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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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One Part Woman- Perumal Murugan : 4/52 (Translation)

tl;dr : Vyasa- Ambika-Ambalika.

What better way to make a book popular than to demand a ban on it. This isn’t a book that I would have picked up if it hadn’t been for the whole controversy around it. I’m not sure whether I got the sanitised version or the original ‘scandalous’ version of the book. I would have loved to read it in Tamil, but it would have taken me much longer to finish the book and my curiosity got the better of me. But the translation is quite good. And since those of us from Tamilnadu can relate to the overall setup, it worked for me. (Note to self: Stop picturing every book you read as a movie these days)

Kali and Ponnayi are a childless couple living in a society where the taunts, insults and innuendos are free flowing. Help and advice come in many forms to them, some well intentioned, some plain sadistic. Ponna is made to drink bitter infusions made with neem leaves that are handed to her by an ‘auspicious’ widow. (Isn’t neem a contraceptive?) She has men making not-so-subtle suggestions offering their services. She does a Fear Factor level walk on a dangerous rock near a temple to bribe the gods. She is deemed unfit for motherhood because she found the stink of a baby’s feces repulsive. Surprisingly, she isn’t the only one to be ‘blamed’ here. Though Kali is constantly under the pressure to take a second wife, he is also equally taunted for his ‘impotence’. He has everyone from cousins to random neighbours hoping to dip their fingers into his heirless property after his death. More than his love for Ponna, it is the fear of confirming this impotence that doesn’t allow him to marry again. Afterall, it was his ancestors who raped a tribal girl and incurred her curse. Yes. It is a difficult life being childless in such a society in that era. Any society in any era actually.

So what does one do when the gods want more than rooster blood and arrack? What does one do when the gods want more than a dangerous walk around their temple? What does one do when the gods want more than your prayers? You have to look beyond god. You have to look at man. Another man. Do it with him thinking of him as god. Kunti did that, Madri did that. Oh wait. That was vice versa. But anyway. Apparently, the results are guaranteed here. And this is what Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law finally suggest.

Does she do it? On the fourteenth day of the temple festival, that day when all married women above thirty get the sanction of the gods to lay with random strangers and bring forth ‘god’s children’ into the world. Does she do it? Does she manage to look beyond the face of her husband, look beyond her fears, look beyond society’s taunts and find a god to do it with?

Since I was waiting for the ‘controversial’ part, I did not take the time to savour the book as much I should have. The narration went back and forth a lot, sometimes confusing. Characters like the bachelor uncle Nallupayyan who gave the whole drama the much needed sane voice and Muthu, Ponna’s brother, who took Kali to the same temple festival years ago to ‘offer their services’ give you an insight into the hypocrisy of it all. Small but sharp references to the caste equations in that society add a dash of sting. During the build up to the climax, when Ponna sits in the cart looking at the Chakkli man’s baby with so much longing, I hoped that the story would take a more ‘scandalous’ twist. But I was disappointed.

A good book. Not a great book, and in my opinion it was not a shocking book.  But a good book, so read it. If not for anything else, atleast  for the sake of supporting freedom of expression. Because is a thing these days.

‘Whenever I pass a temple, I touch my throat and then touch my lips with my index and middle finger. That is how my two babies were born’ I just remembered someone tweeting that long ago.

And whenever a topic about childlessness comes up, I can’t help but remember We Need to Talk About Kevin. Unrelated to this book, but the thought just crossed my mind.

There are two sequels to this book. Would love to read them soon. Someone please translate.

 

 

 

The Gospel according to Jesus Christ- Jose Saramgo : 60/52

The greatest way The Greatest Story Ever Told could have been told

I warmed up to Jesus after Reza Aslan’s Zealot made him more real. Then The Testament of Mary happened and he became that attractive naxal-like rebel to me. And then, this Christmas day, I finally found a Jesus Christ that I can actually live with. The complete package.

Conceived on a surreal violet dawn, his birth is announced by a stranger who leaves behind a bowl of shining earth. This stranger will then drop into his life at unexpected places and give the reader goosebumps. I’m still not sure how to ‘accept’ Pastor, the tall dark mysterious stranger who left me with a chill down my spine at the very last line of the book. The baby isn’t born in the classic crib scene with farm animals and angels, he is born in a cave somewhere near Bethlehem, aided by a slavewoman. His father,Joseph, then goes on to cause the death of 25 innocent babies, something that will haunt him in his dreams till his death; his shocking, unexpected death that has never been actually explained anywhere in the Bible. And  the dream is bequeathed to his son, thirteen year old Jesus. And the real story then begins.

God is the villain here, the selfish one who wants to be god to the world at any cost, even specifically at the cost of killing the son he sent to this world through probably something like this. You stomach churns when, without batting an eyelid, ever so matter-of-fact, he lists the names of all the martyrs who will die for the sake of his religion. Almost five pages of martyrs, listed in alphabetical order, right from the disciples themselves to those who will later die gruesome deaths in the Spanish Inquisitions and after. Simon, whom you will call Peter, like you, he will be crucified, but upside down. Philip will be tied to a cross and stoned to death, Bartholomew will be skinned alive, Thomas will be speared to death…Adalbert of Prague put to death with a seven-pronged pikestaff, Adrian hammered to death over an anvil….Vincent of Saragossa tortured to death with millstone, grid and spikes... Had the book been written a few years later, maybe god could have included Graham Staines and his two children, burnt to death while sleeping in a jeep in that long  list of people who died purely for his selfish cause, the cause of making him god of the world.

Jesus is a real paavam, a pawn in god’s larger game. Someone whose only purpose in life was to die a gory death for reasons that are still unclear to me. He is so human in this book, makes him so flesh and blood ordinary, but extraordinary in that unexplainable way. He fights with his mother, leaves home. Comes back and leaves again, his ego hurt. He meets Mary Magdalene, the woman behind the man he goes on to become.They live as man and woman, nothing is glossed over here. Thankfully. Judas too, isn’t the traitor we all think he is. He just does what he has to do. And by doing that, he probably prevented a larger catastrophe. And Pastor, Oh, Pastor. No, as ‘broad minded’ as I am, I can’t get to accept him. But without him, there will be nothing. And like how our politicians need poverty and communal riots to keep themselves relevant, god needs Pastor to remain relevant himself. So Pastor isn’t going anywhere. But Pastor gave me that whole body shiver each time he appeared. *shudders*.

This is a gospel that needs to be included into the other Book. For the sake of sanity.

Afternote: Maybe the Gharwapsi guys can use this book as ammunition to reveal the sham it all really is. But then, with people like me ( the intelligent ones) , it may backfire. If a missionary had given me this story, I could have become a believer.

PS: I’ve actually finished one more book this year. Memories Of My Melancholy Whores. But nothing worth raving or outraging about. Not sure if I should leave this list as a round number at 60 or write one more post to make it an auspicious odd number at 61.

7 Secrets of the Goddess: Devdutt Pattanaik- 54/52

Godesses 101

I’ve never had the opportunity to sit at a grandmother’s feet and listen to stories; stories that I would have listened to in wide eyed wonder at the age of 5, stories that I would have listened to,rolling my eyes in unbelief, at the age of 10 and beyond. Devdutt Pattanaik takes the place of that grandmother in my life. I think he is the only person who can actually get me to sit through a whole book on gods and Gods, goddesses and Goddesses, without waking up that mocking non-believing cynic in me. His books always make me see things from the larger perspective. Nothing is thrust in your face and it is upto you to interpret things the way you want to. And while this book isn’t exactly a page turner, it is an extremely interesting read. I wish I had this book in an e format for easy reference because this is a book that I will revisit again and again , maybe to pick up a tidbit to win an argument or just to reread a story so that I can look at some tradition through less judgmental eyes.

The book starts off with Gaia, but that section somehow felt obligatory. It felt like it was just added to make this book more ‘inclusive’. But once we move on to ‘our’ goddesses, it is familiar territory again and the book picks up speed. Again, these are all familiar stories that we’ve heard over the years, but they are put into neat logical sections. The wild Kali vs the domesticated Gauri. The richposh Lakshmi vs the humble Saraswati. The pure women gods vs Vitthai. The book explores the playful side, the sensual side, the generous side, the benevolent side and the angry side of those women who were created by the gods,  those women who married the gods, those women who gave birth to the gods, those women who are the actual gods. The subtext of the whole book is that Goddesses rule. They are the mothers, the consorts, the sisters. They are the ones who keep the Man Gods under control, the Man Gods who come running to them for help in times of trouble.

I somehow didn’t like the huge font, it made the book seem childish. Also, the pictures on every single facing page seemed a bit distracting. I had to read the text first and then revisit the whole book to study the pictures. It wasn’t possible to do both without breaking the flow. Though every single one of those pictures had a whole story of their own to tell, I somehow couldn’t multitask. And since there was so much, so many names, stories and references, it did need a bit of concentration to keep up.

In a country where the Goddess has so many names, so many faces, so many temples, so many forms, this book should be made mandatory reading. And after this book, I have the urge to watch some of those numerous Amman movies that were a thing in Tamil cinema some years ago.

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The Rise of the Sun Prince- Shubha Vilas :46/52

Another Ramayana.

I’ve never been much of a Ramayana fan. I’ve read several versions right from ACK to Devdutt Pattanaik’s Sita and The Book of Ram. Asura too, if it can be counted as a ‘version’ of the book. But somehow The Ramayana has never fascinated me as much as The Mahabarata. Maybe because it is too goody-goody for my liking.

This version is a seven part series (phew!) and this book is just part one. So the narration is detailed and unhurried. Unhurried, but fast paced because I finished the book in two longish sittings on the train while going on my holiday and getting back. It starts off right from the very beginning with how Valmiki got recruited into writing the Ramayana with the background story of his transition from Ratnakar to Valmiki.

This is the Balakanda section and the real hero here is Vishwamitra rather than Rama. But ofcourse, Rama overshadows everything and everyone as he is meant to. Tadakka is killed, Ahalya is ‘restored’, Subahu is burnt to ashes, Maricha is sent flying 800 miles away. Vishwamitra tells the boys stories about Ganga and other rivers and his and their ancestors. Mantras and weapons are shared, wisdom passed on. Moral science lessons are imparted. Rama, of course, is so good and obedient that it almost hurts. Gaah. If a god is born human he should exhibit some human characteristics. A couple of shades of grey won’t hurt, Rama. Lakshmana is just a faint shadow, he does nothing much in this book other than stop a baby Rama from crying.  Ravana and his family get their due mention. Still fresh in my memory as the ‘good’ people from Asura, they are once again painted with that black tar brush here. Dasaratha is the scaredy cat who keeps marrying women to avoid a Kshatriya hating rishi from destroying him. 353 wives and no sons. Serves him right for giving away his only daughter. (Again, Shanta is fresh in my memory after I watched Vaisali last week and read up more about her)

I’ve always been a sceptical semi believer and so I read this book as mythological fiction rather than as The Ramayana. And since I didn’t read it with any reverence, I found the capitalizing of letters when referring to Rama and Sita distracting. This book is pure prose, simple prose and so I felt that the gushy descriptions of  the beauty of Rama and Sita were bit funny and out of place. Moon, sun, lotus blossom beauty. All this works better in poetry or poetic prose. So were the exaggerations such as Ayodhya having twenty million palaces and a moat so large that clouds mistook it for the ocean.  And referring to Dasaratha’s council of ministers the Big-M was simply hilarious.

The footnotes on every page were extremely distracting  and so I stopped reading them after a point. Again, I am forced to draw comparisons to Devdutt Pattanaik’s style of afternotes in each chapter. I prefer trivia tidbits rather than blah in the footnotes. And moral lessons and rules to improve the quality of my life? I’ll give that a pass please.

But yes, I enjoyed the book a lot. Nothing new here, but it was a good read. I’m not eagerly looking forward to the next six parts, but when they’re out, I will most certainly read them. ( Also, there’s some rule and order in which The Ramayana should be read. And if you start one kanda you just have to finish the rest or you’ll get seven rebirths of bad luck something.  I hope Shubha Vilas isn’t bringing bad luck to us)

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Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You- Devdutt Pattanaik :44/52

Mind fu.. oh wait.

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This may be politically incorrect, multi-religiously blasphemous and all that jazz, but seriously what were our ancients smoking? It takes truly brilliant  minds to come up with such fascinatingly kinky, twisted stories, attribute it all to gods and goddesses and have centuries of humankind unquestioningly believe in them . To be safe, let me clarify that I say this in a positive sense.

‘Queer’ is a term I absolutely detest, because the very definition of the word defeats the purpose of creating an all inclusive, tolerant society. I don’t know if the purpose of this book was to say that ‘queerness’ has the blessings of the gods, be it Hindu, Roman, Greek, Assyrian or Egyptian. Or whether it is to convince the upholders of present day morality to look within before they judge. Or to say that it has existed over several millennia so let’s not be hypocrites about it. Or to  say it happens, deal with it. Or whether it is  just another book on Indian mythology for contemporary readers. But I’ve loved every one of Devdutt Pattanaik’s books and I did like this one too.

Most of these  stories aren’t new to me. I’ve known many of them since I was a child, thanks to Amar Chitra Katha. But reading them again through adult eyes and from the perspective of  ‘queerness’  is what makes this almost mindblowing. Take Karthikeya for instance. From ACK, all I remember was babies born through a spark from Shiva’s head, floating in a river and six beautiful celestial mothers adopting them. These babies then go on to become one baby and is the much loved, much revered god. A heartwarming, beautifully illustrated tale. But now, reading about it from this ‘queer’ angle, I’m sorry to say, I find his actual conception (if you can call it that) plain creepy. Shiva shoots his seed into the mouth of Agni, it is cooled by Vayu,  it goes on to impregnate all the male Devas, then finds its way into the wombs of six totally clueless women who are so angry that they discard the foetus in the river. The baby(ies) survives inspite of that, a custody battle follows and in the end we get the god we know and worship as Skanda-Karthikeya-Muruga . How crazy is that.

The last time I read about Aravan, after maybe an ACK comic, was in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya. All I felt then was anger towards Arjuna for being so callous and unfeeling about his own son, one whom he didn’t even remember and was ready to sacrifice. I was irritated with the son of Uloopi and Arjuna for wanting to help the father who had no clue about who he was. And the unfairness of it all.  But I didn’t give much thought to the queer angle of this tale. And the lesser said about what I think of Krishna the better. I can’t  bring myself to justify anything which that god has ever done ever.

There are thirty such stories in this book, twisted stories, stories of gods and men being castrated for showing restraint, for not showing restraint; men turning into women, women turning into men; deer eating human seed and giving birth to humans with antlers; crossdressing gods, sons of gods and mere mortals; men taking the form of animals and sneaking into unwilling women’s beds; Bhagirath ,whose very name means what it means, born of two ladyparts; men giving birth to men, men giving birth to women, men giving birth to iron maces. There are also tales from Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and other ancient civilizations where Things happened.

Maybe these stories started off with the good intention of encouraging ancient societies to embrace all kinds of people. Or maybe these stories were all made up by cunning men  to justify their kinks. (I won’t say women, it was a male dominated society)  Or maybe these stories were just versions of pr0n or fantasy fiction back then.

But whatever it was meant to be, then and now, this book left me totally mindfucked. And looks like that was one bodypart that our gods or our ancestors didn’t actually do.

Disclaimer: 

Let me make some things absolutely clear about where I stand on the LGBT community. I fully support them, their rights and their lives. I believe that it is natural.  Natural because it is part of nature. You even see such orientation in the animal kingdom. But normal, I won’t say. It is not normal. Like say a birthmark is natural, but not normal. I also believe that this is not a disease and it is not something that can be or needs to be ‘cured’.  I am totally in favour of scrapping Sec 377. The government has no right in anyone’s bedrooms, they can’t dictate whom people should love or how. I try my best not to use the word gay as an insult (though I sometimes do). I’ve been brought up to call the saree wearing eunuch who used to deliver the newspaper as  ‘aval’ or ‘her’ and not ‘adhu’ or ‘it’. But I also believe that the LGBT community does not need our condescending and patronizing support, they need us to just let them be. So I won’t be seen sporting the rainbow colours on my Twitter or Facebook DP.

And then, on the other side, in Oct 2009, sometime around  when Sec 377 was decriminalized, I wrote a blogpost titled ‘377=666?’ and was all judgy about a picture of a famous fashion designer in an open liplock with his (then?) boyfriend. This was what I had written. And I hmmm to myself about it. And cringe.  But then, this was five years ago. And I was stupid. Kindof.

I pride myself in being extremely broad minded. I always support everything that society frowns upon.Sometimes because I really mean it, and sometimes just to go against the grain. But anyway, I always ask “Who made up the rules?” If something happens it was meant to be that way. So just let it be.

…..but ever since the great 377 floodgates opened up in the country, there has been a small chink in my armour and I have begun to rethink my “broadminded” stand

I slowly find my support wavering away from Celina Jaitely and moving reluctantly towards Baba Ramdev. I tried hard to sway towards Celina, but the wind kept whispering otherwise and kept pushing me away.

But yesterday two images from the Van Heusen Men’s Fashion Week sealed my resolve strongly and firmly, and now, I can declare with conviction that I wholeheartedly support Baba Ramdev and Co

But people change. Attitudes change. Opinions change. I changed. I grew up.

The Handmaid’s Tale- Margaret Atwood :43/52

Crazy.

This book was on a list of books so depressing that people abandoned it halfway. Being a sucker for dark, deep and depressing, I immediately picked it up. It wasn’t so gripping or unputdownable, so I was comfortable reading just a few chapters every day an wasn’t in a hurry to finish it. But somehow, the book didn’t hit me at all. Or so I thought. Because much to my surprise, almost every night during the ten days it took me to finish the book I had disturbing dreams: dreams of being trapped in abandoned buildings or of being suffocated or trying to cross over barbed wire fences. Books don’t usually do that to me. They affect my thoughts when I’m awake, not in my dreams. I’m awake right now, and this book is not doing anything to me.

Yes, there is a society, not too far away, where women are all dressed in blue and wear something more stifling than white wings on their faces. There is a society, currently emerging at alarming speed, where women are allegedly being turned into beings of mere procreation without pleasure. But by no stretch of imagination can I picture such a society ever being possible in the US. Not now, not in the past, not in the next million years. I couldn’t relate, couldn’t relate to the horror that this was supposed to be. Most of it seemed more amusing or satirical rather than horrifying. And the futuristic set up, as imagined 30 years ago,that has technology prefixed with the word Compu is just plain hilarious.

Gilead is a Christian theocracy. What denomination, it doesn’t say. Baptists are supposed to be enemies, Catholic priests are hanged at the Wall and people quote rules from the Bible. The Old Testament does have a lot of convenient rules. So this society too has rules, actually laws, which allot babymaking women to husbands of infertile wives  because pollution, immorality and birth control have rendered most of the women sterile. And when the husband himself is the problem, the task is quietly reoutsourced. (Very Pandu-like. Or actually more like this ). Women are colour coded and slotted into roles. The Handmaids wear red and their only job is to make babies. The older women take on the role of Aunts or Marthas, chaperons or servants; they wear grey and green. The Wives wear blue and their role in society is pretty much to do nothing but wait for a Handmaid to give them a baby. And there are Econowives who are everything, multcoloured. Unwomen who fall under ‘none of the above’ are sent to the Colonies where they clean up toxic waste and waste away.  The fertile Handmaids are given three chances to fill the barren houses they occupy with babies; healthy babies, babies that are conceived in Ceremonies and born in Ceremonies. Babies, not Unbabies. Unbabies  go to the Shredder (The only thing in this book that continues to disturb me when I’m awake). Handmaids take on the names of the men they are passed on to: Offred, Ofwarren, Ofglen. Of <man’s name>. (How different is this from suffixing the man’s name to hers? Anyway) And the men of course, are just Men. The Commanders. Men who lust after Jezebels who wear salvaged lingerie from the past or just sad little men who just want to have have normal lives and play Scrabble. The sole purpose of human existence is to repopulate the country and impose Biblical rule, complete with loopholes that allow Jezebels. And life goes on. Goes on until.

As I said, Crazy.

Afternote: There seem to be extreme reactions to this book. People are comparing the Hobby Lobby ruling with this and seeing it as a sign of things to come. I can only say LOL.