Of love, hate, passion and fury

Have you loved someone so much that when the relationship breaks, or is refused, it turns to hate? Love and hate are but two sides of the same coin. If you relate to this or think this sounds about right, you should probably read Andromache by Jean Racine.

A masterpiece of 17th Century French literature, Andromache is a story of love and hate. It’s a story of rage, fury and passion. For the most passionate are also the most ruthless. For we know that an object of affection can very quickly turn into an object of rage. It is a story of a heart torn between love and hate. Of a heart that refuses to recognise or respect one’s duty. Filial, national, royal duties mean nothing compared to the passion its characters possess for the people they love. A son can be murdered, a brother beheaded. Doesn’t matter. All the heart knows is love. A love so dangerous that when spurned, it could turn to murderous rage.

Andromache is a powerful story of human emotions, both fascinating and terrifying. For, how many of us have the ability to rein these emotions in? Not me. Not a vast majority of my fellow humans. Perhaps that’s why this resonates so deeply within our hearts even 300 years after it was written.

I was 20 when I first read it. I fell in love with the story, the raw honesty of the emotions. I could relate. I’ll even go so far as to say that I am probably the Hermione of Andromache. Capable of love and hate in equal intensity. Capable of destroying what I once loved. Age and experience may have tamed that fire, but hasn’t quite extinguished it. For the heart always wants what it wants. Right?

For the love of the written word…

Ever read a book that transports you into another world? Ever read one that makes you wish you inhabited that world instead of the one you actually do? One that makes the pages of history come alive in front of your eyes?
If you’ve never known what it feels like to get so involved in a book that you even forget to breathe, then you haven’t really lived. The written word holds a magical charm that’s hard to resist. It’s a world of its own, with no barriers or expectations. A well-written book is equal to a thousand movies rolled into one. It’s magical because it gives wings to imagination. 

My first tryst with historical novels was Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan. Ah! Who can forget the handsome Arulmozhi, or the stunning Kundavai. I don’t know if these people actually looked the way I imagined them to be. But, for me, it’s the image that will remain forever etched in memory. Since then, tens of historical novels have fascinated me. The Ibis Trilogy and The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, White Mughals by William Dalrymple, even Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. Each of these books have made me fall a little deeper in love with history. 
Don’t believe me? Just pick up a book and read. Let go of inhibitions. Let the story carry you forward. You’ll never regret it. 

2015: The year I rediscovered the joy of reading

2015 has been a roller-coaster in more ways than one. But, if there is one good thing about this year, it is that I rediscovered by love for the written word. Reading is homecoming. It is joy. It is getting lost in a world of words and becoming a part of it. Today, as I look back on the year past, I realise I’ve actually managed to read more books than I even thought was possible when I embarked on that challenge a year ago. So, here we go, with a list of books I’ve read, in no particular order.

Some were great, others were mediocre. Some others were simply bad. But, no time spent on a book can ever go waste. So, take your pick and share the love.

  1. Shikandi and Other Stories They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik
  2. God is a Gamer by Ravi Subramaniam
  3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  4. Aavarana – The Veil by SL Bhyrappa
  5. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  7. Sita’s Sister by Kavita Kane
  8. Ajaya: Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan
  9. Rise of Kali: Duryodhana’s Mahabharata by Anand Neelakantan
  10. Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh
  11. Yagnaseni: The Story of Draupadi by Pratibha Ray
  12. Domechild by Shiv Ramdas
  13. Mistress by Anita Nair
  14. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
  15. Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
  16. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
  17. Never Go Back by Lee Child
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Book review: Asura: The Tale of the Vanquished

This is perhaps the first time I’m actually writing a book review. That the book is so bad, is what spurred me on to actually writing this review. As a reader, when I pick up a book to read, I expect it to be interesting, engaging and internally consistent. Sadly, this one is none of the above. Having read Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, I expected a much better book from Anand Neelakantan. It’s always interesting to read the story from the point of view of the underdog and the story of Ravana, the Asura king is no exception. It is this curiosity that made me buy the book. But, this book is so disappointing at so many levels, that I don’t know where to start.

The plot & storyline

The success of a good writer is in sticking to the accepted plot of the traditional telling and still managing to convey a radically different viewpoint. This is what books like Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Ajaya by the very same author manage to do. Those books do not radically change the plot of the traditional telling in an attempt to justify the doings of the antagonist. This is Asura’s primary failure. It overlooks basic attributes of Ravana’s character in Valmiki’s Ramayana to paint an entirely different picture of who he is. The writer conveniently sidesteps Ravana’s parentage, his knowledge of the Vedas, his love for music and his devotion to Shiva. Instead, Ravana is portrayed as a rejected half-caste, suffering in poverty and burning with the ambition to become the feared Emperor of Lanka. Towards the end of the book, the author tries to make some amends by mentioning, in passing, the codification of musical notes and Ravana’s expertise in playing the Rudraveena. Unfortunately, the mention is too brief and unsatisfying to add depth to Ravana’s character.

Secondly, this entire sub-plot of Sita actually being Ravana’s daughter seems to exist in the book solely to justify her abduction by Ravana. Given the context and the narrative, this sub-plot falls flat on its face, failing to really rouse the reader to internalising that relationship. At one point, Ravana seems almost apologetic that Sita is his daughter, unwilling to disclose the true nature of that relationship to Sita herself. To me, Ravana did not make a very convincing father.

As for internal consistency, the writer seems to be in love with the idea of the oppressed dark-skinned masses belonging to the Dravidian Asura race. First of all, the Valmiki Ramayana barely distinguishes the good and the bad on the basis of skin colour. Rama, the hero, is dark-skinned, as is his wife. Ravana, the principal antagonist is fair-skinned. The heroes and the villains in the traditional telling possess an entire range of complexions between these extremes. Somehow, this portrayal of an Indian apartheid just does not cut it.

The narrative

For any good book, a good narrative is essential, as is a good editor. Neelakantan seems to have lost out, not because his editor was bad, but because he doesn’t seem to have one. Sentences are long-winded and repetitive. The narrative is complicated for no reason. And to make things worse, grammar and spelling errors abound. If I’m paying 300 bucks to buy a book, I’d at least expect basic typos to be corrected.

Then, there is this character called Bhadra. What purpose does he serve really? All he does is lament his own fate, rant about the rape and murder of his first wife and child, and the rape and impregnation of his second. When he’s not doing that, he is grovelling at Ravana’s feet despite the fact that it was Ravana who actually raped his second wife. Why exactly do we need him in the book? The alternating points of view are actually tiring to read and add absolutely no depth or value to the story.

The characters

Practically every character is frustratingly unidimensional. Ravana is arrogant and foolish, rejecting all so-called Deva traditions, and not really upholding too many Asura ones either. Then pray, why is he our hero? Vibhishana is a coward and a traitor with no redeeming factor. Rama is a coward too, not to mention suspecting his wife of infidelity. Kumbhakarna is a drunkard, addicted to opium to boot. Sita is, well, either dumb or a complete idiot. I can’t quite decide which one. Bhadra shouldn’t actually exist in this book, for he has no role. What more can I say?

For the first time in many years, I actually skipped about 50 pages of a book in an attempt to just finish the book. If you want to really read a good book on mythology, don’t pick this one. Palace of Illusions is a better choice. Or Karna’s Wife. Or even Valmiki Ramayana.