Books

Possession

Kamala Markandaya

Kamala Markandaya’s writings have always intrigued me largely because of the times she lived in and the socio-cultural themes they therefore brought out. In this book, for instance, there were at least two themes I could make out.

The first is obvious enough, and also stems from the title – a battle between the spiritual and the material. The story begins with Anasuya, a writer, becoming the inadvertent connector of two lives – Caroline Bell, a rich, divorced, beautiful English lady with an iron will, and Valmiki, a poor peasant boy who is also a gifted artist. Valmiki’s parents have a very dim view of him, and the only person who sees his talent is Swamy, an ascetic who lives a solitary life in the hills near Valmiki’s village. Valmiki is swept away by Caroline to London, where she introduces him to her society and culture and tries to help him develop his talent. But it isn’t all altruistic – even as Val’s talent ensures his popularity, Caroline extends their relationship and ensures that he feels beholden to her. She goes to every extent to destroy any competition that arises, and succeeds. In a sense, it is difficult to say who possesses and who is possessed. Swamy’s mostly invisible hand brings out the battle between spirituality and material success. More

The Palace of Illusions

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Like I’ve said before, what does it say of a story when countless people, centuries later, can continue to render it in their unique way? It’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who’s completely enthralled by the phenomenon that is The Mahabharata. It’s even more heartening when renditions are such that they do justice to the epic.

This is the Mahabharata told from the viewpoint of Draupadi, and as a reader, I could easily believe this to be indeed her autobiography. I could sense the changes in Draupadi with time, not just in her behaviour, but also in her perspectives and even the words she uses. It is almost as though the author walked in her shoes! It is difficult to bring anything new to the table with regards to the basic story itself, but the author manages it with the help of at least three devices – the role of Karna in Draupadi’s life, the perspectives of a female protagonist and finally, the interpretations Draupadi draws of and from the events that happen around her. There is a fourth too, that lends a uniqueness to this retelling – the Palace of Illusions, and what it does to Draupadi’s own perspectives. More

Be Careful What you Wish For

Jeffrey Archer

The fourth volume of the Clifton Chronicles, and since Archer has made it a point to end each book at a very crucial juncture, the book dives straight in. One of the problems I faced was that I had to do some reading up on the web to remember the plot and the characters.

As with the previous book, the original protagonist Harry Clifton has very little role to play. Most of the plot lines are centred around his wife Emma and son Sebastian. Both of them have to fend off various kinds of attacks from their enemy Don Pedro Martinez. Sebastian’s problems on this account seem relatively small compared to that of Emma’s, as Martinez tries every trick outside the book to bring down Barrington Shipping with the help of Major Alex Fisher and Lady Virginia Fenwick. We are also kept aware of Sir Giles’ political career even as he too becomes a target of Martinez. More

The Glass Palace

Amitav Ghosh

Where do I begin? Let’s start with stating the simple – I loved this book. I haven’t read such a poignantly moving book in quite a while!

With that out of the way, the story actually begins in Mandalay (Burma) in 1885, during the last days of the Konbaung Dynasty. The British forcibly depose the Burmese King Thebaw, his queen Supayalat and their daughters from “The Glass Palace,” so named for the large central hall which had crystal walls and mirrored ceilings. As looters raid the palace, Rajkumar, an Indian boy of 11, catches a glimpse of Dolly, one of the queen’s maids and “by far the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld, of a loveliness beyond imagining.” More

Kamadeva : The God of Desire

Anuja Chandramouli

“You try my patience severely, sage”, said Shambara to Narada, and managed to express my feelings entirely. These (feelings) were not just restricted to Narada, but to pretty much every character in the book! But let’s step back a bit first.

As a subject, this one holds a lot of promise, because Kama has (arguably) a very muted presence in Hindu mythology, except probably the ‘burning man’ episode when he used his arrows on Shiva. So a book which could bring out details of his exciting life – since he was after all the God of Love and Desire – does have the potential to be quite good. While the story in itself stays true to mythology, what put me off the book is the narration. More

The Story of Philosophy

Will Durant

“Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom”, states Will Durant in the introduction to this book that chronicles the lives and opinions of Western philosophers from Socrates to John Dewey. The idea behind this book is to make philosophy accessible to the layman, and as one among the intended audience, I can say that it does a fantastic job of it!

There are nine chapters each dedicated to a philosopher, and two additional ones that capture the thoughts (in lesser detail) of three European and three American contemporary philosophers. (the book was published in 1924, so ‘contemporary’ is actually almost a century away) One of the great aspects of this book is how it manages to give the milieu in which the philosophers operated – both the socio-political contexts and the influences of his predecessors.

This gives a wonderful flow to the overall narrative and gives the reader a kind of seamless path of thought. The effect of their personal lives on their thinking has also been well captured. More

The Girl from Nongrim Hills

Ankush Saikia
I must admit a little bias before I write more. For one, it is set in Shillong, which despite a visit that didn’t deliver what it was supposed to, retains a wistful, charming space in my mind, mostly thanks to one Anjum Hasan. Also, the book is written by Ankush Saikia, whose Jet City Woman I quite liked, and who is now an Instagram friend. :)
I finished the book in less than three days, and would have finished it in one sitting if I hadn’t exercised some self control! That is a testament to its racy narrative, which just doesn’t flag in all of the 200+ pages. I thought it was just the right material for a slick flick.

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To a Mountain in Tibet

Colin Thubron

Mount Kailas has been circling my mind space for a long while now, thanks to it being at an intersection of two of my favourite themes – Hindu mythology and travel. A peak that has never been scaled, but a mountain that has witnessed the circumambulation of scores of pilgrims across centuries. Personally, that made it more interesting to me than a standard travelogue.

The mountain is considered holy by two among the world’s biggest faiths – Hinduism and Buddhism. This is in addition to Bon, a native religious tradition of Tibet. Ravana, Hanuman, Nyo Lhanangpa all find a presence in the holy trek. More

Cough Syrup Surrealism

Tharun James Jimani

I’m not sure I really ‘got’ this book. The obvious story line is not really complex – Charlie, a Mallu boy in Chennai, whose dad expects him to become an IAS officer just like him, gets sucked into a world of drugs, music and sex, every fifth page. He also has an identity crisis, and like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up, despite quite a lot of self flagellation and advice from his parents and friends. A nineties kid who refuses to acknowledge, let alone accommodate the noughties, his relationships are anything but simple.

Mao (a figment of Charlie’s imagination) might get irritated, but I wondered if this was the only level this book was operating at. The narrative (and this is not necessarily criticism) is very Charlie-like. I always had this feeling that there was subtext I was completely missing out on. On many occasions, I plodded through text – the Charlie analogy I’d use is that it’s a bit like smiling at pop culture references you haven’t really got. Charlie’s thoughts – for example, mixtapes and body parts – would make for a great conversation when stoned. I wondered quite a few times whether that condition was a prerequisite to reading the book! I’m not even sure if the author meant for this to work that way, but when we have a title that has cough syrup and surrealism, that thought is bound to cross your mind. More

Hawaii

This is my third attempt at this book – I bought it in 2008! In the first attempt, the geological history of Hawaii in the first 15 pages put me to sleep and in the second, the journey of the first settlers of Hawaii from Bora Bora just became too much of a plod work. This time I was determined to complete it, and I am glad I did – the book is magnificent!

We use the word saga a bit loosely, but this one truly deserves that description. From the geological explanations of the formation of Hawaii to the Congressional politics of the 20th century, Michener does what he does best! More