Saturday, July 21, 2018

Book Review: Shyam by Devdutt Pattanaik

Disclaimer: I read a free review copy of this book, but the review is honest. :)

My first introduction to mythology was in Malayalam. Long before I started reading Amar Chitra Katha comics, my mother had introduced me to Mali Bhagavatham and Mali Ramayanam. Mali was a great children's writer, who made mythology readily accessible to children in Malayalam.

Devdutt Pattanaik appears to be doing the same for adults in an era where people don't have the time or the focus required to read accurate translations of mythological texts. Pattanaik helps them out by doing the "hard" reading for them, and distilling the essence down to accessible text.

Shyam is the latest in a long series of such books, though it's the first one I've read. If you know your Sanskrit, you would know that Shyam means dark, and Shyam is another name for Sreekrishna, that most enigmatic of the avatars of Vishnu. Born to royals Devaki and Vasudeva, but raised by cowherd Nanda and his wife Yashoda (because his uncle Kamsa wants to kill him), Shyam grows up in a village but spends most of his adult life advising kings and (almost) ruling his own city.

The book is divided into sixteen chapters, each containing stories from the various roles Krishna played in his life. Starting with Avatar (which tells us the reason Vishnu had to take the Krishna avatar), the book goes all the way to Elder, moving through roles such as Infant, Cowherd (during his adolescence), Lover (of the gopikas), Husband (to his sixteen thousand wives), and Charioteer (to Arjuna during the Kaurava-Pandava war).

Shyam follows what I've read is the typical formula for Pattanaik's books - brief stories, followed by even briefer boxes of text explaining the significance of the story, its evolution over the years in different ancient texts, and how the story has been adapted in different parts of India. Most of the stories are also accompanied by simple line illustrations. (Somehow, the illustrations manage to be cheerful even when showing the most horrific violence. See below.)

The book is clearly based on a lot of research, presumably cross-referencing a variety ancient manuscripts, and also learning about the cultural significance of each story in different parts of India. Pattanaik doesn't shy away from talking about aspects of Krishna that modern day macho Hindus would rather hide - his comfort with his feminine side and cross-dressing, for example, or the fact that his skin is actually coal-black and not the Ujala-blue depicted in comics.

But in trying to make the book accessible to the lay reader, the author has had to sacrifice a lot, too. Mythological stories contain a lot of nuance and drama that don't translate well into Pattanaik's workman-like blocks of text. Stories that could have been truly horrific in the hands of a decent writer are laid out for the reader sans emotion (and sometimes even sans context, it feels like). I also wish the stories had been strung together better, showing the chain of causality so that we can understand WHY people behaved the way they did.

A lot of people read Devdutt Pattanaik's books for spiritual understanding, but I have to admit that the spiritual lessons were underwhelming for me, especially near the end, where Krishna advises Arjuna (the base for the Bhagavat Gita). But then I'm not particularly spiritual, so that may just be me.

Overall, it was an interesting introduction to a genre of Indian writing I've happily ignored so far (even when friends and colleagues raved about it). But will I be picking up another Pattanaik book based on this one? Probably not.
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Tuesday, May 22, 2018


Last week, I did something which made me question my own self-proclaimed secularism.

(No, I didn't vote for BJP in the Karnataka elections - doing THAT would make me question my own sanity, never mind my secularism.)

Here's what happened.

My three-year-old son is going to a summer camp sort of thing, where he has music and dance classes. At his age, it's less about formally learning anything, and more about just having fun. Every day, he comes home singing snatches of songs that he learnt in class that day.

For the past week or so, he has been singing a particular song all the time. Initially, he was singing only the first verse, and he mangled it up so much that I couldn't even understand what he was singing. But then he managed to learn the second line in another couple of days, and I understood what the song was. It's a religious song, and the line he was singing was, "Sing hosanna sing hosanna to the king of kings."

I was fine with it in the beginning. He was singing this song and a couple of other non-religious songs as well, and it was okay.

But after a couple of days, he stopped singing the other songs and started singing just this song. And that's when it started getting on my nerves. I told him several times to stop, but I would catch him singing it again later.

I tried to analyze my own reaction. Why on earth did I have a problem with this? After all, I've often found myself absent-mindedly humming an earworm. I couldn't blame a three-year-old for doing the same thing!

But was my problem just that he was singing it all the time? Or was it that since I wasn't religious myself, I didn't want him to sing religious songs? Or was it more problematic still - that I didn't want him to sing a CHRISTIAN religious song?

I had to admit to myself that it was a combination of the first and the third. I wouldn't have had a problem with him singing Hindu religious songs, even though I'm not a believer myself. (Last year he learnt Asato Ma Sadgamaya and I was okay with it.)

Well, so much for my own self-professed secularism. I might say that I hated the BJP and all it stood for, I might claim that I didn't care about religion, I might proclaim my love for beef everywhere. But at the end of the day, all of those beliefs seemed to be shallow. If somebody tried to "evangelize" my son (because clearly that's what I saw the teaching of this song as), my inner repressed Hindu would come out, sword flashing.

Now the question remained - did I want to do something about this, or let it be? After all, the summer camp would be over in another couple of weeks, and I would be rid of the music teacher (he had been hired specifically for the camp).

I decided not to do anything. I confess - more than anything, it was the thought of having to actually say something to the school, and reveal what a bigot I really am, that horrified me.

But then the weekend came.

And I had to listen to the song for two continuous days.

On Monday, I went and spoke to the school authorities.

Of course, I had to retain some cover of secularism for myself. I was careful to phrase it right. I said, "Please don't teach my son religious music. I'm not religious, and I don't particularly want my son to be religious either."

But of course, the lady who is in charge of the place is sharp, and she got it immediately. "The new teacher is teaching Christian religious music, right? I don't like it either, ma'am. I'll tell him today itself."

And so that was that. My fake secular fig leaf thrown back in my face.

I'm still struggling to come to terms with my reaction, and I'm not proud of it at all.

But then, I do know that if I'd had to listen to that song for two more weeks, I would have gone mad. Seriously -- he was singing it ALL. THE. FREAKIN'. TIME. I couldn't figure out why, because it doesn't even have a particularly catchy tune. And of course, that made me even more suspicious.

Anyway, I'm happy to announce that my speaking to the school has partly had the desired effect. His frequency of singing it has come down and I hope to soon be hosanna-free.

Now if only I could go back to being able to believe in my own secularism.
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Thursday, May 10, 2018

On Re-discovering Yoga

I did most of my schooling in a government school, where I had mandatory yoga classes as part of my syllabus for a few years.

Looking back now, it seems quaint. Who thought that kids would find yoga interesting? How did it get into the syllabus? Were there no left-liberals back then to protest its inclusion? Or was yoga seen as secular back then? I have no idea.

In my school, all non-academic subjects (Art, SUPW, Yoga) had classrooms of their room. The yoga teacher had a large and airy room to himself in what was called the Science block. We had yoga classes twice a week, and we would form our lines and go to the yoga room in crocodile fashion. The yoga room had a wooden desk and a wooden chair for the teacher, and coarse and ratty red carpets for the students to sit on in long lines. We had to leave our shoes outside the room,  and of course the boys had to sit on one side and the girls on the other.

Our yoga teacher was quite a specimen. He was tall and thin and pale yellow and almost bald. He had a voice that was one notch above Mute, and an air of otherworldliness, as if most of him lived on some spiritual plane from where he could scarcely be bothered visiting us mere mortals. He was timid, and sometimes blinked furiously when trying to explain things. None of this, of course, helped him control a room full of noisy tweens and teens.

His name was Something-or-the-Other Potti, which should have made his nickname obvious. But give us government school kids some credit - we didn't go for obvious nicknames. We named him Kokk (stork), in honour of his elongated neck. Over the years, many generations of kids must have called him that, and he must certainly have been aware of the nickname. Some daring kid had even scrawled the name (KOK) on the dusty window panes in his class room. That scrawl remained remained there for many years - it may still be there for all I know.

Mr Potti (I will call him that at least now, twenty years later) had, at some point or the other in his long career, given up on ever passing on any of his knowledge to his students. And I think that was a very good call on his part. Not only was he temperamentally unsuited to the task, his chosen subject was one that held very little interest for a bunch of kids.

You see, twenty years ago, yoga didn't have the glamour that it has now. Today, yoga can come clad in lycra and spandex if you want it to. But back then -- well, if it was clad in anything at all, it was probably boring saffron. Mr Potti didn't help matters by sometimes trying to read spiritual stuff aloud to us from his books. I say "trying to", because his breathy voice didn't carry far, and unless you were in the front row, it was unlikely that you would hear anything at all.

The class would become silent each time he started reading aloud. Gradually it would become clear that there was no point in listening because you could hear nothing anyway. And then one by one, the kids would start talking, until gradually the room would become so deafeningly loud that Mr Potti would break off from his reading and bang his arm on his wooden desk in ineffectual anger, and then we would become silent again. And on it would go. Yoga, in effect, was a free class for us, with very little actual practice.

I used to feel sorry for Mr Potti back then, I remember (even while calling him Kokk behind his back). But looking back now, I realize that it's probably because of those classes that I've always had an aversion to yoga. Even after it became fashionable, and everybody I knew was signing up for it, I stayed away, because I associated yoga with boredom and with being just a little bit pathetic.

But now, at long last, twenty years later, that curse has been broken. Thanks to an awesome app*, I've started doing yoga again, and it has been amazing. Yoga, I've discovered, need not be about spirituality. It can just be something you enjoy doing, something that challenges you, something that helps you understand your body better. Yoga can be accessible, it can be whatever you need it to be.

As for Mr Potti, I suppose he must have retired long ago. I hope more of his ex-students rediscover yoga and its life-changing benefits.

*The app is called Down Dog and it's available both on Google Play and App Store. I've been promoting it among all my friends like I'm being paid to do it, but unfortunately I'm not. :|
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Sunday, April 22, 2018

Book Review: Anjum Hasan's A Day in the Life

I read somewhere recently that reviewing a book is all about giving it an identity. If that is so, how do you review a book of short stories? Each story has its own identity. The easiest way to do so is to write one-line reviews of each short story. I have done it before, and it's the coward's way out. The other way is to look for common themes in each of the stories - what ties them together?

Anjum Hasan's A Day in the Life is about the common man and woman, the ones who seem to be doing nothing spectacular with their days, and yet the very fact of their life is fascinating in itself, if seen through the right lens.

And so we have a man who has taken a step back from corporate life and settled in a village. Or a woman who is sick and stuck in her high-rise apartment. A newly married woman trying to settle into married life. There are two little girls in search of that elusive thing called style. A mother struggling to get back to her thesis writing while looking after her young daughter. A bedridden old woman, waiting for death in her nephew's house. A young man who wants to buy his bride-to-be a sari of expensive Banarasi silk, in the Banaras of the nineteenth century.

They are all very real people; surely there must be hundreds or even thousands such everywhere. Anjum Hasan's talent lies in bringing them to life in her precise and laid-back style, and making them interesting and relatable. Her stories have a very "material" quality to them, as if you can hold them in your hands and examine them, pick them apart if you wish to.

As always with her, it is the Bangalore stories that stand out (or maybe those were the ones I related to the most). In the story "I Am Very Angry", an old man tries to get used to his new neighbours, who fight too loudly for his liking (his new neighbours seem to be a metaphor for the changes in the city around him). In "Nur", a young Muslim girl tries to find out where her no-good husband has gotten to. In "Sisters", a sick rich woman who is stuck in a high-rise builds a sisterly bond with her forthright maid, who nurses her back to health. Each story showcases a different aspect of this varied city.

Overall, this is a book of stories that will stay with you. Days or weeks or months after reading it, you will suddenly recall something from it, maybe a line or a smell or an incident, and try to recall from where, because it will feel as real as if you had experienced it yourself, and then remember that it was, in fact, a story you read in a book long long ago. 
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Monday, March 19, 2018

Book Review - A Girl Like That

Going almost blind into a book, not having read reviews at all, and not knowing what to expect, is something I haven't done in a while.

The cover of A Girl Like That didn't promise much - I thought it would be your typical YA book, with a teenage heroine besieged by challenges on all sides and finally emerging triumphant, having conquered all.

I was partly right, because it IS a book peopled mostly by teenagers. But BOY, was I wrong in every other sense.

For one thing, AGLT begins with the death of its chief protagonist, Zarin Wadia. We see her looking down at the sight of the car crash that killed her. And instead of feeling sorry for herself and wondering why things have turned out the way they have, she can't wait to get away from her life; she feels glad that she has died. What, we wonder, can have been so bad in her life that she is glad that she is dead?

Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. Her parents died when she was little, her aunt beats her, she has no friends at school. To top it all off, she is living in a repressive society where girls aren't allowed to even meet boys they are not related to. She has just one friend in the middle of all this - but the problem is that he is in love with her, and she doesn't feel the same about him.

A Girl Like That is about everything that is most essential to us as human beings - the security that comes from knowing you are loved, the knowledge of where you fit into society, the safety of having a place to call home.

No, let me be more accurate - it's about what happens when you DON'T have all these things. How self-destructive you become, how defensive, how confused.

And yet, AGLT isn't a depressing book at all, somehow. It sparkles with life, with Zarin's little rebellions, her continuous attempts to get away from everything that she hates in her life. She manages to get herself little freedoms, despite shuttling between a prison-like school and a depressing home.

The knowledge that a particular character is going to die soon doesn't usually result in much emotional investment, but in this case I was almost rooting for Zarin, even as she makes mistake after mistake, even after she rejects the one guy who could have helped her out.

All in all, I think I will definitely be looking out for more from Tanaz Bhathena. What an accomplishment of a first novel!
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Sunday, January 07, 2018

Book Review - Janice Pariat's The Nine-Chambered Heart

The cover of Janice Pariat's The Nine-Chambered Heart is one of the most beautiful I have seen in recent times. Nine translucent pink ovals adorn its white cover - are they rose petals? Or are they the nine chambers the title refers to?

The book itself (her third, but the first that I'm reading) is experimental. What is the true identity of a person? Each of us views others through our own lens, our own values and stereotypes. But can a person be understood completely if we have enough lenses to view them through?

In this book, we get different people's perspectives on the same woman - how they got to know her, how their relationship developed, and, ultimately, how it ended.

The writing is beautiful - as tender and fragile and simple as the pink petals on the cover. It doesn't take long to guess that the book is at least partly autobiographical - perhaps the real-ness of the details and the simplicity of the incidents.

Unfortunately, the people who write about the woman are very similar and their perspectives are pretty similar too. Of the eight people who write about her (one person has two entries because he was in a relationship with her twice), six are lovers (including a husband), one is a female flatmate who had a crush on her and one is her art teacher from school. (Leading me to question if that teacher was more than a teacher, of course.)

The most authentic and different perspective is that of the husband. From being completely in love with the woman (and seeming slightly dazed that somebody like her would agree to be with him) to plaintively complaining about how her lifestyle doesn't quite match his income to finally just being exhausted of the entire relationship, the husband is the only one who dares to write negatively about her.

Apart from the husband, the lovers all seem pretty much alike. Okay, let me count them without looking at the book - the first boyfriend (who returns later), the older married man, the poet-publisher married man, the older married man who sees her as a stopgap, the Italian four-night-stand and - wow, I got them all!

Why am I talking more about the people who provided the perspectives, rather than the woman the book is supposedly about? Well, frankly, because we get to know so little of the woman herself. What do we know about her at the end of the book? We know she loves cats. We know she's good in bed (more than one lover vouches for this). We know she likes older married men. We know she's not a "leaver" - she is usually the one who is "left" in relationships. (We are told this multiple times, and not very subtly).

Ultimately, we end the book without a clear idea about the woman herself. The book somehow feels self-indulgent. If the author had chosen to get a more diverse set of people to talk about the woman, and if more of them had provided a realistic narrative, this book would have been a more substantial read.
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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Book Review - A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

I read Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth when I was fourteen, and it was like being hit on the chest with something heavy (maybe the book itself - it was one of the longest and heaviest I had read till then). I loved it absolutely - the descriptions of the cathedral being built in Kingsbridge, the beautiful women and their drama-filled lives, the rich imagery and narrative. Years later, visiting an actual medieval cathedral for the first time, many of the terms the audio guide used were familiar, because I had already "lived" through the building of a cathedral.

A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Strictly speaking, it's not a sequel - it's set many centuries after the first one, and the only thing that connects the books is the setting of Kingsbridge. I'm not sure how World Without End (the second in the series) is, but A Column of Fire isn't set only in Kingsbridge. A lot of the action takes place in other places - Paris and London being the main ones.

One of the main threads in the book is the love story of Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald. The two are a young Kingsbridge couple in love, but Margery's family is against their union. A rich Catholic merchant family, they want her to marry into nobility and raise their social status.

The Ned-Margery love story plays out against the backdrop of almost fifty years of Protestant-Catholic conflict in France and Britain in the sixteenth century. The ebb and flow of these two opposing views on Christianity makes for fascinating reading - how something as simple as a change in monarch can change the religious tendencies of an entire country. There were killings aplenty on both sides in the name of religion.

Ken Follett takes actual historical events and adds to them some great characters to show us how these events impacted ordinary lives - Ned Willard of the Secret Service (a tolerant Protestant), Margery Fitgerald (a Catholic), a French villain by the name of Pierre de Aumand (a Catholic who instigates Protestant killings to further his own ends), a Protestant book-seller named Sylvie Palot.

Personally, I didn't know much of the history of this period before this book. But that didn't prevent ACoF from being an engrossing read. It's a great introduction to famous personalities like Queen Elizabeth the first (she of the white face and red hair), Queen Mary Tudor of the Scots (imprisoned for decades by Elizabeth) and Duke Scarface of France. And you also get a ring-side view on historical events such as Elizabeth's ascension to the throne, Queen Mary's wedding to the French king, the failure of the attempted Spanish invasion of Britain, and the St Bartholomew's Day masscare in Paris in 1572.

If I have one quibble, it is that it feels like Follett is breezing through history at too fast a pace. Fifty years is a long time to cover even for a history book. But there were certain threads in the book that could have been excluded (Ned's brother's, for example).

Also did it meet the expectations I had from reading Pillars of the Earth almost two decades ago? No, it didn't. But I'm not sure I can blame Follett for that. Maybe I was more wide-eyed and open to such immersive reads then? Growing up can sometimes be a pain. 
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