October 19 2018

“Maharaja in Denims” by Khushwant Singh

Have you ever thought about who, where or what you were in your past life? Maharaja in Denims is all about a young teenager whose life changes after he discovers that he has had more than one past lives.  Hari, a teenager believes that he is the reincarnation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who is also known as the Lion of Punjab. Suzzane, Hari’s girlfriend tries to find out more about his past life using the practice of regression and discovers that he has had more than one past lives. The book gives the readers an understanding of Punjab’s history and the after-effects of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Furthermore, the book talks about Ranjit Singh’s life, love and conquests. The plot is gripping and makes you not want to put the book down.

Born in a leading farming family of Punjab, Khushwant Singh developed writing as an alternate career at the age of twenty-four. He is the author of best-selling Sikhs Unlimited, a travelogue from UK to USA featuring extraordinary Sikhs and Turbaned Tornado, biography of Fauja Singh, the world’s oldest marathon runner. An alumnus of St. John’s High School, Chandigarh and Department of Mass Communication, Punjab University, his Sunday column, ‘Punjabi by Nature’ in The Hindustan Times on the passions, problems and idiosyncrasies of the region, is widely read. An alumnus of St. John’s High School, Chandigarh and Department of Mass Communication, Punjab University, Khushwant Singh has also written for the Times of India, The Tribune, BBC Online and India Today.

‘Maharaja in Denims’ by Khushwant Singh is a perfect book for history lovers. It is a tale of history and suspense. I liked the title very much. The author made me travel from present to the past giving me a feel that I have witnessed few of these incidents personally.  The book is about – Hari, a 19 year old college student who suddenly discovers that he is a reincarnation of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh Empire. He gets flashes of information about the life and times of the Sikh ruler without ever knowing anything about him. His girlfriend, Suzanne who is a student of Psychology helps him recover memories of his past life or reincarnations through regression technique. Maharaja in Denims connects the past and the present with the story of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s life, loves, rule, battles and times along with the current love story of Hari. The story also deals with the Sikhs of now generation – with shorn hair, affluent kids with SUVs and expensive motorbikes, the skewed male-female ratio in the state, preference of weekend get-aways in Himachal, dollar dreams of the youth, UK-based second generation NRIs, deaths of farmers due to pesticides, drug addiction along with the killing of the Sikhs after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the politics of votes and the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. The writer has very efficiently dispersed the chapters in such a way that any reader can’t hold back the instant urge to read the next chapter. The very well described theories of re-embodiment, acts as the cherry on the cake. The writer has chosen his words wisely, which added to the glamour of the book. The surprise elements and the unforeseen end makes this book a must read for all book lovers. The writing style is quick and racy with high doses of sentiment, politics and sex. In the end the book leaves you with a definite sense of history being an ineradicable part of the present.

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October 18 2018

The Karna Pages by Sayantan Gupta

Written by Sayantan Gupta, ‘The Karna Pages’ is a mythological fiction. As the title suggests, the book explores the tale of the Karna, the perennial unsung hero of the epic. Replete with the different characters, the epic provides ample scope for author’s creative imagination imbued with the necessary skills.  From exploring hitherto unknown facts about the legendary Karna to dramatic encounter between Karna and Arjun, the author has skill-fully portrayed the epic tale in the most impressive way. His intricate knowledge of Indian epics is very much visible in his writings. The shenanigans of the Machiavellian Shakuni, the crudity of the sadist Dushasan, the aura of the benign presence of Krishna and the gentleness of Arjuna all have been seamlessly integrated in the story to provide compelling reading. The author has used his vivid imagination and sublime gift of narrative to script intricate aspects of Karna’s relationship with the other characters. The book is surely a must read for all lovers of mythological fiction, and for anyone who wants to explore this genre.

This present book based on genus of mythology has explored the catastrophe of Karna and how he was rundown of family. The story of Mahabharata has so many characters in it on which not one but many stories can be written and Sayantan Gupta has selected this as the base for his book and took Karna as the primary personality of this riveting story. Karna’s character is regal, heavenly, ancestry, forced by situations to be brought up as a charioteer’s son. We all know he is a match for the best in terms of soldierly skills, Karna was gifted with all the merits to stand with the best that the Pandavas. Yet, he never got his due of acknowledgment and esteem, and was second fiddle to the mighty Pandava, Arjuna. The story/book stars with striking recounting of Kunti’s tryst with Suryadeva, leading to the Karna’s birth. It provides a great introduction to Karna which influences the rest of the narration in the story. I liked the role played by Sage Durvasa in the lead up to this heavenly unity which has been in a few words brought out. The storyline covers Kunti’s motherhood days as a youngster, all her emotions are beautifully written when she sets Karna in a casket down Ashka river which exposes her helplessness at parting with the new born. I am sure like me whoever reads this will get a silent tear in their eyes. As the story runs through, I felt I was reading Mahabharata more, as I am quite familiar with the characters who have been drawn from the original and their integrity is kept in order. As we go further reading I found out variation from the epic have been brought in delicately.  Though here and there, the author has used a little mind’s eye to the relating in aspects of Karna’s relationship with the Pandavas, Draupadi and Kunti. Despite doing so the author has not lost the track of outcrop of Karna as an personification of self respect and self honour at every turn. Few incidents such as character of Karna, it was his inborn and at times incomprehensible sense of loyalty to Duryodhan, which blinded him to the latter’s serious faults. These instances have been clearly captured in the story, and the manner in which it led to his disintegrate at the hands of Arjuna is indeed tear-jerking. The book has less of flaws, but very lengthy and it did create tediousness for some while. But anyone who prefers mythology as their favourite variety, this book is strong recommended.

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October 17 2018

Dreaming In Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

Dreaming in Hindi’, listed as one of the terrific 10 best reads in USA-2009, has the Indian edition on stands now. Neither a travelogue nor an essay, the book has the elements of both. It is largely description, bringing insights and concepts about human calibre to learn and soak up languages.

This is the first book that looks closely at the author – Katherine Russell Rich’s  decision to learn Hindi. It is western, that India is where one needs to be, to lurch across the meaning in life. ‘Hindi is strewn with words no one in America had used since Agatha Christie’s time and for that alone I love it,’ she declares in the preface.

Katherine Russell Rich is a former lifestyle magazine journalist, who decided to move to Udaipur (Rajasthan), from New York to learn Hindi, inspired by a desire to learn a second language. But the real inspiration for her is a memoir of Elizabeth Gilbert – a fellow American whose extended trip after her divorce to India in finding spiritual sustenance, chronicled into a publishing phenomenon, now being made into a movie starring Julia Roberts who spent time recently in the same Ashram in Haryana on which Gilbert based her India adventure. Katherine, having survived divorce, bout with cancer and being fired by her editing job , felt she has no language to describe her experiences of life so decided to borrow a language from someone else – India!

A language is a whole map of reality; Katherine has drawn this map of Indian reality through the laborious task of learning Hindi, through her experiences and encounters in Rajasthan which offers segment of a complex and multilayered reality called India. When Katherine stretches this segment to look like the whole, the overview shows unjustly blown up, misappropriate and overdo simplification.

She starts by taking Hindi classes in New York which blossomed into obsession with the language, her journey to Udaipur, encounters with royalty and commoners, gurus, teachers and students, secularists and communists, some of them whom we can indentify like Nand Chaturvedi (Udaipur based Hindi poet) and Nand Kishore Acharya ( Bikaner based Hindi poet and critic). It pretty much describes the literary journey of the author that the reader will perforce to take to come in grips with author’s linguistic love affair. Very appreciatable is Katherine’s writing style, wit and calls for grade of compassion in this memoir part travelogue.

As the pages roll on, one feels that it is two books clubbed as one. The first part talks about her physical journey to India, with snapshots of life in India and the people she meets. Katherine arrives in India just before the September 11, 2001 and she highlights the reactions of different ethnic and religious groups towards the event. Some characters are two dimensional like the Jains – the host family and others who are described memorably like Helaena.

Once the reader is occupied in the narration of part one, the author shifts to other aspect which is her linguistic journey, told in three ways – the titles are entertaining, stories of her experience with the language and through the passages from linguistic theories which intersperse the book.

The story of her linguistic log is narrated in 19 chapters. Through her Hindi learning journey she ascertains that different language offers a different way of viewing the world. For instance, drinking a cigarette rather than smoking it, basking in the sun but not sunbathing or that in India there is no female orgasm, not to speak of it, as orgasm is applied to men only.

Katherine jumps to many conclusions sometimes suddenly, but once in a while they are interesting, like this one; ‘there weren’t separate terms for marriage and wedding, shaadi was your wedding and your marriage a small distinction’. This was closely on over-reading on the language as she writes ‘there is no conversion rite into Hinduism, but there is learn Hindi’, as this language is knotted with Hinduism.

The author while endorsing the view that emotions derive from cultural scripts and as such are learned in the language of the culture, perhaps that is why she explains months into learning the language she has become aware of feelings that she never experienced before. Fortunately enough there are many such moments when Katherine is expressively intensed and truthfully susceptible.

But what doesn’t go well with the reading is the central thesis, that mastery of a new language will make her a new person. There is little self-revelation to support it. Hindi is interesting to Katherine, kind of a slice of exotica. Her India is strewn with stereotypes and Hindi phrases which provide nothing to description. She depicts herself as a serious enough student of Hindi trying to escape the ordeals of her past without explaining what it is and what she gains by the end of it all.

There are many hit and miss incidents and people in this book, leaving her Indian sense and its language in literary midpoint. There are the ghastly Gujarat riots which interpose the plot but add a little to its expeditions. This is definitely conceited new age reading which adds little to the author’s status and fictional tastes. The book in the end embodies a rich emotional intelligence which gets formed from learning a language so distant and strange for someone brought up in USA. Truly an extraordinary read.

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October 16 2018

The Exile

Maharaja Duleep Singh was the son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and Maharani Jindan Kaur (fifth wife of the Maharaja) born on 4 September 1838 at Lahore when Maharaja Ranjit Singh had turned 58years. The places occupied by the father and son in history are poles at distant, while Maharaja Ranjit Singh, possibly deservedly is described as one of the greatest Indian leaders of the early colonial epoch in India, his son Duleep Singh is shown to be an powerless émigré who spent the better part of his life as Queen Victoria’s party ribbons. In the book The Exile, Mr Sarna has traced life of pensioned off Duleep Singh, as he went from Lahore to Fatehgarh to his hunting estate in Elveden to Russia and finally to that bitter and deserted hotel room in Paris where he met his end. While on this journey, Duleep Singh turned into a baptized Christian and then ultimately converted back to Sikhism. The author has used 5 narrators as the main characters picked from those closest to Duleep Singh. In some contexts the prince himself has narrated a few incidents. The narrators include – Mangla Mai (the favorite slave girl of Duleep’s mother), Dr John Login (the British officer who served as a father figure to young Duleep), Lady Lena Login (Dr Login’s wife), Arur Singh (Duleep’s confidante) and General Charles Carrol Tevis (Duleep’s confidante in Paris). Other significant characters -Maharani Jindan, Maharaja Kharak Singh, Dogra brothers, Sandhawalia Sardars, Attariwala Sardars, Pandit Jalla, Hira Singh and Maharaja Sher Singh along with Prince’s wives and children.The book is of 5 chapters divided into two parts, the first describing the splendor of Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, through the eyes of Mangla Mai and Maharani Jindan. Punjab including Lahore is described as a land of fabulous wealth and magnificence. The society aptly was very assorted and the only reason why it probably holds together is because of the respect the Sarkar (refers to Maharaja Ranjit Singh) commands. After the customary wailing and chest beating following his death collapsed, all hell breaks lose. The Kashmiri Dogras, the family of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh soldiers who fought as armed force, everyone begins to cry for everyone else’s blood. At the time of this chaos, Duleep Singh was a toddler; Maharani Jindan felt that the Lahore of the day was insecure for Duleep. She moved to Jammu along with Mangla Mai. The early years of the life of Duleep Singh, were played out against the rich background of his grandfather’s court and the lavish palaces and gardens. He enjoyed falconry and had the best horses and elephants to ride. He received royal education with two tutors, for Persian and Gurmukhi. He was taught to shoot guns and bows and trained to command. It must have seemed a kind of heaven, a place full of magical enchantment for the boy, but the brutalities of politics soon invaded. Eventually, Duleep Singh was called back to sit on the throne by one of the warring factions.

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October 15 2018

Painter of Colonial India -Raja Ravi Varma


Ravi Varma (1848-1906) was one of the first Indian painters to successfully adopt Western painting techniques and adapt academic realism to the visual interpretation of Indian mythology. His genre of paintings, which eventually lead to chromolithographs (oleographs), has maintained a lasting effect on the Indian sensibility, making him the best-known classical painter of the modern era. This book is an account of Ravi Varma’s traditional background and environment and how they related to the modernisation of colonial India, as well as his profession as an aristocratic itinerant painter. Lavishly illustrated with images taken from princely and private collections, and museums, the book includes works that have never been seen before: previously undisclosed maps, letters, photographs and other archival material. A unique feature of this title is that it comes to the customer with a choice of two splendid dust jackets.

About the Author:  Rupika Chawla is a conservator of paintings who has restored several Ravi Varma art works. She is also a curator, and imparts training in conservation. She has written extensively on contemporary Indian art.

My Review:  If William Shakespeare is 400 years old to English literature, than Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) is 100 years to India’s visual language – painting. Ravi Varma as we all know is credited for the makeover of the imagination of Indian gods, goddess, myths and legends. Till Ravi Varma arrived, the Indian art was nonfigurative, without any direct representation of the reality. Gods were never depicted in form of man or woman but Ravi Varma was the first Indian to master perspective, the first to use human models to depict Hindu gods and goddesses, the first to make his work available not just to the rich but to ordinary people too.

Soon all over India, in all classes’ houses in the end of 19th century were highlighted with Ravi Varma’s paintings, which were the natural renderies that deities Lakshmi, Krishna, Hanuman, Ram, Saraswati and Shiv got their exclusive identities. His personal interest in dramatics persuaded major theatre and films, increasing his tricky contact.

Since the past decade, Ravi Varma’s imagery has been shown up to western landscapes, northern costumes, southern jewellery with sensitive naturalism.

In the 19th century the oil-on-canvas painting was new to India and Ravi Varma’s style – the European realism was unusual. But when he mastered both the techniques, there was no stopping him and it is believed in his 30 years duration of career, he painted over 2000 canvases. His connection with the rulers of Travancore ensured him network that lead to a muddle of commissions from Awadh, Pudukottai and Bhavnagar to Mysore, Baroda and Hyderabad. He was much sought artist cum painted for his portraits and theme paintings from Hindu myths and Sanskrit literature.

Ravi Varma was relentlessly criticised in early 20th century by Sister Nivedita, Sri Aurobindo and recently by Tyeb Mehta, Hussain and Akbar Padamsee. Never any kind of biography or study on Ravi Varma existed, that lacuna has now been meticulously filled by Rupika Chawla, a known in art circles as a restorer of damaged paintings.

Her book “Raja Ravi Varma – Painter of Colonial India” is well researched and deeply written by Rupika who has done a much required historical task by restoring the artist himself. In the process, she has buried out the attribution of virtually each of the painting with it’s socio-politically biography of its subject – either historical or mythological. She has also exhibited the must for modern significant carry out to furnish itself with the basic familiarity of synthetic paints sold since early 19th century in the tin tubes, creating a new flawlessness to the surface, which were called by many as ghoul pictures in Ravi Varma’s paintings, is likely to lead to an all new awareness in his work.

Adding to the many illuminating anecdotes and contexts from sources such as accounts of his patrons, colleagues, friends and the very important the diaries kept by his brother Raja Raja Varma who was his pupil cum partner in all of his commissions and enterprises that was undertaken by Ravi Varma. In addition Raja Raja Varma has to be acknowledged for instituting the Ravi Varma Fine Arts Lithographic Press ( now in Lonavla) where Ravi Varma’s all collection produced printed images of Kali ( from Calcutta) were shifted to.

The book highlights the fact that Ravi Varma who was the first to relocate the domination of the wandering and small European painters who came to India to paint coronation scenes, descriptions of princes, the promising Indian influential to civil servants and businessmen. This book is not merely Ravi Varma’s biography, it is difficult as it covers in its spacious clear drapes of social, cultural and political life in colonial India – particularly in supremacy of the native princes and it also attempts to emphasize the up-and-coming energy between technology and the colonised society jumped by feudal values that was hopeful to modernity, freedom, and democracy such as the comings of the railways, mechanically produced art, the double faced politics of culture and nationalism that all came into focus in this engrossing sequence of events of a painterly humanity.

In his paintings, Ravi Varma idealized women, often making them more graceful than they actually were. Indeed, at one time, telling an Indian woman that she looked like a Ravi Varma painting was the ultimate compliment. Though he painted women of many communities, Ravi Varma had a special fondness for depicting the sari-clad women of Bombay where he lived for many years. He found the sari (which was not worn in Kerala and other parts of India with colourful appealing folds) and it’s often said that the popularity of Ravi Varma’s paintings helped make the sari the national dress for all Indian women.

The disappointment in the book is about the debate on Ravi Varma as a modernist, which is just minor. But on the whole, the author Rupika Chawla has effectively raised from the dead the Ravi Varma from Killimanur as the painter king.

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October 4 2018

I Didn’t Expect to be Expecting by by Richa S Mukherjee

Blurb: Tara is living a blessed life in the maximum city with her husband Abhimanyu, the love of her life. At the pinnacle of her career, she is the apple of her parents’ eyes and hasn’t spotted a wrinkle yet – so far, the 30s are looking great! Nothing fazes Tara – not a foul-mouthed best friend or a food-burning arch-nemesis in the form of her maid – not even a landlady who chats with ghosts. And then, Tara discovers that she’s pregnant, and suddenly, all that well-honed composure crumbles. It doesn’t help that she’s got an equally jittery (if supportive) husband by her side. Now, Tara must face her anxieties about parenthood as she navigates friendships, marriage and career, all the while dealing with the fact that her body and mind are steadily feeling like they belong to someone else. An irreverent, honest and funny journey down the road – potholes and all – to (accidental) parenthood!

About the author: Richa’s life has always been marked with abundance. She grew up with three elder sisters, lived in eight cities across India, and went from being a B Com graduate to a journalist, and then landed up in an advertising agency. She would love for you to scribble your thoughts to her on Twitter: @richashrivas, or on email: [email protected]

Review: The author Richa is not only a charmingly guileless story-teller but also a thoughtful woman and the perfect writer for the pregnancy memoir. Her unrelenting honesty and good humour, combined  blend of mothering experiences in the story, makes for a liberating read for mothers-to-be who are only just beginning to realise the true rigidity of the institution they are entering.  As per me, Books are great gifts for everyone and this book is specially for mums-to-be and new mums, especially the ones that tell them, ‘what to expect’. This is not your usual pregnancy or parenting book. She tells the urban mom what cookie cutter parenting books don’t tell, and shares like a friend. I am not a mother, nor pregnant but I enjoyed reading this book for obvious reasons that Richa is a dear friend. The author categorises all of the remarkable and unremarkable aspects of being pregnant and as that of the character Tara – from petty annoyances to major outrage – and her personal experience creates a far more realistic document than the books that tell you to look forward to bucketfuls of euphoria. The story discusses the vast range of emotions women experience, most notably guilt, fear and anger, as well as the accompanying physical symptoms of an average pregnancy and post-birth. I found myself nodding and smiling through the pages, and connected with the story and author at few pages.  The author does not attempt to be a parenting guru or proclaim her parenting methods as ideal. She merely shares the parenting journey in a story form to make other mums feel better. Though I do not know if busy mums can take out the time to read or if pregnant mums may completely relate to her, but I can say it’s honest, raw and sincere. Read for a good laugh. I highly recommend this book to everyone – an intelligent read without turning it into a dry text. Accessible and lively, with a satisfying blend of humour and fact.

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