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Monday, March 31, 2014

Book Review : ‘The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree - Book One of the Outlaw King’ by SA Hunt

First thing’s first. I thought this would be a horror story and I was a little hesitant and I started reading it, only after assurance from the author that it was only a little scary, but after that it was just ‘light hearted fantasy’. :)

SA Hunt’s ‘The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree’ is a slightly ambiguous book. Or maybe I should say the second half, of it is. It begins with the protagonist, Ross Brigham returning from active military service. He arrives only to discover that he only has his home left but his wife and dog, long gone.

He is coming to terms with that when he learns of the fact that his estranged father, Ed has died. He goes to the funeral of a man, who was an author and has a lot of fans. The effect of his father’s writing was a different story altogether. Ross, who was almost never close to Ed now, has a new task at hand. He is meant to take over the writing of Ed’s fantasy series.

Ross, at the funeral becomes friends with two of his father’s biggest fans, Sawyer and Noreen, who offer to help him finish the book, since they know a lot more about the books. Ross who has no idea of what the book truly contains agrees, after some pushing.

The story moves forward with Ross, who ends up at his father’s home and comes face to face, with what he thinks is a demon and it leads him to a place in a church. Till now, the part was brilliant writing. Hunt manages to grasp your interest, and leads us on into another world.

Ross, who is dependent on Sawyer and Noreen’s version of the fantasy series, finds himself in another fantastical world, where there are people alright, but they have their own version of events, weapons, and creatures. Ross is caught between worlds, times, and also the love story of Sawyer and Noreen, and the numerous characters including what Hunt terms as the non-humans and also his father and brother in the alternate world. Wow, I told you they were a lot of them.

It’s fascinating, but still lacks the clarity, which I felt should have completed it. There is a second part to this story, and am sure I will read it because of a thing called curiosity. Hunt manages to have me kind of hooked on to the murder mystery, plus fantasy.

I felt however, that he went a little overboard with the other world. I did not find it as brilliant as I thought it would be, going by the first part. Hunt does have the talent, he manages to grasp the reader at his lowest, but he does not manage to hold on to him.

If you can have no expectations, then you will be in an absolutely strange world, and come back safe. Hunt does have a sense of the surreal, and he runs away with it, I felt. It depends on you as the reader, to read about this book in a book. You should have the little patience and must be willing to go with it if you want to enjoy it.

Author: S.A Hunt
Genre: Fiction (Paperback, Import)
Price: Rs 1,060

Friday, March 28, 2014

Reading... An Enigma, My Mystery!

Reading was something, I have always enjoyed. So, today I want to share with you how the reading habit actually began. It was my father, who at that time was a voracious reader, my mother who enjoyed a few books, and my grandmother who would read anything I brought home.

What did I read? I will never forget the time I walked into that store. It was the 23rd of May 1988 around 7 pm. I remember exactly where it was, and how it was built and the wonderful stuff it contained. Books…The children’s books were upstairs and I was led there by my father. He left me there and walked off to pick up a few books for himself. 

So, there I was, browsing at the store, picking up a book or two. And what did I find? My first Enid Blyton! The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat. I bought it because I loved the cover. It had two girls and three boys, plus a dog and a cat, all in a garden with pink roses and a wooden room and green hills in the distance. I loved the first girl’s haircut, (noticed it was a little like mine) short hair and playing with boys. Since I was a tomboy at the age, it fit right into my bookshelf.

The story was simple. It spoke of the Five Find-Outers and Buster their dog, who are all set to find a Siamese cat, which was missing. Mr Goon is the errant policeman and the troublemaker in this piece. How the five of them manage to find the thief, and save their friend, Luke forms this 126-page story.

After this trip to the book store, I never looked back. I had discovered my love for reading. Of course, I had read a lot of comics before that, after school, I would come home and hit the ‘comics’. The number of Tinkles and the Amar Chitra Kathas at home are proof of that. I would wait for my father to get home and hand me a few comics. I had a cousin, who used to hide her comics because she would feel that I would finish them up, instead of playing.

Through these mystery series, I also discovered other Enid Blyton books, one of which I must mention. ‘Famous Five’ mysteries had a whole new impact on me. I was absolutely in awe of George. I think the short haircut had come into play, a lot more by then and I was thinking I was a little like her, as well. The boisterous and naughty kid, that I was (Also, not helped by the fact that I was an only child, like George) and loved climbing trees, too. It is no wonder that I had taken to books, in a big way, because I felt like I was reading a bit of myself.

I then moved forward into the Carolyn Keene series, which were the Nancy Drew Mysteries. We had another George, again she had short hair and again she had tomboyish streak to her. She was Nancy Drew’s best friend and the book, I first got was ‘The Moonstone Castle Mystery’.

In it, Nancy receives a moonstone as a gift from an unknown person. This leads her
into a place called Deep River, where she must find out what happened to the Bowen’s granddaughter, Joanie Horton. She goes to the place with Bess and George, to find out about the mystery.

Most of these books later, another children’s book, I came across was JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’. Though I was not that young, Harry took me away into another fantasy driven world. It did not help that Harry Potter and JK Rowling were both born on 31st July, just a day before my birthday. You should have seen my excitement, when I found that out.

I started with the second one, ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. In this book,
the plot follows Harry’s life at Hogwarts. He is in his second year, where he must follow the messages, which lead him into the Chamber of Secrets and in the way of the heir of the Slytherin. He does this with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, his two best friends.

What these books did to me was a mystery. They got me to be a tomboy, and best of all, a book lover. Since it started with comics, it has not ended even today. I could read the ACK and Tinkle comics even today with the same enthusiasm and I could still pick up a Famous Five and go through George’s huffs and still read a Harry Potter to discover the same enigmatic thrill, which he showed.

So, lead on… ye Book Writer, Reader and Lover… :)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Author Interview: Abhijit Basu, author of 'Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata'

There are a few things that strike us upon reading 'Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata'. The determination of the author, Abhijit Basu and a reason to know him better. This interview does provide us with a little insight into the mind of this very well-read author. 

He talks about what he calls 'a spontaneous urge' within himself that prompted him to become an author and all the books and authors, which have touched him. But what his take on the Mahabharata was, at the start and how he develops it into the book, he explains to us in great detail.  

He started reading it in original Sanskrit form, 20 years ago, and in him was born a need to share it with the world with what he terms, as a lens for modernity.

How did ‘Marvels and Mysteries of the Mahabharata’ happen?

The Mahabharata has always fascinated me. Especially, ever since I started reading it in its original Sanskrit form some 20 years ago, there was this seed of an inner urge to share my view of the pristine epic, as seen through the lens of modernity. The urge was reinforced by the introductory words of the narrator-bard Sauti – that while many can memorise the epic, few can comment on it. It was quite a forbidding challenge, but I was fortunate to have some awareness of the old Epic-Puranic wisdom (prajnaa puraanee), as also of several modern interpretive commentaries.

But a more circumstantial inspiration came a couple of years back when I was writing my previous book, ‘Prophets, Poets and Philosopher-Kings’. There, one of the essays, titled ‘The Unlikely Protagonist’, dealt with Yudhishthir as the central figure of the Mahabharata drama. It was while working on that essay that the idea of taking up certain subtler aspects of the Mahabharata as the theme of a new book project on the epic started crystallising in my mind. Hence, shortly after finishing that book, I began vigorously researching and writing on MMM.

Obviously a lot of research has gone into it. How did you pick out the best ones you thought would fit into this book?

The research that went into it was a labour of love. Of course, it involved lot of reading: from the original Sanskrit epic; from its translated versions, and from tomes of commentaries – both old and new, Indian and Western. There was also extensive internet research. Then there were my discussions with a few scholars that helped me along some innovative lines of thought.

As regards picking up the best lines for research, the task was relatively simple, once I had the right questions in mind about aspects that might evoke awe or puzzlement in a reader’s mind. Why is Vyasa less of a narrator and more of a participant in the epic? Why did Pandu become a wandering ascetic at the height of his power? How could Yudhishthir be so indecisive and yet enter heaven with such unerring majesty? Why did Krishna change so radically from a peace-negotiator to ruthless exterminator? Was the burning of the Khandava forest a sanctified deed or a gory pogrom? Was Draupadi’s polyandry linked to tribal custom? When did the Kurukshetra war happen? Was a simple warrior story later overlaid with Krishna emphasis? Which came first, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata?

Obviously, these were not just rhetorical questions, but core research issues which fitted in my working hypotheses. But for me, the real thrilling ‘discoveries’ were the new insights, such as: a global comparison of curses in Indian and Biblical/Greek traditions; the intriguing significance of Yudhishthir’s mleccha pseudonym ‘Kanka’ during his year in disguise; the reason behind Arjun not suffering any post-war guilt, unlike his elder brother; the Megasthenes reference to an Indian Hercules, explained by historians as Hari-kul-esh, or Krishna/Balaram; ethnological interpretation why Yudhishthir never refused a game of dice.     

The similarities between the Sumerian, the Greek and the Indian epics is another story in itself, which you have included into this book. Did you notice these before you researched the Mahabharata?

Yes, the broad subject of comparative literature, especially between folk-epics of the world, has been one that generally interested me since long. I thought the comparisons between say, Gilgamesh and Odysseus, between Dhrtarashtra and Priam, or between Karna and Hector, would be a germane aspect to cover in the book so as to inform and tickle the reader’s mind.

Why do you think that the Mahabharata is an epochal tragedy? Did you find it difficult to tell your story the way you saw it?

The Mahabharata is an epochal tragedy in the sense of what Toynbee and Tagore saw
as the ‘civilisational memory’ ingrained in the ethos of the ordinary Indian. Popular perception in India has since long held the tragic battle of Kurukshetra and the passing away of Krshna as marking the onset of the amoral epoch of the Kali-Yuga.

As for the challenge of story-telling, once I did the grind of jotting down the points, the writing just flowed from that. When one is immersed in the task of writing on a deeply reflective subject, one is occasionally blessed with some ‘eureka’ moments of new revelation, even at the oddest of times.

Thus, there were occasions when I found clear answers to a few of my own knotty questions during the hours of half-wakefulness at night. Far from proving difficult, writing MMM was on the whole a thrillingly stimulating experience.     

Who was it that told you that you could become the author you are today?

There were several friends and relatives who wanted me to write. But basically, there also was a spontaneous urge within myself that prompted me to take up authorship in a sustained manner.

My chosen genre was non-fiction matter, based on cultivation of the rich field of knowledge the world offers to one seeking cerebral fulfilment. I could pursue that once I had more time in hand after the phase of active full-time service.

What book is coming from your desk, next? When do you see that released?

I am now in the preliminary stages of working on a few leads. One is a possible book on the Purana tales, with interpretations of their perennially relevant aspects. Another is a more thematically integrated book on the saga of a certain ancient dynasty, the branches of which held sway over India’s classical past.

Yet another line of work relates to Western classicism, in the shape of a part-manuscript on Pericles and Cicero as the ‘original’ Republicans. I plan to decide on the order of the projects soon.

Who is you inspiration? Is there an author you take inspiration from?

Basically, I am inspired by the twin ideals of good knowledge-linked analysis and good rhetoric. For the first, across the generic board, I admire the likes of EW Hopkins, AL Basham, Nirad C Chaudhuri, George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, Buddhadeb Bosu and Carl

Among rhetorical stylists, my ideals range from Cicero, Lincoln, Dickens and Tagore to the wittily down-to-earth PG Wodehouse and Alistair Maclean.

Is there any mythological author in today’s list that you like? If so, why?

My liking is more for the classicists who look for cultural, philosophical and literary significance in old works, rather than the plain purveyors of ‘mythologies’ as they seem to be.

The references in MMM give a whole list of such commentator-classicists. The ones I particularly like are Rajshekhar Basu and Buddhadeb Bosu, IrawatiKarve, Gerrit Jan Held, VS Sukthankar, TRS Sharma, Janaki Sreedharan, John Brockington, Alf Hiltebeitel, and JL Fitzgerald.

I like them mainly because of the sheer logical force that makes their interpretations impact on the modern mind.

Any advice to writers that would like to be published today? How tough is it to be published in India?

Each author is a unique entity and there may not be just one best practice. The methodology would also depend on the genre of the book. From my own experience, I would suggest that for knowledge-based non-fiction writing, there is no alternative but to first undertake extensive reading, discussion and note-taking on the subject and related issues.

Then comes the writing phase, where language and rhetorical style are of the utmost importance. An elevated topic calls for a reasonably elevated language, without compromising fluency and reader-friendliness.

As for getting published in India, given the large number of aspiring authors, it is a tough job to get noticed by reputed publishers with a good distributor network. But once a manuscript is read and liked, things tend to get easier.

Who are your favourite authors and why?

As regards favourite genre, my interests are wide-ranging, covering Indology, Literature, History, Sciences, Philosophy, Art, and certain types of fiction, like good trial drama.

Among authors of English titles (other than those on Indian philosophy and literature), here are a few of my favourites: Robert Harris, Doris Goodwin and Hilary Mantel (for their well-researched historical fictions); John le Carre (for his realistic depiction of the shadowy world of cold war espionage); Scott Turow and John Grisham (for their gripping legal novels); Romila Thapar, AJP Taylor, James MMcPherson (for their historical analyses); Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov (for their scientific works).

Which books are you currently reading?

Only recently, I have finished reading a good historical novel on the Dreyfus affair, titled
An Officer and a Spy’, by Robert Harris.  

I am now reading an interesting commentary on Vishakhadatta’s Mudraraakshsam. In the pipeline is ‘Gods, Sages and Kings’, by David Frawley (the reputed Western Vedic scholar) – a book I plan to read soon.

What do you do on a day to day basis, besides writing books?

Officially, I am now engaged as a part-time Independent Director in a Public Sector Undertaking under the Ministry of Commerce. I am also a freelance editor and have edited a good number of books on a wide range of areas, such as the India-China War, Environmental topics, Alternative Medicines, Philosophy of Management, a travelogue along the Indian coast, Faiths and Superstitions, a fictional biography of Arjuna, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad etc.

Whatever time I have left after all these and after my own writing, I devote to my other pleasures, which are music, recitation and casual dramatics.