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Asura-Anand Neelakandan : 36/52

The other side of The Story

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I’m always on the Other Side. I’ve never liked that goody two wooden slippers Rama, selfish guy. This book is from Ravana’s side. No, he doesn’t come out as the hero here, not even the anti-hero. He is still the bad guy. But when the sole purpose of someone’s birth was to make someone a god, there’s no winning anything.

As Ravana lies on the battlefield, dying,  jackals feasting on his intestines, he narrates his version of the story. Shunned by his father, insulted by his half brother, with the responsibility of taking care of his mother and three siblings, he vows to restore the Asura supremacy. A meeting with Mahabali proves to be the turning point in his life and he declares himself king, gathers his army to overthrow his half brother Kubera and become the king of Lanka. Ravana comes out as a well meaning but extremely impulsive and immature person, extremely insecure. He makes a deal with a captured pirate instead of executing him and he rushes forward to reward a spy from the enemy side, not realising that such spies should be killed. He follows the rules and ethics of war and judges Rama for the way he killed Vali.  He is several shades of black and white.

In this book, Sita is his daughter, the one destined to bring about his downfall. His object of lust is Vedavati, the brahmin widow whose spirit enters the abandoned baby Sita. Slight Greek tragedy effect here. Mandodhari is the strong woman, educated, mature and independent. Soorpanaka is the silly, pampered younger sister who gets what she wants, be it marrying the revolutionary Vidyutjiva or the revenge she seeks for her nose that was cut off.

There is a  parallel narration by Bhadra, a low asura farmer who has lost everything to the Deva atrocities and swears revenge. I won’t call him the catalyst, but he is the enthu cutlet who is the reason behind everything. He poisons the army and wins Lanka for Ravana, he betrays the revolutionary leader Vidyutjiva, he abandons Sita instead of killing her and so he indirectly becomes the reason behind The End. He immigrates to Ayodhya and becomes that dhobi who plants the seed of suspicion in Rama’s mind.

This was a real story, everything magical and mythical was humanised and explained logically, be it the ten heads or the flying machine or the golden deer or Hanuman burning the city. There are terrible typos and grammatical errors , each mistake was like biting into a stone while enjoying biriyani. The book could have been crisper, there is a lot of rambling in both the narratives.

Makes me want Ravana to be reborn and win the story atleast once.

 

 

 

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No god but God- Reza Aslan : 18/ 52

A beginner’s guide to a misunderstood religion.

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Zealot was easy since I had a background of Jesus’ life and I knew most of what the author was talking about. But my only relationship with Islam has been using the pages of the fat translated Quran at home to press flowers. So reading Reza Aslan’s No god but God was Islam 101 for me. And I read it with no prejudice, no preconcieved notions.

Though it is seemingly written from a neutral standpoint, it did seem like the author was offering excuses rather than explanations at times. Parts like the one about Muhammad placing his hand on the statue of Jesus that was inside the Kaaba and asking his followers not to destroy it made it obvious that he was writing for the Western Christians ( Much like how he wrote about how Jesus’ death was toned down to cater to Roman sensibilities in Zealot! ) Another thing that struck me in this book was that right from the beginning, the reader is made to feel sympathetic towards Ali and made to believe that he was given a raw deal. Maybe I’m assuming too much, but this was the Shia in Reza Aslan writing  (Edit: There is a stronger reaction. Haha)

But he has also played it safe, not offering any controversial explanations and instead just stating facts as they are. Like I would have loved to get a logical explanation about why it is mandatory to read the Quran in Arabic even if you don’t understand the language. It is a stupid rule. But it was  mentioned as just a thing and no logic was offered. Much has been written all over the place about women and the veil, so I guess that is why there wasn’t much explanation about it in the book. But going by the story of Muhamad losing his wife in the desert and suspecting her after she returns ( much like the other insecure man-god Rama), I draw my own conclusions.

The parts upto the death of Muhammad were easy to read and understand, but after that it got a little confusing. Many names didn’t stay in my head and I had to go back to check who was whom and who supported which faction. There were a lot of references and I kept losing track about which school of thought they came from. I’ve never considered Sufism a religion, I’ve thought of them more cultish, like the yoga guys or the Hare Krishna guys and the chapter on Sufism confirmed it. Somewhere in the middle, it became a mixture of history, politics and religion and it became too much to comprehend. I would have preferred to read about Shia beliefs and Khomeni separately rather than in the same chapter. Khomeni is history, Shiism is religion. Same thing with the Sepoy mutiny, colonialism and the rest of the final chapters.

I liked the book a lot,  it was very informative and enlightening.  And I must read it a second time to appreciate it better.

The Testament of Mary- Colm Tóibín :14/52

A book by Mary the mother, not Mother Mary.

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First, this book made me realise how much I miss the feel of a real book. The soft, powdery- velvetty-silken feel of the cover was enough to make me put aside my current ebook and start reading this. The denim blue was a refreshing change from the usual sky blue you normally associate Mary with.

Sometimes in soft whispers, sometimes agitated , sometimes in painfully controlled agony. This book spoke in several voices.  When reading Zealot, I somehow thought of Jesus as a Naxalite ( In a positive way, of course) Here again, that’s how I found him. Zealous, revolutionary and so blinded by The Cause that he pushed ahead fearlessly, unaware of his mother’s concern for him. And  the fierce way in which his followers were determined to carry on his legacy, come what may, made him seem even more so. And Mary is just a mother. A mother worried about her son’s companions and his transformation when in their company. Scared when she finds out that he is being watched by the authorities. Protective when she sees the crowds he draws. Confused when she hears about the miracles he performs. And afraid for his life.

The name is never uttered in the book. But of course, you know. She finds it difficult to come to terms with what he has become, with what people see in him. She wishes for a miracle that lets her go back in time and redeem her son, get back those moments with her helpless little baby and naughty little boy. She describes a quiet Sabbath day with her family when he was a child, and you ache for her.  She speaks of her husband, and how she misses him. A person who has never played an active role  in the other book. She worries for Lazarus, the one we only know as raised from the dead.She worries about his health, his mental state and his newly acquired show object status. The relationship between her and Mary, Lazarus’ sister makes you wonder about something that seems obvious, but remains unsaid. There’s the heavy ache of sadness that runs throughout the book.

And somehow, after she takes you through those last moments, her torment and her account of the events that followed, the cynic in me actually began to believe.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth – Reza Aslan : 6/52

I saw just a passing mention about this book while scrolling through the Jaipur Literary Festival tweets and I got it. I’m glad I did.

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I like this Jesus. The Angry Young Man. Almost like a Naxalite ( gasp!) The supporter of the poorest of poor, the voice against the rich priests. The one who performs miraculous cures for free and puts the big religious miracle workers out of business. The one who contradicts himself, preaching peace at one point and asking his disciples to sell their cloaks to buy a sword at another. I like this Jesus more than the one we’ve read about in the Gospels all these days. The Zealot Jesus was so much better than the scrubbed clean of his fiery zeal and embellished with the god aura version of him.

Reza Aslan does not deny anything from the Bible, nor does he tell you anything new. I was surprised that there was not much dedicated to Jesus’ marital status, the hot topic that was done to death during the Da Vinci Code drama. It just gets a mention,nothing more.  There’s a lot of history. The Jewish Revolt, their society and customs those days, their relationship with the Romans, the brewing unrest and the Zealot Party formed the solid foundation for the book. He has also gently poins out to several inaccuracies in the Gospels, starting right from Jesus’ actual place of birth to why it turned out to be a Pontius Pilate apologist at one point.  The way the Gospels conveniently mapped Jesus’ life with what was prophesied in the earlier books and all that was safely glossed over and scrubbed out if the Bible has been explained.

John the Baptist (kind of Karnalike, deserved more credit) and Jesus’ brother James should have really got their rightful due. The way they’ve been written out of the Bible is unacceptable. The What Ifs. And Paul, I Googled him and saw some being called names in some forums.

I guess God will give me brownie points, I have read more of the Bible for reference in the past six days than I have ever read all my life.

Made me more cynical, but this book is a Must Read