Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan

As with her other books, Sundaresan brings to life, the Mughal Era, and the lives of the royals at that time.

I had read the other two books based on Mughal history -The Twentieth Wife and the Feast of Roses, and had been dying to get my hands on Shadow Princess.

Shadow Princess chronicles the life of Jahanara, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s oldest daughter, from the time her mother died giving birth to her fourteenth child. Mumtaz Mahal’s death comes as a complete surprise, and nobody knows what needs to be done. Shah Jahan goes to pieces, and the teenaged Jahanara has no option but to pick up the reigns and be strong for everybody else. The role of Padsha Begum, which in normal circumstances would have gone to her father’s other wives, fell to her, and she rises up to the occasion, and proves that she has the ability and the mental strength to handle it all. Not only does she organize everything, she also helps her dad to go back to ruling the country, something he was ready to give away to one of his sons. Knowing that her brothers were too young to take up the responsibility, Jahanara perseveres and gets her heart-broken father to become King again. She navigates through her father’s sorrowful state, her brother’s rivalry and her sister’s treachery.

Shah Jahan comes to depend upon her so much that he even refuses to think about her marriage – he needed her to support him with the ruling of his kingdom. Jahanara, slowly becomes the most powerful woman in the kingdom. The book chronicles Jahanara’s story, bringing to life, the Mughal court and it’s politics. Brothers fighting for the throne, sisters in conflict for power,alliances made for grabbing power, life as a royal, where sometimes what you really want, you never get, although you have the access to all the jewels, the money, and the power that one could possibly want. Jahanara, while she had everything, still did not get to lead a life that she wanted. As Jahanara’s story progresses, we also get a glimpse of the Taj shaping up. The monument of love, which remains the most known symbol of the Mughal Period, and the most recognized Indian monument, even centuries after it was built. While we have all read, and learnt about Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, this was my first exposure to Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter, who, from reading this book, might have been a far better and fairer empress than her father or her brother would turn out to be. One can only wonder, I suppose, of how India’s history might have turned out, had she been ruling India, instead.

Sundaresan’s descriptions transport you to that era, effortlessly. You almost feel the heat of the afternoon, the texture of the silk that they wear, and the aromas of the food she describes. The grandeur and the opulence of the court, the power play, and the way in which seemingly powerless women of the zenana controlled the kingdom in more than one way is brought to life by Sundaresan’s words.

I loved the book, just as much as I loved all her others. If you like historical fiction, you will love it too!

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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I have learnt that I can trust TGND‘s recommendations about books completely. I am yet to be disappointed by any of the books she recommended. So when I read her review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I just had to read it. It seemed just my type of book.

As I started to read it, things seemed familiar. I remembered bits and pieces, until the realization dawned that I had read it earlier, but the wonderful read that it is, re-reading it was a pleasure.

Set in nineteenth Century China, Lily recounts her story. Lily was a young girl growing up in a poor farmer’s household in rural China. Lily and her cousin Beautiful Moon turned six, and it was time for them to get their foot bound. Their families called the local diviner to find an auspicious date to start the foot bindings. The diviner, however, saw something different in Lily. He conferred with Matchmaker Wang, the matchmaker from the best village Tongkou, who agreed with him that Lilly had potential to make a very good match in Tongkou. Not only that she could also be eligible for a Laotong relationship. Laotong relationships are extremely special and not every girl gets to have a Laotong pair. It is a lifelong relationship with another girl, and it is extremely special because the girls are paired at the age of six or seven and are together for life. Most other girls have sworn sisterhood, that disolves upon marriage, and then they have to make new post marriage sworn sisters. For Lily to have a Laotong sister was extremely special as people in their village were usually not eligible. However, Lily’s feet had the potential to be perfect ‘golden lilies’ and that made her very special. Those days, all girls would have their foot bound, and based on how perfectly their foot turned out(how small, and how beautifully shaped), would determine the kind of match they would make. Lily’s feet showed great potential.

At seven, Lily’s feet were bound and soon, she and Snow Flower got bound in a Laotong relationship. All through her short life, Lily had yearned to be loved. So far she had just been a ‘useless branch’ in her family. For girls were of no use – ‘A road made for others to use’. From Snow Flower, she got the love that she yearned for. The girls grew up together, sharing their lives, and noting down the important events of their life on their secret fan, in the special women’s secret writing – Nu Shu.

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship carried on strong, they face family tragedies together, get married, get busy with their everyday life, until something happened to put an abrupt end to the friendship that was supposed to be lifelong.

A touching, sad and brave tale of how women’s lives in nineteenth Century China was. Unwanted, useless, and born to serve others, put through torturous procedures like foot-binding, all to make a good marriage – because that was the most important part of a woman’s life – getting married. It is a window to an old culture where women had to stoically bear what was thrown their way. Rebelling was not an option. Living through droughts, political uprisings, domestic abuse and yet bringing beauty into their own and their loved ones lives. The description of the foot-binding process is heart-breaking to read. I can’t imagine how women went through it for so many years.

It is a must-read. I would definitely recommend this book. And thanks TGND for giving me a chance to re-read it 🙂

Keep the change by Nirupama Subramanian

Nirupama Subramanian’s debut book is about good girl Damayanthi. Damayanthi has never rebelled, never done a wild thing in her life. She has topped all her grades, become a CA and now works with the neighbourhood Chartered Accountants. The only thing she hasn’t done like a good girl, is get married as soon as she was of the ‘marriageable age’. She lives with her parents and they have been trying very hard to get her hitched off. At the ripe old age of 26, they fear that their daughter will remain a old maid unless drastic measures are taken.

Damayanthi on the other hand, is bored and dying for a change. Bored of her job, bored of her life, bored of leading a life where watching Sex and the City is the high point of her life.

Egged on by her successful friend Sumi, she jazzes up her CV and started applying. She lands a job at an international bank, and there is no looking back. She is ready to take on the world, do the things she has never done so far. She hopes to transform from a conservative curd-rice eating, living with her parents girl, to a go getter corporate babe. A complete makeover, as far away from Amman Kovil Street as she can get.

She lands up in Mumbai and then starts her adventure. So does she change? Does she do everything she wanted to? Read it to find out. One thing I can promise is that you’ll have a great time finding out. A total chick lit, which keeps you laughing through the pages. You just don’t want it to end. Its a light, fun read if you enjoy this genre of books. It was certainly perfect to keep me sane and laughing during a day full of home decor challenges!

Mayada: Daughter of Iraq by Jean Sasson

One Woman’s Survival in Saddam Hussein’s Torture Jail.

Edited to Add: The cover of the book – it completely slipped my mind while posting.

And that is exactly what it is. The true story of Mayada Al Askari, a woman born into a powerful family of Iraq. She had illustrious paternal and maternal grandfathers, and was one of the few highly educated women in Iraqi society. As a divorced mother of two, Mayada was leading a simple life, managing a business printing brochures.

One day, her life is turned upside down when she is thrown into Iraq’s dreaded Baladiyat prison. She has no idea what her crime is supposed to be. She is thrown into cell no 52 which already housed seventeen other ‘Shadow Women’. Women from all kinds of backgrounds, who shared the same fate of imprisonment, torture without trial and execution. They have been condenmed to ‘guilty’ with no chance of a trial – fair or otherwise. Nothing they might say or do, would make any difference.

Mayada had lived a comparatively comfortable life in Iraq so far. Her illustrious family background had ensured that she was educated and independent. Her mother was quite a powerful person in Iraq, until she decided to move to Amman. Mayada had also come in contact with Saddam Hussein during the early parts of his political career, and he had even enjoyed and admired her articles that she wrote when she worked as a journalist. Nothing however prepared her for life in Iraq’s torture jail.

The torture described is horrific. It is unbelievable that people can do such horrible acts to those in captivity. Mayada was comparatively less tortured, but the manner in which the other shadow women were tortured, makes one wonder at how people could even think of it, much less do it.

The women spent their time in jail talking about their stories and the way they ended up in the dreaded jail. They loved to hear about Mayada’s life story and her tales about the famous people she had met. Saddam Hussein and his wife were of particular interest, although they had to be very careful in discussing them. Anybody discussing the President could get into trouble – as if they weren’t in enough trouble already!

Most of the ‘Shadow Women’ had no idea what wrong they had done to land in jail. Only after repeated torture did they realize what was assumed to be their crime. The heart breaking part was that their families had no idea what happened to them, as they were not given a chance to call or let anybody know. Living in a small cell, filled with other women, tortured, tormented and left to die. Despite all that the caring and concerned nature of her fellow inmates touched Mayada. Mayada was comparatively luckier, she was not torture much and managed to get released, thanks to her mother’s connections. Yet her good fortune(comparative) did not attract jealousy or anger in the others – they were gracious and delighted for Mayada.

Even after her release, life was not smooth for Mayada. One can only imagine how it must be for others who were in less fortunate situations.

The book brings to front the life of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, when anybody could be thrown into jail for no reason, or at the very most, the slightest of pretexts. Apparently when Saddam Hussein first came into power, he seemed like he had his heart in the right place, pushing for women’s education and other social rights. Slowly it dawned upon them, his true nature and his true plans..

A very moving and sad book, but one that makes one realize how precious democracy is. So many freedoms that we take for granted are things which people in some countries can only dream about. I’m not sure if I should or not recommend this book to everyone, but if you have read and liked her other books, you should give this a go.

Riot by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor’s books, I have always loved. His writing never failed to appeal to me. The topics he chooses, are so relevant and his take, so sensible, so balanced, at least in my opinion. Riot was the only book of his that seemed to evade me since years. It had been recommended to me by loads of friends, I had been waiting to get hold of it. So the moment I found it at Landmark, I grabbed it.

Set during the turbulent times when the Babari Masjid was brought down, the book explores the ways in which emotions, politics, religious fanaticism change and end lives. Priscilla Hart, a young American woman is killed in a riot in a small Indian town called Zalilgarh. She was a volunteer with a non-governmental organisation working to increase the birth control awareness of the region. She gets killed during a riot. Her parents come down to India to find answers and take back what they can, of their daughter. Unknown to most of them, Priscilla has another story, she and the District Magistrate, Lakshman, were having an affair – one with no real future, though Priscilla wanted one. As the story progresses, more than one person seems to have a reason to get rid of Priscilla. Who killed Priscilla? Was she an innocent victim of the rage of the rioters? Was she just at the wrong place, at the wrong time? Read it to find out.

The story is told through journal entries, interviews with journalists, Priscilla’s letters, with all the characters having a means of expression. All the threads of the story running simultaneously. The story is much more than about Priscilla’s death. It is also a tale of the situation in India at that point in time. The fragmentation of society, the different lives, the different beliefs that make India, and the frustrations that built up, and what happens when people try to tap into religious sentiments to gain a few votes. The book also touches upon the politics and the nature of democracy in India, of how politicians use the excuse of popular sentiment to look the other way, and ignore injustice.

A wonderful book, a wonderful read, one that makes you think. Tharoor’s wonderful descriptions, his use of words makes his books such a pleasure to read. All the characters come alive, one can understand why Lakshman felt so lonely, Priscilla’s motivation, Gurinder’s(Lakshman’s IPS friend) story evokes so many strong emotions, each character has his or her own story, and despite that, the books moves at a very fast pace, keeping all the threads in hand. If you enjoy these types of books, ones where political history is interwoven with a story, I would recommend it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.