Thursday, 13 February 2014

Kim's Review : If it's Monday, it must be Madurai - A Conducted Tour of India

In, "If it's Monday, it must be Madurai - A Conducted Tour of India", Srinath Perur takes the reader on an interesting jaunt across the globe with various tour groups. Some groups comprise only of Indians and in others he is the only Indian.

Srinath Perur's introduction to the book is candid "Serious travelers and certainly travel writers look upon the conducted tour as the lowliest form of travel. According to Paul Theroux - In the best travel books the word alone is implied on every exciting page"

However, "A conducted tour, by definition offers something that solitary travel cannot: other people and the opportunity to know them"

The book is filled with accurate descriptions and insights: When traveling in a conducted tour abroad, Indians pop out of the bus, take a picture, tick the place off their itinerary and return to the mobile India group on board (eating Indian food, watching Hindi movies enroute, playing antakshari etc). Why travel at all? He attributes this to middle class aspiration. Perur says that "Travel as a symbol of leisure and economic sufficiency and the conducted tour is now a rite of passage among the middle class." It is the new vanaprasthashrama stage of life.

Srinath Perur worked at Outlook Traveler and undertook 2 of the conducted tours written about in this book on assignment with them. He had meticulously stayed away from conducted tours until 2011, when an assignment took him on a week long bus tour of Tamil Nadu and this is where the book begins.

The second chapter is about a 15 day trip from London to Milan through Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria. The insight that really struck me in this chapter was : "It is the iconic monuments - the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum - that give us the greatest joy since they offer the mos compelling evidence of where we have been. We go not so much to see them as to confirm their existence, to reassure ourselves that we are after all in the place we aspired to be. We see nothing in Europe. We come here with pictures in our heads and we leave with our heads in those pictures"

I was quite surprised to read that most of the tours did not take them inside any of the monuments, the bus just stopped at a spot from where the travelers could take the best pictures of themselves with the monument in the frame. This is a complete antithesis to the way Brajesh and I travel, so from our perspective, this seems like such a waste of travel (in terms of time and money spent). However we have encountered people who prefer exactly this kind of "travel"

Once on the Nile Cruise in Egypt, we had a tour group from Delhi on our same cruise ship. The first half day they spent seeing the Luxor temple and a little shopping in Luxor. When the guide met the group at tea in the evening, he said that the next days program was to visit Karnak temple and Hatchepsuts Temple. The general consensus in the group was that if you had seen one temple, you had seen them all. Less than 5% of the group joined the guide the next morning and the rest of the group, did not get off the ship for the next 4 days unless it was to browse the local markets!

Subsequent chapters of "If it's Monday, it must be Madurai" cover an overnight camel safari in Jaisalmer, a backwaters cruise in Kerala (where he is the only Indian in the group), an all Indian Men tour to Uzbekistan (for sex tourism), a slum tour around Mumbai, a more free-form tour of Assam and Meghalaya, Rajasthan Kabir Yatra - travel in the company of Folk Musicians from across India around Bikaner with other music afficionados, Shodh Yatra - a week long walking tour in Sehore district of Madhya Pradesh in search of traditional knowledge and local innovations and a walking pilgrimage with a dindi (group of devotees) from Pune to Pandharpur.

Its a beautifully written book. It makes you laugh and smile, it forces you to introspect on what travel means to you and how different members of your family and friends circle approach traveling.

This book isn't meant just for travelers, its an interesting look at the sociology and psychology behind travel too. Its an introspective look into Indian society, especially its Middle Class, in a not-so-serious manner.

Even if you have never been on a conducted tour in your life, you ill still be able to identify with a lot of the characters in these pages - it may be a distant relative or a teacher from your school years or a tour group that you bumped into while traveling solo.

Its an easy read with each chapter being complete in itself, so you can read a chapter a night when traveling.

Rating : 3.5 / 5

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Kim's Review : Bhima - Lone Warrior & JLF Meet The Author - MT Vasudevan Nair

I have been waiting forever to read M T Vasudevan Nair's Randamoozham in English. While it was earlier translated into English as Second Turn, it was impossible to get my hands on a copy. Hence, I was really excited when Gita Krishnakutty came out with a new translation last year titled - "Bhima - Lone Warrior"

MT Vasudevan Nair, popularly known as just MT, is one of the foremost authors in Malyalam today. From short stories and essays, to novels and movie scripts, his scope and breadth of literary work is exhaustive.

In 1995, MT received the highest literary award in India - the Jnanpith Award, for his overall contribution to Indian literature. Randamoozham is widely believed to be his masterpiece. His works have inspired a slew of new authors and Anand Neelakantan (author of Ajaya and Asura) says he was heavily influenced by this particular book of MT's.

Randamoozham / Bhima retells the story of the Mahabharatha from the point of view of Bhimasena, the second of the Pandava Brothers, and the epic is demystified and demythified in the novel. Of this work, MT says "I have not changed the framework of the story by the first Vyasa, Krishnadwaipayana. I have read between his lines and expanded on his pregnant silences". One reason attributed to Randamoozham's cult following is that this was the first time Malayalam readers experienced revisionism in literature.

MT comes across as an uncomplicated, honest soul who writes from his heart. Born into a lower income agricultural family in a small village in Palakkad in 1933, he says there was not much to do in terms of entertainment while he was growing up.

Books were a rarity and very difficult to get ones hands on. He did not have many friends of his age when growing up, so writing was something that he could do on his own.

When asked "Ernest Hemingway stated that - Every Writer has a Wound - what is your wound"? MT responded by saying that he had many wounds, but the main ones were Hunger and Loneliness.

Talking about his early days, he spoke about how money was tight and it cost 3/4th of an anna to send a short story by Book Post to a Magazine House. It was difficult to even get the right address for a Magazine House and 3/4th of an anna was not so easy to come by. But he persevered and slowly started making a name for himself.

He said that films just happened along the way, he did not think he would be writing film scripts, but he doesn't say no to any offers.

He also said that since his stories are human stories, there is no time limit on them, they will always remain evergreen. He remembers the stories told by the women in his family and the discussions on their own lives has been fodder for many of his books.

Gita Krishnakutty who has translated a few of MT's books said that there is a sense of loneliness in MT's stories. His characters face problems of all kinds and these tend to be echoes of MT, which is why people often say that his books are autobiographical in a sense.

While Gita has done an admirable job of translation, I can't help feeling that some of the beauty of  MT's prose has been lost. I see the glimmer of the poetry and beauty of his descriptions, but it is more a shortcoming of English as a Language, rather than of the translator which is what I would hold responsible.

There is a depth of knowledge of history, mythology, psychology, warfare, gambling, wrestling, rituals, sacrifices, yagnas, customs, human behavior, jewelry and other topics behind this tale.

In MT's Randamoozham / Bhima, all the characters are human, including Krishna and Balaram, so there is an extremely human reasoning behind every action that takes place rather than a divine reason or karma. Weak family relationships and human beings who become entangled in them are common themes in MT's work and continue in this book too, albeit in a more ancient era.

Bhima who is larger than his other siblings and cousins is often ridiculed for his size and called a blockhead and only mentioned for his size, strength and appetite in popular lore. MT's Bhima has many more facets to his personality. A sensitive soul who is a skilled warrior, but who is overshadowed by his older brother Yudhistra who is destined to be king and his younger brother Arjuna famed for his good looks and skill in archery. A human being with unfulfilled longings, an intense love for Draupadi (inspite of having 2 other wives - Hidimbi & Balandhara whom he completely forgets about, once he leaves them behind pregnant with his sons), often ridiculed and misunderstood.

Gita Krishnakutty says that MT's Bhima is lonely, often helpless, constantly aware that his physical strength is both a boon and a curse. She sees similarities between Bhima and the protagonists of MT's other novels - Sethu of Kalam, Appunni of Nalukettu and other characters in his short stories, all of whom are alienated individuals caught in the family feuds stemming from the disintegration of the matrilineal joint family in Malabar. Bhima shares their 'outsider' consciousness, their tendency to introspect, their desperate desire to succeed.

The tale starts when the Pandavas set out on Mahaprasthanam - renouncing their Kingdom and worldly possessions and embark on a final pilgrimage towards the Himalayas so they may enter Heaven in their human form. The story immediately deviates from the traditional tale when Bhima stops to take care of Draupadi when she falls down and the rest of the story is told in flashback.

As the second brother, Bhima's impression of his eldest brother is not complimentary at all. He doesn't understand Yudhistra's concept of Dharma and the reason to follow Dharma especially when it does not conform to common sense. While Bhima does come to terms with Yudhistra's line of reasoning at some point, it does not last very long. However, given that he is the eldest brother, Bhima and the other 3 are forced to comply with Yudhistra's decisions.

Kunti comes across as extremely astute and politically savvy. A woman who quietly works behind the scenes and much more aware than any of her sons. Given the overall place of women in society, she works quietly but efficiently behind the scenes to keep her sons safe and united and to put Yudhishtra on the throne.

Certain well known parts of the tale like Krishna coming to Draupadi's rescue while being disrobed are not even in this book (MT says that it isn't in the original Mahabharath either), but other incidents that find barely a mention in the original like the stealing of the Saugandhika flower from Kubera's garden are expanded upon.

The number of bombshells dropped in the last 3-5 pages is astounding, because they hit you when you least expect it - the reader is lulled into thinking that story is over and there's nothing more of any significance to add.

I loved the reinterpretation of events through a human lens rather than a mythical, divine or mythological one. It is so much easier to identify with the characters in this version rather than the popularly believed version. It is impossible not to empathise with Bhima and made me wonder how the tale would have changed if Bhima was the eldest brother.

If you can read Malayalam, I would heavily recommend reading the original. For those who can't, this translation is a good place to start exploring MT as an author. If you enjoy alternative retellings of the Mahabharata, definitely do not miss this one.

Rating : 4 / 5

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Kim's Review : The Treasure of Kafur

I spied this title - "Treasure of Kafur" in November when Flipkart was offering it for pre-order.

Given how much I had loved reading The Shadow Throne and that this story was in the Historical Fiction genre, I lost no time in pre-ordering Aroon Raman's latest.

It was only after I had finished reading the book, that I read Aroon's note in the end and I came to know that "The Treasure of Kafur" was his first creation although Shadow Throne was published first.

"The Treasure of Kafur" is based on some factual bits of history, some modified bits of history (regarding timelines) and a lot of fiction and fantasy. For this reason, I think it will appeal very well to teen readers as well.

The tale is set in 1580 during the rule of Akbar in the North and Rana Pratap in Mewar. But the main villain of this piece is Asaf Baig of Asirgarh-Khandesh. The hero is a 20 year old boy named Dattatreya / Datta / Dattu. The other main characters are his grandmother Ambu and their pets. While Datta might seem like an unremarkable peasant boy, he has a unique ability of being able to telepathically communicate with certain animals.

The background to this tale comes from 1312, when Alauddin Khilji was ruler of the Delhi Sultanate and his slave turned Head General Malik Kafur led 2 campaigns in South India, plundering the local rulers and Hindu temples along the way. The booty included the Koh-i-noor that was sacked from Warangal.

While Tughlaq's Historian - Ziauddin Barani declared that Kafur came back to Delhi with 241 tonnes of gold, 20,000 horses and 612 elephants laden with the looted treasure, Aroon Raman's belief is that this looted treasure did not find itself to Delhi, but was hidden along the way and everyone who knew the location, was killed or died before the location could be conveyed to Alauddin Khilji.

268 years later, Asaf Baig is searching desperately for this treasure, so he can unite the kings who have so far stood up to Akbar and overthrow the Mughal Emperor. He learns that Ambu has some knowledge in this respect and captures her. Datta manages to escape and tries to gain an audience with Emperor Akbar to convince him to mount an attack and release his grandmother, before Asaf Baig can get the information out of her. He hopes that the lure of the treasure for himself will be sufficient enticement.

The tale is extremely fast paced and quite engrossing. It is written in the tradition of fantastical stories told by our grandmothers which combine elements of history, fantasy, quests, romance, kings, peasants, rise of the underdog and other staples.

The Treasure of Kafur, can't be read with a constant question of "how is that even possible?" nagging you at the back of your head, enjoy the fantasy part of the novel for itself and don't try to find logic behind everything.

The supporting characters of Dilawar Khan, Inayat Khan, Man Singh and Ahilya Bai are also well fleshed out, so its easy to identify with each of their motivations and lines of reasoning.

The "Treasure of Kafur" doesn't end with a note of finality, but exactly like a grandmothers tale "baaki kahaani kal raat ko" - "I'll continue the story tomorrow", so I really hope that Aroon has planned to write the sequel and give us readers a happy ending.

Rating : 4 / 5

Also Read :
Kim's Review of The Shadow Throne
Brajesh's Review of The Shadow Throne

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Brajesh's Review : Gone Girl

It is difficult to review a suspense thriller, without spoilers, but I will still give it a try. Gone Girl is the story of Nick (husband) and Amy (wife) which runs at the speed of a jet plane even before you have fastened your seat-belt.

As the jacket says , this story has two sides to it. First you sympathise with Nick & Amy, then you hate Nick & adore Amy, then you wonder about Nick and start feeling sorry for Amy, then suddenly Amy vanishes in thin air, then you question Nick and wonder about Amy, then you feel sorry for Nick and start hating Amy. At this point you just throw your hands up-in-the-air and start turning each page as fast as you can to know the next twist in the tale.

The story by Gillian Flynn, narrated from two points of view runs backwards, forwards, sideways and in every possible direction, all while still keeping the reader hooked.

Apart from the suspense and plot twists which are reason enough to read it, "Gone Girl" also provides a very real and insightful commentary on dilemmas of modern marriage and the utterly pathological role, television media plays in modern lives.

The book is a literary masterpiece and a wonderful start to my fiction read- list for the the year.

Rating : 4 / 5

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