Category Archives: Book Reviews

Out of my mind: Sharon Draper

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I had just finished R.J Palacio’s Wonder,and was looking for my next read. There were a lot of titles but this book cover drew me towards it. But I kept putting it down for some reason or the other. And when I finally managed to read, I was filled with mixed reactions. On one hand, I enjoyed and was wiping tears at the end, and on the other hand I was furious with Sharon for having given a very poor and despicable picture of educators. Maybe she had a a bad experience, but a collective let down of the community was not at all acceptable.

At some points the story has a lot of power and magnitude but the author fails to maintain the same towards the end.

Plot: Melody is a fifth-grade girl who was born with cerebral palsy. Her body is crippled and there is very little she can manage to do by herself. She can’t even talk. She can, however, think,  and she does it better than anyone else, thanks to her photographic memory. She is a hidden genius who is lost in the milieu of words swirling within the confines of her mind. Melody looks helpless to the people who’ve not known her well, but if value is measured in terms of mental capacity for future learning and retention, then Melody outshines virtually everyone she meets. She is, without exaggerating to say, a wonder.

But life is not easy or simple for a person with the challenges that cripple the otherwise happy life of Melody every single day. Other kids cannot really understand Melody or comprehend her level of intelligence. Since they see her as vulnerable and incapable of meeting even her own basic needs they fail to acknowledge that she can be as smart and even better than them. Their unwillingness or rather lack of awareness about her condition blinds them to how smart and how good Melody is in the ways that matter. Ultimately, its Melody who bears the brunt of this ignorance  by not having friends. So, Melody understands “unfair”. She knows “unfair” more intimately than most of us ever will.

The plot of this book rocks back and forth, giving glimpses of hope for Melody’s future and then extinguishing them. There are moments to laugh and then it’s followed by scenes that will move almost any reader to tears, both of happiness and grief. There isn’t a single paragraph of Melody’s story that doesn’t jump up from the page with life and vigor, filled with intense relevance to our own lives. Melody happens to sink in within us and we start to care about her without our own knowledge and we wishfully think about a happy ending which in her story is … impossible.

Now for the parts that had me seething in anger. The characters are uni dimensional and seem like cliches. You can almost predict what their next action would be. The girls in the book seem to be ones suffering from disabilities as they can’t look beyond their own nose. Their lives are centered around them, and anyone who is different is a misfit. They are openly mean and use words like retard, which in today’s scenario would land one in principals office. So is the author stuck in 80’s time warp or does she forget that she is writing in his century where most schools have inclusive education and children are more compassionate towards the special children. The educators are not trained to be with children with special abilities and get into awkward silences when they are around them. The teachers appointed to the group with special abilities seems fit for kindergarten and not them, since all they did was play audio books that they had been listening for quite some time. It irks that a writer in 21st century would give you such a picture. There is no mention of occupational therapist or special needs counselor.

The book for me was like opening a box of my favorite sweet Gems, where I find chocolates in every color coating, but then chocolates are naturally brown. Which is to say, that every reader will find something to carry in their hearts and yet be angry about her the story that could have been uplifting loses its tangent by ignoring facts of recent advances and changes in education sector.

 

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Mrs. Doubtfire: Anne Fine

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“There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy, or two families. And some children live with their uncle or aunt. Some live with their grandparents, and some children live with foster parents. And some live in separate homes, in separate neighborhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months… even years at a time. But if there’s love, dear… those are the ties that bind, and you’ll have a family in your heart, forever.” 
― Anne Fine, Madame Doubtfire

These lines are just as deceptive as is the book. Its not a bad book but very misleading. It promises to be humorous and a fun read but that’s a far cry. Having the watched the movie by the same name, featuring Robin Williams, I half expected the book to be as enjoyable as the movie. But I was in for a rude shock. Anne Fine’s book lacks the charm that we witness in the movie.

The book  is incredibly sad and callous, as the children in the story are thrown around through their parents’ messy divorce. And like me if you’ve ever seen the Robin Williams film version, this book will be a big disappointment.

The story of Miranda and Daniel is one that many children face today. More so because children have to deal with the divorce of their parents. The only thing that made the book endurable was the realistic writing. You come across real arguments between the parents that would flare up ugly in front of the children, just like in real life. The children were forced to find coping mechanisms to handle the stress and trauma. The movie story line and book story line do cross at certain points and use certain lines in the book in the movie.

Daniel and Miranda Hilliard are recently divorced, and pretty much hate each others guts. Instead of allowing Daniel to spend time with the children after school, Miranda places an ad looking for a housekeeper/babysitter. Daniel changes a number on the ad and poses as an old lady to take up the position.

In the movie, Robin Williams brings warmth and charm to Mrs. Doubtfire. But the book is devoid of sentiments. The parents constantly argue in front of the children, Daniel repeatedly talks about how he’d love to murder Miranda. Miranda on the other hand, slates him and mocks him. And the result of all this you may ask: the children cry and cower together because they’re so sick of their parents fighting. In the book, the kids know that Mrs. Doubtfire is Daniel straight away (probably because his disguise consists of a turban, wellingtons and some foundation). Daniel is horrible as he calls Christopher a “little bastard” and “a little worm”. Miranda is equally rotten – telling the children awful age-inappropriate stories about how many times Daniel has messed up. She and Daniel play the children like pawns on a chessboard.

Fine was aiming for realism by writing about a sadly common occurring family issue. But it pales now in comparison to the film, and the humour fell flat. It seems to be written for the parents rather than children. Which perhaps explains the adult humour in the book.

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

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Khaled Hosseini is a name that reckons stories with a delicate yet intense voice that speaks volumes on the impact of war, riots and displacement, especially in the Islamic countries. All those who have read his books must have had shed tears in silence as you flipped pages and poured over the lives of Hassan and Mariam. His writing has pulled our hearts to see Hassan’s emancipation and have been company in Mariam’s journey.

But let me warn all Khaled Hosseini fans that you might be disappointed if you come looking for a full fledged novel. Hossieni was impelled to write Sea Prayer when the image of a 3-year old Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, washed ashore in Turkey in 2015, splashed across the media. He didn’t make it. The image is vividly set even in my mind since I had many sleepless nights after I saw the image in the newspaper. When I held my own little one in my arms, rocking her to sleep, I was in tears as Alan’s image kept coming back to me. A life, just a bud, lost due to the monstrosity that humans inflicted on each other. This book is a tribute or rather a vent out for the anguish and ache Hosseini experienced. In this poignant account, he  tries to highlight the predicament of parents under such cataclysmic environs. The book, is a reflection of life like Kurdi’s, that has been fractured and forced to flee from home by war and persecution.

Sea Prayer is a letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey that shall take them away from their homeland. Watching over his sleeping son, the father recollects how their land Homs, used to be before the wars and siege. It is also a vivid portrait of their life in Syria, before the war, and of the swift transformation of a home into a deadly war zone.

Khaled Hosseini transports you to war-torn Syria and manages to rip your heart as he depicts how much the country has changed. It is told from a father’s point of view, telling his son how beautiful their country used to be. The father with a heavy heart says that his son would not remember his beautiful land and will only remember about hiding, praying and looking for shelter. Under the dark ominous clouds of the night, the father casts a nostalgic eye on the glorious days gone by at Homs. Through his words he seems to evoke hope in his young son’s heart, and perhaps within himself, despite their given circumstances. The father is uncertain of whether they will make it across or not. Hence the name Sea prayer, he prays the sea will not hurt his son.

This has been a difficult book to review simply because it gives rise to a whole gamut of emotions. The intensity of the letter grows manifold when read alongside the marvelous illustrations by Dan Williams. The water-colors capture the spirit of the story .They start with beautiful, rich vibrant colours that detail a breathtaking landscape, the souk and the land in all its beauty. As the book progresses they become more grey, dark, morbid and ominous. There is a stark contrast in the hues which once was a riot of colours is reduced to monochrome, justly so to highlight that the lives of the refugees too has lost its buoyancy.  This book is a perfect partnership between author and illustrator.

Do not expect the magic of his novels here, and yet you will have the strings of your heart being tugged and your soul scorched by the harshness of their reality.

Certain lines that really touched me:

” These are the things you know. You know a bomb crater ca be made into a swimming hole. You have learned dark blood is better news than bright. You have learned that mothers and sisters and classmates can be found in narrow gaps between concrete, bricks, and exposed beams, little patches of sunlit skin shining in the dark.”  

” I look at your profile in the glow of this three-quarter moon, my boy,your eyelashes like calligraphy, closed in guileless sleep. I said to you, ‘Hold my hand. Nothing bad will happen’.”


” These are only words. A father’s tricks. It slays your father, your faith in him. Because all I can think tonight is how deep the sea, and how vast, how indifferent. How powerless I am to protect you from it…….

Because you, you are the most precious cargo, Marwan, the most precious there ever was. I pray the sea knows this. Inshallah. How I pray the sea knows this.” 

 

S’s Secret: Shobhaa De

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The name Shobhaa De on the book cover was what caught my attention. I love her style of writing: crisp, witty and truly revealing. But this book was a disappointment because she did not manage to do what she set out for. An attempt at writing about teenagers falls flat mainly because the teenagers do not talk their age and more likely seem like teenage version “Friends” series.

The Plot: The story revolves around 14 year old Sandhya, and takes us all through her daily life. She has an annoying kid sister who is always ready to carry tales of her older siblings, a bossy older brother who is forever sermonizing her to get off the phone, and loving but strict parents who lay down way too many rules. Its a typical Indian family but that’s where the idea goes wrong. The way the children behave is not how kids behave at homes. It seems to have been inspired by the western soaps.

Sandhya has a massive crush on Akshay, the handsome cricket captain of the school next door. And is trying her best to get his attention. She is engrossed and always in conversation with her best friend Asavari for the school social. And amidst all this Sandhya has to decide whether to reveal something she has been hiding from everyone-a secret that will change her life forever. But truthfully, Shobhaa De could have done better here in writing up a secret. The hype and build up from the start makes you think what could a teenager probably hide that can devastate her.

Yet there are a few moments that ‘S’s Secret’ draws you into a teenager’s whirlwind world of emotions. The familiar heartbreaks and joys of growing up – the endless bickering with siblings, the eternal urge to rebel against rules, the sweetness of friendship, the yearning for peer approval, and above all, the encompassing warmth of family love. These moments will make you smile with indulgence and annoyance.

This is Shobhaa Dé’s first book for teens and has all the exuberance that we associate with her writing. But it falls short of expectations when compared to real life. Her books are known to be hard hitting reflections of life, but here it seems a cheap imitation of some disney soap for teenagers.

The Heart Has Its Reason: Krishna Sobti

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Having read a few of Sobti’s book, it was no surprise that I was yet again drawn towards her writing. This time I picked up The Heart Has Its Reasons.  An unusual title, I was drawn by the image of the woman on the cover. To me it seemed like a mughal era painting of a princess/ queen. But when I got down to reading I discovered that there is more to the picture.

The Heart Has Its Reasons,  was originally published as Dill-O-Danish. The book was released in 1992. It is a love triangle woven beautifully in streets of Delhi of 20’s. Mehak The novel is spun around the lives of Bano, Kutumb and Kripanarayan. The vortex of the story is Bano and Kripanarayan’s love story. It threatens to rupture and pull apart at the seams of the family. Meanwhile Kutumb, the wife gropes to save her marriage. The novel has all the flavors that come together to make a reading complete with emotions, drama, romance and leads you gently by the hands into their lives. You feel like an audience to the inner working of the lives of the characters.

Kripanarayan was Bano’s mother’s lawyer who happens to fall in a tumultuous passionate relationship with Bano. They have two kids. This becomes the sore eye for Kutumb who leaves no leaves unturned to express her anger and hatred toward Bano and her kids. She even infects her children with vile and hatred and towards Badru and Masooma, their half siblings. The start of the story sees Bano as a docile and submissive woman who has accepted the fate as meted out to her by Kripanarayan. Yet in between she does display grit and determination. As the other woman, Bano makes no demands on Kripanarayan and is happy and content in her simple lodgings. In contrast, Kutumb has all the riches and also social standing as the legally wedded wife, yet she is dissatisfied and always cantankerous. But the very lives Bano nurtured, that of her children also seem to drifting away she comes into her true character. From a quiet flame she turns into a raging fire, with the power to consume any that comes her way. She refuses to cow down before social diktats and embraces her role in the life of Kripanarayan, that of the other woman. She comes out boldly into the open from behind her purdah as the mother of Badru and Masooma and not hide behind in the background. Even when she is expected to be absent from the events of her children’s lives she step in to make her presence evident. Thus the woman in the cover is an enigma and perfectly resembles Bano. She is the quiet flame who has the storm within to become a blazing fire.

The story was inspired by Begum Samru ki Kothi, an old mansion that used to be one of the grandest houses in Old Delhi but is today the location of an electrical goods market. It is a rich masterpiece, a magnificent tapestry of characters, times, contexts, and raw emotions.

Mahashweta: Sudha Murthy

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I was looking for a book to read with not more than 150 page or so. Mahashweta fit the bill. But I was not prepared for what was to come. Today when I put the book down I feel that I have lost a friend. So attached did I get to the protagonist that, I feel she is still with me. Anupama will stay with me for long for she has taught me some very valuable lessons.

The plot: This book is a moving tale of a female protagonist, who gets ostracized by all and sundry, including the man who marries after despite opposition , for the only reason that she has started developing white patches on her skin( leukoderma).

The novel starts off with the fairy tale like romance between Anupama and Anand. Anupama is your classic Indian heroine, a beauty beyond parallel with brains to match. The only defect about her is her poverty. The hero, Anand , is a charming, brilliant, but abundantly rich hero, who falls in love at the first sight with the heroine. Not all is hunky dory in this fairy tale. There is the typical mother-in-law who is always flaunting the social status, and an arrogant sister, who happens to get away with her mistakes just because she is rich (What a cliche!!!). And to match the mother-in-law we have the equally typical incapable father of Anupama, who is poor and a sorry figure, as is typical in Indian setup. Anand marries Anupama despite obvious confrontations and dispapproval of his mother.

He later flies to England for his higher studies leaving Anupama behind. She is convinces that he will be by her side always. Anand tells her to join him later, meanwhile Anupama is diagnosed with leukoderma/ Vitiligo. This releases a barrage of curses and taunts from the mother-in-law and sister-in-law. Anupama is all alone without any care or support , she turns to Anand for emotional support and soothing words. Being a doctor himself she has full faith in him. But she realizes that her faith was ill placed. For all she gets in return is his aloofness, uncaring and heartless. As as person obsessesed with beauty and perfection, Anand in a way highlights the stereotypical male mindset in India. All men want fair, slim, beautiful brides. This is only in keeping with the idea of having a trophy wife who can be showcased to friends and relatives, and then put away within the cages of marital home.

Anupama’s faith is tested in every step from there on. She is not allowed to live peacefully in her in-laws place nor in her parents’. Having suffered immensely, she decides to take the reins of her life into her own hands. She decides to live independently without any inhibitions and succeeds in the end.  In the course she meets people whom she not only inspires but also forges bonds that are thicker than blood.

For me its a book that I will definitely re-read. Not because it is something untold, rather for the very reason it is written. Through the novel Sudha Murthy has touched upon some very sensitive topics. These are understated and woven expertly throughout the book. Take for eg: the expectation of grooms to have a beautiful bride and also satatite their greed in terms of dowry. And if the bride is poor all hell is let loose. Similarly poverty is a curse for a girl if she is unemployed and dependent on her parents. Thus, self reliance and self independence is of utmost importance for every girl. Mnay incidents are criticized as cliches, but ironically they are very much the truth of our Indian society. Had Anupama brought dowry she would have been treated differently and not suffered. The society at large sees a woman who is separated/divorcee as an easy target and often perpetrate her privacy.

Though the ending is not your ‘happily-ever-after’ but nevertheless it is inspiring and uplifting enough for me to pick the book up for a read again.

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                                                                                                                                                                           The slideshow contains pictures of passages that left a mark with me. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did. Happy reading.

Her Father’s Daughter: Shekhar Mehra

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The blurb at the back of the book completely belies what lies inside 215 pages novel. I was taken unaware when I finished the book, waiting to let it all sink in. the blurb reads:

” When a girl child is born into the zamindar family of a village called Veerganj, she brings no cheer to anyone around. She is only just accepted by her family. But little Gayatri has set her rules early: she is not content with mere acceptance . She has taken after her father and demands attention,which she manages to get, and in ample measure. But when the same attention is denied to her as a woman- as a beautiful woman-what does she do? Just about anything. It’s her life after all.”

My first reaction was that it’s a book that must speak of woman’s liberation or a girl’s fight for self. But I was not prepared for what I read between the pages.

No matter how much we try and ignore or try to push it behind curtains or under the carpet, the truth is that the obsolete customs of caste biases, untouchability and the want for male child is very much in existence. It did not quite come to an end, it’s best to say it has been marginalized and forced to retreat from the face of urban India. But they can still be found in remote, far-off villages that are rigid and unbending in religious and social traditions. The Britishers may have left our land centuries ago, but we as a society are yet to fully wake up. In these remote interior villages there are millions of peoples labelled outcastes or untouchables, the lesser human beings. They are subjected to every conceivable form of discrimination. The high castes grade cows and snakes higher than their own fellow beings.

In urban areas it happens under cover of money. The higher castes who would never dream of touching them, are willing to work with them and under them, given the prospect of earning profit, read money. Though abolished by the constitution and the practice punishable by law, it still continues to play havoc with innocent lives.

These people suffered long and are still suffering. They did not raise their voice for the fear of retribution. Their counterparts in cities have survived and some of them are thriving as well. But those in the village never raised their eyes to look up, being employed as labour and menial hands, they feared loss of job and means of sustenance.

The government has set up panchayats for them where they can go for help and address their problems. But little did they know that the same enforcement agencies which should deliver justice have been bought and pockets warmed with money. These agencies cater to the interest of the high castes and are also manned by them. The Utopian dream did not deliver on ground. Poverty, illiteracy, caste system, political interference, factionalism, money and muscle power all grazed the dream flat.

It is under this premise that Gayatri’s story unfolds. She is born into a zamindar family. As a girl child she is unwanted and only just accepted. But she soon wraps herself around her father’s heart displaying the very same traits as her father. She is bold, fierce, independent and assertive. As a child her whims and fancies are brushed aside. Reality of dawns upon her when she grows up into a beautiful woman. Her movements are restricted and it slowly sinks into her what caste biases are. As a girl she has no say in how her life unfolds. Her father is a well known face in the village of Veerganj. To raise his position a bar higher in the society he decided to get Gayatri married to the son of a famous politician with a hold in state capital. The father completely disregards his daughter choice in the matter. Even when Gayatri hurts herself, she is asked to maintain composure and see that she will financially well settled. It did not matter if she like the boy or not. Matters escalate and go out of hand when she seeks help from Ghanshyam, an untouchable. She lets loose a can of worms and opens up Pandora’s box of troubles. Her father’s fury meets no match in deciding her future. Things turn ugly leaving the family disoriented and fractured.

The characters are well rounded and life like. There are no caricatures, rather genuine creation. All the characters have a progression as the book climaxes, no one character remains stolid.

The book is absolutely transparent with respect to how society functions in the villages. The untouchables are cornered towards the borders of the villages. The dark side of the Indian villages is exposed and so is the farce in the name of legislation and justice, namely Panchayats. There is no savior for these people and they are trampled by those with money and power. Shekhar Mehra has given a scathing account of how these people suffer, the tortures, the punishment and the suffering. The author has been true to the village life in depicting the  crude pleasure the muscle power enjoyed while exercising their strength on womenfolk.  Stripping the of their dignity, leaving them stark naked to all eyes, one can easily feel the humiliation and dejection of the people. The simplicity and candour with which Shekahr has written the novel, one would feel as if it’s recounting of a real incident.

If you have faint heart and gory scenes of violence and bloodshed make you queasy then do not pick this book. There are many scenes which recount extreme violence, savagery, brutishness and sadism.

 

The Binding Vine: Shashi Deshpande

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I am clueless how I happened to read this book. While looking for my next read, I was browsing through the bookshelf in the library. The book cover and the title held my attention. The lady in the cover especially had me captivated, and send mixed signals to my mind. On one hand, the lady seems sad and subservient, docile and acquiescent, yet something about her speaks strength as well. The title made me dive right in to find ‘ The Binding Vine‘.

Just like the title and cover made me think, after I finished reading the book, I was washed away with a flood of emotions that seemed to engulf me . I was drowned in the lives of the women the book spoke of, and many a times felt that I was standing in their place. The writing style of Shashi  is absolutely simple and natural. Yet it speaks volumes in a few pages without any effort. She manages to maintain a flow throughout the novel, slowly ‘binding’ her readers into the web of lives. She beautifully ties up all the subplots and has beautifully captured the issues faced by men and women under an oppressive patriarchal society. The novel does romanticize or glorify grief and pain, rather it is treated in a realistic manner wherein the writer manages to hit when tender. The hurt, the pain and agony of the character are real and when reading you are drawn to feel empathy.

 

Plot: This is a hard hitting novel about the issues that surround women in a male dominated/ patriarchal setup. The novel is triggered by the narration of the protagonist, Urmila and the women in her life, with whom her life gets entangled due to chance encounters. They come from various strata of the society which highlights that the general mindset of menfolk irrespective of the class remains the same. The women come together at various stages and happen to bind themselves together with Urmila.

Urmila is mourning the death of her beloved infant daughter Anu.Her mother constantly tries to take her out of this depression but she is not willing to come out of it, not yet. She wants to make sure this grief of hers stays alive and wants it to become a part of her life, just so that at any given situation she would never forget her baby, her Anu. But being caught in an unhappy marriage where her husband is away on the sea most of the times, Urmila finds it difficult to cope with this loss. She struggles to accept the reality, both relating to her marriage with Kishore and Anu’s death.

While battling with her grief, Urmila’s life crosses path with three women; Mira, her dead mother-in-law; Kalpana, a brutal rape survivor and her impoverished mother, Shakutai. As their story unfolds, so does their strength and courage blossoms.

Urmila gets pulled into the sad tale of a comatose Kalpana , who  had been raped brutally , but whose mother adamantly refuses to file a case because she has two more daughters to marry and she fears that the ‘daughters honor’ would be sabotaged and tarnished beyond repair. As the days progress Kalpana is forcibly shifted to another far away hospital much against her mother’s wish. This forces her mother  to revise her views and give a statement to a journalist of how her daughter was raped and how injustice had been meted out to her all along . The process to justice is quickened , but little did Shakutai know that she was opening a can of worms. With the statement to the press, she comes face-to-face with some ugly truths and revelations that topple her world . Through Shashi’s work we see a reflection of the society when it comes to rape and the way the family is treated. Woman must know fear. This line comes from Shakutai after her brief encounter with Urmila. She complains that her daughter invited the rape by grooming herself and drawing attention to herself when she should have tried to be invisible. Urmila protests knowing it to be a case of victim blaming. The daughter shouldn’t ideally have anything to fear; she argues and yet, but Urmi believes she was probably afraid, since she too feels the chill :

I know how fearfully I look back, my heart thudding in panic, when I hear footsteps behind me on a dark deserted street.

The victim-blaming isn’t limited to the mother. The people in the colony think that her behavior was ‘objectionable’ or that she was prostitute (because that would justify the rape!). Police registers it as a case of an accident because a rape case is too much trouble for everybody – police, doctors, family, victim etc. By the end , Shakutai sees light and in calm undertones tells Urmila that her Kalpana is “not at all like that . She is a nice girl” . 

In between her grief and Kalpana’s case , Urmila unearths the sordid past of her long dead mother in law Mira. Urmila comes across Mira’s poetry, hand written notes, which spoke about her torturous arranged marriage to Kishore’s father and the life she desired. Mira was married off to a man who fell in love with her beauty at a social function. Her beauty leads her to become a victim of domestic violence and marital rape. Being a gifted writer she penned down beautiful poems, which years later capture Urmila’s attention who finds an escape in them. Urmila makes it her aim to get the poems published in the honor of the woman, who was forcefully made a wife and the mother. There are lines that speak for themselves for eg: These lines MIra pens when renamed as Nirmala . These four lines sum up the essence of what every young girl is taught the moment she is betrothed to a man .

A glittering ring gliding on the rice
Carefully traced a name ‘Nirmala’
Who is this? None but I,
My name hence, bestowed upon me .

Nirmala, they call, I stand satue-still.
Do you build the new without razing the old ?
A tablet of rice, a pencil of gold .
Can they make me Nirmala ? I am Mira

The women in the novel are weak, strong, submissive and independent. They are all bound by a vine called Urmila, nurturing it with love, concern, comfort and courage to each other. Each one of them has her own demons to fight and are trying best to deal with them. The author uses the themes of death, marriage, rape, loneliness, depression, patriarchy and loss to highlight the trials and tribulations of these women.

All the women have/had challenging marriages. They are lonely despite having (had) a life partner each. The question then arises Why is it so important for a woman to get married? When marriage is not a guarantee to happiness and security, why are women forced into the institution of marriage?

Rape is another violation of the self that brings the women closer. Mira and Kalpana both were victims, though a generation apart, one married and another unmarried. Yet it is the women who are blamed for their own horrific plight. They are blamed for bringing it upon themselves by being beautiful or drawing unwanted attention. Be it any generation of women, rape is a demon that still haunts them in the corner of their minds. Once married you are expected to give in to the demands of your husband willingly, even if your heart is unwilling. The husband can force himself on you, under the garb of marriage. So married or unmarried, the status holds no security from RAPE.

All the women are looking for their place in the patriarchal world. Being defined by her father or husband is not her only identity. She can be independent of them and make her own place if she manages to gather enough courage and likewise support. If a woman can bring a new life into the world, she definitely can take care of herself. It is only a matter of discovering herself and he own strengths. Urmila decides to publish Mira’s poems with the full knowledge that she will have to fight perosnal battles for them. While Shakutai decides to go public with Kalpana’s violator, thereby avenging the wrong done to her daughter.  This sense of being liberated from a cage, to get their voices heard and wings free from shackles, truly is their victory. The victory to fly with the winds, without the fear of chains or societal norms.

Nurjahan’s Daughter: Tanushree Podder

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If my history textbooks were anywhere as interesting as the historical fiction written nowadays, I would have done fairly well in my exams. History which already has a ‘story’ in it never held my interest due to the way its presented. The pile of facts and dates, rather than a narration of the events in story style. Many would agree with me that our history books do not make us delve deeper, rather we sink deep into slumber. The intrigues and betrayals are reported in dull and monotonous reporting style which adds no glamour to the otherwise colorful history of India. So when I picked this book for reading it was after I did some background reading.  And surprisingly, I found that not much is mentioned about the daughter of one of the most powerful and illustrious queens in Mughal history. Needless to say, this is owing to the fact that the daughter basically lived in the shadows of her mother. Thus, when I held the book in my hands I was more than excited to discover the girl for myself. The book left me with mixed reactions, disappointed, intrigued and least to say enthusiastic about unraveling more of the Mughal empire and the harem.

The title though is misgiving. The book revolves more around Nur Jahan than her daughter, who comes into scene briefly as a flying mention. The girl still remains to be as elusive as she is in history.

Plot: Podder has woven a  fascinating tapestry of a young, sensitive girl caught amidst the coils of her ambitious and ruthless mother’s schemes.

Mughal India was a man’s world and few women left a lasting impression. There aren’t many who are given any mention. Mumtaz Mahal is remembered because of the monument built in her memory , that too courtesy of  Shah Jahan and his love for her. But Nur Jahan’s left her imprints or rather seal on history by her deeds as well as her personality. Nur Jahan’s Daughter is a story that shows how Mughal women played an important role in governance. They were experts at intrigues and political maneuvering. Battles raged all the time as the women took one side or the other in their male relatives’ battles for the throne. Marriages were mostly political in nature, with the aim to strengthen the rule and build up allies, thereby squashing any attempt at overthrowing the throne.

The whole book really revolves around Nur Jahan, who uses her power over the love-smitten emperor in her court strategem and then ruthlessly manouveres her daughter’s life as well. She is portrayed as an ambitious, scheming woman, who maliciously forces her own daughter to get married to good -or-nothing prince Shahriyar . She is a woman who sacrificed much for her love, one who set her sights on being the empress of India and worked towards it with single-minded focus.  Yet there are times when your heart reaches out to her since beneath the facade one have a sneak peek at the girl who fell in love with prince Salim, but was married off against will. And in the race to the throne feels left out because she has no male heir to lead.

The tale supposedly narrates the graph of Laadli’s life. But it is not through Laadli, as led by the title, rather through Meherunnisa’s (Nur Jahan) rise to the throne. Laadli is a mere pawn, embroiled in the machinations of an ambitious mother. For Laadli, the crown or the empire held no charm or lure. She was a rather simple girl who was content living in the shadows, unnoticed and anonymous. Her mother had other plans, with no male heir, she saw her daughter as means of getting to the throne. So Nur Jahan forces Laadli to woo either of the princes, Khusrau and Khurram. The only time she happens to stand against her mother’s wishes is in her love affair with her music teacher Imraan, who suffers the impudence of loving an empress’ daughter and pays for this ‘sin’ with his life. Nurjahan marries her off under the influence of opium-laced drink, to Shahriyar, a drug-addict, drunkard and a gay, whom the empress intended saw as means of reaching the throne. But he is murdered in cold blood brother Shah Jahan’s bidding. Laadli then slips into a life in oblivion. With unflinching devotion to her mother, she acted as a crutch that provided the empress the security to plod through the rough patches during the last years of her life. The mother and daughter never see eye-to-eye on matters, but finally the meek and self-deprecating daughter becomes her trusted advisor.

It is only after NurJahan’s death that Laadli finds some peace and can live life on her own terms. A emeorable mother-daughter scnene is when on her death bed Nur Jahan piteously asks her daughter if she hates her and Laadli replies, “Is it possible for anyone to hate her mother? How can I hate someone who carried me in her womb for nine months? Nothing you did can alter the fact that you are my mother.” After which tears of remorse roll down Nur Jahan’s cheeks.

I had slight problems with the writing as at times, since many pages were wasted in describing the architecture and the elaborate ritual of harem ladies. Equally irritating was the detailed description of the jewelry and dressing of Nur Jahan and Laadli, as also the desgns Nur Jahan later designs. Instead of marveling at these details, more time should have been spent on Laadli, as a person rather than an offshoot of Nur Jahan. The eloquently written passages on Mughal architecture, dressing, jewelry could have been better handled had they been sparsely mentioned, with more effect to the girl about who the book is intended to be.

All in all, a fascinating read for history buffs, and those interested in reading about court intrigues, battles, betrayal and amidst this background a simple tale of a rather ordinary girl with an extraordinary mother.

 

 

Witness the night: Kishwar Desai

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Witness-the-night

Female Infanticide is problem that troubles India since many years. It has deepened roots to such an extent that even education and literacy cannot mar the effects of this crime. Though secluded to some states now, it still poses a serious threat resulting in an imbalanced male-female sex ratio. Girls are killed right in the womb without a second thought. And the hands that perform this dreadful act is not necessarily male, females who themselves have wombs are party to this crime in the name of taking forwarding the lineage. I was drawn to this book because of the cover, which shows a girl half cowering with deep eyes that see to bore through you. So I immediately read the blurb as to see what it holds for me. I was captivated from the start: Durga. A fourteen-year-old girl, found all alone in a sprawling house in Punjab. Silent, terrified, and the sole suspect in the mass murder of thirteen members of her family.  Though hard to digest I was hooked to the story line to know what can drive someone to commit such a horrifying act.

Set in small town Jullundur (Jalandhar) in Punjab, the story is about a 14 year old girl Durga caught in a nightmare, accused of having murdered thirteen family members, and a 45-year-old social worker Simran who is working hard to find out the truth. The story opens with the diary entry of the girl that feels unvarnished, though a confused confession to a crime in which she was involved. The details of the crime are unclear and distorted, but it appears that the girl might have staged her own rape in order to make it look like “someone had tried to hurt me”.

Simran, a fiercely independent and outspoken social worker is given the task to speak with Durga and find out the truth from her. In course of time, Simran realizes that the incident is not as straight forward as it seems. Durga looks like a scared child but she keeps silent  about the incident and seems unemotional about the whole incident. It is up-to Simran to find out the truth on her own. As she tries to uncover the truth, she finds that the relationship of Durga with her family has sinister undertones to it. There are many skeletons in the closet which would be hard to unearth.

The narrative shifts between Durga’s diary entry and Simran. Durga, is sent to a remand home, as she is charged with the murder of 13 members of her family in one night. All of the victims had been poisoned, some had been stabbed and others burnt. Hard as it seems to comprehend how such a task can be done by a teenager, when the coils unwind you do understand the working of a tortured, unwanted and neglected girl child. Despite the lack of fingerprints and no evidence to suggest an outsider was involved, Simran is convinced there is more to the story than meets the eye. She wonders if a man was involved or whether Durga acted in self-defence. She feels that the only reason the case has attracted a blaze of publicity is because of the large inheritance involved. There are many instances of her having to pilot around the police to reach the actual conclusion. Its in many ways depiction of the law and order system that goes silent when blinded by money.

What follows is Simran’s painstaking investigation in which she immerses herself in the corrupted and vile Indian legal and judicial system in an attempt to unearth the truth. What she finds out along the way is often eye-opening. But it’s not until she is forced to confront an entire clan intent on eliminating unwanted females, often before they are born, that she begins to understand Durga’s dilemma.

The book is written from 2 viewpoints, Durga’s and Simran’s. While Durga’s writing is serious and dark , Simran’s is sarcastic and funny at times. Durga’s writing is reflective of the conservative, cloistered and shackled life she has led for 14 years. While Simran’s life shows the contrast in city life where even though a woman she leads life on her own terms and is fearless about it. By juxtaposing these two females, Desai shows the contrast in the existence of the two.

Though an easy read there were many issues I faced while reading. Firstly, I could not fathom the idea of a 14 year old girl murdering her family to avenge her unborn sisters and herself. Such a thought seems unrealistic no matter how many justifications are presented. Secondly the novel is riddled with continual exposition. Almost every chapter has something important to say about the plight of women, the trauma of having achild killed, ways foeticide is done, and so on. The author’s attempts to mould them into the plot is unsuccessful. They seem more like preachy monologues by the narrator than part of the narration. I do truly care about female infanticide, but would have preferred to discover the issues and decided what to think about them for myself rather than have them shoved down my throat, choking me, gasping for breath. I had almost put the book down if the desire to know the reason for the murder had not driven me on.

The opening chapter was shocking and held the promise of an intense mystery and drama, but the intensity evaporates by the climax. Motivations often seemed weak, and there were very few moments that pulled me out of my seat. The book marvels in parts where Desai describes how the girls where killed in earthen pots filled with milk(a cleanser in Hindu rites) or drugged to death, or worse buried alive in the fields behind the house. The incident with servant girls being bought as objects of pleasure to keep the boys tied to the house and not stray out. These give a depth to an otherwise rushed and hurried writing. The ending seems highly unacceptable after all that happens in the book. It seems that Desai after burning herself out of ideas haphazardly gave the ending . The book could have achieved greater heights if the writing and treatment to the sensitive topic was better handled.

Sharing some powerful quotes:

“Most of them I knew were just waiting for a chance to avenge themselves on the world that had robbed them of the one thingy they would never enjoy again, their childhood.”

“The midwives used to take away newborn girls from their mothers, seal them in earthen pots and roll the pot around till the baby stopped crying. Or they would simply suffocate them. Or give them opium and then bury them. For a largely farming community, girls were a burden. A woman confessed to having had seven abortions in the hope of a boy.”

“Tired of the sound of the baby crying, she took some poisonous juice from the oleander flower, mixed it with castor oil, and forced it down the child’s throat. Eventually the crying stopped. The crying had bothered her more than the act of killing.”

” Carefully, Sharda took out a paper envelope from which she drew out a tiny white skeletal hand…This hand was buried in the vegetable plot….Cradling that hand still in my hand, like a precious flower, I gazed out at the innocent-looking field behind our house which…., I  imagined the claws tearing away the flesh from tiny bodies which never had a chance to cry out or draw their first breath……