Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Vow of Parvati by Aditi Banerjee

Many of us have either read or seen on the television the story of Sati and Shiv, their marriage, Sati’s immolation in the ritual fire when her husband was insulted by her father, her re-birth eons later as Parvati, and the coming together of the two.

It is a timeless tale, retold many times by many people. Aditi brings alive the vivid tale of love in her inimitable style. The author has also researched extensively to narrate many events that I was not aware of.

The challenge in narrating stories from the past is that there are no records of what transpired between different characters. We are also biased by the many retellings by our ancestors. The author has given her own unique perspective to the story. The dialogues that the author has attributed to the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, or the goddesses Lakshmi, Saraswati and Sati, makes the tale relatable to us. They too indulge in banter like we humans do. The intense scenes are also well etched out depicting the sentiments that the characters are going through. That makes the story interesting to read.

This ageless story would appeal to readers across different age groups.

The review is by Sanjay Chandra, author of The Gymnast.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Cord by Sredhanea Ramkrishnan

Human relationships are complex. They would always have dilemmas. It is these dilemmas that the author explores in her debut fiction work.

The story is set in the backdrop of the 1947 Indo-Pak partition till the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. Is the partition only a line drawn on the map? What happens if the son does not want to migrate with his family for his love? What would happen if two people who were friends just the other day look at each other through the sights of their rifles on the battlefield? What would happen to the conflicts in a mother for the love of her son and her responsibilities towards her family? How would a son react when he has to take his father a prisoner of war? Are the relationships also casualties of that line drawn on the map?

You feel the pain of all the protagonists – every one is a protagonist in his life. In the end you realise that there are no winners in this battle. This is a war that each one has to fight in own way.

A beautifully written story that would make you smile, that would also make you cry. Short chapters make reading a treat. I would look forward to more stories from this young author.

The review is by Sanjay Chandra, author of The Gymnast.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: The Jehlum Boys by Prashant

There was a time during my professional life when I travelled extensively to Kashmir. The Hindi diction of the local people is a little different – it is almost sing-song. As I picked up the book by Prashant, I wondered why it was titled ‘Jehlum’ when we know the river as ‘Jhelum’. The author clarifies this right at the beginning – this is how Kashmiris pronounce the name.

Nishant and Mudassir are two childhood friends born and brought up in Kashmir. Fateful events of January 1990 force Nishant and his family to migrate to a refugee camp in Jammu. He does not give up on hope. He realises that the only way out for him to move out of this squalor is to study and work hard. He succeeds in moving to America.

Mudassir on the other hand is manipulated and ends up in a training camp in Pakistan, and then as a labourer in Karachi.

The plot till almost 80% of the story is relatable and storytelling is compelling. It narrates the events leading up to the exodus, life in the camps, Nishant’s hard work, and then his moving to USA. The unfortunate circumstances are not heavy with sentimentality, but are backdrops for the principled and ethical man that Nishant turns into.

It is in the last part of the book when Nishant practically becomes a single man army or more appropriately a superhero that the story felt as if I was watching a Bollywood movie. But I am not complaining. Having brought up on the Amitabh Bachchan movies of the 1970s and 1980s, it was enjoyable.

An enjoyable fast paced read if you have also loved the Bollywood movies of yesteryears.

Book Reviews by a Pioneer: Mandu The Romance of Roopmati and Baz Bahadur by Malathi Ramachandran

When the rains come to Malwa, it is as if the slopes and valleys and the river begin decking themselves up for wedding festivities. These opening lines by Malathi, and I prepared myself for another lyrically written historical fiction.

I had visited Mandu a long time back and heard about the legendary romance of Baz Bahadur and beautiful Roopmati, a girl from farming family. The story held a certain mysterious charm, and I wanted to know more. I was not disappointed as the author has narrated an engrossing tale set in 16th century India around the legend.

This is a story of two unlikely young people, coming from different strata of society, bonding over a common love for classical music. This bonding leads to the two gradually falling in love with each other. But their love is doomed from the beginning as their lives are drawn into court intrigues. Eventually, sultan Baz goes out to fight a loosing battle against the might of the Mughal emperor, Akbar. Roopmati consumes poison to save herself from the lecherous eyes of Adham Khan, milk brother of Akbar. Yet again a love that was not meant to be.

A simple story, narrated beautifully, that keeps you engrossed till the end. Words are expertly woven – be it to describe the beauty of the region, or that of Roopmati, or even that of love itself. It would have been difficult to narrate a story that only exists as a legend – Malathi does not falter even a bit.

Yet, I could not but feel a little disappointed. Not by the storytelling – which is excellent – but by the fact that Baz Bahadur comes across as a weak sultan, immersed in songs and dances and his love. He fails to protect his principality, his people, and above all the woman he truly loved against the marauders. Maybe he indeed was a weak sultan, but for the positive influence of the woman who he fell in love with. It is the beauty of storytelling that makes us believe in events that are not recorded anywhere.

When Vasant ritu comes to Malwa, they say the river brings new life to her valley… But wait… hark! Is that a snatch of a distant song on the air? Or is it only the moaning of winds in the ravines of Malwa? Who knows … This is how the story ends.

I am sure to remember these closing lines and probably hear that song on the air from the distant past when I visit Mandu next.

As I had mentioned in my previous review also, the writing is almost lyrical. It is a beautifully woven tale of two people who loved and lost. The storytelling keeps you immersed in the story till the end.

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.