Books

The Fergie Review of Books

We got a dog about nine months ago, a labrador we have named Fergie. She, among other things, has a unique appetite for books. I say this because paper doesn’t evoke consistent reactions from her. Sometimes she ignores it, sometimes, she’ll jump on you, pushing her paws on your legs to grab whatever you’re reading with her mouth and rip it to shreds (Chennai Times has consistently been at the receiving end of this), and sometimes she’ll take your book and scurry to her favourite spot in the living room, the divan, and leisurely have a go at the pages. Her choices in book destruction have made me believe that she’s a dog with great literary taste. Here are some of her recommendations:
 
Stephen King: On Writing
Stephen King’s indispensable and part autobiographical guide on writing, and writing well is a book you must read if you are a writer, or at least want to be a writer. Did I pick this book up because I have a writer inside me, or did I pick it up because of a fellow dog on the cover? I guess you’ll never know.
Vinod Mehta: Editor Unplugged
The first book I got my mouth on is Vinod Mehta’s Editor Unplugged, which offers an informative and hilarious account of the life of one of India’s greatest editors. I got through this with such enthusiasm that the humans at home had to buy a second copy to find out what the fuss was about.
Kazuo Ishiguro: Remains of The Day
Before I got to this book, I honestly had no idea that I had a taste for Booker Winners. All you need to know about how much I enjoyed Remains Of The Day is to see the remains of this book. The person typing this can’t say anything about the book though, because she didn’t get to read it. I wonder why.
Annie Zaidi: Love Stories #1 to #14
I love cheese, I’ve recently started loving sweet potatoes, I love yoghurt, but you know what I’ve always loved? Love. That’s why I loved this book full of love stories that are varied, and heavy with emotion. I also love that Annie was nice enough to autograph this for me. Thanks Annie. Have to say, you’ve pretty excellent taste, too.
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{More Fergie Reviews as and when she destroys reads more books}

 

 

The Scion of Ikshvaku – II

(I live-blogged reading the book’s first 4 chapters here)In what feels like one of the greatest feats I have accomplished since clearing my Chartered Accountancy and learning to cook without calling a fire engine, I have read, nay, finished reading the Scion of Ikshvaku. It took a lot of willpower to plough through this book – will power I didn’t know I possessed.

There is no doubt that this book is terrible, but I would still urge you to read it because it is one of those so bad that it’s good type of books – the entire time you’re reading the book, you will struggle between choosing to turn the page or rip the book in two, and the former will win if you paid Rs.350/- for it, or are reading it in an expensive device. Here are the times when I felt like ripping it up but didn’t –

 

  • In my previous post, I had I had said a lot about how it was 1700000 BC, etc. That was a mistake, because the according to the book’s timeline, the story is based in 3400 B.C – (roughly) around the same time the Indus Valley Civilization was shaping up, and it is in this period that are mentions of rotor blades, of surgical procedures, and most notably, India, right in the first few chapters. If you thought this was bad, it gets worse. We get to read about ayuralays that have freakin’ lobbies, policemen, courtrooms, and judges who interpret “clauses of the laws”, scientific experiments, glass and metal, diplomatic offices, and existential crises, and biological warfare. BIOLOGICAL WARFARE! Dei, wheel only was invented 600 years ago da! And you are already on to biological warfare! Vitta you’ll bring in the U.S Army and President Bush also.
  • It is evident that Ram is not the favourite of Dashrath because as far as he’s concerned, the newborn was the reason he lost the battle – to the point where all the nobility refer to him as “the taint of 7,032” (I was disappointed by this actually. Only “taint of 7,032?” No Ayodhyan news crier asking him if he feels responsible and that the nation wants to know?)
  • 3 year old Lakshman has a lisp. It’s quite adorable if it weren’t for the fact that he lithpth in englith throughout the thapter. Like how’th that even poththible.
  • Bharat’s serial dating. “This is his fifth girlfriend” muses Ram at the beginning of Chapter 7. Fifth girlfriend. I mean what is this? Keeping up with the Ikshvakus?
  • The part of the book which frustrated me the most was in the 6th chapter – the princes are in their gurukul with Vashishta, where they discuss the origins of civilization. Shatrughnan, in 3400 BC, tells us about the origins of civilization, and about the Vedic people of this yug (who probably practised #yog).

“The Ice Age is not a theory. It is a fact”
“Yes Guruji,” said Shatrughnan. “Since sea levels were a lot lower, the Indian landmass extended a lot farther into the sea. The island of Lanka, the demon-king Raavan’s kingdom, was joined to the Indian landmass. Gujarat and Konkan also reached out into the sea” …..”Two great civilizations existed in India during the Ice Age. One in south eastern India called the Sangamtamil, which included a small portion of the Lankan landmass, along with large tracts of land that are now underwater. The course of the river Kaveri was much broader and longer at the time. This rich and powerful empire was ruled by the Pandya dynasty.”
“And?”
“The other civilization, Dwarka, spread across large parts of the landmass, off the coast of Modern Gujarat and Konkan. It now lies submerged. It was ruled by the Yadav dynasty, the descendants of Yadu”
“Carry on”
“Sea levels rose dramatically at the end of the Ice Age. The Sangamtamils and Dwarka civilizations were destroyed, their heartland now lying under the sea. The survivors, led by Lord Manu, the father of our nation, escaped up north and began life once again. They called themselves the people of vidya, knowledge; the Vedic people. We are their proud descendants.”

 

    •  Shatrughnan talks about Gujarat and Konkan. GUJARAT AND KONKAN. Whether he also drew their borders on India Outline map as part of geography test? (There are also mentions of Kathmandu and Egypt further down in the book)
    • Sangamtamil. Ada paavigala! Naanga dhaan kadachoma? A little back history: The Sangam age began in 6th Century BC, but let’s not forget the fact that there ARE mentions of the Chola/Pandya kings in the epics, most notably in the Mahabharata.When you set a story in a certain period, you are obligated to stay true to that period – I’m not saying that books have to be like amazingly perfect in terms of history, but the ridiculousness in this just unbearable. Point being: Feel free to make up fictional kingdoms! Why not just Tamils? Or the Dravidians? Altering or making fiction out of real history (unless it is a very specific story which set in that age, the first example that comes to mind is Wolf Hall), and in a scale like this, is just irresponsible.
    • Pandyas were destroyed before the onset of the Ikshvaku dynasty it seems. If Nedunchezhiyan knew about this, he would rise from his grave and give this book a 0 rating on Amazon along with a ‘not satisfied wat a disappointment, plz don’t buy ths book…s crap’ review.
    • Dwarka – I am fairly certain that the last Yadav emperor per the timeline that this book is following is Sharad Yadav.
  • Apart from history-geography kodumai that is prevalent through the book, Ram, Lakshman and Dashrath use words like “Dammit”, “Why the hell?”, “Wow!”, and most notably, “Touché” (French. They speak FRENCH!) quite liberally.
  • There’s even a retelling of the 2012 rape case in the book – a well loved female character is violated and her naked body is strewn in public. The entire city is furious and rises to protest for justice, only for the courts to tell them that since the perpetrator is a minor, he will not be executed. This is, however, the only ‘modern’ incident in this book. I’m hoping the second book will have an incident ‘inspired’ by 2002/1984, and the third, Auschwitz.

 

  • There’s also this line from the book where Manthara tells Kaikeyi that she could use her two boons since the Raghu clan would never go back on their word. She says, Raghukul reet sadaa chali aayi, pran jaaye par vachan na jaaye. My knowledge of hindi may be limited but I AM SURE that this was where the dialogue was taken from.

  • Separating the book from everything that I’ve written above – the style of writing, the history, everything. If you were to forgive everything and strip it down to the message – it just feels like one long sermon that the author wants to give us about how the ideal modern Indian society should be, right from the futility of religion based fighting (God is one! Satyam Ekam!) to respecting the laws of the land (the ‘rape’).
  • Throughout the time I read this book, I would insist that my husband would listen to my dramatic readings of particularly awful paragraphs. Once I finished the book and listed everything that I’ve listed here, the lawyer that I live with took it upon himself to defend the author to the best of his abilities. The language is what the bulk of readers understand, he said. It is what is accessible. Maybe Amish, now that he is an author with mass reach, felt like he needed to use his readership base to convey a larger message for greater good.
I promised myself I wouldn’t use a gif in this post, but here it is.
  • We did ponder, however, about how so many people were raving about this book. How? Where were the 0 star reviews? We took it upon ourselves to scour through reviews on the internet. When I found that around 50 odd people had given it a ‘1’ star review, I was ecstatic. Look! I told S. Discerning readers! Turns out, the 1 star reviews were consistently for this reason:
If you are an aspiring novelist, in India, from India, looking to write a good book for India, I suggest you pack your bags and head for the hills.

 

Liveblogging The Scion Of Ikshvaku – I

So I bought into the hype and purchased a copy of The Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish the previous day. I had skipped his Meluha series (simply because there was so much attention around it) and so I actually had no impression about his writing, other than that it was hugely popular. I started reading it this morning, and it wasn’t the most pleasant of experiences – I ended up sitting down on my desk with a pencil and started circling and underlining sentences and passages. I gave it the benefit of doubt for about 1 more chapter after which I had SO many thoughts that I felt that I should actually live-blog reading it. This book has 30 chapters, so I’m going to divide this into 6 posts of 5 chapters each – assuming ofcourse, that I actually finish it. So here goes! (keep refreshing the page for updates)

Chapter 1
The book begins with Rama trying to shoot something and the generic descriptions of his lean-ness, tall-ness, etc.

“It’s moving Dada” whispered Lakshman to his elder brother.

While I understand the need to italicise Dada in order to highlight Lakshman’s secret bong-ness, I don’t understand why “his elder brother” is highlighted. What is the special emphasis for? I’ve this habit of reading italicized text in Kamal Hassan’s voice so this is just making the book unnecessarily dramatic for me.

Ram however, doesn’t seem to be too concerned about Lakshman’s loud whispering and is more concerned about releasing the arrow. Ram of course, kills the deer a whopping 4 paragraphs later despite Lakshman’s constant whispering in his ear and after making some vital adjustments to his interfering angavastram (did you read it in Kamal’s voice too?), which, as a frequent saree wearer, I can relate to.

Ram and Lakshman then go to the dead deer and profusely apologise ancient apologies and pray that it’s soul will find purpose. I’m fairly certain that that dead deer’s soul, upon hearing this, would’ve been like othadei


Anyway Ram and Lakshman are walking back talking about how there is some conspiracy that is afoot and Lakshman is fairly convinced that Bharat has something do with it but Ram’s like Lakshman! and if this was a tamil serial they’d be alternating between their shocked and defiant faces with a guy wailing in the background but it’s not.

Now there is a mention of Jatayu, who Lakshman refers to as Vulture Man because of his big nose and bald head. So apparently Jatayu is a Naga, a class of people who are “born with deformities” and were ostracised in Sapt Sindhu, the Land of the Seven Rivers. This is all wrong, because per Hindu mythology, Jatayu, is the son  nephew (thanks @kskarun!) of Garuda (the Eagle), who happened to be the greatest enemy of the Nagas. Calling Jatayu a Naga is one thing, BUT OSTRACIZING A RACE BECAUSE THEY HAD LARGE NOSES? OH THE HUMANITY!

Ok this is getting better. Ram and Lakshman are minutes away from their camp when they hear it.

A forceful scream!

A forceful scream. A FORCEFUL SCREAM – which begs the question: what the hell is a forceful scream? What is this scream forcing you to do?

The  distance made faint her frantic struggle. But it was clearly Sita. She was calling out to her husband. 

“…Raaam!”

“…Sitaaaaa!”

This is a slightly condensed version of the paragraph but I could read this part a 100 times and never stop feeling amused.

So Ram and Lakshman are running and Sita is screaming and it’s all very dramatic, when:

“They heard the loud whump, whump, whump of Rotor Blades….This was Raavan’s legendary Pushpak Vimaan, his flying vehicle

ROTOR BLADES. ROTOR BLADES. This isn’t the Pushpak Vimaan (which could actually be a great brand name for men’s underwear. Pushpak Vimaan Baniyans and Jattis. Pushpak Vimaan, Saare Jahaan. Sounds good), it’s the fucking Marine One or something. ROTOR BLADES. Excuse me. I need a minute.

So after Ram’s seen the Lanka One take off with Sita, he spots a wounded Jatayu, who is very helpful in giving him this key piece of information “Raavan’s…kidnapped…her” before he drops dead.

“SITAAAA”

The chapter ends thus. Normally I would stop reading here, but today I am in the mood to soldier on.



Chapter 2
The book is going back 33 years to the Port of Karachapa in the Western Sea to a pretty intense flashback. Dashrath (pronounced “Dash-rat”) is offering prayers to Parshu Ram for a victorious campaign. There is a bit of backstory about how he made the empire more prosperous and had become “Chakravarti Samrat, or the Universal Emperor” (I hope you’re reading it in Kamal Hassan’s voice as well).
Anyway, so the kingdom is in pretty deep shit with the wars and everything because Dashrath is an elitist Kshatriya Douchenugget who has no regard for the trading class despite reaping huge profits from the “Trader King”, Kubaer (this guy really needs a primer on how to use vowels efficiently).

So Kubaer got a little tired of Dashrath’s shitty behaviour and did some cost cutting, thereby cutting a portion of the commission which King D believed was his. Shots were fired (I’m just using a popular phrase here, but given this book and the rotor blade incident I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the soldiers had a 17000000 BC Machine gun) and now Dashrath is ready to get into war and teach him a lesson despite petty concerns like his resources which have been stretched out immensely and the fact that the treasury has no money.

“Apparently, My Lord, ” said Mrigasya, “it is not Kubaer who is calling the shots”

Ok so I totally (almost) predicted this. Ofcourse Kubaer isn’t calling the shots, because it is 17000000 BC and movies weren’t invented then and therefore neither were directors, the men who directed the scenes and literally “called the shot” which is from where this phrase is derived. {edit! So I did some snooping and apparently this phrase was derived from this game called “Curling” in Scotland which was played in the 1500s. For what it’s worth, the usage is still BS} But according to the author, Kubaer isn’t calling the shots because his “head of trading security force” is.

*dramatic pause*

“His name is Raavan” 

So the book now briefly moves to Kosala, where there is some history about Dashrath’s 3 wives and about how Kausalya is about to go into labour (“it appeared to be the real thing”). Thankfully the paragraph ends soon after, and we are back at the war scene.

Dashrath and Kubaer (“the fabulously wealthy trader”) are trying to negotiate for peace one last time, but Fab-K, though nervous, doesn’t back down and cites decreasing trade margins as a reason for the cuts. Dashrath tries to make him see reason with some impeccable logic, such as:

“I am not a trader! I am an emperor! Civilized people understand that difference”  

This unsuccessful meeting ends with Dashrath yelling some more, only for Raavan (with his “rippling musculature” and other such 50 shades of Grey type qualities) to openly smirk at Dashrath and tell him that he will be defeated by the Lankan armies.

“I assure you, I’ll be waiting,” said Jagdish Raavan

The rest of the chapter is essentially Dashrath screaming to Kaikeyi while she feeds him roti.

Chapter 3
Only two more and we can all go to bed! Kausalya is having trouble giving birth because instead of focussing on pushing the baby out all she can think about is how King D totes ignores her all the time now.

“All she desired was a fraction of the time and attenion that Dashrath lavished on his favourite wife, Kaikeyi”

Oh but it gets better.

“She soldiered on determinedly, refusing the doctor permission to perform a surgical procedure to extract the baby from her womb”

The only thing that is missing now from the scene is Venniradai Moorthy going “Nurse, sub-zero solution”.

Kausalya continues to devote her energy to doing everything except pushing the baby out. Now she’s thinking about the name, and decides that he will be named after The Sixth Vishnu, followed by some explanation about how Vishnu isn’t a god, but a title etc. Whatevs. She decides on Ram.

Cut to Kind Doucherath who is taking on “Kubaer’s eunuch forces” (seriously?). After great deliberation and strategising, he chooses suchivyuha, which is actually the same formation which I remember watching in 300, except there’s no rock around them and they’re on a beach and surrounded by ships and a fort which house impeccable archers who shoot arrows left right and centre. Dashrath gets stabbed and falls, but only after about 7 paragraphs of him going on in capslock.

Kaikeyi decides that it’s up to her to save her husband now and charges on to the field to retrieve her husband. She gets pretty pissed on the way too.

“Damn you, Lord Surya!”

Damn you, Lord Surya. Damn you. Damn.

She does manage to save her husband – although she does get injured by an arrow because she thought the soldier would be chivalrous and let her pass (with a cup or three of tea maybe). Yay!

We’re back at Kosala now. Kausalya has delivered a boy! A boy who was born exactly at midday – which brings a bit of a conundrum because according to their astrologer, a boy born before midday would be remembered as the greatest in history, and a boy born after midday would suffer great personal misfortune. “Are you sure he was born exactly at midday?” the astrologer asks. Yes, I checked it on my Casio Digital watch with calibrated time sensors”, said the doctor. [Not a line in the book, but should be].

Chapter 4
Sage Vashishta, the royal sage of Ayodhya rolls in to town. Some gandalf like descriptions follow. We find out that after the war, Ayodhya has, predictably, fallen into penury, but hasn’t lost power because it’s subordinates are even weaker. Then we get to hear some history – but not just any ordinary history, the history of creation itself, and how the Ayodhyans (not to be confused with Anirudhians) viewed themselves. This is some amazing shit.

“It was believed that at the centre of the universe of this primeval ocean, billions of years ago, the universe was born when The One, Ekam, split into a great big bang, thus activating the cycle of creation…..the One God, Ekam, popularly known in modern times as Brahman or Paramatma

Modern times, guys. Modern times. Anyway, after more boring history about the once great Ayodhya, Vashista takes some time to look at the Braavos style statues in the entrance of the city, which is of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, but Amish has really put in some effort in ensuring that we will never be able to figure out if they are Gods or if they are men. Mahadev is a title, as is Vishnu, and Brahma is “one of the greatest scientists ever”.

I am, in honesty, ok with this, because the paragraphs that follow in this chapter make the previous chapters seem like they were written by Rushdie. So Vashishta offers prayers to the trinity because he is about to start a rebellion. They are amazing prayers, after which he takes some soil from the ground and slaps it on his forehead, Yejaman Rajni style.

“This soil is worth more than my life to me. I love my country. I love my India”

This is all very patriotic and amazing EXCEPT IT’S A RETELLING OF THE RAMAYANA AND THIS IS VASHISHTA AND HOW THE FUCK CAN HE LOVE INDIA HOW THE FUCK CAN HE EVEN SAY IT’S INDIA IT’S FUCKING 1700000 BC I AM SORRY I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE.

“A small group of people walked solemnly in the distance, wearing robes of blue, the holy colour of the divine”

The absurdity doesn’t stop. It just doesn’t stop. Robes! Ayodhya had holy people who wore robes! Wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mention of the Ayodhyan Pope next.

Now we find out that Dashrath has 4 sons in all now, apart from Ram, and that Vashishta has his eyes set on Ram and Bharat because one of them would help him fulfill his mission. Vashishta then draws his ancient scabbard which has been inscribed with the words Parshu Ram in “an ancient script”, but looks suspiciously like emoji. The chapter ends with Vashishta taking a blood oath to “make his rebellion succeed, or die trying.”

#Thoo

If only I had taken a brain oath to avoid this book.

30th June 2015, 10.30 PM: That’s all from me for today, friends! I know I had said I would blog 5 chapters, but surviving 4 was hard enough. I’ll be back tomorrow if you guys want the liveblog, that is. Let me know if you do!

2014 in Review

Another year is upon us! As it is with every new year that sneaks upon us every December, I hate it already. I was very sure that 2014 would be crappy, but looking back, it wasn’t as crappy as I had initially expected it to be. Here is a personal roundup –

1. I used a planner for the whole year – I’ve been buying a planner every year the last five years but 2014 was the first year where I actually used it to plan my day as opposed to my usual ritual of writing one sentence and then using it for bookshelf beautification. I think the key to like, really making the most of your planner is by using it purely on a day to day basis. Don’t waste time on filling out birthdays in the “Months” section because it’s 2014, and we’ve all got facebook for that.

2. I learned to be more ambitious…and more open to failure – Failure and me, we’re like those two people who aren’t really friends, but have like 3571 mutual friends and keep commenting and annoying each other on our common friend’s wall posts. We don’t know each other, but we know each other, you know what I mean – the dude is always lurking. This year, I finally sent out that friend request. I started a lot of projects this year, some were great, some were O-K and some, I don’t even know what I was thinking. But all of them, I started with the knowledge that it was TOTALLY OK if it bombed. That really gave me the freedom to go all out and enjoy myself doing those projects and yes, I didn’t do as well as I would’ve liked, but I had fun, I learned a little more about myself and it’s all so much better when failure is a friend. I do not, however, recommend this “friending failure” approach where academics and exams are concerned.


3. I made an effort – So 2014 wasn’t really the greatest year where my friendships were concerned. I had always been lazy in that department, but this year a few things happened where I really was affected to the point where I had to totally rethink the way I created my friendships, and how I maintained them. I started from scratch again, did some spring cleaning for the old, neglected ones, and went out and actively built new ones. I honestly am happier now for the effort that I made. Looking back, I’d like to think of the stuff that went down the drain as the hair that you lose when you shower – it wasn’t strong enough to begin with, and I know that you’re attached to your hair and all, but it’ll be gross if you go try pick it up and put it back, and it’s just hair anyway, it’ll grow back newer, and maybe even better. Analogy mairaatam irundhaalum feeling-a please purinjukonga*.


4. Marriage can be awesome if you’re lucky – I think this is the year where I really felt like damn, so this is what it feels like to be married. Marriage is awesome though. I mean, we are polar opposites, my husband and I, and yet we are having plenty of fun. What annoys me though, is when people expect me to wax eloquent of Arranged Marriage. Every time I/we maintain that I/we got lucky (which I/we did), people get really disappointed, like those old Chinese Men with the long mustaches in the Martial Arts movies because I/we failed to defend Arranged Marriage’s honour. “But you two had an arranged marriage” they say, “and you two are happy!” We are. We really are. But we also know that Marriage (arranged or otherwise) is kind of like jumping into the sea from the Titanic. Sometimes you get the lifeboat manned by an experienced boatman, sometimes, you’re left in the freezing water with someone who’s on a wooden plank that’s big enough for the both of you and yet won’t let you on it while holding on to your hand and claiming to love you all the same.

I’m full of analogies today.

5. I READ MORE BOOKS – I read 20 books this year out of the 24 I had aimed, and that, for me, was the least crappy thing about 2014.


So that was my year. How was yours? Awesome? Crappy? Non-crappy? Just Ok? Here’s hoping 2015 is better 🙂

HAPPYY NEW YEARRRR 

* – Sorry, but I can’t translate this. 

Farmer Falgu Goes To The Market – A Review

Some time ago, the very wonderful Chitra Sounder posed a question on twitter – would anyone be interested in reviewing a Children’s Book, she asked. I volunteered to review, because I like books, and more importantly, I much prefer children’s writing to their grown-up counterparts or any other genre for that matter. There are two reasons why – the first being that the writing, I’ve found, is consistently better, and the second, is that I’m still denial about my own age. Adulthood really doesn’t appeal to me.

ANYWAY, Farmer Falgu Goes To The Market is a lovely little book for the little one you know, or have. I would peg the appropriate age group for this book to be the 5-8 category (although I’ve actually no idea with respect to which age group the publishers have targeted), because I personally felt that each age group would get something different out of the book. The book’s about Farmer Falgu who is heading to the local market with all his lovely fresh fruits, vegetables and eggs, but encounters a difficulties on the way (including an adorable duck family and some hungry goats), that ultimately destroy his bounty. Instead of worrying about how everything’s been ruined, Falgu proceeds to borrow a few pans and starts selling omelettes instead!

The book is very appealing, visually, and the crayon style illustrations are unique and make the whole story pop, which is quite an achievement considering how the emphasis throughout the book is on sounds (the eggs cracked, the pan sizzled, the oink oinks and the maa-maas), so all credit to Kanika Nair!

I believe that it’s important that kids read, for lack of a better word, indigenous writing when they’re in that 5-8 age group because it plays an important role in helping them understand what’s really around them, like Farmer Falgu and his bullock cart, as opposed to quaint English concepts like Golliwogs and Treacle Pudding (also known as the two great disappointments of my childhood because I was never able to find either of them where I lived despite searching in many places and harassing even more people).

I think it must also be said that Indian Children’s Writing, today, is of such better quality when pitted against Indian Fiction Writing in general. When I was younger, and when my parents realized that I liked books, they bought me what they found in the stores then – my mom wasn’t really a reader, but she ensured that I got the best. I grew up on the Little Golden Books before I graduated to Enid Blyton and Carolyn Keene before eventually falling into that black hole called Young Adult (I lost many years to the Princess Diaries). My sister, though, went the Dr.Seuss – Roald Dahl route. Although she followed me into the YA Black Hole of No Return, Varsha read a lot more Indian Children’s Books than I ever did. Karadi Tales, and Tulika were just getting mainstream. True to form, Karadi Tales have been doing an excellent job all these years, and this book is no exception.

Over all, I really enjoyed this book, and I’m twenty five (I’ll be twenty six next year), so if you know any little ones who you want to introduce to good books, do pick up Farmer Falgu Goes To The Market!

Never Can Say Goodbye

I was at the Apex Plaza Landmark last Friday. Not surprisingly, they didn’t have the book I wanted. What was surprising, however, was the fact that the staff seemed fully involved in what looked like a major moving operation. Finally, I’d thought to myself. A renovation that was long, long overdue. Unfortunately, the next day, I read in the news that the moving operation was not because of a renovation, but because they were shutting down. The news really killed me, it did. Landmark was my childhood.

I’d always read the occasional book when I was in preschool and such, but my reading habit really began when I was about 8. I had met with an accident that left me bedridden for about a month and a half, and the only way to kill time was was by reading. My mother got me new books every week, and I read, and I read, and read some more. I had never been the sporty kind, and after the accident, I loathed the outdoors and everything connected to it. My friends were my books, and books, in 90’s Chennai, were Landmark*. I grew up between those shelves. Every time I returned to the store to get another book by my favourite author at that time, I’d discover a new one, and again. I went to the store every month, without fail, to the point where Amma would whine about how my father would have to work extra hours just to feed my reading habit.

Landmark was more than a store where you went to to buy books. It was a place that you went just to spend time in. Sometimes, you enter the store, take a look at the Best-Sellers shelf, flip a few pages from the books there and put them back because who reads popular stuff anyway, and head to your favourite shelf in the store, the shelf you know so well, occasionally stopping on the way to look at other books that aren’t particularly your favourite genre, but they’re books, and all books deserve a look, because who knows what you’ll discover, maybe it’ll even be your new favourite author. Some other times, you go to the store telling yourself that you have come here to buy one particular book and that book only, and you enter, and head straight for that shelf ignoring the other books on the way, pick the book out, feeling victorious and then you pause for a second, look around, see yourself surrounded by books, and you’re like, NO I’LL TAKE THEM ALL, but then realize that even if you can afford to buy the store out, it wouldn’t be the same to have all of them at home so you decide to just sit in the little chair between the shelves and get lost in the stories that surround you.

The last five years, with the change in ownership, online retailers taking over the scene, and brick-and-mortar bookstores all over the world shutting down, Landmark deteriorated. The books were old, the selections, dull and the place had the air of a graveyard. The penultimate time I went there to pick up a couple of magazines, the girl who did my billing told me I had Rs.250 in my loyalty card and asked if I wanted to use it. I’ll use it the next time, I told her.

If only.

* (or Fountainhead in Mylapore but it’s a well known fact that Landmark was much better) 

Bhima: The Lone Warrior

Bhima: The Lone Warrior by MT Vasudevan, is the Mahabharata entirely from Bhima’s perspective. The popular Mahabharata retellings have always etched a sort of stereotype when it came to the Pandavas. Yudhishtra the Righteous. Bhima the Strong. Arjuna the Archer. Nakula and Sahadeva the…ambiguous. Bhima: The Lone Warrior explores Bhima’s feelings and perspectives on the events that unfolded in the Mahabharata.

From the first chapter, when Bhima arrives as a child to Hastinapura, it is made obvious to the reader that the fates have never been kind to the second Pandava brother. Dronacharya ignores his talent in archery, Yudhistra dismisses his counsel, Draupadi manipulates his raw love for her and most painfully, the entire Pandava camp celebrates the death of his beloved warrior son, Ghatotkacha.

It is difficult to talk about the flaws in this book, for it is a translation. MT’s famed prose has not been preserved during the process of translation, and as a result, you don’t feel strongly for the characters. There is no anger when Dronacharya picks Arjuna to be the most talented among his students, no righteous outrage when Yudhistra blindly refuses to listen to his counsel, no sympathy when Draupadi carelessly drops the precious Saugandhika flowers that Bhima risks his life to obtain, just to fulfill her whims.

One of the few living memories I have of my paternal grandfather, is of sitting on his lap listening to him narrate the story of Gajendra Moksham to me. One day, Gajendra, the wise king of the elephants, came to the lake to bathe, and fell prey to a hungry crocodile who managed to trap Gajendra’s foot with his enormous mouth. Gajendra cried for help, but to no avail.
“Help me!” he cried to the fish. “Help me from this giant crocodile!”
But they were too afraid of the giant crocodile. “Ask the frogs!” they told him, and swam away.
“Help me!” he cried to the frogs. “Help me from this giant crocodile!”
But they were too afraid of the giant crocodile. “Ask the birds!” they told him, and hopped to safety.
“Help me!” he cried to the birds. “Help me from this giant crocodile!”
But they were too afraid of the giant crocodile. “Forgive us, Gajendra, but we can’t help you.” they told him, and flew away.
Gajendra was now alone. The crocodile tightened his grip on his leg by the minute. He began trumpeting loudly.
“Do not waste your energy, foolish elephant” said the crocodile. “No one can save you now. Didn’t you see the way those cowards ran away from me?”
Gajendra trumpeted even louder.
“Elephant! I have had enough of your trumpeting. I am going to be your death” said the crocodile, and bit harder into Gajendra.
Stranded, and unable to bear the pain anymore, Gajendra called out to The Lord.
“Narayana!” he cried. “Narayana! Help me! Help from this giant crocodile!”
No sooner had Gajendra spoken the words, the clouds thundered, lightning blazed and the heavens parted, making way for Lord Narayana to come to Gajendra’s aid. With a single swipe of his finger, he released the Sudharshana Chakra which killed the giant crocodile, and saved Gajendra.
This Hindu fable is supposed to illustrate Lord Vishnu’s loyalty and benevolence towards his devotees, and is narrated to to tell people that the Lord will not let you down if you call upon him. I can never forget this story – not because of the message it carries, but because of the way my grandfather used to narrate it. I cannot narrate it like him. He made me believe in Gajendra’s helplessness, Gajendra’s pain, and Gajendra’s faith. Truth be told, he could’ve made me believe that the crocodile was a poor, hungry reptile who was deprived by the nasty loud elephant and the masochist god Vishnu if he wanted to.

Today, the more I read, the more I realize that fables and epics are never about the story as much as they are about the story teller. MT Vasudevan’s Bhima: The Lone Warrior, has his story, but it does not have him.

Buy it here

If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai – A Review, Among Other Things

Travel writing as a genre had never really interested me. I am fairly certain that the numerous English Comprehension tests I wrote in school that featured extraordinarily tiresome pieces on places around the world are to blame. After I passed out, I’d read very little travel writing and whatever I’d read, I found to be too introspective and unnecessarily geographical for my taste, if not boring. Through the years, I managed to maintain the same distance one does with dull, but well meaning uncles with it: far, but somewhat friendly. So I suppose it was slightly out of character that I picked up Srinath Perur’s “If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai” – a collection of ten travel essays, based wholly on conducted/group tours the author has taken. 
It was one of the essays (“Memorial For The Victims Of Repression”), which was published as an excerpt in the Open Magazine that initially piqued my interest in the book. The essay featured his participating in a conducted sex tour to Uzbekistan. Perur, as the self-appointed fly on the wall among a group of repressed Indian men, is a joy to read. What I particularly loved in that essay, and as I would later find out, the entire book, was that he does not pass judgment on any of his travel companions – He merely observes, but his observations bear the kind of extreme sincerity that toes on sarcasm, and delightfully so. 
I laughed with this book in ways I have not laughed with a book in a very long time. There are some paragraphs in his essay on a conducted tour of Rajasthan, “Desert Knowledge, Camel College” that are so hilarious that I read them a couple more times for extra giggles. “The Grace of God”, an essay in which he describes his experience travelling across Tamil Nadu on a temple tour, made me reminisce about my own family’s seemingly never ending temple trips on which I was a very reluctant attendee. In “Saare Jahaan Se Accha”, he takes on Europe with his Desi tour group. Perur makes many earnest (and thoroughly amusing) observations about his group’s uniquely Indian characteristics. However, one stood out for me – that of the the foresight of some of the members who had packed snacks and food from home. The reason it did, was because it brought back a rather stark memory from a trip my family made to Hong Kong in 2010. 
Excuse me while I indulge in a slightly long digression. 
My father’s rationale while picking out a place to go on vacation has always been very simple. Is a Saravana Bhavan there? If yes, then we could go. If no, then we shall go to the next closest city with Saravana Bhavan. This was primarily because Saravana Bhavan, according to my father, gave us the freedom to do away with hectic conducted tours that forced you to wake up at 6 AM on vacation. We could pick what we wanted to see in the city, when we wanted to see it and the moment any of us felt hungry, we could run into the reliable arms of our old friend, Saravana Bhavan. For some inexplicable reason, he had picked Saravana Bhavan deprived Hong Kong that year, and after much debate, we opted for what we thought was the perfect compromise: a “flexi-tour”, where we would join existing conducted tours as extras depending on how we wanted our itinerary to be. 
One of the days involved going to Ocean Park, Hong Kong’s famous water themed amusement park. Two tame rides, one ridiculous roller coaster and a slimy reptile exhibit later, it was lunch time, which, according to our programme, was “At Park”. As we trawled Ocean Park to find a place to eat, we found out that it was the kind of place that thought vegetarian food was fishy. Literally.
(We would also find out upon coming home that there was a pseudo Indian restaurant in another corner of the park, but unfortunately, it had evaded us). 
An hour of aimless wandering in the sultry sun took a toll on our hunger, and us – My sister and I wanted to just eat Ice Cream for lunch. My mother, who had previously suggested that we buy bread and cheese at a convenience store (a suggestion we had ignored because let’s face it we were too cool for that) wouldn’t have that, and started whining about how no one took her advice and as a result, here we were, paying the price for our coolness by being hungry in this strange country with no vegetables. My father wanted to sit down for a while, and that scared us, because he’s a diabetic and extreme sugar level fluctuations aren’t the most pleasant things to handle in a foreign country. Ten minutes later, by what could only be termed as divine coincidence, we found a place to sit next to an Indian family who were part of the tour group we had travelled with to Ocean Park. They smiled at us in recognition, and we managed a weak one in response. “Lunch?” was his next question, and my mother summed it up for us.
“Vegetarian”
The man clucked his tongue in empathy – “Us also. Which is why my wife and I always bring Theplas when we travel abroad”, and proceeded to fish out a fat aluminium foil wrapped parcel from his bag. Some slightly uncomfortable silence later, which was primarily due to my family’s staring at theplas like Dickens Orphans, the nice man gave us the foil packet, which contained around a dozen theplas that were promptly wolfed down. “You must come prepared when you travel abroad.” Uncle said wisely, once we were done.  “We went to Europe last year. One small bottle water only 3 Euros. 150 rupees! Can you imagine food? If it we hadn’t taken Haldirams and Theplas, then I don’t know” 
After thanking him profusely for his kindness and adding his 13 year old daughter on Facebook, we wrapped our half day tour of Ocean Park, and three days later, were back at Chennai. The first thing my mother did when we came back home was locate a Thepla guy. We are, however, yet to make that trip to Europe.   
Coming back to the book – Perur writes about taking a trip to the North East in “According to Their Own Genius”. Reading the essay made me feel quite sad. It seemed I was more familiar with the places and culture discussed in the essay about Europe than I was about places in my own country! “Real India”, “Santa Claus Aa Rahe Hai” and “The Same Water Everywhere” were good to read, but “Foreign Culture” seemed a bit like a filler arrangement– something that he wrote because he wanted a nice round number of essays in his book. Incidentally, Foreign Culture might just be the only essay among the ten where it seems the author actually had a holiday, so you can’t help but feel happy for him and his toddy induced stupor.
My absolute favourite essay in the book, was “The Taste Of Sugar”. Perur undertakes a Wari, the traditional walking pilgrimage to Pandarpur. It is not often that you come across a piece of writing which balances being insightful and being side-splittingly funny with as much grace as this essay.

In all, I cannot recommend If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai enough. Read it for the places he’s travelled to, but more importantly, read it for the people he’s travelled with.  
Buy it here.

Reading Challenge 2014

I suppose now is a good time as ever to get back to my usual style of “Write Like No One is Reading” because well, no one is reading. I am not worried about people not reading this blog (In fact, I urge people to go ahead and not read this blog so that I can write about them more freely).
I am, however, worried about my own habit of reading, which, like my writing skills, has plummeted from bad to deplorable. It doesn’t help that I live with a boy who devours books with the kind of swiftness and purpose that I usually reserve for potato chips. Anyway, I’ve decided to undertake a rather ambitious reading challenge for this year – I suppose it’s about time, I’d included “Read More” as one of my vague resolutions for this year, among other wonderfully ambiguous gems such as “Eat Healthy” and “Pursue Hobbies”, but never really got to it.

I’ve a boatload of books that my husband bought for me to fill up my new bookshelf since I didn’t have the heart to move most of my books from my bookshelf at my mother’s place, so the easy part is done. The books I’ve got, but haven’t proceeded beyond page 1 in most/haven’t even removed the plastic wrapping are (I beg you, do not be appalled – there are some, ok, many “HOW HAVE YOU STILL NOT READ THIS” titles in the list):

1. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
2. Bringing up Bodies – Hilary Mantel (The sequel to Wolf Hall, because I’m ambitious like that)
3. Open City – Teju Cole
4. Casual Vacancy – JK Rowling (I’d read 100 pages before I got bored)
5. 1984 – George Orwell
6. On Beauty – Zadie Smith
7. Resurrection Man – Iain Ranking
8. A Spot of Bother – Mark Haddon
9. Bhima – MT Vasudevan Nair
10. 44A Scotland Street – Alexander McCall Smith

11. (Almost done reading) – If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai – Srinath Perur

I suppose this isn’t, and shouldn’t be, my reading list for the year. I can only hope that this is the beginning of a resurrection of sorts, of both my reading and writing habit – once I finish reading (or decide to give up on reading) each of these books, I’ll post a review here. I suppose a one week timeframe for a book on an average should be about right, which means that there should be a review here each week. Here’s hoping that I stick to it!

[A special Thank You to Rads – she’s taking on a reading challenge at GoodReads and had posted it on her Facebook, which was when I decided to take this up!]