The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi

Dr Ravi Mohan Saini, a star professor at the prestigious St Stephen’s College in New Delhi is given a seal by his old friend Anil Varshney for safe keeping. Varshney had told him that it was part of a set of 4, and would sit on a base plate, which he had locked away in a locker. In case anything happened to him, Saini would be contacted as the main signatory. The seal is the key to the secret that Krishna is said to have left for the generations later to decipher and is called the Krishna Key. The other 3 seals are with three other people.

The next thing he knows is that he is implicated in Anil Varshney’s murder. As the last person who saw him alive, and with his fingerprints all over the place, Saini looks set to be convicted. Saini manages to escape with the help of his doctoral student, Priya Ratnani. Saini realizes that he needs to uncover the mystery of the Krishna Key in order to prove that he is not the killer of his friend. As he rushes to the others who have the seal, he finds, to his horror, one by one, they all get killed and he gets even more embroiled in the mess. To add to it, there seems to be a person who believes that he is the tenth avataar of Vishnu – Kalki. Now Saini has to try to stay alive while trying to uncover the Krishna Key. All his expertise in History, Mythology and skill in connecting things, are crucial to his survival. It doesn’t help matters that Radhika(Sniffer) Singh, an ace policewoman, is trying hard to catch him and prosecute him for what she believes is his crime. It’s tough enough to escape her, without having to worry about serial killers who seem to get everywhere.

First Impression – it was pure Dan Brown in genre. Conspiracy theory abounds, linking historical facts and exposing different facts and concepts that make you wonder if everything you knew was actually not true. Fascinating read, in terms of all the revelations. So many revelations that it made my head spin, that it made me google and check it out, just as I did when I read my first Dan Brown. It came with all the twists and turns that one would expect, with trusted people turning rogue and corrupt officials that are willing to do everything for the right price.

The best part of the book were the non-stop revelations. It was a walk through history, of a different kind. Right from prediction of the exact time when the Mahabharata was fought, using the astronomical events that were mentioned in the texts, proving that Krishna was not a mythological character but a real life person, who indeed lived on this earth, linking events till the later parts of Indian history, and even world history and the other religions. It was fascinating, to read all that. At the same time,I think the storyline got kind of muddled, somewhere in the process. In the sense that while all the revelations tied up together, it was just too much of it. By the end, I felt it was more about these startling revelations/conspiracy theory than the actual story line. And the ending, for me, it was quite lame. Disappointing in the way that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was.

What really amazes me is the amount of research the author must have done to come up with a book like this. Research as well as a thorough knowledge of the subject that he is writing about. So many things are linked up so well, Mythology, history, possibilities of nuclear technology in the olden days, Chemistry, Symbology, it’s almost never-ending.. Even to do the research, one must have a clear idea about what one is looking for, that I believe is just amazing. And to put it all together in a story, takes talent, and for that, I have immense respect for the author.

While it was a great read, I wish the ending was more powerful. And I wish there was a little less information. I love historical books, but in this one, I felt there was a bit too much information, which after a point, started getting a little boring for me. But then, that’s probably just me. What I loved about the narrative was Krishna’s story that was narrated alongside the happenings in the story. I loved that. It came across really well, added to the flavour of the storytelling. All in all, it is still a book I would recommend. Despite the shortcomings, It’s still an interesting read, but for me, probably a one-time read, yet I would still go ahead and try to read the other books by the author.

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The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Recommended by Saks, it took me a while to get hold of it. And just like all the books she recommends, it was priceless.

The tale of young Japanese ‘mail order brides’ who left Japan to come to America for a multitude of reasons, all believing that the migration would do them good, in one way or the other. The book charts the collective life of the brides. From the time they board the ship to the time the Japanese disappear after Pearl Harbour. Then they all left, while one of them left behind a ‘Buddha in the attic’.

All these young women, have one thing in common, when they board the ship. They are all looking for a better life. They have all a picture of their future husbands, which had been sent to them telling them that they would have comfortable lives in America. As they reach America, some of their dreams and aspirations are shattered, some are wives, some have just been sold, some are lucky enough to get what they were promised. Some were not even lucky enough to complete the journey. Some become laborers, some become maids, promised by their husbands to their employers. All of them realise that the English that they practiced was of no use. Their lives as wives, workers, mothers and immigrants in America. Holding on to their culture and beliefs, they struggle to bring up their children who are in a hurry to shrug off their cultural baggage.

A powerful tale, sometimes which sometimes takes shape of a story, sometimes a poem, sometimes a collective voice, and sometimes that of an indivudual. It’s a great book, and one that gives great insight into lives of the women, and the migrant Japanese community at that time. It also gives an insight into the way migrant communities work all over the world. The style in which it is written is unique, one that I haven’t read before, but extremely effective. It brings to the reader the lives of the women in a very strong and emphatic way. A book, that will stay with me for a while. A quick, un-put-downable read.

Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

All through the book, the one question that kept pestering me was, ‘What kept me from reading Bill Bryson for so long?’ Seriously, I cannot figure it out. But then, I’ve done it before as well. I kept away from Harry Potter. No idea why. Just stayed away from it. And then when I did read one, finished four books in four straight nights. Sigh! But better late than never, right?

I picked up this book on a lark, as this was the only interesting book I could find in my apartment complex’s library.

After living in England for twenty years, Bill Bryson moves back to America, his home country. He finds himself a stranger in his own country. The book is a compilation of articles that he wrote for a newspaper about his experiences in America.

I found it extremely funny and loved his sense of humour. A lot of his sentiments, I could identify with because when you move back into your home country after some years abroad, so many things seem different. The things you enjoyed and cherished might not even be part of your new experiences. The reverse culture shock that is part and parcel of moving back to a place after spending time away from it. Having gotten used to the British way of life and terminology, he struggles to remember/find out the American equivalent of things. His British wife and children, though, seem to love America while he seems to be the one having the most difficult time. Rediscovering America with it’s joys and it’s trials, all the while poking fun at himself and others around him, it was a fun read. I chuckled through the book.

Some of the chapters, though did seem dated, after all , this book was written in 1999. Some chapters about computers for instance remind you that this book is of another time. But for most part, it is Bryson’s style of poking fun at the things he observes that stands out. The sentiments and the humour, I have to say, are timeless. Reading the reviews of the book, I realize that this might be one of his not-so-great books. If that is indeed true, I can’t wait to read his other books.

Antharjanam: Memoirs of a Namboodiri Woman by Devaki Nilayamgode

I came across this book last year, when I was in India, but could not get hold of it. Since then it was on my must-read list of books.

The book is an English translation(by Radhika Menon and Indira Menon) of a Malayam book written by Devaki Nilayamgode, a 75 year old Namboodiri woman. She recounts the life of a Namboodiri woman from childhood. Namboodiri women are called, ‘Antharjanam’, which literally means, ‘People who live inside’. After the age of 6 or 7, Namboodiri women are confined indoors, and not seen even by their own fathers or brothers. Those days, it was common for only the oldest son in a family to marry within their caste. The other sons would do a ‘Sambhandam’ with Nair women, and the Nair women and their children would continue to live in their house and not in the Namboodiri illam. It was common for the eldest sons to practice polygamy for various reasons. There were instances where a man on his death-bed would marry a teenager. Illams traditionally would have unmarried girls, married women and widows of the Namboodiris.

The author recounts her own childhood in a prosperous illam. She grew up in a prosperous illam, and yet her childhood felt almost inhuman. The hierarchy is clear right from the beginning of life. A girl child was never welcomed with happiness. She talks about how they did not even have a comb to brush their hair. Nobody cared about such things. She talks about how her mother never encouraged her or her sisters to have any sort of freedom, as that would not bode well for a life where they would have to live under the shadow of others. Rituals, traditions and rules, made their lives. Some of the things she describes are heart-breaking. Namboodiris could get polluted by getting touched by other castes. During deliveries, Nair women would be attending to the Namboodiri women, so after the delivery, the first thing the poor women had to do was go and have a bath in the pond, to purify themselves. Already weakened by the delivery, they had to make their way to the pond, have a bath before they could be rest at all. As Nilayamgode mentions, nobody spared a thought that often the water would be muddy during the monsoon, and having a bath in that condition might attract infection in the already weak women. Traditions were the most important thing, so had to be followed.

The plight of the widows were particularly sad. They had to pay for the crime of having outlived their husbands throughout their lives. Nilyamgode’s mother was a widow, the third wife of a Namboodiri, but she was respected for her abilities, so she had a slightly better life. Education was practically non-existent for women. Devaki learnt how to read and write, and that was about it. Her sisters started reading books that their brother would slyly pass to them, and that was their only source of reading. It was only when they came in touch with their sophisticated Nair cousins that they realised how different their lives were. The Nair girls would be well-groomed, well looked after, and would even treat the little Namboodiri children with affection – something they never got from their mothers or fathers. She recounts how they would give them pieces of soap, which was treasured and used sparingly to make it last longer.

Fortunately for Devaki, the family that she married it was very liberal and socially progressive. By that time, social reforms and movements had begun. They were focussing on educating women, widow re-marriage, encouraging the other sons of households to marry within their caste.

Nilayamgode writes about how her book will be the last of it’s kind, because change has ensured that there are no longer problems that are restricted just to the Antharjanams. That life today is so much better than it had been a few decades ago. The book brings to focus how much of change has happened, and how change can happen when communities decide for themselves that things have to change – when the change happens from within. Most of the change that happened in the Namboodiri community was because people themselves realized that things have to change in their society. When the society convinced their widowed sisters to remarry, educated their daughters, and encouraged their wives to take control.

I though I was shocked because I grew up in a different time. My mother started reading this book, last week, when she was here, and she was as shocked as me. She had an inkling about the lives of the Antharjanams but had no idea how different it was. My grandmother would have been 86 or 86 now had she been alive today, so around 10 years or so older than Devaki Nilayamgode. They would have grown up in villages quite near by, in families of similar financial capabilities and yet Ammamma(and her sisters) was an educated, empowered lady. So much of variation in lifestyle just because they belonged to different castes.

Isn’t it wonderful how time and progress has brought it to a point where today, everything else being equal, there would be no difference between me and a Namboodiri girl?

A wonderful book. A must read.

When the Snow Melts by Vinod Joseph

Ritwik is in big trouble. Completely in debt, thanks to gambling and his fondness for Old Monk rum, he is being hounded by loan sharks who are out to get him.

Ritwik Kumar, a veteran spook, had been sent by the Indian Government to the Intelligence Assesment Group (IAG) in London, where intelligence agents from countries all over are fighting the war against terrorism. However, Ritwik is not functioning at his best. His alcoholism has led him into embezzling office funds and taking out loans all over the place. He needs to return the money to his boss, as well as the loan sharks.

The only way Ritwik finds to save himself from both General West(his American boss in the IAG), and the merciless loan sharks is to defect to the Al Qaeda. Of course, things are not as smooth as he would have liked. Not only do his new friends/allies start to doubt him, he also falls in love with one of his new allies Junaid’s wife Nilofer. Nilofer is treated badly by her husband Junaid, a foot soldier of the Al Qaeda who is a complete believer of it’s ideology. Ritwik is affected by Junaid’s treatment of Nilofer. Not that he can do much about it. After all, Ritwik, has other more urgent concerns, like staying alive, chances of which start looking bleaker by the hour.

So what happens next? Does Ritwik come out of all this mess alive? You’ll have to read it to find out.

My verdict. Vinod Joseph’s book is a fast moving thriller which keeps you on your toes. I did have an inkling of what could be the possible outcome, which was indeed true, but despite that, there was one twist at the end which completely took me by surprise. The descriptions of London and Basingstoke had nostalgic value for me, so that was an added bonus. Suspense, torture, international intelligence, fundamentalism, double crossing intelligence agents all made it an interesting read.

Some parts of the book did not sit very well with me, though. There is one particular sequence in the beginning of the book where Ritwik is called ‘the Man’, ‘the Old Monk drinker’ alternatively. It actually got me confused. That might just be me – but I felt that it detracted from the flow of the book, because I had to re-read to figure out what was happening. But then, as I said, that might just be me.

I also found the constant reference to Old Monk, a wee bit annoying. It almost felt like a commercial.

Apart from that, I really enjoyed the book. It was a first time read for me, a thriller by an Indian Author, and I am glad to say that I enjoyed it too. The best part for me, was the fact that it had an Indian angle, of how 9/11 effected Indian intelligence efforts and the power struggle in the subcontinent. As one of the Pakistani diplomats in the book says, all that Pakistan wants is to go back to the pre-9/11 era, when they could use the Taliban to help them in Kashmir. 9/11 brought the Talibans into the US’s focus, and that changed it all. It also gives an insight into lives of intelligence officers and the trials and dangers that they face . Lured by the money(and other considerations), there must be plenty of double agents out there, who have no qualms giving out their nation’s secrets.

I would definitely recommend it to everybody who likes books in this genre.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

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 🙂

Keep the change by Nirupama Subramanian

Nirupama Subramanian’s debut book is about good girl Damayanthi. Damayanthi has never rebelled, never done a wild thing in her life. She has topped all her grades, become a CA and now works with the neighbourhood Chartered Accountants. The only thing she hasn’t done like a good girl, is get married as soon as she was of the ‘marriageable age’. She lives with her parents and they have been trying very hard to get her hitched off. At the ripe old age of 26, they fear that their daughter will remain a old maid unless drastic measures are taken.

Damayanthi on the other hand, is bored and dying for a change. Bored of her job, bored of her life, bored of leading a life where watching Sex and the City is the high point of her life.

Egged on by her successful friend Sumi, she jazzes up her CV and started applying. She lands a job at an international bank, and there is no looking back. She is ready to take on the world, do the things she has never done so far. She hopes to transform from a conservative curd-rice eating, living with her parents girl, to a go getter corporate babe. A complete makeover, as far away from Amman Kovil Street as she can get.

She lands up in Mumbai and then starts her adventure. So does she change? Does she do everything she wanted to? Read it to find out. One thing I can promise is that you’ll have a great time finding out. A total chick lit, which keeps you laughing through the pages. You just don’t want it to end. Its a light, fun read if you enjoy this genre of books. It was certainly perfect to keep me sane and laughing during a day full of home decor challenges!

Mayada: Daughter of Iraq by Jean Sasson

One Woman’s Survival in Saddam Hussein’s Torture Jail.

Edited to Add: The cover of the book – it completely slipped my mind while posting.

And that is exactly what it is. The true story of Mayada Al Askari, a woman born into a powerful family of Iraq. She had illustrious paternal and maternal grandfathers, and was one of the few highly educated women in Iraqi society. As a divorced mother of two, Mayada was leading a simple life, managing a business printing brochures.

One day, her life is turned upside down when she is thrown into Iraq’s dreaded Baladiyat prison. She has no idea what her crime is supposed to be. She is thrown into cell no 52 which already housed seventeen other ‘Shadow Women’. Women from all kinds of backgrounds, who shared the same fate of imprisonment, torture without trial and execution. They have been condenmed to ‘guilty’ with no chance of a trial – fair or otherwise. Nothing they might say or do, would make any difference.

Mayada had lived a comparatively comfortable life in Iraq so far. Her illustrious family background had ensured that she was educated and independent. Her mother was quite a powerful person in Iraq, until she decided to move to Amman. Mayada had also come in contact with Saddam Hussein during the early parts of his political career, and he had even enjoyed and admired her articles that she wrote when she worked as a journalist. Nothing however prepared her for life in Iraq’s torture jail.

The torture described is horrific. It is unbelievable that people can do such horrible acts to those in captivity. Mayada was comparatively less tortured, but the manner in which the other shadow women were tortured, makes one wonder at how people could even think of it, much less do it.

The women spent their time in jail talking about their stories and the way they ended up in the dreaded jail. They loved to hear about Mayada’s life story and her tales about the famous people she had met. Saddam Hussein and his wife were of particular interest, although they had to be very careful in discussing them. Anybody discussing the President could get into trouble – as if they weren’t in enough trouble already!

Most of the ‘Shadow Women’ had no idea what wrong they had done to land in jail. Only after repeated torture did they realize what was assumed to be their crime. The heart breaking part was that their families had no idea what happened to them, as they were not given a chance to call or let anybody know. Living in a small cell, filled with other women, tortured, tormented and left to die. Despite all that the caring and concerned nature of her fellow inmates touched Mayada. Mayada was comparatively luckier, she was not torture much and managed to get released, thanks to her mother’s connections. Yet her good fortune(comparative) did not attract jealousy or anger in the others – they were gracious and delighted for Mayada.

Even after her release, life was not smooth for Mayada. One can only imagine how it must be for others who were in less fortunate situations.

The book brings to front the life of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein, when anybody could be thrown into jail for no reason, or at the very most, the slightest of pretexts. Apparently when Saddam Hussein first came into power, he seemed like he had his heart in the right place, pushing for women’s education and other social rights. Slowly it dawned upon them, his true nature and his true plans..

A very moving and sad book, but one that makes one realize how precious democracy is. So many freedoms that we take for granted are things which people in some countries can only dream about. I’m not sure if I should or not recommend this book to everyone, but if you have read and liked her other books, you should give this a go.

Riot by Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor’s books, I have always loved. His writing never failed to appeal to me. The topics he chooses, are so relevant and his take, so sensible, so balanced, at least in my opinion. Riot was the only book of his that seemed to evade me since years. It had been recommended to me by loads of friends, I had been waiting to get hold of it. So the moment I found it at Landmark, I grabbed it.

Set during the turbulent times when the Babari Masjid was brought down, the book explores the ways in which emotions, politics, religious fanaticism change and end lives. Priscilla Hart, a young American woman is killed in a riot in a small Indian town called Zalilgarh. She was a volunteer with a non-governmental organisation working to increase the birth control awareness of the region. She gets killed during a riot. Her parents come down to India to find answers and take back what they can, of their daughter. Unknown to most of them, Priscilla has another story, she and the District Magistrate, Lakshman, were having an affair – one with no real future, though Priscilla wanted one. As the story progresses, more than one person seems to have a reason to get rid of Priscilla. Who killed Priscilla? Was she an innocent victim of the rage of the rioters? Was she just at the wrong place, at the wrong time? Read it to find out.

The story is told through journal entries, interviews with journalists, Priscilla’s letters, with all the characters having a means of expression. All the threads of the story running simultaneously. The story is much more than about Priscilla’s death. It is also a tale of the situation in India at that point in time. The fragmentation of society, the different lives, the different beliefs that make India, and the frustrations that built up, and what happens when people try to tap into religious sentiments to gain a few votes. The book also touches upon the politics and the nature of democracy in India, of how politicians use the excuse of popular sentiment to look the other way, and ignore injustice.

A wonderful book, a wonderful read, one that makes you think. Tharoor’s wonderful descriptions, his use of words makes his books such a pleasure to read. All the characters come alive, one can understand why Lakshman felt so lonely, Priscilla’s motivation, Gurinder’s(Lakshman’s IPS friend) story evokes so many strong emotions, each character has his or her own story, and despite that, the books moves at a very fast pace, keeping all the threads in hand. If you enjoy these types of books, ones where political history is interwoven with a story, I would recommend it. I thoroughly enjoyed it.