Asura: Tale of the Vanquished Review

Good:

A completely fresh look at one of the oldest epics in the country. Good detailing of emotions from a first person POV. Everything about this book was good … except the writing itself.

Bad:

I should reduce another half star for some absolutely abysmal sentence phrasing. The editor doesn’t really seem to have bothered much about … well, editing the script.

Cover of Asura: Tale of the Vanquished

But a very, very good book in terms of the storyline and depiction of events. I’ve never viewed Ravana as anything more than a demon who was a Shiva worshipper and a master of arts as well as a great warrior. Somehow, his inner torments that were brought out in this book (using the first person POV) made him, in the end,  what the author clearly says in the synopsis – “the epitome of a human being”.

One thing I commend is the author’s use of an unknown character – unknown, in the sense that I’ve never heard of him playing any part in the epic in any version – Bhadra. Although he’s depicted as having an almost unbelievably cruel fate, his use as a character has been done to great advantage.

1) The character is used to fill in plot holes between this version and the original Ramayana. He figures into the overthrowing of Kubera by Ravana, in the finding of Sita by Janaka and in many other places. Most of these events are almost impossible to occur to the same person in one lifetime, but for the sake of fiction, I’m willing to overlook that part.

2) He is used to depict the plight of the poorest of the poor and their day to day troubles while the main character of the story, Ravana to depict the highest classes of society. Through a world view more analytical than you could imagine from a “low born Asura”, he shows a world where those in poverty are almost indifferent to who holds the reins. Their suffering is set against the backdrop of the political climate in each scene, which works beautifully to create the setting. While the aristocrats and the nobles side with the winner and ensure their positions, the downtrodden are swept along with the tide of pillaging and looting armies of rival kingdoms or police actions by their own country’s justice system. These poor peasants unite only under the yoke of Ravana during his final battle when they perceive a graver threat than usual to their way of living.

3) His interactions with Ravana are used brilliantly as well. Every time they interact, both viewpoints are shown in successive chapters. In particular, when Ravana rapes a woman whom Bhadra was seeing, some interesting insights into the injustice of a monarch system are shown. The inner thoughts of both Asuras are laid out bare for comparison. It was during these particular chapters that I wished the writer could have been better with his words. The richness in thought is just lost when the writing does not have the power to deliver them.

I dunno how correctly the atrocities committed by Brahmins were depicted in the book. But I’ll be fair here – we’ve heard of Ravana as being insanely cruel in our stories from childhood and I can give the author some slack for having the balls to portray things the other way around.

Ravana’s story, in my opinion, should be retold more often. Children should understand that history is not written only by the winners. You need a spectacularly good villain to make your hero seem all the better. And such a spectacular villain has his own story to tell.

Definitely, a favourite of mine for some time to come.

Rating: 4/5

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A Thousand Splendid Suns

One could not count the moons that shimmered on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

A thousand splendid suns is a book by Khaled Hosseini. It’s incredibly famous and that quote above from some Persian poem was made famous because of the book.

A thousand splendid suns follows the story of 2 women – Miriam and Laila. Both of them are from entirely different backgrounds but they meet and their lives intertwine in the most unexpected of ways. Of course, this is just the foreground, the topping to the base that the author is trying to convey.

Both women get caught up in the afghan revolution that affects all of the country and a large part of Kabul as well. The author explores in vivid detail the power shifts that Afghanistan went through – the soviets supporting the communists, the mujahideen overthrowing the communists, the mujahideen fighting among themselves, the coming of the Taliban and the overthrow of the Taliban.

I have always been interested in the kind of politics that went on in that region. It is intriguing that a country with such less diversity (I mean they all follow islam) can have so many power shifts. After reading this book, I realised I was too much of a simpleton.

Each of these parties and power houses had their own motives. The mujahideen didn’t want socialism. The Taliban wanted to establish order but they were pro wahabbis who wanted to establish a pure Islamic state. They burned down posters, books and any other forms of creativity in favour of reading the Koran and saying prayers. Their coming into power was welcomed since they were a change from the ever fighting mujahideens but their rule was one of absolute terror. They were overthrown by the present government which is still under the rule of president Hamid Karzai.

The book is profound in that, although the author follows only one family, he projects all the pros and cons of the change in rule. He also shows how brutal the Taliban rule was on the afghan women.

Those are the good points. There are some cons to the book as well. The antagonist (if such a term can be applied to any character in this particular book) is an afghan named Rasheed. I am not into character sketches so much but I must say – this was a very badly designed character. He is projected as a conceited and shortsighted afghan from the villages. But there is absolutely no reason given for his character, his behaviour, his attitude towards women in general etc. Only way you can surmise all these details is because there is some mention in a small paragraph about his upbringing in the mountains. Also, the events in the book with respect to the characters (not the events of the power struggles) is a bit too outrageous. I mean .. tricking a woman into marriage and all that – it’s a little overboard if you ask me. I thought all this happened only in those horrible soaps in Hindi and Tamil channels.

Overall, the book is worth the read. Alternating between a slow and fast story line and having a happy ending, it’s a very formula based novel, in my opinion. In my mind, there is no doubt that the sufferings of the people of Afghanistan have been portrayed in a brutally vivid manner. It is enlightening to read the book when you have no clue what went on in that region during the Cold War when you were just a child.

Consensus: 3.5/5 (I’m stingy and have a very snobbish outlook on what a good book is, so there :P)

Must read. If you are as intrigued by the politics in that region as I am, this will be a brilliant read 🙂

Secret of the Nagas

The second book in the Shiva Trilogy series by Amish Tripathi.

A review in one word – Very Good. Ok, 2 words. My bad.

Indian authors have never impressed me. As a not-so-infrequent reader, I care less about the story and more about how the book is written. Witness being the fact that I’d prefer Amitav Ghosh to Chetan Bhagat any day. Having said that, Amitav Ghosh is my favourite author at the moment (I’m very fickle in these things). So no, not all Indian authors are bad.

Anyway, coming back to the book.

Secret of the Nagas starts almost at the exact point where its prequel Immortals of Meluha stopped. From there on, the book picks up pace .. very hard and very quick. In a span of 384 pages, the author covers more than 5 years worth of incidents. I have read many books which attempt to span eons together. The most accurate example would be, of course, the Silmarillion by J.R.R Tolkien. But there is a different flavour to this book. I was able to give it only one read as the book is in high demand and I am one of the few people with a copy.

What I hate about Indian authors is their utter lack of writing quality. I know they are trying to write for the masses in general. But that does not give them the license to use downright lame writing styles. One example from this book would be this – every few lines, there will be some word from Sanskrit whose meaning is not evident in English. What the author (or probably his editor) did was to put it in italics along with the meaning of the word as a phrase in English – again in italics. One of the few I remember is this – janau, sacred thread worn by … The first time, it made sense. Not everyone who reads the book will know what a janau is. But repeating this every single time the word janau is used gets H-I-G-H-L-Y irritating. I didn’t read the appendix but I’m guessing it is defined once more there as well.

Now that I’ve put my rant out of the way, let’s get to the story. One word – BRILLIANT! Every single mythological character we have heard of associated with Shiva has been introduced in an *almost* completely logical manner (I still find the concept of nagas kinda unbelievable). For anyone who hates details, you can rejoice. The author does not describe most elements in the book in much detail (well, not as much as I like) but that is fine because a large part of the audience usually hates it.

*spoiler* – There is a description of the gates of a city called Branga. J.R.R. Tolkien and George Martin would’ve shed a tear. What concept, my god! #notSarcasm

The book is a fast read. I finished it within 1 and a half to 2 hours (effectively). It is a definition of a page turner. I never stopped reading unless I had some chore or the other to attend to … I have acute ADD when there is a laptop near me. So, you get my point.

Consensus: Read the book. Even if you’re not a great fan of mythology, the book is a fantasy novel of the first order. Don’t be a snob (like me) and let the writing style be damned. Or remember that you’ve ordered a copy of River of Smoke (like me) which you can read once you have free time.

I rate it a 4/5

1984 – A review

Yes, it’s been a long time since I blogged. A lot has happened. For instance, my college has started. But more on that later.

Classics is a very ambiguous word. I believe it’s a classification given to anything that has stood the test of time with a large set of people. It is not necessary that most people you know will like what has been termed a classic – be it music, books, movies or anything else (even the good old Irodov).

I’ve always had a fascination towards the classics. I am intrigued by why something was labeled a classic. I’ve come to learn that, in most cases, it is justified. There is something about the book, movie or music that has made it alluring to so many people over such a length of time.

It was with this trepidation or lack thereof that I started reading 1984 – a novel by George Orwell. I was not disappointed.

1984 - George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell

1984 is, as the name suggests, a story set in the year 1984 as imagined by Orwell when he wrote the novel in 1950. He paints a bleak future where the world is divided into so called 3 “super-states” – Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia.

Our protagonist lives in Oceania in modern day England. Oceania is ruled by the Party – an oligarchical dictatorship – whose founder/leader/dictator/ruler is a man only known as Big Brother. The Party is completely authoritarian and rules every aspect of people’s lives by watching them through telescreens, rewriting all newspapers and historical books to wipe out the trace of any history that existed before the Party itself did and other absolutely despotic and mind blowing stuff. The Party aims at killing emotions, like love, in their subjects and fueling them with hate while the endless war with the other super-states goes on.

The protagonist – Winston Smith – is still capable of independent thought and cannot take in the whole agenda that the Party propagates. He sees through all of it, unlike most of the population of Oceania which has been brainwashed over time and where people like Winston are slowly being wiped out (vaporised) from the society. Winston finds love in a similar minded woman named Julia. But – and I quote directly from the back of the book – “Big Brother does not like dissent. For people with independent thought, the Party invented Room 101 … ” . Gather what you will from that statement because I will not tell you what it means.

I rate the book among the best ones I’ve read. Yes, I know I rate all books as awesome but this one strikes a little closer to the heart.

Why? Zombie – my pal – and I have long chats on certain nights. We exchange not only intellectual ideas and what our latest fascination is but also what we imagine our perfect future would look like. I always emphasize on freedom in such discussions. Freedom to study what we want, freedom to contribute to society however we want, freedom to stop worrying about such things as a job, family etc. The future depicted in the book is the exact opposite, in every way, of what I’ve been imagining. It is, at once, daunting and intriguing. The measures the Party takes to curb all the basic freedoms has been depicted in such detail in the book that it fascinated me no end to just look for loopholes. Yes, I found some few and far in between but they do not seem obvious to you unless you’re looking for them.

You want to know how good I found the book? I’m giving it a second read in a few days. Yes, I’m serious. The book is absolutely terrific. I have a feeling that concepts for movies like Equilibrium and V for Vendetta were taken from this book.

Edit1: Wikipedia proves me correct.

Edit2: Apparently, Big Brother, the reality show which started in UK, takes its name from the character in the book.

Consensus – Must read for any intellectual.

War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.

The Calcutta Chromosome

So, my reading habit has taken a back seat for the last few months. But that did not stop me from buying books and storing them for later. With a little help from Abinaya and other fellow bookworms, I was able to read about a book every month in college. Considering they were mostly James Patterson books on the David Cross series, it was quite a handful. I will review that series a little later once I get the chronology right considering I’m reading the books in some random order.

Then again, after my first tryst with Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies, I couldn’t resist buying some other book of his I saw in Odyssey the other day – The Calcutta Chromosome. The book belongs to the sci-fi genre and it won the Arthur C. Clarke award – something I didn’t quite understand why it deserved until the very end.

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The Calcutta Chromosome is, in all ways, different from the books I’ve read in the genre. Considering I’m an avid fan of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov, I should say I’m not kidding about that.

The story starts with an Egyptian dude at some point in the future and consists of flashbacks either in the form of letters or documents recovered by his all-knowing machine – Ava. In this sense, it reminded me of The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer where every chapter would start like a news article. This wasn’t exactly the same but it gets the job done.

In gist, the story follows the Egyptian dude – Antar, as he traces the steps of L. Murugan, his former, presently missing colleague who in turn in tracing the steps of Ronald Ross, the man who discovered the means by which malaria is transmitted.

If you ask me, the novel can also be partially categorised in the Fantasy genre. But that’s beside the point.

I found the novel pretty interesting actually. I could never have guessed most of the twists the story takes and I’m a guy who can predict Agatha Christie novels through sheer statistics – the least likely is the most obvious. But this novel had some very interesting twists. Since I hate giving spoilers, I will not delve any further into the story.

The novel is really small .. as in only 276 pages in the version I bought. It is a definite page turner, unlike Sea of Poppies which took me ages to finish for all it was worth.

Any more description and I would be giving away plotlines and spoilers.

Consensus: VERY different sci-fi thriller. Read it if you love the genre. Romantics will love this. Logically inclined people will find this a big bore and worth bitching about a lot. Personally, I loved it 🙂

The Life of Pi

And then he took the seventh day to rest. We call it a Sunday. My exams are about 2 days away. I can’t read a word of the book I’m trying to study. So I resorted to writing the much procrastinated review of one of the best books I’ve read and probably the only book I believe was worth the Man Booker it got.

As is usual with me, I will digress to the level of making you check the title of the post again. But yet, I will come through. So, we went to Odyssey at EA Mall one fine day and I go directly into the books section. Since I usually have an unlimited budget on what books I buy (Yeah 😀 .. My parents are THAT awesome), I tend to browse and buy a lot. I see this book. Although it was in the fiction section and I had heard of the fact that it was a great book from people who never were into math in the first place, it did not strike me that the book was not about the number pi. Ajay clarified that the book was complete fiction, had nothing to do with math and was one of the best books that he ever came across. Now I trust few people on the subject of reading. Ajay is definitely one of them.

So I bought the book with a debit card (Again, what can I say, I am COOL! :D) and went off home to read it.

The Life of Pi is hard to describe in one sentence. It is like nothing I’ve ever read before. That is saying something considering I read a lot. I am not being patronising, believe me. Some books leave a very deep imprint on your memory cells. This is definitely one of them. I categorise it in the same league as LotR, Shantaram and all the other classics which are worth their words.

The book is about a character named Piscine Molitor Patel – the great mix of names has a long story behind it – and this is a story of how his life completely changes from peaceful harmony to absolute chaos and a struggle for survival. Sounds like the government of 10 countries are chasing him around the globe, doesn’t it? There, you would be wrong. The story is about how he gets caught in a lifeboat after losing his family in a drowning ship and has a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra and a Royal Bengal Tiger for company. Getting interesting, isn’t it? Like the back of the book says – The scene is set for a great adventure 🙂

Rather than delve into the plot and make spoilers, I thought I’d just skim through my own thoughts on the book. I find most authors have a knack of being VERY exhaustive on the descriptions. Of particular notice among the contemporaries would be Dan Brown. Yann Martel has the same problem. If you read a lot, you will eventually start ignoring most of the facts or come back to the descriptions if some line in the book doesn’t match the imagined character in your head.

The author seems to have done his homework on both India (where the protagonist is from) and survival at sea. Although some of the descriptions may be too grotesque to the liking of others, I am quite acclimatised to it (I suggest watching dexter :P). It can get quite boring in the middle for people who get easily distracted though – one reason why I couldn’t finish the book within a day and a half as I usually do at my speed.

Yann Martel’s writing is kind of unique in a way (as is everyone else’s). He seems to go more into the language of the layman – which is pretty appropriate considering the style of narration – rather than the high end English that Amitav Ghosh resorts to. It is sheer hypocrisy to say I prefer that but I really do.

Final Consensus – The book is most definitely worth the read. If you feel bored after some time, keep the book down, go for a walk, whistle random tunes, log on to facebook, drink some coffee, have a KitKat and then come back to the book. I guarantee you that when you finish reading, you will feel the exact same way as I do.