Book Review – Arjun Without a doubt by Dr. Sweety Shinde

Re-telling of Mahabharata from individual perspectives has been an ever-green favourite of the Indian literary segment. Arjun without a Doubt by the debutante Sweety Shinde stands out of the rest, giving a voice to the ever inspirational Arjuna while admirably balancing the macro narrative. It is not surprising that the author actually chose that perspective which refreshingly does not blame the world for his misfortunes. In a unique approach to balance the male and female (perhaps) narratives, the author chose to retell the epic through the eyes of Draupadi and Arjuna.

Warning, I am going to rave about the book, it finally retells Mahabharata as I loved it since childhood.

This is in contrast to the various other books which retell Mahabharata from many individual points of view like Draupadi, Karna, Bheema, Duryodhana and so on.  While each of these books have a passionate narrative and raise uncomfortable questions, most of them heavily fall short on doing justice to the macro narrative. Bringing out the macro-narrative of this immortal epic is possible only with multiple perspectives (something that the SL Bhyrappa did with scholarly élan in his critically acclaimed Parva which became the reference to most of the new authors and in the recent years, Krishna Udayasankar attempted with a unique macro plot though with a fantasy approach).

Arjun

What stands out in Sweety’s Arjun is his aptitude for intellectual and philosophical discussions and his way of dwelling on each of the challenges he faced, every misery making him stronger and wiser than before. Adhering to the allegory of Nara-Narayana, Arjun comes across as a befitting comparison to Krishna. His valour, obviously is peerless. But Arjun is not someone who flaunts his expertise in archery to prove a point to this world. In fact, the skill of archery is his passion, his love and his solace and the Gandeeva, his ‘bride’ that would always be by his side after he lost Draupadi to the complex marital predicament. That apart, he perpetually strives to be worthy of Draupadi’s acceptance while being sensitive of Subhadra’s love. I liked the way Karna was dealt with the contempt he really deserves. Arjun is shown too busy facing his own intrigues inside and out to care for the wannabe rants of Karna. While Karna’s aim was to better Arjuna in archery, Arjuna’s love for archery was not for fame but an endeavour to discover his own self, something that he achieves without disappointing those who believed in him. This is one book I can thrust on the faces of Karna’s admirers with complete confidence. I would have loved it more if the author had elaborated more on the episode of Kiratarjuniya and the killing of Jayadrata. The numb shock that casts him into a daze during the gambling scene could have been dealt with a bit more detail.

Arjun

Draupadi

“Oh My God! Not again!” was my initial reaction after learning that the book carried a Draupadi centric narrative. But Sweety’s Draupadi is amazingly refreshing. This Draupadi loves Arjun and not Karna (No sane woman would love an eternal cribber in a perpetual battle mode like Karna and even thinking of a strong woman like her falling for the loser is such an insult to her personality!) as some popular literary works speculate. This fits with the narrative of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa, keeping in mind, Draupadi’s reaction about Subhadra wedding Arjuna and Yudhishtira’s last words about Draupadi. She is a heroine, a true Kathanaayika blossoming from a bewildered bride braving a complex marital relationship to an empress that held the family together through hopelessly miserable situations. What I loved the most is the author’s portrayal of Draupadi’s facing the ignominious and horrifying episode of dice and disrobing. The Empress of Bharatavarsha is not a distressed helpless woman calling out to Krishna. She is not numbed by the shock of being wagered, lost and branded as a slave. That is the moment she behaves as the true Samragni who realizes that she is the only one to stand between the Kauravas and the women of the Pandava family (who might be put to a greater misery than her as she speculates). She was not the victim, she was the saviour! Could not help tears of sheer admiration reading that episode. Different shades of her character surface during various incidents and Draupadi never fails to intrigue and inspire.

Where I disagreed

Subhadra’s demure personality somehow did not go well with me. Felt that the author could have portrayed a more vivacious and endearing woman in her and still retained Draupadi’s superiority if I may say so. To me, Subhadra is always that sister of Krishna who is a befitting comrade in all his quests and her greatness need not be in clash with that of Draupadi.

Yudhishtira is someone I feel is a character who is always dealt a raw deal from the poets and authors. The author, in fact, tried to balance with a redeeming last chapter. But the root problem I feel is that not only her but most other authors including the literary scholars also see Yudhishtira only from a collection of perceptions and not as an individual himself. Any modern author who dares to sympathize with him will have to face the eternal battle with the feminist rage of the world: D (Kidding, or am I?).

Final word: Arjun is a must read for those aiming to draw inspiration from the epic of Mahabharata. Interested readers can buy the book from Amazon

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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.

urnabhih

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

Book Review – Gods, Kings and Slaves by Venkatesh Ramakrishnan

Historical fiction is an ever green genre in India. The regional literature with had got into the genre quite early and has established its mark. The classics by the likes of Kalki R Krishnamurthi, Vishvanatha Satyanarayana, KM Munshi have remained all time favourites and some of their works have groomed fan cults. Indian English literature has begun to get into historical fiction quite late and is quite welcome.

Gods, Kings and Slaves, The siege of Madurai by Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, a Chennai based historian and author dwells on the conflict between Malik Kafur, the slave and trusted war general of the Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji and Veera Pandya, the King of Madurai.

Starting with an engrossing narrative of the individual travails of both the characters in their early youth, the book sketches their journey upwards. The reader can be moved by the making of Malik Kafur and inspired by the ambitious Prince Veera. The tale of Malik Kafur that transformed an innocent love lorn youth into a stone hearted manipulative war general who knows no defeat was quite eye opening. The dramatization of Veera’s exploits at a crisp pace makes this book a page turner.

The book also dwells into the internal conflicts of the Royal Pandya family. Being the son of a courtesan by the Pandya King, Prince Veera is not considered a natural heir to the throne of Madurai against his step brother Sundara Pandya. But a dramatic turn of events sees Veera ascend the throne but the power comes at a high cost, at the cost of love and friendship. The book alternates between the individual tales of Malik Kafur (I am almost tempted to give his real name away, but that would be a spoiler 😉 and Veera Pandya and I personally found the alternating narrative quite gripping.

Gods Kings and Slaves

One highlight of the book with regards to the war scenes was the balance struck between dramatic narrative and attention to detail be it the description of the fortress of Warangal or strategies that made Prince Veera secure a crucial victory at Lanka. A history enthusiast could have his interest rekindled about the many dynasties the author mentions that most of us would not have studied in high school history. His description of Warangal actually made me want to visit the place the very following weekend. (I was in Hyderabad then).

The author’s way of handling the after effects of a battle is another noteworthy aspect. One can empathize with Veera Pandya’s broken heart at losing Madurai to invaders and his unspoken grief in seeing the changed layout of the city when he visits the erstwhile Pandya capital in incognito. May be as a poetic justice (oops a spoiler!) all does not go well with Malik Kafur back at Delhi after his victorious conquest of medieval India. The idol of Goddess Meenakshi that he is smitten with which he takes from the temple of Madurai has her own ways of working.

The mystique touch at the end of the novel was the lone thing which I felt was out of sync with the rest of the book which does not have a super natural angle. (It might be just me). But then with Kings and Slaves dominating the story, the gods had to show themselves sometime and it happens in the last few pages. The book ends with a brief epilogue about Kumara Kampana, the Vijaya Nagara Prince reclaiming Madurai.

I personally liked the strong female characters along the novel, be it Tara, Sunanda, Radhika or Vani. Readers could wonder about who the male protagonist of the book is when it alternates between the stories of Veera and Kafur. But each of the women make it clear to the reader that they are all here as heroines of their own mettle.

In the authors note, we get to know that ‘Madura Vijayam’ a 14th Century work written by Queen Gangamba was the inspiration for the book. Or rather the book might work as a sequel to the events described in Madura Vijayam. As a history lover I hope that R Venketesh does take to writing the sequel of reclaiming Madurai too.

Venketesh is a bilingual author and has penned Kaviri Maithan, the Tamizh sequel to Kalki R Krishnamurthi’s block buster classic, Ponniyin Selvan. Gods, Kings and Slaves – The siege of Madurai happens to be his first novel in English. The novel did reignite my enthusiasm for the medieval Indian history, especially that of South India and got me reading about the rise and fall of many kingdoms and dynasties that my school curriculum had by passed. If you are a history lover, then go for it on Amazon.