Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Legend of Kuldhara by Malathi Ramachandran

They say the desert is ageless, timeless. That it was never born and will never die. They say it has no form either… its shifting sands take one shape today and another tomorrow. These were the opening lines of this historical novel set in Rajasthan. I was mesmerised.

I remained engrossed in the story till I reached the end. …for what is truer than love is true love… across the desert rides he who is yours… to meet, to hold, to never let go… for who can keep apart those whose lives are fused for eternity…

The novel is inspired by certain events from 200 years back. 80+ villages of Paliwal Brahmins in the Thar desert of Jaisalmer were abandoned overnight. This is a historical fact. What is not known is the reason why this sudden exodus happened on a single night. There are folklores around it.

One reason is attributed to the exorbitant taxes demanded by Saalim Ali, the Diwan of the kingdom ruled by Rawals. Another is that these villagers left to save their honour, as the debauched Diwan chanced upon the beautiful young daughter of the headman of Kuldhara, one of the villages, and demanded that the maiden be handed over to enter his harem.

Nobody knows the truth. The abandoned ruins of Kuldhara still exist, and the place is considered haunted. Malathi has woven a heart wrenching tale of what might have happened. The story is that of two strong women whose destinies are interlinked with that of the Diwan.

Pari from Kuldhara falls in love with Dharam, a young man from another village, during the flight. Unknown to the two, different villages have decided to split and move in separate directions to escape the pursuing soldiers. A single night of passion; and the next morning Dharam has already left the camp with his village folk. Nobody knows where. Pari realises that she is pregnant.

Parvati is an older women who had also been taken in Saalim Ali’s harem. She has borne him a son and still waits for her husband’s infrequent visits to the conjugal bed when it pleases him. She is unhappy with her life, but this is the only life that she has known. She still wants to remain that favourite wife of her husband.

Eventually the two women face each other. The young unwed mother is saved from the Diwan by Parvati. Pari returns back to an abandoned Kuldhara to wait for her daughter’s father, hopeful that one day they shall unite.

I had only heard about lyrical prose. This was the first time that I read one. It is an expertly woven haunting tale of love, despair, and hope. The storytelling keeps you immersed in the story – page after page, word after word.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Raavan Key by Pravin Agarwal

Kartik is a self-made entrepreneur owning a chain of successful restaurants in America. He is visiting his relatives in Bareilly with his family in 2019 to attend a family wedding. On the morning of the wedding he goes to the nearby Pashupati Nath temple but does not return.

The family hires Ajay, a private detective, to investigate his disappearance and find him. There are many suspects, including some of the family members and his Indian business partner. These people may have also met the Indian overlord of Europe’s most dreaded crime syndicate in the recent past.

Kartik was in the habit of writing a diary about his life. Ajay starts reading the diary and realises that the key to the case may be in the lost city of Drumatulya, lying buried and lost, somewhere in Thar desert near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. The city is mentioned in Ramayana and seemingly existed around 5135 BCE. The city had links to Raavan. The detective names this important clue as The Raavan Key.

The diary also reveals that Kartik’s father Shivam had gone on an archaeological expedition to Jaisalmer with his university mates in 1972 in search of the lost city. Shivam was an engineering student, but had accompanied the group to be with Vedika whom he loved and wanted to marry. Something terrible happened during the trip and he could not marry her.

Shivam has also died in an accident a few years earlier. Kartik now has no way of learning about the terrible events during the archaeological trip, which resulted in many on the trip perishing in a sand storm.

Ajay is told by Kartik’s wife Shreya about an old woman staring at her husband on the flight to India, and murmuring something about the danger to his life. This woman is Richa, a friend of Shivam, and who was also part of the archaeological group.

Hoping that she might be able to throw some light on the case, Ajay calls Richa. As he is talking to her, she is attacked in a Delhi market. The detective rushes to Delhi to meet her.

Book 1 of the Drumatulya trilogy ends in a cliff-hanger as Ajay enters Richa’s home.

This is a fast paced book. A few questions are answered, a few questions remain unanswered. I would have personally preferred to know the end in the first book itself – what is the link between the seemingly unconnected events of 2019 (when Kartik is kidnapped), 1972 (when Shivam goes on the college trip), the lost city of Drumatulya (that existed around 5135 BC), and the crime syndicate overlord?

But then that should be the beauty of stories spread across multiple books – they should leave you wanting to read the next volume, to know what happens next! Book 1 of Drumatulya trilogy succeeds in generating this interest.

The book could have been made tighter by removing passages which seemingly are not relevant to the story – though they help in establishing Kartik as a righteous individual. The book also needs stronger editing, which I hope will be taken care of in the subsequent two volumes.

Pioneer Book Lovers Club Write Contest 2021: Prompt for May 2022 and Rules for submission

Write a short story of 1500-3000 words (excluding the prompt) using the below prompt.

I wasn’t in love with him; but I could not unlove him.

1. The prompt can be used anywhere in your story, but it should not be split.
2. Writer can change the gender ‘him’ to ‘her’.
3. The story can be of any genre of your choice.
4. The storytelling is important, but please also take care of grammatical or spelling errors.
5. Your story should be submitted in both pdf and word formats by 31st May 2022 at pblcwritecontest@gmail.com. Please caption the subject line as Write Contest.
6. Two winners will be declared in case found suitable by the judges. The decision of the judges will be final. No queries will be entertained on the results.
7. All future announcements and results can be seen on the Facebook group of Pioneer Book Lovers Club (https://www.facebook.com/groups/880032822610818/).
8. Winning entries have a chance to be published in a book of short stories.
Put on your writing cap and send us your short stories using the above prompt.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Road to Abana by Lata Gwalani

Blessed are those who have a house which they can call their Abana (home in Sindhi). A house is only a physical structure, but it is our loved ones, and our memories with them, that truly make this structure a home – a place where we can return after a hard day’s work. Do we ever pause and even think about a scenario where our home is snatched from us overnight? All that we are left with is an ache, a longing, to reclaim our lost hearth. Would we go to any extent to take back what was rightfully ours?

Paari, the central character of this novel by Lata, is a Sindhi, who lost her home in Pakistan during partition. She lives in squalor in the refugee camp in Ulhasnagar, dreaming of the day when she would reclaim her home. She does not know how, only that she would.

She is lured into smuggling gold jewellery from Dubai to India, which might one day change her life for the better. From smuggling jewellery to smuggling guns to Afghanistan via Pakistan for an unknown boss is only a short step. Travelling to Pakistan rekindles her urge to reclaim her Abana. She is certain that she would take her house back.

A chance encounter with Virmal, her childhood sweetheart, makes her start dreaming of a life with her lover in her own home. She is willing to go to any extent, even running the guns herself through dangerous terrain, or shooting a man.

This is a story of love and betrayal, but in the end it is the story of a quest to get the home back, at any cost.

A beautifully written book, which has emotions aplenty, but never gets overboard with sentimentality. It makes you take a pause and reflect – what would we do if our home was snatched from us?

Musings of a Pioneer: This Life That We Take for Granted


I always believed that we are products of our dreams, our pursuit of those dreams, and our experiences along the way. I may have been wrong. We probably identify more with our fear of the unknown, pre-conceived notions, and biases.

The last one year has been a traumatic, yet milestone period for me. I faced two major events. The first was last year when I was admitted in the covid ward – my first hospitalisation. Night had fallen. The attendant gracefully permitted my wife to accompany me up to the lift. The lift clanged shut as I looked at her, was it the last time that I would be seeing her! Such drama!

No visitors were permitted. I only had the company of the nurses, the attendants, and the other two patients in the room. I longed for physical visits by my loved ones, who tried to cheer me up through multiple video calls every day – but it was just not the same. I was almost paralysed by the terror of death. I did nothing to help myself.

It was also during this stay that I realised what it meant to be dependent on others, though dependence on others in daily life is a welcome, yet often unnoticed feature. For the first few days I could not even go to the toilet without oxygen support, which meant that I had to call the attendant, and hope that the limited supply of both the attendant and the cylinder was not in use by another patient.

The second event was more recent. I underwent surgery – again my first. The trauma came prior to surgery in the form of my apprehensions. What if the doctor started sawing me up before the anaesthesia had taken effect, or if I did not come out of anaesthesia, or worse if I did not survive the surgery.

I kept procrastinating and postponing on one pretext or the other as I passed through a myriad of such morbid sentiments. I was afraid to take the next step for fear of the unknown, till the morning I was on my way to the hospital. The rest of the morning was a blur, and soon I was walking to the operation theatre accompanied by my wife – often an unacknowledged support. Now that the moment was upon me, I walked in confidently, looking forward for the uncertainty to end.

The anaesthetist pricked my spine and I started losing sensation chest down. I was unable to raise my feet, however hard I tried, or even blow into the doctor’s cupped hands. I found that I could not even clear my throat as the act required me to cough from the pit of my stomach, which my abdominal muscles refused to support. I remained terrified of not coming out of this induced paralysis.

It was at this stage that the nurse tried to blindfold me. I have a phobia of blindfolds and I resisted, scared of not being in control of another sensory organ. It was also during the surgery that all those parts of my body which were not numb started itching. My hands were restrained, and I had no option except to ask the nurse to scratch me. I was dependent on others, and not liking it.

We take several things in our lives, and probably life itself, for granted, till we are reminded about our good fortune by events. People get paralysed, lose their eyesight, sometimes even their limbs. We do not take the next step fearing the unknown, afraid of failure. Yet, there are many instances of people overcoming their handicap through sheer courage. And are we not dependent on others even in our daily lives, without even acknowledging such support!

This past one year has been a defining period for me – to pause and reflect. Are we not scared of pursuing our dreams for fear of failure! Are we not fighting with each other over petty things – religion, politics, caste, community! They would mean nothing in the final reckoning as we eventually turn to ashes or dust. But till we face the eventual truth, should we be held back by our preconceived notions, biases, or even the fear of the unknown, or should we rather focus on our dreams!

Empty corridors in the night, nursing station away from the room, nurses and attendants dozing on their chairs – it did give me the idea of a plot, a crime thriller, as I lay on my hospital bed the first time. Maybe one day I will write another novel.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Me In I by Diptendu Roy

I‘ is the persona, the face that is seen by the world – my family, my friends, my acquaintances. But is that the ‘Me‘. Or the real Me is someone lurking behind the I – afraid of the insecurities of life and relationships, or someone taking life headlong.

It is this Me in I that the poet’s 13 poems explore. The first poem is about friends, who have been there since childhood. ‘Friendship is a boon and, friends are precious… try not being fake or pretentious.

There is a poem to find an answer to a dilemma – ‘Why I Write?‘ Is it for fame, or for the one whom I love, or for posterity, or for something else? There are poems about lost love; truth – bitter but a saviour of conscience; tears – saline waters of the sea of emotions within – of pain, sorrow and even happiness; why am I an introvert – is it the fear of loss?

I have time‘, but it is not infinite. ‘I got to make the most of limited time‘, to untangle the barbed wires of ‘prejudice & pride‘.
If death is the destination, then I will live life. Every second, minute and hour to the fullest and die once, not multiple times’.

And the quest continues – to discover ‘The Me In I.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Garden of Fragility, A Collection of Poetry by Neelam Saxena Chandra

I am more of a prose person than a poetry buff. I am under the notion, probably mistaken, that it is straightforward to understand fiction; but there may be several interpretations to poetry, which may be way off to what the poet wanted to convey. It was with some apprehension that I picked up this book of poetry when it was recommended to me by a friend. I would say that I was not disappointed, though my interpretations may not be in consonance with those of the writer.

Our life is something fragile, hanging by a thread. One does not know what the next moment may bring. Our relationships are even more fragile. It is easier to break than to mend. One single spoken word may be enough to break relations of a lifetime. Life and relationships are a garden of fragility, to be nurtured to strengthen, not to be wasted away or broken.

This collection of 50 poems by Neelam is about this garden of life. The poems are a celebration of life, even death, friendship, mothers, daughters, children, parents, and most importantly about I. Yes, I am the most important person in this Garden of Fragility. Everything else is nothing without I. As the poet writes in the poem titled I – You can walk side by side with me, But don’t try to stop the flow that defines me…

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: A Handful of Marbles by Patanjali Patnaik

We all have fond memories of our childhood, particularly the age when one is around 9-years old. I too was a 9 year old child a long time back. Those were the days when we did not even have television, nobody had heard of internet; and we were forced outdoor by our parents by the time it was 5 in the evening in summers, and 4 in winters. We also sometimes managed to sneak out during the afternoon when the elders were having their siesta. We played marbles or spun tops, flew kites, the big bad boy down the road was our role model, got into scrapes, were fond of hoarding comics, had our favourite teacher – the list is endless. But it was the most carefree period in my life – not worried about what the future held, or envious about the success of the boy next door, in having more marbles or any other pseudo currency in circulation at the time. It only goaded me to win back more of that currency.

This collection of 12 short stories, revolving around the escapades of precocious Pushkar, a 9-year old boy, living in a small town of India, came as deja vu. The setting could have been any city, big or small. Each child would have gone through something similar. Pushkar desperately wants to win marbles to achieve a target of 100 marbles, but then consciously loses a little more to a much younger child, as his conscience does not allow him to take undue advantage of a novice. He learns the art of making the most lethal manjha to win in kite flying, only to see the kites going up in smoke because of his notion of using another dangerous ingredient. He wants to hit back at the bad boys, giving them back the cuss words, but is unable to do so. He is ready to take punishment from the teacher that he has a crush on – she is her queen. And many more scrapes.

If you loved the child in you, and sometimes long for those days gone by, then this is the book for you.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Contrived Connections by Radhika

Each one of us carries secrets that we are unwilling to share even with those close to us. Yet, many times we are forced by circumstances to revisit these secrets. Is it destiny or is this what life is all about?

Sivakami, the protagonist of this novella, is a professional working in Chennai. She has made two friends within the confines of her professional circle – Sowmya and Sharan. One morning Sowmya breezes into the office after a few days of absence, and shyly informs her two friends about her engagement, with an invitation for them to join her wedding ceremonies in her native village.

The village is where Siva was brought up till her adolescence, when she was forced to relocate, away from the one person whom she loved. She is excited, and scared at the same time, at the prospect of facing the one person who mattered the most in her life.

She reaches the village with her colleague and friend, Sharan – unaware that the latter secretly loves her. She comes face to face with Anandhan, who still loves her, though he is now married.

But this is not the only secret that Siva has kept away from her friends. Her world had come crumbling down when she was told the truth about her paternity 15 years back. Would she be able to overcome the trauma of her earlier years? Will she be able to accept the love of her friend from her mature years?

I loved the story and the storytelling. It was as if I was watching a television series. A fast paced read.