Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Palace of Illusions...

...was our book selection for December. Written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, it's the Mahabharata told from the perspective of Draupadi, and therefore quite different to other retellings of the epic which typically focus more on the sequence of events than any one character's motivations.

The book provoked a wonderfully rich discussion. While suggesting it, I had thought that since most of us have grown up with this story, reading a fresh perspective on it would be interesting. At the discussion we found that some people had never really gotten into it and this book wa stheir first detailed look at it, while others had been more familiar with BR Chopra's teleserial of the same which, while very well done, stuck to the traditional line.

There were very strong and opposing views on Draupadi. Vatsala had always thought of her as a strong woman and a feminist icon, and found herself a little disappointed by the pettiness of her issues which ended up being among the goads for the war. While Anju felt that it was a realistic portrayal of the way life works for most of us, and completely related to Draupadi's lifelong quest for validation of herself. Jayshree thought that good or bad, Draupadi came across as a strong woman, not the long-suffering Nirupa Roy-esque Sita of the Ramayan who meekly keeps taking what everyone around her dishes out and finally, once the last straw is loaded on her back, runs home to mother. But Draupadi stands up for herself, dares to question the roles of women and the behavious of those around her, and is a very real power. Ali felt that she played a strong role in everything that happened through both arguments and gestures like keeping her hair unwashed and unbound for 13 years. As he said picturesquely, "The Pandavas must have said let's do this war otherwise this stinky hair of hers will stay that way forever!"

We debated whether the key motivation of Draupadi was her quest for love or her need for recognition as an individual, not the add-on to Dhri or the bounty to be equally shared among five brothers. We all thought it was interesting that she has a relatively unconventional view of her role, be it because of the prophecy she had to fulfil or because of her own strong will - she was not particularly involved with her children, and was much more focussed on her life with her husbands.

Many things in the book struck a chord with us - for instance the fact that despite Vyasa's specific warnings about the three occasions which will prove turning points, Draupadi pursues the very course of action she was warned against. Very like life's oh-no-seconds. And the fact that at the end Draupadi wishes she could have loved Bhima back the same way he loved her, since his love for her was the most uncomplicated and the purest. Don't so many of us wish we could have loved the nice guy/ gal back?

Karna, always one of the most interesting characters in the story, again stood out here as in fact the most honourable character, apart from his one lapse in Dhritarashtra's court at the vastraharan. Yudhistra, being Dharma Raja, loves drinking, gambling, loses control of himself while doing either, and then has to be persuaded to take up the right course of action in pursuing the war, while Karna pursues his Dharma without making the same fuss about it.

We found it interesting that while Chitra focuses the story on Draupadi, she called it The Palace of Illusions, thus giving it a greater philosophic scope for debate, as opposed to Pratibha Ray's Yajnaseni which continued to focus on Draupadi herself. One of the best truths in the book is the line that Krishna says about Sikhandi, which I am paraphrasing here - He believes it to be the truth, and therefore it is the truth. In fact the Palace of Illusions is an allusion to the Hindu concept of maya, which believes that the whole world is in fact just a creation of Maya - an illusion.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


I had always wanted to read this series of books by James Clavell but somehow or other, though I had bought a couple of the books years ago, I hadn't gotten around to reading them until recently. I started with Taipan as I found Shogun somewhat intimidating to start with, and I found it engrossing reading. The book painted a fabulous picture of HongKong's start as a colony, a lonely, forsaken outcrop of rock in the North China Sea, a place that the Chinese couldn't see why the British wanted and the British couldn't see why they had accepted, to start with.

The book was action-packed and it was hard to put it down. The characters particularly of Dirk and Culum Struan and Brock stay with you after the book is finished. I found it an interesting technique by the author, wherein there is so much of back-history to each character and relationship but it is revealed almost as if he is merely reminding you of what you already know. The nature of each character also comes to light more through their actions than through a description of what they are thinking or planning.

Interestingly, the sequel doesn't pick up immediately where the previous book left off but twenty years later, so I am actually finding it hard to get as enthused since I was so keen to find out what happens immediately after the events concluding Taipan...But ecventually I will finish the series...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Clubs and so on

I really enjoyed attending the book club meeting in Bombay back in July. Even though I didn't love the book assigned for the month, it was really fun to discuss it and to find out how other people reacted to it, get new perspectives on it and so on...So after I got back, I floated the idea of forming a book club to various friends and most of them agreed to be a part of it. We didn't get much of a consensus on what book to pick for the first month so I finally decided on the Sea of Poppies.

I don't really know what prompted me to pick the book. I had to go out and buy it after setting it as the book, and I'm usually pretty wary of Indian authors - I find many of them rather depressing, especially as one can identify with the misery portrayed - one sees it on a daily basis. And my one experience of trying to read Amitav Ghosh (The Shadow Lines, way back in college) hadn't been great...

But I was so glad I had picked this book. I found it an adddictive read and had to consciously pace myself so I wouldn't finish it off too quickly (that was my only book during some travel), and almost found myself 'coming to', when the book ended. I couldn't believe that I'd now have to wait several months, if not years, to get the next instalment of the story of the unforgettable characters.

Luckily, everyone who attended the book club meeting yesterday felt the same way. Most of them loved the book and found it incredibly visual as well. The characters were very involving. It was also interesting to examine the many layers of 'class wars' that were taking place, vertly or covertly - the indian caste one, the British versus Indian one, the full versus half breed one...And some of the moments in the book were harrowing to think about for those of us who were parents. Everyone gave the book a thumbs up 'must-read' rating.

Ali felt that not a single word in the book was wasted, though the book was long. Rohit had marked out several passages where he found the descriptions transporting him to that era. We also had a lively discussion about the history of the British raj - when the Crown took over from the East India Company and the changes that brought in the British-Indian relationship, how going overseas was taboo in those days and so on.

Most of all, I enjoyed the experience of sharing a common liking of the book and the purely intellectual debate that we had...took me back to the good old days of college/ school wherein we would really dissect a piece of literature. Looking forward to more such as time goes on...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

So long, Murakami, and thanks for all the fish

I was finally going to get to join Sonya's Juhu Book Club for one of their famed meetings. The entry fees: reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. He and this book have got a lot of press over the last few years, and even if I've been ducking the reviews and interviews alike, I remembered it as an important book, and more importantly as one I didn't have to rush out and buy, having been gifted a copy that had lain pristine in our new bookroom for over a year. Fine, sue me for being lazy but I'm going to trot out the now well-worn excuse of being mother of three and fulltime worker...

I made sure I wouldn't keep any easier reading material around to tempt me on the flight, and during that and the long drive to Mimi's place where I was staying on vacation last week, I had gotten through a good two-thirds of the book. It was a rivetting read, in which you get engrossed in the characters and their lives. It went pretty fast. It had unforgettable imagery, from fish and leeches raining from the sky to the serenely lovely Komura library, the isolated cabin in the forest and the horrifically savage cat-story ( which made me want to throw up).

I'm not sure how I feel about the book and its author, though. I didn't get emotionally entangled in the lives of the characters, and that's something I like to do. The book didn't lead to a resolution of the events in the neat way that one would like. I still don't understand a good chunk of the events and characters...

However it made for a very lively discussion. Shubho thought its lack of neat endings was very Eastern as opposed to the linear progression of western thought. There was tremendous symbolism to be uncovered, from the yin-yang of Nakata and Miss Seiki to the detailed descriptions of food and sex, the cheshire-Cat-ish Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker. There were many arguments back and forth and insights about why this or why not that...

And I realised that though I may never pick up another book by Murakami, it was a terrific experience to have read him once. For the pure intellectual challenge of trying to interpret him, for the fun of engaging in a stimulating debate about the whys and wherefores. For the spurt it's given me into finally trying to start up a book club in Delhi. And of course, for the name-dropping value, I mean how much more intellectual can you get?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bringing Up Vasu

I rushed out to pick up this book as a fellow mommy blogger and someone I know slightly though virtually has written it. Though the mommy genre is pretty huge overseas, this is the first book of its kind in India.

Parul has a wickedly funny blog that always makes me smile so I guess I was expecting something similar in her book. And yes, there are many moments in the book which make you smile or relate to it if you're a mommy. However I do feel that there were significant weaknesses in it, which a good editor could have helped Parul to refine.

The protagonist for instance, was someone whom I simply failed to understand. What were her motivations, how and when did she decide to either give up temporarily on her career or become a yummy mummy with kid at famous playschool, and why? Most of the time it seemed like events were overtaking her and she was at best reacting to them with a slightly left of center reaction.

I found most of the other characters in the book, with the exception of the husband, Anand, rather boring and one dimensional. The friends added nothing to the protagonist's discovery process or to either her growth or the turbulent emotions that accompany first time motherhood. The husband was chuckle-worthy, though, meeting all his spouse's hysterical reactions with patience, tact, good humour and unflappability, all the while making it clear he was behind her one hundred percent. he was the best part of the book.

I felt the book had a great concept but the execution could have been much more polished and real.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Virgin's Lover

I'm on a historical fiction kick lately, having found new editions of 3 Jean Plaidy books about the Plantagenet reign, and then this, by Philippa Gregory, the author of The Other Boleyn Girl. It's a completely new look at the Elizabethan Age, and at Elizabeth herself. Typically Elizabeth is portrayed as ballsier than Henry VIII, as soneone who always knew what she was doing and strategically wove her toils to a greater England.

But Philippa Gregory is someone who delights in looking at history froma new perspective. Take The Other Boleyn Girl ( a sad movie now) - where most writers have focussed on Anne Boleyn, this one focusses on Mary Boleyn, who was one of Henry's mistresses but who had either the sense, the lack of ambition or just the luck ( good or bad is a matter of perspective) to get away and build a happy life for herself far away from court.

Her book about Katherine of Aragon again propounds an unusual theory, that Katherine was in love with Arthur, Henry VIII's elder brother and that they had consummated the marriage but that because of a vow she made to Arthur on his deathbed, she lied and pretended to be a virgin for the benefit of England.

The Virgin's Lover focusses on the first few years immediately after Elizabeth came to the throne. Rather than have her be the superdiva of legend, Gregory portrays her as a lost, scared young girl who has neither the familiarity with royal power and pomp, nor the assurance of a steady crown. Lost in love and scared of the circumstances that crowd upon her soon after she comes to power, she is indecisive and almost looking for a master. That's when Robert Dudley steps into the picture, and then it's a story of the intrigue and the battle of wits between Cecil, her chief advisor who always has England's long term good at heart, the Queen who loves Robert but doesn't want to lose her crown, Robert Dudley who loves the Queen and power both, and poor Amy Robsart, Robert's ignored wife.

It's a whole new perspective on Elizabeth, and as believable as one that paints her as a diva. More, in some ways, given her genes - the daughter of passionate Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, and her life thus far as a sometimes ignored, sometimes imprisoned and 'deemed bastard' princess.

Crossposted at Juhubookclub.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Finally a book tag...

Here goes:
1) What author do you own the most books by?
Jean Plaidy

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
Chronicles of Narnia

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
Bulldog Drummond, William

5) What book have you read the most times in your life?
All by Richmal crompton, Biggles, Narnia Chronicles, the Hobbit, Bulldog Drummond, books by Jean Plaidy and Georgette Heyer, PG Wodehouse, Noel Streatfeild

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
dunno really but I suspect I have outgrown Mills and Boons...what a pity!

8)What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Digging to America by Anne Tyler
The reluctant fundamentalist

9) If you could force everyone to read one book, what would it be?
My book, so I can get the royalty :) (Just kidding!)

The Far Pavilions...

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature?
Me, if I can get off my A@# and start writing all the books I have planned out in my head! (Just kidding) ...
Iain Banks

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

Ballet Shoes; the hobbit

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
Dreamed that like Scarlett I didn't recognise the most important things in my life until I lost them. Thankfully not true!

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?
too many to remember :)

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

16) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

17) Austen or Eliot?

18) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
Indian authors - find most of them too bloody depressing

19) What is your favorite novel?
The Far Pavilions

20) Play?
Cats - love the TS Eliot poems

21) Short story?
Saki; O Henry

22) Work of non-fiction?
biographies; emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman

23) Who is your favorite writer?
No one writer... PG Wodehouse, Bill Bryson, Helen Fielding, J K Rowling, JRR Tolkein, Jerome K Jerome, Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare, TS Eliot, MM Kaye, Jean Plaidy, Enid Blyton, CS Lewis, Noel Streatfield, Richmal Crompton...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sarojini Naidu

Known as one of India's foremost women poets, part of India's freedom struggle, Sarojini Naidu has always intrigued me. A strong woman at a time when there were no role models to follow, she in some ways reminded me of my paternal aunts, who were extremely strong and independent women. I remember way back in school we had one of her poems as part of the subject matter. Those were the days when at school you wouldn't discuss the poems you read or analyse them - oh, no the goal was just to memorise them and be able, in an exam paper, to fill in blank verses from the poem correctly.

But this particular poem always stayed in my mind, as much for the lilt and the rhythm as for the imagery - so delicate, so intricate and so vivid. You can almost see the palanquin swaying to the tune as the palanquin bearers sing this song:

Palanquin Bearers

Lightly, O lightly we bear her along,
She sways like a flower in the wind of our song;
She skims like a bird on the foam of a stream,
She floats like a laugh from the lips of a dream.
Gaily, O gaily we glide and we sing,
We bear her along like a pearl on a string.

Softly, O softly we bear her along,
She hangs like a star in the dew of our song;
She springs like a beam on the brow of the tide,
She falls like a tear from the eyes of a bride.
Lightly, O lightly we glide and we sing,
We bear her along like a pearl on a string.