Monday, May 25, 2015

Book review: Finding the Demon's Fiddle by Patrick Jered

Title of book: Finding the Demon's Fiddle – On the Trail of the Ravanhattha
Author: Patrick Jered
Publisher: Tranquebar
Pages: 606
Genre: Travel
ISBN: 978-93-85152-02-3
Binding: Hardbound
Rating: 3/5

In one of our communications, author Patrick Jered had expressed his concerns about how his book would be received in the market, considering it didn't quite fit in any neat genre. It is not an academic work, nor is it a novel, neither is it entirely a travelogue. But then, when has the call of passion been bound by convention? Jered also worried about the volume of his work and wondered if its six hundred plus pages would turn off a reader. Having just finished his book, I can tell him that his fears are quite unfounded.

Jered's fascination for this instrument developed during one of his trips to Rajasthan in India. One night, when he heard the soulful strain of the Ravanhattha streaming in from his hotel window, he simply had to find out what this instrument was and how it came to be. Finding the Demon's Fiddle: On the Trail of the Ravanhattha is the account of Patrick Jered's travels across India and Sri Lanka trying to find the origins of the ancient string instrument called the Ravanhattha.

Ravanhattha literally means 'Ravana's arm' and there's a popular mythological story about its origin. The demon king, Dasagriva, once decided that the Mount Kailasa had to be moved and lifted it with his mighty arms. The shaking mountain disturbed the sweet slumber of Shiva and Parvati. Enraged, Shiva pressed down upon the mountain with his big toe trapping Dasagriva underneath. The demon king howled in pain and was thereby given the name, Ravana – the one who screams. On Brahma's advice, Ravana started praying to Shiva seeking respite. He sang praises of the god for thousands of years, in accompaniment with an instrument. This instrument, he fashioned out of his own arm, having wrenched it out and using the veins as strings. Finally, Shiva was pleased and he let off Ravana with blessings and a token. The token was a powerful lingam infused with Shiva's very essence. This myth that occurs in the Uttara Kanda of the Ramayana, forms the starting point of the author's many adventures.

Because the Ravanhattha is primarily found in use in Rajasthan, Jered bases most of his research in that state, beginning with the clan of Bhopa priests. These priests belong to the cult that venerates Pabuji, a local folk hero. These priests worship the ascetic warrior god in the form of sacred paintings called pars, before which The Epic of Pabuji is sung in night-long sessions. This long epic, which takes up to 36 hours to recite fully, has been passed down to generations through the oral tradition. To his great surprise, the author finds a Ravana connection in the epic, although it is a much later composition than the Ramayana. Another fact that intrigues him is that an instrument supposedly invented by the demon king should be used to sing the praises of his nemesis and hero, Pabuji. He sets out to find answers to these glaring oddities in tradition and the journey takes him from heritage hotels to remote villages, from tourist tracks to shrines in the wilderness, from academic bookstores to homes of the Bhopa priests. He starts by going to geographical locations mentioned in the epic and local tales to establish the historicity of Pabuji and possibly even Ravana. He learns about the rituals and traditions of the Bhopas in some detail, as also of some other the parallel cults in the area, like the cult of Rupnath. His research trail leads him from Bisrakh - the birthplace of Ravana to an obscure village called Ravan in MP where the demon king is worshiped as the guardian deity; from the graves of academics like Tessitori in Bikaner, all the way to the war-torn area of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka.

But more than the historic and cultural gleanings, it is Jered's takeaways from the people of India that make this book such an endearing read. Unpretentious and accepting, the author makes friends easily along the way. A rickshaw-pulling street kid, an expat yogi, a famous Bhopa priest, a mystical seer, a driver, an academic and some others form quite the melee in his narrative. He forms special bonds with each of these people who appear serendipitously, helping him in his quest. People and places fall in line as if guided by a higher power. The author's portrayal of these people is honest and intimate. He is meticulous, even obsessive, in recording the details of not just his research findings but also human behaviour. There are incisive and humorous observations about people and stereotypes. He does not even spare himself and often resorts to self-depreciating humour. His frustrations and exultations are very real and one cannot help but nod in agreement ever so often. Despite the length of the book, Jered manages to hold the attention of the reader with his lucid style. His research is in-depth, but he never tries to emulate the scholars he references. His voice is fresh and casual.

But the reading experience is often marred by some phrases that the author uses over and over again. It seems like he kept running out of vocabulary when describing certain characters or felt strangely compelled to use a stock phrase each time the character was mentioned. For example, each time Surpanakha's character in mentioned, Jered compulsively precedes the noun with 'Ravana's shockingly ugly sister'. From a publisher like Tranquebar/Westland, one would expect a little tighter editing.

However, one can ignore some stylistic fallacies because the book is highly informative. It throws in many surprising facts pertaining to Ravana mythology. Apart from the Pabuji angle, of great interest is the Buddhist view of Ravana as Jered discovers in Sri Lanka. Further, he educates the reader on the interesting connecting between the demon king, Zen and the Shaolin monks! And not to forget his vivid and beautiful descriptions of the desert landscape and the Indian life. In his maiden book, Jered thus blends beautifully several travel anecdotes, historical findings, cultural insights and human connections. The book is not just about finding an instrument but following the music of one's heart. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Code Name God by Mani Bhaumik: Impressions

The older I get, the lesser I believe in coincidences. The more I still myself, the more I am able to see the plan of the Universe. Everything happens at just the right time for just the right reasons. Some things may seem cruel and unjust, but the grand design is revealed to those who wait with humble hearts. Books, in particular, always come to me as signs. Some books may sit unread on my shelves for months, even years; but I feel compelled to read them at such times that their message resonates with that time of my life completely. I often find that friendly nudge I need to take a step forward in life in the pages of a book. And no friend is as convincing.

Mani Bhaumik's Code Name God is one such book. I don't remember when or where I bought it. A second-hand copy with the most annoying pencil scribbles all over it. If it weren't for the sublime content, my stream of expletives for the vandal owner may have never ceased. Thankfully, they gave up half way and the book found its way into my heart and home with half dirty-half clean pages. I smile as I see myself in no hurry to start the real review. I am taking my moment to appraise the body of this favourite new friend with whom a spent a few illuminating days. Sidney Sheldon testifies on the cover of the book: “This book may change your life.” I think it has mine.

Mani Bhaumik, the author of 'Code Name God' is an acclaimed Indian scientist, who did pioneering work in the field of laser technology. It was his path-breaking work that gave us the technique of corrective laser eye surgery. Associated with IIT in India and the UCLA in the US, Bhaumik is out and out, a man of science. He is also a man of great fame and fortune. But most importantly, he is a man of the spirit and the book weaves these three strands together. In this autobiographical account, Bhaumik traces his meteoric rise from a mud-plastered hut in rural Bengal to a palatial mansion in Bel Air. But it is not just a rags to riches story. It is also a tale of the author's scientific & spiritual quest.

Bhaumik starts the book with a most poignant recollection of his early years in India, beset by the struggle for Independence and the great Bengal famine. Amidst extreme hardships, Bhaumik found solace and strength in his grandmother, personalities like his father and Matangini Hazra and the great Mahatma Gandhi. Combining his gift of intelligence with hard work, he acquired one scholarship after another, until he was working with the best minds in the American scientific community. His scientific innovations brought him fast fame and soon he was hobnobbing with the American elite. Dating divas, driving luxurious wheels, owning bungalows, and throwing lavish parties became a way of life for this poor lad from India.

But soon, Bhaumik's long-ignored spiritual centre called out for nourishment. He sought answers within through meditation and without, through the history of science. Bhaumik's greatest merit is in presenting the most complex scientific theories and findings of science in the simplest manner possible. Thanks to his lucid writing, even a science idiot like me can claim to have understood at least the basics of quantum mechanics and particle physics. Bhaumik explains how the realm of science – especially physics – has paid special attention to space technology in the last century. The idea is to understand the makeup of space, time and ultimately, consciousness. These discoveries are increasingly bridging the divide between physics and metaphysics. Citing the findings of great physicists and mathematicians like Newton, Schrodinger, Penrose, Hawking and many others, he beautifully points us in the direction science is headed.

Bhaumik offers conclusive proofs about the unity of the Universe and those who reside in it. To someone like me, who follows the Indian spiritual tradition, it sounded eerily similar to the concept of Brahman. The resonance was complete and I think that's what Bhaumik had set out to do when he wrote this book. The unity of science and spirituality, matter and mind is achieved in this beautiful book. Bhaumik also adds his own spiritual insights to the findings of science to drive home the point of One Source, which we call by its code name, God.

'Code Name God' has not just changed my world view but encouraged me to follow on the path of meditation I have just embarked upon. For the skeptic, this book will provide hard facts; for the faithful, it will act as an assurance in knowing that there is something greater than ourselves and that we are related to it and to each other. It recommend this book to everyone.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

What is Culture Express?

You know the thing with epiphanies? They have a strange habit of presenting themselves at the least opportune moments. Mine struck me in the middle of my second semester MA examinations. There I was trying to cram up tenets of Buddhism and ancient Indian history when the idea of Culture Express came to me. Where I should have been studying earnestly, my head was swimming with ideas and possibilities in cultural education.

Can't say it was altogether unprecedented, though. My husband, Viren, had just started offering workshops of his own and it was inspiring to see his long-time passion for woodwork come alive like this. It was also amazing to see how people with similar passions reach out when there is a call for learning. 

So many people want to learn; they just don't know who to ask. It is especially true for working or homemaking adults, who have long stopped formal education and let the rut of daily life take over. There is little time or opportunity to learn even if one wants to. There is no real choice between popular and often unreliable media, and the ivory tower of academia. Culture Express was born from the need to bridge this gap. But before I delve into my vision for Culture Express, allow me to go back a little in time and tell you where it all started.

Early love

I can easily attribute my obsession with culture studies to my mother. She is this lovely woman who lives in a little bubble made of all things beautiful. Whatever minor talents I have in terms of singing or dancing or painting, I owe them to her. I inherited her artistic temperament, and oh, the love of reading! She would read a lot and since I was her only child and companion for the greater part of the day, she would tell me what she was reading. I was greatly influenced by her love for literature, especially the Mahabharata. Even today, we can spend hours discussing her favourite epic.    

Growing up, I learnt many little arty things. I went to painting class, I learnt some Rabindra Sangeet, I studied English literature and quit them all eventually. I went on to do a masters in Clinical Psychology and worked as a journalist for almost six years. I owe it to my parents, especially my father, to allow me to find my path. I meandered a lot but I was soon to come face to face with my true love. 

True love

All this while, my love for all things culture kept bubbling just below the surface. Two years ago I was working for a trade magazine of the salon and spa industry as its assistant editor. It was an easy, cushy job with the added incentive of trips to the most luxurious spas of the country, but I was beginning to get disillusioned. The superficiality of the beauty and fashion industry was starting to gnaw at my spirit. That was when I chanced upon a post graduate diploma course in Comparative Mythology offered by the Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Mumbai. Since it was a weekend course, I took it up. That was the first sign from the Universe.

All guns blazing

I completed the first course while I continued to work. I re-discovered my love of academics and how much I enjoyed it. It was like tasting blood. By the time the year was over, I wanted more of it - all of it. I decided this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. With a LOT of encouragement from my husband I took the big leap of faith. Trust me, starting over and changing one's career at 30 and giving up on one's financial independence takes a lot of courage. So I enrolled in not one but three courses simultaneously, determined to make the most of the two year study break I had given myself. I took up an advanced PG Diploma course in Comparative Mythology, a PG Diploma in Mysticism and decided to do my second master's degree in Ancient Indian Culture. The assignments and the exams nearly killed me but I couldn't be happier.

The birth of an idea

And in the thick of things, the idea of Culture Express was born. I was my best case study in this course of action. I looked at the Urmi from two years ago and the Urmi after two years of culture studies; the difference in the way I understood my cultural context was phenomenal. I realised how most Indian children have a very superficial understanding of what their culture is all about. We grow up hearing stories from our elders, participate in rituals and festivals, and turn to the television, the Internet or popular fiction building our abstract notion of culture. We rarely stop to think, we rarely question our sources. We assume what is being told to us is true. As adults, we use the term 'culture' excessively and often unconsciously, seldom realising what we mean by it. In these times of political debate surrounding a party with Hindu leanings, 'Indian Culture' is being used and abused as a tool for propaganda and most of us nod our heads not knowing what it is we are agreeing with.

When I started to understand this cultural ground we stand upon, I wanted others to understand too. This is why I have started Culture Express. I want to make available to people the knowledge of their culture through short workshops, presentations and talks. These short workshops will offer authentic content and help fill a lot of gaps in perception and understanding of one's cultural milieu. What I want to do with it is foster a rational approach towards culture, backed by academic sources. I want people to know their roots the way I'm coming to understand mine. I want to show how wonderfully the forces of history, economics, politics, religion and mythology all come together to create this flux we call culture. But I want to make this easy for the rest. I understand not everyone has the luxury of time to delve into the depths of culture in search of their roots, just as I understand that knowing one's roots is important. Come join me on this journey, won't you?

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Book review: Ramayana - The Game of Life (Part I & II) by Shubha Vilas

Name of book: Ramayana - The Game of Life (6-part series)
Part I: Rise of the Sun Prince
Part II: Shattered Dreams
ISBN-13: (Part I) 978-81-8495-530-9
                (Part II) 978-81-8495-531-6
Author: Shubha Vilas
Genre: Mythology
Publisher: Jaico Books
Format: Paperback
Rating: 2/5

Because I am a bibliophile, book-review blogger, and mythologist, I had to agree when debutante author, Shubha Vilas, asked me to read and review her Ramayana retellings. Also, I admit I don’t know my Ramayana as well as my Mahabharata. The first time I tried reading the epic, I chose Ashok Banker’s 8-part series. Not quite agreeing with his style of writing, I gave up mid-way. I got my second chance on the Ramayana with this book-review request, but looks like Lord Rama doesn't quite want me to know the whole story of his life. That’s because Ramayana - The Game of Life hasn't been able to make me stick around either.

Shubha Vilas’ all-too-simplistic rendition of the grand epic is a downer. I think I’m going to name it the Amish Syndrome - this dumbing down of mythology in juvenile literary style - that this current crop of mythology writers seem to be suffering from. Agreed, this pop mythology genre has regenerated a huge wave of interest in the subject among the youth, but the purist in me cannot help but smirk. Where’s the sweeping eloquence of epic literature? What about the larger-than-life characterisation of kings and heroes? Why must my Rama or my Shiva talk like ordinary mortals?  What’s wrong in expecting a little grandiosity from the grandest Indian epics, even if they are re-tellings in the 21st century? What I find missing sorely from works such as these is the poetic essence. Everything but the basic plot seems to be lost in translation.

What Shubha Vilas tries to do differently is offering, what I like to call, ‘moral footnotes’. In a format I’ve never seen before, the author goes on commenting upon situations in the plot - sometimes taking up almost half the page! Here are a couple of smaller examples:

BOOK 1, page 72, line 9: Such effusive praise words from Dasaratha placated and appeased Vishwamitra.
Footnote: Sweet, genuine words of gratitude are the best welcome drinks!

BOOK 2, page 142, last line: The citizens wept, looking at each other, trying to solve the puzzle - the sight of a sobbing Sumantra, a despondent Lakshmana and a composed Rama was confusing them.
Footnote: Puzzles are fun to solve on paper but when life itself becomes a puzzle, then fun fizzles out.

Not exactly pearls of wisdom, don’t you think? She tries to fuse the formats of retelling and commentary, but doesn't quite measure up. Both the language and content of these footnotes come across as unnecessary, silly even. To be fair, she does offer some sensible insights in places and the background to certain situations in others. But I stopped reading the footnotes by page 5, and I hope the author will stop writing them by book three. The intent may be good, but the format doesn’t work. Scholastic references are what footnotes are for and that’s perhaps how the author should use them.

Another unique feature of these books are these text boxes where Vilas deems to offer more moral ‘discourse’ or sometimes even management mantras! So whether you want it or not, you have an author, commentator, moral compass, annotation enthusiast, spiritual adviser and a management guru all rolled into one.

The saving grace of this book is the author’s fairly crisp narrative style (barring the footnote business, of course!). If the reader is looking for a simple retelling for the sake of the story and the myths, this is an option to consider. But for a reader with finer literary tastes, may I suggest a wide berth?

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Mirrored Life: The Rumi Novel by Rabisankar Bal - A review

Book: A Mirrored Life - The Rumi Novel
Author: Rabisankar Bal
Translator: Arunava Sinha
Publisher: Random House India
ISBN: 978-8-184-00615-5
Pages: 215
Rating: 4/5

There are at least a few books every avid reader deems life-changing. Dozakhnama by Rabisankar Bal was one such book for me. For months after I’d read it, I walked around enveloped in its magical haze. It became an impossibly high yardstick that few books have been able to match up to. Naturally, when I heard about A Mirrored Life by the same author, I wanted to read it. I wanted to pit Bal against himself. Knowing it was a novel based on the life of the celebrated Sufi saint, Jalaluddin Rumi made the wait harder. I wanted to savour it, drown in it.

When the review copy finally came into my eager hands, I read it cover to cover in one
breathless sitting. Bal has this way with words… they stick to your skin and then to your soul. Tell me how one can stay unaffected with lines such as these?

'I am complete in you. This skin, blood, bones, marrow, mind, soul... all, all of it is you. This
existence is your existence.'

'You cannot count the number of creatures lurking inside a man. There's a rat, there's a bird too.
Don't be the rat. Try to be the bird.'

'Do you know why the flute weeps?
- It wants to return to the wood of reeds from which it was taken.'

Reading Bal is an immersive experience. The author becomes the subject becomes the reader and back. In his quintessential style, the author often tells a story within a story within a story. The rich oriental tradition of qissas comes alive in his work. Parables over moral discourse, metaphors over reality. Lines are artistically blurred and sometimes you’re not quite sure whose voice you’re hearing. But it doesn't matter because the beauty of these words is so sublime.

It’s no less than a mystical journey that one undertakes with Ibn Battuta, the narrator into the life and times of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. The book is populated with several other characters, historical and otherwise, who drift in and out of the plot enriching the narrative. Prime among them are Shamsuddin Tabrizi or Shams - the mad ascetic and Sultan Walad - Rumi’s favourite son and disciple. The book explores the Sufi saint’s relationship with each of these characters and the journey that takes him from being a Maulana (a religious scholar) to a whirling dervish.

But it is when he portrays the relationship between Shams and Rumi that the author is at his most profound. Rumi calls Shams ‘The Sun of Tabriz’, an expression of the deep love and reverence he feels for his spiritual mentor, friend and lover. The nature of Shams and Rumi’s alliance is historical fact, but it is the other-worldly flavour of their relationship that the author succeeds in bringing out. Nothing is profane in their consummate love for it is no different from a seeker’s love for God. The pain of separation and the ecstasy of union are penultimate in this equation. When Rumi whirls in divine rapture, the reader is drawn right in.

Peppered with Rumi’s own poetry, the book is a rich tapestry of human emotion, divine experience and artful storytelling. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Bal outdoes himself when compared to his last book, but A Mirrored Life - The Rumi Novel is a powerful work unto itself. One must also doff their hat to translator Arunava Sinha who doesn’t miss a trick. I haven’t read the original Bengali version of the book, but I cannot imagine having missed any flavour. It occurs to me as the most faithful translation there can be. And am I walking around with a magical haze around me all over again? Ah, yes.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why I exercise: 5 fitness motivation mantras

I never never never thought I'd write a 'motivational' blog post. I've derided the self help genre for as long as I can remember and I still catch myself scowling at people reading books like 'Who moved my Cheese?'. I used to think losers need motivation, but then I grew up. I met people and their demons. My demons made friends with their demons and I realised we're all the same. We all need love and acceptance from ourselves and others. We all need a hand when we are low. When a few women reached out to me after my last post, asking me how I do what I do, especially in the realm of fitness, I felt the need to write an elaborate answer. Hence this.

Because the rewards of fitness are intangible and come slowly, it lies at the bottom of most people's priority lists. It's the Achilles heel of the even the most focussed among us. It takes huge amounts of motivation to start walking down this path and huger amounts of discipline to keep walking. While different reasons finally set people on this course, the following five keep me going.

Turning 30: The twenties is the most amazing decade of one's life. You have youth on your side and a body that will put up with just about anything. Thanks to those high levels of energy and metabolism, you think you can take on the world. I thought so too. But turning 30 flipped a switch somewhere. Age started manifesting in the most insidious ways. A hangover that would last suspiciously longer; an innocuous crease under my eye as I woke up; and oh, let's not even discuss the holiday weight that never seemed to go away.

And then there was childbirth and the stretch marks and flabby bits that come with it. I now had a body that was irreversibly altered by pregnancy. I knew that my bone and hormone health were only going to go downhill from this point. I needed to do something. I needed to take charge of my body, I needed to fix and beautify this place I live in.

Being strong: Women are strong beyond belief, but most don't know it. We've been led to believe in the myth of the 'weaker sex' and in that trap we languish. Worse still is the 'fairer sex' stereotype, which makes us think we ought to be thin and light and waif-like. Don't you realise that the arrogance of man comes from being physically stronger? Why should you not be able to punch a guy right back in his face if you need to?

No, this isn't about self defence. This isn't about building muscle either. This is about having the confidence that comes from strength. Weight training has added strength and confidence to my curves. I am finally free of the image of that pudgy Bengali child who would never participate in sports because she knew she would never win.

The high of lifting: I started gymming the way most women do - pounding away at the treadmill for hours, or cycling or being on the elliptical occasionally. And I was B-O-R-E-D. While cardio routines work for some - and are important too - repetitive exercises just didn't work for me. Fortunately, I had a good trainer in the beginning who encouraged me to take up lifting. Actually, everyone is taken to the weigh training section and shown the ropes, but most women tend to give up because of the pain. The day after the training, when the DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) set in, you are in pain. For beginners, persisting through this phase is particularly tough. Why subject yourself to aching body parts when you can put off the alarm and sleep some more?

Whip your own ass, get up and go because this ache can be delicious. The endorphin high notwithstanding, sore muscles are a wonderful reminder of your hard work. Sure you walk with a limp for a day and can't laugh because your pecs are paining so much, but hey, you've done it! You've picked up the heavier dumbbell, you've conquered yourself!

Narcissism Inc.: It also helps to have oodles of self love. You'll invest in yourself only if you think you are worthy. So many women seem to give up on themselves after marriage and childbirth. The focus of their lives shift and they forget how to be good to be themselves. I am grateful I am surrounded by people who reiterate my self-belief. It helps me stay motivated to be beautiful inside out.

It also helps to have a good front camera on your phone and be unabashed about taking (and posting) those selfies! Ask my social media friends and they'll tell you how I post selfies to the point of irritation. But I think seeking a little validation never hurt anyone. I could clothe it in a fancy phrase and call it 'maintaining a photo diary to chart my progress', but the truth is I like to look at the mirror and care what I see in it. I love my bodycon dresses and I love the attention.

Live to eat: The last and most important reason why I work out so religiously is food. I LOVE food in all caps. You'll rarely hear me offer diet advice because that's something I can't do myself. I will work out twice a day if I have to, but I will eat that occasional burger. I will walk that extra mile, I will take those stairs but I will have my fried fish & rice and my chocolate mousse and I will have them without guilt.

I never had great metabolism to begin with and it grows only slower with age. So I exercise - exercise like a maniac so I do not have to give up on the joy of food. That said, do not undermine the importance of a healthy diet and moderate eating. Eating mindlessly while working out is, as a fitness-conscious friend once put it, "like pouring water into a glass with a hole."

In mean, consider your body type, your daily routine, your food habits and tailor a routine that works best for you. Lift weights if you like to lift weights, run if that's what makes you happy, dance or swim if that's your thing. But get up and get going. This is for you. You deserve to look and feel good but you must work towards it. Make small goals. Sleep 30 minutes less, resist one pastry, walk to the grocery store. The only one formula is that of determination and discipline. Make it happen.

Monday, January 12, 2015

This, that, AND the other

Not taking away anything from the men, but if you ask the other half of the world with breasts and uteruses, they'll tell you that being a woman is hard work. Juggling roles and hormones is tough game and I've had my share. To be fair, I've had a fairly easy life with a lot of freedom of choice. I thought I could do anything but then the baby came along. Any mother will tell you this. A child turns your world around. A child challenges every notion of the self, pushes every limit you may have created in your head. It's all about finding one's balance and sanity after the first few months of childbirth.You have to take charge of your body, your career, and your brand new role of a mother.You have to realign all your social relationships with respect to this little creature who you are now responsible for. When a woman gives birth, she has to be reborn too.

I admit I had it easy when it came to finding my feet in my career again. I had (and still have) an incredible support system in my husband and in-laws and going back to work was easy. What wasn't easy was getting back my body. I grew up with a lot of body image issues, and pregnancy was the baap of them all. I found no solace in calling - as some mothers do - my stretch marks my battle scars. I constantly thought of myself as one big cow. But I waited and bade my time. The day my son started sleeping through the night, I started hitting the gym. Though never quite fond of physical activities, I took up gymming with religious zeal. I was going to get my body and love for myself back. I started weight training and surprised myself by loving it so much. Over two years, I trained hard and was almost competing with the boys. I had the 'beauty' bit sorted. Now it was time to work that brain.

Here lay the next important challenge. I decided to take my first step towards that long dreamt-of PhD. Keeping aside my earlier masters degree in psychology, I enrolled for a masters program in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology to be able to do a doctorate in culture studies. I also decided to do two post-graduate diplomas - one in mythology and one in mysticism along with it - from the University. This entailed giving up on every known comfort - the comfort of a career, the comfort of a pay packet, the comfort of a known domain, the comfort of independence. It meant going through the rigmarole of academic discipline, examinations, assignments all over again and to top it all, endure the poverty of student life.

But I couldn't settle for one love, could I? I used my AND and became a mother and a professional and a fitness enthusiast and an academician. And I am finally me.

 “This post is a part of #UseYourAnd activity at BlogAdda in association with Gillette Venus".

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis by George Weston Briggs

I’ve always been fascinated by the Left-hand path or Vamacara (who isn’t?), and now Indic studies give me the opportunity/excuse to peer closely at that which is forbidden. The Left-hand path refers to unorthodox religious and occult practices, often misrepresented and misunderstood by society at large. In the course of my readings on Tantrism, I had often encountered the Natha cult and it is in this context that I picked up George Weston Briggs’ book Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis.
Briggs belongs to that generation of British Orientalists of a colonized India, who first studied and recorded Indian culture systematically. The White Man’s prejudice notwithstanding, these Orientalists helped the cause of Indic studies with their inscrutable scientific method and Gorakhnath and the Kanphata Yogis is one such example.

Written way back in 1938, the book offers exhaustive insights on the legendary figure of Gorakhnath and his followers known as the Kanphata Yogis. Kanphata literally means split or torn ears, which refers to a religious rite of passage in this sect whereby the initiate’s ears are split at the concha and a thick ring inserted through it. These earrings are the hallmark of the sect of the Gorakhnathis. Briggs sheds light upon many such rites and rituals of the sect with all their variations.

The book is divided into three sections viz. The Cult, Historical and The System. The first section elaborates upon the order, their divisions, vows, sacred places, religion & superstition and their pantheon. The next section has chapters on the legend, the forerunners of Gorakhnath, Gorakhnath, their literature and the tenets of Yoga and Tantra. The last section puts down the Gorakshashataka, important physiological concepts, chief aims & methods and finally, the conclusion.

Because Briggs is so thorough with his research, the first section gets especially difficult to get through. It is full of dry facts pertaining to the divisions, where they are located, and how their organizational & hierarchical systems are. The author’s bland style of writing doesn’t help. It is meant to be an academic work, but there are readable styles and there are soldier-through styles. Briggs certainly belongs to the second category.

However, things get interesting in the second section where he talks about the legend – rather legends – of Gorakhnath. The great yogi’s historical background is rather cloudy but the author pegs his existence around the 12th century AD. Myths and legends of Gorakhnath and his guru, Matsyendranath abound in the regions of Punjab and Rajasthan but also extend as far as Bengal and Assam. Like his mixed geographical trail, Gorakhnath’s character also seems to belong to several religious factions. There are references to him in Buddhist Tantric literature, Jaina literature, Islamic Sufi texts and of course in the (Hindu) Shaiva, Tantric and Yoga traditions. This mysterious, eclectic figure forms the basis of the entire Natha cult and their multifarious divisions and traditions.

The third section serves as a valuable resource as it gives the reader the entire Gorakshashataka along with its translation. This authoritative text of the Gorakhnathis prescribes all Yogic practices for the spiritual progress of a Natha ‘aspirant’. Further, he elaborates upon the tenets of Yoga & Tantra with detailed descriptions of the chakra-nadi system, followed by important physiological concepts of the Nathas.

As information rich as the book is, Briggs’ conclusion is disappointing. One sees the restraint and neutrality of the researcher fall away to be replaced by the snub-nosed Englishman. He is derisive in his tone and cannot desist from judging the ‘heathens’. But let’s remind ourselves that this book was written in 1938 when political correctness from a gora was hardly expected. The book was and continues to be an invaluable resource for the student of Indic studies, and especially Tantra.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Indian mythological fiction: what to read, what to ditch

Everyone’s writing a mythological novel. Most of them are being published. Readers are confused. Here’s some help.

In the wake of the misguided ghar wapsi frenzy, one is reminded of many other right wing activities that have done this country no favours. Back in 2012, a ban was demanded on AK Ramanujan’s scholarly essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five examples and three thoughts on translations’ from DU’s English literature syllabus. The reason, as always, was the ‘hurting of religious sentiments’. As with all focus groups, they seemed to be missing the larger picture.

 What are they curtailing and why? Mythology is collective intellectual property and there’s little they can do to stop retellings. Epics, in particular, are creative fodder for generations of writers and artists. They have inspired thousands of versions – from Tulsidas’ Ramcharitmanas to Ekta Kapoor’s Kahaani Hamare Mahabharat ki, from Kamba’s Ramavataram to Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel, from Krittivas’ Sri Ram Panchali to Devdutt Pattanaik’s Hanuman’s Ramayan. And thanks to the current wave of mythological fiction in India, the Hindutva faction will have to deal with 300 more Ramayanas.

Gen Y seems deeply interested at the moment in knowing about its culture and a new generation of writers is riding the wave churning out one book of mythological fiction after another.  The fire was there are now many others who’ve joined the bandwagon. That said, not everything that is written is worth reading. Based on a very short survey and stoked by popular writers like Ashok Banker, Devdutt Pattanaik, Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi and my own impressions, here is my list of five must-reads and five avoidable books in this genre.


1. Mrityunjaya by Shivaji Sawant: Possibly among the first in this genre, Shivaji Savant’s Mrityunjaya was authored in Marathi and published in 1989. Its translations are now available in English and a few other languages, so mythology enthusiasts can enjoy this acclaimed work of fiction. This retelling of the Mahabharata, narrated from Karna’s point of view, weaves a veritably rich psychological tapestry and delicately handles the matter of Karna’s identity crisis.

2. The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik: I am partial to this book because this was among the first I read of this genre. But ask any mythology fiction fan and they are most likely to agree that The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik is among his better work. The prolific writer has given us many more books since, but none with such an intriguing title and plot. The book tells us stories of many LGBTQ mythological characters – especially king Yuvanashva – highlighting the resulting dissonance and the need for acceptance.

3. The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi: While this set doesn’t offer much literary value, Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy merits a place in this list for its sheer popularity. What Chetan Bhagat is to Indian fiction, Amish is to Indian mythological fiction. The Immortals of Meluha, The Secret of the Nagas and The Oath of the Vayuputras constitute the trilogy and may have been largely responsible for turning many book lovers into mythology buffs. The books offer a retelling of Shaiva mythology, in a fresh new plot and easy-to-understand language. However, most of Amish’s fans will concur that the last book was the most disappointing. It’s a must read for mythology rookies.

4. The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: This book seems to have drawn equal amounts of flak and admiration for its retelling of the Mahabharata from Draupadi’s point of view. The author has maintained the original plot of the epic and the only change is that of perspective. Some love it for its feminism; some hate it for exactly the same reason. But there is no taking away from the fact that Divakaruni is a masterful storyteller in The Palace of Illusions and represents the voice of one of the epic’s most complex characters. Draupadi’s relationship with Krishna and Karna are the highlights of this work.

5. Ajaya – Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan: The first of the Mahabharata trilogy, Ajaya: Roll of the Dice is author Anand Neelakantan’s attempt of retelling the epic from the Kauravas’ standpoint. It comes after his hugely successful Asura, which was a Ramayana retelling from Ravana’s POV. The author is essentially a champion of the so-called villains and deserves an A for effort to turn these stories on their heads. Be warned of the lackadaisical language and classic victimization, though.

Other notable reads: Adi Parva – Churning of the Ocean by Amruta Patil, Parva by SL Bhyrappa, Yagnaseni by Pratibha Ray, Karna’s Wife by Kavita Kane, Jaya – An illustrated retelling  of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik, The Aryavarta Chronicles by Krishna Udayshankar, The Simoqin Prophecies by Samit Basu


1. The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi: The problem with Ashwin Sanghi’s Krishna Key is its unabashed similarity with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. It’s as if the international bestseller was repackaged for Indian readers, having thrown in some mythological characters (which seem to be the key to book sales these days). Chanakya’s Chant by the same author was a little readable, but with this one and the subsequent The Rozabal Line, Sanghi really seems to have lost the plot.

2. The Ramayana series by Ashok Banker: Ashok Banker was among the first modern writers to retell the Ramayana, in his eight-part series titled Prince of Ayodhya (2003), Siege of Mithila (2003), Demons of Chitrakut (2004), Armies of Hanuman (2005), Bridge of Rama (2005), King of Ayodhya (2006), Vengeance of Ravana (2011), Sons of Sita (2012). While attention to detail is a good thing, Banker’s verbosity is tiring. I’ve also found his style a tad to filmesque. The author’s love of l-e-n-g-t-h-y writing is seen in The Krishna Coreolis series too, which is again a nine (!) part series including Slayer of Kamsa (2010), Dance of Govinda (2011), Flute of Vrindavan (2011), Lord of Mathura (2011), Rage of Jarasandha (2011), Fortress of Dwarka (2012), Rider of Garuda (2013), Lord of Vaikunta (2014), and Consort of Sri (2014). Unless you have immense patience for average writing and / or immense love for the author, skip both series, I say.

3. Thundergod – The Ascendance of Indra by Rajiv Menon: As the title suggests, the book traces the course of the Vedic god, Indra’s ‘career’ from being a mortal to a divinity. The author throws in references from other mythologies too, in trying to create fantasy fiction for adults, but doesn’t do justice to all elements. This book is not without its fans, but most of all, Rajiv Menon’s Thundergod has been panned by critics for its lack of literary quality.

4. Arjuna – Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince by Anuja Chandramouli: Another disappointment in the realm of Indian mythological fiction comes in the form of Anuja Chandramouli’s Arjuna. In yet another retelling of the Mahabharata, the author writes the story from the prime Pandava’s perspective. With so many character-specific retellings in the market and subpar language, there’s nothing new this book has to offer. Her latest book, Kamadeva – The God of Desire chooses an unusual character and one hopes there are more takeaways.

5. Asura by Anand Neelakantan: This book sure made it to some bestseller lists, but it has as many detractors as admirers. As I’ve mentioned above, the author likes to turn antagonists into protagonists and Asura is a retelling of the Ramayana, which explores the layered character of Ravana. His Achilles heel, however, is his not-so-great language. The book gets simplistic and even boring in places. 

(This article appeared in on 28th December, 2014. It can be read here.)

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist by passion. She can be reached on

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Hindus - An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger: Impressions

In the age of short attention spans, finishing 700 page strong book feels like a victory of sorts. More so when the book is not a racy thriller. I’ve just finished Wendy Doniger’s (in)famous ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ after three, maybe four months, punctuating it with life. However, Wendy Doniger can’t be accused of NOT being racy - in both senses of the word. She may be writing history, but her ideas and her presentation are certainly page-turners. It’s just the small print and the mammoth scope of this book that make you want to stop and ruminate ever so often.

For the few who may not know, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ recently became Doniger’s most talked-about book because an organisation called SBAS (Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti) objected to it. It’s founder, Dinanath Batra, dragged the book to court on account of controversial content that would hurt Hindu sentiments (yawn) and asked for it to be banned in India. Penguin and Aleph upheld these bans and withdrew all existing copies. And true to human nature, we all made a beeline for it just because they said NO. Thanks to the Internet, imported editions of the book can very much be bought online and e-books are readily available.

I gleefully dived headfirst into the book with starry eyes, a fan as I am of Doniger’s work like every aspiring Indologist. The book is divided into 25 chapters, each chronicling a definitive period in Indian history beginning from the prehistoric (50 million BCE) right down to the present. Doniger starts out with the man/rabbit in the moon metaphor, knowing well that nothing about Hinduism is what it seems. But it is plain to see throughout the book that her scholarship is tremendous; Wendy Doniger doesn’t miss a trick. However, what is most admirable is her erudition laced with wit. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her use of “maithuna you” and many such Doniger tropes.

Doniger is a humourous writer - sometimes to the point of irreverence - and this is probably what didn’t go down well with the Dinanath Batras of the world. Frankly, I don’t see anything in the book that may be called truly objectionable/ controversial, but here is a list of statements that were deemed so. Critics have panned it for inaccuracy, but I think they’re missing out of the idea that this is meant to be an ‘alternative history’. While most of Doniger’s claims are backed with scriptural/literary evidence, a lot of the book is also about her unique perspective. She writes Hindu history from the point of view of the suppressed lower classes and women. She tries to represent their anonymous voices, especially in all non-Aryan literature, that shaped the more recent body of scriptures (like the Puranas) and consequently the society. She makes these subdued voices loud and clear, without becoming cloyingly feminist or activist. She remains an objective scholar throughout the book, much to the chagrin of purists.

But the book is not without its weak spots and one thing I found annoying was the author’s preoccupation with animal motifs. Doniger obsessively harps upon horses and dogs, what these animals represent, the matter of sacrifice, vegetarianism and so forth. These are important and legitimate points but excessive all the same. That said, Doniger knows her India and its history better than most of us born here. Banned or not, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’ deserves to be read for eye-opening insights about this country, taken of course, with the tiniest pinch of salt.