Book Review: Kalki

Note: I posted this review originally on my other blog on 2008/01/09. I find this book provides a good social commentary on Tamil society in India in the early twentieth century and so, under the inspirational theme of this blog, decided to transfer the post here.

Kalki: Selected Stories

KalkiWhen I saw that there was a translated book of Kalki’s short stories on the Penguin website, I had immediately decided to get hold of that book.

Kalki, for those who don’t know him, is a Tamil writer who took the world of Tamil writing by storm in the 20th century. I remember that my mother said she had read his works avidly during her school days. I had not read any of his writing and one look at the humungous novel ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ threw me off reading it in Tamil. So, it was a pleasure to be finally introduced to the work of a prominent writer in Tamil literature.

This particular book, is a selection of his short stories from the 129 short stories that he had written in his lifetime (1899 – 1954) and translated by his granddaughter Gowri Ramnarayan. Gowri Ramnarayan states in her introduction to the book that she had started translating some of the short stories into English so that her children could experience the writing of their great-grandfather and as they had found reading his Tamil difficult. She also gives a nice sketch of her grandfather’s life and how the pseudonym ‘Kalki’ (கல்கி) was derived from the first two Tamil letters of his writing mentor Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar (கல்) and the first letter from his own name Krishnamoorthy (கி).

A thinker and writer living in the immediate pre and post independence era of India would have been greatly influenced by the prevalent reformist thoughts of the time and most of the selected short stories seem to have a social message pertaining to the social evils of that period: from the need for education for all women (The letter), to the abolishment of the caste system (The poison cure), in support of the freedom struggle movement (The big swelling seaMadatevan’s spring) and against suicide attempts by young lovers (The ruined fort).

Throughout his stories, there seems to run a light playfulness. Even in the above short stories written with a social message in mind. In The Letter, Annapurani Devi, the founder principal of Devi Vidyalaya – a school for women, confides in her younger colleague the reason behind why she embarked on her path of studies and felt that all women had to learn to read first. The reason, that she had been unable to read a missive given her by her lover and as a result losing out on the relationship, seems to be so pathetic and trivial that I felt the writer was at once laughing and yet sad about the state of affairs.

He also embarks on light satire in the Governor’s visit, Rural fantasy and The tiger king.

I guess the reader of today would find the messages in the story obsolete and simplistic but for the reader who would be interested in learning more about the prevalent social issues of Tamil Nadu and Tamil writing during that period would be rewarded.

Book details:

  • Title – Kalki: Selected stories
  • Translator: Gowri Ramnarayan
  • Published by Penguin
  • Published 1999
  • ISBN 13: 9780140290431
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Book Review: Delhi

An absorbing historical novel by Khushwant Singh on the history of the city from the Moghul invasions to 1984. The past and the present are linked nicely and gives the reader a good view of both at the same time. I couldn’t put down the book once I had started it and read through the day till I came to the end.

I loved the way that the guide would take some of his clients to a site and tell the summary of the story behind the ruins and the next chapter would take the reader back to the time when the ruins were flourishing living areas. I also loved the thoughtfulness that the writer had put into introducing characters at different levels of society, from kings and queens to labourers and sweepers, at each point when the past is brought to life, thus bringing the reader awareness of how the society as a whole existed, rather than focus on only one section of the society.

It was interesting to read the character of Aurangzeb treated favourably in the novel, while Shah Jahan and his eldest son Dara’s character not so favourably treated, in contrast to popular fictive takes on idolizing Shah Jahan and vindicating the son who became the successor to the throne. The writer choses to do this by showing that ruling families will always be fraught with survival of the fittest which they do so by eliminating potential competition, their own siblings. In light of this, he suggests that when Aurangzeb came to the throne by killing his two brothers and imprisoning the third, Murad, for life and confining his old father to the confines of the Agra fort, along with his eldest and youngest sisters for the remainder of their life, he was doing what his line of ancestors had been doing so, including his own father, and thus he could not be looked upon as a tyrant king. He also further goes to highlight the fact that he was the first and only ruler who choose not to live the royal life the royal way but lived meagerly on his own earnings from the sale of the religious books he copied in his own hand, while treating state wealth as being in his custody for the state and not for his own pleasures. Neither did he maintain a harem as was the trend of the Mughals. It was an interesting perspective of a character who has been blackened in history and provides an angle which seeks to show the personal traits which governed his actions. Even the demolition of places of worship other than those of Islam was explained by his devout Islamic upbringing and his concern that his father and brothers were deviating from a life that should be inherent for a good Muslim and he felt that as a ruler he had to show all his subjects that Islam was the only religion of God.

What is special about the book is that while the writer has clear feelings about the characters he brings to life through his writing, he justifies the actions of each in their lives by recreating their upbringing, their personal paths in lives which brings them to a particular place and action in time, thereby inviting the reader to not judge but simply observe the historical passing moments.

The book also manages to link the actions in the past with results in the future. The killing of a Sikh Guru in the past resulting in a movement centuries down the line, vowing revenge and the actions of later day leader of India, Indira Gandhi to quench this rising with violence leading to her own assassination, which in turn results in the state supported killings of Sikhs living in Delhi.

The story also highlighted the toils and labours and petty vanity that human beings put into their brief existence on this earth and that it is meaningless in the passing of time and yet, history continues repeating its horrors and power struggles and power hungry individuals bring up some historical incident to justify their actions to the rest of the world, while it is pure greed or sadly mistaken logic that drives them on to destruction. Yet, life goes on and these human made destruction a drop in the continuing violence in the existence of human beings. Will the earth continue tolerating these violations on her?

A word of caution though – some might find parts of the novel squeamish, mostly the parts which involve the guide who tends to focus on his sexual experiences. Thus, ‘erotic’ is one of the labels that some reviewers and the publisher have used to describe the novel. I see a story very well handled by the writer and the language flawlessly flowing to create visions of the past.

I now look forward to getting hold of Khushwant’s Singh more famous book ‘A train to Pakistan.’

Book details:

  • Title – Delhi: A Novel
  • Author – Khushwant Singh
  • Published by Penguin Books India
  • Published 14 Oct 2000
  • ISBN13 9780140126198
  • Category – Fiction, Literary Fiction

Note: I have transferred this review from my first blog, View from my Desk, when I deleted that blog so that I could focus on Perspectives Quilt. 

Book Review: The Ancient Tea Horse Road

A cold evening in Shangrila, huddled in a room on the upper floor of a wooden cottage, a group of us were treated by Jeff Fuchs to a visual of his trek along the ancient tea horse road that had culminated in the writing and publishing of a book. The images were powerful and the story-teller interesting.

That evening made me want to read the book and after several months, I settled down to reading the book over days and over cups of pu’er tea.The ancient tea horse road is a narrative that takes us along the ancient route and offers us glimpses into the vista, the conditions that the traders and employees would have faced travelling along this route, little insights into the people and their ancestors that would have been engaged in the trade and most importantly, the types of tea that is so revered by the people along this route. Jeff brings an element of the personal self into the narrative by his accounts of the people he trekked with and the friendships formed along this route, which makes it all the more of an interesting read.

While I enjoyed the book and have much of a deeper respect and appreciation of pu’er tea now, I do wish that the personal stories of the elderly muleteers, the last of their kind, could have been dwelt with more in the book.
Book details:
  • Title: The Ancient Tea Horse Road
  • Author: Jeff Fuchs
  • Hardcover: 231 pages
  • Publisher: Renouf Pub Co Ltd (June 30, 2008)
  • Published: June 30, 2008
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670066117

Book Review: Eddie Would Go

Note: I had posted this review on my blog View from my desk on 2013/02/17 and have transferred it here.

Eddie would go

eddieIt was a special wednesday evening at the East West Center, Hawai’i in September 2012, that I first heard the story of Eddie Aikau. The guest speaker, Stuart Coleman chose to talk about two Hawaiian heroes to demonstrate how individuals are catalysts for change.

The story about the Hokule’a and how Eddie, a renowned surfer and lifeguard, dreamed of going on the voyage tracing Hawaiian’s ancient route across the Polynesian islands but never made it during that fateful March 1978 voyage and how his life inspired others to continue that journey touched me so much so that I purchased Stuart Coleman’s book ‘Eddie would go: the story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian hero’ at the end of the talk.

I finally found the space and time to read the book this week and I am very much touched with the sensitivity and honesty that Stuart has handled the real-life characters. It is difficult to write about someone who has become a legend – a demi-god – in his death but it is even more difficult to write a portrayal of him that brings together different sides to the person and makes the person more human enough for the reader to feel a connection. Stuart goes further – he also brings to life vivid accounts of the people surrounding Eddie and how Eddie’s life and death touched them. I found myself reflecting deeply on how momentous events in a person’s life can change the entire direction to their purpose and life. And, how a person steers through the stormy waters is what brings them to shore.

I found it difficult to think about Dave Lyman, the captain of Hokule’a, on its 1978 voyage and how the weight of responsibility of that fateful voyage and losing Eddie would have weighed on him. I pondered on how his career derailed from a capable sailor to never being asked to be a skipper again and how it affected all areas of his life. To have taken a decision under very trying circumstances and for having that decision haunt him for the rest of his life. It is tough.

I also wonder how Eddie’s family themselves, particularly his parents for the remainder of their lives and his sister, came to terms with their inner demons. The fact that a family friend had asked them to speak to Eddie before the voyage and to persuade him to not go because of a dream that his wife had heard of the boat capsizing and Eddie being lost at sea. The family was torn but in the end decided not to say anything to Eddie because they knew it was his dream and passion and that he was a person who would go, when his mind was made up. It would have been hard for them in the aftermath of the accident.

Hokule'aAt the same time, Nainoa Thompson‘s story is a beacon of hope and a story of true courage and how one man converted a traumatic experience into a new life purpose. Despite the guilt and responsibility that had weighed on him, Nainoa became convinced of the dream of Eddie and felt the need to complete the voyage and worked hard in the subsequent years to restore the Hokule’a and eventually, embarking on voyages around the Polynesian islands and to other parts of the world. Now, the executive director of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Nainoa Thompson is the first Hawaiian to have practiced the ancient Polynesian art of navigation since the 14th century. It was a privilege to have been able to see the Hokule’a while she was in drydock preparing for her worldwide voyage and to hear Nainoa speak about the educational voyages they have been undertaking over the past two decades. To read Nainoa Thompson’s write-up on the last day that he saw Eddie Aikau, do visit Mana magazine’s article “Eddie Went.”

‘Eddie would go’ is a book that has been well-written by Stuart Coleman and which I really appreciated reading.

Book details:

  • Title: Eddie Would Go, The story of Eddie Aikau, Hawaiian hero
  • Author: Stuart Holmes Coleman
  • Hardcover: 271 pages
  • Publisher: MindRaising Press; 1st edition (October 2002)
  • ISBN-13: 978-0970621375