Pradyumna – Son of Krishna – Usha Narayanan – Book Review


PradyumnaGoodreads blurb: ‘I see a dark future that makes me quake,’ Devarishi Narada said. ‘One of these newborns will ravage the world and erase the name of Krishna from the face of the earth.

As the world trembles on the threshold of Kali Yuga—4,32,000 years of unprecedented evil—it waits for a savior to rise.

Meanwhile, in the dark netherland of the asuras, the meek Vama shudders as he learns that he is actually Pradyumna, the son of Krishna. And that his journey has just begun.

From the asura kingdom to Dwaraka and then Kurukshetra, destiny forces him to battle monsters, angry gods and blazing weapons, and overpower his own weaknesses. Will he be able to rise to the challenge in time to save the world? Or is he the destroyer prophesied by Narada?

Pradyumna is the gripping saga of the rise of this mighty, swashbuckling hero whom all of humanity awaits.

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Given my interest in mythology and its various retellings it must not come as a surprise to regular readers of my blog that I picked up this book and ended up reading and reviewing it. And true to its pre and post release hype around Pradyumna – Son of Krishna by Usha Narayanan, the book is quite well plotted and narrated. Relying mostly on relatively authentic sources from the original Sanskrit texts, this book, the first in a series narrates the events around the birth of Pradyumna, his separation from his parents, his subsequent reunion with them after fulfilling a part of the prophecy surrounding his birth and the events that occur thereafter.

What I liked the most about this book was the fact that the author does not take too much liberty from the original Sanskrit texts from where the core material has been sourced. Yes, while a few liberties might have been taken in terms of the sequencing of events and ‘shading’ the characters in various hues of ‘grey’, it is quite clear that by and large the book stays close to its original mythological roots.

While the first half of the book deals with the story behind Kama’s incarnation as Pradyumna, his birth as a mortal on earth, his separation from his parents Krishna and Rukmini, his teenage years as Vama and his subsequent fulfillment of a prophecy, the second half takes a more serious turn and focuses more on Pradyumna’s heroic exploits on the battlefield fighting away various enemies, battling monsters, and helping out people in distress.

Never too far away from his bete noire, Pradyumna’s brother, Samba, Krishna’s son from Jambavati follows his brother’s exploits closely, all the while seething in anger and looking for some way or the other not only to outdo him but even kill him. Samba’s character is like an overpowering presence on almost the entire proceedings of the second half of the book and readers cannot help but wonder how and what he will do next. In fact I will stick my neck out and make a prediction that Samba will have a more prominent and decisive role to play in the proceedings of the second book in this series.

The only grouse I had with the book were the last few chapters where Pradyumna decides not to participate in the greatest battle of his era, the Kurukshetra war and instead goes on to battle Vajranabha. While this may very well be how things unfolded in the original Sanskrit texts, this last portion of the book felt a little contrived to me and would probably have been better off as the beginning of Book Two of the series. But then, I am guessing the author knew perfectly well what she was doing and chose to slot this episode at the end of Book One.

This grouse aside I will surely pick up the second book in the series, if not for anything else, to enjoy the saga of this wonderful but overlooked character from Indian mythology and the sheer easygoing way in which the author has narrated his story to us.

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Hollow Mountain – Thomas Mogford – Book Review


HollowMountainGoodreads blurb: The late-morning sun beats down on the Rock of Gibraltar as bored tourists photograph the Barbary Apes. A child’s scream pierces the silence as she sees a monkey cradling a macabre trophy. A man’s severed arm.

In the narrow streets of the Old Town below, lawyer Spike Sanguinetti’s friend and colleague is critically injured in a mysterious hit-and-run. Spike must drop everything and return home to Gibraltar, where he is drawn into a case defending a ruthless salvage company hunting for treasure in the Straits.

As Spike battles to save his business, he realizes that his investigations have triggered a terrifying sequence of events, and that everything he holds dear is under threat.

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As I had stated sometime earlier my exposure to European fiction is quite limited and therefore when the opportunity to read some well written crime thrillers by European authors presents itself I enjoy myself quite a bit. And Hollow Mountain by Thomas Mogford does not disappoint on any counts, in fact it is more than reasonably competent in this genre.

Set in Gibraltar, about which I know very little or practically nothing of, the book travels almost all of Gibraltar and the areas surrounding Genoa in Italy with Spike Sanguinetti, corporate lawyer who is in search of a girl who has been missing from his life for quite a while now. When his colleague and business partner is injured in a hit and run case, Spike returns home and takes up the case of Neptune Holdings, a shipping company which is engaged in salvaging deep sea wrecks.

This opens up the veritable Pandora’s Box as far as the proceedings in the book are concerned. Pretty soon Spike finds himself embroiled with sunken treasure, corporate skullduggery, blackmail and other assorted crimes of a more violent nature. As if this weren’t enough, the fact that he was looking for the girl in Italy seems to have pissed off some powerful people and they are also hot on Spike’s heels warning him to buzz off or else…

The net result – proceedings in the book move at a breakneck pace while ensuring that readers are not overwhelmed by all that is happening. Slowly, all the pieces of the puzzle start falling in place and the book jogs towards its climax. Suffice to say that readers will not only enjoy Spike as a protagonist but will also mark Gibraltar as a must-see place in their Southern European itineraries if they ever have one.

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers in return for an honest and unbiased review of the same.

Mandate: Will of the People – Vir Sanghvi – Book Review


MandateGoodreads blurb: This is the first easy-to-read book about recent Indian political history. Pegged on the general elections that shaped today’s India, Mandate: Will of the People tells the story of Indian politics in a gripping, page-turning style.

Vir Sanghvi, the well-known journalist and TV anchor, draws on his personal experiences and memories as well as scores of interviews to piece together an incisive and candid account of what went on behind the scenes. Peppered with little-known details and insider information, this book tells the stories behind the story and brings alive the men and women behind the headlines.

Mandate: Will of the People contains the real story of the declaration of the Emergency, the rise and fall of Sanjay Gandhi, the Punjab insurgencies, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the bloody riots that followed her death. It tracks the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi and explains the Bofors scandal that contributed to his defeat.

Many of the questions that linger over Indian politics are answered here: how did Narasimha Rao become Prime Minister? Why did he liberalise the economy? What was the Ram Mandir agitation really about? Why didn’t Sonia Gandhi agree to be PM? And how did Manmohan Singh’s weakness clear the way for Narendra Modi.

If you have to read one book about Indian politics – then this is it.

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Given that I was born in 1980 and was too young to remember Indira Gandhi before she was assassinated, the earliest Prime Minister of India that I remember was the handsome Rajiv Gandhi. And as I grew older and coalition politics took over the country and its polity, I was so disillusioned with the whole concept of politics and politicians that I didn’t quite pay much attention to it at all as a teenager. But then I grew older and soon realized that despite their antics to the contrary, these politicians, their decisions, their personalities and actions had more than a direct impact on my regular ordinary life.

And it is in this context that reading Vir Sanghvi’s Mandate: Will Of The People makes immense sense for all of us Indians. Taking a fairly balanced and unbiased view of the history of Indian politics since 1971 till the 2014 General Elections, the author takes us on a journey of recollections (most of the time his own, as he has interacted with almost all of the Prime Ministers mentioned, in his capacity as a journalist) and tries to analyze each of them, their actions, the circumstances that voted them in to and out of power and the impact they had on India as a whole.

In the beginning of the book, he makes a very valid point when he states that the impact of leaders and their actions will probably not immediately be felt but will take some time to be fully understood and appreciated (and in some cases criticized as well). And it is with this context and with the benefit of hindsight that Vir Sanghvi approaches each of these leaders and their actions as Prime Ministers of India.

All in all, this book makes for some really interesting reading, and what’s better is the fact that it is not too heavily loaded for or against one politician or ideology but takes a clearly unbiased view as far as possible. And given that it is quite a small book means that all of us can easily pull out some time from our busy schedules to read and learn from our past. Because remember, history has a nasty habit of repeating itself, albeit in different hues, and the onus is on us to learn from it and not repeat our mistakes from the past.

Click here to purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

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Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this book by the publisher in return for a honest and unbiased review.

Return of a King: An Indian Army in Afghanistan – William Dalrymple – Book Review


return-of-a-king-400x400Goodreads blurb: In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time, re-establishing Shah Shuja on the throne, in reality as their puppet, and ushering in a period of conflict over the territory still unresolved today. In 1842, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad against the foreign occupiers, and the country exploded into violent rebellion.

In what is arguably the greatest military humiliation ever suffered by the West in the East, more than eighteen thousand cold and hungry British troops, Indian sepoys and camp followers retreated through the icy mountain passes, and of the last survivors who made their final stand at the village of Gandamak, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to the British garrison at Jellalabad. An entire army of what was then the most powerful military nation in the world was utterly routed by poorly equipped tribesmen.

The West’s first disastrous entanglement in Afghanistan has clear and relevant parallels with the current deepening crisis today, with extraordinary similarities between what NATO faces in cities like Kabul and Kandahar, and that faced by the British in the very same cities, fighting the very same tribes, nearly two centuries ago. History at its most urgent, The Return of a King is the definitive analysis of the first Afghan war.

With access to a whole range of previously undiscovered sources, including crucial new material in Russian, Urdu and Persian, and contemporary Afghan accounts including the autobiography of Shah Shuja himself, prize-winning and bestselling historian William Dalrymple’s masterful retelling of Britain’s greatest imperial disaster is a powerful and important parable of neo-colonial ambition and cultural collision, folly and hubris, for our times.

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My interest in this book was first piqued when I heard the author William Dalrymple narrate in great detail about it in The Hindu Lit Fest in Jan 2014. I would have immediately bought the book then if not for the fact that it was available only in the Hardcover format of which I am not a big fan of (and trust me at 500+ pages, this book would have been more than a handful in that format). However, when Bloomsbury India, the publishers launched the Paperback format earlier this month I immediately jumped at the opportunity to finally get my hands on the book. And it truly was worth the wait of almost a year.

With this book, the author simply outdoes himself in terms of the sheer depth and breadth of the research he has undertaken. The fact that the bibliography and research sources run into 30+ pages at the end of the book stand testimony to the fact that he has spent quite a good amount of time, effort and energy into unearthing the true story behind the First Anglo Afghan war and all of it is clearly translated into this wonderful book. Apart from the vast and copious amount of reading and research, the fact that the author actually travelled to the various places of significance mentioned in this book also lends it quite an authenticity which a majority of books and authors fail to deliver with their works.

This book is important and timely for yet another reason. The fact that it deals with the misguided and misinformed adventures of Western powers, Britain in this case, far away from their shores and their interference in the natural order of things halfway across the world, Afghanistan in this case, is something that keeps repeating itself time and again. In fact, Britain is part of the NATO Occupation Force that is currently pulling out of Afghanistan, yet again an unsuccessful attempt at trying to interfere with the workings of a country halfway across the world. In fact, it is almost as if the Western powers are doing everything they can to ensure that history is repeated by committing startlingly similar errors in judgment, taking misinformed and miscalculated decisions and so on. It is almost as if they refuse to learn their lessons from history.

Apart from the entire story about how the British place Shah Shuja on the throne of Afghanistan and prop him up as a proxy to extend their influence in the region and how their plan backfires due to various factors, the least of which was the fact that the Afghans as a race were never united enough to bow down to a single ruler, the fact that this narrative also talks about the various atrocities that were committed by the British Army of Retribution, as it was called served as a shocking reminder for the fact that war and armed conflict never ends in a good state of affairs at the end of it all. It is a grim reminder that when at war, we humans are at our worst behavior and tend to commit atrocities which are otherwise unthinkable and indigestible. How the British managed to ravage almost entire cities such as Kabul, Jalalabad and others was first shocking and then plain sad when I read it in the book.

In essence, this is one book which must not be missed by anybody who loves good writing, and who loves reading a good historical yarn about British misadventures in Afghanistan in the 1800s. Purchase the book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link] and you won’t regret it one bit.

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A review copy of this book was offered to me by the publishers in return for an honest and unbiased review.

The Legend of Ramulamma – Vithal Rajan – Book Review


TheLegendOfRamulammaGoodreads blurb: In a typical village somewhere in the Deccan, justice arrives in a different form, A middle-aged Dalit mid-wife, Ramulamma goes about her day performing her services as a dai, looking for odd jobs in surrounding villages and occasionally in the city and countering constant ill-treatment from the local Inspector Sahib.

But there’s more to Ramulamma than her torn sari and the gold stud twinkling on her nose reveal. Through her wisdom and canny intuition, she finds her way around the most intractable problems with the deftest touch. She brings to book a powerful landlord for the rape and murder of a young Dalit girl, saves a falsely accused thief from a miserable fate and demonstrates to abusive policemen (And occasionally her high-born patrons) in her signature, subtle style the real meaning of duty.

With delicate wit and never-failing empathy, the twelve stories in this delightful collection expose the hypocrisies of our sharply divided society and celebrate the self-empowerment of its oppressed.

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Given that this is the first compilation of short stories that I am reviewing, I intend to review each and every story separately with a three-four line opinion of what I thought about the story itself, finishing off with my thoughts about the book in its entirety.

Ramulamma

The first story, which gives readers a quick insight into how smart, gutsy and practical the protagonist of this anthology is, provides a lovely introduction to Ramulamma. She uses the fact that she has been of assistance to a journalist in the past to very good advantage in this story, which also provides readers with a peek into the caste hierarchies that the village currently follows. It also provides an insight into how the policemen of the area kowtow to these hierarchies to ensure that they are always on the good side of the ‘rulers’ of the day.

The story itself deals with how Ramulamma dishes out justice in her own quirky way to a group of youngsters who raped and murdered a Dalit girl in one of their drunken binges.

A Cure for Sugunamma

One of Ramulamma’s patients Suganamma is down with a fever which the village doctor wrongly diagnoses as jaundice and prescribes a medicine. Ramulamma takes the hard decision not to follow the doctor’s prescriptions and using her years of wisdom in dealing with pregnant women and trusting her knowledge of the patient and her medication, decides to approach another friend of hers, a medical student and decides to administer a course of treatment for Sugunamma. Despite being hesitant to do so, the young medical student decides to help Ramulamma and between the two of them they end up curing Suganamma’s condition which also enabled her to deliver a healthy baby as well.

I personally am a little skeptical about how somebody like Ramulamma knew the nitty-gritties of which medicine to be used based on her understanding of Suganamma’s blood reports. At this point in time, I am hoping that the stories coming up in the anthology prove me wrong and there is more to Ramulamma than meets the eye.

She closes the case

While this story highlights the situation of the policemen of the region using any small excuse to torture and kill poor hapless villagers under the pretext of them being Naxalites, I didn’t quite understand this story in its entirety. To me, this story didn’t quite get proper closure despite it being quite promising.

The visitor

In this story Ramulamma uses her sharp intellect and knowledge of political affairs well enough to put the entire Arshad family out of the troubles of hosting good ol’ Margaret ma’am from the Ol Blighty. What starts off with Arshad and his family looking forward to the visit and stay of Margaret, Arshad’s academic guide from his doctorate days soon ends up being quite a predicament for the entire family. How Ramulamma manages to solve this problem for the family forms the crux of the story. Although she is mentioned only in a couple of paragraphs in this story, her role proves to be quite pivotal. Laced with dark humor, this remains my favorite story so far.

The grandest wedding in town

When a wallet containing the passport and credit cards of the bridegroom goes missing, the entire extended family of Govindaraja, the bride’s father is left looking for the same. A few hours later when the local police catch a poor Dalit sweeper woman with the wallet when she was cleaning the dustbin outside the house, she is immediately branded the thief and taken to task.

However, the kindness of Govindaraja and Ramulamma’s testimony that the sweeper didn’t even enter the house that day convinces the police to let her go. However, there is more to the story, and how Ramulamma approaches the actual thief and tells him as to how she understood why he did what he did forms the last couple of pages in this story, and the reasoning she provides is quite juicy, to say the least.

The Aussie Volley

In this story Ramulamma uses an accident to her advantage and extracts revenge on somebody with whom she had more than bone to pick. While there is nothing quite extraordinary about this story by itself, it just deepens reader understanding of the nexus between policemen, politicians and people in power and reinforces the belief that ‘money and power’ can buy anything, more so in rural India.

A Million Protestors

Through this story the author highlights the phenomenon of ‘sponsored NGOs’ who have seeped well and truly into our society and under the guise of working towards the betterment of the locals, tirelessly pursue their clandestine hidden goals.

A well written story which also highlights the human side of Ramulamma where she almost seems to fall prey to the temptation of quick money.

Lisa’s story

A story in which Lisa the dog is as much, if not more of a hero than the Dalit Dai. This story reads quite like the ones we see in TV serials and is very predictable with no surprise twists at all.

I wonder if it just me or are the stories getting more and more predictable as the book goes on?

In Whom We Trust

This story left me disturbed when I was reading it and stayed with me for quite a while after finishing it as well. Although it is quite a simple narrative with no complicated twists and turns, the things it leaves untold leaves behind enough food for thought. It makes readers think twice about people, causes, NGOs who we take for granted and believe at face value. It makes us understand that we need to look beyond the veneer, the published truth and verify facts for ourselves before we jump in and support them and their stated mission.

The Case of the Missing Necklace

This story is probably the shortest yet the smartest one in the anthology so far. Here, Ramulamma clearly displays her powers of deduction, understanding of human nature as well as a spirit of compassion and camaraderie even to those who have not necessarily treated her well in the past. A bittersweet whimsical piece of writing.

Status of Prosperity

In this story, Ramulamma narrates an incident from her past where once again using her intuition and good understanding of human nature managed to convert what was once the laughing stock of the region to a religious sentiment. By playing on the worst fears and the staunch faith of the locals, Ramulamma manages to have the last laugh, keeping the naysayers at bay.

Lessons for a writer

In this semi-autobiographical tale, the author seems to be narrating how he put together this anthology of short stories involving the protagonist and how he has drawn from the real life experiences of some Dalit women he personally knew or encountered or heard about.

Overall review

While this book is a fairly quick and breezy read, it somehow failed to capture my imagination to the fullest possible extent. I really am not able to put my finger on why it didn’t work for me. While the first few stories and the last few ones were really good, somehow the author lost my interest in the stories in the middle of this book.

Nevertheless it is a noble attempt by the author to highlight some of the social stigma surrounding Dalit women in villages even today, the unholy politician-policemen-landlord nexus in these areas, the scourge of self-sustaining and self-serving NGOs and associated topics.

Click here to purchase this book from Flipkart [Link] or Amazon [Link].

Disclaimer: A review copy of this book was given to me by the publishers, however, the above review is completely unbiased.