The Twentieth WIfe – Book Review

I just finished ‘The Twentieth Wife’ by Indu Sundaresan. This book was written in 2002, but I got my hands on it only now.

This is essentially the story of Mehrunnisa- the twentieth wife of Emperor Jahangir.  The story takes us through lives of the lesser-known, but important people of the Mughal Dynasty – their women.

The book starts with Mehrunnisa’s birth enroute to India, when her parents flee Persia with three of her elder siblings.

Her father almost gives her up because he cannot afford to keep her, but she’s brought back to him by a kind soldier/noble who has taken him under his wings.

Once in India, he joins the court of Akbar & establishes himself in the Mughal government & rises to a good position.

Mehrunnisa sets her eyes on Salim, initially the errant son of Akbar on his wedding day when she’s barely nine years old. From then, she grows up dreaming of marrying him  & becoming an empress. But her dreams are thwarted when her father is forced by the emperor Akbar to marry her off to a valiant soldier from Persia, Ali Quli.

Mehrunnisa & Salim meet briefly by chance just before her wedding. Salim is captivated, but unable to stop her wedding. Her marriage takes her away from Agra & Lahore to Bengal, where her husband is posted. Married to a hard-core, alpha male soldier whose sensitive side is non-existent, Mehrunnisa pines for Salim and he in turn thinks of her often.

The story traces Salim’s frustration on not having the crown & his  rebellion against his father, egged on by his cohots.  And Mehrunisa’s loveless marriage simultaneously.

Once Salim becomes the emperor after Akbar’s death, his position is threatened by his own son who rebels against him. He manages to quell this with his well-appointed spies and loyal soldiers.

The story is fast-paced, set in the 1700s brings history alive.

We get a feel of various aspects in the lives of the royalty & especially their women, who are mostly shut in the Zenana, away from the prying eyes of the public. But still manage to be as powerful as their men and they too rule the country indirectly by advicing their men on various issues.

Mehrunnisa’s husband gets killed brutally by the army when he attacks  a General. And she’s brought back by Salim’s aide to safety in Akbar’s first wife’s Ruqqaya’s harem. Ruqqaya herself is like a self-appointed godmother to Mehrunnissa from her younger days and she’s only too happy to get them together, so she can regain some of her lost powers at the Zenana from Salim’s wife, the empress Jagat Gosini.

Mehrunnisa meets Salim again after 16 long years and this time as the emperor. His second son (Shah Jahan) is engaged to her nice who will later become the famous Mumtaz .

The story ends with Mehrunnisa marrying the emperor and gets the title ‘Nurjahan’ and is now the twentieth and the last wife of Emperor Jahangir.

Though the author claims it as a fictional story based on actual historic facts, it’s a very gripping tale which weaves around the various power struggles and seems convincing enough to be a real story. The characters are lively and one can relate to almost everyone. The events that unfold are all put together meticulously and there’s never a part which seems slack.

There’s a sequel to this ‘The Feast of Roses’ and I just can’t wait to read that now!

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The Immortals of Meluha – Book Review

This book was strongly recommended by a friend, an avid reader whose taste in books is largely similar to mine. “Its a page-turner. Totally un-put-downable” He said.

So I picked it up on my next visit to a book shop. Down with a strange viral which refused to disappear despite paracetemols and heavy duty antibiotics, I was confined to bed for almost a week. But I had lot of energy to read.  I finished this book in two day’s time.

Yes it was un-put-downable. The theory that Lord Shiva was a tribal from Tibet, who comes to the Indus Valley civilisation to fight for them in a war against evil and falls in love with the princess Sati and marries her is all very very interesting. The plot has all that a good drama demands. A reluctant hero, an unattainable heroine, a prophecy, brotherhood, war, twists in the story, etc. makes this book a page turner.

But since I just finished reading Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series, I just cannot help feeling biased.

I’m not comparing the authors. Both are skilled writers. Their books are really fast-paced. But there’s a huge difference.

While I did feel the Ramayana series could have been finished in 3 books instead of 6 and the violence was just too much for me, there was a sense of witnessing mythology in Banker’s books.

But The Immortals of Meluha gave me the feeling that I was reading cowboy or a James Bond story  set in ancient India.

Just imagine. There’s a part where  ‘Shiva was lying on his bed reading a book (a palm-leaf book) and smoking a chillim when he heard a blast outside’

Excuse me? I can only imagine a Sean Connery or Roger Moore or Clint Eastwood doing that. Not someone wearing a dhoti and angavastram and has jata-mudi!

In another page, one of Shiva’s side kicks actually says  “Yeah, right!”

And in another, Shiva looks into Sati’s eyes deeply and says “I love you..” And she replies “I love you too…”

This whole thing cracked me up so badly, I just couldn’t read the book seriously after that!

And the characters keep referring to India and its greatness and powers.

I thought till the invasion of the British, India was only a loose combination of various kingdoms. And I remember reading somewhere that it was the British who even coined the name India. So how did ‘India’ exist in 1900 BC?

I just cannot wait to get my hands on the rest of the triology!

But jokes apart, people, do pick up the book. It’s a high drama, fast-paced, un-put-downable and if you don’t mind the cowboy-bond influence, you’ll probably enjoy it much more than me!

Oh, I forgot! The friend who recommended the book is a typical ex IIM, fundu type of a guy, just like the author! No wonder he loved it!

The revenge of the ladle…

I’ve had this grouse against most Indian men for a while.  They behave like invalids in their own homes.

They are probably ten times stronger than their mothers, sisters or wives. They  lift tons of weight in the gym. Yet they cannot lift their plates from the dining table to the sink.

They run in the treadmill for hours. Yet they will not stand for fifteen minutes with their wives to do the dishes when the maid is absent.

They’re so agile in sports. But cannot bend down to pick up their own wet towels from the floor.

They drive for hours together non-stop in their powerful cars. Yet will not drive to the corner of the road to pick up some groceries.

I’ve been mulling over this for years. And I’m slowly seeing the light.

Rewind to hundreds of years ago, when the women were so oppressed.

Those women did not have a life. Education, knowledge, freedom of speech were all denied to them and their sole purpose of existence was to serve the men. Be it a father, brother, husband or a son, the man in her life at any point was her lord and master. They were literally imprisoned in the kitchens and made to cook & clean for the men of the house.

Now, we all know what a woman is made of. Where she lacks in brute strength, she makes up with a strong will and a cunning mind.

How did all those women get the better of their oppressors? Fighting will just not work. If they try any other methods like ahimsa or satyagraha, it will not work either. They can easily be replaced and they’ll have to spend the rest of their lives in the thinnais of their homes…

So they went along, played the dutiful wives & mothers. They did not step outside of their homes, cooked, washed, cleaned, laundered, brought up babies and kept house.

But oh so subtly they made the men dependent on them without them realising it.

They did pretty much everything for their men, so the men just cannot survive inside their homes without their women. Call it a survival act if you want, but the women chained their men to them by making them believe that they’re not capable of taking care of themselves. In short, they were invalids inside their own homes without their women.

And some aggressive women came along and made rules that no man can enter the kitchens or try to do anythig that remotely resembled housework.

But over centuries, we women have worked our way out to free ourselves. We can educate ourselves, go for jobs, excel in sports, run governments and have proved to men we’re their equals in everything but brute strength.

But these poor, poor men still are rooted strongly in their age old beliefs that they’re invalids and cannot even make their own coffees at home.

Power to women!

 

Book Review – Sea of Poppies

It took me almost three months to finish this latest novel by Amitav Ghosh.

Not in the least because it was boring, but I had no more than ten minutes a day to read it.

Unlike another popular Booker famed book I started reading and abandoned midway, this is a book where you feel the presence of only the characters and not the author.

With no clever words or phrases to showcase the author’s command over the language or his sense of humor, the story does not lose pace even for a single paragraph. (I must admit that I had to run to the dictionary every once in a while!)

Though there are at least eight important characters in the book, Deeti is the hero of this book.

Deeti, a peasant woman in Bihar, single handedly toils in her poppy field, nurses a opium-addicted husband and brings up her child..

How she finds herself in The Ibis, sailing to Mareech (Mauritius) as a coolie with a new husband – an outcaste, leaving her daughter behind is half the story.

How the other characters – a Raja in exile, a Half Chinese/half Parsi ex-addict, a supposedly black second mate, a French woman born & brought up in Calcutta who is more Bengali than French, her foster brother who becomes a lascar, a Bengali goumasta  who fantasises that Ma Taramony – his aunt & love interest, but who was a Swamini is manifesting herself in him after death – all end up in the Ibis for various reasons is the other half.

The sense of injustice that begins with Deeti winds itself around all the other characters too. Those days, I suppose, it was all about submission of the weak to brute force.

Deeti, married to an opium addict, is fed the same opium on her wedding night, so her brother-in-law can rape her with the help of his mother and uncle.

Kalua who later becomes her husband is subjected to unspeakable atrocities by the upper class just for entertainment.

Neel, a much respected Zamindar is jailed and sent to exile so that the British can have his land.

Paulette, who becomes an orphan when her father dies, is forced to live with an English family in Calcutta. She breaks free when she’s forced to marry an old judge, who’s hard of hearing.

And the hierarchy in the ship bears the same injustice…

The Ibis provides a strong backdrop for the events to unfold once they’re all at sea.

Where hundreds of coolies are shut in a Dabusa in the lower levels of the ship and let out only during mealtimes.

Many die of either lack of will or disease.

A pregnancy, a wedding, a romance nipped in the bud, Deeti getting caught with the evil uncle – are all the events leading to the climax of the story.

The climax is the one that I feel didn’t gel with the rest of the story. It’s so much like a mythical story where the good conquer the evil in the end.

But then, it really doesn’t matter because, by then you’re so involved with the story, you breathe a sigh of relief that the good people’s sufferings come to an end.

Amitav Ghosh has done extensive research and it shows.

The way he’s crafted the lives of the characters with all the wefts and wafts so that they all serve a common purpose in the end is fabulous.

I specially enjoyed the language spoken throughout the book.

From the colloquial Bhojpuri and Bengali to the very different English spoken by those on board and the English the memsahibs spoke with a liberal dose of Hindi & Bengali – all of them offered us a glimpse of life back then…

To put it in a nutshell, this book is a fabulous read by a master story teller.

And since this is the first of a triology, I eagerly await the next book.

Jodhaa Akbhar

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Extravagance. That’s what this movie is all about.

But then the story is about one of the greatest Mughal emperors, known for his splendor.

So extravagance justified.

A fantastically crafted movie, this is another one of Ashutosh Gowrikar’s efforts to inspire patriotism.

Packaged with history and romance, the movie lives up to all the hype.

And talk about eye candies! And they’ve have actually attempted to act. In Hrithik’s case, his performance is effortless and laudable.

But though Ash looks stunning, I feel Tabu would have brought in more life to the character.

Akbhar is portrayed to have been striving to unite Hindus & Muslims…

A sensitive king who checks the Mughal atrocities in the battlefield…

A just king who wanders among his subjects in disguise to feel their pulse…

A courageous king who prefers to face his enemy one to one to avoid bloodshed…

An emperor who dreams of a united Hindustan…

Got me thinking, maybe India could do with monarchy!

Imagine…

No booth-capturing.

No bribes to anybody.

No corruption.

But then, no freedom of expression either!

Anyway, on the downside, the movies is too long.

The dialogues are so urdu-fied, its difficult to follow in some places.

But on the whole a visual treat (except for the battle scenes. Found them too gory).

Definitely worth watching.

I am going again. (Just to look at Hrithik! 😉 )