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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review : 'Sita, an Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana' by Devdutt Pattanaik

What made me pick this particular book up? It was a Ramayana, after all. Haven't we heard it all before? It was with much gusto that I first heard about it from my grandfather. He told me the story. After that, all of us went through the Ramayana's TV series of Ramanand Sagar. But somehow, I never took to it. I never had a fascination for it, for I saw everything through Ram’s and his kingdom’s eyes. 

But now, ‘Sita, an Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana’, by Devdutt Pattanaik has a completely different perspective. Firstly, it has Sita in the arms of her adopted father, Janaka. We see facets of how she was found, how she was brought up and how she grew. Sita was brought up, exposed to the world of not just the kitchen, but also the sages, who offer her different perspectives, altogether (Something which, I had no clue about).

She then accompanies her uncle to Sage Vishwamitra’s ashram, a place where she sees Lord Ram for the first time. We, then see the marriage of her and her three sisters, married to the four sons of Dasharatha. I felt in the beginning, the story was starting to get a little boring until Sita comes in and has the lead role.

The conversations, which she has with Ram and with the sages is not just illuminating of her but, it draws her out of Ram’s shadow. We understand her perspectives of the world and her astuteness comes through.

We are then in Ayodhya, and quickly brought to the infamous exile of Ram. How he takes it on, and decides to go through with it are all part of this episode. The exile, Sita’s kidnapping by Ravana, and eventually her freedom and then her return to Ayodhya form the next part. Also, I felt that Ravana’s death and the knowledge he passes on to Ram, should have been explained a little better.

We are back in Ayodhya, and her story begins again. She comes into her own, when the pregnant Sita is sent off to the forest, with no explanation from Ram. How she meets Valmiki, how she ends up having two sons, her life in the forest which, she feels at home with, the education she passes on to the two boys form this episode. How Ram returns to take her from the forest, and how she gives up her life in the palace are parts, which are necessary and offer us a whole new and refreshing view of the Ramayana. 

How in the end, we just know that he will always be known as Sita’s Ram and she will always remain the hero of the Ramayana, and never let it be complete without her.

The freshness is offered to us, and it is now that I can see, that Sita never needed Ram. She was the modern woman, independent, freewheeling, and intelligent. She could always make her own life, with or without Ram, yet she gives up everything for Ram and his kingdom.

What started off a little badly, ended wonderfully. Sita in the start, Hanuman in between and with Sita in the end. The parts in the middle are replete with stories of Ramayana in so many forms and it can drag the book down. The illustrations, especially of Sita in her father’s arms, and she going back to the the earth are especially brilliant.  

Pattanaik’s perspective and his research are there, you can read them, he did show it, when he wrote 'Jaya, an Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata' but one wonders if all that research and writing of it was necessary in this book. But one thing is that he finally gave me the renewed Ramayana with a whole new perception, one I have made peace with. Also, do not miss the political nuances, they make for quite the interesting read.


Author: Devdutt Pattanaik
Genre: Mythological Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Books, India
ISBN : 978-0-143-06432-9
Price: Rs 499

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Author Interview : Alex Rutherford, author of the 'Empire of the Moghul' series

I knew that Alex Rutherford of the Empire of the Moghul series would be one of the toughest people, I have ever interviewed. Not just because I had to deal with two authors, Diana Preston and Michael Preston but because the both of them had double doses of the intellectualism, imagination and creativity. Coming up with questions, was a little on the tougher side. 

The reason, I am putting this together and not in two parts is because I am so driven by curiosity. And I have no doubt, that my readers feel the same way about it. 

So, from reading about why ‘Alex’ to the huge amount of research and travel, the fiction/non-fiction discrepancies, and to find out what advice the two of them have for us, let’s read on…

‘Alex Rutherford’. How did you come up with that name and why?

We chose the name 'Alex' because we wanted something that could be both male and female. We selected Rutherford because it was the name of a famous scientist we admire and have read much about - also because we like it (and so did our publisher) because it sounded right with 'Alex'.

Between the two of you, you must have divided so much research, how do you two do it, and how do you put it all together?

When we research, we both read all the material to give each of us the fullest grasp possible of events, action, atmosphere, personalities etc.
When it comes to the writing, we work out what looks pretty much like a film treatment, breaking the story down into scenes which we divide between us to write.

We then read what the other has written and we debate and suggest and discuss in what becomes a pretty iterative process.

You have travelled extensively for these books. What kind of places gave you the material you were looking for?

We've always loved travel and have been very fortunate to see so much of the world. In a sense, much of our writing has come out of our journeying because the more we saw the more our curiosity was roused, the more we read and wanted to write ourselves to capture our own thoughts and feelings.

How do you think of the subjects for your books? (And not just the Empire of the Moghul Series)

The Empire of the Moghul series was inspired directly by our travels in India and growing love of the place.

Other topics have often come out of the blue - we wrote about the pirate William Dampier ('A Pirate of Exquisite Mind') after seeing his portrait and we wrote about 'Wilful Murder: The Sinking of Lusitania’ after seeing one of the ship's salvaged bronze propellers lying like a great dinosaur bone on a quayside.

In the Moghul Series, how do you come up with the names of the various books?

We choose the titles of the Moghuls novels to reflect what we feel to the essence of each of the novels - 'Raiders from the North' seemed to us to capture Babur's roaming life for instance. 

'The Tainted Throne' captures the deadly familial struggles within the Moghul dynasty that tainted Jahangir's relationship with Shah Jahan and the machinations of Nur Jahan, one of history's great characters.

While 'The Serpent's Tooth' - drawn from Shakespeare's King Lear suggests the ingratitude of and rivalry between siblings.

What is the difference between writing non-fiction and fiction? And the similarities?

We enjoy the fact that writing fiction and non-fiction are different processes though for both we do all the research we can.

Fiction allows you to exercise your imagination, to interpret the silences, to invent subsidiary characters and events to help convey the personality of the main characters to the reader.

In our non-fiction, we can interpret but not invent but we still find it immensely satisfying to try and get inside the heads of those we are writing about and to tease out the connections between what happened in the past and how it affects us today.

What was the most challenging part about writing a series such as this?

The most challenging part of writing the Moghul series has been the pace; writing a book a year.

At least before we started, we'd done a great deal of reading already though the research, and the travel to see places relevant to the story (like Burhanpur where Mumtaz died) has never stopped.

For book 6 about Aurangzeb we've given ourselves a little more time as we're going into what will be new territory for us.

How much of the series is based on facts and how much is fiction?

The main characters, main places and main events are all based on facts as far as we can discern them from the sources such as the Baburnama or Akbarnama.

But as we explain in an historical note in each book we sometimes fuse several people who really lived into one, invent new characters and condense or omit some events to maintain the narrative pace. 

But we always try to stay true to the main facts of history and we do believe the historical note is important to give the reader an accurate picture.

What are the most fulfilling parts till now, now that you have managed to release five novels?

The most fulfilling thing has been our readers' responses. We're in touch with readers all around the world whether, via the website empireofthemoghul.com or other means.

It's been great to know that people have enjoyed the books and feel we have captured for them what we see as a pivotal and compelling period of history.

What is your next book, and when do you see it released?

The next Moghul book - about Aurangzeb's inner and external struggles will be out in 2015, we think.

Which books are both of you currently reading?

We've been re-reading George Elliott's Middlemarch - one of the great novels.
Who are your favourite authors and why?

Our favourite authors – gosh; that's tricky. There are so many we read and admire but right up there are Margaret Atwood, Vikram Seth and Laurence Sterne (for The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy; Gentleman).

What else do you do on a day to day basis?

We like seeing our friends, cinema and theatre - and cooking!

What advice do you have for the young writers of today?

It's hard to give general advice - writing is such a personal thing - but it's important to write about what you really know and care about and not to rush but wait until you feel ready and once you start; to keep going and not worry or over analyse.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Book Review : 'Gods, Kings and Slaves - The Siege of Madurai' by R Venketesh

Finally, done with ‘Gods, Kings and Slaves: The Siege of Madurai’ by R Venketesh. This is a historical fiction. 

It has a rather confusing cover to start off. There is a sword, a scene of battle and a couple of fish, around the name of the book. The back cover is pretty good; it has a view of the city, with its palace and temples and a few of the populace. I have a reason for explaining the cover in detail, which I will reveal later.

The book begins with India in the 14th century. And we find ourselves in the king’s palace, wherein there is the Pandyan crown prince, Kulashekaran, his favourite concubine Tara, the son of this coupling, Veera and finally, Kulashekaran’s marriage to a Chola princess. 

Halfway through the prologue, we find ourselves in Gujarat, where we meet the second lead, a toddler, Chand Ram. He is told that he was destined to have a rather strange life. He would live a sorrowful life, but he could even become a ruler. 

The story runs into the younger life of Veera, his life at the palace, his disagreements with his step-brother Sundar, and his stint at the training school. The fitness regime for the boys at the ‘gurukulam’, and also the instruction of how and what a bow and arrow can do are brilliantly written about. South India and its history are also vividly described.

The chapter then moves northwards, towards Gujarat, where Chand Ram is now a young man, selling bangles to the inmates of the harem of Rana Rajasekar, the local ruler. He falls in love with Chaula, a pretty girl at the harem. The two of them run away before being caught and punished, by the Rana. The punishment was the castration of Ram, after which he is sold at the slave market. Both scenes are intense and feel terrible, as should be.

Meanwhile, in the Pandyan kingdom, we have the love story of Veera and Sunanda. How they meet again, how their lives are intertwined, and how Veera is packed away to Lanka as punishment form this part of the story.  In the north, the slave, Ram is asked to convert to a Muslim, by his Arab master. He does so, and he becomes an integral part of his master’s business.

How Veera wins all the battle at Lanka, and returns to see his lover married off to his brother, and how he himself is married to a simple village girl, Radhika, all form this part.

From the Arab master, Ram who is now known as Malik, is now moved to the Sultan’s palace. Here he gains a hold of the harem, before slowly moving towards the Sultan. The south which was a rich place till now, is suddenly shaken by the Sultanate.  How the lives of Veera and Malik are blended form the rest of the story.

The north-south divide is explicitly described. The story could have done with a cast of characters, as well. The first part had me devouring the book, but the second part is lacking. The battle description, the lives of the harem and the sultanate, the personal lives of the Pandyan kings and queens are all written in a confused fashion. It is a book with lots of potential, but lacking towards the end.

I felt that there was a little too much to read and the second half of the book could have been a second book, all together. But overall, the book started off brilliantly, but lost its way towards the end. The cover is confusing, but so is the book.

Author: R Venketesh
Genre: Historical Fiction
Cover: Saurabh Deb
Publisher: Hachette India
ISBN : 978-93-5009-586-7
Price: Rs 395