When the Lotus Blooms by Kanchana Krishnan Iyer

My aunt recommended this book. Given that we have so many books that we like in common, I was waiting to get hold of it.

LotusBlooms
Two Tamilian Brahmin families, in two different parts of India, in 1930s British Colonial India, bound by a common destiny.

Rajam and Dharmu were both child brides, unaware of the life awaiting them. Rajam’s husband, Partha, fell in love with her at first sight, and engineered their marriage. For all the love that he bestowed on her, she had to bear the brunt of a mother-in-law from hell. Nothing she did could please her mother-in-law, and her childless state was the worst testimony of her failure as a daughter-in-law and wife, in her mother-in-law’s eyes, even if her husband was not bothered by it. The harder she tried, the more difficult her life became.

Dharmu, brought up in a village in Tamilnadu, is suddenly transported into a totally different world after she gets married. Her husband, Mahadevan, a sophisticated, London returned civil servant, lived a very different, Western life in East Bengal. In the middle of the political unrest and uncertainty, Dharmu tries hard to fit in. Sadly, no matter what she did, she could feel herself lacking. Right from her manners, her English, to the food that her husband insisted on. Everything was alien, and nothing seemed to elevate her loneliness and unhappiness. Things which were strictly forbidden growing up, now becomes things that she has to do, in order to fit into the society that her husband moves in. Her only joy in life was her little son, born after two daughters. Her casual neglect of her daughter, never even occurred to her, because, after all, they were just daughters, meant to be brought up and sent away to their marital home.

Unknown to both these families, the blooming lotus, would have a significance to both these families.

I really enjoyed the style of the author. She transports you to that era, effortlessly. Sights, smells, experiences, everything. You could be Rajam or Dharmu’s neighbour, witnessing them, going about with their lives. Their day to day lives, along with those around them. The story is woven with the traditions, practices and rules that bound the men and women of that time. Things that they accepted as part of life. The characters are really well-fleshed out. You feel Rajam’s frustration, and her determination to do her best, Dharmu’s loneliness and empathize with their situation. Even smaller characters like Dharmu’s maid, or the village untouchables are so well integrated into the story, that the book is a wonderful read, a sliver of life in a different time.

There is a fair sprinkling of Tamil words through the book, which just brings out the flavour of the book. I think it is books like these that capture an older time(good or bad), for when most of us would have forgotten it. And that, I think is what I really loved about the book.

If you like fiction of this sort, an olden era brought to life, you are sure to like this one. I would definitely recommend this book.

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Shadow Princess by Indu Sundaresan

As with her other books, Sundaresan brings to life, the Mughal Era, and the lives of the royals at that time.

I had read the other two books based on Mughal history -The Twentieth Wife and the Feast of Roses, and had been dying to get my hands on Shadow Princess.

Shadow Princess chronicles the life of Jahanara, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s oldest daughter, from the time her mother died giving birth to her fourteenth child. Mumtaz Mahal’s death comes as a complete surprise, and nobody knows what needs to be done. Shah Jahan goes to pieces, and the teenaged Jahanara has no option but to pick up the reigns and be strong for everybody else. The role of Padsha Begum, which in normal circumstances would have gone to her father’s other wives, fell to her, and she rises up to the occasion, and proves that she has the ability and the mental strength to handle it all. Not only does she organize everything, she also helps her dad to go back to ruling the country, something he was ready to give away to one of his sons. Knowing that her brothers were too young to take up the responsibility, Jahanara perseveres and gets her heart-broken father to become King again. She navigates through her father’s sorrowful state, her brother’s rivalry and her sister’s treachery.

Shah Jahan comes to depend upon her so much that he even refuses to think about her marriage – he needed her to support him with the ruling of his kingdom. Jahanara, slowly becomes the most powerful woman in the kingdom. The book chronicles Jahanara’s story, bringing to life, the Mughal court and it’s politics. Brothers fighting for the throne, sisters in conflict for power,alliances made for grabbing power, life as a royal, where sometimes what you really want, you never get, although you have the access to all the jewels, the money, and the power that one could possibly want. Jahanara, while she had everything, still did not get to lead a life that she wanted. As Jahanara’s story progresses, we also get a glimpse of the Taj shaping up. The monument of love, which remains the most known symbol of the Mughal Period, and the most recognized Indian monument, even centuries after it was built. While we have all read, and learnt about Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, this was my first exposure to Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter, who, from reading this book, might have been a far better and fairer empress than her father or her brother would turn out to be. One can only wonder, I suppose, of how India’s history might have turned out, had she been ruling India, instead.

Sundaresan’s descriptions transport you to that era, effortlessly. You almost feel the heat of the afternoon, the texture of the silk that they wear, and the aromas of the food she describes. The grandeur and the opulence of the court, the power play, and the way in which seemingly powerless women of the zenana controlled the kingdom in more than one way is brought to life by Sundaresan’s words.

I loved the book, just as much as I loved all her others. If you like historical fiction, you will love it too!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I have learnt that I can trust TGND‘s recommendations about books completely. I am yet to be disappointed by any of the books she recommended. So when I read her review of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I just had to read it. It seemed just my type of book.

As I started to read it, things seemed familiar. I remembered bits and pieces, until the realization dawned that I had read it earlier, but the wonderful read that it is, re-reading it was a pleasure.

Set in nineteenth Century China, Lily recounts her story. Lily was a young girl growing up in a poor farmer’s household in rural China. Lily and her cousin Beautiful Moon turned six, and it was time for them to get their foot bound. Their families called the local diviner to find an auspicious date to start the foot bindings. The diviner, however, saw something different in Lily. He conferred with Matchmaker Wang, the matchmaker from the best village Tongkou, who agreed with him that Lilly had potential to make a very good match in Tongkou. Not only that she could also be eligible for a Laotong relationship. Laotong relationships are extremely special and not every girl gets to have a Laotong pair. It is a lifelong relationship with another girl, and it is extremely special because the girls are paired at the age of six or seven and are together for life. Most other girls have sworn sisterhood, that disolves upon marriage, and then they have to make new post marriage sworn sisters. For Lily to have a Laotong sister was extremely special as people in their village were usually not eligible. However, Lily’s feet had the potential to be perfect ‘golden lilies’ and that made her very special. Those days, all girls would have their foot bound, and based on how perfectly their foot turned out(how small, and how beautifully shaped), would determine the kind of match they would make. Lily’s feet showed great potential.

At seven, Lily’s feet were bound and soon, she and Snow Flower got bound in a Laotong relationship. All through her short life, Lily had yearned to be loved. So far she had just been a ‘useless branch’ in her family. For girls were of no use – ‘A road made for others to use’. From Snow Flower, she got the love that she yearned for. The girls grew up together, sharing their lives, and noting down the important events of their life on their secret fan, in the special women’s secret writing – Nu Shu.

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship carried on strong, they face family tragedies together, get married, get busy with their everyday life, until something happened to put an abrupt end to the friendship that was supposed to be lifelong.

A touching, sad and brave tale of how women’s lives in nineteenth Century China was. Unwanted, useless, and born to serve others, put through torturous procedures like foot-binding, all to make a good marriage – because that was the most important part of a woman’s life – getting married. It is a window to an old culture where women had to stoically bear what was thrown their way. Rebelling was not an option. Living through droughts, political uprisings, domestic abuse and yet bringing beauty into their own and their loved ones lives. The description of the foot-binding process is heart-breaking to read. I can’t imagine how women went through it for so many years.

It is a must-read. I would definitely recommend this book. And thanks TGND for giving me a chance to re-read it 🙂

The Virgin Queen’s Daughter by Ella March Chase

The books, opens with Elinor(Nell) de Lacey,imprisoned in the Tower of London, in 1565, wishing she could turn back time, wishing that she could go back to being just Nell, safe in her father’s estate in Lincolnshire, safe from London and the politics of the court.

Nell, grew up in Calverly, cherished by her father, who taught her everything he knew. His love of the sciences, astrology, philosophy, languages, everything that is reserved for boys. Strong minded and willful, Nell, would constantly try her mother’s patience, refusing the learn what her mother felt were necessary skills for a woman, learning to run a household. She was happier reading the books her father read. Her father and her nurse, from birth, Eppie, were the people she loved the most.

Her mother had been the chief lady in waiting to Henry VIII’s last wife, Katherine Parr, and had kept away from the courts ever since the death of Katherine Parr. She knew the reality of life in the courts, and wanted to keep her daughter away from all that.

When Nell was five, her father took her and her mother to London to get some more books, and instruments for star gazing. Nell, had accidently seen Elizabeth(then just Princess Elizabeth), captive in the Tower, and in childish, excitement, tried to save rescue her with a key she found. Five year old Nell believed that the key she found was magical, and would open Elizabeth’s prison. Princess Elizabeth is charmed by the child who wants to free her so much, and promises to never forget her.

Nell’s imagination is captured by the captive Princess, who is known to be as intelligent as she is beautiful. Ever since that experience, all she wanted was to go to the court and be a lady in waiting to Queen Elizabeth, much to her mother’s annoyance and worry. Finally, she manages to reach the courts, after her father’s death, having outsmarted her mother. It was only after she became a lady in waiting that she realized that her mother had been right all along.

She uncovers the truth of her birth, and the shocking realization that the truth could land her in prison. As she learns to speak the ways of the court, to pretend, to lie, to know when to bite her tongue, she finds herself an unlikely ally, someone everybody had warned her against, Sir Gabriel Wyatt. The explosive truth she knows brings danger to everybody she holds dear.  Her beloved nurse, Eppie is tortured and killed, and she has no idea how she could escape from the prison she willingly came to, and no idea if there is anybody she could really trust.

A beautifully written story, fiction woven with known facts, historical fiction in the style of Philippa Gregory. Chase, has explored the possibility that Queen Elizabeth might have had a daughter before she became Queen. In the treacherous environment that the English Court was, such a truth would have given enough material to those who wanted Queen Elizabeth toppled from the crown. With that premise, the author weaves a fascinating story.

Apart from the historical aspect, the story is also about mothers and daughters. Of how Nell and her mother discover each other. Of how Nell, is touched when she learns that all her through her life, her mother lived through the fact that her daughter loved her father and her nurse more than her mother. I found that aspect very touching.

If you like Philippa Gregory’s books, you would enjoy this book. Full of suspense, mystery, romance and intrigue. It also speculates on how it must have been for Queen Elizabeth I, to be a woman leading a country, at a time when women were not considered at par with a man, despite having proven her intelligence and her capability in so many ways. It was a captivating book, and I was surprised to read that it is the first book by the author! I would definitely recommend it, if you like historical fiction.

What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh Baldwin

Roop, one of Bachan Singh’s two daughters, grows up without her mother. Her father, a respected however not-too-well-off a person in the village, does his best in bringing up his daughters and son.

Roop grows up believing that she is destined to a better life. When Bachan Singh gets a proposal from one of the wealthiest men in the village for his daughter, he is delighted, only to be disappointed when he realizes that it is not for one of the wealthy man’s sons. but for an already married relative of his. However, already in debt after his elder daughter’s wedding, Bachan Singh does not have much of an option but to agree. Bachan Singh might have been heavy hearted but Roop was delighted. She was convinced that she has a wonderful fate in store for her. Even becoming a second wife does not faze her. She believes that she will be a little sister to her older co-wife.

Satya, Sardarji’s wife is sophisticated, the perfect mate to the Oxford educated Sardarji. Perfect, but for the fact that she is barren. She tries hard to fight her fate, hoping that Sardarji will refuse to take a second wife, only to realize that despite his educational credentials, Sardarji is still bound by his roots. Having an heir, a son, is very important to him.

She is hit hard by the fact that the new bride has got handed all her jewellery. Everything that was hers is now Roop’s. Satya tries everything she can to ensure that Sardarji’s second marriage is ruined.

It is a touching story woven through the landscape of political landscape of unrest and eventually India’s Partition into India and Pakistan.

Roop’s initial innocence, trying hard to please everybody, believing that she and Satya would be like sisters, her compliance and her slow metamorphosis into her own person, somebody who understood that she had to fight for her rights in every way she could. She learns the ways of the world to survive, to hold on to her position, as the mother of Sardarji’s children.

Sardarji, again a complex character, educated in England, a civil engineer, outwardly a modern person, but when it came to his inner self, someone who held on to the views of his society. He tries to saddle both his worlds, wining and dining with his English colleagues, while looking down on them(just as they did him), and his life in Indian society.

Satya’s bitterness, her inability to accept her fate, trying everything she could to ensure that Roop is just a baby maker, and not Sardarji’s wife. Satya comes across as a strong person, someone who knows her rights, and tries to fight society in the way she could. A woman who argues with her husband, who refuses to be ‘sweet-sweet’ in front of her husband, a woman who believes that she is her husband’s equal.

The book is also sprinkled with instances of how underprivileged women(and girls) were in those days. At her father’s place, Roop had never tasted meat or fish – that was reserved for her brother, because the whole family’s fortune rested on him. The girls would just be married off. Roop’s unmarried aunt, who keeps planning to leave, but everybody is aware, that she will never leave.  After all, as an unmarried woman, she does not have a house of her own, to go to.

The book also deals with the way political unrest changed life as they knew it. Once Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lived together in harmony, but with the partition looming closer, things changed, loyalties changed…Life as they knew it changed. It also reflects how Sikhs viewed the partition. While carving out countries keeping in mind the two main communities, Sikhs were the ones who were uprooted from their land and made to migrate into a new, foreign land. One stroke of the pen that made them foreigners in their own land.. A partition when one minority was almost entirely ignored…

A beautifully written story, leaves you moved, saddened, and a lot wiser. A wonderful read.

Zohra by Zeenuth Futehally

March has been a good month for me – books-wise. I have loved all the books I read so far. Most of the time, I review only some of the books I read. This time, however, all the books so far have been review-worthy- which means that I am hard pressed for time. Sigh! But I can’t really complain – have been having so much fun reading them 🙂

Edited to add the book cover. Thanks Smita – I don’t know how I forgot, and did not even realize!

I came across Zohra, when I was searching through books on Amazon. It sounded very interesting, so I placed a request for it at the library.

Zohra was first published in 1950, and remarkably still remains very readable, even after more than 60 years of being written. Set in Hyderabad, when it was still a princely state, with Nawabs and their way of life still intact. Hyderabad has just become part of India, and the turbulent state of affairs of the state(and the country) is reflected in the people living in those times.

Zohra grew up in a Nawabi family, with her sister. Her mother and other women despaired of her interests in studying(mainly Persian poetry) because they feared that educated girls would never settle in domestic life. Although Zohra has hopes and aspirations of her own, she comes to realize that those are futile to hope for, given her background and resigns to her fate. She gets married to Bashir, an England educated young man, who comes to adore her, but fails to understand her.

She lives a normal married life, when her brother-in-law, Hamid returns from England. Despite all the years spent abroad, he seems to be the brother more comfortable on Indian soil. Both brothers clash on several issues like modes of political protest. Hamid, siding with Gandhian methods, while Bashir felt that the violent/aggressive methods would have been more effective. Hamid seems happy in home-spun Indian clothes, while Bashir insisted on wearing suits in sweltering Hyderabad.. In the middle of all this Zohra, trying to balance duty with passion. Married to the brother who loves her, and attracted to the brother who loves and understands her.

Zohra’s life, her sacrifices, and her choices make up the book. A touching story, a tragedy which just had to happen..

The story also gives an insight into the lives of the Nawabs in Hyderabad at that point in time. People who believed that their lifestyles would continue the way it had been for years. Only some like Hamid believed that change is at their doorstep. The book also reflects the conditions, confusions and mindsets of the Indian Muslims who decided that India was their land.

A beautifully written book, that cannot leave the reader untouched. A story that will stay with me for a while. A wonderful period read.

The Splendor of Silence By Indu Sundaresan

The Splendor of Silence is a sweet romantic story, woven into the period where India was still under British Rule.

It starts off with Olivia, an American girl, getting a trunk filled with her Indian mother’s belongings. She has grown up with her grandmother and father, who has always been curiously quiet about her mother. In the trunk, she finds a letter which begins to tell her the story of her parents.

It was 1942, Mila, the daughter of the Political Resident, Raman, is betrothed to Jai, the Prince of Rudrakot. Raman, is a widower, with 3 children, 2 boys and a girl – Mila. He dotes upon Mila, giving her opportunities that most Indian parents would have balked at, in those times. He is determined that his daughter has the opportunities that his wife did not. At a time, where people would not even want girls, Raman was the exception to the rule. One day, Sam Hawthorne, an American captain reaches Rudrakot and everything changes from that point on. Sam, ostensibly, was there to rest his injured shoulder, has another hidden agenda, which is very important to him, personally.

The author has done a wonderful job in characterization. Each person in the story has a very well etched out character. It is quite understandable at the end of the book, why some of the main characters behaved the way they did. Mila’s confusion, her choices, and her decision, are all understandable given the circumstances and the society that she lived in.

She has also very brilliantly captured the dynamics of India in those days. The caste system, the racial discrimination between the British and the Indians, the manner in which Indians remained less than equal. The political sentiments that prevailed at that point is brought out very well in the narrative. Mahatma Gandhi’s influence, the manner in which some people chose to interpret it, and the confusion of some Indian, who genuinely believed that the British in India, was doing a good thing.

I love the book. I loved everything about this book. I would give it a 4/5. Anyone who likes historical fiction, is sure to love this one.

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

Another book that came highly recommended by Swaram, and I was not one bit disappointed.

Starting from the birth of Mehrunnisa, a child who was born into poverty, while her parents were on the road. Her birth heralded, in a lot of ways, a big change of fortune for her father, a Persian courtier who goes on to find a place in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Mehrunnisa has a special place in her father’s heart, and she grows up to be an intelligent , astute young lady, who soon catches the eye of Empress Ruqaya, Akbar’s favourite queen. She is summoned to the zenana, and from then on, is a frequent visitor  there. One day, she meets Salim, the crown prince. She is fascinated by him and longs to meet him again. But before that happens she gets engaged to an Afghan soldier. The Emperor has sanctioned the marriage and she had to go along with it, because nobody could go against him. Just days before her wedding, she catches Prince Salim’s eye again.This time, he is so enamoured by her that he tries to get his father to annul Mehrunnisa’s engagement, but it does not work.

They both go their separate ways, Mehrunnisa,  comes across lots of unhappiness and sadness in her marriage, while the Prince adds a few more wives to his harem and becomes the King – King Jahangir.

Eventually, they do get married, and she goes on to become Nur Jahan(as she was popularly known),  his most influential wife. Apparently she went on to become one of the most powerful queens, even by today’s standards. Mehrunnisa manages to capture Salim’s attention and manages to get what she wanted at an age where most women would be grandmothers in those days. Her years of unhappiness, her multiple miscarriages, the birth of her daughter(whom she adored), none of all this took away from her charms.

Indu Sundaresan’s words recreate the Mughal era beautifully.Right from the zenanas where political battles were fought, the lives of royal families, the Mina bazaar, to the emotions that seem to rule almost all the decisions that are taken. The power that was wielded by these veiled women, hidden away in the zenana is brilliantly portrayed. Emperor Akbar was expertly manipulated by Ruqayya, his favourite queen, while Salim(Jahangir) was controlled very effectively by Jagat Gosini, his most influential queen, until Mehrunnisa arrived on the scene. For a while,Jagat Gosini, even managed to convince Salim that Meherunnisa belonged to a family of traitors, and so was untrustworthy. Finally, Salim’s attraction towards Mehrunnisa is more powerful than everything else.

If only they wrote history textbooks like this, I am sure I would have enjoyed history in school, far more.

Having said that, I had some trouble coming to terms with their ‘romance’. From the very beginning, Salim comes across as a spoilt brat, someone who is used to getting things easy, surrounded by sycophants and women(including wives and slave girls). He was more interested in drinking and hunting and having a good time, than being a responsible king-to-be. For him to be attracted towards Mehrunnisa is easy to comprehend. Meherunnisa, on the other hand, is supposed to be smart and astute, so what did she see in a man who comes across as so weak?  He tries to unseat his own father, gets swayed easily by the people around him and hardly ever interested in matters of governance. Mehrunnisa is shown badly affected by her father’s corruption, but Salim’s corruption, both moral and political, does not seem to bother her at all. Unless, it was less of a romance and more of a challenge for her, that she, a commoner could become a queen, if she wanted to. Or love is indeed blind!  Either way, it is still a fascinating read and anybody who likes historical fiction, would love it.

Just one more thought. Did you notice the cover? Doesn’t it look incongruous when the book is supposed to be a historical saga involving the Mughals? What do you think?

Edited to add: I seem to have posted an earlier version of my post 😦 Have now edited and tried to recreate what I had originally intended it to be. Apologies to all you guys who came looking for it, and thanks Deeps! I would not have known if it weren’t for you 🙂

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan.

Another book that came highly recommended by Swaram, and I was not one bit disappointed.

Starting from the birth of Mehrunnisa, a child who was born into poverty, while her parents were on the road. Her birth heralded, in a lot of ways, a big change of fortune for her father, a Persian courtier who goes on to find a place in Emperor Akbar’s court.

Mehrunnisa has a special place in her father’s heart, and she grows up to be an intelligent , astute young lady, who soon catches the eye of Empress Ruqaya, Akbar’s favourite queen. She is summoned to the zenana, and from then on, is a frequent visitor  there. One day, she meets Salim, the crown prince. She is fascinated by him and longs to meet him again. But before that happens she gets engaged to an Afghan soldier. The Emperor has sanctioned the marriage and she had to go along with it, because nobody could go against him. Just days before her wedding, she catches Prince Salim’s eye again.This time, he is so enamoured by her that he tries to get his father to annul Mehrunnisa’s engagement, but it does not work.

They both go their separate ways, Mehrunnisa,  comes across lots of unhappiness and sadness in her marriage, while the Prince adds a few more wives to his harem and becomes the King – King Jahangir.

Eventually, they do get married, and she goes on to become Nur Jahan(as she was popularly known),  his most influential wife. Apparently she went on to become one of the most powerful queens, even by today’s standards. Mehrunnisa manages to capture Salim’s attention and manages to get what she wanted at an age where most women would be grandmothers in those days. Her years of unhappiness, her multiple miscarriages, the birth of her daughter(whom she adored), none of all this took away from her charms.

Indu Sundaresan’s words recreate the Mughal era beautifully.Right from the zenanas where political battles were fought, the lives of royal families, the Mina bazaar, to the emotions that seem to rule almost all the decisions that are taken. The power that was wielded by these veiled women, hidden away in the zenana is brilliantly portrayed. Emperor Akbar was expertly manipulated by Ruqayya, his favourite queen, while Salim(Jahangir) was controlled very effectively by Jagat Gosini, his most influential queen, until Mehrunnisa arrived on the scene. For a while,Jagat Gosini, even managed to convince Salim that Meherunnisa belonged to a family of traitors, and so was untrustworthy. Finally, Salim’s attraction towards Mehrunnisa is more powerful than everything else.

If only they wrote history textbooks like this, I am sure I would have enjoyed history in school, far more.

Having said that, I had some trouble coming to terms with their ‘romance’. From the very beginning, Salim comes across as a spoilt brat, someone who is used to getting things easy, surrounded by sycophants and women(including wives and slave girls). He was more interested in drinking and hunting and having a good time, than being a responsible king-to-be. For him to be attracted towards Mehrunnisa is easy to comprehend. Meherunnisa, on the other hand, is supposed to be smart and astute, so what did she see in a man who comes across as so weak?  He tries to unseat his own father, gets swayed easily by the people around him and hardly ever interested in matters of governance. Mehrunnisa is shown badly affected by her father’s corruption, but Salim’s corruption, both moral and political, does not seem to bother her at all. Unless, it was less of a romance and more of a challenge for her, that she, a commoner could become a queen, if she wanted to.Or love is indeed blind!  Either way, it is still a fascinating read and anybody who likes historical fiction, would love it.

Just one more thought. Did you notice the cover? Doesn’t it look incongruous when the book is supposed to be a historical saga involving the Mughals? What do you think?

Edited to add: I seem to have posted an earlier version of my post 😦 Have now edited and tried to recreate what I had originally intended it to be. Apologies to all you guys who came looking for it, and thanks Deeps! I would not have known if it weren’t for you 🙂