Book Review: Shards of Sunlight by Anand Nair

Thank you Netgalley and the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

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Seven year old Indu is living a comfortable carefree life in a small town called Thalassery in Pre-Independence India.

The only thing missing in her life is her mother, who died when Indu was a toddler. She lived with her dad and extended family consisting of his unmarried sister, Devi, and nieces Shinnu and Mani. Mani is his elder brother’s daughter, who is a doctor, caught in the Japanese invasion of Singapore. That is family for Indu. Loved and not lacking much. Indu’s life changes drastically when her father, Gopalan is jailed for being a freedom fighter.

Gopalan was a lawyer, so his income was good enough for the whole household. Being jailed, everything changes. It falls on to Devi, Gopalan’s sister to manage things to the best of her ability. As a woman of her times, she is clueless about how to go about things, she is after all, proficient at only the things that are expected out of women. All Gopalan had said to his sister was to make she pays Indu and Mani’s school fees.

That emphasis on education stays with her. As story progresses, we see her making choices that would have been unthinkable otherwise, especially of the time when this story is set. Her life is different from other women of her times, as is shown by the different circumstances that Shinnu lives under. Her father had not just left her with a legacy of education, but also independence and the encouragement of thinking for herself, of never considering herself inferior because she was a woman. Her father had gifted her with the most precious of gifts, confidence in herself, something that was rare in the women of her era.

For me, this book was more about the little cultural (and political) references that added the flavour to the story. Be it the life in Thalassery or Indu’s life in Colombo, it was rich with the flavour of the place, of the time. The food they ate, the circumstances they lived in, and how quickly things changed, especially when the income generator is just one person in a household (that could be true even today, couldn’t it?). The writing did transport me to the place where the narrative was taking place. I could feel Indu’s pride as she defended her father’s role as a freedom fighter , I could feel the desperation of Indians caught in the unrest in Sri Lanka.I could understand Devi’s feeling of helplessness, and clinging to the culture and situations that she is comfortable in. The story itself is just follows Indu’s life but it managed to keep my interest going with all this.

Indu’s bond with the various people in her life is really well depicted. Her closeness to cousin Mani, the desolation she feels when Mani’s parents come back to get her. Her own relationship with her Uncle and Aunt, and finally with the man she falls in love with.

It could have done with better editing. There some contradictory statements. Initially Indu is shown to have a flair for numbers and asking her father to teach her Maths, further down the line she is shown as opting to do ‘boring Maths’. Devi, Indu’s aunt is called ‘Ammamma’ by Indu and Mani. Ammamma means grandma and it feels a little when they also refer to Devi as ‘Devi’ in conversation among themselves. It just didn’t sit right. Not that it is a huge issue, but just inconsistency that better editing could have easily gotten rid of.

An interesting read. A 3.5/5 read for me. Don’t go looking for a twist in the tale but is well worth a read if you like sagas which tell a story of places, and countries along with the protagonist’s life.

About the Author

Anand Nair is from Thalassery, a coastal town in Kerala. Though she has lived in many countries since, she says her instincts are still those of a small-town woman. Now she lives in England but travels to India and Africa frequently.

She was trained as a Mathematics teacher and worked in many African countries as a Mathematics Adviser for the British Council. But it is the English language that inspires her. That and memories of the India she left behind decades ago.

She believes that the majority of Indian women are disadvantaged because they are women. The urban few have got away but India is 90% villages.

She loves gardening and cats.

Her second novel Shards of Sunlight, published in January, 2014, is about this old India that is now gone.

This book is available on Amazon(UK).

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Book Review: The Perfect Groom by Sumeetha Manikandan

A book I got free from Indireads as a ‘joining offer’ on Goodreads. Never to say no to a free book, I downloaded the book that appealed the most to me.

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Nithya has been married to Ashok for three years. Ashok is the perfect groom on paper. Successful, handsome, from a ‘good family’, things that Nithya’s family couldn’t even dream about. Nithya and her sister were brought up by their widowed mother, who survived on the scraps that her step-sister and brother-in-law handed out to them. When Nithya’s uncle brought the aliance from Ashok’s family, it was as if their luck had finally turned. Nithya’s mother could ask for nothing more, she just couldn’t believe her luck. Such a wonderful, son-in-law, and his family who didn’t even care that they had nothing to give as dowry. Nithya had other plans, she had wanted to work, but when things seemed so perfect, she didn’t have much to argue with. After all, she realized how much it would ease the pressure on her mother to see one of her daughters married and ‘settled’.

After the wedding Nithya flew to the US where the true story of her marriage unfolds. A story that is as sad as it could be true of so many brides in our midst. It is in many ways a true reflection of our society. The stigmas, the censure, the one-up-manship, the need to ‘marry off’ a daughter that could so easily ruin lives. It is an easy, quick read, but one that leaves you thinking. I loved the characters, especially Nithya. Her strength and her determination really came through. Her ability to make peace with what fate dealt her and make the most of her life..

I think I enjoyed the book far more than I thought I would. I had thought of it as just a filler book, just to read between two good books, but it turned out to be a surprisingly good read. A 4/5 book for me and I will be on the look out for more books from the author. This is the second interesting Indireads book I’ve read in the last few months. I’m definitely going to be browsing there more often.

About the Author

Sumeetha Manikandan, a freelance content writer is an English literature graduate with a journalism and mass communication diploma. Married to film director K.S. Manikandan, she lives in Mylapore, Chennai with her five-year-old daughter.

This book is available on Indireads.

Book Review: A Newlywed’s Adventures in Married Land by Shweta Ganesh Kumar

The author got in touch with me on Goodreads and asked me if I would like to read and review the book. It sounded interesting enough for me to say yes. I don’t pick up many books because they don’t enthuse me enough. She was prompt to send me an e-book but me being the lazy person I am, took ages to get to reading it. Apologies for the delay, Shweta, it’s all because of my tendencies to ignore ebooks when I have proper books in hand. I’ve got to overcome this, especially given the fact that I’ve got so many interesting titles waiting to be read on the Kindle.

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Mythili is a newly wed. She has just got married to the love of her life, Siddarth(Sid). Mythili has been an independent young woman, working as a crime reporter, covering crimes of the most gruesome kind. Nothing fazed her or so she thought. Sid and Mythili had a passionate long distance relationship and were yearning to start living together after getting married. Mythili quits her job and joins Sid in Philippines.

For the first time in her life, she realises that she is a ‘dependent’, something she finds difficult to stomach. Already finding it hard to come to terms with her new status, she also realises that there is hardly anybody among the expats that she meets who is of her wavelength. Life as an expat is a whole new ball game , and one that Mythili doesn’t know the rules of. And she isn’t quite sure she wants to either. She finds completely herself out of place in her new environment, be it the people she meets or the city that she lives in. To add to her discomfort, all her efforts of finding a job seem to fall flat as well. Her unhappiness and dissatisfaction starts to have a bearing on her life with Sid. She wonders if she would end up joining others around her as a dissatisfied housewife.

It is a charming, often hilarious, very real narrative of Mythili’s new life. I could relate to Mythili’s situation quite a bit, even though I haven’t been in a similar place myself. It is a situation that very common these days. Shweta writes with eloquence about Mythili’s experience of uprooting herself, to follow her heart and then wondering if it if was all wrong, wondering where things started to unravel, and how she picks it back up and puts her life back on track. Relocating yourself to a different place and starting a new life might sound romantic and exciting, it comes with its own challenges and issues.

The author also captures the insulated lives that expats sometimes end up leading. A life centred around themselves and their communities rather than making an effort to integrate themselves with the land that is their home now.

It is a fast paced, absorbing read which keeps you hooked and you find yourself cheering for Mythili. The characters were real, and some of the expats described, they are oh so familiar! I thought Sid was a sweetheart, and the relationship that Sid and Mythili shared was very sweet and heartwarming.

I particularly liked the way each chapter opens with a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Every quote was relevant to what Mythili was going through and I thought it was a brilliant idea by the author. In so many ways Mythili was like Alice falling into a rabbit hole with no control over her circumstances. Would I recommend it, yes of course! It is a 4/5 from me, and a book that I think a lot of us would identify with and enjoy.

About the Author
Shweta Ganesh Kumar is a writer and travel columnist. An alumnus of the Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communication, she worked as Communications Officer for Greenpeace India and as a correspondent with CNN-IBN, before dedicating her life to writing. She has written two other books as well, ‘Between the Headlines-The travails of a TV reporter’ and ‘Coming Up On The Show… The Travails of a news trainee’.

The Mountain of Light by Indu Sundaresan

Of all the books I have reviewed, this is the only one which I actually asked an author for a review copy. How could I not, when it is one of my favourite author’s book? I’ve loved every book of hers so far!

Indu Sundaresan was kind enough to send me an e-book as I was not located in the right geography for a proper book.

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The enchanting story of the Koh-i-Noor, the diamond that captured the imagination of so many people, rulers and common man alike. A tale of loyalty, treachery, duties, betrayals, it has it all. The mountain of Light starts at the time when Shah Shuja and his wife, Wafa Begum are imprisoned, by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Emperor of Punjab. The Koh-i-Noor, is the often unseen, but omnipresent protagonist of this historical saga. A tale of the numerous lives touched and affected by the legendary diamond, be it those who owned it, or those who protected it, or those who yearned for it. The majestic yellow diamond, weighing 186 carats was something everybody wanted their hands on, be it the kings in India, or the British. The diamond for all it’s brilliance was also supposed to carry a curse on its wearer. Only women could wear it on a crown, safely. It was said that the curse brought destruction to men who wore it, which is probably why the Mughals had it embedded in the throne and Maharaja Ranjit Singh wore it as an amulet. The story follows the Koh-i-Noor, from the time Wafa Begum held on to it, as a bargaining tool, to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who kept it safe until he died. After his death, the British took over the Empire of Punjab. Maharaja Dalip Singh, Maharaja Ranjit’s Singh’s eight-year-old son was king only in name, and very soon the Koh-i-Noor was on its way to Queen Victoria, as a ‘present’. Even the journey to England, by ship was not without excitement. The tale then goes on to Maharaja Dalip Singh’s life in England, who followed the diamond to Britain, and finally died in France.

The book is a feast of imagery. Sundaresan’s words transport you to the garden where Wafa Begum has secreted the diamond. Her words bring to life, the richness and the power play of Indian courts, the lavish lifestyles that the royals lived. The generosity of gifts that Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his queen bestows on the visitors to their kingdom, took my breath away. How rich India must have been at that time, if they could gift away diamond necklaces and emeralds shaped as grapes! The life of the British in India was really beautifully portrayed. Some who brought their whole homes into India, to set up their British parlour in the heart of India. Others who mingled, blended into the rich tapestry of India, who understood and respected their hosts, some ruthless, while others sympathetic. Each with their own perspectives, some who felt it was their divine right to rule over India, others who understood how unfair that assumption was. British rule in India, and the mechanics of they managed to annex so much of India is brought out really well.

The book is a beautifully balanced portrayal of the times. Maharaja Dalip Singh’s tale filled me with such sadness.. A boy, a mere boy, made a puppet king, and then indoctrinated in ways that were totally foreign to him and his culture that he soon becomes as British as they come. Only to realize that no matter how British he felt, he would always be foreign to them. His life changes, even though he was a favourite of Queen Victoria’s. It was such a sad end for someone who grew up knowing that he had the world in his hands.

The portrayals of the women in the tale is great. Be it sophisticated Wafa Begum, the clever Maharani Jindan Kaur, the alluring, mysterious Roshni, the British sisters Emily and Fanny Eden, or Lady Login. Despite the number of characters in the book, the author has done a brilliant job of assigning them full characters, none of the characters feel hard done by. And as usual, I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of research that must have gone into writing this book, just like her other books. Especially given the fact that there are so many factual events and characters in the book.

It was a book that I took very long to read, by my standards. Not because it was uninteresting, but because I just had to find out more about all the characters that turned up in the book. I kept looking up events and characters that came up in the story. To my surprise and delight, the author has used so many factual events and fictionalized them so well, that one is left wondering what is fact and what is fiction. Just my kind of book. A book that I hoped wouldn’t end. And when it did, I ended up reading up whatever information I could find about that period in history.

If anything, I wish I could know a bit more of the Kohinoor before it reached the Mughals, but from the look of it, there isn’t much documentation about it. It makes me wonder what other adventures it must have gone through. Its current resting place, must seem so very boring indeed. I love books that transport you to the times another era, and this was one of the best of the genre.

I would definitely recommend it. I would rate it a 4.5/5. Thank you so much, Indu Sundaresan, for the copy of the book.

About the Author
Indu Sundaresan
Indu Sundaresan was born in India and grew up on Air Force bases all over the country. Her father, a fighter pilot, was also a storyteller—managing to keep his audiences captive and rapt with his flair for drama and timing. He got this from his father, Indu’s grandfather, whose visits were always eagerly awaited. Indu’s love of stories comes from both of them, from hearing their stories based on imagination and rich Hindu mythology, and from her father’s writings.

This book is available from Amazon(US), Amazon(India) and Flipkart(India)

Grandma’s Bag of Stories by Sudha Murty

I owe Wanderlustathome for this book. She gifted it to daughter, and both of us read it.

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For most of us, grandparents telling us stories during the holidays have a special place in our memories. The warmth of a grandparent, spinning tales that held us rapt. Sudha Murty’s Grandma’s Bag of Stories is just as charming.

Anand, Krishna, Meena and Raghu arrive at their grandparents’ place in Shiggaon. Ajj’si and Ajja’s house was all readied up for their arrival, with Ajji preparing their favourite snacks. The perfect holiday with wonderful food, fun times with the animals in Ajji-Ajja’s house and best of all, the wonderful stories that Ajji told them.  After all, when Grandma opens her bag, everyone gathers around.

From her bag, emerges tales of kings and cheats, monkeys and mice, scorpions and treasure, and princesses and onions. Unlikely combinations, one might think, but when Grandma is the one telling them, they are just perfect! The book is great for young children to be read to, and for older children(5+, perhaps) to read for themselves. I particularly loved it, because the whole setting took me back to my childhood. The school holidays when we would all travel to our grandparents and had this wonderful time with our cousins.

Daughter loved the stories too. Living abroad, I felt that this was a nice book of stories which helped her connect to India a tiny bit more, reliving her own experiences of hearing stories from her granddad, her favourite part of holidays. Needless to say that it was a book that both of us enjoyed – thoroughly! I haven’t read any of Sudha Murty’s other books, but am certainly looking forward to picking up some more of hers, particularly the children’s ones.

A beautifully written book, which can be enjoyed by children and grown-ups alike. I would rate it a 5/5.

About the Author

Sudha Murty was born in 1950 in Shiggaon in north Karnataka. She did her MTech in computer science, and is now the chairperson of the Infosys Foundation. A prolific writer in English and Kannada, she has written nine novels, four technical books, three travelogues, one collection of short stories, three collections of non-fiction pieces and two books for children.

This has been cross-posted on Indian Moms Connect(IMC). Do hop over and check out the IMC, an amazing place for all things related to parenting.

The Sound of Language: A Novel by Amulya Malladi

I read this book over two months ago, and realized just now that I had forgotten to review it. Blame it on the madness that was my life when we were relocating back to the UK.

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Raihana, a refugee from war-torn Afghanistan has been offered refuge in Denmark, thanks to a distant cousin of hers. She doesn’t know what happened to her husband, doesn’t know how to find out either. All that she can do is try putting away her past, and  forge a new life for herself in a strange land, where she did not even know the language.  As an immigrant in Denmark, she needs to learn Danish, and starts off in a language school. Part of the process of learning Danish is working in some sort of business so that the immigrants learn how to speak Danish and blend themselves with the local culture better. Most of her compatriots end up working stocking shelves in supermarkets, but Raihana apprentices herself to a widowed beekeeper, Gunnar. She thinks that it is rather apt, because she finds that Danish sounds like bees buzzing, to those who don’t understand it.

Gunnar is a recent widower. Ever since his wife’s death, he has not been himself. He has not bothered looking after for himself, or the bees that he and his wife tended to, so lovingly. His friends and family have been worried about him, but soon, they have another worry – his new apprentice, Raihana. Gunnar himself was not jumping with joy at having Raihana in his house. He preferred to be left to his own sorrow. Nothing mattered to him any more. However, once he got over the shock of having Raihana as his assitant, he slowly starts pulling himself together. Slowly, he goes back into the bees, and starts teaching Raihana, everything he knew.  Teaching the young refugee about bee keeping and Danish seemed to have a therapeutic effect on Gunnar himself. Slowly, the immigrant and the widower forge a bond, a friendship, which is not viewed by others around them very kindly.  A friendship that is as strong as it is unexpected. Just when Raihana starts getting comfortable in Danish society, and pushing her past out of her mind, when she is forced to confront certain realities.

I loved the premise of the story. The lives of immigrants, of refugees who are forced to leave their country, sometimes to save their lives, sometimes to forge a better life and the ways in which they integrate themselves into the host country. Some like Raihana, go for it, wholeheartedly, giving it their all, while some, like some of her neighbours, just do what they have to do, or live off benefits. For a change, the book also looks at the situation from the point of view of the people of the host country. The reasons or prejudices why they find it difficult to help the refugees integrate. Of how it takes two to tango,  it is as important for the hosts to be welcoming as it is for the immigrants to want to integrate. And above all, irrespective of the differences in outward appearances, internally, we are all the same, with the same type of emotions, and attachments. The story is also about Raihana as a person and her reactions, and her ways of adapting herself to the new place she finds herself.

It was a beautiful story, a change from the regular run-of-the-mill sorts. The characters were well fleshed out. You could completely understand where each of them were coming from.  The whole situation is handled in a very simplistic way, not really getting into more complex issues surrounding immigrants and their integration into the host country, but I think the book did achieve what it set off to do. There are a few things which do not quite sit right. Like the cover picture. It shows a woman in a hijab, but Raihana herself did not wear one, in fact she resisted pressure from others around her to wear a hijab. But that is a minor point, really, one that did not bother me too much. A book that I would certainly recommend. I would give it a 3.5/5.

About the Author

Amulya Malladi is an acclaimed author of five books. She was born and raised in India. She now lives in Denmark with her husband and sons.

This book is available from Amazon and Flipkart(India). I got it from Blossoms, the second hand book store in Bangalore, and it was an absolute steal!

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

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As The Hero’s Walk opens, Sripathi’s life is already in a state of thorough disrepair. His mother, a domineering, half-senile octogenarian, sits like a tyrant at the top of his household, frightening off his sister’s suitors, chastising him for not having become a doctor, and brandishing her hypochondria and paranoia with sinister abandon. It is Sripathi’s children, however, who pose the biggest problems: Arun, his son, is becoming dangerously involved in political activism, and Maya, his daughter, broke off her arranged engagement to a local man in order to wed a white Canadian. Sripathi’s troubles come to a head when Maya and her husband are killed in an automobile accident, leaving their 7- year-old daughter, Nandana, without Canadian kin. Sripathi travels to Canada and brings his granddaughter home.

The child he disowned, has died, ans suddenly, he has become the guardian of his granddaughter, who he has never seen. How is the family, already in throes of sorrow, and unhappiness going to cope. And what about the little girl who has never seen her grandparents before, never been to India before, and most importantly, has just lost both her parents. How would she manage in a strange environment,living with total strangers? Suddenly, everything has changed for everybody.

It is a beautifully told story of lost opportunities, egos that were bigger than their emotions. And of how fate can change everything in a jiffy. The book captures beautifully the nuances of everyday life. So real that it sometimes is difficult to believe it is fiction. Sripathi’s difficult childhood, his mother’s insecurities effecting both his and his sister’s lives.  Sripathi’s wife Nirmala is a regular dutiful  wife and daughter-in-law. She panders to her mean mother-in-law like all dutiful daughter-in-laws are supposed to, even when the old woman, goes out of her way to be mean to her.  She doesn’t always agree with Sripathi, but finds ways of doing things in a way that does not hurt his ego, but there was one time when she refused to put up with his dictat and showed her disagreement.

The most endearing character is of course, Nandana, the seven year old granddaughter, who has not even completely understood what has happened. Even after she reaches India, in her mind, her parents are still alive. She just needs to walk and reach Canada to get to them. Her confusion, her sadness, her reminiscences of her parents, especially of her dad were beautifully done.

A tale , full of real characters, real situations, sometimes made worse by their own reactions and mindsets. You alternate between sympathy and annoyance with Sripathi’s behaviour. On one hand, you do feel sorry for him, and on the other, you get annoyed that he can be so bull-headed. A tale of several lives, entwined in traditions and values, which are at times best left behind, as the times change. As you read the book, you understand where Sripathi’s mother’s controlling behaviour comes from, but despair that she does not see the way she wrecks lives all around her. While sad, it is also a sweet story in how, people come together in crisis, leave behind beliefs that they might have clung on to, all their lives. And how one big change could herald lots of (good)changes for them.

I loved the story, loved the details, the descriptions, loved the characterisations. Another book that transports you into the world that they are describing. If I do have a complaint, it would be that in the beginning, it took a while before the story picked up some pace. I would give it a 4/5.

About the Author

Anita Rau Badami is writer of South Asian Diaspora living in Canada. She was born in India, and now lives in Canada. She has 4 books to her credit. You can read more about her here.

This book can be bought on Amazon and Flipkart(India).