Books

The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Pico Iyer

One of my favourite authors writing about a human being who has intrigued me from the time I read Siddhartha. It didn’t disappoint at all!

What is it like to live, practice, preach a faith while facing oppression from one of the most powerful countries in the world? Even as Tibet becomes more of a Chinese province day by day – the Potala Palace is treated as just another tourist attraction and the streets of Lhasa are filled with entertainment and shopping options – and several Tibetans question the wisdom of his approach, he is respected across the globe as a spiritual leader for the universal truths he espouses.

And yet, he underplays the role of religion, and stresses his own humanity while creating a future for Tibetans that is less dependent on him. He has brought Tibet to the world – a culture that was as hidden as a treasure and also gave the world a brand of Buddhism that is universal in appeal. Pico puts Tibet well in the context of a world that has moved from too little info about itself to too much in a few years.

Pico also writes well about how even with all the respect, people probably see his images and messages through the ‘keyhole of their own priorities’. He once mentions an instance when the Dalai Lama cried- he was asked ‘what is the quickest, cheapest, easiest way to attain enlightenment’.

While much of the book deals with His Holiness’ thoughts and perspectives, there are also mentions of his family, his early days including the time he was forced to flee from Tibet, and quite a few pages devoted to Dharmasala. Dharamsala – where foreigners come seeking wisdom, antiquity and mysticism from every Tibetan they see, and some Tibetans play the part to understand and probably even reach the lands of ‘abundance and freedom’. Pico Iyer writes about the confusion faced by young Tibetans – on whether to stay on in Dharmasala or go back to Tibet to either change or be changed. Dharmasala – also the place to which Tibetans flock, braving persecution by the Chinese, just for a glimpse of their leader and their belief that at some point in time, he will solve their problems.
In addition to all of this, the wonderful quotes, the additional sources of information on the subject, and various perspectives all offer us some thoughts on ‘joyful participation in a world of sorrows’.

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Overwinter

Ratika Kapur

‘Mature’ is probably the first word I’d associate with the book. True, it does fall under the general existential angst category, but I felt that it does go beyond the stereotype – in the characters, the way they are handled, and the way situations flow. The story spans only a few months, though the narrative does go back in time to provide contexts and many events unfolding in the story do have a connection with the past.

I felt that the only truly complex person in the book was Ketaki, the protagonist. I could pretty much relate to everyone else very easily, but her way of dealing with situations and people was the little unpredictability that made the book ‘different’. ‘Overwinter’ means spending winter or waiting for it to pass, and that is pretty much what Ketaki seems to be doing. The novel starts with a rather dysfunctional scene involving her and her uncle, but that’s not really a good indication of the story.

Ratika Kapur shows tremendous skill in narrating day to day events (a trip from Delhi to Gurgaon, for instance) such that they completely step out of the mundane. This is also true of her excellent descriptions of human emotions. There is a sense of reality in the book – for instance, the conversations around the Nano or T20 cricket or Nadal vs Tsonga – that happens between characters. It’s as though I stepped into a living room and happened to hear these conversations.

The other word I’d associate with the book is ‘intelligent’. The prose is assured, the narrative measured, and though you may not get a sense of closure that books often give you, this is a wonderful read.

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The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

Paul Theroux 

Whenever I take a vacation, I arrive as a tourist and like to think that I leave at least partly converted into a traveler. I am forever envious of travelers, many of whose journeys serve as a purpose in itself. This book is an excellent little guide to what the author mentions in the preface – paraphrasing the Buddha – “You cannot travel the path before you become the path itself”, and how travel is also a way of living, and thinking.

In addition to excerpts from various works by different travel writers and adventurers, classified by unique and amazing themes from Railways, time spent in travel to Murphy’s laws, to imaginary journeys, how places are different from what they sound like and so on, the book is peppered with Travel Wisdom from various authors.

There are gems hidden in the pages – little quotes that somehow tell you that the spirit within each wanderer is essentially the same. The description of places and times by masters are splendid enough to transport you to locales across to world from Alaska to Africa and Russia to South America….And it’s not just the places, but the people who live there, the way they think, and one can sense the cord that invisibly connects humanity.

In 275 pages, the author manages to indeed provide a Tao of Travel across time and space. Must read.

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First Draft: Witness To The Making Of Modern India

B.G. Verghese

BG Verghese’ “First Draft” is part memoir, part history and covers many decades in its wide sweep. From the description of the Times on the day of his birth (21/06/1927) until his assessment of the challenges facing the nation in 2010, the book is his perspective on the events he has witnessed and many a time, been part of. Sometimes it is tinged with nostalgia – his description of the Doon School for instance, and at other times, it is an objective view of the various decisions and circumstances that have shaped India.

From national milestones like the first elections (described so we get an idea of the herculean task it was in an era that didn’t have the communication infrastructure we see now) and the construction of the steel plants and dams and IITs,IIMs we see around now, to humanity’s collective achievements such as Neil Armstrong on the moon (even as a villager adamantly states that it is just impossible) we get a first hand view of things we now acknowledge as history and landmarks. Relationships with the US, USSR as well as neighbouring countries and the wars fought with the latter, including an analysis of the things we did right/wrong all appear, mostly in chronological order. Also adding texture to the narrative are anecdotes of Prime Ministers, most significantly Indira Gandhi. The formation of AIR and Doordarshan, nuclear tests, the political battles within the Congress, formation of other parties, JP’s work, the rise of Naxalism, Operation Bluestar, Sanjay Gandhi’s bizarre schemes, the Emergency, the death of Mrs.Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi’s baby steps into politics and the paradigm shifts he kickstarted, communal riots, the formation of LTTE, the Bhopal tragedy, VP Singh and Mandal and Bofors, BJP and Ramjanmabhoomi, the chronic Kashmir issue all gives one a feel of time travel.

There is massive ground covered – nuclear policy, social-economics, geo-political relationships, the functioning of media houses etc in addition to his views on public service broadcasting, policies for the North East, industrialisation, water and so on. As an editor and someone who has worked with the government, and as part of external agencies, fact finding committees and so on, the author is well placed to deliver an incisive view of history as it was being made and with the advantage of hindsight. (now) Barring a meagre few pats on the back and digressions, he does provide a decent and objective look. It is quite a humbling feeling to ‘watch’ as generations of politicians and institutions almost flash by and one finds some pattern in the fuzziness seen around – the reason for the way we are, as a country. It is also heartening to see that patriotism aside, the author feels that we are on an ascendant. Despite some patches that are specific in nature (towards the last 100 pages) and tend to be discourses, this is a great read for anyone interested in modern history.

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Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata

Devdutt Pattanaik 

I consider myself more well-versed with the Mahabharata than the average person, because of my interest in Hindu mythology and the amount of reading I’ve done on the subject. But I’m really glad I read this, not just because of the small details I learned about (I counted 6 things I hadn’t known about – Sahadeva’s precognition gained by eating Pandu’s flesh, Draupadi cursing dogs to copulate in public for stealing Yudhishtira’s slippers, Vibhishana being present at Draupadi’s swayamwar, a couple of stories on why Krishna stepped in to protect Draupadi when Dusshasana tried to disrobe her, why Shakuni did his best to ensure the destruction of the Kuru clan, Draupadi’s regret over Karna and at least a couple more interesting tidbits) but because of the wonderful lessons it provides. The author also mentions several variations of the tale, regional renditions and folk variations adding layers to the original story. Even as one feels the familiarity thanks to the places (which still exist) mentioned and can identify with the experiences and tribulations of the mortal characters, there is also an awe created by the elements of divinity.

The excellent illustrations and the simple yet elegant and evocative storytelling took me back to a time when I first started hearing these stories – childhood. So vivid is the prose that one can easily create visualisations of the events. The explanation of events are done on many planes – rational, metaphysical, spiritual, bringing a lot of clarity to the complex tale. The concepts of dharma and justice are explained beautifully and even as the Pandavas grow their perspective during their exile and their pride, anger etc get tempered before and after the war, there is tremendous learning for the reader too. It is easy to understand why this is indeed considered the greatest story ever told, and continues to be relevant through ages. The original tale is epic, and so is this narration. Very highly recommended.

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White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India

William Dalrymple 

In the eighteenth century, when the East India company was not yet the force it would one day be, there existed a few Englishmen (and other Europeans) who took up the ways of the fading Mughal culture. These were the White Mughals and among them was James Achilles Kirkpatrick, who arrived in India a soldier and soon rose to be the Resident of Hyderabad, mostly thanks to the influence of his older brother William.

Friend of the Nizam, and an ardent lover of the Indian culture he came in contact with, he was willing to sacrifice everything to marry Khair un Nissa, a Hyderabadi noblewoman, who was already engaged to be married. Although the core of the book is their love story, and its aftermath, Dalrymple does take a while to get to it. He first gives us the prevalent scenario and glimpses of the other White Mughals like Hindoo Stuart, David Ochterlony etc to set the context. Even after James is fully in the picture, he focuses on the Nizam’s court, its players and its intrigues in which James is heavily involved, Hyderabad’s strained relationship with the Marathas and the charged political atmosphere which the Company was trying to profit from. But this also gives us an elaborate view of Hyderabad, its people, its art and culture and finally James’ relationship with Khair. In this broad canvas, we can also see the various Governor Generals and their varied stance on relationships with India and Indians. The images allow us to visualise the life and the times.

<spoiler> After the death of James, the book follows the life of Khair as the story moves from Hyderabad to Calcutta to Masulipatnam (and tangentially Chennai) giving us tiny glimpses of the social milieu there, even as Khair pines for her children who have been taken away from her. Dalrymple provides a touching description of the very young children shedding their Muslim identity and donning a Christian one as they board the ship to England. In fact, the painting of the children with Sahib Begum’s (soon to be Kitty Kirkpatrick) teary face is extremely poignant.

Khair’s only consolation is the presence of her mother, the correspondence with her grandmother and her (ultimately) tragic relationship with another Englishman. Except for the well being of Kitty Kirkpatrick, James’ and Khair’s daughter, the lives involved all have tragic endings, many of which cause lump-in-the-throat moments. Khair’s mother dies in penury and her son dies an invalid at a young age. Though Kitty corresponds with her grandmother, they never get to meet each other. As the author says, the death of Kitty in 1889 was the end of an era, of a world where cultures and people mixed freely without the biases and clashes that came later. A wonderful read for those interested in history.

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The Storyteller of Marrakesh

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya 

The book begins with the proposition that there is no truth, and only opinion. This is a fundamental premise of the book and important from the perspective of its narration. Hassan, the primary narrator begins his story at the Jemaa el Fna, surrounded by his listeners, the motive behind the narration supposedly to prove the innocence of his brother Mustafa, who is in jail for a crime he seemingly did not commit. It involves the disappearance of an exceedingly beautiful woman who tantalised all the square’s inhabitants and visitors, when she made an appearance along with her male companion.

Though Hassan starts the narration, some of his listeners add their versions of what happened on the night of the event, some contradictory, some corroborative. There are arguments, and debates of what actually happened and truth being an opinion is brought out many a time.

The narrative shifts gears all the while, as speakers delve deep into their pasts for explanations, and Hassan himself highlights events of his past to give the listeners an insight into his and Mustafa’s lives and behaviour. The prose is elaborate, and vivid enough to be almost considered poetry as the author describes people, places and events in all their textures and facets. It is by no means a racy read nor is it gripping in narrative pace. As Hassan himself says, if that’s the kind of entertainment you want, you’re better off at a cinema. It’s not an easy style to get used to, but no harm in giving it a shot!

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ASURA: Tale Of The Vanquished

Anand Neelakantan

Asura is partly a Ravana perspective on where his life intersects with that of Rama, (and thus Ramayana) and partly a social commentary of his life and times. (how society treats women, the caste system etc) The tale is narrated by Bhadra, an asura who fought under Mahabali and several others before becoming a recurring (and key) figure in Ravana’s life from the time he led a ragged army against Kubera. The narrative begins with Ravana’s last moments, as he lay dying on the battlefield.

Predictably, the book shows Ravana in a good light, whose only fault was that he defied the prevalent societal norms and lived life on his own terms, as opposed to Rama, who was deified by the higher castes and made into an ideal image. For all we know, this is probably true, since history is after all, written by victors.

While most of the story is essentially known, the author deserves credit for demystifying the myth – from the big picture details of which region was ruled by which king to smaller details like Pushpak as a flying machine prototype and Jatayu becoming a bird that got caught in its rotors. This does require that he has to gloss over some of the events, but that’s easily something we could forgive because the author largely keeps it true to the original tale. Varuna as a pirate, Kubera as the merchant king, Yama as the drug lord, various Indras, are all superb renditions of familiar mythological characters. There’s some intelligent use of Bhadra in the final events, and the author leaves ample clues for the reader to predict it. The author tries to show that in many ways, things have remained unchanged – the generation gap between Bali/Angada and Ravana/Meghanada is a classic example, and this is something that gives the narrative a lot of credibility. (+5 points for the Jabali mention)

But I did feel that it could have been edited better. Bhadra’s character, though used well to show how the life of a common man changed, or remained unchanged as the ruling class switched, is prone to long winded discourses which slackens the pace. The working of Ravana’s mind too becomes preachy once in a while, but thankfully not too often. If I had to nitpick, I’d say that mistaking navel for naval while describing a woman’s anatomy is not a sign of good proofreading. (-5 points for not connecting Chandrahasa to Shiva and relegating it to a blacksmith origin)

But in essence, it is a fresh take, and was good enough for me to visualise how it really must have been – as something that really happened, and not just a myth.

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The Forest of Stories

Ashok Banker

Book 1 of Ashok Banker’s Mahabharata, MBA if you will. It is an exact rendition of the saga written by Krishna Dweipayana Vyasa. The narrative begins in Naimisha-sharanya, where Ugrasrava, son of Lomarsana and better known as Sauti, arrives to convey the news of Vyasa’s transcendence to the next life, and to narrate the grandest tale ever created.

The tale begins long before the descendants of Kuru faced each other on the battlefield at Kurukshetra. Kurukshetra, famous long before as Samantapanchaka where Parasurama created five lakes of blood from the decimation of kshatriyas, and famous long after as the venue for the sarpa satra conducted by Janamajaya, descendant of the Pandavas.

Sauti explains how Jaya, the original tale swelled from 8800 slokas to 24000, named Bharata and then over several narrations, to Mahabharata, made of one hundred thousand slokas. A narration that Sauti himself was the recipient of, from Vaisampayana, as well as Vyasa himself, at the satra.

The narrative is anything but linear, like a tree with a multitude of branches, and does stick to Vyasa’s original work. It flits from story to story, occasionally coming back to what can be loosely described as central narrative, in this case, a sort of index built by questions being asked to Sauti during his narration. Thanks to this, from creation of the world and the origin of different species to the reason for the Mahabharata war and the stories of many antecedents of the Pandavas and Kauravas, there are stories and stories. This book ends with the introduction to Bharata – the emperor, son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala, after whom the country is named.

As someone deeply interested in mythology, this is a very interesting read, despite the elaborate prose, but what you will get from it completely depends on your level of interest in the epic.

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The Sins of the Father

Jeffrey Archer

The second part of The Clifton Chronicles. Harry’s plan to erase his past and start a different life in America has unfortunate side effects, as the last page of the first volume indicated. Emma, the mother of his son, meanwhile, refuses to believe that he is dead, and sets out to find him. Giles, after some hesitation, joins the army and fights the Germans in World War 2. The book also follows a few other characters from ‘Only Time Will Tell’ like Hugo Barrington, Maisie Clifton, and thanks to Emma’s trip to America, and Harry’s own adventures, introduces a few interesting new characters as well. The different-people narrative approach has been used effectively to zoom in/out in this book too.

The pace, as usual, is perfect, and that’s a skill I always admire Archer for. He now reminds me of Sachin Tendulkar actually. :) Once upon a time, Sachin was known for his aggressive mauling of bowlers, but as he aged, he made changes to his technique. He was still a master, but in a different way. In another era, Archer was famous for those amazing twists in the tale/tail. But after a while, they became predictable. In the last few books, I’ve seen a distinct change in his style. The wit is still there, but more subtle, as are the twists. A different kind of story telling mastery, and I, for one, am enjoying it.

Archer has captured the WWII life in Britain very well. There are interesting references to real life events and people – for instance Harold Macmillan. The US/British differences are also touched upon in a very humorous way. All these are little nuggets which add flavours to the story.

There is an old world charm to the characters, it’s probably because of the time in which the story is set. But Archer does like it this way, as I’ve noticed in other books. They also have everything falling into place for them, ahem, but things aren’t so bad that I can’t ignore. They are clearly good or evil, and there are practically no gray shades. I am curious to see how Archer will carry this on in the later parts, specially when he has characters in the contemporary era. I wonder if he will retain this clear division, and if he does, how he will get us to relate to it. :)

I enjoyed the book, and massively crossed the self imposed limits of pages/day – that’s a testament to the hooking capability of Archer’s narrative.