Monday, December 26, 2011


She keeps open her doors, and her flowers fresh

Gerberas that he may like, roses that may delight.

Their scent is all she has, for his perfume is long gone

from her hair, her sheets, her memory,

from her days and those long, sweet nights.

She has never shut her windows, for fear of a missed sight,

She keeps them open and her heart; some day he might...

She has never shut either, those teary eyes,

that read over the letters of promise (or perhaps lies?)

Rain on the garden path, washed clean of his tread,

A flood of despair inside, a sob muffled in bed,

A hundred moons have waxed and waned,

she tells herself, he is only late

Hoping against all hope, she lies in wait,

keeping open her doors, and her flowers fresh...

This poem was penned exclusively for Puneet Vijay's wonderful composition, which he calls 'The Ballad of Lonesome Eyes'. I, on the other hand choose to call it L'attente, which means 'The wait' in French. See Puneet's wonderful pictures on

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Pregnant King by Devdutta Pattanaik: Impressions

He wept for his father, the pregnant king, for the imperfection of the human condition, and our stubborn refusal to make room for all those in between.

This last line of the book, The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattanaik, succinctly sums up its message. And what a powerful message! The book is less about the 'aberrations in nature' and more about society disowning them. Whether in Dwapara Yuga or the Kali, human beings have remained the same in their non-acceptance of the non-normal. Through the story of many major and minor (as we call it these days) LGBT mythological characters, Pattanaik reminds us of the humanity we often forget to show to humans who are a little different. In his first work of fiction, he writes with the same signature elegance, that make all his books so readable. His merit is in presenting the universal aspects of ancient stories that make them relevant to the modern reader.

Pattanaik mentions right in the beginning of the book how he has neither adhered to chronology nor to geographical boundaries. He has pulled out many popular characters from across mythology, uniting them in this work of fiction to demonstrate the agony of persons whose minds and bodies are divided on the aspect of sexuality. So apart from the story of Yuvanashva - man and mother, there are stories about Shikhandi - woman and prince of Panchal, Ila - man and wife, Somvat- boy and wife, and even Arjuna - warrior and eunuch among others. Not just human characters, the author tells us stories of gods and demons also plagued by mixed sexualities. There is, for instance, Sthunakarna - a yaksha and yakshini and Ileshwara - god and goddess.When he needed to introduce similar queer characters into the story, who could not in any way be connected to the plot, the author made clever use of bards, who tell stories about them.

Coming back to the prime character of Yuvanashva, Pattanaik etches a well-defined character of the king who became a mother. Unable to bear a child for many years, the king seeks desperate measures. A magical potion churned by two Sidhhas promise him children, but not quite in the way he imagines. Instead of his wives, the king accidentally drinks it and begets a child. Though the truth of the child is kept a secret from the subjects and even the child himself, it manifests itself in the king's maternal feelings. Then comes a moment of truth, which threatens to destroy all order. When the truth is rejected, as it is done to this day, Yuvanashva leaves the world in search of a truth that transcends all human definitions.

The book tackles the questions of gender roles and discrimination very well. It explores the many relationships that define our lives. Parent-child, husband-wife, friendship, veneration and rejection. It draws richly from the many lessons in our ancient scriptures and presents a posy of wisdom. Though the plot was a little slow to start up, once it did there was no going back. Read it because it will impregnate you will some very worthy thoughts.         

Friday, December 09, 2011

Animal Farm by George Orwell: Impressions

As if the Crosswords of the world were'nt enough, the Flipkarts have joined in and made the world a rather difficult place for a bibliophile. With so many new authors every day, dozens of titles every week and multitudes of reviews, there’s always too much to read and too little time. In the times of shiny jackets craning their necks out of bookshelves, and their much-publicized insides egging a reader to sample one writer after another, it is rare to return to the works of the same author.

Not, if the author is someone like George Orwell. Most of Orwell’s works, iconic as they are, do not bear the tedium of other classics. It is not what Mark Twain famously said of them: A classic is something everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read. With Orwell, you are sucked in, pinned down and feel compelled to lick every last word before devouring it and wanting more. At least that’s what ‘1984’ did to me once, and ‘Animal Farm’ has done to me again.

Orwell liked to call this book ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Story’, but the publisher’s note in my Penguin edition mentions how many other publishers dropped the subtitle, and replaced it with ‘A satire’ or ‘A contemporary satire’; it is hard to call this book anything else. But Orwell’s original ironic subtitle serves the book well, exposes as it does the painful truths about human nature, albeit through animal characters. This book is a mirror reflecting truths that are so resounding and revolting, that men have not been able to stop looking at it since it was first published in 1945.

The basic plot of Animal Farm is seemingly simple. A group of farm animals revolt against their human master and take charge of the farm. But the revolution takes a rather unexpected course in time. It is in describing this awry evolution of a revolution that Orwell shows his genius. In Animal Farm he creates a miniature human society, with all the prototypes. There are shrewd and greedy pig-people, loyal dog-people, hardworking and honest horse-people, lazy cat-people and sheep-people with the herd mentality. He etches that hierarchical pyramid of power that emerges even in the freest of societies.

There’s a Bengali proverb I learnt from my mother: Je jaye Lankaye, shaye hoye Raavan, which means, ‘Whosoever goes to Lanka, becomes Raavan’. Orwell demonstrates this: power corrupts. Animal Farm resembles 1984 in many ways. They are, both, essentially stories about the rulers and the ruled and about the illusion that is freedom. Both the stories are about the few who will lead and trod upon the rest who will follow.

For every aspect about Animal Farm, there is only one adjective that comes to my mind: tremendous. The book is tremendous in its simplicity, tremendous in its style and tremendous in its message.

A special mention ought to be made about the cover design too. The Penguin edition has a simple, old-world illustration design overlaid artfully on newsprint. It portrays the theme beautifully. But other publications have equally beautiful covers, as I discovered while Googling it.

Add the reading of this book to your bucket list, if you haven’t already.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga: Impressions

So I finally read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. I finally understood what the hype was all about. And I finally know what it takes for a debut novel to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize. And those who criticised this book because they've taken it upon themselves to criticise anything that's criticiseable (I know there's no such word), well, that's just too bad! Because this book is as sharp as they can get, yessir it is!

Perhaps I fell in love with the book, but how can one help it? The book fascinates from the word 'Go!' When was the last time you saw a satirical novel written in the form of a fantastic letter addressed to the premier of China!? My jaw dropped in awe over Adiga's style of narrative at page 1 and it still hasn't closed. Throughout the narrative, the author keeps bringing up Jiabao's name, and the sense of the letter is never lost. With his ample, casual references to China, when addressing Wen (teehee, could not resist that), Adiga never forgets, nor lets his readers forget, the brilliance of his style.

The other thing about The White Tiger that has stayed with me is the bitterness. SO. MUCH. BITTERNESS. Adiga paints such a powerfully grim picture of what he calls the Darkness, one would think he was born there, lived there, endured the unendurable there. The author cleaves the nation in two halves - into the two worlds of (to use his words) 'men with bellies' and men without them. He points to one India of the shiny, glass-walled malls and the other India of the inescapable 'Rooster Coop'.

Adiga's hero, anti-hero if you like, is Munna alias Balram Halwai, son of rickshaw puller alias Ashok Sharma, owner of White Tiger Technologies, and this is his story of crossing over from the Darkness into the Light. This is the story of a 'social entrepreneur', who seizes opportunity when he sees it, since no one will lay out golden roads for him. He kills a few moralities and people on the way, but so what? There isn't another way. Adiga delves deep into the mind of a man, who has to choose between a servile existence and becoming a master of his destiny. And the conundrum ain't easy to sort. Balram Halwai drags his readers along the gutters through the confounding streets of Delhi in a driver's seat, through the whorehouse and the servants' quarters, through a servant-turned-murderer's mind, through a fugitive's head and finally to an entrepreneur's chair, writing midnight mails to the premier of China. And he does it with so much page-turning ease!

The only place he lost me was in the protagonist's moment of resolve. Adiga's plot lost a little hold at the point when Balram decided to become his own master. There are exquisite psychological symbols of despair and agony, but his clear voice is lost among those. It seems all too sudden, when Balram strikes his master down with a surprising alacrity. Perhaps it was intended thus, since life-changing decisions don't really take place in one defining moment, as they show in the movies. A switch is flipped, unnoticed, after wounds have festered for a long time.

Adiga's pen seems to singe the paper with exactly the kind of long-suffering wounds, or perhaps he is just a super storyteller. Either way, The White Tiger is, as they call it these days, RAWRing!         


Tuesday, December 06, 2011



Voices, smooth, smoky,
rich like kohl.

Eyes that speak of delicious darknesses
Awake and seeking and bold.

Wait, is that a fallen eye-lash
or a dirty little secret?

Perhaps a wish you would want,
oh-so-badly want to come true!

Looking away doesn't help
when your rosy cheeks are screaming out.

Why then do your steps falter?
Your heart knows where it's bound.

Formulating coded moves to reach there unnoticed.
Surprise, love.

Beatskip, timestop, lifechange.
A surprise unlike any other.

With the sound of a piano on flames.
Not to be mistaken for pain.

What road this, despite its confounding twists,
leading yet to the beginning of a dream?

In tangles, wilted and quilted.
Arms in arms, legs between legs.

Two shades of skin - one pale, one blush.
The flutterings of a heart, a thrush.

In a cage of their own. Bar to bar, tease to tease,
felch and squeeze.

A bubble of exhaustion floats, sleep wins awhile.
Then it bursts. Boom!

Brings them crashing down,
to find new ways of love.

Heavy like stone, they lay.
Touch like feathers, they stay.

(Co-written with @bumblebooger)

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Yuganta - The end of an epoch by Iravati Karve: Impressions

Commenting on this book would be a minor crime, for there are perhaps few equals to Iravati Karve’s Yuganta – The end of an epoch. Commentaries and commentaries have been written about the ‘Mahabharat’, and continue to be written today, such is the mystery and vastness of that epic. But few have dared autopsied it with the scientific precision of Karve. Little wonder that it won the Sahitya Akademi prize for the best Marathi book of the year in 1967. It was later translated and published in English.

An anthropologist, Karve dissects all characters with an objectivity impossible for most native readers. She begins with a neat introduction explaining the literary tradition of the ‘Mahabharat’. She writes about how the original work was called ‘Jaya’ (victory), and composed/carried forth in the oral tradition by the members of the Suta caste. This sauta (of the Sutas) literature is then passed on to different sections of the society (especially Brahmins), who make additions and interpolations, thus enlarging the original story. What we consequently inherit is the ‘Mahabharat’ (great story of the house of King Bharat).

In the subsequent essays, Karve picks each of the major characters of the ‘Mahabharat’, giving an incisive character analysis. The first of the lot is the character of Bhisma. Karve wonders aloud about the contrary motives of some of Bhisma’s actions, who while appearing to sacrifice all for the sake of others, takes some rather peculiar decisions that seem directed at proving his personal greatness.

The two great matriarchs are then dealt with in the next two chapters, which elucidate mainly the injustices suffered by Gandhari and Kunti. Yet, Karve goes on to show the strength of the two Kshatriya women, and what part they played in binding the Kuru clan together. Gandhari’s great sacrifice though laced with bitterness, and Kunti’s pain and guilt on parting with her firstborn, Karna, are some of the instances described in these two chapters.

An interesting chapter called ‘Father and son?’ explores the important character of Vidura, and the possibility of him being Yudhishtir’s (or Dharma as he is referred to in this book) father. Karve points to us the several similarities in character between the two, in addition to the custom of the time when the younger brother was allowed to sleep with his brother’s wife, if the brother was unable to beget children. Vidura’s fondness for Yudhishtir and his firm loyalty to Kunti, apart from an ambiguous passage towards the end of the epic proclaiming that Vidura and Yudhishtir are but one for they both are the reincarnations of Lord Yama, are served as evidence by the author.

There is yet another interesting chapter on Draupadi, and Karve compares and contrasts the character with that of Sita - the female protagonist of ‘Ramayana’. Karve points out the emotional richness and scope of Draupadi’s character as compared to Sita’s formulaic one. She also talks about her unique relationship with her five husbands, her ultimate insult at the Kaurava court and her thirst for revenge that, in part, pushes the Pandavas to war. Several more aspects are noted in this chapter.

Karna’s character too is analysed in detail. Instead of the pitiable hero that Karna is made out to be in the popular renditions of the Mahabharat, Karve paints a not-so-rosy picture of him. Despite the occasional show of the strength of his character, Karna, according to Karve, is a flawed man because of his deep bitterness and rashness.

Krishna is also studied from a very human perspective in Karve’s book. Krishna is not a god, whilst in the ‘Mahabharat’, but a very powerful, charismatic and clever man. He is shown by Karve to be more of a friend of Arjuna and a well-wisher of the Pandavas, rather than a divine being. She explains how subsequent literature, like the ‘Bhagvata’ accorded divinity to Krishna, unlike the Mahabharat. His role in the war, and the rise and fall of the Pandavas and the Yadavas is also spoken about in this chapter.

Of the two remaining chapters, one is a study of the mystical palace of Mayasabha in Indraprastha, and a concluding chapter on the manners of the time. These chapters too hold a wealth of information and detailed study of some of the nitty-gritties of the epic.

Karve opens the reader’s eyes to a lot of fallacies that are wont to be in a creation by human beings. She dispels a handful of myths and interprets the seemingly illogical in a manner best understood in our times. The best part about this book is that it critiques without ever being disrespectful or dismissive. For anyone interested in the ‘Mahabharat’, and the study of Indian mythology in general, this book is a must read.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A missed connection


Humdrum-er it coudn't be,
Another day, to be lost in history,
No promise of love or magic,
until it caught my eye...

Your lime green scarf,
intimate with your skin,
Were there stars on it?
Or were they flowers?

Your phone rolled down your lap,
a delinquent, a runaway at my feet,
You turned to look, bent, picked it,
said, "Nice shoes."

Too dazzled to think,
"Nice scarf" is all I could say,
You turned away, lips curled,
in what I imagined a smile.

Three stations past,
The tube buzzed forth,
I sat in agony, wondering,
what destination would snatch you.

Lips sealed, muffling a drumming heart
Station four; you were gone.
No time for parting sorrow.
A vision snapped, a blossom plucked.

Only a whiff remained,
and a 'what could be'
with a girl with a lime green scarf, 
with stars on it - or perhaps flowers.

 I chanced upon the most wonderful blog yesterday, via Twitter, and haven't been able to stop thinking about it. The magical realm of drew me in and locked me up - at least a part of me. It is that part that has haunted me ceaselessly and pushed me to write this little poem. I, of course, couldn't name it anything else but A missed connection.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Best of Quest: Impressions

I did get lucky the fourth time and how! After three disappointing books, the universe conspired to bring me the Best of Quest through Blogadda’s book review program, and I haven’t stopped reveling in the 660 odd pages of sheer brilliance in the last 10 days. I knew when I applied to review it, that if I got the book, I’d be laying my hands on a minor treasure. Perhaps these parallels are not apt, but when researching Quest, I was most strongly reminded of Tehelka and Open, the magazine – two extraordinary periodicals of our times.  It has everything, from articles on political reform, history, the arts, psychology and education to a most wonderful section of poetry to a fantastic collection of short stories. Not to forget the enigma attached to it because of a mysterious CIA connection!

Because the book is an anthology, I decided to be random with my reading. The introduction had one of the editors talking about the erstwhile editor of Quest, Dilip Chitre, who was also apparently the mysterious columnist, D. I was immediately drawn to the last sections, where Mr. Chitre himself makes the admission, and also talks about his life and times and contemporaries at Quest. I, then, scurried to gobble up a few pieces written by D. While most were amusing, witty and even incisive, my favourite was the very tongue-in-cheek ‘Marriage & Morals: Updating the Pavitra Prostitute’. True that Chitre had to hide behind a pseudonym (a lone acronym really) to mention the unmentionables in a not-so-grown-up nation, but his take on issues such as sex, religion and women are refreshingly real. Writing as Dilip Chitre, he is a little more serious, a little more guarded, albeit equally insightful. His piece ‘Aspects of Pornophobia’, for example, deals with a hush-hush matter in a matter-of-fact manner.

The introductions and endnotes also pointed me towards another one of the enigmatic editors of Quest, Nissim Ezekiel. The In Memoriam section, comprising letters of people reminiscing about Nissim, the person and the poet, is heartwarming. Some of his poems in the poetry section, ‘Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher’ being my favourite, show just why the man earned the place that he did in the line of Indian poets.

Then there are many more pieces of social, political and cultural commentary by several authors, but I will remember very distinctly the following pieces because they are as relevant today as they were in the 70s India:

1.  ‘The Persistence of the Caste System: Vested Interests in Backwardness’ by Subhash Chandra Mehta – We all know too well what the race to be backward is all about, and what its consequences are.
2. ‘Am I a Muslim? Islam and Bangladesh’ by Mahbubul Hok – A bold piece by any measure questioning the validity of Islamic states and practices.
3. ‘Autobiography of Violence’ by Mihir Sinha – Though set in Calcutta, this account of how violence has seeped into our collective minds and lives is true of all of India.
4. ‘The Married Woman and Our Sex Morality’ by Sudhir Chandra – A piece way ahead of its times (even so now), discussing the possibilities of polygamy/polyandry within marriage and its acceptance.
And finally,
5. ‘The Coffee-Brown Boy looks at the Black Boy’ by J.S. Saxena – An insightful article exploring the deep racial biases that pervade nearly all humanity.

Some other articles/essays also found favour with me, because I have personal inclinations towards the topics. Among them are the point and counterpoint essays by Jyotirmoy Datta and P. Lal respectively on Indian English writing, ‘Konarak’ by Marie Seton – a detailed analysis of the erotic art of Konarak, ‘Sadhus and Hippies’ by Roderick Neill – where he is mainly showing off his knowledge of the holy men in India but pretends to draw a comparison between those mentioned in the title, ‘ An Interview with V.S. Naipaul’ by Adrian Rowe-Evans – A wondrous journey into the career and mind of the writer that is Sir V.S. Naipaul and ‘The City as Antagonist: Three Recent Films’ by Saleem Peeradina – the most detailed and ruthless film reviews I ever saw.

And while I did cheat through the Essays and Opinions section, often skipping a paragraph or two when the gravity of it all got too much for my frivolous mind, I was most agog when it came to the poetry and fiction sections. I lapped up every last turn of phrase, every dainty word, down to the last comma. And while most pieces were indeed masterpieces, I’d easily hand over the ‘Most haunting piece’ awards to the poem, ‘3 Cups of Tea’ by Arun Kolatkar and the short stories ‘The Discovery of Telenapota’ by Premendra Mitra and ‘The Moon Had to be Mended’ by Kiran Nagarkar.  Other memorable works in this compilation are ‘The Accompanist’ by Anita Desai, ‘Sword and Abyss’ by Keki N. Daruwalla, ‘Tangents’ by Abraham Eraly, ‘Love’ by Adil Jussawala and ‘Madurai: Two Movements’ by A.K. Ramanujan.

There is so much more meat, so much covered ground and so many perspectives for those who will care to plunge themselves into The Best of Quest.


This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!