And Quietly flows the Don : A Review

I made my foray into Russian novels with Sholokhov’s “And quietly flows the Don”, far from the usual settings of Imperial Russia and a little too close to the modern world. I grimaced in anticipation of my mind sifting through every word and implication for political agreement as anyone who’s politics has been shaped by too much time online is wont to do.

Yet even the most irritating of internet tendencies stood no chance against Sholokhov’s masterful writing. It’s no surprise he was awarded a Nobel prize, awards like those need to affix themselves to worthwhile writers so that the other slop they push has some credibility.

Sholokhov takes an impressive approach to the Russian revolution where the vast plains of the steppe and the Don river flow with as much beauty and significance as the world changing events transpiring around them. In fact the beauty with which Sholokhov describes his homeland makes you wonder if he cares for the landscape more than the characters.

This is not to say the characters aren’t up to snuff, in typical Russian fashion we get a lengthy genealogy of a long and growing list of characters who are never anxious to present themselves till the war itself is ready to receive them. There is a certain resignation to the many trials and torments the characters suffer, a kind of apolitical eye examining the ups and downs of the war, never judging anyone for the shifting alliance and swaying tides of the war. Given that this was written after the war and by a communist, this is an intensely “realist” approach that gives the characters a great deal of room to change their minds and struggle against the tide of history.

In the hands of a lesser writer this searing focus on big men from small villages, the tragedy conveyed by their ignominious deaths in the Great War, the Civil War, German occupation and their obliviousness to what comes next might seem bitter. Yet in the able hands of Sholokhov, it is rather matter of fact, beautify but embodying a kind of indifferent and constant push onward much like a quiet river.

Sepia Leaves : Book Review

I recently found an old copy of the book “Sepia Leaves” in my office and was pleasantly surprised by what a great read it was.

The back of the book invokes a onerous atmosphere with a few references to the “Nehruvian” ideal of India, which I thought was a little disconnected from the topic of mental illness. The book is an autobiographyical retelling of the authors experiences growing up with his Schizophrenic mother.

However both the author and his mother are not the most intriguing characters though they drive much of what is described. The book lives up to this great expectation set by it’s back cover, by being a potrait of an newly independent country with it’s setting in factory towns and amongst a great range of people from the lower and middle classes.

His father in many ways is a deeply fascinating, meek and private man who is a perfect recipient for the nation’s propaganda about itself. He lionises Gandhi and struggles to live up to the ideal as the many strains and limits of what the middle classes of the day can aspire to rein him in. I am also tempted to call him a memeber of the labouring classes not merely because of his back breaking employment in the mining industry but because of his work ethos and the way his progress is stimied by unscrupulous middlemen native to all third world projects who so callously oversee exploitation in service of the national project and their own advancement.

You’ll have to read between the lines for this of course, because his father’s main labour that occupies him is to raise a child and look after his unwell wife with the limits and lack of understanding that everyone of the that time seems to embody. He is rather masterfully exposed in his weaknesses, his ambitions and limits. Yet he is also shockingly adacious, with his many acts of defiance and toughness. He is also unusually open minded for that day and age and for this day and age.

The friends and their families the author describes along the retelling of his childhood are also deeply fascinating. In a private age where most recollections are about as colourful as black and white photos, the authors memories give a silent generation very human colours of anger, lust, ignorance and discontent. He even manages to reach further back and hints in a grasping but effective way at the effect that the world wars and service to the British crown had on his mother’s father.

This frozen shell shock embodied in his grandfather’s anger, his tough and inaccessible exterior is in many ways what forges his mother’s condition; with the rest of the patriarch’s family embodying the unfortunate discretion or indifferent attitude towards the mother leaving her with very little in the way of help when she might have needed it the most.

His father is admirably kind in certain ways. The kindest and most patient of them all however is his maid, who becomes a substitute mother, sister and at one point an object of desire. Remember, this is after all a mining town, which employes in it’s official registers the middle classes but is permitted only by the labour of the lower classes. His maid embodies another cruel fact of our national project since she is among the many displaced tribal peoples of the region who regularly lose the most and gain the littlest.

Her story has many tragedies and many exploiters which I shall refrain from detailing because I think it would be a little distasteful to summarise it without context and also because I hate reviews that bother with discription. If you want to know what happens read the dam book. The book is most like a key-hole into the private lives of people in the past when reading about the maids and newspaper man. The stories the author mentions capture the rough open mindedness and kindness you don’t usually see. It’s rather different from bourgeois sensibilities.

There are many other aspects worth mentioning, such as the overt political dissatisfaction that captures the mining town since the book is set duringthe emergency or the nature of the boarding schools of yore but since they’re a bit more obvious I shall refrain from describing them.

I also found that the writing and narrative really came into it’s own towards the end of the book. It was a rewarding read that I’d recommend to anyone who wants a truthful potrait of mental illness and the struggles of caring for a mentally ill person.

The Island of the Day After Tomorrow : A review

A friend of mine remarked that Italy hasn’t produced many great authors. I asked “What about Umberto Eco” he answered “I said great”

Eco is an author of formidable repute. His fascination with Semiotics and Medieval Scholastism often find their way into his novels. Sadly he’s not much of a novelist, a fact that not enough people seem to take notice of.

In the “Island of the day after tomorrow” Eco takes us through his fascination with Renaissance era theories that stood in for the yet undiscovered germ theory and how people figured out Meridians -which is about as tedious as you would expect.

The excuse he uses to subject readers to this tedium is unfortunately filled with great potential. A member of the Italy gentry who finds himself called to war, learns over the course of a siege that chivalry no longer entails the prestige it once did and that battle lines are not as clear cut as they were during the high Medieval era.

A young gentleman finding his way through France during the emergence of a new mercantile class, in the age of discovery and prosperity in Europe has everything it needs for a fascinating story and this is a surprisingly under examined setting in litrature.

Even more neglected is the early days of colonialism and the spice trade. There’s a wealth of material to build stories about Europeans first setting foot on distant and alien lands, struggling to understand or conquer them.

In this book however our young gentleman goes to a siege to do nothing interesting for most of it. This should have been an early warning sign but I foolishly decided to finish reading this book. He goes all the way to Australia and save for the few pages where the flora and fauna are described he finds himself in contest with his literal evil twin. I’m not even faulting the Euro-centrism it’s the lack of imagination we should object to.

Why make your story global if you’re never going to actually explore your setting? Young Roberto could have stayed in a library or could just have argued with a Jesuit while standing in front of a globe without us losing too much from the story. A few kangaroos and stuff birds really don’t make much of a difference.

In our post modernist epoch the author is dead and the novel no longer needs to tie itself to strict guidelines but why do readers have to put themselves through something so boring? With a little effort this 513 page sloth could have actually included battles, drama, romance, interesting charcters and not to mention interesting European and non European cultures. Unfortunately this novel is just wasted potential and a monumental lack of effort on the part of its author who does little to ever exert any control over the many ideas he introduces. The voice of the narrator only turns up occasionally to introduce worthless clarifications that bring to light the ignorance of the very characters the narrator has invented. While the story flounders the narrator only wants to share clever but uninteresting details.

A majority of the book is taken up by the main character lost at sea and the only thing the book does well is to convey how boring that experience must be. I would not recommend this book. I think the rather lovely cover art had more structure and artistic coherence than the story.

The Lions of Al-Rassan

I have burned through about two hundred pages in two days, reading so fast that my mind could barely keep up.

In these times of overwrought, tedious or gluttonously long litrature occupying the lips of trendy book loving gourmands, it is nice to come across something that is actually enjoyable to read.

Far from the constipated Murakami or orally fixated GRR Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay is a delight to read. A friend suggested I read the “Lion’s of Al-Rassan” right after I spent an hour trashing Stephen King for his Maine fixations.

It didn’t start on a promising note, the genre of historical novels or fantasy historical novels is usual refuge to midiocre and unimaginative navel gazing. Yet this novel, a pastiche of about 600 years of Spanish Medieval history, is a treat because unlike it’s peers, it’s not an adolescent fantasy of conquest but a consummate tragedy.

Some astute students of history might even see a resemblance to the doomed Weimar Republic’s most promising torches – and a similar politics- but that exercise is joyless.

Our introduction to this wartorn land is not the usual orphan of destiny or grim conquerer but a female Jewish doctor. Never in all the war chants of holy war and reconquista is her voice lost, as marginalised as it is.

Indeed our leads are eccentric people of principles, struggling and drowing in the whirlwind of war though they may be the very paragons of romanticised virtue in that age. Our male protagonists are mirror images of each other both warrior and eventually friends deeply in love – yet they begin as different magnetic poles. One is a poet, a honourless king slayer, with no loyalty. The other is a veteran knight deeply entrenched in a militarised feudal order. The tragedy is how they can be nothing else no matter how deeply they do not want to be. Both of them become pawns in a holy war.

In the end it isn’t the military action or the battles that matter, it’s the slow intrigue, the tides of war shifting faster than the sands with no one but the most foolish or fracical feuds deciding the fates of millions. At the same time you have in small corners of the world uncertain, unconventional love growing in the shadows of tragedy.

The real triumph though, is that right up to the end of the novel, there’s a romance with the dying light of a fading golden age, the three leads and a host of other lovers (literally). Even up to the very end nothing is over, no one goes quietly as the light is cruelly snuffed out; fighting and negotiating as they can as the tides of history bring ruin. Indeed most of the novel is the slow setting of pieces, the tantalising “what-if’s” in a well corriographed end. When the lines are finally drawn and our charcters are on different sides of it – defeat and conquest- the culmination of hundreds of years happens in a few moments.

This is a deeply evocative and moving book. Simple, romantic and self contained in it’s story. A magnificent read.

Completing old shows : part two

Haibane Renmi is a show the begins with unrelenting intrigue that grows richer with each episode. Assuming the show cares to answer these mysteries however is a waste of time.

Neither Abrahamic nor Buddhist and not particularly religious either is a strange position to put young women reborn as angels but the Haibane make perfect sense. These women, and men are vehicles for intense, personal spritual quests which move at a glacial pace of conversations, seperation and things left unsaid.

This is the ideal imagining of the Neo-liberal subject, alone and adrift. Yet at the same it is is one of the greatest imaginings of post capitalism, of the liberated personal triumph. There are no evils, it is beyond good and evil with the only apex, the depth of all life and salvation found in the brief but paramount connection you make with other people.

What the show captures in a way most art cannot match is the depth of the world moving, never stopping to ask questions, never offering the right moment to ask a nervous question. Everyone is honest but deeply involved in their own journey. No one is selfish, bad or intolerable, they’re just moving somewhere else but you want them to stay. Not selfishly, not angrily but simply to stay to keep every memory, every moment and every little thing from the void of forgetting, obscurity as time and the world move on.

Haibane Renmei never pauses to focus on anything other than the characters. Never is an enviornment,a room or a dirt road by some trees in focus. Yet their presence is unrelenting.

There are places that are at once dusty, run down but inhabited. A troop of young women born out of eggs, with tiny rudimentary wings and shaky halos are born in a run down old school in the outskirts of a walled town. The world is at once aged like an apocalypse has rolled though, but there is no despair, no tragedy lingering.

Neither are there any heroic journeys, quests or gratifying confrontations the genre is so popular for. In stark contrast to everything that’s been drawn or written by its peers Haibane is one of the greatest examinations of living in the real world.

Thrust into the company and freedom of young people with no past they can remember or be haunted by, our small group of leads are the perfect heroines for the modern age – profoundly alone.

Despite the dull colours and dust of it’s world, there is no sadness there is only the depth and longing that comes in a life where everyone lives on their own page. In fact there isn’t much lonlieness either. They’ve got friends, they’ve got work, they’ve got a whole system set up for these women and men with wings.

The show is set in a town with walls and soon enough it becomes apparent that these women will cross these walls – but not together. The truth of being on your own seeps through every scene but never is there discouragement, I wouldn’t even call it unhappy.

The great moment of triumph, the climax where charcters and art themselves mix with each other is the moment where they bravely reach out to each other.

Birth, puberty, life, death and rebirth come together to become something truly and equally worth celebrating. To accept death, uncertainty, fear, the distance between people is the shining path to heaven.

This show is intriguing, pensive, philosophical but never concerned about the many questions it raises, it only looks at what really matters in the end.

The Stand- A review

Warning- I hated this book and will spoil it, if you’re a fan please don’t read this because it will only make you angry

In 1949 George R. Stewart wrote Earth Abides a pioneering work of science fiction that even today impresses with it’s rigor and curiosity. After a global pandemic wipes out a majority of the earth’s population, the remaining people band together but notice all too late that their grip on the world was never firm.

What makes the book an evergreen classic is Stewart’s exceptional attention to detail. Following what becomes a single tribe of white survivors, Stewart dons many hats. His keen eyes detail the slow decay of the great American cities without specialists to run them, he notices the flora and fauna rebound and the farm animals run wild. While our tribe gradually runs out of things they can scavenge they notice the cattle, livestock and dogs grow- generation after generation- to suit their new roles in the wild. While the third generation of children finally breaks away from the shadow of their grandparents’ memories they slowly begin to develop their own priorities of pastoralism and gathering while their parents struggle to inform them of a world that has passed. Dregs of the old world remain in what is shaping up to be a sort of priestly class. Across the mountains and on the plains other tribes, black and native rebuild in their own way. Slowly the tribes of men flourish, raiding the abandoned cities only for metals, and coins to turn into arrowheads.

The book closes on a man of science, a biologist, a teacher who slowly realises the profound capacity of the earth to change, the limitations of modernity and power. So great a novel written in a promising age for the USA, when they were on the cusp of empire. Admirable intelligence, restraint and vision colour the novels many subjects. Yet here I am pissed about “The Stand”. The Stand is King’s perhaps King’s worst work with his usual over indulgence, over production, excessive sentimentality strewn over a thousand pages too many.

King was always what political scientists may call a “shit lib”. Never has the man been able to consider society as something capable of producing it’s own villains. It’s fine when he’s writing about alien clowns or crazed dogs but woe befalls any reader caught in his web with a few characters too many. There’s a reason he hated Kubrick’s “The Shining”. In his boring book a psychic child has psychic powers while his dad is driven insane by a hotel. Kubric elevates this wasted premise encapsulating in the hotel the brutality of colonialism, the genocide of the Native American’s, the callous and negligent stewards of empire handing over responsibility to a violent man who hates his family. The hotel did not do anything to drive him crazy, he always belonged in it’s madness. It is an utterly boring movie but it has got substance.

What happens in King’s attempt to encapsulate the epic spirt of the Lord of the Rings? What happens in a novel that critics praised as being believable and captivating? Middling, guilt ridden white protagonists who could have easily appeared in his million other books drive Vespa’s around the country in search of a magical n***o while an early prototype of an Incel and a guy called the “Trashcanman” attempt to foil their nascent all American republic/theocracy. Seriously he’s called the Trashcan man and he takes down the Sauron archetype with a nuclear bomb. Were the editors tied to bed by over zelous fans? In a talent exclusive only to new American author’s King sails through an apocalypse with no curiosity, eyes firmly closed to any new possibilities arriving at the same old vices with a post-apocalyptic aesthetic. It’s incredible how easily it fits in with the exhausted zombie movie craze that refuses to die.

If you’re ever looking for a good lead onto the decline and fall of the US empire, something like the Sopranos but for literature, look into why something like this would be successful while a novel like the Earth Abides is banished to obscurity. King has always leaned close to campy-ness but this is just the slop they feed hungry pigs.

Sacred Games Review

Spoilers Ahead

The French philosopher Lefebvre believed that we had advanced past the era of imperialism and into the era of the metropolis. Like most French intellectuals he was completely wrong.

There is nothing new about the metropolis. These days it is usually Gotham or New York. It was probably New York a hundred years ago too. Two hundred years ago you had Jack the Ripper or Sherlock running in the filth of London. As much as pulp fiction and detective novels enjoy professing a unwavering love towards their often crime ridden, stinky muses, they are pretty common.

In fact empires always seem to create these unsavory, unpleasant masses of humanity that crime fighters love. Two thousand years ago it was Rome; and for all the awesome artifacts and chaste marble that remains it sucked for most people in it. Time and again masses of peasants are squeezed off their land and come to these cities as lumpen proles, without land, income, craft, trade and soon enough without any tradition at all. A least they had the games and races in the Roman age.

It is here that Vikram Chandra’s novel excels, when it shows us the cruel, chaotic, tragic lives of the poorest and most common inhabitants of these cities. We see characters of all classes and cultures, brought together by the coercive forces of history, or more accurately, capitalist development. They are pushed and pulled by forces beyond their control as the Indian republic flexes unthinkingly from the partition, from its ambition, its tragedies, hate and bureaucratic lethargy.

There is a great tradition of Indian English literature producing dull, unimaginative retellings of family friendly mythology without a subversive word in their glossary. It’s incredible how popular authors manage to mention sex and caste less than 3000 year old texts. This novel admirably is not of that tradition, with more swears than punctuation. Most admirable of all is the fact that it flirts with villainous protagonists, unapologetic cruelty and it has meaningful observations of caste, religion and sex.

The one fatal flaw is that it could have used a really merciless editor towards the end of the novel. In the novel American Psycho (and in the movie too) Patrick Bateman goes on for page after tedious page, monologuing about his endless list of overpriced luxury items. The idea is to make it unbearable for the reader. You are forced to hear so much about his garbage because you are to have no room for doubt when you realise that this rich, well groomed man is a complete loser. A empty, husk of a man who hates humanity, who feels nothing- the embodiment of the ruling class under the President Reagan.

Unfortunately I faced the same effect when it turns into some 200 hundred pages of a criminal mastermind tediously explaining every insight on his path to spiritual enlightenment. It is well intentioned, it is not disagreeable. Yet it is not the same as interesting, especially after a smooth and fast paced first half that doesn’t relent. Why not cut through these long winded introspections and show us the journey through a few more characters? The novel manages to introduce curious characters right till the end. It also manages to subtly point out the truth behind the machismo and spiritual mastery of the characters is been building up for chapter after chapter even when things really heat up. It’s unfortunate that the author didn’t lean on this skill of his more consistently.

On a technical level too, these introspections don’t hold up because they seem quite out of place. As though the spiritual malaise and anxiety talked about are clearly from a middle class mind – something like the mind of an author, let’s say– and not really from the mind of an inspector or criminal. Not that I have much insight but having read Agni Shreedhar autobiography, there are clear indications that his priorities, self image and desires aren’t quite… usual, even if he’s constantly being silent on certain topics.

By the end I was more interested in hearing from the immigrants, the failed revolutionaries and maybe even the stand in for Dawood Ibrahim and his love for the godfather movies than yet another long spiritual quest. It isn’t in the pedigree of detective novels to just follow random characters but I think the book would have been better for it.

The adaptation is also an interesting thing to examine. Obviously it too struggles with the ending. I would argue that like the book it should have done away with the long spiritual journey and kept the ending close by. The more important take away is how they had to change the ending with the times. In the novel, the world just goes on in the end. Not much changes in the world, Inspector Sartaj has his world change but the system goes on and no one is any wiser. This makes sense, because regardless of nuclear scares, the book was written during the “end of history” , when people thought that the liberal order had won. A few years later, the adaption features the same story with the same conspiracy, the same villains, the same religious fanatics and the same plot, yet today the story must end with a possible apocalypse. It just wouldn’t feel realistic if it didn’t end that way.

Attack on character development

I picked up Attack on Titan (AOT) after a while and I couldn’t help but put down a few things that rubbed me the wrong way.

Of course the strengths of the series, and most Shonen, still shine through with the pacing, concept and emotional tension being pretty good. But I was a little less enthused since it seemed to be written for adolescents more than it is about adolescents.

I’m not saying it’s juvenile but the writing and characterisation are definitely a kind of wish fulfillment for that adolescent urge to defy authority, righteously struggle for some cause and fit in with a group of companions. Compare that with say Akira, where you also have young adolescents up to onerous tasks. What stands out is that Akira’s characters are more fleshed out. Their flaws, age, doubts come out in conversations, in the way they interact and their actions.

In contrast the characters in AOT are always moving from one revelation to another, their conflicts always in service to some greater ideal they uphold or some great tragedy that they are haunted by. I couldn’t help but feel that these faces have more motive than character. It makes for an intoxicating pace that has the plot constantly moving even during political posturing but it ends up hurting the characters, leaving little room for development. These characters don’t live beyond their service to the plot.

There’s little breathing room like how Akira shows its main characters being underage hooligans, layabouts and delinquents hanging around shady bars but just as easily have their heroics entirely dependent on their impulsive, angst-y behavior. They aren’t caricatures, they do ask great questions and change the world but they’re still realistically within a transformational period in their lives. They aren’t ideological warriors, they’re living out their pasts even in what they believe – there’s more subtlety, nuance and humanism.

The tedious focus on the one or two characters that the entire world revolves around wouldn’t be that unbearable if there were any characters with the will power to disagree or not go along with the latest inspirational speech that’s being flung at them. The AOT world has no room for doubts, uncertainty or shifting moods in the human mind. You agree or disagree, you’re on the red team or the blue team. We get spoonful after spoonful but no time to chew.

What seems to have hurt the series is that the personal motive driven plot had to go from the high intensity of family avenging, friend slaying action that went rooftop to rooftop to a slow burn of exposition that suddenly found the story having to explain an entire history, social context, lore etc. The pacing is admirably consistent from the days of tense Titian slaying to and endless series of palace coups but without the life threatening danger, the same things that worked earlier start to show their weaknesses.

It’s a shame because, in hindsight, the survival focused story telling was some of the strongest I’ve read and so much of what the story continues to do made so much more sense since it was also in service to this constant tension. By giving way what the titans were the series kind of gave way the main threat. There is no more doom, no more end of the word as interesting. The world war plot is fine, the exposition wasn’t too clumsily delivered even if it wasn’t subtle, but it just isn’t as interesting.

When the Colossal Titian kicked down that wall, it genuinely felt like the end of the world was slowly creeping up, that hopelessness and desperation we got a worms eye view of never came back.

Addendum: Ernin the child trying to protect his own is far more interesting than Enrin the political schemer trying to develop weapons of mass destruction and the necessary prerequisites for Geo-politcal domination. It’s not hard to see how the entire series can be read within the context of the Japanese experience of WW2. The devastation, the end of the peace, family life etc. The humanism and trying to survive, rebuild etc. is compelling, but the unapologetic attitude, the kind of equivalency between crimes, love of Royalty and the idea that the Eldians were kind of bad in a country that has never apologized for its war crimes and is still run by the decedents of war criminal is a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to open.

Horror in my hallway

Junji Ito is both brilliant and disgusting. I’d had meant to write about this a while back but between my personal computer dying with a frightening knock sound and long awaited exams (only delayed by a month) I had to put it off.

While my friends were faced with the horrors of parroting behaviorists who were convinced the mind didn’t really exist (you’d be inclined to agree after reading their mindless ideas) I was enjoying Ito’s work. I no longer have access to those chapters but I think simply recounting his stories should work well enough.

Ito writes short horror manga that’s unlike anything else out there. It’s not particularity scary and the body horror isn’t enough to make you turn away. Most people I’ve convinced to read him end up giving me a look of concern and get to repressing the stories from conscious memory.

Ito’s Japanese background might help, there’s an Asian sensibility that I’m never able to put my finger on. But what really makes his work click is that uncanny sense of familiarity. There’s something about his stories that seems to echo an almost conversational recollection of horrors, ghosts and monstrosities. Relatable cultural taboos, settings and moralistic implications that I could see coming from so many people I know. He writes horror simple, weird and relatable.

There’s one story that features a demon that seduces houses. Another has a time traveling bird demon that feeds lost mountaineers but then never decides to stop helping, visiting them everyday for a force-fed meal of human flesh. One has a fortune teller behead an unfaithful boyfriend with a single strand of hair. He won’t die till he lets his head drop of course, so she forces cockroaches down the gap to get him to let go. My favorite involves a man who develops a fetish for living- yes living- secretly inside peoples chairs.

The most wholesome I’ve seen him is a story where it turns out half the people in it are actually dead and one where a abused social worker comes back as a vengeful spirit and helps a neurotic young girl overcome her anxiety by killing her ex boyfriend.

If you’ve got the stomach and a little time for some weird, uncomfortable horror try starting with the Enigma of Agigara Fault- .

Cuckold: A Review

Could you imagine Game of Thrones in a Indian setting?

Okay, so maybe that opener is a little clickbaity but you wouldn’t believe just how much I want people to read this book. I’ll start with a confession. Every time I pass by the Indian writing section at a bookstore my hair stands on end. It seems that there has been an abundance of Indian authors whose ability to write in English was enough justification for publishers to let them unleash their horrendous mediocrity on an unsuspecting public. Often these would be Chetan Bhagat’s look to Indian history and mythology and manage to rewrite them with less sophistication and thought than Wikipedia articles on said history or mythology.

It was a month ago at Blossoms that I was nodding my head pretending I understood what my friend was saying about some ideology. I picked up a book to avoid having to respond when I got hooked to the second page. It saw that it was 700 pages and 500 RS and decided to put it away. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the dam book.

There’s an interesting paragraph on a money lender of my religion that manages to expose the cynical way Jainism ends up begin practiced. It read-

“You give alms you earn merit. You feed the poor or the Digambaras , you collect some more merit. Pacifism is a capital investment of the highest order. It’s a kind of super-compound interest scheme with an eye on both heaven and earth. Extend the metaphor and it has a foot in the here and now, and the ever after. Let’s look at the latter first. The more merit your earn, the more likely you are to abridge the number of reincarnations you have to go through to reach the kind of enlightened state which gets you to moksha. In the meanwhile, just see how profitable the fruits of non-violence are in this life. You stay white and pure while someone else, someone like me and my Rajput clan does the sinning and the killing.” 

In 4 pages I had come across a damming indictment of Jainism’s flaws that even I would struggle to articulate. Maybe this means nothing to you but it sure got me hooked. Don’t worry there’s a lot more to the book than cynicism. That’s probably why I was able to blow through its 700 pages in 3 days.

The story is set in a Rajput kingdom right before the invasion of Babur. We follow a would be king who’s wife has made him a cuckold; she is in love with a god. This is based on actual history but since there is little we know about it, history is just the background on which Kiran Nagarkar paints a fascinating tale. What makes the novel interesting for all 700 pages is the main character, who is surprisingly modern, intelligent and very rational. Unfortunately the reality of court politics, tradition, scheming etc. smacks him around all the time. He struggles to come to terms with his own ambition, his love and frustration towards his family and traditions, his unorthodox thinking in a honor bound society, his eccentric wife and ultimately his own mind which he learns is doomed to be irrational.

Since this isn’t a book series like a Song of Ice and Fire you get a proper literary study of this man. The book works not just as a story about wars and politics, it’s also a struggle to come to terms with modern, or maybe ancient anxieties. Unlike other historical fiction the book isn’t slavishly dedicated to accuracy, like say Wolfhall. It feels all the better for it. There are many interesting characters and insights like into people like Babur and his excellent writing, homosexual desires etc.

The only criticism I would offer is that sometimes the language is too modern; hearing about school bells in the 14th century might take you out of the book . I saw a review on Goodreads that said the reviewer couldn’t make it past the 23rd page because of it but I think that’s a terrible reason to miss out on so good a story (and why did the idiot review a book he hadn’t read?). As the author himself says he wanted the language to work to make the novel readable and not historical and that definitely makes the 700 pages seem brief.

The book feels Indian and I doubt if it has reached foreign shores, which is a great tragedy. There is a German translation interestingly enough. Kiran Nagarkar even won the Sahitya Akademi award for it in 2000. It’s a great and interesting read and a kind of book you only come across rarely in Indian literature.