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Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follet

So much homework

Image result for pillars of the earth

When I finished reading the Century Trilogy, it took me back to those school days and the 20 marks questions we had to mug up for on the ‘Causes, Course and Results’ of the World Wars. As much as a bore it was back then, the world wars never cease to fascinate me now. I enjoyed the Wikiclicking that I did after I finished those books.

The Pillars of the Earth again took me back to Sister Leema’s history classes where we had to mug up pages of Kings and their tiffs with The Papacy (Oh, how I loved the word papacy). And Charlemagne who’s name she pronounced exactly as it was written and we snobs laughed. And these lines from Ms Judy’s English classes, something that stayed with me all these years. (Yes, Wolf Hall is still in my half-read list, I know)

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies

While the book isn’t exactly about any of these, it just made me Wikiclick through pages and pages of history from the twelfth century, learning about the hierarchy in the church, the dirty politics among the men of god and their overbearing, stifling presence over the State. Interesting how history seems to have now come full circle after all these centuries and the line between the governments and religion is slowly blurring again, but in a part of the world far, far away from England.

Little does Aleina know, that when she rejects her oaf of a suitor William Hameleigh, she has set off a chain of events that will affect the lives of thousands of people across the country, even across the continent, over the next several decades.

Tom the builder’s dream of building a cathedral someday becomes reality when he meets an idealistic monk , Prior Philip of Kingsbridge  who shares the same dream. Over the next several years, this dream cathedral will rise and fall and then rise again, fighting against all odds, battling enemies both known and unknown.

There is a saying that if there’s a devil residing in the roof of a house, there is a devil residing in each tile of a monastery. The politics between the men of God is fascinating. The very human emotions that they force themselves to control, surface over and over again, showing its ugly head in shocking ways. The book is full of strong women, be it Aliena who carries her entitled brother on her shoulders throughout her life or Ellen the ex-novice from a convent, the woman who lived in sin, the witch who’s curses come true. Or even the Regan Hameleigh, the grotesque, who is the real force behind her villainous son William.

Tom the Builder is boringly uncharacteristic and Prior Philip is frustratingly good. Father Sam in Kadal had shades of him. Jack is that hero who is a tad bit too heroic, his travels across Europe and his encounters with the exotic middle eastern  family seemed a bit too contrived. And then there are wimpy men like Richard who lives off his sister all his life while waiting for his earldom to be restored to him. Even the king is a weak man, fickle and clueless. The strongest male character was Waleran, the ambitious bishop, the man of god who thinks he can control the little universe under him like he is god himself.

Spoiler, but I would have preferred it if the book ended with the cathedral being finally built and everyone being happyhappy at last. But it had to drag on so that there could be more bloodshed and mess in an attempt to plug in another real historical character right at the very end of the book. That’s where I began to skim through the book. Mercifully, it ended in the next ten or so pages.

My biggest mistake while reading the book was to attempt to watch the series in parallel. Big, big mistake. The very first episode gave away the suspense that was created in the very first pages of the book, something that was revealed in the book only several hundreds of pages later. I attempted to watch the series again after finishing the book, but the differences between the two were too many. I preferred the version that ran in my head while reading and so I stopped.

While I actively sought out and read the two sequels after reading The Fall of Giants, I am not too keen on reading The World Without End right now. I got all the closure I needed with all the characters in this book, so I’ll give the sequel a wait. Maybe I’ll pick it up in another few months.

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The Feast of Roses- Indu Sundaresan : 3/52 ( A Trilogy)

And the soap continues…

Actually, this book ran in my head as a Rajnikanth movie. Rajni is Prince Khurram and Mehrunissa is the classic arrogant female antagonist who stands up against him. And in the end, Khurram wins the story and mouths a punch dialogue ‘Adhigama aasai padra pombalai nalla irundhadha sarithram illai’ and rides away into the sunset on a white horse, with Arjumand clinging onto him. But Mehrunissa has the last laugh anyway. Read the book to know why.

The romantic Mehrunissa from The Twentieth Wife becomes the power hungry Empress of Hindustan in this book. She has Jahangir under her thumb and is the Sonia to Jahangir’s MMS now. She rules the empire from behind the veil. I’m not sure if I should like such a woman though. I liked her competitiveness at first, the way she was determined to become an expert hunter after that failed hunting trip where she lost to Jagat Gosni in shooting a drugged lion ( ugh. *that* was how those people hunted? What bravery ) I even liked that junta she formed, clever woman. And the way she got her way with the Portugese and sided with the English too. But when she pimped her daughter out to marry Khurram, Khusrau and finally Sharyar, she crashed from that pedestal I had put her on. Woman, is power that important to you? Ok. Maybe such relationships were allowed in that era, but your daughter marrying your husband’s son , the one who is the husband of your own niece? Ewwww. I felt sorry for Ladli, such a gentle thing , resigned to her fate. Who in the end just wants her baby to be a girl so that it will not be involved in the ugly game to the throne. And when Mehrunissa expressed such resentment when the baby turned out to be a girl, a fresh wave of anger swept over me. I hated her a little more.

Two scenes in the book that were so big budget that I would love to see them on the big screen. The live chess scene with baby elephants where she checkmates a nervous Mahabat Khan had so much attitude. Whatte woman, I thought. And the Feast of Roses scene where she walks on a bed of rose petals and allows Jahangir to forgive her ( apologise). That reminded me so much of a certain politician who had the roads paved with flower petals when she visited the Nilgiris in 1993, bringing traffic to a halt. I saw the same ego, arrogance and god complex in Mehrunissa in that scene.

The book got a little draggy when the Portugese and English came in. It took away the beauty of the Mughal empire and became dry and political. (Would history have been different if Nur Jahan hadn’t supported the English like she did?) Same with the wars, I rushed through those parts. But it got back on track again with the unintended coup and the final chase to the throne. Survival of the fittest. Who would have thunk that the romantic Shah Jahan could execute his competitors in such cold blood. But hey, all’s fair in love and war.

I’ll give it a short break before I start the third book, The Shadow Princess. I don’t want to OD. But I’m ready for a Darlymple again now. Mughal history has me hooked.

The Twentieth Wife- Indu Sundaresan :1/52 ( A Trilogy)

16th century Soap Opera

But I mean it in a good way.

The book came highly recommended by @_viju and since I usually like his taste, I started the book without any pre-Googling. Somewhere in the book, Salim smells roses on Mehrunissa and she says that her mother adds rose petals to the bath water. And then it hit me. This is the story of Noor Jahan, the Mughal queen whose mother discovered attar. It wasn’t pure fiction anymore and it just got even more interesting. Of course, it was highly embellished and glossy and I knew how it would end. It had all the elements of a big budget Bollywood movie and I could close my eyes and picture a zenana dance scene if I wanted to. But it was a story that flowed so smoothly, like a bolt of silk that was unrolled in the bazaar, that I finished it in three sittings. The first day of the year well spent.

A child born to a refugee, abandoned in the desert, finds herself back in her mother’s arms through some twists of fate. At eight, she looks at Emperor Akbar’s son on his wedding day and dreams of becoming a princess herself. Seventeen years, nineteen wives, innumerable concubines, a husband and a daughter later, she finally marries that  man she flirted with in the zenana corridor while she was a teenager betrothed to someone else. Mehrunissa. The sun among women. The light of the world.

As a woman, I am expected to outrage about many things. How the woman is considered as the property of men, be it the father, the husband or the emperor himself. Mehrunissa has no say in whom she marries, she has no say in whom her husband sleeps with. She has no say when the emperor orders her father to request her husband to invoke some Turkish law and divorce her so that the emperor can make her his. The emperor who already has a harem full of wives and concubines, an emperor who lusted after his father’s woman and had her buried alive. (Looks like Salim-Anarkali isn’t all Mughal-e-azam as much as it is a Greek tragedy).

But the romantic in me overlooked all that and rooted for love. Love that blossomed at the age of eight ( Meera-Krishna type) and stayed buried deep down somewhere in both those hearts, not giving up hope even when there was no hope. Stalking, noting, spying, watching. Secret smiles, private fantasies and skipped heartbeats. And anyway, towards the end Mehrunissa redeemed herself when she refused the Indecent Proposal and stood up for what she believed was rightfully due to her. More power to women like her. But the truth is, the women back then were much cleverer than the ones today. We cry feminism and take to the streets at the drop of a hat these days, but those 16th century women seemed to have wielded so much power from behind veils and latticed marble walls, all the time allowing the men to believe that they were superior and the actual decision makers. Right from Akbar’s queen Ruqayaa to Salim’s second wife Jagat Gosini and Mehrunissa herself, they seem to be a group of awesomely cunning, shrewd, clever and highly manipulative women; smug and truly powerful. And like the standard fixture in every romcom these days, the gay best friend, you have the important eunuch who calls the shots in the harems. And the men? The men are mostly bumbling idiots, getting drunk on wine, women and power and  going to war for no bigger reason than an ego trip.

Oh well. Nothing much has changed over the centuries.

 

The Sceptical Patriot-Sidin Vadukut :41/52

Ok. Dinanath Batra, your move.

I somehow don’t like Sidin. Maybe because I found his Dork book  painfully unfunny or maybe because he didn’t reply to me on Twitter once. But I find him overrated (As an author. I still like his tweets). So I was not planning on liking this book and was gleefully looking forward to tear apart all those glowing five star ratings. Too bad. I liked it. I won’t give it Five Stars, but maybe I’ll give it a Perk.

You’re not a True Patriotic Indian if you haven’t received one of those emails with India Facts that you have to forward to all True Patriotic Indians if you are a True Patriotic Indian. You get bite sized pieces of those facts on Whatsapp these days.  I delete such emails without opening them and have even sent some of my Patriotic friends permanently to the spam folder. So just when I was about to tick the box that said False Patriot against my ‘Level of Patriotism’ , Sidin thankfully gives me another option . One that I can comfortably tick, guilt free: Sceptical Patriot.

Yes, the book does meander and digress a lot. There’s quite a bit of unrelated personal stories that gives the book a blogposty feel.  But forgiven. He doesn’t claim to be writing as a fuddy duddy serious historian and some chuckles are needed to break the academic feel of the topics. There is so much that has been covered and it seems really researched, not just Google researched. Was Sushruta the person behind Michael Jackson or Sridevi’s nose? Did Marconi steal the thunder from Jagdish Chandra Bose? Should we blame ancient Indians for placing Zero in the dangerous hands of Kapil Sibal? Was the whole world at Takshashila long long long before they were at Shardha University? (And oh. Takshashila is not in Bihar). Was ancient India richer than Mukesh Ambani or Sonia Gandhi? Would I have been less intimidated by computerese if my developers used Sanskrit instead of Java? All these questions have answers. Interesting answers. Medicine, economics, physics, history, geography, the range of topics covered seems a bit ambitious. But everything is served in Baby Bear portions, just right. The scorecards at the end of each chapter had me nodding in agreement.

But he has been too politically correct. Come on Sidin, waiting for spicier topics in your next book. Like Tejomahalaya or this or this. And while you’re at it, please tell me what will happen if I drink Coca Cola with Mentos inside the ATM and then enter my PIN backwards.

And then maybe this

Ragtime- E L Doctorow :32/52

Is it history? Is it fiction? Is it historical fiction? Fictional history? Well, it is a little bit of everything. And then some.

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The twentieth century has just been born and current events are creating history. The New World is filling up with immigrants from across the world, immigrants pouring into the streets with their hopes and shattered dreams; the lucky ones sleeping in one room houses without heat, the unlucky ones dropping dead on the streets. Socialism and anarchism are trying hard to make their mark in America,  the champions of the causes are being silenced with quick efficiency. Freud visits America and hates it. A young father ties his daughter to his waist, terrified that he will lose her, as he cuts silhouettes and sells them in street corners. Evelyn Nesbit’s husband has just killed her lover. She entertains herself with acquired motherhood, and becomes obsessed with taking care of the little girl. Emma Goldman is making fiery speeches across the country and takes a heartbroken Evelyn Nesbit under her wing, trying to make an independent woman of her.

The moving assembly line has just been discovered and and  workers with unused brains are churning out cars by the dozen. The rich and famous are getting their dose of entertainment through disfigured human beings. Harry Houdini is at his peak, insecure and disillusioned that he is not actually doing something useful for society, mourning his dead mother like a madman. J P Morgan is convinced that Henry Ford is an Egyptian god reincarnated. And in this America, in a small town called New Rochelle there lives the family of Father, Mother, the boy, Mother’s Younger Brother and ailing Grandfather.

Father’s long absence during his North Pole expedition with Peary has tilted the equations and Mother develops a newfound confidence and a taste for Egyptian furnishings. Father is confused, angry but helpless against the circumstances. Mother’s Younger Brother, as directionless as a loose kite, looks for answers in Evelyn Nesbit’s bed at first and then he discovers his true calling in fighting someone else’s battles. A brown baby is dug up from the earth, alive. The baby’s mother comes looking for the baby and the baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker, comes looking for both of them.

You know that cliched saying about terrorists not being born, but being created by you and me? That. Coalhouse Walker is this negro who doesn’t realise that he should behave like one. So when some jealous white firemen bully him and vandalise his car, he does the right thing: he goes to the authorities. But the snowball becomes an avalanche and before you know it, he is bombing firehouses across the city to be heard, to have his only demand of getting his car fixed and the vandal arrested met. And finally, he takes us back to J P Morgan’s library; but this time, instead of Henry Ford for company, there is dynamite.

And back to current events of the day, Archduke Franz Ferdinand gets assassinated. The rest, as they say, is history.

A patchwork quilt. Loved it.

Thank you The Visitor for the recommendation.