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: 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?

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.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Tulip of Istanbul by Iskender Pala

I have travelled to Turkey multiple times for work. I have always tried to be in Istanbul during each of my visits, even if for a single day. I have loved the vivacity and the boisterous cheerfulness that the city presents – whether walking in the by lanes, or sipping a glass of wine sitting in a bistro overlooking the Bosphorus.

I always wondered about a period in Turkish history, that many of my hosts spoke about, and which was mentioned in passing in a few novels set in Europe – the Ottoman Empire. I could not resist the temptation of picking up this book when I read the blurb – the book was set in 1730, a time known as the Tulip Age.

The novel is the story of two young men. One is an illegitimate prince, who does not know about his paternity, and whose existence is known only to a few people. He finds himself in prison, falsely implicated for the murder of his young wife on his wedding night.

He escapes, and befriends another young man, who escapes from a lunatic asylum. The friend was forced into the asylum by the father of the one whom he loves.

As the two men come together to search for their beloved, the story moves into the revolt brewing in the population due to an era of economic and social collapse. The rich are corrupt, enjoying the luxuries of life, and growing exotic tulips. The common people, including small traders, are the wretched lot. There is a revolt, the Sultan is deposed, another Sultan installed. The two young men also meet their destinies.

The story provides historical and cultural details of the time. Life in the palaces and dervish lodges, and the intrigues and conspiracies hatched in coffee houses and hamams by the revolutionaries and criminals, are beautifully brought out in the novel. There is never a dull moment in the storytelling.

The book will appeal to readers for its storytelling.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Are Your Emotions Like Mine? by Chitwan Mittal and Shruti Hemani

I was initially not certain if this book would be of interest to many of the people who read my reviews. But then I realised that understanding and explaining emotions does not come easily to us – these are not something tangible. Yet, they form an integral part of our lives since birth, and are as important, if not more, than understanding physical well-being.

I come from a generation where understanding physical injury was easier than understanding emotions. Parents considered stomping as punishment to earth to make their child stop crying in case of a fall. If a child was sad, adults would vie with each other to make it laugh through making silly faces or tickling it. Every one of us may have similar tales to narrate.

Over the years, educators have realised the need to explain to the child various emotions that it may experience – happy, sad, angry, and a gamut of many others that it goes through every day, bewildered and possibly confused. This illustrated book describes these emotions pictorially. The book is aimed at 5-6 year old children who can read and identify their emotions through these pictures. The book is also a useful guide for parents and educators to help a child understand various emotions.

Emotions are abstract, and pictures may not do justice, or it may be difficult even for an adult, to explain to a child a few of the emotions shown in the book. But it does not matter – learning your emotions is probably a life-long affair. This book is the seed that would get planted in the child’s mind, to germinate at appropriate time. The book is priced at Rs 699/-, which could be a deterrent for reaching a wider audience.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Under the Mistletoe and other stories by Manali Desai

There is something about festivals which we look forward to. All festivals are a celebration of life; there is a cheerful spirit all around. These are times to meet family and friends, or make new friends, or look forward to meeting your soulmate. One such festival in the year is Christmas.

This book of short stories and poems by Manali is a celebration of the spirit of Christmas. You may feel lonely, but there is someone out there whom you are destined to meet. You may be destitute, yet even you can bring cheer to somebody less fortunate than you. There is a friend or a lover waiting for you somewhere, to bring sparkle in your eyes, to bring colour to your cheeks, and to bring a smile on your lips – and above all to kindle love in your heart.

I loved the stories and the verses.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Sleep Your Way to Success by Khurshed Batliwala and Dinesh Ghodke

It was the title that tempted me to read this non-fiction work when recommended in one of my book clubs. Having spent a good enough time in the government sector and then corporate world, and brought up on the staple of less sleep for more work mantra of many of our celebrities, I also believed that stress made me more productive, and sleep of 5-6 hours was enough.

This book on the importance of a daily diet of 8 hours of sleep turned all my misconceptions on their head. The book is not just a philosophical treatise on sleep – there are enough explanations of the chemicals released when you are sleeping – which is what got the rational scientist in me to – well let us just say to sleep, more. And I can already feel the difference.

There are other chapters on importance of accessories to have a good night’s sleep. Many of us have experienced first hand the importance of a good mattress, soft linen, comfortable linen – on many occasions I slept on the floor even in a 5 star hotel, only because the mattress was not comfortable. But even other accessories like a soft non-flickering light is equally important to make you sleep well.

Having slept well, you are now more productive. The authors then explain tools to improve your life. I loved the chapter on Pizza of Life, where you identify 8 important features in your life, rate them on a scale of 1-10 as per your understanding, and then write one page essays on how you will improve your top 4 in the bucket list. This becomes your resolution, till you are ready to move on to the next 4.

This is a book which is helping me evolve. I am sure it will help others too.