Wednesday, October 26, 2016

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple – A Book Review

          William Dalrymple, in one of his interviews says, “If I had five more lives, I would have lived all of them in India.”

I have travelled to Delhi many a times. If you ask a non-Delhiite about the city, though they would awe at the roads and structures, complain about the filth and crowd in some parts of the city, one common thing that they would say is ‘it’s a city of snobs’ and so would I.

Delhi – a city like any other city in the world; what’s the fascination attached to it? History, I would say and so says WD; a beguiling city built from a scratch and then destroyed, reduced to a scratch. And built again only to be destroyed again, and again, and again; like a potter’s creation at the wheel, marvelled at for some time and then thrown again to the hearth by the vagarious potter who doesn’t want anyone else to see its beauty.

Conquered by the mightiest of conquerors the world has ever seen, Delhi, apart from being their capital of power, was like a beautiful princess that every king or emperor vied for. It held a certain enigmatic love for them; a love, a masculine, salacious consummation that these monarchs couldn’t possibly find in their harems.

            WD’s research of the city is absolute. His travelogue extends from the epidermal surface of the current unconcerned multitude of the Delhi people, and excavates to scour layer upon layer of treachery, annihilation, love and power; an era long buried in the city’s abyss. WD talks of the mammoth structures the city hosts, their comparison to facades in the west, their historical bearing and the neglected state that they are in today. The ‘Red Fort’ receives a special mention and righty so; the throne from where was ruled most of India, all of Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan during the time of the celebrated Moghul Emperor Shah Jehan. WD writes, it was the apex of Moghul power, the golden age of unparalleled prosperity.

            The story of Delhi is incomplete without the mention of three important entities; the Moghuls, the Britishers and the bloody partition. Powerful and obstinate rulers like Timur the lame, Muhammed –bin-Tughlaq, Nadir Shah, Shah Alam, Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb, WD says, had their own doctrines, their own laws to abide by, each so different from the other. Some respected the saints, the others abhorred and beheaded them. The city’s story is replete with acts of deceit, treachery, barbarity and incest too. How many people would believe that the great emperor Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal in memory of his wife Mumtaz was salaciously close to his eldest daughter Jahanara Begum. Needless to say, each king had his own harem, decorated and filigreed with the choicest of women.

            “As you sow, so shall you reap”, probably was quoted of Shah Jehan, an emperor who, though liberal than the others, conquered his place to the throne by killing his brothers and their children and capturing his father. Not surprisingly the barbarous Aurangzeb, one of his neglected sons imprisoned him, killed his own kin  and presented to him on the dining table, the lifeless head of his favourite son and successor to the throne Dara Shukoh.

WD meets historians, researchers, knowledgeable people, old members or their descendants from that time in history. With the changes in the throne, the language of Delhi has come a long way though the transformation isn’t a pleasant one. From Persian to Urdu, an immaculate language delivering and demanding respect, the language of the poets, the city now has to do with Hindi. Delhi, once was the land of poets like Mir, Jalal-ud-din Rumi, Ghalib and the likes, and the greatest gift to a king would be the latest verses from the great Mir than any jewel or tapestry.

While meandering around the streets of Delhi, WD meets some interesting multitude like the eunuchs, the masters of the pigeon fights, the leftover Britishers and their families, now called Anglo Indians, the survivors of partition like his landlady and the driver. The eunuchs, though in the present time are rebuked, they had a stronghold in the days of the emperor; they were a part of the courts, caretakers of the harems. At the Nizam-ud-din mosque, a place thronged by both the rich and the poor, the saints tell WD about the Djinns, their existence since God created man, how they can be captured and used.

Delhi, as WD rightly points out, post the India-Pakistan partition is itself divided into two conspicuous parts; old Delhi sporting the remnants of the Moghul era in bits and pieces and New Delhi, a facade of Lutyens’s brilliant architecture and now a house to the Punjabis. India, always has been an easy country to be besieged because of its religious differences. The bloodbath of partition is a horrific tale where entire villages were annihilated, people burnt alive, women raped – a crowd has no face, or rather has the face of a terror. As Dr. Jaffery, a historian tells WD, “In this city, culture and civilization have always been very thin dresses. It doesn’t take much for that dress to be torn off and for what lies beneath to be revealed.”

            WD’s research is excellent; he presents facets of the city which a tourist would normally miss. If you ever happen to visit the city, sitting on the ramparts of a fort or marvelling the intricate designs of a palace, or being blessed by the saints in one of the mosques, the djinns will most definitely bring to life snippets from this book. And as you relive the glorious incidents of that era, you would shudder at the thought of living under the rule of a monarch.

The worst part about reading history is that it’s almost always a biased, colourful story written by sycophants; WD’s travelogue isn’t that, it is unbiased, written without any obligation or pressure.
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 7/10
Image copyright:
William Dalyrympe


Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Children’s Book by A.S.Byatt – A book review


Only if life were a story....

But life is a story, isn’t it; every moment lived, of everyone’s life, some glorious, some plain, some recounted by grandparents, some cherished, some not so cherished. Some events make it to the history books, almost often quoted to the best of imperfection; others exist as individual or collective memories.
A historical fiction, Byatt’s story is a mammoth one, a tapestry upon which are woven intricately, colourfully and carefully, a design, a pattern that appeals to the readers for its individual portraits as much as for the entire landscape it creates. It’s a universe where the worlds of fairies, gnomes, sylphs and spirits have as much importance as the flesh and bone of myriad visible humans.
Olive Wellwood is a story teller, a writer rather; a writer of children’s books, a respected and admired one. She writes imaginary stories for each of her children, publishes them to the world; she hunts for her characters in museums, in vases and historical portraits, in puppet shows, in her children. Tom, her favourite son seems to be trapped in his story, hers and can’t get out. Like the prince who lost and can’t find his shadow, Tom seems to be lost and can’t find himself, can’t place himself in the word like everyone else so easily does, or so it seems.
It’s a difficult life for adults, but more so for children, especially the ones getting out of their cocoons of infanthood to find a place in the world. Unlike fawns and calves, we can’t start walking a few minutes after being pushed out of the womb; fortunately or unfortunately, we are humans. We need to be nurtured to get a grip. Who should they imitate, what’s good and what’s not, is it okay to be themselves – a plethora of unguided, often misguided, at times unanswered questions haunt the teenager as every single day proves to be a different one as they saunter towards the path of adulthood. It’s bad to have no options, but worse to have enough of them.
Though at the Wellwood household and the entangled families of their near ones, the children are treated as growing adults and their choices are honoured, the children find themselves at most times in a midden of deception. And in the midst of this treachery, they fall, grope, struggle, rebel to get away. They discover, things that should have been best left to the slothful beast of ignorance; but they do, they discover the frightful things they shouldn’t, that others shouldn’t about them.
Like the vagarious genius of Benedict Fludd and his apprentice Philip, Byatt creates them and her other characters from clay and like their beautifully carved, intricate and meticulous vases and pots, she moulds and shapes them. But the pots don’t be themselves without going through the hearth of the furnace and so does Byatt, put her characters, children and adults alike through the conflagration of life and relationships. Some are broken, some shine like a gilded blaze – a delight to the senses.
At times, it feels like you are reading newspaper excerpts of a bygone era. The Fabians, the Quakers, the Socialists and the Anarchists, the Nihilists, their thoughts, their ideologies and idealism run like veins through the story. Byatt’s canvas is replete with the arts and crafts, puppeteers and their wooden dolls, music and festivals, museums and extravagances, the rustic beauty of the countryside, the wilderness, cultures and their nuances, the dangling sword of war and then the war itself. As is the sagacious disposition of geniuses, in this labyrinth too, the author, like a master puppeteer pulls and loosens the strings of her marionettes to perfection and woos her audience, who keep their hands glued to the page, refrain from letting their eyes to wander and yet let their heart and mind to. The era is one where heterosexuality isn’t abhorred, where age is no barrier, where a single episode of intimate, salacious closeness is forgotten as easily as it happened, though it results in the placement of a seed in a womb; doubtful parentage isn’t disturbing. A girl you treated as your friend, a sister, is asked to be called your mother the next day!
The story also deals with the plight of women of that time, of all times, their fight to their entitlement to suffrage, to individualism, to find their feet in the land of men. As the frustrated Florence says,
“The truth is that the women we are (readying to be doctors, researchers, educated) – have become – are not fit to do without men, or to live with them, in the world as it was. And if we change, and they don’t, there will be no help for us. We shall be poor monsters.”
“A woman has to be extraordinary; she can’t just do things as though she had a right.”

A delightful read, Byatt’s characters, their rawness, their eccentricity, their plight, their vagaries, their love, their disgust will stay with you for a long time after you’ve turned the last page. At times, one might feel lost, frustrated with the neglect of a character (there are many), but Byatt ensures that her marionettes are not hanging from the stand for too long – she brings them to life when you think you are on the brink of letting go and moving on, asking, begging for more!
My rating: * * * * * * * * * * - 8/10
A. S. Byatt


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan – A Book Review

Questions about conscience, about rights and wrongs never have easy answers; do they have any answers at all? But anything that makes the reader uncomfortable, forces him to dive into the recesses of his thoughts, makes him struggle with his thoughts and that of the characters is remarkably good, an achievement for the writer.
Amsterdam revolves around some strong characters, Clive – an established musician, Vernon – an editor of a struggling newspaper called the Judge, Garmony – the foreign secretary and Molly Lane. Vernon and Clive, former lovers of the dead Molly are close friends, maybe the best. Molly, she lived an eventful life, a colourful one but death sucked and paled each shade and rendered her colourless in the end. Married to her husband George at the time of her death, she found it nearly impossible to recognize anyone as she laid suffering.
The others carry on in their establishments till some scandalous photographs find their way in the hands of Vernon. With these, Vernon feels elevated on the pedestal of power; the power to destroy the foreign secretary. But why would he do that, make a personal incident a public episode? Is it because he personally hates Garmony or is it because he is a good journalist and wants the world to know. Or maybe he thinks Garmony is the wrong person and doesn’t belong to the responsibility he bears. Should it matter if the end result, even though for a contemplated societal favour is borne out of a biased hateful mind. Does the end justify the means no matter how personal, how individualistic, no matter how odious the means are?
What would I do if I were in his skin? Grab the opportunity, convincing myself that I’m right, acting against my conscience or let my morals shove me out of this personal campaign? How easily these soulful words like conscience, morals and values, like the enlightening flame of a lit candle, escape skilfully like smoke with the mere blow of air in the presence of an opportunity. The strength of our character, I believe is how easily we can convince ourselves for or against our own values in the event of an opportunity. Clive too faces a similar dilemma, though in a different situation, where he could have made a difference had he chosen to, but doesn’t; only to be loathed by Vernon.
But somehow, as it always happens between McEwan and me; as I was pleasured on the decks of his titanic book, a disastrous iceberg lay ahead. Just when I thought this was the Ian McEwan book I will finally like, the end left me devastated; completely let down! Not because it was devastating in thought, but because it was so predictably horrendous; so ludicrous. I feel cheated by McEwan, by his hurried incapacity towards the end of the book; more so I feel being stabbed in the back by the Booker committee. Why, I wonder, how?
My Rating : * * * * * * * * * * - 5/10
Ian McEwan

Picture copyrights:
Amsterdam book cover -
Ian McEwan -

Monday, March 14, 2016

Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge – A Book Review

          I wish I had read this book before I had watched the film Titanic. Not because this book is much better than the movie or the other way round, but for the fact that my thoughts wouldn’t have been clouded by scenes from the movie while reading the last chapters describing the catastrophe of the sinking ship.

“Every man for himself”, how true regardless of whether you’re on board an elite ship or otherwise. The story is narrated by Morgan, an orphaned lad of 19. Orphaned but raised by a wealthy aunt, Morgan is a thinker and that’s what renders him different from the multitude of friends; so say some. He’s in love with the beautiful yet cold Wallis only to have his heart broken by the person who he personally looked up to, than her.

                As the mammoth cruise sails on its maiden voyage to New York, little do its passengers, millionaires know its and their fates are going to be tested by a greater power. Through Morgan’s eyes, the reader meets the denizens of the ship; the philosophical and heartless Scurra who claims to have seen life and lived it too, Rosenfelder, an obsessive couturier, irascible Ginsberg, the suicidal chanteuse Adele amongst others.

                As destiny changes in the wink of an eye, as it always does, what will finally matter?

                Can one exist to be as one is, as one has been when one hears death sing a lullaby, a sweet enchantment one wants to shut ones’ ears to? Would one be kinder, gentler, feel the need to reform when one knows there is no waking up from this sleep? Would one still harbour hatred, feel the urge to slaughter an enemy in the final hours? Would one still be a gentleman to hold the door for the pretty lady, or rather push her to get ahead in these times of chaos? Would I help you if I could, knowing you would never do the same? Does humanity resurface in these trying times or does it sink? Would the dandy still be obsessed with the faint stain on his exclusive jacket when the ocean rises to swallow him? Will the pleasure of kicking a cat, years ago be the paramount subject of repentance when I pray to the Lord?

Do we finally find ourselves, do we? Does our ordinariness float like a shattered plank in the gigantic ocean? Does the stupendous importance we give ourselves matter anymore, contrary to how miniscule we really are to the world we live in. Hopefully, the unfortunates got their answers before they perished; hopefully the survivors breathe every single breath knowing them.

Lucid and thoughtful with some intelligent life’s reflections from Beryl’s characters, ‘Every man for himself’ is an enjoyable read, though it doesn’t prod you to the edge of your seat. Again, I wish I had read it before watching the movie, maybe my thoughts would have been different and I would have liked it more.
Beryl Bainbridge
Pic copyright:
Book cover - Every man for himself -

Beryl Bainbridge picture -

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M.Coetzee – A Book Review

        This happened a few years back. I was staying in a hostel then. We had students from all parts of the country staying in the hostel.

My roommate just walked in as I winked at him pointing to the guy leaving the room and smirking.

“What?” He asked.

“Such a chutiya (slang for stupid) this guy is”, I said.

“Oh, so that’s the term for them here, is it?” he asked. “Just because he asks strange questions and smiles all the time? Only because he is a bit different? He hasn’t harmed you in any way, has he?”

Before I could think of an answer for my otherwise not so philosophical friend, he walked out answering his phone. The room suddenly felt strange with his question suspended like a released arrow, in mid air, ready to strike and pierce; but it had, it already had!
Michael K with a hare lip was externally scarred and he was a gardener.

“Who are you Michael?” they asked and he replied “I’m a gardener.”

When he was a child, Michael’s mother Anna tried and kept him away from people because she thought he didn’t fit in; he was slow. Years later, fatigued from working at people’s houses, when she fell sick and the hospital corridor wasn’t of much help for her swollen body, Michael was called to take her home. He quit his gardening job. But what is home? A small windowless room below the staircase at her owners’ place?

Anna K doesn’t want to die here; she wants to live where she once lived, as a kid. As the civil war lurches everywhere, a license to travel is needed and Michael knows somehow he shouldn’t wait for it because there might never be one. As he builds a cart to carry his mother on the road, he knows now why he has been brought into this world – to take care of his mother.

            The mother dies on the way, in a hospital, and she’s burnt and the ashes are handed over to Michael. What should he do with them? He’s on his way where his mother wanted to be, carrying her ashes. He is captured and lands up in rehabilitation camps. But he doesn’t belong there! He can’t understand why he’s being kept there. He didn’t ask to be here. He doesn’t want to work for them or to eat their food. Why should he listen to them, he fails to understand. He doesn’t like being watched and guarded. They will shoot him if he jumps the wires, they say.

He escapes!

He stays in the mountains, hides there; he makes a home and a garden. He nurtures his plants, waters them, protects them. He stays awake at night, watching and covers himself at day to not be found. The ground, the water, the sunlight brings life, he believes. He eats when he feels it’s necessary, he sleeps at will; there is no routine. He is content and happy. The water melons are looking good now, the pumpkins are ready.


I was sitting by a pond, reading a book. Except for the ripples caused by the warm breeze, the water was still and serene. A couple came and sat on the other side. Holding hands, they chatted. After some time, the guy got up and started throwing pebbles in the pond; the girl followed. Why, I thought? I had done the same on many occasions before but why, I thought. Why this sudden impulse to disturb things, to not let things, people alone? Not for long can we let things be as they are, can we; we feel the need to meddle in our own way. So used to action and events happening around us all the time that the stillness disturbs us.


So they caught him. They found him lazing and they caught him, thin and frail. How could he be nobody, he had to be somebody; it irritated them, this man living by himself in the mountain. Was he feeding the terrorists, they poked and slapped him. “Who are you?” they asked. “I’m a gardener”, he said and they laughed. They destroyed his farm, planted mines and sent him to a hospital, another rehabilitation centre

Michael stops eating. The doctor at the rehabilitation centre tries in vain to understand him. And the more he tries, the more he gets attracted to this strange dying man who refuses to eat and carries pumpkin seeds in his pocket. He cares for Michael but Michael doesn’t heed to his caring.  As he delves deep, he sees Michael as a free spirit, who refuses to be confined, to be institutionalized. He refuses to eat and grow strong so that he can jump when the soldiers ask him to, can run and sit and raise his hands and carry a weapon as they ask him to. They are not his god. His god is the ground that gave him his pumpkins, the seeds he carries carry life. He isn’t stupid, thinks the doctor; it’s us! War or no war, he knows Michael isn’t meant for this world, he isn’t different, they are; we are. “Michael, take me with you my friend”, he cries.

Michael yet again escapes. A walking skeleton, he is puzzled – when he had food, they took it away, when he didn’t have any, they wanted to feed him; they said he was free within the barbed fences.

They need me for their amusement, don’t they?

Another brilliant piece of storytelling, J.M.Coetzee brings another incredible character to life. Michael K is a gift. Coetzee’s pen is as sharp as a sword; it cuts through our beliefs and draws blood that is pure and warm. The wound hopefully will remind us, time and again to respect people for what they are and not treat them as mirrors to see ourselves in them. Sometimes, just let be; you are not needed, nobody is needed. Just let the flower bloom on its’ own!



Thursday, July 16, 2015

Kabuliwalla and other stories by Rabindranath Tagore – A Book Review

It’s so easy to know you are in love yet so difficult to explain. A plethora of mixed emotions run through your heart and mind, inexplicable ones. It makes you restless, your heart skips at times like a watchful timid deer, at times an invisible needle pricks it causing a sweet pain, a pain you want to elude from but somehow enjoy it, when day dreaming is not an option but inadvertently becomes a need, a time when what you think and what you say are poles apart. You attempt to read a book but you don’t read anything for hours, the clouds have got a new meaning, the sky is suddenly blue and oh, the flowers are so lovely. I have a dried leaf in my hands and I turn it, look at it and then at the sky; I have it in my hands for hours as I sit there lost in my thoughts beside the river and eventually throw it away.

And ‘love’ is just one of the multitudes of emotions. To be able to penetrate through a person’s thoughts and feelings and relive their emotions and to be able to decorate them in words is the mark of a genius and that’s what Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories tells us about him. Set in the rustic Kolkata villages, every story oozes with the innocence of that era, long gone, and the characters are only haunted by the silhouettes of their emotions. So be it the puzzled ghost of the widow Kadimbini in ‘The Living and the dead’, the virtuous wife in ‘The gift of sight’ or the innocent Ratan vying for the attention of the unruffled postmaster in ‘The Postmaster’ or be it the anguish of poor Ramcharan to spend his entire life raising his thankless son like a rich boy, only to hand him over to his master in ‘Little master’s return’;  the upsurge of emotions are felt, the suffering is felt, the motherly love caresses the heart, the distress weakens, the longing breathes through the soul in the stories. The ‘Kabulliwallah’s’ endurance to the coldness of his little friend is heart warming.

Most of Rabindranath Tagore’s characters have been women, and though oppressed in one form or another, they are strong women replete with sentimentality and often a marked sensuousness. Tagore’s writings dive deep into the oceans of their spirited emotions and whether the pearl is found or not, the discoveries along the journey are a treasure of their own.

           Though I generally avoid translated books, I really liked the short stories. Having been in Mumbai since my childhood, it’s a pity that I can’t read and write in Bengali, which happens to be my mother tongue and the original language of Tagore’s writings. I am sure, in Bengali, the stories would be a greater delight to read.

My Rating : * * * * * * * * * * - 8/10

Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore

Friday, July 10, 2015

Life's Characters - Omkar

Picture courtesy -

I voluntarily teach ‘Spoken English’ to underprivileged youngsters as part of a project. I have been doing this for the last 8-9 months now. But this was the first time I was presented the opportunity to screen learners for a batch, to select them for the class. Hitherto, learners were present in the class and I had only to teach them.

Not everyone who came for the screening was selected. A basic knowledge of English was required and those who registered for the course were interviewed through a small test, to gauge their limited speaking abilities in the language, to comprehend if they would participate in class and how keen they were in learning the language and how much it would help in their day to day life. It was made clear to them that they had to speak in the interview and more so ‘only in English’, else they would not get selected.

It was a truly enriching experience, this first screening of mine. And I particularly write about a boy Omkar who appeared for the test; a lanky adolescent aged around 19. We made him read a sentence and he read it effortlessly. He was then shown a picture of a temple and worshippers and was asked to talk about the picture.

Omkar: Temple...God....Ganpatti

Me: Can you try and speak in sentences Omkar, this is a temple....

And he tried but what he spoke was indubitably miserable. I understood everything he said, or rather was trying to say, but that was not the point. I knew he wouldn’t get selected and maybe, by then, he knew too, but the poor lad wouldn’t give up. It was evident that every piece he tried to deliver had a battle raging in his head. He knew what he wanted to speak but the words evaded him, maybe the words weren’t there and his struggle made his hands dance to compete and complete, to stress what his mouth couldn’t eject. He fumbled, he stammered, but he went on. From the picture of the temple, he moved on to talk about his village temple and the grand prasadam organised every Tuesday.

He went on for quite some time and we didn’t have the heart to stop him but not a single correct sentence, not a single complete one and still he kept at it. His face, his eyes manifested a strange seriousness and slight fear. His fervour to answer was such that his life depended on it. He wanted to pass; he was desperate to join the course, to improve his English. This was an opportunity he wanted to grab with both hands. When he spoke, his eyes reflected that small glint of hope, they were screaming, “I want to join this course, I want to better myself, I want to show the world I can”. He didn’t want to give up till all his pawns and horses and elephants and camels were back in the box. I was amazed at his temerity when others would so easily give up.

Hearing him speak and looking at his hopeful yet cautious face, I was finding it difficult to concentrate; like rays and rats, thoughts were racing through my head. How difficult it would be for youngsters like Omkar to be in their colleges, in their work places with all the myriad confrontations, when they failed to strike a conversation, to be in a conversation. Imagine the rebuke and reproach they would be facing day after day and this is not an exaggeration because I have heard first hand experiences. Indubitably smart otherwise, they would probably have all the answers but the inability to mouth them could be so frustrating. I can only attempt to imagine the angst that these situations could provoke. And what about their confidence? Probably being shattered and diminished each single day. I really felt for the likes of Omkar who had most of the answers but probably not that many opportunities in life. Impecuniousness has its own slaves.

In contrast, I thought about some of the volunteers of the same age who had undergone training to be teachers. The other side of the coin! How easy it was, how impeccable their English was and how articulately they spoke. How privileged they have been, we have been to receive this formal education, how effortless it is for us to communicate and how conventional it is for us to dream big when we have no dearth of options and opportunities and the only dilemma is to choose from them. How many of us realize how privileged we are? While learners like Omkar would possibly be uncomfortable and apprehensive facing such articulately speaking teachers, some teachers would probably dread having learners like him, not because they won’t be able to teach but possibly the student may not be able to learn which acts as a failure on the teacher’s part too.

At times, in my classes, when my learners failed to provide the right structures, the right sentences, I invariably thought they lacked seriousness. But I realise now that though it may be true for some, it may not be so for others. No one wants to give a wrong answer when they know the right one. A mistake can’t be deliberate, and if it’s deliberate, it can’t be called a mistake. I need to be more patient and keep going at it like Omkar did. Thanks Omkar for teaching me this!

“Thank you sir” he smiled and shook hands before he left.