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!

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Roop, one of Bachan Singh’s two daughters, grows up without her mother. Her father, a respected however not-too-well-off a person in the village, does his best in bringing up his daughters and son.

Roop grows up believing that she is destined to a better life. When Bachan Singh gets a proposal from one of the wealthiest men in the village for his daughter, he is delighted, only to be disappointed when he realizes that it is not for one of the wealthy man’s sons. but for an already married relative of his. However, already in debt after his elder daughter’s wedding, Bachan Singh does not have much of an option but to agree. Bachan Singh might have been heavy hearted but Roop was delighted. She was convinced that she has a wonderful fate in store for her. Even becoming a second wife does not faze her. She believes that she will be a little sister to her older co-wife.

Satya, Sardarji’s wife is sophisticated, the perfect mate to the Oxford educated Sardarji. Perfect, but for the fact that she is barren. She tries hard to fight her fate, hoping that Sardarji will refuse to take a second wife, only to realize that despite his educational credentials, Sardarji is still bound by his roots. Having an heir, a son, is very important to him.

She is hit hard by the fact that the new bride has got handed all her jewellery. Everything that was hers is now Roop’s. Satya tries everything she can to ensure that Sardarji’s second marriage is ruined.

It is a touching story woven through the landscape of political landscape of unrest and eventually India’s Partition into India and Pakistan.

Roop’s initial innocence, trying hard to please everybody, believing that she and Satya would be like sisters, her compliance and her slow metamorphosis into her own person, somebody who understood that she had to fight for her rights in every way she could. She learns the ways of the world to survive, to hold on to her position, as the mother of Sardarji’s children.

Sardarji, again a complex character, educated in England, a civil engineer, outwardly a modern person, but when it came to his inner self, someone who held on to the views of his society. He tries to saddle both his worlds, wining and dining with his English colleagues, while looking down on them(just as they did him), and his life in Indian society.

Satya’s bitterness, her inability to accept her fate, trying everything she could to ensure that Roop is just a baby maker, and not Sardarji’s wife. Satya comes across as a strong person, someone who knows her rights, and tries to fight society in the way she could. A woman who argues with her husband, who refuses to be ‘sweet-sweet’ in front of her husband, a woman who believes that she is her husband’s equal.

The book is also sprinkled with instances of how underprivileged women(and girls) were in those days. At her father’s place, Roop had never tasted meat or fish – that was reserved for her brother, because the whole family’s fortune rested on him. The girls would just be married off. Roop’s unmarried aunt, who keeps planning to leave, but everybody is aware, that she will never leave.  After all, as an unmarried woman, she does not have a house of her own, to go to.

The book also deals with the way political unrest changed life as they knew it. Once Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived together in harmony, but with the partition looming closer, things changed, loyalties changed…Life as they knew it changed. It also reflects how Sikhs viewed the partition. While carving out countries keeping in mind the two main communities, Sikhs were the ones who were uprooted from their land and made to migrate into a new, foreign land. One stroke of the pen that made them foreigners in their own land.. A partition when one minority was almost entirely ignored…

A beautifully written story, leaves you moved, saddened, and a lot wiser. A wonderful read.

The Wedding Wallah by Farahad Zama

Another book, I chanced upon by accident. I saw it on the ‘just returned books’ shelf in my library, and I had to have it!

It turned out to be a sequel to another series of books, but it still was easy enough to figure out the previous parts of the story.

Mr Ali runs a successful marriage bureau, while Mrs Ali runs a successful campaign against crows in her back yard. Their niece Pari who lives near them, is a widow, and has just adopted a young boy, Vasu. Mr and Mrs Ali have taken her(and her son) under their wings, while hoping that their son, Rehman would get more responsible.

Everybody is pleasantly surprised when Pari gets a marriage proposal from a very affluent lady for her son Dilawar. Everybody is overjoyed and feels that Pari should accept the proposal, while Pari herself seems extremely unsure. Pari had been working at a call centre and felt independent enough to take care of herself and her son. She also loved her husband, and is not quite sure about marrying again.

There is also Aruna(Mr Ali’s assistant) and her husband Ramanujam’s story interwoven with the story.

It was a very interesting read. I read it almost in one sitting. I loved the way the author has brought out scenes in everyday life. I loved his descriptions of the characters. Mrs Ali, and her neighbours, Mr Ali, Pari – all very real, and believable. Mrs Ali’s new cellphone and the way she handles the phone, is so typical of some of the older people I know. Aruna and her husband make a very cute and loving couple – again quite real, in the small town way they are portrayed. Dilawar’s dilemma – to follow society’s norms or to follow his heart..

The book addresses gay rights issues, the campaign in India to legalize gay relationships, and the kind of issues they face in society today from police harassing them to societal condemnation.

The story also brings to front, the Naxalite movement, as is prevalent in certain parts of India, where landlords have oppressed the poorer sections of society for ages.

The author manages to weave in the different political and social issues really well into the story. A fast paced, interestingly written story. I was a little disappointed with the way the book ended. There was something missing. But that might be because there is more in the series to come. I think I will definitely be picking up his other books.

Zohra by Zeenuth Futehally

March has been a good month for me – books-wise. I have loved all the books I read so far. Most of the time, I review only some of the books I read. This time, however, all the books so far have been review-worthy- which means that I am hard pressed for time. Sigh! But I can’t really complain – have been having so much fun reading them 🙂

Edited to add the book cover. Thanks Smita – I don’t know how I forgot, and did not even realize!

I came across Zohra, when I was searching through books on Amazon. It sounded very interesting, so I placed a request for it at the library.

Zohra was first published in 1950, and remarkably still remains very readable, even after more than 60 years of being written. Set in Hyderabad, when it was still a princely state, with Nawabs and their way of life still intact. Hyderabad has just become part of India, and the turbulent state of affairs of the state(and the country) is reflected in the people living in those times.

Zohra grew up in a Nawabi family, with her sister. Her mother and other women despaired of her interests in studying(mainly Persian poetry) because they feared that educated girls would never settle in domestic life. Although Zohra has hopes and aspirations of her own, she comes to realize that those are futile to hope for, given her background and resigns to her fate. She gets married to Bashir, an England educated young man, who comes to adore her, but fails to understand her.

She lives a normal married life, when her brother-in-law, Hamid returns from England. Despite all the years spent abroad, he seems to be the brother more comfortable on Indian soil. Both brothers clash on several issues like modes of political protest. Hamid, siding with Gandhian methods, while Bashir felt that the violent/aggressive methods would have been more effective. Hamid seems happy in home-spun Indian clothes, while Bashir insisted on wearing suits in sweltering Hyderabad.. In the middle of all this Zohra, trying to balance duty with passion. Married to the brother who loves her, and attracted to the brother who loves and understands her.

Zohra’s life, her sacrifices, and her choices make up the book. A touching story, a tragedy which just had to happen..

The story also gives an insight into the lives of the Nawabs in Hyderabad at that point in time. People who believed that their lifestyles would continue the way it had been for years. Only some like Hamid believed that change is at their doorstep. The book also reflects the conditions, confusions and mindsets of the Indian Muslims who decided that India was their land.

A beautifully written book, that cannot leave the reader untouched. A story that will stay with me for a while. A wonderful period read.

We can pull it off by Suresh Taneja

A book review that I should have done a while ago. This is the first requested review that I have done.

‘We can pull it off’, is author Suresh Taneja’s debut book, and is about corruption, which is something the author is passionate about tackling. The book is even more appealing given the fact that corruption is something that just about everybody agrees, is one of the biggest problems that India is facing today. Eradication of corruption could effectively resolve most of the other problems that India faces today.

The book starts off in 2030, where a group of four friends(G4), are meeting up in America. An America where Indian brands and India itself seems super-powerful. The story goes back and forth between 2009 and 2030, tracing out the revolution that changed India and helped make it the most powerful country in the world.

The four friends,Vikram, Yuvika, Manisha and Akshay  whose parents were close-knit friends themselves, came across instances of corruption that made them realize how badly corruption affected life in India. How the innocent could be framed. justice denied and life could be made complicated by corruption. They decide to tackle it and come up with an idea to eradicate it completely. They harness the youth to tackle corruption and change the way India looked at things.

The concept behind the book is excellent. The author’s passion for the subject is evident in his writing. The book is fast paced and a very quick read. Despite all these factors, the book did not work for me. It fell flat. There was something missing. The story seemed too easy. too good to be true and it could certainly do with better editing. Spelling mistakes, grammar, cheesy dialogues and some unnecessary sequences/events made me cringe a few times. It could have been a more hard-hitting book had it been edited better. While the intention of the author is commendable. one can’t help wish the story was etched out better.

As it is,I would give it a 2.5 overall, which is a pity because it is on a subject that really matters today.

Nine Lives – In Search of the Sacred in Modern India by William Dalrymple

I haven’t done a book review in a while, but as I read this book, I felt I had to write about it.

I had heard of William Dalrymple, but had never managed to get hold of it. For some reason, my library’s online search never yielded any results. One day, at the library, I managed to browse through the ‘History and Culture’ section and came across this book. I had no idea whether this was aclaimed or not, but liked what I could glean from the back cover. This is what it says

‘ In this title, a Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve to death. A woman leaves her middle-class family in Calcutta, and her job in a jute factory, only to find unexpected love and fulfilment living as a Tantric skull feeder in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden from Kerala becomes, for two months of the year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as a deity; then, at the end of February each year, he returns to prison. An illiterate goat herd from Rajasthan keeps alive an ancient 4,000-line sacred epic that he, virtually alone, still knows by heart. A devadasi – or temple prostitute – initially resists her own initiation into sex work, yet pushes both her daughters into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling. Nine people, nine lives. Each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story.’

After reading the book, I have to say, I was not disappointed in any way. Dalrymple, covers nine lives, nine people, who have given up materialistic lives and turned towards the spiritual. Spiritual ways that are as diverse as possible from each other. From a Jain nun who pulls out her hair one by one, as part of her vocation, to tantriks who live on cremation grounds. Each just as spiritual, just as believing in their path to divine happiness.

The best part of the book, for me was the way it is written. The author chronicles each story with such compassion, honesty, and being totally non-judgemental. It takes you right to where the story unfolds and gives you an insight to what might be propelling people to give up their lives for what they consider their faith.  He lets their words say their story.

A fascinating account of how diverse India really is, and how beautifully all these diverse faiths and beliefs have lived together, in peace. How Hindus go to Sufi saints for blessings, and how Brahmins get blessings from a Dalit temple dancer. When trouble comes calling, people are ready to try anything that might work. This book is all about how faith intermingled with modernity, of how the old traditions are still revered and followed, even if some of the people who actually keep these traditions alive find it difficult to lead lives without taking on other jobs in order to make ends meet.

It also indicates how these practises might soon come to an end. In case of the illiterate story-teller in Rajasthan, the book talks about how education seems to threaten this ancient at of storytelling. For some reason, when people get educated, their ability to read seems to reduce their ability to remember the epics word by word. Interesting, isn’t it?

I would give it a 5/5, for being the most fascinating book I have read in recent times. I would recommend it to anybody who is interested in historical and cultural books.

The Splendor of Silence By Indu Sundaresan

The Splendor of Silence is a sweet romantic story, woven into the period where India was still under British Rule.

It starts off with Olivia, an American girl, getting a trunk filled with her Indian mother’s belongings. She has grown up with her grandmother and father, who has always been curiously quiet about her mother. In the trunk, she finds a letter which begins to tell her the story of her parents.

It was 1942, Mila, the daughter of the Political Resident, Raman, is betrothed to Jai, the Prince of Rudrakot. Raman, is a widower, with 3 children, 2 boys and a girl – Mila. He dotes upon Mila, giving her opportunities that most Indian parents would have balked at, in those times. He is determined that his daughter has the opportunities that his wife did not. At a time, where people would not even want girls, Raman was the exception to the rule. One day, Sam Hawthorne, an American captain reaches Rudrakot and everything changes from that point on. Sam, ostensibly, was there to rest his injured shoulder, has another hidden agenda, which is very important to him, personally.

The author has done a wonderful job in characterization. Each person in the story has a very well etched out character. It is quite understandable at the end of the book, why some of the main characters behaved the way they did. Mila’s confusion, her choices, and her decision, are all understandable given the circumstances and the society that she lived in.

She has also very brilliantly captured the dynamics of India in those days. The caste system, the racial discrimination between the British and the Indians, the manner in which Indians remained less than equal. The political sentiments that prevailed at that point is brought out very well in the narrative. Mahatma Gandhi’s influence, the manner in which some people chose to interpret it, and the confusion of some Indian, who genuinely believed that the British in India, was doing a good thing.

I love the book. I loved everything about this book. I would give it a 4/5. Anyone who likes historical fiction, is sure to love this one.

The End of Innocence By Moni Mohsin

As I have mentioned before, I have developed a taste for books related to the Indian Subcontinent. I grabbed this book, based on the synopsis at the back and the fact that it was a book by a Pakistani author – a first for me.

Based in the Pakistan of 1971, with the backdrop of the civil war within Pakistan and the war with India, it is a touching story of a friendship between two girls. Laila is the eight year-old daughter of Fareeda and Tariq Aseem.  They live in the little village of Sabzbagh. Tariq’s mother lives in a neighbouring village of Kalanpur. Laila and her elder sister Sara live in Lahore during term time and are home with their parents during the holidays, as they attend a convent school in Lahore.

At the time the story starts, Laila is at home recovering from typhoid. Sara is at school. Laila is delighted that she can have Rani, her paternal grandmother’s servant’s granddaughter all to herself. Rani is older than Laila and when Sara is around Laila is the odd one out. Living in a world of her own, created by her imagination, aided by all the Enid Blytons that she reads, all she wants is to solve mysteries and have a dog. Rani, on the other hand is older, being a teenager, she is more interested in Heer, Ranjha and romantic movies and hopes to meet her own Ranjha some time.

The adults are all worried about the impending war with India.  Most of them are aghast at the idea that their beloved nation is breaking up into two. Only Laila’s dad, Tariq, wonders if it had been one nation – ever?

Amidst all this, Rani falls in love with someone, and end up pregnant. Laila understood that something was wrong, but was too young to understand much. All she wanted was to help, to be part of Rani’s team. In her zest and enthusiasm to help, she sets off in motion, something totally different.

The relationship between the two girls is portrayed beautifully. Laila’s innocence, teamed with Rani’s child-woman feelings, the various undercurrents of society. Each character, I felt was very well etched out. Be it Fareeda, Tariq, or Sister Clementine. Each character’s compulsions and reactions, like how Fareeda reacts when Sister Clementine tries to tell her about Rani’s situation.

It was a wonderful read. I found the story fascinating. The situations beautifully depicted, and the child’s mind portrayed so very well. I would give it a 4/5.

If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar

Cross-posted at BookReviews at Bookrack

I started this book with high expectations after reading and loving  ‘The Weight of Heaven’ by the same author.

The book is set in America, where Tehmina Sethna, still raw after losing her husband, Rustom, has come for a vacation at her son Sorab and American daughter-in-law, Suzanne’s house. Sorab has asked her to relocate to America and live with them. Tehmina is in a qaundry. She is unsure of the path that she ought to take. Bombay has been her home since her wedding and she is not sure if she is willing to give it up and move to a new place. She also has some tussles with Sorab’s son Cookie(Cavas) who claims that he is an ‘all American boy’, when she reminds him that he is ‘half-Indian’.  Sorab and his wife, while they want her to live with them , have their own sources of worries. At a time when she needs to make one of her life’s important decision, on her own, her husband’s absence hits home, for her. She was so used to his being around, taking care of things, helping every body mingle.  Rustom was as comfortable in America as he was in Bombay. She felt she needed him to make everything bearable, and not having him around was taking a toll on her.

Finally a series of events help her make up her mind.

This book, for me, was quite a disappointment. I felt that the story had a lot of potential, but in a lot of ways, failed to deliver. A lot of clichéd views, how India was great and everything in America is the pits, came across, which I felt was rather judgemental. It almost felt as if Tehmina was the only conscientious person in the place they lived and almost every body else was obsessed with material comforts than with emotions or feelings..  Tehmina reminisces of how people in India are ‘fearless’, in crossing roads, not wearing seat belts while the life in America was  sterile and antiseptic. While it could be Tehmina’s views, I felt it reduced the impact of the story for me.  There were a lot of stereotyped characters which were either too good to be true or totally black.

I felt ‘The Weight of Heaven’ had much better, much more balanced characters.  I did like the way the book explored the emotions that Tehmina, Sorab and Suzanne felt in the various situations in the book. Sorab’s frustrations, Suzanne’s understanding and frustrations with her mother-in-law. Tehmina’s reaction to things, the way she felt that she was unable to mourn her husband properly, her longing for the things that she considers familiar and homely. It was still an interesting read, but I would not give it more than a 2 out of five.