Thursday, December 27, 2012

More Than Everest by Dr. Harish Dhillon

Title : More Than Everest - He Conquered the Hearts of Men
Author : Dr. Harish Dhillon
Publisher : Hay House 
ISBN : 978-93-80480-95-4

I often used to wonder how could travelogues or writings on personal adventures, mountaineering, trekking or any such activity be of interest to a reader curled up with the book in the confines of his/her home. But it was just a matter of getting initiated by the right book and fortunately after having read the likes of Jon Krauker and Bill Bryson, I gladly stand corrected. Thanks to the chronicled words of the mountaineers and trekkers, their armchair counterparts like me can at least virtually partake some part of the thrill that they experience in person.

With mountain peak beckoning thus - "Although Mount Everest was already conquered, its romance remained, and the age of discovery of the earth was not over.  That mountain still stood as a challenge to the human spirit and nations were tempted to accept that challenge", on 20th May, 1965, a young member of the Indian expedition, who had never been a mountaineer, planted the Indian flag on the summit of Everest, the first Indian to do so - Autar Singh Cheema with Nawang Gombu on his rope.

This achievement worked as a much needed balm for the bruised self esteem of our country in early 1965 when the treacherous scars of defeat from treacherous China were still very much fresh and Pakistan was trying to make the most of the vulnerable situation of India by encroaching upon Indian territory in Rann of Kutch. Besides these two external foes, there was one internal adversary too - the shortage of food." It is with this backdrop on the subcontinent that an expedition to climb Mount Everest by Indians was allowed. "

'More Than Everest' is a befitting tribute to a person who donned many hats with élan by dint of his inner strength of character, audacity and tenacity. From being a highly decorated paratrooper in Indian Army, a mountaineer to have achieved the rarest of the rare feats, a compassionate and visionary farmer to a loving family man, Autar Singh Cheema achieved all. The book traverses his journey from his childhood years through various stages of his life and career till his last days when he fought like a brave soldier against a formidable enemy leukemia. In a life which spanned less than six decades, Autar Singh managed to make an indelible mark in the annals of Indian and international mountaineering and has thus attained immortality.

I am reminded of a very famous dialogue from a Hindi movie Anand - 'Life badi honi chaahiye lambi nahin' (Life should be large, not long). Autar Singh's life is a true example of a large life.

This book is the brainchild of his niece - Preena Sandhu, who along with Mrs. Autar Singh Cheema collected and collated all information to finally hand it over to the author Dr. Harish Dhillon to do justice to Cheema spirit through his pen.

Every phase of Cheema's life is handled in detail in separate sections and one is dedicated to mountaineering. Some rare diary entries recorded by Cheema brings the real flavour of what goes on in the mind of a person while in the midst of action. This chapter covers all - preparation for the rigorous climb, the thrill and excitement of having conquered Mt. Everest and the adulation that followed this adventure.  

The biography comes across as a very well researched piece of writing appropriately supported by ample number of pictures from Cheema's life, which makes it a visually pleasing read. However, it runs a high  risk of overwhelming the readers with too many names and some not so significant incidents.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare

Title : The Bronze Bow
Author : Elizabeth George Speare
Publisher : HMCo
Age : Young Adult

In the times when incidents inspired by hate outnumber the ones driven by love and affection, when compassion seems to be running low in our hearts, when patience is looked down upon as a tool of meek and weak and when display of aggression seems to be the new and modern flavor, it is extremely essential to go back to the priceless teachings of the enlightened souls who graced the Earth with their divine presence. And what better time than around Christmas - the festival of light, which symbolizes happiness and merriment.

Daniel bar Jamin happens to witness the crucifixion of his father by Roman soldiers. Taking revenge by driving the Roman dominion out of the land of Israel becomes his only motto in life. Harboring deep hatred in his heart, he joins the band of an outlaw who resides in the hills outside the city limits. Forced by circumstances post his grandmother's death, he finds himself to be the only one who now needs to take care of his sister. But while living in the village he establishes a group of like minded guerrillas with sole mission of taking revenge. Fired by hatred, he fails to see and acknowledge tender feelings of his sister Leah, his friend Joel and Joel's sister Malthace.

There is one thing which empowers him and provides solace to his agitated nerves always and that is the Song of David

"God is my safe refuge,
And has made my way safe.
He made my feet like hind's feet,
And set me secure on the heights.
He trains my hands for war,
So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze."

and Malthace beautifully interprets the meaning as - When God strengthens us, we can do anything that seems impossible.

While he nurtured the hatred towards Romans passionately in his heart, teachings of Jesus of Nazareth had some other message to convey. Calm demeanor of Jesus always attracted Daniel but his words 'It is the hate that is the enemy, not men. Hate does not die with killing. It only springs up a hundredfold. The only thing stronger than hate is love', made Daniel's whole fabric of being shake. He always found hatred and feeling of vengeance so much closer to him that imagining his self devoid of these two was almost impossible for him. But after having experienced the pain of losing two of his dear ones with his own sword of hatred and after having pushed his sister to life threatening isolation again, he could finally understand the true meaning of David's words - 'He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze' - that perhaps only love could bend the bow of bronze.

"The only chains that matter are fear and hate because they chain our souls. If we do not hate anyone and do not fear anyone then we are free."

The scene here is set in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Author beautifully conveys Jesus's message of peace amidst chaos, hatred, violence, pain and distress through the story of Daniel. It is indeed a moving and sensitive tale to emphasize that no matter how big and dear revenge and hatred appear to be, forgiveness and love pave the way for actual deliverance.

'The Bronze Bow' is the winner of the 1962 Newbery Medal

Monday, December 17, 2012

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Title: Animal Farm
Author: George Orwell

"Life will go on as it has always gone on – that is, badly." The animals in the Manor Farm live a hard life. Human beings control them, use them, abuse them and misuse their powers. A wise old boar, who is on his deathbed, calls all the animals and tells them that a rebellion against the human cruelty is the only way the animals could ever think of escaping the hardships in their lives.

All the animals are very charged and with fire in their bellies, they start chalking out the plans for a rebellion though they don't know when it would be possible. The chance comes fairly soon and the animals are able to overthrow the humans and establish a rule purely by the animals and for the animals.

The ideals with which the 'Animal Farm' (the new name of the Manor Farm) work begins are pristine, pure and divine. There is the advent of education. Over time education creates a basic divide between the wise and the not-so-wise. The pigs, the most intelligent and the ready witted of all, slowly start establishing their supremacy. The humans try to regain their lost control, but the united animal force is too much for them to handle and thus, they have to retreat. Little by little, changes start happening. The pigs don't seem to agree on any one point and then, we see, one of the pigs, Napoleon, drives away the other and becomes the leader. Extremely slowly and gradually, the leader, Napoleon, establishes total control over the lives of other animals, all the rules the Animal Farm was established with, are violated. The pigs become more and more human like  they walk on two legs, they sleep in beds, wear clothes and drink alcohol. The commandment of "All animals are equal" is changed to "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others". The tenet of "Four legs good, two legs bad" is changed to "Four legs good, two legs better" and many more. Over time vices corrupt the leader class to an extent that they are blinded by their addiction and would rather get their wounded best worker slaughtered and get money than spend money and get him operated upon.

Once, the totalitarian control is established, the pigs rename the farm "Animal Farm" to "Manor Farm". And as Benjamin, the wise donkey said, "Life will go on as it has always gone on – that is, badly." 

Though the book is based on a similar problem that occurred in Soviet, I feel, India too has undergone a similar pattern. The long years of strife under the control of the British Raj led to the uprisings and rebellions, and ultimately, the war of independence and then freedom. The values we began with have been altered and interpreted to suit the ones who have, against the have-nots. Education, improperly distributed, created a class divide. Eventually, the good and the 'high class' befriended the oppressors of the past and many were engulfed in vices of sorts.

Overall, a good but depressing book. Wonderful vocabulary.

Rating: 3/5

(Picture Source: Internet)

Saturday, December 15, 2012



After a long time came across a book which made me genuinely laugh and introspect as well. Though, Rachna Singh would’nt think twice before putting me in ‘denial ’ category. My dating and diaper era  might have come and gone a long time ago but I am not ready to accept it that I am living in denial
  Hey, I am only in my 30's I have a long way to go!  Go on read the book and find for yourself in which category do you fall in.

Rachna Singh  has a very unique style of writing. Though the chapters have been woven out of the same thread , yet they are independent of each other. You can start the book from anywhere and will still be able to make sense out of it..Written in first person narrative the book is anecdotal in style. The book does not have a definite storyline, it is made up of her ‘blurbs’ as Rachna Singh calls them , her observations about life around her, the major milestones of life related to dating, falling in love, getting married and so on….. , all of them have been put together and articulated into a book. The author has taken pot shots at herself and has made a lots of digs at males / females of today’s world. She has done this with aplomb-panache and  do not leave behind any kind of distaste.
I could very easily identify with the book . Rachna Singh’s observations are hilarious and pretty close to our lives these days. I enjoyed reading the book, especially the last chapter, would say very inventively written.
The book makes an excellent light read.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Interview with Ashok K. Banker

    Ashok K. Banker needs  no introduction. He is an acclaimed author of mixed-race and mixed-cultural background. His writing spans crime thrillers, essays, literary criticism, fiction and mythological retellings. Epic India Library is his brain child and through this he plans to retell all the major myths, legends and itihasa of the Indian subcontinent in an interlinked cycle of over 70 volumes. The Ramayana series, Krishna Coriolis and the Mahabharata series are part of this library.
    An author par excellence, here is a peak into his personality through this e-interview.

  1. What was the main inspiration behind starting to write? What story you really wanted to tell the world through your writing?

  2. I began reading at a very young age and by the age of 7 was reading voraciously. I particularly loved encyclopedias and dictionaries and always carried a dictionary to school to read during short break and lunch break. I wont go into my family background here as it has been covered extensively in several hundred interviews over the decades, but to sum up, writing and reading were my way of coping with the essential chaos and violence of my circumstances. By the age of 9, I had read my way through most of the essential mythological and religious literature of all major religions and knew that I wanted to be an author and write books related to the epics. The rest of my life was spent studying, researching and preparing myself for the task. The only story I truly wanted to tell the world was the Story of India. The greatest untold story in world literature.

  3. Please tell us about your Epic India Library and why did you feel the need to start the same?

  4. The bookshelves of the world are filled with countless retellings, editions, popular as well as scholarly works on the mythology, culture, history and folklore of other nations and continents. Yet the great epics of the sub-continent, which are undoubtedly among the greatest stories in world literature are almost completely absent from those bookshelves. Even if you explain this lacuna on racism and western bias against eastern civilizations, you always have to note that Indian writers themselves have rarely bothered to retell or relate the tales of their own culture. Our authors are mostly interested in writing stories about their own sexuality, addictions, coming of age, marriages and relationships, work and career, with an almost visible absence in this area of itihasa and epics. By the time I was in my 30s, I had read literally thousands of books without ever finding any good retellings of our epics that appealed to me. I realized that I was yearning to read Indian stories and if I wanted such books, the only option was to go back to the source and study them again myself. So I began reading the epics and puranas. I realized that almost none of these stories had been done justice to in any book or collection. So I began writing, just to see how they might be retold in a way that I, as a reader, would enjoy reading them. What began as a writing experiment turned into the first project, the Ramayana Series. Before I was finished with it, I decided that I wanted to continue to retell ALL the major myths, legends and itihasa of the Indian sub-continent. When complete, that collection of over 100 books will constitute what I call the Epic India Library.

  5. In the times when social media sites are on the rise and an individual's popularity is gauged by the followers and readers of one's sites and links, why and how did you decide to stay away from the same?

  6. Every person has their own way of achieving success and seeking what they want in life and each way is valid. To me, the writing is the most rewarding part. My family is very important to me. Ive always believed that the books we end up loving the most are those we discover accidentally, in the back of a dusty shelf or in the most unexpected way. Im not interested in being a celebrity, or being talked-about or promoting myself as a brand (which is the most absurd and insulting thing a writer can do, in my opinion). I love to write and love my family and whatever numbers my books sell are entirely due to readers wanting to read them and taking the  time and effort to find them. I don’t believe in marketing, advertising, publicity or promotion. I’d rather have 1.6 million readers (as I currently do, as of end-2012) in 57 countries and 12 languages who have found my 32 books (so far) and come to love them on their own rather than ten times that number through aggressive promotion and marketing. I’m happy with whatever the universe chooses to give me and accept it. I choose to spend all my time doing what I love without compromises or social networking. I actively avoid networking, maintaining connections, socializing, attending lit fests and events. If your books are good, nothing else matters. If the books are crap, then you need social networking desperately. As a great mind once said: “Fame is the last resort of desperate failures.” Those whose work isn’t good enough to speak for itself need to shout the loudest!

  7. How do you strike a balance between the various themes that you write on - mythology, crime thrillers, essays and other forms of writing?

  8. I dont strike a balance. Thats the beauty of it. I serve the storys needs. Ashok Banker is irrelevant. My point of view is irrelevant. I am a non-Hindu of mixed-race, nationality and culture who grew up with zero understanding or exposure to Hindu religion, culture, languages, etc. Yet recently a major Hindu university wished to felicitate me for reviving Hindu mythology through my Ramayana Series! The university dean went to the extent of referring to me as a guru and wanting me to attend their annual event as the Chief Guest to confer the degrees. I refused politely because its awkward to explain that not only am I not a Hindu, I am completely non-religious and dont follow any culture, celebrate any festivals, including my own birthday, and dont subscribe to any belief systems or cultural stereotypes. I dont even vote or have any political interests! So when I write a series or story, I surrender completely to it. I am merely a tool of the story. I serve its needs, adapting my style, my idiom, my vocabulary, my syntax, even the structure of language to suit that particular kind of story and content. Thats why youll find that a novel like Vertigo is completely different from the Ramayana Series, which in turn is different from my Mahabharata Series, or Gods of War, or Blood Red Sari, and so on. The stories all exist in their own right. I am only the means by which they come to the page.  

  9. What inspires you and interests you the most in mythology and why do you feel the need to retell epics?

  10. Oddly enough, I have zero interest in mythology. I dont read it, have never watched mythological serials. As a kid, I used to be the only child in my neighborhood (probably in all India) who went out to play when everybody was home watching Mahabharata or Ramayana. I actively dislike those phony mythological costumes and dialogue and fake style of storytelling. Those are not our epics, please! Theyre just Bollywood corruptions of the original stories. What attracts me powerfully are these incredible records of ancient times, these great powerful tales of another bygone era, written in such lyrical Sanskrit shlokas, describing incredible, rich cultural detail and narratives. If I am able to convey even a fraction of the power and beauty of those ancient Vedic works through my very flawed and mediocre adaptations, I am happy. As I said, its not about me. I dont seek anything except to serve the story and all the joy and pleasure I feel is in achieving that to some small extent.

  11. In your retelling of the epics, the mythological heroes are depicted as ordinary humans doing extraordinary actions. Was it difficult to think beyond the aura that gets ingrained in our minds related to these heroes?

  12. Well, I have the advantage of not being Hindu, not being religious, not having these ideas or perceptions ingrained in my mind from childhood. I read the epics and adapt them as they demand. I have no preconceptions or agenda in mind. Therefore I also don’t have the hang-ups and issues that most Hindus have about their own gods and epics, thankfully! I’m constantly amazed at how Hindus are so vehement in their views about what Rama did or didn’t do, how Krishna behaved, etc, as if these issues are most important than problems in their own lives. But that’s a prerogative they have, since it’s their religion and their god. Not mine. I’m just a storyteller and nowhere in the Ramayana or Mahabharata is there any confusion about such matters. They are just great epics brilliantly narrated by those great ancient minds.

  13. Your Mahabharata series is a long series of 18 books. Do you think the readers' attention can be captured for that long? How did you divide the saga into 18 parts?

  14. Thats the length of the story. It is the worlds largest epic after all. 18 because Vyasas Mahabharata runs into 18 parvas and Im sticking with his excellent structure. I dont know whether or not readers will read the whole series but thats not for me to say or decide, thats up to the readers. My job ends with the writing of the books. As a reader, all I can say is that if a story is good, you never want it to end no matter how long the book or series may be. If the story isnt good, even two pages is too long!

  15. What is planned after the Mahabharata series? Do you plan to retell Bhagwat, Upanishads and Vedas too?

  16. The Krishna Coriolis, based on the Harivamsha and Shrimad Bhagwatham, was begun in 2004 and completed in 2009. I only offer a series for publication when I have finished writing it completely. TEN KINGS is based on a true historical incident described in the Rig Veda. The Upanishads are extracts from the Vedas, not a separate work and are not epics or stories so I am not planning to work on them. My Mahabharata Series is almost complete as I said, the publication comes long after I finish writing, often as much as ten to 12 years later. To know about my other series and books, do visit my ebookstore, and view the titles there as there are too many to list here.   

  17. What is your take on - why more and more authors are going back to mythology to derive stories from, whether to refine, redefine, retell, to find contemporary relevance or to highlight unique perspectives?

  18. The tradition of brahmins retelling mythological tales is a part of Hindu India. As far as Im aware, all the authors you are referring to are Hindu brahmins, so theyre continuing that religious tradition. My interest lies in non-Hindus and as far as I know, I am the only one working in this field. I would love to read a Muslim Ramayana or a fiercely feminist Mahabharata or a Mahaharata retold from a caste point of view. I think we need to address these glaring injustices and imbalances in our itihasa and only non-brahmin and non-Hindu writers, especially women writers, can do justice to them. The brahmin Hindu retellings are good for brahmin Hindus to read but I would want a more modern and open-minded retelling.

  19. What all research do you do before starting to pen down your stories?

  20. I dont believe in researching a specific book for a few months. I believe in devoting ones entire life to studying that body of literature, mythology, itihasa, history. The process of research is lifelong and continuous. I dont stop researching just because a book is finished. Research can only give you information and at best, knowledge. Good storytelling comes from having read or noticed something 30 years ago and finally understanding a connection today. Research is for newspaper articles that end up in the trash. Retelling mythology requires a lifestyle change and a completely new way of thinking and living.
    Thank you for your questions. Thank you for reading.

    Ashok Kumar Banker
    10 December 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Title : Siddhartha
Author : Herman Hesse
Publisher : Bantam Book

 "The true profession of man is to find his way to himself"
Siddhartha is the story of every thinking individual as one maneuvers through the paths of life while trying to work on the conflicts that the three essential elements of a being pose - mind, body and soul.  I consider such books small little pauses in the otherwise madly running lives in current times. They goad an individual to stop, think, introspect and examine which one of the three - mind, body or soul is dominating the self at any given point of time.

Siddhartha, as a boy got enchanted by the thoughts of gods and sacrifices, as a young adult left his home in order to conquer his mind and body to live as an ascetic, as a man got immersed in fulfilling the pleasures of senses and becoming their slave, and later left everything that was dear to him to embark on a fresh journey to find peace and Atman. His life came a full circle starting from a boy to a man and then back to being a child again. The boy who was boastful of three incredible arts - fasting, waiting and thinking, saw the same abandoning him one by one. He ended up exchanging the skills that he had acquired during the diligent years of youth, for the transitory things which usually obsess an ordinary man. Eventually he had to get in touch with his inner self in order to attain the divine peace.

As  he progressed in his journey of life, his personality changed, his needs changed and accordingly his teachers changed and in the end he learns the essence of life from outwardly mute river. Sitting silently by the river, watching its continuous flow, Siddhartha learns the timeliness of a being, unity of things and the art of listening to that one sound - the Om sound - which has the power of submerging every diverse sound in its folds.  "Learned from river to listen, to listen with still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinions. "

A very thought provoking story but then it does make you believe that things happen when they have to happen and when the time is ripe for the same to happen. Perhaps this was the reason that even after meeting Buddha and getting impressed with his demeanor and his teachings, Siddhartha felt the need to leave that place as he believed that a teacher can simply impart knowledge but cannot make the disciples share the wisdom that experience only brings. "Wisdom is not communicable. Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, be fortified by it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it."

Siddhartha's words while he decided to leave Buddha to embark on his pursuit alone - "Buddha you have reached the highest goal which so many thousands of Brahmins and Brahmins' sons are striving to reach. You have done so by your own seeking, in your own way, through thought, through meditation, through knowledge, through enlightenment. You have learned nothing through teachings. Nobody finds salvation through teachings. To nobody, can you communicate in words and teachings what happened to you in the hour of your enlightenment. The teachings of the enlightened Buddha embrace much, they teach much - how to live righteously, how to avoid evil. But there is one things that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain, it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced. "

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Title : Life of Pi
Author : Yann Martel
Publisher : Canongate/Random House
ISBN : 978-1-84195-392-2

There are some stories, I consider fortunate enough to enjoy the spotlight of the center stage more than once in their life times. Life of Pi happens to be one of them. Published in 2001 after being rejected by at least five publishing houses in London, Life of Pi won Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the following year. Later it got translated to a couple of other languages too. The story has managed to create hysteria once again after a decade when it has been adapted into a movie by an ace director - Ang Lee.

Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel written by Yann Martel. The protagonist of the story is Piscine Molitor 'Pi' Patel, an Indian boy hailing from Pondicherry, who happens to get his unusual name courtesy a famous swimming pool in Paris. His not so regular name makes him subject of a lot of ridicule, teasing and some funny incidents though it brings a lot of distress for the owner of the name himself.

Majoring in religious studies and zoology, Pi's quest to learn more about the divine power leads him to be a Muslim-Christian-Hindu, a rare combination indeed. The family (his parents, elder brother Ravi and he)decides to make the alien lands of Canada their home when his father, a zoo owner decides to call it quits in India. But that was not destined to be and the cargo ship tragically sinks in the rough waters of ocean leaving just a few survivors on the solitary lifeboat - newly orphaned sixteen year old Pi, a hyena, a monkey, a crippled zebra and a royal Bengal tiger who accidentally got the name Richard Parker. And hence the stage is set for a perfectly adventurous, nerve wrecking tale of fiction.

Life of Pi turns out to be a coming of age story of a boy who is caught in a strangely precarious situation where it is unimaginable to be sharing a lifeboat with a tiger while it is equally important for him to keep the tiger alive.  "A part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker. He pushed me to go on living. I hated him for it, yet at the same time I was grateful. "

His experiences, understanding, grit, patience, suffering and much more equip him to churn the same into fine pearls of wisdom. Situations which demand all possible and many times impossible faculties of an individual make the highlight of the book and it is wonderful to read how the survival instincts kick in at the right time. 'When your life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival'.

After struggling with many menacing foes, learning a lot more than regular routine offers, graduating from being a simple vegetarian to eating anything for survival, realizing the desperation that threat to survival poses, confronting the power of fear from close quarters, witnessing the magical presence of God on many occasions, riding the waves of hope and despair continuously, striking a symbiotic relationship with a creature with whom it is most unlikely, Pi, in the company of Richard Parker reaches the shores of Mexico after 227 days. 

The commendable part of Martels's writing is the life like portrayal of Pi, every mood, every feeling and every scene. Pi's questioning and analyzing mind goads the readers to introspect on many issues including the one that stays in the thinking minds always - presence of God. Overall an extremely well written, engaging account of adventurous life of Pi indeed. The story is power packed with action, philosophy, spirituality and introspection - all in one. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Hitler's Daughter by Jackie French

pic courtesy flipkart

Hitler's Daughter
Written by Jackie French
Published by HarperCollins Children's Books
Ages 8-12

Mark, Anna, Tracey and Ben play a story game as they wait for their school bus every day. They have stories of fairies, of ball games and of horses. Until one day Anna decides to tell a story. It is an amazing story set on the fringes of a great war. It is the story of a child growing up tucked away from all the action, a privileged child who is kept safe despite not being the blue-eyed, blond, tall Aryan ideal, a child hungry for family and love, holding on to memories of the few-and-far between visits of her father. A father who obviously is somebody important. Important enough that people around her who have always taken care of her are in mortal fear of displeasing him. We are told early enough that the child, Heidi, is Hitler's daughter.

Anna's story focuses on the genocide from the outside in, raising many questions in Mark's mind. What if one's parent or child has done something really evil- how does one deal with such a parent/ child? Does one love them regardless? Do the sins of our parents taint us irrevocably, or is there redemption? Do the actions of someone dear reflect on us as individuals? How does society look upon those who stand in evil's shadow? Is a bad thing really a bad thing, or are we just victims of our convictions? Do we have a right to raise our hand against someone else's questionable behaviour if we, too, might be in the wrong in our own time?

These are very profound existential questions, and Jackie French, (interviewed here on Saffron Tree), in her inimitable chatty style, raises them through Mark's thoughts, without thrusting them at us. There are also references to Australia's own genocide-  the colonial actions against their Aborigine population.

It has been so realistically told that we are left wondering if Hitler indeed, did have a daughter that no-one knows about. Also, it is an unusual look at the Holocaust; a great book to introduce them to it, along with Number the Stars and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. There are no grisly portrayals of the deaths, as the point of view is of a privileged, though unfortunate girl.

This page-turner of a book was devoured by A in an afternoon. She has been, since, recommending it to many of her friends.

Cross-posted at Saffrontree.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Manto by Sadan Hasan Manto (Translated by Aatish Taseer)

Title : Manto
Author : Sadan Hasan Manto (Translated by Aatish Taseer)
Publisher : Random House India
ISBN : 978-8-184-00144-0

The author Sadan Hasan Manto born in undivided India donned many hats ranging from being a radio and film scriptwriter, journalist to a short-story writer. Though his short stories created many controversies yet he is acclaimed as one of the greatest story tellers of his times. In Manto's words, "If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth." Originally written in Urdu, his short-stories have been translated by none other than an accomplished writer himself - Aatish Taseer. Perhaps this is the reason that while reading this translation I never felt the missing link which usually the regular translations suffer from. The language is great and even though I have not read the original Urdu stories, I still could enjoy the details and nuances as would be done while reading classics of seasoned authors. So my compliments to Aatish Taseer that he brought the works of Manto to wider audience.

After reading these short stories, the most significant thing that could be said about the writing is that - his stories carry much more beyond the written text and understanding what is written between the lines make the stories and the story teller tower higher than the crowd.

Manto's stories introduce the readers to the realities of life and there are times when the reality is not very pleasing for the eyes and otherwise. Since his writings are around the time of partition, they do carry a somber mood and pessimism to a certain extent. This book brought back the memories of the writings of Khushwant Singh, Gurcharan Das, Gulzar and likes of them. Manto's writing has similar sensitivity and emotional aspect to them whether it is about : 'Toba Tek Singh' - a lunatic caught in no man's land, 'The Last Salute' which depicts friends turning into foes, child prostitute in 'Ten Rupees', cultural boundaries in 'The Mice of Shah Daulah' or the plight of a father after seeing her lost daughter in 'Khol Do'. Every tale stirs many deep seated strings within the hearts of the readers and I consider that an achievement of the storyteller.

The stories are set mostly in North western region of India which bore the brunt of partition the most. These 11 sensitively written stories explore those aspects of some lives which usually are left unspoken and un-talked about. In spite of belonging to conservative era, Manto did not hesitate to write about sensitive subjects so his writings were much ahead of his time. Usually women centric, the stories bring out the aspects which go beyond the realm of rationality and logic. These perceptive short stories would surely keep haunting the readers in times of non-activity.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

STOP ME IF YOU CAN !! - An IIM Grad's Tryst With Sales


It is about tryst of a young, confident or should I say over confident, Rohit Salaria's foray in the world of sales. Armed with a business management degree from the prestigious institute, IIM-C, Salaria considers himself a priceless gift to his company and to the world of sales in general. His antics, blunders in his professional life and his overall attitude towards all his failures and his life make up the book.
 Priya, the girl of Rohit Salaria's dreams and his bosses and colleagues at ABC further spice up the story.

I found the book interesting in the beginning but the author soon lost Rohit Salaria's panache in the frivolous incidents that mire Salaria's life.

The story though hilarious at places and easy to connect with, did not come anywhere near my expectations, maybe because the author has tried to pass on parts of the story, which as a person with a logical mind, I am not ready to accept.

Bohemia by Veronika Carnaby

Title : Bohemia
Author : Veronika Carnaby

This is the debut novel of Veronika Carnaby and she chose 1960s as backdrop to portray the lives of a bunch of young adults in their twenties, who try to carve a path for themselves in order to satisfy their creative urge. This particular set of youngsters highly influenced by free-spiritedness of the beat generation confront many obstacles, challenges and experience some very pleasant times together while treading this path.

The story is set in England and is narrated by Valerie, a vivacious person who wants to create an identity for herself. Her association with Emm and some other like minded individuals takes her to various places from New York, Chicago to Boston. It is through her eyes and ears that the readers get a flavour of fine music and other forms of fine arts. The author has beautifully dealt with the description of music and how sometimes it becomes such a powerful tool to influence the lives of people who are passionate about it. It is commendable how the author has etched the character of Valerie who comes across an epitome of liberation and exuberance.

The narrative does give a feel of the depth of relationships in that period which seem to run much low on the emotional side. Valerie cared for her friends but not to that extent which could make her committed to a certain thing for any of them.  The story becomes engaging at some points while there are some portions where it appears to be too scattered and jumpy. These are the parts which hinder the natural flow of the story and lessen the impact of the proceedings. The high points of the narration are the parts where the surroundings and people are meticulously described which work perfectly as inviting factor for the readers and a great way to make readers understand the essence of that period of time.

Usually I am open to all genres of books with an exception of suspense thrillers. But after reading Bohemia, I can say that is not my kind of book either. Though all the characters are meticulously carved by the author which I enjoyed reading about, yet, nobody could make an impact on me by the time I finished reading the book. There are overwhelmingly large number of characters with different personalities and there is too much of movement (literally) happening in the book which makes it hard to flow seamlessly with the storyline. It is not the book which stays with you for a long time and it never attempts to be one either. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Author: Pasquin
Rating: ***

"Teacher doesn't like you reading this, bro. Don't blame me if they knock this book right out of your hand." ... This is how the book begins. Well!

Throughout the book, the momentum continues. At each moment you are forced to rethink your decision to read on. The CoreAmerica concept, the main problem around which the book revolves, never really gets a clear picture, all you understand is that there is a father who forces his son to take part in this CoreAmerica event, whatever it is, and the son has to obey, though unwillingly. There he is bowled over by a girl and takes his decisions as per what she wants, more than what he thinks he wants, then they fight and the girl plans a revenge, she has the political support and though in the end one team was a clear winner, both teams are declared losers. How very sad!

Then there is the end. The wild end. The sadness is only so long as you are reading the book. Once the dish is over and all that remains is the lingering taste in the mouth, or maybe its smell on your fingers, that you realize that there was indeed something in there. Something that was beyond the obvious storyline. Some moral. Some lessons of life. Some food for thought. Some smiles. Something nice.

It is a really refreshing twist to the tale how from having been cheated by a mother, by the beloved, by the government and by your school, how you can collect your pieces, move ahead and yes, be successful! When life throws lemons at you, master your lemonade making skills, for, it might just turn out to be your kingmaker.

Other things that characterize the book includes, larger than life friendship, that too when one of the friends is blind; the description of a nerd, Candida's candid nature, wooing a girl and spending nights out in the truck with her, days when you go without electricity as you can't pay your bills, and loads of beer!

And then there is the touching revelation, “If I knew you were this interesting,” your dad says with some sass, "I'd have sold the TV and just watched you.”

A good read. Go ahead.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Asura - Tale Of The Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan

Title : Asura - Tale of the Vanquished
Author : Anand Neelakantan
Publisher : Platinum Press
ISBN : 978-93-81576-05-2

I enjoy reading retellings of our age old epics and do not mind how different authors enthuse their creativity and imagination in the same to bring out different perspectives. I guess I must have read and reviewed close to a dozen such books which are either purely fictional or are reporting of the original story with some twists here and there.

However, 'Asura' is the first book which walks the readers through the situations and circumstances in Ravana's life and how the same made him the person he was. It was indeed interesting to read how author's flight of imagination soars in this book and brings a completely unique angle to the whole story. It would be unfair for the readers if I talk about that unimaginable twist in the review here, it is better left un-revealed.

We all are well conversant with the broad storyline of Ramayana, however the same story appears to be a completely modified version when it is narrated by different characters which are very much a part of the story or when it is being reported by a third person. In Asura, author works on the pretext of what if the opposite side - the Asura side, has its own story to tell. How many of us know about that side of the saga? Throughout the book, the narrative oscillates between Ravana and  another character Bhadra whose life was ruined by Devas. Ravana has some very strong reasons for doing what he did, including being present in the Swayamvara of Sita, followed by her abduction which led him to his own doom.

The story begins with Ravana nearing his death in the battlefield and his whole life flashes past through his eyes. A Shiva devotee, an accomplished veena player, a fine scholar - Ravana opens his heart and shares his inner feelings through the pen of Anand Neelakantan. As is the case with any human, Ravana is not immune to vulnerabilities, inabilities, fears and weaknesses either but it is interesting to read how these frailties do not eclipse the strengths of his character, some of which soar really high. I specifically liked the part where he unconditionally stood by  his wife and that is the part where the author subtly tries to draw parallelism between Rama's way of dealing with his perfection vs Ravana managing with his imperfections.

Asura is not Ramayana, it is Ravanayana. In Ravana words, "For thousands of years I have been vilified and my death is celebrated year after year in every corner of India. Why? Was it because I challenges the Gods? Was it because I freed a race from the yoke of caste-based Deva rule? You have heard the victor's tale, the Ramayana. Now hear the Ravanayana, for I am Ravana and my story is the tale of the vanquished."

Thus Asura becomes the epic tale of the subdued side and another addition to already inundated literary world of mythology in varied makeovers. However the editing needs to be tighter which would have reduced the length of the unnecessary portions in the story. There are many typos too which could have been eliminated with at least one more iteration of editing. The first half deals with a lot of guerilla wars when Ravana tries to establish his kingdom in Lanka and the details become too overwhelmingly drab at some places which readers would want to skip. Though I enjoyed reading Ravana's tale, I found something really amiss. Ravana has been  portrayed as an able ruler who stood by his people but somehow he fails to create the aura which Anand attempted to create in this book. I don't know whether to blame it on my conditioned mind or lack of magic in narration, Asura ends up being just another view point, nothing more nothing less.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Interview with Mayank Jain

Here we present an interview with Mr. Mayank Jain, the author of 'Stop Me If You Can - An IIM Grad's Tryst with Sales' (Reviewed Here). He shares his views about his book and how it came into being, his views on a real life Rohit Salaria, his favourite books and much more. For some real interesting next few minutes, read ahead ...

ZR: Did you always have this story in mind, or did some real situation inspire you to come up with this beautiful storyline?
MJ: To tell you very frankly, I don’t think I had the story in mind for a long time. So, this is what I generally used to do since, um, my MBA days at IIM Calcutta I guess – whenever I came across a funny situation I would make a note of it.

Now when I embarked upon my career in sales, I started writing a blog which was a lot of my previous and current experiences exaggerated to the hilt. I wasn’t really writing to evoke responses from people but just for the kicks. But I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who came back to me and told me that they were liking what I was writing. Some even proposed that I write a book. That was where the turning point was. And that is precisely when I decided to make a book out of my writings. I started nurturing the character Rohit Salaria and the story started taking shape. I pulled the blog down, and focused on making it a full fledged novel. Then the toiling part came. And finally I’m glad to see the final product and am decently happy with the numerous positive responses that I have received till date.

ZR: How much time did the whole process take - from inception of the idea to the final product in hand?
MJ: Well, honestly it was a lengthy process. I would be lying if I said it was an easy job completed quickly and without any pain. So, like I said, I got the idea of writing a book after my experiences with the blog. Putting together the first draft took me around 10 months after that. And then began the strenuous exercise of posting to publishers, which lasted about an year. Then there was editing, final editing and proof reading – all of which require a lot of time and energy. So, all in all it took around two years for the whole process to complete. And there were obviously a lot of times in between when I doubted my capabilities and questioned myself on whether the book would ever see the light of day. It’s a huge amount of satisfaction to see the final product on the shelves. One thing I would say to all first time authors-in-the-making is that while writing and while on the lookout for publishers, keeping yourself motivated is very, very important. It is very natural to start feeling demotivated and losing focus. But then if you have your eyes set on the goal, sooner or later, you should be there.

ZR: In real life, do you believe a Rohit Salaria - like personality would be equally successful? In your opinion, is it wise to be a Rohit Salaria?
MJ: (laughs) To even think of a real life Rohit Salaria is quite amusing. If you have read the book you will know what I am talking about. Very simply put he is impossible. With nerves of steel and a Bond-like attitude, he knows no limits.

But then having a real life Rohit Salaria would be a very interesting concept. I don’t know how successful that guy would be, but I can tell you he would be someone who would be very, very visible in his organization. And being visible is not all that bad no. Challenging bosses, devising strategic plans to woo a girl or launching marketing campaigns based totally on gut feeling, ah, it would be exciting to meet such a guy in a real-world setup. In fact, I had joked in one of my previous interviews that I would gift all my money and property to him, the day I stumble upon the real-life Rohit Salaria.

I strongly recommend joining the FB community at
to get a flavour of Rohit Salaria and his antics which make him so special.

ZR: What, according to you, are the greatest works in contemporary fiction till date?  Do you also believe that the best of contemporary fiction is yet to come -or- is Rohit Salaria the answer to this question?
MJ: All works of P.G. Wodehouse and his characters – Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Aunt Agatha et al are right up there for me. Then I think there is something about Catch 22 and Yossarin that keeps you glued to the book.

And to answer your question of Rohit Salaria being the best work of contemporary fiction (laughs). I would love to think that this be the case. With his super attitude and insurmountable spirit, and the fact that he is already striking a chord with a generation of corporates, why not?

ZR: Who is your all time favourite author? Which are your favourite books?
MJ: Like I said, I like P.G. Wodehouse a lot, and I don’t think anyone comes close. I am a big fan of his flowery language and English humour. His Jeeves collection is something I relish a lot.

ZR: As an author, where do you see yourself and your book 5 years down the line?
MJ: I don’t really think I have thought hard on either of these lines. I don’t know where I would be – would I have written another book, two more books, three more books or maybe none after the first one in five years time. Will I be a hit phenomenon or would I have drowned with time? I don’t know. And honestly, I think I should only be focusing on my work, working hard and letting the other things fall in place. Also, right now I also have a regular job and I totally enjoy going to work, and my work. And I intend to do well there too.

ZR: Nowadays, a lot of people are turning into authors, even when they are qualified for other things, and are doing a remarkable job. Do you believe this is because everyone has a great story to tell and a unique way of telling it, that makes them noteworthy or are there some other reasons for this?
MJ: So you need to thank one person big time for this – Chetan Bhagat – for opening the floodgates of writing/authoring in India. I think people who have tales to tell were always there. And now with more and more opportunities available, anyone who dreams to be an author has more avenues than ever before to be one.

As for myself, I was very confident that a Salaria-like character could melt the stoniest of hearts and bring laughter and smiles to those who have ever been in a corporate environment. Or those who have ever wooed a girl. Or those who have ever had a boss. Or those who have ever been in teams. (laughs)

ZR: Are you planning to come up with another book anytime soon? Would it also have a prodigious IIM grad as its protagonist? Would it also be masala packed and  humour laced?
MJ: Well, as of now, I haven’t thought of anything concrete. There are a few ideas, but let’s see. Right now I want to focus on “Stop Me If You Can!!” Rest, I leave it to time.

Thanks Mr. Jain!! We wish you all the very best for all your future ventures and look forward to reading, enjoying and reviewing many more books of yours.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

pic courtesy flipkart

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
Written by Jacqueline Kelly
Published by Square Fish, an imprint of MacMillan
Ages 10+

It is the summer of 1899. The only girl in a family of seven siblings, Calpurnia Virginia Tate (Callie Vee, as she is called) is expected to apply herself to the task of crafting a lady out of herself. Her mother's sole dream for her only daughter is that she be tutored in the arts befitting a lady- music, drawing, dance, embroidery, cooking- so that she would make a stunning debut on their social circuit and land the most eligible bachelor before she becomes 'an old maid of twenty.'

There is a slight hitch in the plan, though. Callie Vee has not the slightest inclination towards these achievements, and is encouraged by her naturalist grandfather in her scientific forages. The only grandchild that matches his interests.

"The laws governing inheritance are quite unknown; no one can say why...the child often reverts in certain characters to its grandfather..." 

The Origin of Species plays a large part in the book. Each chapter begins with a fitting epigraph quoted from Darwin's book. Callie Vee knows of the book, but it is a banned book, and she has no chance absolutely of laying her hands on it. Until her formidable, cantankerous grandfather discovers her interest in, and keen observations of the strange case of large yellow and small green grasshoppers- that she dutifully notes down in her 'observations notebook.'

"He stared at me for a moment with an odd expression on his face- perhaps surprise, perhaps consternation- as if I were a species he'd never seen before...He extracted a book covered in rich green morocco leather handsomely tipped with gold. Ceremoniously, he bowed and offered it to me. I looked at it. The Origin of Species. Here, in my own house. I received it in both my hands. He smiled. Thus began my relationship with Granddaddy."

It was a beginning of a wondrous journey of scientific discovery. The beginning of a dream that showed her the path out of a possible life of drudgery like countless other girls like her. A life that she could not visualise herself enjoying, no matter what her parents and society at large expected of her. The beginning of an old man's dream of at least one among his heirs carrying the light of his discoveries into the future.

This refreshing debut book by the author, Jacqueline Kelly, was devoured and thoroughly enjoyed by the resident 11 year old, who has to often be-labour under expectations from her peers, and sometimes from elders, to conform to stereotyping by her gender. Be that in clothes, interests, behaviour, dreams or priviledge. She applauded with Granddaddy, when Callie Vee ensured that she is paid for her work during the harvest season, not just the boys, and when she stressed on her right to make a choice about her life.

My daughter A loved the book, and has been recommending it to all her friends. It makes a lot of sense to her since she has been doing evolution and taxonomy at school this year. She also identifies with Callie Vee on a more basic level - she has often been the butt of jokes among her peers for being different - more science and literature minded than the average 11 year old girl, not so interested in what is considered 'cool behaviour.'

Cross-posted here and here.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Mount Everest Beckons...

Many people succumb to the charm of beckoning wilderness, challenging mountain cliffs, enticing treacherous trails and coaxing unknown paths. The reasons, objectives and experiences may vary from individual to individual but it is amazing to notice that even the fatal incidents and near death experiences do not mitigate their passion to walk the razor sharp edges (sometime literally).Perhaps the excitement to be at the top of the world or exploring the un-traversed paths is difficult to replicate anywhere else and  even more harder is to derive the same joy and contentment from any other pursuit. But thanks to the chronicled words of these mountaineers and trekkers, their armchair counterparts can virtually share at least some part of the thrill.

'Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?', was the question asked to George Millory (an English mountaineer who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s). To this question, he retorted : 'Because it is there' and these three words have become the most famous words in the world of mountaineering.

Mt. Everest  8,850m (29,035 feet) high lays in Himalayas, along the border of Nepal, Tibet and China. New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Tenzing Norgay were the first people to ever reach the summit of Mount Everest. Since that year, the roof of the Earth - the Sagarmath (the mother Goddess), the Everest keeps beckoning many people year after year.

'Into Thin Air' is the first person account of Jon Karuker who was part of the Mt. Everest expedition of 1996.  He was in a team led by a seasoned climber Rob Hall heading the Adventure Consultants. But despite being well equipped with all required paraphernalia, expert guidance, meticulously planned program, well researched tracks, deftly organised training camps and human assistance in the form of Nepali Sherpas, this expedition completely fell apart.

Closer home, Arjun Vajpai relates his experience vividly in 'On Top of the World'. He became the youngest Indian to scale Mt. Everest in the summer of 2010. For him the fascination of mountains began at the tender age of 10 and his parents nurtured his passion in tandem with the support of his teachers and friends. The hunger and thirst for adventure drew Arjun to the mountains. His is a story of inspiration, grit, determination and indefatigable spirit to fulfill the dreams and his was clearly an expedition where almost everything went right from the fitness, weather conditions to the support system.

'The Top of the World : Climbing Mount Everest' written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins is a picture book for very young readers - Ages 5 and up. The book briefly explores the history, natural geography, culture, climate of Mount Everest along with the mention of people like Mallory and Irvine, Tenzing and Hillary. The formation of Himalayas, the weather conditions and brief introduction to various aspects of scaling Mt. Everest including the gear and training required and the impending threats on the way find the mention in this book. Besides being an informative book, the beautiful cut paper illustrations make it a visual treat for young adventurers.

'Legs on Everest' is written by Mark Inglis, the double amputee who fulfilled his childhood ambition to stand on the summit of the highest mountain of the world. He achieved this feat on 15th May, 2006 braving all odds in the wake of his peculiar condition. The frostbite from one of his previous expeditions costed him both his legs from below the knees but it could not rob him off his dreams rather it made him even more focused and driven to accelerate his efforts towards the goal. In Mark Inglis words, 'Whenever you have pushed yourself to the limit, you know you can achieve things that were once only a dream. The more times you undertake the extreme journey, the greater your confidence that you will attain your dreams, and the bigger your dreams become. And if you want a bigger dream then why not go for the biggest - imagine standing on the summit of Everest!'.

These are not all, there are umpteen books written on the experiences of mountaineers who have dared to climb the crowning glory of the Earth. There are some common strings worth appreciating in all these adventurous stories which tower taller than the uniqueness and differences of the same. Such individuals dare to let their dream soar high, they make their passion fuel their efforts and eventually their determination leads them to achieve the set goals. After having accomplished the designated objective, they find themselves having gained maturity and education from none other than the supreme teacher - the Nature itself. Being in the lap of nature in its purest form, they get to witness its true soul - its nurturing quality and its tempestuous side, its f  ury and its vulnerability, its unpredictability against human planning. The individuals come out with heightened respect for the supremacy of nature and understanding of the humble position that we share in this precarious balance that has been so beautifully maintained.

Whether it is the - love of wild flora and fauna, desire to redeem oneself, test of self limitations, need to push oneself harder and further, this trend would continue, the epitome of grace Mt Everest would keep seducing mortals year after year.