Sunday, January 15, 2017

Gurus: Stories of India's Leading Babas (Book Review)

Gurus: Stories of India's Leading Babas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Find the review here too :
Name of the book: Gurus – Stories of India’s Leading Babas
Name of the author: Bhavdeep Kang
Publisher: Westland Limited
Genre: Non-Fiction
Price: Rs. 295
Number of pages: 240

Also available as an ebook

In the author’s own words: “This book is not a piece of investigative journalism; definitely not an exercise in PR. This book neither debunks nor celebrates the subjects. Also, it isn’t a collection of thumbnail biographies. Nor is it a work of scholarship. It is not, even remotely, a philosophical study, a sociological commentary or a psychological analysis. It is a peek at the men (and woman) behind the guru personas.” She has based their profiles on subjective impressions, interviews and research (a lot of it), viewing them from as many angles as possible. However, her reporter’s instincts couldn’t be sublimated at all times and she has analysed and even criticised the gurus’ statements or actions. In the entire process of scurrying in and out of ashrams and meeting devotees to cover varied angles, she found herself grouping them into three categories: the revelationists, the quondam skeptics and the seekers.

India is a land of diversity with almost equal weightage given to doctors, teachers, babas and yogis. While skeptics would question the importance given to certain babas who according to them are fooling around and minting money with their convoluted tips and advises to the needy, there’s no doubting the fact that they have an important place in our society. If it wasn’t so, these yogis wouldn’t have made a mark and considered worthy enough to write a book on – in all their established eccentricities.

A journalist with over 30 years of experience, it is no surprise that Bhavdeep managed to pull off a book on some of the gurus who have grabbed international headlines and who surprise people and make them wonder about their journeys from obscurity to fame, the clout they carry and the enigma surrounding them.

Her witty writing style made sure that this book remained a page-turner until the very end. If it weren’t for her writing, this could have been a very dry read.

Coming to the subjects, she has peeked into the lives of nine gurus (The reason for number nine has also been described in the Introduction). They are: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (The Pop Guru), Dhirendra Brahmachari (Indira Gandhi’s Guru), Chandraswami (The Shaman-Shyster), Mata Amritanandamayi (The Divine Hug), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (The Art of Selling Love), Morari Bapu (The Chronicler of Lord Rama), Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev (The Metaphysical Mystic), Baba Ramdev (The Virtual Guru), Bhaiyyuji Maharaj (The Metrosexual Seer).

India’s godmen are among its most colourful, cultural products and the cover page does justice to that fact. Attractive in red and yellow, with ‘Gurus’ emblazoned on an image of the sun, it sets the tone for the read. However, do not be mistaken by the spiritual, mystic appearance of the cover. It, in no way, professes a particular religion. So atheists and agnostics need not panic! In fact, it is a worthwhile read for all, irrespective of the religion they follow or the lack of it.

Also, there are certain habits that can amuse the reader and some values that can be imbibed from the lives of these godmen – some do not mind marketing themselves and their teachings (How else will people know where to find help?); some give lessons of following a simple lifestyle (no matter what their own realities are); some emphasise on love, brotherhood, charity and the need for empathy and compassion (heavy words for sure, but not without roots); one of them consumes food prepared with the water from the Ganges and drinks water too from there (even though I do not know how safe that is considering today’s scenario where pollution in the Ganges is topic for heated debates and discussion).

There are amazing tidbits too – of how a Godman loves science-fiction, how the Beatles inspired another – that let the reader know that even though some of them claim to have certain powers and moments of enlightenment, they are essentially human beings with considerably normal lives and interests.

There were dull moments at times when I thought why I was even reading about one of the godmen, and considering the time of reading (noon), I did skip his story, only to return and complete reading it again! I couldn’t miss out on that piece of information, after all. That’s the writer’s charm I guess.

Gurus remains an essential read for those who would not mind delving into the lives of those godmen who are sometimes simply considered to be maniacs. It covers their immense public lives and mysterious inner lives. A well-researched piece of non-fiction, it seeks to answer who these godmen are in real lives.

-Divya Nambiar

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Fatal Accidents of Birth (Book Review)

Fatal Accidents of BirthFatal Accidents of Birth by Harsh Mander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fatal Accidents of Birth (Stories of Suffering, Oppression and Resistance)
Author: Harsh Mander
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs. 499
Pages: 203

 The review also appeared in The Free Press Journal on January 1, 2017. Find the review here.

‘Our task is to change some conditions that appear to me as obviously against the beauty of being human’, said Paulo Freire. The quote greets the reader first. Little did I know that as I would turn the pages, I would learn so much about the inhuman intricacies woven into human lives, at times by circumstances and at other times simply because of one’s ignorance about the bigger picture while nitpicking over the supposedly misplaced tiny details.

The preface Other Lives, Other Worlds is hard-hitting and delivers the chills even before the human coldness starts storming in from the seventeen stories ahead.

Far from the hustles and bustles of rural India, where people swear by superstitions and certain beliefs and where caste still plays a dominant role, living in a city like Mumbai with its own cacophony of things ranging from one’s livelihood to his grand plan of existence, this book caught me off-hand. It is not only powerful but also offers riveting accounts of human lives caught in the glare of media at some point of time. While the tales of some characters ended abruptly just like their lives, some other characters’ tales found a better twist and hopefully will have a ‘proper ending’, if there would ever be one. But each of the seventeen stories is a slap on the face of the society that we are a part of. Each story has the potential to leave the reader aghast and rework the so-called rules of the ‘rigid society’ which according to many no longer exists. It very well does exist, probably just outside the confines of the place they call ‘home’ and sometimes inside it too, without their knowledge.

It also provides various angles to the Ishrat Jahan case (The Many Deaths of Ishrat Jahan) and leaves the threads of her tale open so that the reader can try to make some sense of it and make patterns of it in his mind as per his understanding.

It also chronicles the story of Rohith Vemula, doctoral scholar at the University of Hyderabad and a lover of people, who, he believed, are created of stardust, from the time of his mother’s birth. The story of ‘a man who could not rescue himself from what he described as the “fatal accident” of his birth, Rohith Vemula’s first and last letter to the world and the outrage that followed his death also find mention in this book [Mourning Rohith Vemula (1989-Forever)].

From the social stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, prostitution, bisexuality, begging and certain castes to the consequences and dangers of human trafficking, militancy, murder and riots – there is much insight to be gathered about all of these from this book. Some first-person accounts are dark and gory to the core which will make the reader pause and reflect over the lesser fortunate ones with whom he co-exists and yet is unaware of, or is rather silent when he should be voicing against the injustice meted out to them.

The human race is selfish. It will take kindness and a lot of empathizing to drill a sense of brotherhood and ‘-ity’ into ‘human’. Harsh Mander, maybe because he is a human rights worker and has seen in person and heard the tales of many of the people whose stories constitute this book, manages to bring to life a picture of the lives and tribulations of those hit by tragedy into mainstream conscience, deftly. It gives the reader a chance to step into the shoes of those whom one would generally not give a thought about, or rather whom one would look through, because caught as they are with the cobwebs of their own life, who would want to spare a second to possibly gather more cobwebs? Isn’t it? No. By doing so, we may actually be able to do something better to a lesser fortunate one. We could, even if we cannot clean their cobwebs, at least try to be a ray of hazy light for them to look past their cobwebs-filled existence.

Pick up the book if you think your life could have been better than it is right now. Chances are, you will be grateful for the life that you were granted while in the bylanes, a mother would pray for a son from the confines of a prison and another woman would wince as another hand would grope her unprotected body while in yet another roofless camp, heartfelt prayers would be sent to bring some solace for those with charred thoughts who would have to start learning once again how to live, clutching on to the vestiges of a dream that now lies shattered into a million pieces.

-Divya Nambiar

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Never Gone (Book Review)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Name of the book: Never Gone
Name of the Author: Anusha Subramanian
Publisher: Penguin Books by Penguin Random House India 2016
ISBN: 9780143424963
Price: Rs.299; Pages: 268

Before writing about the book, it is important to mention here that the author is one of the youngest published authors in India. She was 15 while penning this tale. Also, she happens to be the daughter of banker-turned-writer Ravi Subramanian, who at 36 wrote his first book ‘If God was a banker’ and more recently, ‘The Bestseller She Wrote’.

Coming to the book, considering the author’s age and experiences till now, it’s a reflection of new-age school kids on the cusp of being adults – their friendships, relations with parents, their fears for the future and so much more. For elders, reading the book would be like revisiting the school days with its own share of fun and frolic tinged with board exam stress.

For young adults, this could be an intense ‘thought synthesiser’ thanks to the ways of dealing with certain circumstances by the characters of the story.

Teenage can be a very delicate time of life with hormones raging and with that we find ourselves raging at the drop of a hat. On top of that, consider losing a friend overnight, without goodbyes. It’s not a fight but a death that claims that friend. This is a tale of eight school friends with their fair share of fights, face-offs, jealousy and that strange thing called friendship, which surprisingly soothes the spasm caused by all three.

Losing a dear one at any point of life can turn one’s life upside down. Here, it shows how these friends cope up with such a tragedy amidst simmering tensions in the atmosphere thanks to that so-called life threatening, life-changing, approaching phenomenon called “the board examination”. Considering that the author herself is in the midst of such an atmosphere, she has deftly recreated such a situation, of course with her imagination doing further justice to the plot.

Finding letters written by a dead person for each friend -- thinking it would not be discovered -- can be like holding on to the last breathing piece that carries a part of the person when life was in full bloom for that one and when death seemed like a distant acquaintance who might not think of coming anytime soon.

Even though the characters seemed too many in the beginning and their issues frivolous at times, the author has managed to equally treat all her characters effectively to bring back some memories of school life where friendships ruled supreme and apprehensions about the future -- no matter how many-- seemed subliminal as compared to the now “trivial” matters that swirled all around then.
Also, the plot which does seem too fairytale-like in some instances is grounded and full of charms of teenage – replete with humour and drama.

Considering the author’s way of thinking, i.e. ‘why wait for someone else to do it when you can write your own fairy tale?’ it definitely is a good attempt at one.
Overall, it’s an entertaining book for young adults that could also serve as a guide to put certain traits formed while growing up into a better perspective for all. Adults might find it frivolous at times but it promises to ruffle some pages from one’s past for sure and bring back fuzzy, warm memories from an era preserved in the recesses of one’s mind.

-Divya Nambiar

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Leave Me (Book Review)

Leave MeLeave Me by Gayle Forman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Life’s about swimming through an ocean of troubles, to reach the shore that soothes.

Author: Gayle Forman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 340
Price: Rs 550

You may also find the review here.

‘So this was how it was. People entered your life. Some would stay. Some would not. Some would drift but would return to you.’

Marriages are those events that get ingrained into one’s mind from the time one is growing up. Girls grow up dreaming about their “happily ever after” while boys about their “princesses”. Even though the dynamics of the same is changing – with girls claiming to be their own superheroes and girls and guys preferring to travel the world rather than settling down with a family of their own – to some “marriage” still means what has often been popularized by popular media: A silhouette of a man and woman walking towards the sunset, holding hands. Troubles before marriage abound and often movies end with the hero and the heroine getting married.

Cut to reality, here’s “overtaxed and over-tired” Maribeth Klein – 44- year-old editor-in-chief of Frap, a new (and well-funded) celebrity lifestyle magazine. Maribeth, an adopted daughter, Jason’s wife, mother of a pair of pre-school going twins, works under Elizabeth, another ‘beth’, her one-time roommate and best friend. Jason left her when he was 22, only to return a decade later to give their story a continuation.

This is not just Maribeth’s tale but also of Jason, Elizabeth, Dr. Stephen, Todd and Sunita. It is a reflection of normal, everyday characters we meet in real life – an overworked mother, a lonely man, students living together to cut costs, little kids demanding time from their parents, a lady afraid of her adopted daughter running away in search of her real mother, a mother who gave away her daughter for some reason (alright, this might not seem too common in known circles) – with their own demons to fight and yet with a great sense of humour.

It is a much-required jolt for every working mother and has a very realistic portrayal of a woman who is so caught up with the details of her life that she finds it difficult to take things slow – even when she winds up on a hospital bed, without realizing that she suffered from a heart attack! Post a double bypass, she arrives back home only to find that her recuperation seemed like a punishment to her family.

Even though physically healing, she finds herself to be drowning. And like what seems to be a great way to end all displeasure that one feels, a tempting fantasy – she escapes, by literally packing a bag and leaving home.

It’s when she is finally away from the demands of a family, a career and an overflowing inbox and after finding neighbors who become friends, a friendly doctor and a revisit to things she loved doing once upon a time, does she finally own up to her innate secrets.

In an ironical manner, from being a woman who can barely kick water with her knees bent in a swimming pool, she manages to swim four laps later (when many other things in her life seem to be falling back in order). It is a reflection of how she tries to swim through her life, irrespective of the water trying to get into her nose, mouth and ears – trying to drown her. However, will she manage to swim and reach the shore of her life which she didn’t even know existed?

This book is a much-needed reality check for all who are continuously running around in life in pursuit of some or the other thing. It makes one want to slow down and actually enjoy things rather than waiting for “the other shoe to drop”.

It’s an alarm clock of sorts – it wakes you up, kicks you right where it hurts most (what else does an alarm clock do but bring you back to reality from your dreams?) and encourages to get one’s life back in order and to not worry if one presently does not seem to have a grip over life, for with time, things do fall in place and it’ll all be fine. (An already established thing, right? That everything is fine in the end, if it isn’t; it’s not the end, yet)

P.S. Being an Indian, the part where Maribeth suffers from an acid reflux post having spicy Indian food, of course thanks to Sunita’s cooking skills, broke my heart. I so wish I could regale Maribeth with some great, authentic Indian food that would only leave her with a craving for more and not a reflux!

-Divya Nambiar
View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

One Indian Girl (Book Review)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So the moment I picked up the book for reading (after beating competition from the receptionist at the workplace as well as a colleague) and reviewing it, I wondered, for the hundredth time, why the euphoria? Why the adrenaline rush in trains among teenagers when they spoke about the book, irrespective of their views about the author being either totally positive or lashing at him for his contribution to bad literature if I may add ‘literature’ at all.

I read it while commuting to and fro my workplace, via the Mumbai Local. It was surprising to find posters of One Indian Girl on a local train. No kidding. In fact, I even attempted to click a picture of it but the train moved and Bhagat blurred away. Mumbai, a cosmopolitan city, thrives because of the variety of people and cultures co-existing here. And yet, Chetan manages to reserve a place for himself so prominently, on the local trains, mind you! Alright, loosening one’s purse strings once in a while does more good than harm and with most of his novels grabbing Bollywood’s attention, it is of little surprise that Bhagat managed to show his face there.

Before you wonder what my take is — Oh, he comes up with his latest crap or he floors the reader, yet again—I would like to contend that I liked One Indian Girl and yet, I disliked it.
Given the curiosity that he manages to create every time he releases a book, he does have a wide readership. In a country like India where light reading was yet to catch up amongst the masses, Bhagat came in handy. If he manages to attract even a non-reader into picking up his book, that definitely means there is something about his writing that engages the reader. He pens down his thoughts in the typical “unpolished Indian English”. He imitates the English used by those who only know the basics and then use it to interact with their fellow beings. After having been a part of such a milieu, I can make some sense of why he is so popular among many Indians. Bhagat’s English is not “threatening” nor does it make one run to fetch a dictionary which spoils the whole reading experience as per a friend who stays away from “my-kind-of-literature” — in his own words. 

Moving to One Indian Girl, it is Bhagat’s attempt to define feminism or break it down to his million readers in simplest terms, albeit explicitly throwing in more stereotypes which feminists (men and women) have been trying to break since sometime now. How else can one justify Radhika Mehta’s constant need to be appreciated or complemented by men in order to find validation in spite of being the Vice President at one of the topmost banks and a paycheck that made a prospective groom cut the call thanks to the gush of inferior air that blew him off? The book is a first person account of Radhika Mehta which begins with her trying to settle a sudden crisis at a five star hotel in Goa, where she has landed for her destination wedding with her family which she is paying for. Her mother scolds her for doing “men’s work” of dealing with the hassles of venue hunting when she should be sitting somewhere for it was her wedding and how could she NOT be a coy bride-to-be?

Thus starts a long tale of trying to break stereotypes while the author himself throws in many more stereotypes – Indian Institute of Management (nerd heaven?), Bengalis ( perennially fish-eating, communist intellectuals?), not just Punjabi, at the reader. So, Radhika Mehta has dated men – one who did not want her to work post having babies and the other who thought she was one of those who wanted her career to shine and not her nest. In a bold move, Bhagat managed to deftly thwart those scenarios.  He has also managed to portray how parents can, if they feel it’s time for their daughters to get married, become expert mission specialists and not tire even if the daughters bubble with anger. And yet, somehow, they can never stop loving those pesky parents!

However, he has also penned her character to be utterly confused at many times, with the “mini-her” providing some humourous getaway. Alright, women, or for that matter even men, can be confused but portraying her as stupid enough to let her sensibilities go out of the window at certain important junctures of her life simply left the reader high and dry.

That apart, has Bhagat’s writing style improved with this one? Did Shinie Antony, the editor, do a better job this time? In many places, I felt so. Or maybe I just got used to his writing style and the bumpy ride smoothed out. All in all, it’s a book that adults may read with prescription from pop-fiction readers and not from literature enthusiasts. However, a little deviation from one’s chosen line of interest won’t hurt. Ouch, did it?

-Divya Nambiar

Friday, October 7, 2016

It's All in the Planets (Book Review)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So Preeti Shenoy is back with her latest book. Veering once again towards her forte, fiction, after her non-fiction work titled 'Why We Love The Way We Do,' this time she has advices, life lessons and even a diet chart for her fan following that is not restricted to one particular age group.

This author's books are solely to be read for her distinct, subtle and motherly way of doling out tips to young and old, without being bossy. She brings in an element of fun just to make her tales seem like they are of people we find around us. Her characters are never larger-than-life because they could be you and me.

However, do not expect to find an out-of-the-box plot. In fact, there could be surprise elements but for many, it won't be surprising at all. Despite the characters and situations they find themselves in, Shenoy gives them her touch and then something changes.

A very simple book in terms of language and its understanding and yet it delves into complex human emotions. She tries to break stereotypes and even manages to do it at various points in the story. It would connect well with the Indian youth for she deftly plays around with the sordid details of their lives that can play havoc if not taken care of.

And yet, inspite of it being a tale that leaves the reader to believe in the working of planets or some force that is beyond our control, it feels incomplete. Was it shallow? Well, I am still trying to make sense of what I would have done if I were to change places with her characters!

In spite of this being an engrossing read, something was inadequate towards the end. No, I was not waiting for any fairytale but maybe I had my expectations high.

Overall, a page-turner that can temporarily make one feel capable of changing the Indian scenario overnight. But then the last page is turned and the characters are set free or shut down (however one chooses to believe) and then for the reader, reality strikes... yet again!

-Divya Nambiar

Author:Preeti Shenoy
Other books by the Author: 34 Bubblegums and Candies by Preeti Shenoy Life is What You Make It A Story of Love, Hope and How Determination Can Overcome Even Destiny by Preeti Shenoy Why We Love the Way We Do by Preeti Shenoy Tea for Two and a Piece of Cake by Preeti Shenoy It Happens for a Reason by Preeti Shenoy The One You Cannot Have by Preeti Shenoy The Secret wish List by Preeti Shenoy Tea for Two and a Piece of Cake by Preeti Shenoy

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Last Queen of India (Book Review)

The Last Queen of India

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

सिंहासन हिल उठे राजवंशों ने भृकुटी तानी थी,
बूढ़े भारत में आई फिर से नयी जवानी थी,
गुमी हुई आज़ादी की कीमत सबने पहचानी थी,
दूर फिरंगी को करने की सबने मन में ठानी थी।
चमक उठी सन सत्तावन में, वह तलवार पुरानी थी,
बुंदेले हरबोलों के मुँह हमने सुनी कहानी थी,
खूब लड़ी मर्दानी वह तो झाँसी वाली रानी थी।।
जाओ रानी याद रखेंगे ये कृतज्ञ भारतवासी,
यह तेरा बलिदान जगावेगा स्वतंत्रता अविनासी,
होवे चुप इतिहास, लगे सच्चाई को चाहे फाँसी,
हो मदमाती विजय, मिटा दे गोलों से चाहे झाँसी।
तेरा स्मारक तू ही होगी, तू खुद अमिट निशानी थी,
बुंदेले हरबोलों के मुँह हमने सुनी कहानी थी,
खूब लड़ी मर्दानी वह तो झाँसी वाली रानी थी।।

- सुभद्रा कुमारी चौहान

As a child growing up in India, it is only rare if the above poem is unknown to him/her. Recited in schools with actions that could simply give goosebumps to the listeners, this poem has always struck a chord within my heart.

And yet, I wonder why it took so long for me to finally read something like the tale presented in this book by Michelle Moran. The Last Queen of India or The Tribal Queen is the tale of the very woman who has been described in the above poem in Hindi.

Her tale of valour, bravery and unbridled devotion to her kingdom (Jhansi) still amidst the people of Indian and is often shared to the younger buds to inspire them to work towards their goals in life.

Coming to Michelle's rendition of Lakshmibai's tale, it is written from the viewpoint of Sita, a Durgavasi or one of the ten personal servers of the Rani. Crisply edited with emotions subtly striking and yet lasting for a long time after the book is put down, this remains an essential read for all lovers of historical fiction.

While growing up, I always wondered how she would have fought with a child tied to her back, how she would have fought a system that was still largely following practices like purdah and sati and strangely, this book provided me all the answers to the questions that plagued me since childhood.

The narration as simple as it may seem, reveals so much about an era that saw the rise and fall of the Indians as well as the Britishers in India. Thankfully, this book has portrayed a balanced picture of the anger, confusion and losses on both sides, a rarity in the writings of the Indian Independence struggle that I have read until now.

Above all, it made the reader realise that no matter what the colour or traditions of a person, in the end it all boils down to what one can call "freedom" and a sense of belonging somewhere at the same time - the "smell of having arrived home!"

This book also reflects the deftness of women of those times that balances the meekness of many others who were bound by tradition. It is not just a tale of the queen and her fight to save her Jhansi but is also a reflection of all that transpired once upon a time that ultimately led to India being what it is today.

Thank you Michelle for this lovely, soulful tale.

- Divya Nambiar

Author: Michelle Moran
More books by the author: Madame Tussaud A Novel of the French Revolution by Michelle Moran, Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran, The Second Empress A Novel of Napoleon's Court by Michelle Moran Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran, Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran, Nefertiti by Michelle Moran,