Book Review : Saraswati’s Intelligence by Vamsee Juluri

I had originally written the review for First Post where it was first published. Republishing here with their permission.

The fantasy genre is known to take a story-teller’s imagination to a pinnacle. In the cosmos of richly descriptive Ancient World fiction, Saraswati’s Intelligence, book one of The Kishkindha Chronicles, stays true to the promise of “intelligence” in its title and sets itself apart. The edge that this novel has over its Western literary counterparts is most of all the presence of the original superhero, Hanuman himself.  Hanuman is a multi-faceted personality, and in Saraswati’s Intelligence, the action and adventure associated with him also meet intellect and a commitment to a universal ethical ethos.

What Vamsee Juluri does in Saraswati’s Intelligence fundamentally is to offer a story-teller’s tribute to civilization, to the roots and to the forces that have sustained and evolved mankind through the ages.

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Set in a world (Kishkindha, inspired by the ancient Indian subcontinent) that espoused an unbreachable code called Parama Dharma (read “Ahimsa” here), Saraswati’s Intelligence starts on a contemplative note where an adolescent Hanuman faces banishment by his scheming aunt, the Empress Riksharaja ,who takes advantage of a superficial breach of Parama Dharma. In the journey that ensues, filled with a variety of memorable encounters, Hanuman finds himself facing the dark forces that know no morals and threaten to upset the creation of Saraswati, the Supreme Goddess.

While Hanuman makes for an endearing protagonist, the narration brims with reverence towards the feminine universe. The world creation (or call it exploration) of the author is a soulful cognizance of how various species depend on each other and connect themselves to the ultimate source, the Mother of Knowledge. The pages carrying the description of River Saraswati worshipped as the source of life are a delight to every nature lover. To quote a belief of the Kishkindhans about creation:
“In the old days, when much of the world was covered with fire, they say the Goddess herself appeared in the form of a river, and she cooled the fire down slowly, into steam, into water, into earth, and then, into our ancestors, Shiva and Vishnu.”

While the love for nature remains an important aspect in the story, it is refreshing to see that this love is very unlike some of the patronizing and superfluous current day animal protection activism which exhibits overzealous intrusiveness in unnecessary places and callous negligence where action is most needed. The nature worship of the Kishkindhans is rooted in a deeper connect that the various beings such as the Ganeshas and the Jatayus, feel towards each other despite their diversity. ‘Some of us move, some of us lie in wait. Some of us have speed, some have strength. But we all have dharma at heart. So we must think. What is the best way for all our races to work together now? What is the best way for us to work with the forces of land and climate, and not walk into more opposition than we really need to now?’ can be seen as a commentary on the vibrant civilization that was Ancient India and will stay with me for long. Does this universe of Kishkindha espouse everything that we had in the past and everything that we stand to lose in the turmoil of today’s rush to “progress”? I lost track of the number of times I asked myself this question while reading the book and for that reason alone, the book deserves to be read by the young and old alike. Saraswati’s Intelligence is that call from the past to realise what we were and to rediscover what we ought to be.

The story is not a racy, read-and-forget tale that some action and adventure readers might expect it to be. I would advise the readers to be prepared to have their deeper beliefs challenged and coaxed into contemplation to appreciate the nuanced narrative of what Parama Dharma is. Ahimsa, to my delight, is not interpreted as pacifist nonviolence that defeats itself, but it is instead the assertion of vibrant coexistence that pins down the dangerous characteristics of lust, oppression and greed.

One would expect that this ideal universe which recognizes the need to coexist would not run into trouble. But power games, invasions by blood-feeding beings, weaknesses of those whose strength is taken for granted, all form a layered plot skilfully built upon the various shades of the characters. Anjana and Kesari evoke an unearthly reverence as indulgent and yet unattached parents.

Among the well etched characters, Vishwamitra and Vaishnavi (the author’s name given to the Puranic character of Suvarchala) are my favourites, given their stimulating conversations with Hanuman as well as their ability to take quick decisions on their feet. The companionship woven between Vaishnavi and Hanuman (Yes, Hanuman HAS a romantic side and hold on, you will love that!) throws up some interesting debates on Dharma. It made me root for them as a couple and yet…. No spoilers given. One should read the book and travel through the universe of Kishkindha to know what happens.

Saraswati’s Intelligence invokes the rich ancient Indic art of story-telling and cannot be cast into a single genre. Action, Adventure, Spiritualism, War, Romance, Politics, all aspects that take the world of the narrative forward are dealt with through aesthetic storytelling. The book deserves special praise for defying the commercial genre tropes of fantasy like blood, gore and objectification that have unfortunately become a rage in the Western fantasy sphere.  To those under-informed commentaries on why Indian fantasy writing sticks to its ancient scriptures, Saraswati’s Intelligence is the intellectual answer. While the commercial fantasy tropes draw from two-dimensional character motivations dominated by Artha and Kama, the Indic fantasy provides the complete cycle of motivation adding Dharma and Moksha to the carnal side making a story worth its letters.

Interested readers can order Saraswati’s Intelligence from Amazon

Prof Vamsee Juluri is also the author of the Best Selling Rearming Hinduism

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Book Review – Urnabhih by Sumedha Verma Ojha

Empires rise. Empires fall. We read about the Kings and their king makers. We learn about the landmark battles, coups and takeovers. Where Urnabhih stands out is in narrating the tale from the perspective of those who shouldered the crucial responsibility of ensuring the stability of an empire- the spies. The author impresses with her way of balancing various aspects of romance, intrigues, adventure and emotions while not compromising with the pace of the narration.

The tale starts with the entry of the protagonist Misrakesi, a dancer who enters Magadha with a vengeance in mind and ends up in the spy network of Chanakya, the enigmatic kingmaker, politician and the accomplished guru in statecraft. To those who watched the critically acclaimed TV Series Chanakya, this book starts like almost a sequel, but with a change in the POV. The author delves into the details of the topography of the city of Pataliputra while detailing the early intrigues that Chandra Gupta Maurya faced and Misrakesi’s role in ensuring his coronation. Fans of Chanakya serial get to catch up with old friends like Shrunottara, Siddharthak and Akshay.

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Characterization is another aspect where Urnabhih impresses. Misrakesi comes off as a fiercely independent woman, a ravishing dancer and someone who wonderfully balances her ambitions with loyalty to her role as a spy. The male protagonist Pushyamitra (Not to be confused with the founder of the Sunga dynasty who comes quite some generations later in the history) keeps the reader hooked. Arrogant, bossy and patronizing as he is, Pushyamitra also has an endearing, sensitive side and manages to win hearts of the readers. The ‘boss-employee’ relationship between Pushyamitra and Misrakesi that blooms into romance while encountering roadblocks is something to be read and savored.

Sumedha’s knowledge about the social norms, state-craft and policy of those times, rooted in Arthashastra flows and blends with the plot. Revealing any more would spoil the tale. I was particularly impressed with the economics that was enunciated in a particular episode that involved fake coin minting that threatened the Mauryan empire with dire consequences.

Misrakesi after her initial success, finds herself caught up in the web of intrigues that sends her on a journey to Kekaya, the ally turned rival of Magadha and as I said earlier, revealing any more of the tale could spoil it for the readers.

What left me impressed with the novel is the rooted and responsible feminism as opposed to the angry, rebellious and almost misandrist version of feminism that is seen in most of today’s literature. Often, the feminist stories end up betraying the principle and glorifying masculinity with their tom-boyish and overtly aggressive heroines who seem to think being unreasonable is the way to assert independence. But in Urnabhih, not only Misrakesi but even the other female characters brim with confidence in themselves and make their presence felt. The portrayal of society too can shatter some long drawn stereotypes we’ve all had regarding the ancient India. Misrakesi herself is a multi-faceted and well-rounded character who seems to know when to fight back, when to reason, when to manipulate and when to sweet talk. Definitely a case-study worth exploring for modern Indian writing enthusiasts.

Last but not the least is the classily narrated erotica. Often in most other books, the sexual scenes either disappoint me or make me want to puke. With Urnabhih, I can proudly confess that the love making scenes had me going back and re-reading the whole book for the second time. Opposed to the western erotica where the act of sex is burdened with unnecessary guilt, Urnabhih leverages the Shringara rasa of Indic literature. It emphasizes the Indic value system where Kama, the desire is held on a pedestal as high as Dharma and Artha. As if to echo this conclusion of mine, Pushyamitra declares his faith in this delicate yet cherish-worthy balance between the Purusharthas towards the end of the book. It can engage not only the reader’s senses but also the mind and soul.

One minor aspect where the book sort of falters is in giving the sense of closure in the end while there is actually a sequel coming up. A more intriguing ending could have kept the reader waiting for the sequel. But as an ardent reader of historical fiction, I am looking forward to reading the second book of Urnabhih. Definitely, a must-read for those interested in the history of India.

Urnabhih can be bought from Amazon

Tech-at-heart, take a dip into the confluence of ancient Indian arts and science

This was written for Yourstory. Yourstory.com is  India’s no.1 media platform for entrepreneurs, dedicated to passionately championing and promoting the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India. The article was published in March 2015

What connects the Amish Tripathi, Pranav Mistry and Manjul Bhargava? I bet the answer is something that connects the crores of Indians across the globe. The Indian scriptural knowledge, be it the ‘as it was’ epics, myriad of Puranas or the contemplative Upanishads, has captured our fascination. It always had and will continue to do so. The versatility of Indian scriptures in terms of rich interpretations has penetrated to grassroots since millennia, which has resulted in what we pride as our civilization. My interactions with people across multiple spheres of life brought me interesting anecdotes.

My mother Usha Krishnaswamy is a soft skills coach by profession and a language teacher at heart. I grew up watching her teach vocabulary to students using anecdotes from the ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ and the benefits were multifold. She prizes the holistic nature of education that school students would benefit through those stories instead of monotonous rote learning.

My father Krishnaswamy Kumar, a senior advocate at Anantapur, AP, mentions how the immortal stories help putting things in perspective. He says that the villagers who form a large portion of his clientele vouch by them and the anecdotes are endless. One such intriguing tale was about a faction leader reforming himself and his feudal group influenced by ‘Ramayana’. He also admitted to my father about his routine, including reciting some Telugu poems about the epic every night.

A rural entrepreneur, Haritha, says that an anecdote from the ‘Mahabharata’ about Krishna cleaning up the empty leaves and leftovers by the guests at Rajasuya changed the attitude of men in her family. She is happy that from that day, the men started to help women in all domestic chores in her family.

My father added in the end that rural population is more connected to roots than their urban counterparts. But my interactions with the urban peers left me pleasantly surprised. I have been a great admirer of Adi Sankaracharya for his ever inspiring ‘Atma Shatkam’ that emphasizes the limitless nature of the self. My initial years as a startup consultant revealed to me that many entrepreneurs and corporate professionals treat this as a life mantra for inspiration. Geeta Vaidyanathan, a Bangalore-based marketing professional says the ‘Bhagawat Gita’ helps her keep her faith. Remembering the stanzas from there are helpful, she claims, to stay balanced through challenging presentations and negotiations.

A Hyderabad-based founder of a startup applauds the experimental nature of ancient scientists. The mathematical works of Bhaskara II, especially the discovery of ‘infinity’ influences him the most. He also highlights the work done in the field of differential mathematics and series expansion by a 14thcentury mathematician Madhava which evolved later into a comprehensive mathematical branch called Calculus. A coder and algorithm lover at heart, he cites with a lot of zeal, the unique experimental aspects in which classical music, mathematics and literature intertwine. The tech-at-hearts sure have a lot to explore there!

Srishti Rai, an aspiring animation artist from Pune, dreams of building what she calls India’s Pixar Studios one day.  The form of Durga as the epitome of ‘shakti’ or spirit is her favourite. The thought of Durga mounted on a lion she says helped her combat a physical condition during childhood and pursue her passion of drawing. A trained Hindustani singer herself, Srishti likes it that music and dance are accepted as a worshipful offering to the divine.

Mahesh, a Physics Researcher based in Australia, a history enthusiast and a dear friend (with whom I have never ending debates), bemoans how the once excellent ecosystem for philosophical debates has just become a largely ritualistic belief system. Citing the rituals followed around eclipses, he asks why people still follow it when it is proven that it is just a periodic celestial conjunction and not some snake devouring the Sun. He blames the fearful theistic attitudes for the loss of the basic ecosystem for debate.

Pavan Kumar Kunchapu, a solution architect at Purnatva Solutions, a Bangalore-based startup, however is more optimistic about the takeaways in Indian ancient literature. He quotes a story of Vikramaditya by Kalidasa which was a part of high school curriculum as his source of strength during tough times. For someone with a humble rural background, Pavan says Bhartrihari’s anthology, also taught in school made him see the positives of life and use every barrier as a stepping stone.  Sheelena Shobhate Vidya (character is what glorifies education) remains his favourite quote while facing corporate intrigues.

The round of interaction with everyone left me enlightened about the innocent and intellectual ways people connect to their roots and find solace, inspiration and even ethical caution. My pondering always brought me new questions. As a civilization with multi-millennial history, haven’t we seen shameful and horrendous incidents? We have. Is everything of past as glorious as some of us boast with no dark spots? No it isn’t. Then what keeps it going?

I think it is the ability to question the past without delinking from it. It is the legacy which once believed in conducting ritual yajna to please Indra for rains. It is the same legacy which let Krishna oppose the same ritual and replace it with nature worship of Govardhana. It is the legacy that once advocated division of labour through Varna(caste) classification. But the very same legacy included the Bhakti movement, which challenged such stratifications citing the omnipresent spirit.

Owning the past but adapting to the present, nurturing dissent but coexisting with diversity is what that makes the ancient, ageless. Just the same way the field of science has a place for all the theories from old and disproved to new and empirical. Can science ever age? Generations of thinkers, implementers and reformers contribute to the dynamic culture of the land lying to the east of River Sindhu. The continuous evolution defines its eternal nature –Sanatana – built to last?