Books

The October Horse

Colleen McCullough

I had read the final book in the series – “Antony and Cleopatra” – earlier, so this turned out to be the last book I’d have to read in the ‘Masters of Rome’. That turned out be a good thing because while I liked the entire series, this would be among my top two. An excellent choice of title – borrowed from the ritual of sacrificing the best horse that Rome has. A character compares Caesar to an October Horse during the assassination conspiracy.

The book spends about one third of its pages mopping up the Republican campaign, (rather its remains after the death of Pompey) another third in Caesar’s efforts to ‘put Rome back on her feet’ and the final third in the aftermath of Caesar’s death. More

Mofussil Junction

Ian Jack

What a lovely read!

Now that we have settled that, let me elaborate. Mofussil Junction is a collection of the author’s articles about India, written for various publications, over a time frame of more than 30 years. There are essays, profiles, and some wonderfully wistful travel writings. The book is divided into five parts – places, people, (the Nehru-Gandhi) dynasty, ‘Life and Death’, and ‘Fellow Travellers’.

He had me hooked from the first chapter, when I learned that Bihar was the birthplace of George Orwell! There are vivid portraits of Bombay and Calcutta in the late 80s, but it is the tales of Serampur and McCluskiegunge (not to forget this chapter’s superb title) that truly amaze! More

March of the Aryans

Bhagwan S Gidwani

I feel a little conflicted about this book – on one side, it is wonderful to read a perspective on the dawn of civilisation and the kind of denizens our land had, but on the other, this is clearly a work of fiction, and the author himself states that his sources are not any written ones, but oral traditional memory from different parts of the world. It is clearly aimed at debunking the Aryan invasion theory, and tries to show that the Aryans had merely returned to their place of origin after traveling to many parts of the world.

In addition to demolishing the invasion theory, the author also tries to show that the Dravidian culture was not really independent in origin, but that civilisations on the Ganga, Sindhu-Saraswati, and other regions all had a common point from which they all emanated. More

The Kite Runner

Khaled Hosseini

My perspectives are a bit skewed because I have read the author’s works in reverse chronology. I think that probably explains why I found this a little underwhelming compared to “And the Mountains Echoed“. But if I move that out of the equation, then this is a good book, not just from the point of a universal human story, but for the fact that it is a window into life in Afghanistan.

The book covers the time frame from a few years before the Soviet occupation to the post-Taliban era and covers three generations.
The characters are really fleshed out and this is what works for the book. Amir’s loneliness living as a motherless child, his friendship with Hassan, his complicated relationship with Baba that continues even in adulthood, and his guilt stemming from what he let happen and made happen have all been well captured. Hassan is immediately lovable and the author is able to convince us that such a genuinely noble character can exist. All the others – Amir’s Baba, a complex character who never stops being a proud Afghan despite a massive change in fortunes, his wife Soraya who has her own relatively minor demons to conquer, her parents who probably fit Afghan stereotypes of an older generation couple, and Rahim Khan, who serves as a father figure to Amir and finally shows him the path to redemption – serve as perfect foils. More

Em & The Big Hoom

Jerry Pinto

“Home is not an address, home is family” pretty much defines what the story is all about. Jerry Pinto’s debut novel is the story of one woman, her madness, and how her family lives through it in a 1 BHK flat in Mahim. There is no large canvas, no spectacular events, it’s a simple story about complex lives, narrated in the most disarming and sensitive manner.

Em holds the story together, as she does her family too, despite (or because of) her manic and wild self that writes, embarrasses her kids, smokes beedis, attempts suicides, and in flashes, also reveals an understanding of raw human nature. In contrast is The Big Hoom, standing like a breakwater that calms the storms lashing through their lives. He is an enigma to me, and it would seem, to the narrator too! The nameless narrator and ‘Lao Tsu’ complete the family. The back stories and idiosyncrasies of the other characters give them an identity that does not get lost in the narrative. A good time to note that Bombay exists too, peeping out once in a while, though thankfully it doesn’t take itself seriously and is content being a backdrop. Goa probably gets a better role! More

Sita

Devdutt Pattanaik

Fantastic!

When I reached page 250 (almost 5/6th of the book!) – at which point Sita is freed – I finally allowed myself the comparison that had been bubbling inside my head for a while. Jaya, an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata by the same author, ranks among my top five books of all time. Thus far, this book had not really touched those levels. Rationalisation was easy – the Mahabharata is perhaps a more complex and interesting tale because of the sheer number of characters, the back stories, and the grey shades that permeate every character in it. There were many little nuggets I hadn’t known about earlier, and that made the reading more exciting. On a relative note, the Ramayana is more ‘linear’, and there are a limited number of layers that the author can add to situations or characters. I consoled myself with the fact that the narration was as spectacular as Jaya, and I had gained at least a couple of perspectives beyond my current understanding of the epic and its underlying philosophies. (Aham, and Aham Brahmasmi, for example) I did wonder though, why the author had to call it Sita – there wasn’t really a justification. More

The Age of Kali

William Dalrymple

I love doing this – reading a commentary long after the age has passed. It’s more than a decade and a half since the book was published and I’ve read four of the five books that the author has written since then. Both of these factors gave me quite a few perspectives on the book and the writing.

I see this book divided into two on multiple counts – first in terms of geography, second in terms of narrative style, and third in terms of being true to the ‘script’ of the book. More

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Khaled Hosseini

The author’s second book and also the second book of his that I am reading – that would be nothing out of the ordinary except that I read the third book first and I’m yet to read The Kite Runner, which often gets compared to this book. I think this has given me a different perspective – to summarise that quickly, I found ‘And the mountains echoed’ a better book and I can easily see the author’s growth both in terms of overall plot as well as narrative style.

This novel is primarily centred around 3 characters (four, if one has to stretch) and using a now-familiar narrative style, we are introduced to their different worlds quite seamlessly. Mariam, an illegitimate child, is forced out of her relatively peaceful life in Herat after the death of her mother. It’s difficult to understand what affected her more deeply – the change in perspective about her father, or her being married off to her father’s acquaintance and sent to Kabul. Mariam’s marital life quickly deteriorates, as does the ‘character’ of her husband Rasheed, and one cannot but feel for the isolation and helplessness of this woman who is abused physically and mentally without respite by a husband who preaches one set of moral standards while hiding stash of porn in his drawers. More

Caesar

Colleen McCullough

The fifth book in the Masters of Rome series, and my favourite thus far. (and I only have The October Horse left to read) I loved the tagline “Let the dice fly” – uttered by Caesar as he crosses the Rubicon, a crucial moment in his own and Rome’s destiny. (the translation is still being debated though)

The author is clearly in awe of Caesar, and by the time the book is finished, we’d probably be pardoned for sharing the feeling. Since she rarely tampers with history and only adds interpretations (of character motivations) we have to assume that, according to known history, Caesar was indeed a god among men! His confidence in himself is absolute, and while the author, on a couple of instances, shows the change in how it manifests itself as he grows older, and though Caesar seems to seek some validation from his peers, it is largely a “I don’t think so, I know so” stance that he takes on situations, plans and people. More

The Difficulty of Being Good

 Gurcharan Das

I’d liked Gurcharan Das’ “India Unbound” (that was a long while back, I haven’t read his later works) and I’m generally a sucker for all things epic, so buying this was a given.

The blurb created quite the hype for me by stating that the book “shows us how we can come to terms with the uncertain ethics of the world today.” (a world which according to them can be compared to the one in Mahabharata) On hindsight, this does seem a reasonably impossible task and I should have figured that out before I started. More

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