River of Smoke : -“…of Greed,of Corruption,of Broken will and of Tales that would last Centuries”

River of Smoke

3.5/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“The flowers of Canton are immortal and will bloom forever”  ~Amitav Ghosh

And so i hope they shall, as long as they are not Opium poppies of course. The second installment in the Ibis Trilogy, had a lot to live up to. Understandably so, as Sea of Poppies had set the bar impossibly high. But to me at least, it delivered almost everything that was expected of it. The Opium Wars both 1 and 2, have had a very profound effect on the world, so much so that its ripples could still be felt even now, not only for China but also for India and for most of south east Asia. They can be felt in the Chinese anti west stance, or in India’s struggle to boost up its economy. But this event so critical to history is often neglected, as to the questions of, why it happened? could it have possibly been avoided? Did diplomacy play no part? this story provides ample answers. Opium harmed both the producer and the consumer, only the seller, as it seems profited from its trade.

And its traders are the people that we follow in this story. In Sea of Poppies, we traveled across Bihar to Bengal, in India, the regions abused by the Honorable (Ahm! Ahm!) East India Company for Opium production (against the wishes of the farmers, against any basic human decency), until finally the Ibis traveled down the Ganga to the Bay of Bengal and into the Indian Ocean. Investors and producers of Opium were, primarily, the people we dealt with. In, River of Smoke we travel eastward still, though not on the Ibis, to the Nicobar islands, to Malacca, Singapore, Macau and finally Canton. And who better to travel these waters and ports with, than the traders and traffickers who made this route famous in the first place. And so we reacquaint ourselves with “Paulette” our french orphan on her journey from ‘Mauritius’ to ‘Hong Kong’ in search of a fabled flower, With “Neel” our doomed raja and his life as a freeman. In addition , to a host of new characters, like “Behram Modee”  father of our opium addict “Ah fatt” , “Robin Chinnery” an old artist acquaintance of ‘Paulette’. And see the world of Canton from their eyes, one a Parsi opium trader of renown from Bombay and the other a ‘bastard’ painter from Calcutta. Some of the old characters from the first book are passingly mentioned, or make brief appearances without ever taking the center stage. Their stories I suspect have been saved for book 3 which I think would focus on soldiers and the actual armed Opium conflict. This book however gives you the build up to it. To the events in ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 factories.

13 factories
Canton Harbor and the 13 Factories with their respective flags 

This book too like the previous one, is, exceedingly well researched and written. Without taking too much liberty with history, a lot of historically accurate events and people play a central part in the story. The use of these authentic characters gives the story a life of its own. But unlike the previous one, this tale was a slow burner, you feel no rush to reach the end as quickly as possible. On the contrary, you live through the journey, basking in the author’s very detailed descriptions of the landscape of our various destinations, a glimpse into their societies, even the fl-aura and fauna these places had. More than once, I went online to read about a particular flower or shrub (like the Golden Camellia), or researched about a historical figure mentioned in the book (Lin Zexu obviously, but many others as well like George ChinneryCharles Elliot etc etc). The point is, the book used a LOT of information which seems quite obvious, it being a Historical fiction and whatnot, but it used it in such a way as to make you curious about them. The bulk of the tale takes place in Canton, the single entry point available to foreigners for trading with China. The city fascinated me, more so ‘Fanqui Town’ and the 13 Factories, these places, the focal point of the story, were amazingly detailed.

The plot as I mentioned, was not as exciting as the first book but the charm of the book lies in its rediscovery of forgotten worlds and lives. And the best part, the book doesn’t leave you hanging, you could gobble it up and rest with contentment before you feel hungry again. I was impressed by Mr. Ghosh’s style of making the abrupt ending of the first book seem a proper ending during the first few chapters of the second one. His style of jumping between timelines before engrossing in the story is intriguing. The book deserves all the praise and nominations it has been awarded.  I recommend this series to any and all history buffs, these were exciting times, these are intriguing stories and to experience them with the pleasure of fiction makes it infinitely more fun.

Sea of Poppies : – “Darkly addictive as Opium itself.”

Sea_of_Poppies_Ghosh_amitav

4/5 Stars GoodReads Rating System

Amitav Ghosh, to my shame was a name that I knew only as the receiver of the ‘Padma Shri’ the 4th highest civilian Honor in India. Despite the shower of awards and recognition bestowed upon his famous works, specially in my beloved genre of Historical Fiction, I had not read any of his books before this. THAT, I assure you is surely gonna change because I have never seen Justice done to history as intricately as in “Sea of Poppies”.

This saga, being the first of three, initially tests your patience, you have to give it time which is not the easiest thing to do in a book spanning close to 500 pages. It introduces you to a host of characters in 1838 India, when the British gluttony for the opium profits knew no bounds, and in Bihar and Bengal where once the farms were green with rice or gold with wheat, there now resided a Sea of poppies. And thus our band of misfits consist of a village woman victim to such harvest in every sense possible, a mulatto American freedman who by a chance of fate finds himself among Gentleman of the empire, A raja reduced to nothing, a french orphan with an Indian heart, a Young boatman with dreams of the sea, an eccentric ‘munshi’, a half Chinese half Parsi opium addict and others as diverse and interesting as the era itself. The character building in this novel is phenomenal, Mr. Ghosh takes his time with each and every single one, shaping it page by page, this sometimes feel a bit cumbersome as you restlessly wait for the journey to begin aboard the ship, as you know it will. But no, he makes you pay attention, to invest in the characters before they do anything of note. This book sets the board for the coming story and thus as I have said earlier demands a bit of patience. But the wait is ultimately rewarding. Mr.Ghosh’s attention to detail is commendable,  his research I believe would have been quite extensive and it shows in the book. The language used by many of the characters is a mix of Hindustani and English, With each character having their own style and way with words, from the Irish laced sailor slang of the first mate to the Bhojpuri of ‘Deeti’, the village woman, though being an Indian I had considerably less trouble following what was being said but to a foreign audience that style of writing might take some getting used to,  though the author has I believe tried to ease this issue by cleverly including “THE IBIS CHRESTOMATHY” at the end of the book , providing a glossary of words used in the tale, their meaning and origins. But even so, it could sometimes hamper the reading experience, but the thing to appreciate even in this, is the writer’s total dedication to the authenticity of the era , and the characters. This I believe adds an extra quirk to the story and takes nothing away.

The only issue that bothered me was the abrupt end of the book, after my initial “What the..” reaction, some restless moments were spent feverishly searching my kindle and laptop making sure that I have the next installment ready for consumption, much like an “afeemkhor” (opium addict) I imagine, confirming I have the means for the next fix. As I have read this in 2017 and all the three books are out, this again was not much trouble, but to a reader in 2008, the exasperation level would have been quite high. So, yes, that cliffhanger ending was a bit uncalled for, nothing was resolved, nothing was even close to closure. But it is what it is.

The book overall is splendidly written, the hypocrisy of the raj has been portrayed as is. No watering down, the narrative from a third man’s perspective as we experience through ‘Zachariah’, our mulatto freedman, adds substantial clarity and effect to the story. It is a great historical fiction in all aspects, checking every box essential for an epic tale and series. I will be moving on to the next one immediately, out of compulsion, curiosity or admiration I cannot say, maybe all three and why not, as William Styron aptly said  “A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading”. This book fits that description to a T.
 

 

 

Anansi Boys :- “The Crack Jacks among Demi Gods”

Anansi Boys

4/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

Books that can make you chuckle, snort out water or tease out warm smiles are ‘absatively’ the kind of books that you should bother people to pick up, because you know, everyone can use little smiles. This is one such book. This lighthearted and humorous story, of the West African Trickster Spider God ‘Anansi’ and his sons, was fun, the tickling kind of fun and this is what makes it different from “American Gods” ,the first book in Gaiman’s “The Gods walk among us” world,  which was comparatively a bit serious, dark, brooding and somewhat intense.

Neil Gaiman’s books have a dreamy world, and coming from a country and community which is high on myths and epic stories about gods & demigods, this particular dreamy world was all too familiar. In this world Gods exist,and they not only exist but live with and among us everyday, the old gods of Norse, or of Vedas, or of the African jungles, all of them, they live, they love, they die (well at least for sometime). The story starts with ‘Fat Charlie’ a simple accountant, quite average in every way, who had been embarrassed countless times by his father during childhood, and for whom ‘Sorry’ has now become a default reaction. But his carefully set mundane life gets tossed upside down, when his father dies on a Florida karaoke stage, you see, nobody told ‘Fat charlie’ that his dad was a God or that he was not his only son. He has a brother, Spider, who is more like his dad than he himself ever was. And thus starts a story that will leave you grinning, I love stories like that, Stories that don’t take themselves too seriously even when they are being completely serious. You would chuckle at Spider’s slyness, you would laugh at Fat charlie’s misery without feeling too bad about it, you would roll your eyes at Grahame Coat’s (Fat charlie’s boss) delusions. Mr. Gaiman’s wit is marvelous, so is the character development and the funky plot of the book. This was in all sense a feel good book, it says a lot with good old proverbs bundled anew. The stories of Anansi (Well technically every story is an Anansi story, apparently) were a great addition,  Mr. Nancy with his green fedora and lime yellow gloves, strike as a jolly good God if you ask me. And so is ‘Fat Charlie’s’ story, his discovery of himself, a jolly good story indeed, worthy of an Anansi’s son.

The book is wonderful, I really liked it, to all the myth hunters and humor suckers out there, pick this one up, take a load off from that Shakespeare, or from those realistic war tales, put your feet up on a table, sip a glass of lemonade and read this, possibly with a green fedora on your head if you can manage it.

 

Half a Rupee Stories : – “By the Great Wordsmith ‘Gulzar’ “

Half A Rupee Stories

3/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“When you face your fear, you become familiar with it and familiarity makes it lose its meaning, loosen its grip—fear ceases to be fear.” ~ Gulzar

I so wanted to love this, so very very much, because i LOVE ‘Gulzar’ Sahab‘s words, oh just read his poems, his songs, his ‘Shers‘, ‘Ghazals‘, ‘Nazms‘ and you will know what i am talking about. You will know love, happiness, heartache, sadness, melancholy. You will know the sheer scale of power two written lines could posses. He is one of the greatest wordsmith I have ever read and we are fortunate to be able to experience his work be it song lyrics, be it poems, be it his directed films or be it his stories.

This little collection was a mixed basket, I picked it up because of, you guessed it, ‘Gulzar‘. But if i say that i was totally satisfied with it, then that would be a lie. Out of the 25 short stories in this book some were amazing, invoking deep pangs of emotion that we have come to expect from a Gulzar’s poem or song, but some just lacked that kind of punch and all of the 25 had an undertone of loss, death and that classic tinge of sensitivity that He possess, which made it all an albeit melancholy experience. Every story had a message, this is just what He does, Gulzar Sahab will always make you think about life, in every and any way possible using any and every ruse possible. The book is divided into 8 parts with 3 stories each (Part II has 4), with each part focusing on a different theme. The themes as best as i could decipher them were Partition and Reminiscing; The downtrodden and their ways; War and Peace; Survival and Insurgency; Loss and coping. This book could be included both as fiction and non fiction because many of the stories are true life events or experiences morphed in the form of a story, Reading about legends of Indian literature like Sahir Ludhianvi and Javed Akhtar was specially interesting. Out of all of the 25 some notable stories that i liked were : –

  1. Kuldip Nayyar and Pir Sahib (P1)
  2. Sahir and Jaadu (P1)
  3. The Charioteer (P2)
  4. Hilsa (P4)
  5. The Search (P4)
  6. Swayamvar (P5)
  7. Ghugu and Jamuni (P6)

These 7 stories particularly spoke to me, The reminiscing of Kuldip nayyar, The lovely bond between Sahir and Jaadu, The sweet musings of the ‘Mehant’ in the Charioteer, the horrible revelation in Hilsa, Kashmir in the Search, The instinctive resolve in Swayamvar, And of course the beautiful take on love in Ghugu and Jamuni( i mean a crow and a kite, that was just too good, one emotional expressive lover and the other cold, unfeeling & unresponsive)  were all impact full stories indeed.

The book leaves an overall mixed vibe, Gulzar sir are a master of prose, his writings will leave you poignant and thoughtful, so if melancholy and deep reflection is your thing pick this one up, bear with a few stories if need be, because all in all it would not disappoint.

 

 

The Rise Of SIVAGAMI _1 : – ‘..And Perhaps that of Indian Fantasy too!’

sivagami being badass
“SIVAGAMI DEVI” as played by ‘Ramya Krishnan’ in the Movie ‘BAHUBALI’

“That is my WORD and my word is LAW!”  ~Sivagami Devi

When you see a character who has just slitten the throat of a traitorous general, ordered the death of all the treasonous nobles in the kingdom, declared that SHE will decide who’s to be the next King, with blood still on her face calmly sitting and breastfeeding two young princes in the throne room, the words “Epically Badass” fell short of doing her any kind of justice. That was how we were introduced to ‘The Queen Mother’ of ‘Mahishmathi’ Sivagami Devi in S. S. Rajamouli‘s blockbuster epic ‘Bahubali‘. The character and her fabulous portrayal was riveting.  And thus i suspect started Rajamouli’s dilemma, the world he created, the characters (specially the supporting ones) he introduced were so complex and had a depth that he just couldn’t cover or satisfactorily show in 2 movies. He wanted the world to know them further to live in that world a little more intimately, so, he approached an up and coming author from the south whose previous works he had enjoyed, Mr. Anand Neelakantan, gave him the designation of “Story Hunter” and let him loose to discover and develop the epic world of ‘Mahishmathi’. And thus came to be “The Rise Of SIVAGAMI“, the first installment in what seems to be a worthwhile Indian epic Fantasy trilogy set in the time period before the story of ‘Bahubali’.

The-Rise-of-Sivagami-by-Anand-Neelkantan-Bahubal

3/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

This was my second book by Anand Neelakantan, The First one “ASURA“, the reason for his widespread fame, didn’t appeal to me all that much and so i was apprehensive about picking up this one. But curiosity got the better of me and i am glad that it did. I won the book in Goodread’s Giveaways and what a ride it has been. Firstly, Watch the movie (i suspect this was a major reason for the commission of this book), Secondly, even if you don’t this will work just fine (But you will watch the movie afterwards anyway, trust me, these are clever clever people indeed.). Anand Neelakantan has a specific way of writing, he loves being on the bad guy’s side, by his own admission this was his first book where he wrote for a positive character but i felt that his habit of coloring things grey has stayed in this one too. Which, adds a splendid ‘anti hero’ flavor to the book. The world of ‘Mahishmathi’ can be experienced in more detail, with its social and power structures sketched out as well as all that ails that world from slavery to the draconian social norms of the ‘Varna System’. The story focuses not only on the three main characters with which the audience(of ‘Bahubali’) would already be familiar with Sivagami, Kattapa (The ever loyal slave) & Bijjala (the arrogant prince) but adds a host of new ones too like ‘Keki the eunuch’ , ‘Skandadasa the deputy prime minister’,’Gundu ram the lovable orphan’, ‘Shivappa the rebel’, ‘Jeemotha the pirate’ and many more. The book unfolds as a series of POV’s so you get to enjoy different characters in their element. The story itself was good though i feel it could have been better, but considering the 108 days deadline (that’s how long he had apparently) you can’t really fault the author. The writing thus feels patchy sometimes with the characters being too obvious in their dialogues, giving a somehow rough feel to the reading experience. But the imagination and expansion of the world was glorious. We get to know some new kingdoms and the overall picture of the power hierarchy among them and the secret to the success of the kingdom of ‘Mahishmathi’.

Other than the awesome tale of ‘Sivagami’ and the brilliant moral conundrums & struggles of ‘Kattapa’, the element that works for the book or rather for the whole trilogy is the suspense of the unanswered questions. How did a girl who wanted to see all the royals dead, ended up being the Queen Mother?  What happened to Bijjala ? What became of ‘Mahadeva’ the young prince and his crush ? What is the ‘Manuscript’ all about ? And Why in the name of all that is possible and impossible did Kattapa did what he did in the End of the movie ? ( I know i am digressing a bit here but well IT is the burning question).

So, yes, i would read the next two. And yes, i feel that these books are a welcome addition to the Indian Fantasy genre. I just hope Mr. Neelakantan uses a bit more finesse in the upcoming ones. The books are quite alluring, and i suspect after the release of the next and final movie (This April’s end i am told) that allure would go up ten fold. So, read on my dear friends and experience the glory of this fantastical world. “Jai! ‘Mahishmathi'” (Hail! ‘Mahishmathi’).

 

Mistborn: The Final Empire :- ‘An epic tale of epic proportions’

Mistborn-The Final Empire

4/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“Plots behind plots, plans behind plans. There was always another secret.” ~Brandon Sanderson, The Final Empire

Ahh the pure wonder and chaos of a brilliantly written, location neutral, completely new world, of High Fantasy. I was made aware of Brandon Sanderson as the person chosen to complete “The Wheel of Time” saga,which is hailed as ‘one of the greatest epics of fantasy’ (And Which i have still not picked up, i know, i know, but 11000 pages my friends, that is a big commitment.).  So, this was my first ever Sanderson novel (don’t roll your eyes i know i have a lot of catching up to do) and it was glorious.

Epic and specially high fantasy books have more or less a standard story structure, a world in trouble, a Dark lord, an innocent hero/heroine unaware of his/her abilities with a tough life, a brilliant teacher or guide who shows them the way. Darkness vs the light, Might vs Right and so on and so forth. But the real allure of fantasy isn’t its predictable theme but its awesome creation of well..Creation, a completely different world with its own set of rules, lives, people and troubles. Be it ‘Lord of the Rings’, Be it ‘Game of Thrones’ or Be it Hogwarts and ‘Harry Potter’,  The world of “Mistborn” is one such brilliantly created world, where magic makes sense in its own way. Mr. Sanderson has kept the writing uncomplicated, using the brilliance of its plots and depths of its characters as the main attraction to rope in readers and it works out spectacularly.

The Story follows ‘Kelsier’ (our hero and guide) and ‘Vin’ (our heroine and budding student) in a world where the tyrant ‘Lord Ruler’ has ruled for a 1000 years as an Immortal God, a ‘Sliver of infinity’. Subjugating the people known as ‘Skaa’ for as long as anyone can remember, in his realm the ‘Final Empire’. The story i have to admit was interesting, more so was the way magic works, ‘Allomancy’ and ‘Feruchemy’ , their association with metals, their rules and restrictions were all very brilliantly constructed. The way ‘Mistborns’ work in the story will leave you with the same sense of wonder that ‘Wizards’ did in ‘Harry Potter’. And that’s not all, the best part was its Characters , the outfit of ‘Misting’ Thieves and their different personas was quite enjoyable, half the fun in any novel i believe is how lively the characters are, how interesting and different, well developed and engrossing. The Charming and confident ‘Kelsier’ , The smooth and sly ‘Breeze’, the soft spoken gentleman butler ‘Sazed’ and of-course the strong and ever conflicted ‘Vin’. Mr. Sanderson has started something awesome with this book and i sincerely hope that the awe it inspires will continue in the trilogy as i read further. Another thing that i loved was that although this book leaves you curious as to ‘What next’, it doesn’t compel you to pick up the next one immediately, with all its unanswered questions it still very effectively stands alone, without giving you the annoyance of a cliffhanger. Soak it in and move on to the next one at your leisure,  it almost seems to say. Much appreciated sir, very much appreciated.

I recommend this to every fantasy lover, this is a genuinely pleasurable read, simple, sorted and brilliant. With all the right flavors of an enjoyable High Fantasy.

An Era of Darkness: ‘A Bashing Well Deserved & WELL Given’

An era of Darkness

4/5 Stars Goodreads Rating System

“It’s a bit rich to oppress, enslave, kill, torture, maim people for 200 years and then celebrate the fact that they are democratic at the end of it..” ~Shashi Tharoor

I could have literally kissed the man, Ever Since Mr.Tharoor’s famed Oxford Speech , his popularity has grown by leaps and bounds, and so too my admiration for his views. The view point that “Colonization has actually helped ‘colonized’ people.” has always  baffled me, and the argument is made not only by people who have absolutely no idea about what Actual Colonization entailed for the indigenous people of those colonized lands, but also by great scholars, historians and politicians from the previously colonizer countries and also (‘to my utter annoyance & disbelief’) some from the previously colonized ones as well.

This book is the counter argument and to my mind the ONLY argument when it comes to judging the British Raj and its implications on India. Mr. Shashi Tharoor, has taken all the arguments made by the ‘Raj’ Apologists and supporters of colonization and systematically destroyed them all with class and flair. This book is the hard truth , it is blunt in its criticism, well researched and well articulated while presenting its reasoning and absolutely spot on in dismantling the myth  of the apparent “Goodness” of the Raj. If you are looking for a detailed account of the British Occupation of India as per its timeline, then this is not it, but this is far far better than mere dates and events, this provides you the detailed account of the EFFECT of British Colonization on India, on its every possible aspect, Economy (Irrefutable logic and Reasoning on this one), Society (‘divide et impera’, the one thing no matter what, i will never forget nor forgive the British for), British law(The oxymoron of the Raj), Development (The Railways! you say,Read the book my dear dear friend), Fair Trade (pfft!), and much more. This will resonate with every Indian and not only US, with every single person out there who has stones enough to stare at the truth with naked eyes be he/she in Africa or Europe. History without context is useless, and Context is what this book provides aplenty. Add to that the brilliantly composed arguments by Mr. Tharoor (Thank God i read this on a kindle, his vocab is formidable.) laced with wit, facts and sarcasm appropriately.

People might call this biased side of an argument, but when there is only one credible argument the question of biases doesn’t even arrive. This is what this book proves. This is how we should see the past with logic, reason, facts , answering the Whys and Hows rather than just the when and wheres. I recommend this to everyone, specially anyone interested in Indian History ,and more so for anyone who is interested in knowing how to argue and refute an argument, Mr.Tharoor has carefully and wisely picked comments and credible reports from history proving his point and disproving the opposite arguments, the book tastes like a debate taking on everyone out there remotely on the opposite side, but this is a taste which is to be had with all its necessary bitterness. Because the most potent and effective medicines are always unpleasant to taste.