Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reflections: Water for Elephants

Jacob Jankowski is a ninety three year old man rebelling against the rigid confines of a residential home for the elderly. He struggles to cope with his decrepit body and his slippery mind that fazes in and out of his unforgettable past. Jacob recalls his time as a veterinarian in a Circus in the early 1930s. His memories are a bitter-sweet mixture of fondness, sorrow and guilt, but the past unwaveringly haunts him to somehow help him make peace with it. In this story, the reader gets an inside look at the unglamorous backstage of a Circus - starting from the hierarchical segregation of its people, the cut-throat survival tactics, the conniving politics, the pitiable lives of captive animals, to the bits of humanity and camaraderie that surface amidst much cruelty. The story is an explosion of romance and drama that is sure to reorient our perspective on Circus performers.

I actually have been to the Circus only once, and even that is a very hazy memory. In general, my parents and I have primarily felt only pity and sympathy for the human and animal performers, rather than any awe. Especially in developing countries like India, the concept of human or animal rights hardly exists in such trades. So going into this book, I had the same mental-model of a Circus as the author presents. Although it wasn’t much of a surprise in that regard, it still shocked me. You get punched by the brutality of the story. When I started the book, I was so drawn into the setting and the characters that I wanted to watch the upcoming movie based on this book. But after reading about the violence and callousness, I’ve decided not to. I get easily affected by disturbing visuals of gore. When I have enough of such images floating translucently in my mind, why make them more real and graphic by watching the movie. Or so I tell myself now :). Let’s see how tempted I am when the movie comes out!

The aspect that I was most impressed with was the characterization of the old and crabby Jacob Jankowski. Sara Gruen garners the human elements of the story by her exceptionally good characterization of the old man. She pays attention to every single detail of the experiences and angst of an old man abandoned in a place that no longer acknowledges him as a person with an identity, a personality and even a spectacular past. Jacob is transformed to a real, living person. More than the Circus, it is this parallel thread that is precisely and sensitively portrayed. I would be tempted to watch the movie just to see if the actor pulls off this role!

The book is obviously well-researched, for Gruen incorporates real incidents and accidents from history into this story. Gruen also does justice in bringing out the pitiable lives of vagabonds during the  Great Depression, who scurried through life and braved through indignities, just to scrape pennies. Although the story definitely takes the glamorous sheen off the notion of a Circus, it is an absorbing story of survival, humanity and the heart-warming bonds animals and humans can share.

Digested Thoughts: The story makes for an emotional and engrossing read. Gruen’s writing is commendable, and her characterizations are excellent. This is an interesting read on the life of Circus performers. It makes one respect the value of survival and of course, our cushion of financial security!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reflections: Luka and The Fire of Life

Since I loved reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I began reading its sequel, which is also Rushdie’s latest book, Luka and the Fire of Life. This book is a sequel in that it has the same core characters and settings, but is not an extension of the story of Haroun’s adventure. Luka is Haroun’s younger brother and is the apple of his parents' eyes (especially his father’s), as his birth seemed to have stilled the notion of Time for the aged couple. Luka yearns to go on a magical adventure similar to Haroun’s and eagerly awaits such an opportunity. Little did he realize that he had to be careful of what he wished for. When his dad, the famed story-teller Rashid, falls ill, the onus of reviving him falls on Luka’s shoulders. Luka desperately races into the World of Magic to steal the Fire of Life for his father.

This is again a fun, fantastical adventure on the surface. Salman Rushdie creatively incorporates the notion of virtual reality in this adventure, as Luka’s quest for the Fire of Life is represented as a game he has to play in the World of Magic. In this age, most of us have gone through several vicarious experiences of traveling in magical/dangerous lands, taking the avatar of heroic princes, intrepid warriors and ruthless soldiers and battling our way to win the precious gem, treasure or the beautiful princess! The real-to-life experiences are sometimes so vivid, it becomes hard to separate our real identity from that of the virtual avatar. I got the sense that Rushdie was hinting at the possibilities of Life if we started focusing on the virtual platform as being more real than our “real” lives. If so, we would start viewing most things in our “real” life in terms of virtual-symbols and elements of fantasy, thus causing our perception of reality to be colored by magical/fantastical hues. Luka’s adventure to save his father seems to be a combination of Luka’s and his fathers’ vivid imagination, since the boy is an avid gamer, and the dad is a brilliant story-teller.

However, the core theme of this story is not as straightforward as I found its prequels’ to be. Perhaps there is no new theme other than the importance of story-telling and imagination (just as its prequels’), and this is meant primarily for young adults (as some reviews seem to say). But I find it hard to agree...if it’s magical realism, I am bent on finding the abstractions to “realism”. If anything, this book has a lot more convoluted and deep references to reality than the previous book. And I don’t think they are mere word plays on Rushdie’s part.

My hypothesis is that the Fire of Life is the symbol for the ephemeral spark within us that defines our unique Life. A certain crackle of spark and fire within us fuels our drive to live, and keeps us alive. When Rashid’s fire (and life) was receding, his son tries to bring back that fire. But where is that fire located? Is it in the depths of our mind? Or locked at the bottom of our heart? Perhaps we can learn about this fire only during that defining moment in the past when we came to life? If so, can we travel back the River of Time to get to that moment? Our memories get us only so far into the past... beyond that we get stuck in oblivion. How do we cross that chasm? Luka seems to travel into that point of Infinity beyond the realms of memory, to fetch the Fire of Life. And this entire journey happens within Rashid’s mind (at least that’s what made the most sense to me). Rashid’s mind wills him to fight through his illness by imagining a magical adventure that takes place in a world he created in his mind. The adventure makes him focus on the aspect that matters most to him, and that energizes his will to survive. To Rashid, the Fire of his Life is Luka himself - the apple of his eyes, who seemed to have coagulated Time for him. It can also be argued that in addition to Luka, Rashid's unparalleled talent to tell stories is what keeps his Fire burning.

Salman Rushdie hence applies Einstein’s notion of Time, as a dimension that is relative. If we choose to not let Time hang on us and learn to live in the moment, notions of past and future don’t constrict us anymore. At the end of the day, all our life’s battles are against Time, aren’t they? All of Rushdie’s word plays are quite a treat as he explores the various phenomenon of our mind - the source of knowledge, wisdom, creativity, imagination, dreams, memory, identity and ego. I am not sure if I’m viewing everything as related to the mind and the psyche, but the last two books of Rushdie’s definitely seem to explore the depths of the human psyche. Again, I may have read too very much between the lines, as always.

Digested Thoughts: Although I’m giving this book the same rating as Haroun and The Sea of Stories (due to the obvious limitation of employing a rating heuristic), I enjoyed the former much much more than this book. I liked the simplicity of Haroun’s adventure. While Luka’s was interesting as well, I found it a little more murkier to decipher. I still am not sure if my understanding of the book and its themes are anywhere close to Rushdie’s intentions! But according to me, it sends an optimistic message that we can conquer our fate, and win the battle against Time, if we can keep our inner Fire fueled.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Reflections: Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is my first Rushdie read. I know, how can I call myself a reader without having read Salman Rushdie for so long. Well, I was extremely intimidated by his books, confident that I would never grasp his dense themes. Further, it's in my nature to stay away from books/authors/situations that carry controversy. And finally, I have never completely understood the genre of “magical realism”.  I find it easier to just call it fantasy. Anyway, silly reasons that they are, I finally read a book of his. And I’m happy that I started with this book - a simple, not-so-celebrated book that I could enjoy, appreciate and interpret without much literary pressure.

Haroun is a young lad living in a city so sad and dismal, factories manufacture sadness. His father, Rashid, is a talented story-teller who can craft the most ingeniously imaginative and bizarre stories that burst with optimism and happy-endings. Haroun marvels at his father’s unending imagination to come up with new and creative tales. It seemed like a faucet of ideas were being turned on in his head to gush out all the stories. However, an unfortunate episode soon leaves his father tragically empty of stories. Haroun slowly realizes that there indeed is a vast sea of stories streaming with the world’s collection of all stories, which is facing a crisis. In his quest to return his father’s story-telling ability, Haroun enters a fantastical adventure to save the Ocean of Stories.

On the surface, the story might seem like a children’s fantasy fable. But being a Rushdie book, this is not so. It’s completely allegorical... with most characters and episodes being metaphorical. He provides Hindi/Urdu names to his characters, making it a tad easy (and fun) for Indians to interpret the story and its layered meanings. Despite a layered narrative, the entire book is very fluid, and is actually comical and heart-warming! In addition, Rushdie’s word play is quite clever and witty, and adds to the light-hearted feel of the story. It also gives a unique character to the book.

Although there could be several interpretations of the story, here is my reflection or interpretation. The underlying theme of the story is on the unending potential of the human mind, or rather, on the unending boundaries of human imagination. Our brains are brimming with a vast sea of neurons carrying so many different streams of thoughts (both ours, and that of others). These streams collide, intersect and combine in so many billions of different ways and patterns to give rise to new ideas and creations, that it seems like humans will never ever run out of creativity or new thoughts! The mystery behind such ceaseless creativity is an unknown process (or as Rushdie puts it, it is a P2C2E - A Process Too Complicated To Explain :)). So in essence, we all carry the potential to subscribe, and draw from our inner “Sea” of stories and ideas. But most often, we either struggle to find the “on” switch, or we let depressing circumstances throw a wrench into the waterworks (too many puns, I know :)). We also constantly let the inner streams get polluted by our stringent, non-imaginative side of the brain. As one hemisphere (of the brain) tries to be creative and imaginative and weaves stories and ideas, the other “rational” hemisphere of our brain tries to critique and conform our thoughts to plain, concrete facts. The rational hemisphere believes in austerity and parsimony - encouraging thoughts and words only when necessary, and only when absolutely in line with reality. But just as opposites complement one another, it’s more profitable for both hemispheres to work together, rather than work against, or work separately from each other. In this tale, story-telling ability and speech (freedom of speech) compose one “hemisphere”, while silence, muteness and the curbing of verbal expression is the other “hemisphere”. So, I interpreted freedom of speech to be freedom of expression and imagination.

Rushdie basically states that our fears, negativity, and stipulation to stick to facts fog our imagination, but they are no match to the profound human will, and the bountiful fountain of our imagination! He provides his view that imagination and the ability to look through colored glasses, is as much a necessity for a healthy mind as it is a luxury for dreaming. I was quite impressed that the seemingly simple story was embedded with such depth of meaning! I may have read too much in to the story, but well, my imagination was kindled and it soared and pattern-matched :).

Digested Thoughts: I loved the book - its fantastical story, its deep meanings, and creative narration! I can well understand and agree with why Rushdie is celebrated. His writing is simple, yet very intelligently crafted. This might seem like an endearing story for children, but it teases the adult's mind to break down the clever metaphors. The book spells the necessity for freedom of expression - even at the level of origination of thoughts, and the freedom  we give our thoughts to seek uncharted areas of our imagination. 

Addendum: My husband read this book on 2/11/2013 and these are his thoughts. 

For most adults, when a conflict arises in the mind between a creative and a rational thought, the rational thought invariably wins. Although the creative thought process can kindle new ideas, the reality of the outcome forces the adult to shun all possibilities of an unlikely thought. In other words, a purely creative thought is "just a story",  and  to quote Haroun, "what is the use of a story". This is a perfectly logical and rational question, and for most adults, once such a question creeps into our minds, we tend to latch on to the logical part of the thought process and go forward on a path that may or may not lead us to the "end". 

Salman has portrayed the entire book in the eyes of Haroun, who being a child has the gift to pursue both the creative and the logical thought processes that stem from his brain. The interpretations that an adult derives from the book are once again logical & rational. Your interpretation of the neurons in the brain serving to ignite several streams of stories is one example. Attempting to decipher which town the different alphabets referred to, which I attempted to do while reading the book, is another example. Being a child, Haroun is not as biased towards a logical inclination as some of us are, thus leaving him to explore a world of imaginations. The end result is that he is able to go beyond his status-quo, and actually "solve" a problem (ie., Rashid running out of stories) by purely using his imagination.

That the occurrences penned in the book were merely a dream is nothing but a mundane rational explanation. That positive experiences encountered by Haroun can actually result in an uplifted mood for an individual who is looking for new avenues in life may potentially present a more colorful interpretation of the book.  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reflections: Ponniyin Selvan - The Finale

Thoughts on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5a.

And finally, here are my concluding remarks on this epic series! It feels like I’m back from a time-travel of the past, and have returned with renewed pride and attachment towards my native land! I’m content that I eventually got around to reading and appreciating this series, albeit through English translations. Some day I plan to listen to the Tamil audio narration since I now know the story to fill in any gulfs in my understanding, and can instead dwell on the beauty of the language (as much as I can follow, that is!).

I have to admit - I didn’t expect the finale to contain any more sudden turns of events, but how wrong was I! I thought the finale was just going to be the grand ending that tied up the remaining loose threads in predictable ways. But now I realize that the entire series was spun around that one pivotal historical incident which springs up on us in this final book! It really crowns the magnanimity, nobility, righteousness and generosity of Arulmozhi Varma (King Raja Raja Chozha). I’ll leave it at that, before I spoil the suspense any more, unless of course, you’re well versed in Tamil history and already are aware of how the events turned out.

It’s quite incredulous in some ways that the story has a happy ending - that is, the good parties prevail and the wrong-doers are avenged. Like an old Tamil movie, or a Dickens novel, good and bad were delineated sharply, and the turn of events (many by chance) came together to bless the good! It makes the entire era sound fantastical and mythical - a time where Dharma had a clear meaning and it did prevail in the end! I also appreciated the little discussion on Dharma that was interleaved in this volume.  Of course, the great writer, Kalki has played a key role in defining the characters as good or bad to suit the turn of events. Still reading about how the characters face a turning point of realization, and turn into new leaves, is quite stirring. How often do we desperately wish people would face such turning-point-moments in our own lives, and then sadly accept that such moments are reserved just for great stories and movies! It was nice to be transported to a more pristine and simpler time when people did change! The only down side (just a little) is that it makes some of the characters seem a little inconsistent and fickle... although it’s not Kalki’s fault. But the author does repeatedly mention that human nature is unpredictable and can change drastically from time to time, and thus acknowledges some of the inconsistencies.

What this series manages to do is impart heavy moral lessons, which is why it is hailed as a great epic.

Digested Thoughts - I have run out of words at this point and will only reiterate my thoughts from the 5 other posts I’ve written. This epic surely deserves its recognition and praises. It’s been a long time since I was this addicted to a series. It was engaging, entertaining and was crafted expertly to create multiple dimensions of suspense and mystery. It brings history alive with much welcomed romanticism, and beautifully portrays the essential virtues of the Chozha Kings that need to be emulated by present and future leaders of our land. This is definitely one of the best books (series) I’ve read. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reflections: Ponniyin Selvan (Vol.5a) - The Pinnacle of Sacrifice

Thoughts on Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

Volume 5 is actually split into two parts. In this first part of the finale, the conspirators finally attack, some ignorant characters have their “eyes opened”, and they unite with the “good” forces. Some mishaps and attacks are thwarted, some are implemented, and chaos breaks out. It’s up to the grand finale to now wrap things up. Although I realize who will be crowned, there are still numerous other concerns about other sub-plots, because I am hopelessly invested in the characters. Will there be an unacceptable tragedy? Or a tragical sacrifice, as the title suggests? Is the sacrifice over? What will be the losses and the costs? Which characters will emerge successful?

I know this is partly fiction, yet, it is heartening to read about the strong filial bonds that were respected and upheld. I can never get past the callousness of the Mughal dynasty - how sons, fathers and brothers treated each other inhumanely to seek the throne. It’s nice to know that the Chozha men at least stuck together and battled their common foes. None of the men seem to have had the greed and lust for the throne, especially at the cost of their own family. They were ambitious no doubt, but morality and conscience still hovered in the background. The story explicates many such morals on loyalty, friendship and love. And of course, the Tamil women are glorified sky high for their sacrifices and chastity, some of which are obviously a little irrelevant and unnecessary.

In addition, the questions raised in the previous book - on the moral responsibilities of a King etc, are addressed through Buddhist tenets. One needs to be as practical as possible with the knowledge that we can’t control everything. The greatest moral imperative is service to humanity in every form possible. As long as the heart and mind are in their right places, and we embrace tolerance and love, and seek to serve and help humanity, our moral duty upholds.

Finally, one of the major climaxes that featured in this volume was a little unsatisfactory, because I couldn’t fully comprehend the characters’ motivations and ruses. It seemed like the smart people in it could have handled it better. Perhaps it was meant to be so convoluted and the final book will clarify it for me.

However, the most unfortunate thing is - I don’t have the final book yet to put an end to these questions and looming suspense! How cruel. Now I have to twiddle my thumbs and wait. Or I could go on with my life and give myself some sleep, and feed the poor souls at home (which include my fishies). So, until then I will give this space and myself a breather. 

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Reflections: Ponniyin Selvan (Vol.4) - The Crown

Thoughts on Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

As is obvious by now, I have been reading like a mad woman who rushes through her day to get back to the series, and remains sticking to the words and the bygone era, oblivious to sleep and other such mild concerns. Anyway, this addiction needs to tone down or the series needs to end soon, whichever comes first!

The fourth volume begins with the Crown Prince Aditya Karikala journeying down south to get to Kadambur, to mainly meet the young Queen, Nandini. The Crown Prince has been trying to atone for a rash act of his. The haunting images of the past and his unyielding conscience turn him into a tortured soul. In this state, he is unsure of whom to trust, and whom not to. Although his trusted messenger Vandiya Devan brings him news and tries to unravel all the mysteries, he still vacillates, unsure of what the truth is. Back in Tanjore, The King Sundara Chozha frets over his sons, unable to understand why he can’t get either of them to come to Tanjore to meet him. The Prime Minister and Princess Kundavai try to ameliorate the King’s distress by attempting to resolve his fears and mysteries from the past, but the poor King is too warped up in the manipulative games of the conspirators, that even he doesn’t acknowledge the truth amidst the overwhelming confusion.

Therefore, this volume shows the true burden and mental anguish that comes with being a member of the royalty - especially being a reigning King or Crown Prince. Kalki brings out the moral predicaments and questions that plague the valiant warriors - at the end of the day, no matter how virtuous one is at heart, isn’t it a crime to murder one’s “enemies” in the name of conquests and territorial hunger? Lives are lost and ruined, and the defeated clan nurtures a blood-thirsty revenge which sets loose another revolt. How will this vicious chain of revenge subside if it continues down the generations, resulting in more violence and vengeance? Trapped within a murky wheel of revenge, pride and territorial-ego, what is right, what is wrong, and what is moral?

This volume is fast-paced and ends with the question of how the truth will ever surface to convince the key players and rescue the Chozha dynasty in time. To add to all the political entanglements, the “love-triangles” between the characters turn into importance as they seem to dangerously impact the turn of events. The words fly past the pages and the characters fully come to life to reenact history. And I am desperately glued to the pages till I see the ending!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Reflections: Ponniyin Selvan (Vol.3) - The Killer Sword

Thoughts on Part 1, and Part 2.

My thoughts are officially now in the Chozha time-period, roaming my ancestral towns and villages, and dreaming of wars and sudden ambushes. I am completely immersed in the story that sometimes it’s disorienting to come back to the real world. In the third part of this historical saga, the fanatic Pandiya association stealthily close in on their revolution to wipe out the Chozhas and claim the throne to avenge the death of their Pandiya King, Veerapandiya. Upon sensing the instability of their governance, the civilians are at unrest, threatening to react violently if their beloved Prince Arulmozhi is ousted. Making matters worse, no one knows if the Prince survived the storm. The witty hero Vandiya Devan shuttles between the royalties, trying to deliver important messages and wriggling out of sticky situations he gets into. The conspirators diplomatically try to trap the Crown Prince Adithya Karikala, with the help of the dangerously bewitching young Queen, Nandini. Things seem to run out of control and the whole Empire is shrouded with an ominous gloom.

I thought this volume dragged a little in terms of the plot. There were plenty of scenes which seemed superfluous, however they definitely contributed to defining the characters, and the extent to which they dictated the fate of the Empire. Stories within stories give shape to the significance of the historical elements, and they help us understand the motivations of the characters.

I was really impressed by the secular attitude that the Chozha Kings and Princes adopted. Sundara Chozha and Arulmozhi Varma are shown to be patrons of Buddhism, in addition to being zealous Siva devotees. Once again, this volume brings out the magnanimous nature of the Chozhas, and their burning ambition to further their Empire. But, even conquests are not shown as ruthless acquisitions of wealth. This is probably the author's romanticized view, but it makes the story interesting. It’s nice to believe that my ancestral place was ruled by brave and benevolent dynasties.

I read Part 3 of the book published by Macmillan India, and translated by C.V. Karthik Narayanan. This edition has simple illustrations interspersed within the pages, making it fun to envision characters. Speaking of which, here is a lovely illustration of the Chozha Princess Kundavai, by my talented friend

The translation by Karthik Narayanan was good and the editing was much tighter, although there were a couple of minor lapses. I thought some phrases were getting redundant, but that might just be due to the inadequacy of trying to represent one language through another. But overall, it was well-written. I enjoy reading all the poetic dialogues and references, and every now and then I can see through the translation and realize the actual Tamil lines and I congratulate myself gleefully :). Hopefully the fourth volume continues this trend, but teems with plenty of action!

Monday, February 07, 2011

Reflections: Ponniyin Selvan (Vol.2) - Whirlwind

Thoughts on Part 1.

In this second part of the book, more characters get introduced and are given shape - such as the Ocean Princess, Poonkuzhali, who is a tremendous help to both Vandiya Devan and the young Prince, Arulmozhi Varma. As Sundara Chozha physically deteriorates, his mind plagues him with fears and superstitious beliefs in spells and curses. His past is unraveled and many of the mysteries surrounding the first part of the book come to light. As the plot unfurls, the suspense heightens and brings with it more mysteries. Since India is steeped in its beliefs and fears on witchcraft and sorcery, this story too abounds with it. When elements of supposed black-magic get added to a political drama, the whole story is filled with different dimensions of enigma. But, this volume of the book seems to directly and indirectly point to the truth and the answers to the mysteries. The story by itself doesn’t develop much, but Kalki has taken the time to define the characters in view of their past and present circumstances.

The book begins with the start of Vandiya Devan’s journey to Srilanka to deliver a message to the young Prince. Once in Srilanka, Vandiya Devan and the prince strike a bond of friendship. The story paints Arulmozhi Varma’s generous and virtuous spirit, thus glorifying the young Prince in the reader’s eyes. Once the conspiracies come to the open, the characters jump into action mode. Evading more threats to their lives, the Prince and Vandiya Devan brave a violent storm in the middle of the ocean and try to get to the Tamil shores to meet the dying Emperor and handle the brewing political storm.

I enjoyed reading the second part of the book as well. Indra Neelameggham’s writing is precise and well paced and keeps you on the edge of your seat. I am sure the third book is packed with more serious turning points to the plot and I can’t wait to read it! The entire story portrays the magnificence of the Chozha time period and makes a Tamilan proud :)

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Reflections: Ponniyin Selvan (Vol.1) - New Floods

Ponniyin Selvan (Cauvery’s Beloved Son) is a recreation of the historical epic story of the Chozha Empire’s greatest monarchs (King Raja Raja Chozha). In the 10th and 11th century C.E, the Chozha dynasty was one of the most strongest and longest ruling Tamil empires, spreading from the Tungabadra river in Northern India down to Srilanka. It is also claimed to have had a stronghold over several other parts of South-east Asia. long-lost history of this dynasty has been beautifully refurbished by Kalki Krishnamurthy, a notable Tamil writer and journalist. The literary merit and the historical significance of the story is highly praised. I have heard my mother talk so wistfully about the story, ardently wishing she were part of that romantic era to behold all the happenings. And my dear friend has never recommended any other volume of books higher! Despite all these recommendations, I could never read the book because of my abysmal ability to read Tamil... that too literary Tamil :(. I knew I could never hope to get through all 5 parts of this voluminous and intricate story by reading one script at a time and stringing together words! So I abandoned the hope years back. However, my friend’s wonderful post tantalized me to get hold of the English translations. And I did! I am aware that I am missing out on several literary gems because of reading a translation of the great work, but I have to say, I am still impressed and quite hooked to the series!

Project Madurai has the electronic versions of the first two volumes of the story (New Floods, and Whirlwind), translated by Indra Neelameggham. Although parts of the translation are literal, and some contain the actual Tamil words (like “Akka” (elder sister), “Thambi” (young man, younger brother), “Chee” ( tamil equivalent of “yuck”), etc.), overall the quality is quite good, and the history is well explained. Indra Neelameggham manages to capture the poetic and lyrical nature of the text and delivers it well. I can only imagine how striking the original would be!

As for the plot, Kalki weaves the story around the brave, charming, and heroic young man, Vandiya Devan, who is a trusted messenger of the then Crown Prince Aditya Karikala, and the beloved Princess, Kundavai. The current monarch, Sundara Chozha is in his death-bed, and as always, political conspiracies rage around him to capture the throne. Adding to this, the rival Pandiya men are scheming a dangerous and treacherous plot to overthrow the entire Chozha Empire. Despite all the challenges and dense political plots, Vandiya Devan manages to be a resourceful man to help Princess Kundavai and the monarch. In this first volume, all the characters get introduced and the stage is set for the story to develop. I am amazed at the layers of suspense tied to every character and at every turn of the page! Yet, the tale is not convoluted or difficult to follow. It’s thrilling and immensely entertaining, with elements of suspense, political intrigue, drama, mystery, romance, comedy and adventure! And just like any great epic, the huge jigsaw puzzle is slowly taking shape.

This also yet another segment of history that portrays the power wielded by women! As much as the men scheme and fight their wars in the battlefield, the women shrewdly manipulate the game and have a caustic war inside the Palace. Kalki also brings to life the culture, traditions and religious fervor of the era. It’s incredible that the tussle between the Shaivaites and Vaishnavites which was prevalent in that time-period, continues to this day!

This volume ends with Vandiya Devan successfully meeting Princess Kundavai to deliver the message from the Crown Prince, and embarking on another mission to deliver a message to the younger prince, Arulmozhi Varma (later known as Raja Raja Chozha) who is in Srilanka on a political campaign.

Since I am sure to have plenty to prattle about, I thought I would write a little about every volume I read (and hopefully not divulge all the suspense). And of course, the final rating is reserved for the end of the series!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Reflections: Love Among The Chickens

I am a fervent die-hard fan of P.G.Wodehouse. I adore his writing and his unique sense of humor. It doesn’t matter that his books are just satires of silly British aristocrats and idle men. His plots are deceptively simple and deliciously intricate. And I just can’t get enough of his characteristic writing and humor. This addiction runs in my family. With my grandfather, dad, every uncle and aunt passing over their books onto me, it was almost a rite of passage for me as I spent my early teenage years finishing up most of his books. After nearly a decade (yikes am I old!), I’ve discovered all of Wodehouse’s early books in Kindle! God Bless all those benevolent people. So, I am revisiting the master :)

Jeremy Garnet is a budding novelist living his modest, literary life in the city. His rambunctious friend Ukridge pays him an unexpected visit with his newly married wife and announces his intention to start a chicken-farm in the country to make a living. Does he know the first thing about chickens? Not much, but Ukridge believes in his hypothesis  that eggs are fundamental to every-one's existence, and that if the chickens were given the space to run around and roost and peck a few grains, they would diligently lay him plenty of eggs to be sold and bring him a phenomenal profit. Ukridge drags Jeremy with him to the country to help him with his farm. What ensues is a hilarious fumble with the obstinate chickens, and a little romance spicing up Jeremy’s life, although the love of his life has an irritable father whom he needs to temper.

Now be forewarned that Wodehouse’s early books are just a shadow, a mere hint of his later books. This was the time he was honing his skills and nuances. A time before his imagination stumbled on Jeeves, Bertie, Gussie Finknottle, the Glossops, Lord Emsworth and Psmith... and many many more wonderful characters. This book is more of a lighter version of Wodehouse, both in terms of the language and the humor. However the humor picks up and the climax is delivered in his quintessential hilarious, chaotic manner :).

Reading this book after so many years reminded me of the simple age when I used to naively and passionately spend several hours with a dear friend of mine, discussing, dissecting and applauding every brilliant sentence, structure and character of Wodehouse. Anyway, plenty of nostalgia and all that makes this book even better than it actually is.

Digested thoughts: I would recommend this book if you are a Wodehouse fan, or if you want a taste of his style by reading a lighter version. The language is as impeccable as ever, but not as masterful as his later works. Same goes for humor. It is definitely a book to lift your spirits and enter a lighter mood. 

Friday, February 04, 2011

Reflections: The Madman

I am a fan of Kahlil Gibran’s poetry. The Madman contains poems and lyrical fables that are a bit satirical and bitter, as Gibran mocks at our ignorance, prejudices and the ironies of the world.

The poems can be interpreted as Gibran calling himself a madman because his thoughts and ways are so out of tune from “normalcy”.  It's about the number of different contradictory faces we wear in order to be part of society. Gibran talks about removing his “masks” and being liberated to be as he is. Once we try to shed our masks of social propriety, I am sure most of us will be regarded as mad! The stress and strain of having to be artificial and always doing and saying the politically right things really wears me down, and I wonder how so many do it so artfully and manipulatively. Anyway, this book is hence both philosophical and vituperative in its critical views of the world and its prejudiced ways...the world and the people who try to bring in order, justice and peace, seem to be the most contradictory of all. I can’t say I enjoyed reading it... but it was thought-provoking nonetheless.

The book is arranged into themes, and Gibran lyrically concocts a story or a fable to put across his views. They are all allegorical of course. Some, such as Gibran’s views on wars, really hits home and resonates with my thoughts. Another one that I quite liked and that kind of defines the theme of the book is:

“Said the Eye one day, “I see beyond these valleys a mountain veiled with blue mist. Is it not beautiful?"
The Ear listened, and after listening intently awhile said, “But where is any mountain? I do not hear it.”
Then the Hand spoke and said, “I am trying in vain to feel it or touch it, and I can find no mountain.”
And the Nose said, “There is no mountain, I cannot smell it.”
Then the Eye turned the other way, and they all began to talk together about the Eye’s strange delusion. And they said, “Something must be the matter with the Eye.””

And one more favorite:
“Said a blade of grass to an autumn leaf, “You make such a noise falling! You scatter all my winter dreams.”
Said the leaf indignant, “Low-born and low-dwelling! Songless, peevish thing! You live not in the upper air and you cannot tell the sound of singing.”
Then the autumn leaf lay down upon the earth and slept. And when spring came she waked  again - and she was a blade of grass.
And when it was autumn and her winter sleep was upon her, and above her through all the air the leaves were falling, she muttered to herself, “O these autumn leaves! They make such noise! They scatter all my winter dreams.””

Some allegories are simple like the above, and some a little more involved. In all, this is an interesting  thought-provoking, and quick read. 

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Reflections: Eros, Philia, Agape

I was so enamored by Rachel Swirky’s writing that I started reading another book of hers. From the title, I expected this to be another book on Greek mythology, but that was not to be! It’s a science-fiction that looks into the nature of love.

The story takes place in a time way into the future when Artificial Intelligence and Robotics have progressed to a state where one can place a customized order for an Android (down to choosing his/her body parts, brain composition, required aptitudes, interests etc.). Adriana is facing a difficult time in her life and decides to order an Android as her companion and care-taker. Lucian, the android (oh-so-similar to Endhiran ;)) arrives at Adriana’s home and slowly learns to adapt himself and his ways to Adriana’s liking. His consciousness pieces together information like an infant, his neural network strengthens and he finally achieves a level of consciousness and self-awareness to call himself as an individual, who is not merely a machine. But he still doesn’t comprehend who he truly is, and what love truly is. Is he staying with Adriana because that’s what his core system is programmed to be? Is he really in love with her? How is his love for her different than his love for roses or Nature? Is her love towards him different than his? If so, in what ways? He is riddled with all these questions and he decides to find answers to them and to his plaguing question on what is the Self, on his own terms.

Within a few pages into the book, I was pleasantly surprised and was glad to be reading it.  The question of whether machines are capable of achieving a state of consciousness which allows them to attain the self-awareness to know who they are, is a popular question that intrigues AI and Cognitive Scientists. I was impressed that within this short book, Swirsky explores a murky topic from the perspective of  a robot.  The story tackles a host of issues - is “love” or companionship meaningful if mates and companions can be custom-ordered to match our preferences? Is such a companionship long-lasting? Can humans and androids ever be companions?

I really liked the succinct approach Swirsky takes to explore these issues - nothing is overdone or underdone. The story stays together on its own and hints at the answers without the heavy, esoteric arguments which usually clog up such  topics. It was light, yet deep. Her writing was clear and insightful, but it wasn’t as beautiful or poignant as “A Memory of Wind”.

Digested thoughts: I loved the premise of an android who is custom-made as a woman’s companion, slowly evolving in his “thoughts” to wonder what love, companionship and the Self means. It is a short, but an interesting, deep read. 

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Reflections: A Memory of Wind

When the ravishing half-Goddess Helen was seduced by Paris and was taken to Troy, her husband, King Menelaus was thirsting for war to avenge the infidelity. King Agamenmnon, Helen’s sister Clymnestra’s husband, offers his allegiance to support the war. The troops arrive at the harbor at Aulis and prepare to sail to Troy. But there was one major obstacle - the Goddess of Wind refused to provide the winds to set sail. The priest of Artemis opines that the Goddess needs to be appeased by sacrificing King Agamenmnon’s eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Agamenmnon didn’t want to lose his facade of bravery in front of Menelaus and hence agrees to it. Rachel Swirsky gives voice to the poor young girl who was cruelly treated as a sacrificial goat in this popular segment of Greek mythology.

Mythological stories such as the Trojan War of Troy have focused on the many romantic and heroic aspects of the story. But there are so many countless characters that usually get pushed to the side because of their apparent triviality in the grand scheme of the epic. However, these seemingly “insignificant” characters play a pivotal role in the story’s major turning points. I appreciated that Rachel Swirsky focused on one such a character. She poignantly portrays the girl’s frame of wind and thoughts, and presents the story and its popular characters from the standpoint of this young girl and her terrible fate. Swirsky’s sensitive and beautiful writing transcends Iphigenia’s character to a memorable place in the epic. She also presents Agamenmnon as a confused warrior and father, torn between understanding where his duties lie. And contrary to the glorification heaped on Helen, Swirsky shows a possible darker side to her.

It was a very short, but touching read. The romanticism surrounding Helen and the war is disillusioned in the light of such innocent victims. 

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Reflections: The Unicorn Expedition and Other Fantastic Tales of India

I had no idea Satyajit Ray had written fiction until I was recommended this book last year. It instantly featured in every book hunt of mine, but was quite hard to find in this country. But I spotted it when I least expected, and enjoyed my time reading it.

This book is a collection of short stories very reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s stories - they all explore human oddities, and the bizarre realm of the supernatural. I loved that Ray concentrated on India’s mysticism. Every story explores the ambiguities and mysteries surrounding our traditions, beliefs and numerous mythological occurrences. Starting from Ayurveda to our fascination with holy men, the deification of King Cobras, to the mythologies and mysteries fogging the surreal Manasarovar, Ray handles every story from both a rational (i.e., scientific) as well as a super-natural perspective. Through these stories, he reminds us of how richly intricate India is, and how it teems with so many mysteries that all boil down to life’s fundamental questions. Ray’s characters are simple, yet very memorable, especially the recurrent character, Professor Shonku.  Professor Shonku is an ingenious scientist whose diary contains his fabulous and incredulous scientific innovations and adventures. I absolutely loved the scientific explorations of the supernatural (such as embarking on an expedition to find Unicorns!), as well as the future directions of science and Artificial Intelligence.

Satyajit Ray was most definitely ahead of his time. His movies demonstrate his imagination, creativity and insight into the human-psyche, and his stories reflect the depth of his thoughts, and the wisdom in them. For example, I have recently been hearing and reading quite a lot about the intelligence of crows! Yes, crows! Not chimps, but birds that have been paid the least attention in regards to their possible intelligence. To those of you who are interested, here is a short TED video of the pioneer crow-intelligence researcher :). Reminds me of the old story about a crow trying to drink water from the bottom of a pitcher! Yet, one of Ray’s stories written decades before, is on Professor Shonku’s experiments on training a crow to be intelligent!

Ray’s prose is very lucid and precise. The content of the stories were well oiled, so to speak, because of the impeccable and clear writing.

Digested thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ray’s imaginative, diverse and mystical stories. I particularly liked Professor Shonku’s science-fiction adventures. The stories are well-written, and although they were written for children and young-adults, I think they will appeal to adults as well.