Book # 8 The Forest of Stories by Ashok K Banker

The frame story for the epic mahabharata is it...

The frame story for the epic Mahabharata is the 'Snake Sacrifice' of King Janamejaya

It’s funny how little one really knows or recalls about the stories one grew up hearing. Like most Indian kids, my favourite bedtime stories used to be from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, which my grandmother would narrate to me every night at bedtime. When I was a little older, I would watch the television adaptations of these stories every Sunday and when I started to read, Amar Chitra Katha’s comic book versions kept me entertained. The thing that struck me the most, even at that young age, was how these stories never got old. They remained constantly fascinating and endlessly repeatable. There was always something fresh, some new connection that one hadn’t quite understood the last time, or a new perspective through which one viewed these ancient stories.

But here’s the thing: so few of us actually revisit these stories as often as they deserve. The problem seems to be that they become such a part of our lives as Indians, so very familiar, that we never feel the need to read them again. No matter what religion you personally profess, if you grow up in this country, you know all about Rama, Sita, Ravana, Krishna, Arjuna and all the rest from the wide and colourful cast of these two epics. And so, you may end up thinking that there is nothing new to learn from them.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps some of you re-read the stories when you grew up a little. I didn’t. I always meant to, though. I would look at the thick, beautifully bound volumes of the epics in bookstores and would tell myself that I simply must read them again. But I never did, because there are so many other stories that I still haven’t read, and am I not already so familiar with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata?

Turns out, I’m not as familiar with them as I thought. For instance, whenever I thought of the Mahabharata, I always had this vague idea that the story was about the fratricidal war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas and the politics behind it all. But there is so much more to it! There are hundreds of characters, each with his or her fascinating back story and motivation. So many little incidents that happen generations before the actual war actually make that event inevitable.


So what happened, that I’m thinking all this now, was that I received a copy of Ashok K. Banker’s The Forest of Stories from the good people over at Westland. It is the first instalment in Banker’s retelling of the Mahabharata. He calls it his MBA series, but don’t assume that the stories have been mangled by modernity. These are straight retellings. As Banker explains in the introduction, he sat with the various versions of the Mahabharata and put together a coherent version for the modern reader. It must have been a gargantuan task because although the Mahabharata does not have as many versions as the Ramayana does, it is nevertheless a massively complex work.

Banker sticks pretty faithfully to what we know as Vyasa’s Mahabharata, which was actually framed as a story within a story within a story. To put it simply, there’s Vyasa’s original epic poem Jaya (with 8,800 shlokas), which tells the story of the great fratricidal war of the Kuru clan and features Vyasa himself as one of the characters. This is expanded into the Bharata, comprising 24,000 shlokas and narrating the history of the Bharata race itself. Eventually, the number of shlokas went up to 100,000 shlokas and the epic came to be known as the Mahabharta. It was narrated by Vyasa (also called Krishna Dweipayana or ‘Dark Islander’) at the 12-year-long snake sacrifice ritual conducted by King Janamejaya who is descended from the Kuru line. The story of this narration as well as that of the snake sacrifice and why Janamejaya is doing it, is being told to the inhabitants of the ashram Naimisha-sharanya by the storyteller, Ugrasrava Sauti.

I know it sounds complex, and I assure you that it is. But it’s such wonderful reading! If anything, I find myself more drawn towards these little framing stories than to the story of the war itself. One particular section, the one that talks about the origin of snakes and how they’ve come to acquire the evil reputation they possess is alone worth the price of the book, in my opinion.

Don’t expect to dive into the core story straight away when you start reading this book. It wanders around and takes its own time to arrive. And yes, I know that you know where the story is going and that you might think there are no surprises to be had along the way. But when you read this book you understand more deeply than ever the truth behind Ursula K Le Guin’s words, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end”.  What you’ll enjoy, when you read this book, will be the stories about the Nagas, Shakuntala and Dushyanta, Garuda and the churning of the ocean. As you read the subsequent books, you will get to the heart of the conflict between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, but in the meantime, the journey to that point will keep you fascinated.

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Book # 7 A Calendar Too Crowded by Sagarika Chakraborty

When I was first asked to review A Calendar Too Crowded by Sagarika Chakraborty, I was sure I wasn’t going to enjoy the book. Given the recent spate of predictable books by first time Indian authors, I was sure that this was another book that I would add to my own private ‘slush pile’.

However, I was in for a surprise. Not only is A Calendar Too Crowded well-expressed, it is also quite original. The basic concept is this: almost every month of the year, the world celebrates some token Day or the other, in honour of women or as a mark of understanding various female-specific problems. There’s International Women’s Day on March 8, of course, Mother’s Day on the second Sunday of May and Sister’s Day on the first Sunday of August, but there are also lesser known dates for which Hallmark prints no cards: November 25 is Elimination of Violence Against Women Day, September 24 is International Girl Child Day, February 6 is International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation.

Chakraborty’s contention is this: despite being aware of the various problems that plague women, we have actually managed to do quite little solve them. In fact, the author takes a broad, non-gender specific approach and even addresses issues such as nationality, caste, adoption and the emancipation of the elderly. Each of her stories, then, adopts the point of view of a fictitious person, and through his or her (usually her) travails and thoughts, we come to understand a particular problem. Witch Without a Broomstick is about how a young widow finds herself ostracized by society and labelled a ‘witch’ by her in-laws, while in Naked the mutilated corpse of a young women is left with as little dignity as clothes by the end of the story.  One of my personal favourites is a story that appears right at the beginning called Finding an Ideal Mother for my Unborn Child, where the author tackles the tendency of Indian mothers to smother their sons with affection and expectations. It is an acutely observed piece; in fact, so acutely observed that the author informed me that she received maximum hate mail for this particular story, as mothers from all over the country wrote in, defending their parenting techniques.

I had only one problem with this book. When I spoke to Chakraborty, she had maintained that she will continue to publish fiction as long as it contained a social message and was thought-provoking. While I applaud the sentiment, I do feel that there are more subtle ways of writing fiction with a social messages. In the stories and poems of A Calendar Too Crowded, the message becomes much bigger than the plot, and for readers like me, who principally look for surprising and challenging stories, that might be a turn-off. It’s not as if books cannot address issues while also remaining faithful to literary principles: novels like The Color Purple, Things Fall Apart, Animal Farm, Invisible Man (the one by Ralph Ellison), To Kill A Mockingbird are all great works of literature, which people read over and over again, because the voices in it are so strong and the characters are so compelling. That doesn’t mean their messages — social, moral or political — get lost.

* I also have a little interview with the author, Sagarika Chakraborty, about being a first-time published author, which I shall post sometime this week. Watch out for it!

The One Where I Turn Writer

One of the rare non-Apple laptops seen in an o...

Actually, that title is a little misleading. I have been a writer for a few years now, and I’ve even been paid for it. True, I was typing out lines for a newspaper as a feature writer, but it was a job that demanded a fair bit of creativity and a handy turn of phrase or two. Now, however, I like to call myself a full-time writer. You see, I quit my job at the newspaper sometime last year. The ostensible reason was that I wanted to spend some time with my family and do some travelling before I got married, and that the wedding preparations take up a lot of my time. However, I also wanted to finally get down to writing fiction.

Now would be a good time to confess that I haven’t actually written fiction in ages. I had a bright idea a few years ago and I typed out a few pages in Courier. My creative writing class generally liked the piece; the same can’t be said for my professors. I was a little disappointed in the story myself, since it hadn’t quite had the power and raw emotion that I had expected.

Anyway, now I’m trying my hand at writing fiction again. I have had a few good ideas recently, which I religiously jotted down. The fleshing out of those ideas has begun. One is a novel and the other is a script. Actually, the second one started life as an idea for a novel as well, but a friend told me that a movie producer friend of hers was looking for fresh stories. I pitched mine, he liked it and suggested I develop it into a script. He hasn’t promised to turn my script into a movie, but I’m not letting that deter me. I’ve decided that this is just the push I need. I’ve been writing, on and off, for a few days now and my total output: 3 pages. Let me tell you: writing is hard work.

So have I learnt anything while trying to type out these damnably hard pages of screenplay? Why, yes. It’s Writing 101, really: just keep writing. I keep reminding myself that no one has yet paid me to turn out a script by a deadline and I actually have the freedom to make mistakes. I can be as crazy as I like while I write, as long as I remember to be in my proper senses when I edit.  But it’s not as easy as it sounds. In fact, weird as this may sound, it’s even harder than the actual act of writing.

P.S. Those who’re interested can keep track of my progress with the little Script Frenzy widget I have on the right. And those of you writing scripts, please do join us Frenziers!

In Defense of History Lessons: Book # 7 A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin

Back in school, I was one of the handful

of kids who actually enjoyed history lessons. Not because our teacher was an inspiring, ‘O Captain, My Captain’ kinda lady. Her lessons were, if anything, rather soporific. She would drone on, reading passages from the textbook, while the class fell into a post-lunch stupor.  However, a couple of my friends and I – true-blue history buffs – would sit at the back and debate history. We had already zoomed through the textbook on our own, and now we were busy forming opinions and having arguments about whether Communism was ever a realistic philosophy and whether Subhash Chandra Bose‘s faith in Hitler’s friendship was misplaced. There was no nuance to our any of our arguments, yet. That would come with college. But we did begin to appreciate why history is and always will be an important subject. It teaches us a lot about human psychology, about how we make the same mistakes over and over, and it takes us back to root causes of many of our current problems. But one outstanding feature of history as an academic subject, which I began to appreciate only recently, is that it has proved to be such a generous fount of great literature.

What got me thinking about this was my tryst with A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. Strictly speaking, it’s not a historical novel. It’s an epic, medieval fantasy story. And if we’re really finicky about it, it’s not even ‘great’ literature. It’s expertly-written and a rollicking read, but the turns of phrases and imagery are hardly likely to make a lit crit sing hosannas. Anyway, to get back to my main point, fantasy though A Game of Thrones is, it owes a lot to the real-life, documented bloody history of human beings. More specifically, it owes a lot to the history of the Wars of the Roses, a series of dynastic civil wars which rocked England between 1455 and 1485.

Fire and Blood (Game of Thrones)

Now, here’s the interesting thing about A Game of Thrones. It is categorized as ‘fantasy’ and yes, it does feature dragons, sorcerers, ice zombies, giants and mysterious Children of the Forest, but that is hardly what makes the book such a compulsive page-turner. What keeps your interest engaged is the courtly intrigue, the secret alliances, double-dealing characters, illegitimate heirs and strategic battlefield decisions. In other words, things that have affected human history in real life. The world of A Game of Thrones (the first book in the series A Song of Ice &  Fire) is a post-magic world. This means that while there is evidence that some strange, unexplained power might have existed at one time in this world, most of its current inhabitants – much like us – don’t believe in it. To them, those are tales that Old Nan tells the children. And that is why the inspiration provided by the Wars of the Roses to Martin, while he was writing his tale of fictitious Westeros, is so very important.

The plot is massively complicated, of course, much like the history of the Wars of the Roses was. On the continent of Westeros, a dynastic battle for the Iron Throne at King’s Landing is set off by a series of events. The main families (or houses) involved are the Lannisters (like the Lancaster of the Roses) and the Starks (like the Yorks of the Roses). There are others as well, such as Baratheon, Targaryen, Martell, Tyrell, Umber, Tully, Arryn, who play their own important roles here. It begins with the mysterious death of Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King Robert Baratheon. Robert asks his friend Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell in the north to come to the capital, King’s Landing and be his new Hand. While Ned despises politics and doesn’t really want to leave his family behind at home and travel all the way to the South, he feels he’s duty-bound to find out exactly how Jon Arryn died, especially since Jon was like a father to both Robert and Ned. At the same time, mysterious powers are rising in the far north, beyond the Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the icy wilderness. The ‘wildlings’ that inhabit that vast, snowy expanse are moving south, while strange, supernatural beings seem to be laying the stragglers to waste. The third plotline deals with Daenerys Targaryen, who is moving towards Westeros to lay her own claim to the Iron Throne. She is the daughter of ‘Mad King’ Aerys Targaryen, whose rule was overthrown by Robert Baratheon in a war that pretty much wiped out the whole Targaryen dynasty. Only baby Dany and her older brother Viserys managed to escape. Viserys is now bent upon defeating the ‘Usurper’ and taking back the throne, and to achieve this end, he’s even willing to trade on his sister.

This is the set up when we first venture into the world of A Song of Ice & Fire. And if you think this is complicated, wait till you actually read the series. It just gets more complex. And bloodier.  And if you can’t stomach the thought of reading the massive books (800 + pages in each), then you can watch the brilliant HBO adaptation called ‘Game of Thrones’, which has just started its second season.

UPDATE: If you enjoyed this post, you might want to scoot over to Helter Skelter and check the column where I have written about the television adaptation of A Game of Thrones.

Book # 6 This Way for a Shroud by James Hadley Chase

This is a year of many literary firsts for me: my first e-book, my first James Hadley Chase. I know, it’s rather shocking . And while I’m in this confessional mood, I would also like to declare that I have never read a single Alistair Maclean, Louis L’Amour or Robin Cook. I’m not proud of it. I’m merely stating facts.

Before I write what I thought about Chase’s This Way for a Shroud, I must thank my husband for pointing out that a reading life without having once touched upon one of the most popular pulp writers ever, is really not much of a reading life. What good is it if you’ve read all the Dostoevsky and Proust and Camus there is, if you haven’t once read a truly popular writer. The kind that everyone – from a beleaguered  office worker to a bored student to a literature professor- enjoys reading. Is there really any harm in letting one’s hair down once in a while in order to enjoy and good old thriller? No, I thought, not really. I might even learn something new.

And ladies and gentlemen, I did learn something new. I learned that even pulp doesn’t have to be predictable.  I started reading the book with a few ideas lodged in my head: the case would get solved, the burly detective would get his man, the wilful wife would learn the errors of her ways, and the oily gangster would…well, be got by the detective. Win-win for all, except the oily gangster.

How wrong I was. How wonderfully, delightfully wrong I was. There is no happy ending in this little bit of hard-boiled fiction. There’s just too much realism. The victim was no innocent, the gangster is not as powerful as he ought to be and the detective himself is fairly helpless against the relentless cunning of one man. This one man, by the way, really upends the situation towards the end of the book. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, but like the other characters in the book, there’s little we can do.

So what is the plot? A popular Hollywood star, June Arnot, has been brutally murdered, along with her whole household staff. The crime scene is a bloodbath, and yet there is no evidence of the killer. Clearly, he or she was a professional. Detective Paul Conrad’s suspicions are roused after someone mentions that Arnot had been having a secret affair with a dangerous mobster named Maurer. The lack of evidence, however, hampers his investigation, until he discovers that there may have been a witness to the crime. It then turns into a race against time to find his elusive witness and to stay ahead of Maurer, who will stop at nothing to cover his crime. The matter is further complicated by Conrad’s wife Janey, who resents the amount of time her husband spends on his job. Also in the picture are a phantom-like assassin, a would-be gangster turned snitch and a compromised police officer.

Chase has a clean, conversational style which I really enjoyed. Despite the brevity of the book, the story is water-tight and the characters are all fully-realized – even the mobster’s moll, who is a minor character, gets her own moment of epiphany. We see how precarious her situation is and understand why she does the things she does, just as we understand why the star witness is unwilling to talk to the police, or why a detective’s wife might flirt with a known gangster.

I once read on Chase’s Wikipedia page that one of his hallmarks was using highly manipulative female characters, who cause more trouble than they’re worth. It made me think of the writer as a bit of a misogynist. However, based on this one book, I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. If anything, Chase seems to have had a deeper understanding of his female characters’ motivations and the boundaries within which they were forced to function. Janey, for instance, is a beautiful, sociable young woman who is expected to live out her life at home. She’s clearly described as a girl who lead a somewhat ‘hectic’ life before her marriage, and to suddenly expect her to change, as her husband does, is unfair. Paul expects her to keep his house, look pretty and have no social life when he isn’t there to chaperone: all the while, he will stay busy with his work and pay little attention to her emotional needs. Under these circumstances, one can see why Janey lashes out and takes one stupid step after another, even if she herself doesn’t really understand it herself.

If like me, you’re in a bit of a reading slump, I suggest you pick up this book. Or any other by James Hadley Chase. And if you’re already a Chase fan, then perhaps its time to revisit one of your favourites.