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.

A maelstrom of emotions

I’ve been struggling to verbalise what I feel since my city started sinking on the 1st of December. It’s taken me 13 days to finally sit down and attempt to put these thoughts into words. Forgive me if I’m not entirely coherent, for these past days have been extraordinary in more ways than one.

The first day of December will remain forever etched in my mind. Only a stroke of incredibly good luck got me out of office and back to my parents’ home that evening. Things were still looking manageable when I got home around 6 that evening. Little did I know that the next three days would be a roller coaster of emotions. Little did I realise that this city that I so love would sink in ways that none of us ever imagined it would. Even when the power went off at 8 that night, I only grumbled a bit about the inconvenience caused, never realising that parts of my city were already under water. Only later that evening when I started seeing tweets about people stranded on their way home did I realise that this wasn’t going to end just yet. I remember being amazed at the generosity of common people like you and me, who threw their homes open to complete strangers stranded in the rains, offering them food, wifi and a place to sleep. I didn’t know then that this was only the beginning.

For the next three days, cut off from the rest of the world, with no power or network, I didn’t quite know what was happening. The road before the house was waist deep in water. Inner roads were flooded till the neck. Back home, I managed to ascertain that S and the FIL were fine but had no power or network either. I heard from friends, neighbours and well-wishers that Nanganallur was fine and with very little flooding. I heaved a sigh of relief. I got my parents out to the safety of my aunt’s house and we all treated it like a quirk of fate that brought the family together under a single roof after all these years. Even when my cousin called on the evening of Wednesday in panic asking if we needed to be rescued, we put it down to unnecessary panic. We didn’t know that people were indeed being rescued by helicopters in many parts of the city.

It’s only when I got reconnected to the Internet on Friday afternoon did I come to realise the magnitude of the tragedy. I was seeing tweets for help, cries of distress, common citizens rally together to hold afloat a sinking city. And by then, the worst was already over. As I progressively got back to civilisation, I was struck. Struck by random strangers answering calls for help. People in other cities reaching out to volunteers and the rescue forces on the ground to provide information. I saw common people come together and cook meals for the displaced. I saw places of worship throw their doors open to everyone and shelter them for the days to come. What I saw filled my heart with an unspeakable gratitude for the goodness innate in people. I personally sent out an appeal for rescue of a trapped friend that was retweeted and shared about 100 times. It warms my heart that help reached less than three hours after the first appeal went out on Twitter. Used as I am to seeing bitterness and rancour, outrage and politics, I was surprised that my Twitter feed was almost entirely filled with tweets asking for or offering help. That is still the case, 13 days after the tragedy. I see people still tweet about rehabilitation, relief, clean-up and the like.

Born and raised in Chennai, I always associated my hometown with a distinct lack of respect for the other. Friends hailing from places like Coimbatore, including and especially S, have never failed to point out that Chennaiites lack basic manners. But in the aftermath of the floods, I realise that a sea of humanity still exists in this city. Ten years later, the death toll and the flooding will become a statistic, but those who helped me, my family and friends will forever remain etched in my memory. I may not remember the day the roads of my city turned into an ocean, but I will always remember random strangers who offered help unsolicited, asked after my well-being, and ensured my family and friends were safe.

Maybe it required a wall of water to turn this selfish, disrespecting mass of people into something we are all proud of. They say disaster brings out the worst in people. But, for me, this disaster has indeed brought out the best of Chennai. May you always remain this way, my beloved city.