keeps dreaming of and cooking up really exotic and sometimes eerie food. Their daughter, Sampath’s sister, Pinky, is feisty and foolish (a giggly subplot involving her and an ice-cream boy is the stuff great comedy is made of), and Sampath..ah Sampath, what to make of him, our hero? He is weird, very weird, somewhat like his mother, and a big disappointment to his father until he becomes a holy man. There is a running gag about the stuff Sampath spouts after he has become a sadhu. He has no idea what he is saying, it is all completely random, and yet people seem to understand it, or at least they think they do, which seems to be a sort of subtext about Sampath himself, nobody really understands him. I didn’t either. His mother, I can understand, she lives in some other world, completely detached from reality. But Sampath is a whole other issue..the author gives him a sort of vague aimlessness and emptiness; he doesn’t seem to have any kind of personality at all, and that makes it difficult to identify with his motivations. Why does he do what he does? That is the part where it begins to get a bit surreal.

One major caveat I had was the ending. What all along is a joyride in Shahkot with its people and a quasi-satire on religion and holy men now suddenly veers to magical realism and a really abrupt ending. I just couldn’t digest it; it leaves everything untied, and it’s not even very believable. It’s as if Desai reached a particular point and then ran out of inspiration and decided to end it any which way.

But such a flawless work can hardly be spoiled by a mediocre ending, and the latter counts for very less in the general scheme of things. This is a must read for comedy fans, humour and satire at its finest..now why didn’t this win the Booker?

Quotes to remember:

Drama has a way of overriding the embarrassment of a situation that should be privately experienced.

In some places there are people of quiet disposition and few words, but around Shahkot they were a very rare exception.

Sooner or later, there will come a magic hour,
When I spot a princess from the kingdom of Cooch Behar.
When my mouth I’ll open, I’ll think of nothing to say,
And this lady so fine and beautiful will continue on her way.
Goodbye, my princess of Cooch Behar, may we meet again…

P.S. This is Book 8 in the Brunch Book Challenge.. drop in on Twitter @sindbadrose and #BrunchBookChallenge for the challenge.. 🙂

The Far Pavilions

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Ok, so I stumbled upon this one when I was searching for historical books on India. The author is Mary Margaret Kaye, whose husband, father, grandfather and brother all served the Raj in India, and who seems to have led a very interesting life, by all accounts. It has a really good Goodreads rating, so I decided to give it a try.

I loved the book. At a whopping 1000 pages (!), it’s something of an epic, but you don’t even feel the pages fly past, it’s that good. The story mostly hinges upon the life and activities of Ashton Pelham-Martyn, who, born to an English couple somewhere in the Himalayas, ends up in the arms of a Hindu lady, and for the first ten years of his life thinks of himself as a Hindu and an Indian. Divided into three sections, the first section of the story deals with Ash’s childhood in the kingdom of Gulkote, at the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), and this was the part I liked the most. Even though it’s the late 19th Century, sometime after the 1857 Uprising, Gulkote seems to be stuck in time, protected from all the progress and the British, a sort of relic of the Mughal Empire, with all its attendant intrigue and excitement.

The idle, aimless days might drift placidly by, but under that smooth surface ran hidden undercurrents of plot and counterplot, and the wind was not the only thing that whispered in the endless corridors and alcoves of the Hawa Mahal.

The writing is fantastic, and Kaye uses the language so gracefully and elegantly, it’s all very poetry-in-prose. In fact, for most of the Hawa Mahal part, I kept thinking I was reading Indu Sundaresan; the level of detailing is amazing. Take, for example, two ways in which she writes about the mountains, the first as something to be worshipped, a living, breathing form, and the second describing a sunset scene; the mountains are now inanimate, it is the sunset that lives:

A crown of pinnacles that lifted high above the distant ranges like the towers and turrets of some fabulous city, and that were known in Gulkote as the Dur Khaima – the Far Pavilions. Once adopted, the beautiful, many-peaked massif acquired a personality of its own, until it almost seemed to Ash that it was a living thing, a goddess with a hundred faces, who, unlike the stone emblems of Vishnu and the shrouded rock in Mecca, took on a different guise with every change and chance of weather and season, and each hour of every day. A gleaming flame in the dawn light and a blaze of silver at mid-day. Gold and rose in the sunset, lilac and lavender in the dusk. Livid against the storm clouds or dark against the stars. And in the months of the monsoon, withdrawing herself behind veil after veil of mist and the steel-grey curtain of the rain.

Later, as the light began to fade and the dusk turn green about him, he reined in and turned to look back at the mountains that were already in shadow and sharply violet against the hyacinth of the darkening sky. One cluster of peaks still held a last gleam of the sunset: the crown of the Dur Khaima, rose-pink in the twilight… the far pavilions… The warm colour faded from them as he looked, and peak after peak turned from rose to lavender until at last only Tara Kilas, the Star Tower, held the light. Then suddenly that too had gone, and the whole range lost its sharpness of outline and merged into a night that was brilliant with stars.

How did she even come up with so many adjectives, and that too for the mountains alone? I have to run to Google Aunty every time I run out of synonyms for enchanting and dazzling and elegant.

Anyway, after a somewhat dangerous and confusing childhood, Ash is finally sent to England to his real relatives to be educated and schooled to be a proper sahib, but he doesn’t take much to his country, and when he comes back to India, is still very much a native on all accounts except birth. And this is Kaye’s masterstroke, a hero who understands the natives and even identifies with them, and is in no way as stiff necked as his own country-men; not someone who could be called great or wise, which is the very fact that makes him endearing. He is brash, impulsive, smart, and also a proper romantic.

Ashton Pelham-Martyn was not only an insubordinate young hot-head, but an adult enfant-terrible whose penchant for acting on the spur of the moment made him capable of doing any damned silly thing without pausing to think what it could lead to in the long run; yet it had to be remembered that these were the very defects that often proved invaluable in time of war, particularly when accompanied, as in Ashton’s case, with considerable courage.

The romance makes up most of the second section, which describes Ash’s journey as an officer of the Raj escorting a bridal party to be married to the Rana of Bhithor (sic). I didn’t like the heroine very much; she’s too soppy and sentimental, is constantly on the verge of tears, and keeps on sacrificing all the things most dear to her for silly reasons, like the heroines of our daily soaps. Plus the author makes her undergo so many trials and tribulations, it’s a wonder she even wants to live after everything is over. This second part, though, ends with a thrilling escape scene, and it absolutely manages to make up for any other deficiencies.

The trouble is with the third section and the climax. The escape scene would have made a wonderful ending in itself, but the author insists on transferring all the characters to bleak and snowy Afghanistan, and from here the story goes completely downhill. Where a line or two about the Afghan War would have sufficed, Kaye involves Ash in a war that has no place or work for him, except as a whistleblower that no one believes, and then ends the book so abruptly that I nearly wept. No, seriously, after you invest a thousand pages, days of your time (I might have given the impression I was studying), and exhaust all your emotions in the process, a “Yeah, maybe it was all ok” is just not enough. Seen as a whole with the book though, I suppose it isn’t that bad, except for leaving a slightly weird aftertaste.

There were many questions this book raised for me, and one of the main ones was about racism. Is the author racist? I really don’t think so, because if she had been one, she wouldn’t have taken such pains to flesh out Ash’s dual character, as somebody who thinks about both sides of the equation.

Ash had retorted with some heat that if the speaker and his father and his friends really thought along these lines, then the sooner the British cleared out of India and left her to run her own affairs the better, for she could probably do so more successfully with her own first-raters than with anyone else’s second raters.

But there is a slight superiority complex the author seems to have about certain things, for example:

It don’t do to believe a fraction of what these people tell you, for most of ‘em will always tell a lie rather than speak the truth, and trying to find out what really happened is like drawing eye-teeth or hunting for that proverbial needle in a haystack.

It’s a bit difficult to digest this sort of thinking from the author, when the general tone of the book is rather cautious about it, but I suppose a certain smugness has to be expected from a memsahib who actually lived here during the Raj.

Anyway, it was an absolutely wonderful read, and is a must for fans of all fiction. I only wish that I could be reborn as a Norwegian or an Australian or something, so I could read this again and enjoy the writing and the experience a bit more, than just fretting about colonialism and patriotism.

Quotes to remember:

Not the British India of cantonments and Clubs, or the artificial world of hill stations and horse shows, but that other India: that mixture of glamour and tawdriness, viciousness and nobility. A land full of gods and gold and famine. Ugly as a rotting corpse and beautiful beyond belief…

Times change, my friend; and men with them – even Hindus. Do your Christians in Belait (abroad) still burn witches, or fellow-Christians who do not agree as to the manner in which they shall worship the same God? I have heard that this was once your custom, but not that it is still so.

Only the Dur Khaima would not change. The months, the years, the centuries would pass, and when the Palace of the Winds was no more, the Far Pavilions would still be there, unchanged and unchanging.

P.S. I do seem to have rambled on a bit in this one, haven’t I? I shall blame the book for this, it was quite an experience. Beg, borrow or steal, dear readers, but read it. This is Book 7 in the Brunch Book Challenge and the 3rd Indian one, so I’ve completed the ‘Read 3 books related to India’ condition of the Brunch Book Challenge..visit me on Twitter @sindbadrose and #BrunchBookChallenge for the challenge 🙂

The Palace of Illusions

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Ok, so I’d been wanting to read this one for a long time; it’s got very good word-of-mouth reviews. I had read Divakaruni’s Sister of My Heart a few years ago and liked it quite a bit.

For the uninitiated, the Mahabharata is one of the most important (and popular) epics in Hindu mythology (mainly because the Gita is contained inside it). It is a vast saga of family and betrayal and revenge and love and war and everything else you can probably think of. The Palace of Illusions is Draupadi’s version of the Mahabharata, a feminist take of sorts on the epic. I liked the book; as a story on its own, it’s quite good, it is when it deviates from the original that it becomes indigestible.

The title here is derived from the dazzling and mystifying palace built for the Pandavas in Indraprastha by the asura architect Mayan. It is said that Duryodhana, when, visiting the palace, failed to realise that he was stepping into a pool instead of just glass, and wet his clothes. At this point Draupadi, who was looking down on this scene from an upstairs balcony, burst into laughter and remarked about a blind king’s son also being blind (Duryodhana’s father is the blind Dhritarashtra), which statement, it is said, led to the attempted public disrobing of Draupadi and the subsequent Kurukshetra war. All these incidents the author uses to great effect, and the story as a whole is quite gripping.

The language is fluid enough, and at some places the poetic prose really shines through:

Later, long after a forest was razed and a palace filled with wonders built in its place, after the game of dice, after treachery and loss, banishment and return, after the war with its blinding mountain of bones, bards would immortalize the swayamvar where, some claim, it all began.

In that hall perfumed with hopes and decorated with anxieties, where pride played the flute and anger the drum, the greatest kings of Bharat were unable to lift the Kindhara bow from the ground.

The trouble, however, lies in the characterisation; the author creates entirely new characters and gives them old names.
Draupadi, for example, is in love with Karna (in this version and this version only) and thinks of him even as she lies dying, and Karna (friend of Duryodhana, the enemy) actually reciprocates.

I tried harder than ever before to bar Karna from my mind. But can a sieve block the wind?

I confess, in spite of the vows I made each day to forget Karna, to be a better wife to the Pandavas, I longed to see him again.

Eh? What? I would have thought the Mahabharata has enough story material for any author to comfortably confine their versions inside its rather broad boundaries, than resort to sensationalism. Admittedly, “ANCIENT INDIAN PRINCESS SECRETLY IN LOVE WITH HER HUSBANDS’ ENEMY” does sound much better than “ANCIENT INDIAN PRINCESS SECRETLY IN LOVE WITH HER OWN HUSBANDS”, but it begins to jar after a point, especially when the author insists on further tweaking little details that makes the whole epic sound like one of our daily soaps (unkind mother-in-laws (Kunti!), woman power, that sort of thing).

Draupadi with her husbands, the Pandavas

As a woman’s version (and the most important woman at that), the story could have been framed in a better manner, but Divakaruni presents Draupadi as a rather put-upon woman, and burdens her with so many miseries that she becomes more of a representation of all the troubles women in general have, instead of just her individual sorrows. That she was publicly insulted and had to lead 13 years in exile is not enough, she must also have an unhappy childhood, be unable to marry the one she loves, have a scheming mother-in-law..why, Chitra aunty, why?

I am not against derivations and perspective changes; written in a proper manner, they could enhance our understanding of mythological texts (oooh this sounds so technical.. 😛 ). But drastic changes are a big no-no. What if, tomorrow, someone rewrote Harry Potter and had Hermione fall in love with Malfoy while still married to Ron (ugghh), and more importantly, what if, some catastrophe takes place and all our copies of Mahabharata are lost, and only this version remains? *Shudders* But it is quite a good read if taken as fiction, so don’t let this deter you.. 🙂

P.S. To be fair, there is a “This is a work of fiction” disclaimer in the book; I just wish they’d put it on the cover, or even in slightly bigger font.

P.P.S. This is Book 6 in the Brunch Book Challenge and the 2nd Indian one..so please visit me on Twitter @sindbadrose and #BrunchBookChallenge for the challenge.. 🙂