Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Title: The Twentieth Wife
Author: Indu Sundaresan
Publisher: Penguin 
Pages: 388
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

‘The Twentieth Wife’ is the first one from Indu Sundaresan’s Taj trilogy, though I read it after reading ‘The feast of roses’ which is the second one. There are three books in this series about Mughal empire but each can be read independently. But be rest assured, if you have read any one of them, you would invariably end up reading all of them. (By the way, the third one is called 'Shadow Princess')

I have always felt that writing a historical fiction can be very difficult, since you are dealing with historical characters and facts. You can fictionalize the interactions but you need to stick to the facts. The research required is also immense.

What drew me to this series is the love story of Jahangir and Nur Jahan. We have all heard enough about Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal, but little is known about Mumtaz’s more ambitious and powerful aunt Nur Jahan who defies convention and prevailing status of women in the society, to rule the empire alongside her husband Jahangir, of course, from behind the veil.

‘The Twentieth Wife’ begins at the time when Mehrunnisa was about to be born. Her parents and siblings were fleeing from Persia to India. She takes birth during the journey. From that moment, the penniless family’s fate turns and Mehrunnisa’s father Ghias Beg lands up with a job in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Mehrunnisa first encounters prince Salim (later known as Jahangir) when she is all of eight, when she accompanies her mother for the prince’s first marriage. Overawed by the glory of the palace, the freedom enjoyed by women of emperor’s harem, and captivated by the prince himself, Mehrunnisa decides that one day she too would marry prince Salim.

The book is about this unconventional and extraordinary woman, Mehrunnisa, but the book goes beyond her quest to become an empress. It offers glimpses of Mughal dynasty and conflicts around the throne. Encouraged by his cohorts, prince Salim revolts against his father Akbar to claim his rights on the throne. Ironically, he also finds his son Khusrau in contention for the throne.

Due to the turn of fate, Mehrunnisa is married to Ali Quli, a soldier, despite the fact that Salim wanted to marry her. The story has its cinematic twists, with Mehrunnisa and Jahangir separating for several years, and then reuniting after death of her first husband. On one hand, Jahangir is besotted with her; while on the other, Ali Quli though initially impressed by her beauty, never thinks much of her. Being a soldier, he is usually absent for several days.

It is also interesting to note that an emperor used to have hundreds of wives and thousands of concubines and slave girls in his harem. The marriages were usually for political and strategic reasons. Mughal emperors had also married Hindu princesses. The zanana harems were in itself a fascinating place of power play amongst the incumbents. The emperors would have several children and many times they would not even get to know or see their children for a long time. Their inter-personal relationships are quite apparent in the conflicts for the empire, where father-son would consider each other as rivals.

The book also has a passing reference of Salim and Anarkali affair. Anarkali was supposedly a slave girl.

In a society, and in times, when women were lost into ignominy in a male-dominated society, Mehrunnisa enters Jahangir’s harem at an age of 34 years as his 20th and last wife. This ambitious lady grows in power and influences Jahangir’s rule significantly. Though in her determination to fulfill her dreams, she often comes across as haughty, manipulative and extremely ambitious.

Historical love stories are always alluring, and Indu Sundaresan’s deft handling of this little known love story makes it a very interesting read. The author succeeds in recreating the essence of Mughal era through her vivid description of prevailing culture, ambience, customs, food, etc.  

The book is interesting and will appeal to anybody who loves a good historical fiction, or even just a good book!

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Braking News by Sunetra Choudhury

Title: Braking News
Author: Sunetra Choudhury
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 310
Genre: Non Fiction / Politics / Travel
Rating: 10 out of 10

I first read a review of this book in Outlook. I had recently discovered the world of travel writing and was completely charmed by this genre. I wanted to explore books on India, and then I came across this book. The introduction was quite interesting – 1 Bus, 2 Girls, 15 Thousand Kilometres, 715 Million Votes!!!

‘Braking News’ is a first person account by NDTV’s Sunetra Choudhury of her experience while touring across States during General Elections in 2009 with fellow NDTV reporter Naghma Sahar, cameramen, drivers and an engineer. They were on the road for 2 months with a luxury bus called ‘NDTV Election Bus’ covering places like Dausa, Agra, Gwalior to Shivpuri in MP, Jhansi in UP, Udaipur, Nashik, Daman, Baramati, Goa, Jamshedpur, Bhubaneshwar, to name a few. Their task was to get the pulse of the voters before Elections and transmit a half an hour show live everyday.

First of all, I loved the cover. It sets the mood for the book, which itself is thoroughly entertaining but equally capable in throwing insights into the minds of the voters across regions. Writing is breezy, candid and witty. Though a work of non-fiction, the book is absolutely unputdownable. I finished it in one day.

I have always been in awe of reporters and I have always wondered about the unusual lives that they choose for themselves. In crisis situations, when everyone runs out, they have to go in and report for the benefit of the masses. Add to that the challenges of bringing news that is of importance and interest to common people, and add to that the task of looking at the news and issues in a way that they offer new perspectives to the readers / viewers.

Prior to this, I had read ‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiana’ by Pankaj Mishra. It was all about small towns in India, its people, their idiosyncrasies and their lives in general. When I read about ‘Braking News’, what piqued my interest was that here was a lady journalist on a bus for 2 months, expected to cover the interiors of India. We all know what kind of adventure or misadventure such a journey has the potential to become. Hats off to the journalists who make this happen.

Quite frankly, I have not enjoyed any book so much lately. Though the aim of the bus was to get the pulse of people in places which were going to Elections (in 2009) yet the book does not dwell too much into offering political insights or highlight grassroot issues. This book is more like a diary of a woman who takes on the challenge of planning such a journey, her experiences along the way (some good, some bad), how she raises to the occasion with her team and how they all make it happen. Of course, we get enough glimpses of the ground level issues of Indian voters.

What I really liked is that despite the fact that largely the issues across India remain common like electricity, water, better opportunities and development; yet Sunetra brings out unique observations and perspectives from all these locations and people who she meets. For e.g., we get to know about this dam which keeps getting inaugurated but hasn’t been completed in 34 years, there is a boy in Jharkhand who can speak in 6 Indian languages but what he really wants is to be able to speak in English, a village which has no electricity but they have found innovative ways of watching TV, 11 year old boy in a village who speaks English, a village which is just 10 kms from th city and yet several years away from development, and then there are queens, filmstars and politicians. Everything is woven beautifully and presented in a sharp yet entertaining way.

I will recommend it to everyone. Election, Voters, Politics are the buzz words here, but trust me, it is anything but a serious book. The author shares a charming account of her life-changing journey, more at a personal level, without marginalizing the issues that she highlights along the way.  

(Image source: Amazon)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rich Like Us by Nayantara Sahgal

Title: Rich Like Us
Author: Nayantara Sahgal
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 301
Genre: Political fiction
Rating: 7 out of 10

Set in New Delhi, ‘Rich Like Us’ by Nayantara Sahgal traces the story of 2 women – Sonali & Rose – against the backdrop of Emergency. The story also travels into past, briefly touching upon several issues like social injustice, after-effects of Partition, practice of Sati, plight of lower classes, etc.

Rose, a British national, finds herself in an affair with an Indian businessman Ram, who she later finds out, is married and had a toddler son. Nevertheless, she decides to follow him to India; and spend the rest of her life as his second wife sharing the household with his first wife Mona. Along the way, she gets close to Mona and also wins over Ram’s father Lalaji. Mona and Ram’s son is Dev. When Ram suffers a stroke and lies comatose on his bed, Rose realizes she does not have much right on his property in the absence of a Will. Dev siphons out money from Rose and Ram’s joint account by forging Ram’s signature. She turns to Sonali for help.

Dev, on the other hand, has been much spoilt by both his parents while growing up. He and his wife Nishi live in the same house as Rose and Ram. He is not interested in furthering his father’s business, and engages himself in finding favors from the Prime Minister’s son. Through him, the story dwells into corruption and nepotism that was so rampant during Emergency. We also get glimpses of how people were piled up inside jail for no apparent reason during that black period of Indian democracy.

Sonali is a highly educated civil servant, who faces sudden transfer and fall in ranks as a result of political upheaval. Sonali, a pride of her father, also a civil servant, falls in love with her childhood friend Ravi Kachru, when both were studying at Oxford. But due to differences in opinion and beliefs, they decide to go their separate ways. Both go on to become civil servants, but Sonali finds Ravi moving up the ladder by supporting the kind of autocracy, he so despised.

Politics is the central running theme in this novel. Though worked around an interesting premise, the story does not match upto its promise (atleast for me). The narrative jumps from one character to another, and from past to present in a manner, which is far from smooth.
This book touches upon many issues – the lives of upper class during British rule, the accumulation of wealth, injustice to the poor, the sufferings of lower class during Partition, the role of women over the years, political situation, Indian family values, patriarchal society, the injustice meted out to people during Emergency, and so many others.

I picked up this book anticipating a story woven around the period of Emergency, which our generation has only heard about. Well, it does; but in its attempt to accommodate much wider and complex issues, it keeps losing pace, and it becomes a struggle to establish connect in the proceeding storyline.

It is not a bad book but it lacks a pull in the story that draws readers into the storyline, which I think is expected from any good fiction. But one may explore this book to get a glimpse of that era and what issues enveloped the society during that time. 

(Image source: Wikipedia)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Deaf Heaven by Pinki Virani

Title: Deaf Heaven
Author: Pinki Virani
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 283
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 out of 10

After reading such remarkable non-fiction work by Pinki Virani - ‘Aruna’s story’ and ‘Bitter Chocolate’, her first attempt at fiction looked promising. Usually a 280-page novel is not a big deal for me, but completing this book was particularly taxing.

‘Deaf Heaven’ is a typical roman a clef where in a novel describes real life and real life instances, behind the guise of fiction. The book acts like an unorganized and a poor compilation of numerous unrelated characters and myriad issues together.

Saraswati, a librarian with cleft lip, is the narrator of this bizarre story where completely unconnected characters are brought together through her. She is lying dead in a library and till the time her body is discovered, her spirit is free to move around and eavesdrop into the lives of people. I could not find any relevance of Saraswati’s character to the story. All the pages which go on to build this character seem as irrelevant as the rest of the book. There are too many characters, their conversations banal and their stories commonplace. The book is just an anthology of everyday facts, popular newspaper stories which we already know. There is no new wisdom.

I also had a problem with the language. It has too much of colloquialism, under the pretext of keeping the essence alive. This is exactly the reason why I steer clear of dime-a-dozen novels in the market written by just about anybody. It is beyond my comprehension why spoken language, even what I call sms language with short-forms like ‘princi’ for principal and ‘hols’ for holiday, has come to be accepted in mainstream writing and publishing. For me, a book is worth my time only if it makes a difference, to my thought process, to my vocabulary or atleast inspires introspection. Literature is worthwhile when it makes you fall in love with the language and its expression.

I struggled with the book throughout, failing to understand the objective of this book. It just keeps jumping from one issue to another without structure or relevance. So from bollywood’s scoop section to 26th July Mumbai floods, from Bhopal gas tragedy to tribal conversions for political mileage, from ecological disturbances to Mumbai train blasts; it has every particular contemporary issue of today, juxtaposed to make no sense at all. Sometimes, the narration just runs into pages like a never-ending essay, and that too largely is opinion rather than any story-telling.  

My words of caution: please do yourself a favour – avoid it. 

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Friday, April 1, 2011

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Title: My Sister’s Keeper
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Hachette India
Pages: 407
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 8 out of 10

I saw the movie first. I loved it. And therefore, I decided that I had to read the book because a little surfing informed me that the book is slightly different from the movie, and the fact remains that a book is almost always better than the movie. A book is a written word, open to interpretations by the reader, while a movie is essentially an interpretation.

I had no trouble soaking in this 400-pages book, it was pretty unputdownable. I finished it in 3 days. The chapters have been segregated in the perspective of individual characters. The book is about a family of five – Brian (father), Sara (mother), Jesse (the eldest son), Kate (the daughter) and Anna (the youngest daughter). Brian is a fire-fighter and an amateur astronomer while his wife, Sara is a homemaker and an ex-lawyer. Jesse is the first born of the family but surprisingly the life of this family revolves around Kate, the middle one, who is diagnosed with leukemia when she is two (while Jesse is four). The youngest one, Anna was conceived with the help of a geneticist to be a perfect match as a donor for Kate.

My Sister’s Keeper is a sensitive story about
·         Anna: Who always knew the reason why she was born and every now and then she finds herself wondering about how different her life had been if she had born into a normal family! Anna acts as a donor again and again for Kate, since the time she takes birth, like when Kate needs leukocytes or stem cells or bone marrow, till the time it is required for her to donate one of her kidneys to Kate. Anna finds herself in this neverending loop, which has clawed into her life so much that she does not see herself ever being able to disentangle and move on. Anna sues her parents for medical emancipation with the help of lawyer Campbell Alexander, for the rights to her own body. She does not want to live a half life, wherein she would have to give up hockey, may have pregnancy related complications and may never be able to leave Kate’s sides, in the wake of when the latter might need her for something.
·         Sara: Who, you would almost feel, that along the way forgets being a mother to Anna and Jesse, as much as she is to Kate. You would sometimes find yourself accusing her for compromising the lives of her other 2 children in her quest to keep Kate alive, no matter what. As she explains towards the end of the book, her only motive has been to keep the family intact, because she was not looking at choosing one of her daughters to live but for both of them. Sara is completely convinced that Anna may not be able to appreciate it at present, but she would when she grows older.  
·         Brian: Who is not as assertive as his wife. He does not take sides – he understands where his wife is coming from and also respects Anna’s decision to assert her rights on her body.
·         Jesse: Who is a lost case for the family. The saddest part is that though the parents are aware about him getting into trouble, they have completely given up on him. They don’t even seem to try to get him back. It sometimes feel weird that Sara is so sucked into her zest to save Kate that she completely forgets about her first born. Aren’t the first borns, a little more special, because one experiences the joys of parenthood for the first time? In this case, it does not seem to be the case. Jesse does not seem particularly close to either of his parents.
·         Kate: Who fights for her life from leukemia since the tender age of two. She has never known a normal childhood, joking about her death every once in a while. Now at the age of sixteen, she again finds herself accosted by death, wherein even if Anna donates one kidney to her, it does not mean that she would live.

It is a captivating story. As you move along, you would tend to judge Sara and also Anna, but eventually, for the family who is in the crisis, there are no right answers. They just do what they find the best because nobody is wrong. I did find the ending a little surprising but even I don’t know what other ending I was expecting or would have been justified.

The language is mesmerizing and effortless. There are numerous moments which are truly heart-rendering, and ultimately, it is a fascinating story and very well-written. 

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