Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Book Review – Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and The Sea of Stories

Salman Rushdie’s reputation as a writer is popularly defined by two books – The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. The Midnight’s Children fetched him the Booker Prize in the year of its release and later, the Booker of Bookers and the Best of the Booker. The Satanic Verses, apart from accolades and awards, fetched him a fatwa calling for his assassination. This brought him fame that extended far beyond the literary circles. For an evolved reader, a Rushdie novel features as a must-read. The fainthearted reader is likely to be overwhelmed by his literary reputation and move on to a less daunting author on the bookshelf. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is the bait to reel in that hesitant reader.

 

Twelve-year old Haroun is leading a pretty nondescript existence in his hometown with his mother and his storyteller father Rashid. When his mother is seduced by the neighbour and leaves them, his father loses his gift of the gab. A storyteller who can say nothing more than ark, ark, ark is a storyteller without a job. An unexpected turn of events leads father and son to the Sea of Stories. Khattam-Shud, the evil ruler of the Kingdom of Chup is planning to plug the Story Source at the bottom of the Sea of Stories. If he succeeds, the sea will be silenced forever. Haroun and his new friends Iff, Mali – the gardener of stories, Butt the Hoopoe, and others must find a way to foil his evil plot. On the other hand, the neighbouring Kingdom of Gup is preparing to declare war against Chup to recapture Princess Batcheat, the betrothed of Prince Bolo of Gup. Haroun and his friends join forces with the Gup army led by General Kitab and storm the fortress of Chup. Will Haroun be able to help his friends in this mystical land? And what about his own life? Will he return home and have a happy end to his story?

 

While the story has a dark undertone the author uses a comic vibe to make his point. Rushdie is at his witty best with the dialogue. He liberally layers the said with the unsaid forcing the reader to stop, wonder, discover, and chuckle at the discovery. It is evident that the writer spent considerate amount of time and thought on selecting the names of all his characters. They are not merely names, they are loaded with the intent they carry to the writer. Also, they are a clever play on words. Set under the theme of good vs. evil, the names of the ‘good’ characters are all things speech (Chattergy, Gup, Bolo, Kitab) whereas their nemesis represent oppressed silence (Khattam-shud, Chup).

The premise of good vs. evil and a seemingly simplistic plot may fool a Rushdie fan into relegating Haroun… to the bottom of his reading list. It would be a grave mistake. Like all of Rushdie’s works, it is replete with symbols that draw attention to societal issues. The philosophical commentary and puns are subtle and demand a pause if they are to be truly savoured. With Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the author manages to present a story that works on two levels. One, a simple adventurous tale of a young boy in a fantastical land and two, an allegory on the power of stories. It is upon the reader to determine which one to read.

 

Haroun and the Sea of Stories was published in 1990, two years after Satanic Verses, a book which forced him to retreat into silence for a short while. This book appears to have been born out of that forced silence. In the story, when Haroun finally confronts Khattam-shud, he asks, “But why do you hate stories so much? Stories are fun.” A question which must have surely plagued the author himself when he was threatened with death. Perhaps, the book is a ploy by the author to convey his angst over the extreme reactions for the story he wrote. If so, it was a clever ploy for the author to write it in an accessible form, a form which would appeal to a far larger audience than his previous books. And, his appeal to the reader – don’t hate stories – gets through to the reader in this whimsical garb.

 

 

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Book Review – Abraham Eraly’s Gem in the Lotus

Abraham Eraly, noted author and historian, first began his history of the Indian subcontinent in 2000. The first book, Gem in the Lotus, begins in pre-Vedic India and ends with the Mauryan Empire. By all accounts, Gem in the Lotus is your typical history book. A plethora of information bundled together from fragments of Proto-Indo-History and a mix of reliable sources from later time; the book is a hefty tome, to say the least.

An Unusual Poetic History of Ancient India

The history of the Indian subcontinent is a puzzling, muddled affair. A quagmire of half-understood facts largely interpreted through the eyes of the many foreigners who have visited it through millennia. Even now, the country’s history is pursued further and further into the past with conclusive evidence stretching back at least six thousand years. But despite being contemporaneous with the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, even the Greeks, knowledge of Indian history is only partially complete. Since written history is largely missing from Ancient India, the works of foreigners who visited Ancient India like Megasthenes, Scylax, and Fa Hsien (Faxian) are important to our understanding of our past.

Efforts to map and catalogue the history of India has been a constant endeavour. Partly successful, largely unsuccessful, this effort has nevertheless created a somewhat loose picture of our past. It is fragmented in many places, but quite focused in others. This fragmentation is a huge problem when it comes to history. People lose interest in such a history. But efforts have been made over the last few decades to reconstruct a history of India that is coherent and can be understood.

Gem in the Lotus is one such reconstruction. Here, Abraham Eraly has taken the help of the various travelers who had visited and written about the country and compiled their stories into one veritable whole thus presenting a very respectable, and largely complete ancient history of the subcontinent. Where the book shines is in its accessibility. There are no footnotes. All the information (or history) that the reader will enjoy, or seek, is placed in the text itself. There is a substantial bibliography that will help academic folk or readers who want to inquire further.

Following its somewhat biblical opening line, Eraly plunges deep into India’s geological history, rushing hurriedly through the glacial movement of the tectonic plates, establishing India’s geography while also referring to the origins of the island of Mauritius. Eraly also talks about the imaginative cosmographies of Ancient Indians (where Mount Meru is shown to be the Earth’s Axis) and then moves on to use scientific data to present the modern depiction of India’s geography more accurately. Here, the narrative focuses on early man and his rise towards civilization. Methodical in his approach, Eraly sometimes deviates in such instances from a straightforward telling of history to a more speculative, almost lyrical, storytelling of history.

Now, that the narrative is firmly established in the book, and India has been fully formed, Eraly takes on each aspect of the subcontinent’s history that was available to him and depicts their story. He doesn’t shy away from criticizing those who did not show regard for history, even commenting on Indians who (even now) didn’t care enough about their own history to preserve it, or even attempt it.

Eraly uses the Rig-Veda as an important argumentative tool to talk about the Aryan colonization of North India. But even in the Rig-Veda, the past is a forgotten memory because not even the Aryans remember what happened. The rise of Jainism and Buddhism proves such a challenge that even the most powerful gods of the Aryans, like Indra and Agni, later become lower entities against more powerful successors like Shiva and Vishnu.

Without a doubt, the most interesting section for the reader will be about Emperor Ashoka. Aptly named “The Forgotten Emperor,” it covers brilliantly the career of one of India’s most renowned Kings. Although well-known, Ashoka’s reign isn’t as exciting to read about now, after so much of his life has been unearthed. But Eraly is largely unapologetic and dedicated in his depiction of the Emperor, never swaying or becoming emotional even when stating that Ashoka “killed ninety-nine of his brother, sparing only Vitasoka, who later retired to a religious life, perhaps as the best way to save his head,” though he does maintain that, in all fairness, this information may have been a fanciful exaggeration presented in Buddhist texts. Unlike mythical accounts of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism following the Kalinga War, Eraly presents a more relatable Ashoka who converted to another religion to find answers to the questions within. The Kalinga War did impact Ashoka, but he was already a Buddhist when the war happened; the War simply instilled in him the resolve to never wage any more wars.

On the subject of Greek Travelers who wrote about India, Eraly is largely appreciative of their efforts. Greek travelers like Megasthenes are revered for their contributions to our understanding of Indian history, but equally teased for their fanciful picturization of the land as seen through their eyes. Eraly doesn’t rely solely on the work of historians to create a picture of India. He even takes the help of varied literature from the hymns of Rig-Veda to the plays of Vishakhadatta. The book is littered with the poetry and songs of such works.

One of the highlights of the book is the Incidental Data. At the end of the book, there is a small section of “incidental” information that the author came across during research, and was not made part of the book due to its anecdotal nature. Among these incidental facts, the reader will find many tidbits of information like the fact that the word ‘Om!’ may have been originally nothing more than a spoken word that meant approval; or that the Buddha believed that birth does not make a brahmin, effort does, self-restraint does, and so does temperament.

The book does suffer occasionally due to Eraly’s extensive use of vocabulary. Leisurely readers will definitely find the 600-page tome daunting, even more so considering that it only covers Indian history till the Mauryan Empire. Eraly writes fluidly, never losing the reader’s attention, but some passages, where his fluidity is strained, require a second read. Thankfully, in the overall scheme of things, it is a minor inconvenience. Gem in the Lotus has stood the test of time so far. It is still an excellent book with which one can introduce oneself to the larger nuances of Indian history with ease.

Book Review – A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk

Reminiscent of other novels by Orhan Pamuk and their lovely rendering of Istanbul, A Strangeness in my Mind, also pays homage to the city.

Seen mainly through the eyes of the character, Mevlut, who comes to Istanbul in 1969 at the age of 12, to live with his father, who sells yoghurt during the day and boza (a fermented drink) at night. He and his father are among the hundreds of villagers who migrated from remote villages to Istanbul in search of a better income and life.

Mevlut thoroughly enjoys it as a child there, looking wondrously into the city’s intricate streets and its inhabitants while accompanying his father on his rounds; picking up the nitty gritties of the job: the way to behave, the way to entice a customer to buy, the manner in which to extol your yoghurt or boza. Being in school presents a completely different set of challenges especially due to the class divide and him having to work after his school. Nonetheless, his time with his cousins and their mother, is something he looks forward to, particularly with Suleyman, who is always ready to give Mevlut the benefit of the doubt.

The novel weaves its way through the various main events that occur in Mevlut’s life such as him dropping out of school, or his marriage to Rayiha with its own twist, or his being robbed during one of his rounds selling boza among many others or his time selling ice cream or being a waiter.

A Strangeness in my Mind is a peculiar bildungsroman or a coming of age novel that traces Mevlut’s growth. Yet Pamuk plays with the narrative’s style deftly such that it is not a mere chronicler of life from birth to death.

Firstly, the narrative is not a straightforward first person narrative that Mevlut narrates rather different point of views of various colourful characters are interspersed together, giving the reader multiple perspectives.

Curiously, the novel does begin by typically noting Mevlut’s birth but then it jumps right into the middle by narrating the story of Mevlut’s tense elopement. It immediately puts the reader into the thick of things. And then once that is done, Pamuk slows it down and brings you to the present, describing Mevlut’s daily round of selling boza and how he is now a historic curiosity from the past. Then, the narrative whizzes back to his childhood and where his journey to Istanbul all started!

A Strangeness in my Mind is as much about Mevlut as it is about Istanbul. Through Mevlut, we view the city, how it was to his childlike eyes, and how he views it later, when it has mushroomed further into the hills, as more and more people swarm the city. Through his rounds while selling his yoghurt and boza and later only boza, we see the different sections of the city, its past and how people from different nationalities and sects live there or used to live there, now taken over by others. Particularly, the reader sees the magic and menace of Istanbul at night when the ‘strangeness’ in Mevlut’s mind is heightened, allowing him to indulge in his musings and letting his thoughts ramble unbridled. Perhaps this is the reason why he does not give up this fast fading and hence, quaint profession, refusing to (yet at times being attracted to) partake in the wealth and business that his cousins, Suleyman and Korkut, were able to accumulate; but that which always eluded him. Yet, Mevlut is content, happy to live among his own thoughts, with his beautiful Rahiya, his daughters and his beloved city.

The tone of the novel is tinged with unmistakable nostalgia for the days gone by, for the brisk business yoghurt and boza sellers could sustain in the city before the dairy and raki companies gained foothold, and for the city’s beauty itself.

Yet the story is not melancholic or wistful in its nostalgia. The narrative never condemns the city’s growth but merely states it as things that are inevitable since most cities have chosen a very capitalistic, vertical and the suspicious “development” route for their growth.

A Strangeness in my Mind thus captures the ephemerality of the idea of Istanbul and of human stability. The ending itself is a beautiful gift that Mevlut bestows onto the city that has nurtured him.

That being said, I couldn’t help but wonder if the story was told through a female perspective, how drastically different would it be? For one, the reader would not be able to see Istanbul’s public side and definitely not its streets at night since Istanbul’s norms would not allow girls to be in the boza selling profession or go out at “odd” hours. Though Mevlut’s eyes provide a subaltern glimpse into the city, which is vastly different to the more elite narrative of one of Pamuk’s other novels, The Museum of Innocence, the story still speaks from a privileged male perspective. We do see a different side of the city but that is very much based on gender and profession; unique as that may be, it makes for an interesting and creative topic of discussion among fellow readers.

A Pitch for Love by Kartik Kompella

It’s been a while since I read a light-hearted fiction. My bookshelf is laden heavily with serious subjects that I used to feel embarrassed when someone wanted to borrow a lighter read. So, when I picked ‘A Pitch for Love’, it was a welcome change, especially after letting myself drown in Franz Kafka for a week. Just as I began to read, I knew I should thank the author for two things. One, the book wasn’t Mahabharata retold from Adhiratha’s point of view or Ramayana rewritten in Sumitra’s perspective. Two, the language, which used to be one of the important reasons I prefer not to read the so-called best-selling contemporary Indian authors.

Karthik Kompella has been a successful non-fiction author and editor with five books to his credits. ‘A Pitch for Love’ is his seventh book and debut in fiction. The book is a tale of office romance but Kartik’s female protagonist, Prachi, is no ‘damsel in distress’. She is the kind of career woman every girl aspires to be. She is smart, independent, and wildly successful. She reigns as the advertising queen. Drona, the male protagonist, on the other hand, reminded me of Vijay Devarakonda, the new prince of romance. On one hand, Drona is reckless and carefree and on another, he is sensitive and responsible. Either way, Kartik makes him look adorable.

Drona and Prachi, literally meet by an accident and, Drona gets employed by Prachi. The rest of the story is about whether these two found their way to each other’s heart. Before they get there, they had to deal with a lot of rivalries, office politics, and setbacks. And then there are Janaki, Ganapathi, Hizmout and others who remind you of the different kind of people you meet at any workplace. Since the story unfolds in the unconventional world of advertising, you get a sneak peek into how pitches are conceived and won amidst cutthroat competition. The chapters where Drona and Prachi work to win a tough client or deal with an extraordinary situation are quite creative and exciting. The book is also full of wittiness in conversations making it a ‘peppy’ read.

The author is also founder of a Brand consulting agency and that should explain the frequent mentions of brand names like Verna, Enfield, Jimmy Choos, Diesel Jeans etc. in the first few chapters. It was indeed distracting, but this problem seemed to have fixed itself in the later chapters and Kartik lets you ease into the story. One other thing, which I could have preferred otherwise, is the too much detailing of how a character looks, especially the female ones. While it might build the interest initially, it also becomes a drag after a while. Irrespective of all that, the book is a page-turner and the author successfully will convince you of Drona’s charm that you almost forgive him for all his amorous conquests.  Although a good part of the story happens inside the office premises, the events that happen beyond the office are the truly romantic ones. Prachi unwinding with her friend from past, Prachi’s dates with David, Drona’s adventure with Parvathi, Janaki’s time with Drona etc., and last but not the least, the Guy Fawkes day celebration etc. make a delightful read. So, if you are looking for an unconventional read in romance, ‘A Pitch for Love’ is a good choice.

The Autobiography of a Stock – A Book Review

One of the benefits of being an Indian middle class child is that you learn much earlier in life that you need to save money, irrespective of whether you like it or not. Most children from these households might have grown up listening to how their parents had to shed blood to ensure financial security for the family. While one must be grateful for all that they have been provided with, one cannot deny the fact that the circumstances of an Indian household doesn’t really approve of or prepare you to take any sort of risks to improve your finances. There weren’t even many takers for entrepreneurship as compared to a paid job, until recently. Continue reading “The Autobiography of a Stock – A Book Review”

Yoddha from Jaico Publishing House

Book Review – Rajat Pillai’s Yoddha

The new arrivals section in most bookstores these days are overflowing with mythological fiction, making me want to run at the mention of fiction. The social media has barely recovered from the hailstorm of Padmavati (or should I say Padmavat?). So, I wasn’t sure if it was a safe idea to start reading a historical fiction at this juncture.

I looked at the title of the book again. It said Yoddha. I couldn’t help being reminded of Jodha (Akbar), who was a forerunner for the likes of Padmavati in terms of controversies. The subtitle of the book read, “The Dynasty of Samudragupta”.  The author Rajat Pillai must have thought, “Why should the Khiljis, Akbars, and Aurangzebs have all the fun? Let us also wake the Guptas up, from their forgotten graves”.

A friend who saw me reading the book, asked if the book speaks of the wars that Samudragupta had won during his time. Given that the title of the book refers to ‘a warrior’, one would expect the same. However, you get to see more of Samudra, the retiring king and doting father and less of Samudra, the warrior. The story starts after the point in history when the Ashwamedha horse sent by Samudragupta returned unconquered, invariably crowning him the King of Kings. The book begins with Samudra and ends with him but there are many a Yoddhas in the pages in between. While Samudra remains the glorious historical backdrop for the story to unfold, the book is more about the ascending of Chandragupta II. The book does deal with battles but most of them doesn’t involve a sword or an armor.

The challenge with historical fictions is that the readers always know who lives and who dies. The success of such books lies in the narration that keeps the reader hooked to the book even after knowing what is to befall their favourite characters. That way Rajat Pillai chose a rather unconventional plot to keep his audience’s attention. Who would have thought that the future king of the Gupta Dynasty had to be treated for mental illness? On the hindsight, I am wondering if the author tried to create awareness about mental illness through his book. The book has all the usual elements of a historical fiction – war, love, sibling rivalry, treachery and more. An important chapter of the book almost reminded me of a scene from the blockbuster movie ‘Bahubali’, but the later chapters made me realize that there was more to it than what I had assumed.

The chapters dedicated to the amorous adventures of Chandragupta are akin to a Bollywood dance number in the middle of a fast-moving thriller movie. It disrupts the flow of the story, but being an Indian audience, you are used to such fully-packed entertainers. So that way, the book caters to classes and surely is an entertainer. An interesting part of the book was the inclusion of the intriguing Kumari Devi (Kanya Devi) or the Living Goddess in the plot and touching upon the significant role these women play in a kingdom. When you have almost forgotten about Samrat Samudra after the first few chapters, there come the dark secrets from his past weaving some exciting subplots before the grand finale. From Vyom to Madhavasena, the book is quite engaging. However, I do personally think the editorial team could have done a better job.

I come from the creed of people who still can’t get over the Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan (1950) after all these years. 2400 pages and five volumes, one can imagine the amount of research and historical data that would have gone into the making of a book of such magnitude.

With Ponniyin Selvan as the benchmark, it becomes difficult to appreciate any new age historical fiction. However, I am also aware that it is unfair to the author to put his book against the mighty Ponniyin Selvan. So, I must warn you that if you belong in the Ponniyin Selvan fan club, then this book might leave you unquenched.  But, if you are a light reader and are tired of the mythological fictions or if you are looking for a page turner, then this is an excellent choice of read for you. I must also credit the author for choosing the Golden era in the Indian history that usually gets overshadowed thanks to all the political controversies. Even if the book doesn’t bring out all the true history of this period, I hope the book will rekindle the interest of the reading population to unearth more knowledge about these rulers and their administration.

Richard Rothman’s ‘Master Opportunity and Make It Big’ from Jaico

I have never been a great fan of self-help books, even if it is about business. I always believed that ‘’one man’s food is another man’s poison”. Our strengths and weaknesses are different and so are our secrets to success. So, when I picked Richard M Rothman’s ‘Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Master Opportunity and Make It Big’, I was skeptical if I will enjoy reading. However, the author did put some of my doubts to rest in the very first chapter where he narrates a very interesting anecdote from Essel Group’s Chairman Subash Chandra’s life. No matter how delicious your recipes are, you need to learn to plate them well to appeal to the target audience. How can Richard who is one of the world’s leading experts on Business Opportunities go wrong when it comes to his own readers?

I was expecting some more anecdotes in the chapters that followed, but every chapter surprised me and the reader in me was all excited. Each chapter painted ‘opportunity’ in distinct colors and I realized that the book is not trying to be a singular rule book to success but rather an encyclopedia, chronicling the paths to success. You are free to pick and choose whatever suits you. Have you always wanted to establish something that puts social welfare before profit? Do you want to work on areas you have absolutely no knowledge about? Are you worried that you have been trying for years with no real profit? Fear not. Richard’s book seems to have answers to these and a lot more of such questions. If there is one huge take away for me from the book, it is that money or the lack of it won’t stop you from achieving your business goals if you learn to play around with opportunities.

The Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book has two parts to it. The first part covers the success secrets of India’s Opportunity masters. From Subash Chandra to Sasha Mirchandani, there about 18 success stories that will inspire you to march towards yours dreams. These do not merely talk about the success stories, but also about how they perceived opportunity, persevered through tougher times and had the courage to venture into unknown territories. At the end of each chapter, he also summarizes the golden rules of success for each of these masters. In the second part of the book, Richard talks about forty-four opportunity sutras which includes Opportunity Accelerators, Opportunity Activators, Opportunity Evaluators, Opportunity Expediters.

The Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book has arrived at a time when the Indian market is abuzz with startups. The years 2016 and 2017 saw a lot of seemingly promising startups shut down. A study by inc42.com reveals that “50% of the founders, post-shutdown, have joined another company and are working on leading positions such as category head, CEOs, VPs and more. But only a small chunk has made a comeback as founders”. I believe this book would provide the impetus to turn that number around. The insights that this book provide makes it, a must-read for any aspiring entrepreneur even those with a string of failed attempts. It does have its own cliched 3Cs, 3Ds, 5Ws etc. but if you can take them on your stride, this book is a good place to reach for some encouragement. Even if you are a non-reader, you can still try the book because the presentation of the book is simple and keeps you engaged. You can read in parts or may be just the golden rules.

I was a tad disheartened because all the Opportunity masters listed in the Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book were all males. I do really hope Richard would care to tell us about the masters from the other genders in the next edition of the Master Opportunity and Make it Big” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>book. Not that any of these secrets to success are gender-dependent, but there are gender-dependent challenges. Bringing out the stories of Opportunity master from the other genders will add an extra boost to the aspiring entrepreneurs from the other genders. Having said that, irrespective of your gender, this is one of those books, you can read and reread multiple times.

 

Patanjali Yoga Sutras – Know Thy Self

“The simplest meaning of the word sutra is “thread”. A sutra is, so to speak, the bare thread of an exposition, the absolute minimum that is necessary to hold it together, unadorned by a single “bead” of elaboration. Only essential words are used. Often, there is no complete sentence-structure. There was a good reason for this method. Sutras were composed at a period when there were no books. The entire work had to be memorized, and so it had to be expressed as tersely as possible Patanjali’s Sutras, like all others, were intended to be expanded and explained. The ancient teachers would repeat an aphorism by heart and then proceed to amplify it with their own comments, for the benefit of their pupils. In some instances these comments, also, were memorized, transcribed at a later date, and thus preserved for us.”

From the Translators’ Foreword.

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Josephine MacLeod And Vivekananda’s Mission – A Song of Freedom

 

“Two weeks after her sudden departure for California, Swami Vivekananda praised Joe’s detachment, as noted in a letter from Betty to Joe, written October 27:

He spoke of “Joe” and said you were the only real soul who had “attained freedom among us all,” including himself. You could drop everything, everybody and go out without a thought of regret & do your work, that you had attained this through thousands of reincarnations, he had seen it in India & here. No luxury counted, no misery (as in India) mattered – [you were] the same poised soul, etc.

Continue reading “Josephine MacLeod And Vivekananda’s Mission – A Song of Freedom”