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: 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: Masala and Murder by Patrick Lyons

I read another thriller this week. This one is set in Bollywood. Subhani Mehta, a young lead actress in the Hindi film industry, walks up a steep mountain in Australia with other crew members to shoot a dance sequence for an upcoming film. It is a long hot day and during the retake she gasps for breath and falls dead clutching the pendant around her neck. An autopsy is done, which rules out any foul play, the case is closed.

Samson Ryder, who had to quit Australian police force under a cloud, is now working as private detective. He is receiving death threats from a few young men who are into peddling drugs. In the middle of all this, he receives an unusual visitor – Subhani’s father – who wants him to investigate the case for final closure.

Sam travels to India and meets several celebrities from the film industry. A terror of someone or something had made Subhani wear the pendant, which was apparently a talisman of some sort. Everyone seems to be pointing at supernatural death due to a curse put on her, which a rational Sam cannot accept. Eventually, he successfully closes the case.

The story is fast paced, and I was left guessing the conclusion. The disappointment for me was the inconclusive supernatural angle. I enjoyed reading the book – there is even a touch of humour provided by Sam’s aunt in Mumbai, who acts as his assistant, but is an incorrigible gossip, which lands him in a few sticky situations.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Darkened Pearl by Pratik Jadhav

Ralph, Detective in the police department of the city of Hamberberg, has broken up with his girl friend, and is on his annual leave. He is asked by his boss to return to office urgently, where he is informed that Jake, his adoptive brother, is missing for 48 hours.

Ralph has to find evidence or his brother within the next three days, otherwise the case will be put in the back burner as pending. He also knows that the first 48 hours are critical to find a missing person, after which one can expect the worst.

Ralph is now racing against time as he starts looking for Jake. His brother is a musician and plays in bars, restaurants and cruises for the wealthy. There are no leads except that Jake went to a party and did not return home. Ralph starts looking at his brother’s call records and meeting people. One meeting leads to another, one evidence leads to another, until he unravels the mystery.

It is a well written plot. All the characters are introduced during the story. This also gives the reader opportunity to play detective with Ralph. I also tried doing the same, and zeroed in on two – one of which was indeed the killer. But then, there was another twist.

This is a self published book, and needs editorial corrections.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Avishi by Saiswaroopa Iyer

This is a a full length fictional novel created out of a strong female character and other references from the Rig Veda.

Avishi is spirited out of her homeland as a child by a friend of her father to save her life. The father, working in the king’s army, has been brutally killed along with the king, by another ambitious soldier, who eventually takes over as the ruler. The young child grows up to be a fearless warrior in a far away establishment run by saints. She does not remember the traumatic childhood events, but has nightmares.

She is asked by the vice chancellor of the establishment to travel to another republic to fulfil her destiny. She is a fearless warrior, and is soon required to be the head of her adopted republic. There is a standoff with the brutal king of the neighbouring state, during which she is injured in the leg. She has to be amputated.

She is devastated. She has lost a limb, she can no longer be a warrior, she can not avenge the murder of her father. But her mate – this is a period when marriage has not yet been institutionalised – has other ideas. He develops a prosthetic leg for her, with the help of the celestial Ashwini Kumars. She is whole again, to fight the atrocities unleashed by the king.

It is a gripping story of a strong female character from our pre-historic times.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

The book was recommended by a member in one of my book clubs. I picked up the book with hesitation as I had never heard of the author. As I read, I realised that the book was written way back in 1965.

Mrs. Emily Pollifax is a 60 something widow, living alone in a quiet suburb in America, tending to her little garden and a cat, going for her medical check-ups, and other such mundane activities. Her children are pursuing their own professions away from her, connecting with her on the phone periodically. This sweet lady craves to work for her country as a spy.

So what does she do? She travels to Washington and lands up in the CIA office with her request to work for the country. The junior officer is foxed, not knowing if the lady is crazy. As he is called out to attend to another visitor, his senior chances upon Mrs. Pollifax, and mistaking her to be another person, he asks her to travel to Mexico City as a courier to bring back a package. The old lady is thrilled.

She is kidnapped and flown across oceans to Europe with another operative. Using her common sense and intuition, she manages to identify the location where they are held captive, escapes with the crippled operative, is shot at, and is rescued and brought back to America. She brings with her the courier package – microfilms of secret documents. The films were placed in a most unlikely package, which was in plain sight of her Chinese kidnappers, who were actually looking for those films.

She is back in her home, in time for the next periodic call from her children. Her children did not even miss her. She will not be recognised as a national hero, she cannot talk about it with anyone, not even her children. But she is not complaining – she is a spy for her country.

I smiled, I chuckled, and I rooted for this sweet lady, as she out-manoeuvred her captives. It reminded me of another famous character – Miss Maple, the detective. This one is an international spy.

There is a series of books around Mrs. Pollifax. I am looking forward to reading more of her escapades.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Curse of Kukkutarma by Prateep Roy

I read about speed of light, the fourth dimension, relativity, and many similar fantastical subjects sometime in my adolescence. I would fantasise about travelling to another dimension and meet people from my past or future. That led me to think about a machine which could make me travel in time across centuries. It was only a concept, but it sounded something achievable to a boy growing up in the late 1960s.

Then I was an adult in the relative safety of the real world – occasionally giving in to my childhood fantasies watching Star Trek and the Star Wars. Till, I came across this book The Curse of Kukkutarma by Prateep Roy.

Opu, pet name for Opamanyu, from the early 20th century, is considered a child prodigy. He travels to England for studies. There he builds a time machine to travel to the period of Mahabharata, to meet Bhisma. Instead, he reaches Kurukshetra of early 21st century due to some technical miscalculations.

He is rescued by a brother-sister duo. Siddharth, a scientist, works in IIT, Delhi. The sister, Tanya is an anthropologist, and is studying the Indus Valley Civilisation. She is excited by the time machine and she wants to go back in time to Kukkutarma (Mohenjo-daro) and find the reasons for the disappearance of this once flourishing civilisation.

The two scientists work on developing another Atityán – that is what Opu calls his time machine. Tanya goes back in time to Mohenjo-daro, and Opu travels back to his England of 20th century. Tanya has her scrapes during her time travel, manages to fall in love with a man there, brings him to the 21st century, and eventually travels back one last time to leave her mate in his century.

You might smirk and say what an improbable story. Of course, it is an improbable story today, but do not forget that people said the same about aeroplanes at some time in the not too distant past. Who knows, maybe a few generations from today, someone may come to meet me in the 21st century.

An expertly woven story from our childhood fantasies. The manuscript does need a little work on editing.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Blue Eagle by Sharada Kolluru

Neil Randhawa, an Italian of Indian origin, finds himself in a Delhi Police station, trying to locate Blue Eagle – a wine that he lost at Delhi airport. What is special about this wine? A stranger successfully bid half a million US Dollars for the 1988 vintage, died the same evening of snake bite at the vineyard where Neil works and was also the auctioneer. The dying man extracted a promise from Neil to offer the wine to Lord Kal Bhairav in Ujjain.

Moe Kyaw Somani, a young Burmese Indian, also lands at the same police station, having lost her 12th grade certificates, without which her dream of studying in Lady Shri Ram College will remain just that – a dream, for which she has travelled all the way from Yangon.

The two narrate the stories of their lives in their birth countries to the sympathetic inspector, who decides to help them. The two young people come together in their search. Is it any surprise, then, that soon sparks begin to fly!

Sounds like another version of the Bollywood film Jab We Met, or many similar stories seen on screen. But I am not complaining. The storytelling is fast paced, the setting is different, and I just love a good old-fashioned romance – this one is inter-continental – so I got to travel a lot from the comfort of my armchair – Italy, the vineyards, Myanmar, and my favourite – Italian food. It was a magical journey expertly woven through words.

If you are looking for a fun fast-paced read over the weekend, then this rom-com is perfect. What I thought could have been toned down – a couple of pages of explicit physical intimacy. As my literary agent friend Lalitha keeps telling me, “Sanjay… show… not tell.”