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. "