Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book Review: Warrior by Olivier Lafont

There are novels and novels and novels. Realistic literary novels bring to you the grime of real life, the sweat dripping off the brow, smiles and tears, joy and sorrow, usually in moderate measure. The beauty of the narration, the quick turn of phrase and the author’s eye for detail, if administered properly and in the right measure, could make the literary novel a pleasure to read, for readers who appreciate such stuff. Chicklits and thrillers are essentially fantasy novels, but attempt to persuade the reader to identify with the hero or heroine and also cling on to the faint hope that all of it could happen in real life. A genuine fantasy novel on the other hand takes the reader to a fantasy land and keeps him or her there on the strength of the fantasy. The characters and settings are so far off from reality that the reader is under no illusion that the story could come true. Just as in the case of thrillers, the prose may not be up to the mark all the time and the writer’s strength of imagination needs to be supremely high and fascinating in order to carry the story.

There are writers and writers and writers. There are real writers and there are ghost writers who write autobiographies for celebrities, or help out those who want to be known as writers, but can’t really write. It is rare to find a celebrity (other than a famous writer) write well. Olivier Lafont, of mixed Indo-French heritage, known to Bollywood fans as Sunit Tandon of the 3 Idiots fame, is one of the delightful exceptions to this rule. A well-known personality in the Indian movie and TV circuits, Lafont’s debut novel Warrior, an adventure fantasy, has been published by Penguin India very recently.

The initial part of the novel is set in Mumbai, in suburbs such as Mahim and Bandra and well-known roads and landmarks such as Turner Road, Carter Road, Linking Road, Pali Hill etc. The end of the world seems to be neigh and Lord Shiva’s son Saam’s blissful existence is thrown into turmoil. Saam leads a humble, non-descript existence as a watch mender, with his live-in girlfriend Maya when the monsoon brings, of all things, snow to tropical Mumbai. There is turmoil and there are riots. People panic and godmen and charlatans reign. The Peerless meet to take stock of the situation and it falls upon Saam, the only demi-God in attendance, to save the world. To do so, Saam who has been living on earth for a few centuries in various guises, has to risk all that he has. Saam’s bout of indecision (before he finally makes up his mind) reminded me of Arjun’s dilemma in the Mahabharat. Arjun had Lord Krishna to help him make up his mind. Saam doesn’t have anyone.

By the time Saam is ready to start his crusade, Mumbai has had heavy showers, not of normal rain, but showers of blood. Saam sallies forth with a few companions and Maya. One of his companions is Ara, his half-brother with whom he has a love-hate relationship. The companions are a disparate bunch – some of them like Lalbaal, Moti and Fateh are very strong and powerful and are not mere mortals, but the scholar Fazal is not only human, but also rather frail. Saam has to locate the Kaal Veda if he is to save the world. What follows next is an advanced version of Star Trek, mixed up with a lot of genuinely good original stuff as Lafont stretches his readers’ imagination to unbelievable levels and takes them to the ends of this earth on steeds which have received the Supreme Blessing and are invincible. And when I started to think that I couldn’t possibly take anymore, Saam and his companions take the Ship of Worlds in search of the Kaal Veda for a trip out of the known world, into a different dimension in terms of space and time. During the voyage, they pick up another companion, Lieutenant Goeffery Gordon, formerly of the British Indian army and its Afghan campaigns. The Lieutenant carries an old fashioned Baker carbine. The carbine and the Lieutenant stay loyal to Saam till the end. Some of his other companions don’t.

Warrior moves back and forth in time and as Saam has brushes with the Marathas, the Portuguese and the Colonial British, Lafont demonstrates his mastery over Indian history and mythology. Time and again Warrior reminded me of the Mahabharata, as the demi-god Saam and other immortals and extra-terrestrials battle each other as the earth lurches towards its end. Lafont’s descriptions of battles are impeccable and there are no repetitions, no easy task when the entire 374 page tome is peppered with fights and battles. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the best thing about Warrior is the way it pushes the limits of credulity. For example, while on the Ship of Worlds, Saam is forced to explain Earth and its inhabitants to a being who hails from a place mostly composed of metals and hard minerals, where carbon is a rare and prized element found only in the deep earth. ‘We are carbon-based creatures. On our world, most creatures subsist on a combination of oxygenated water or air, and a complex mix of molecules. We are organic. That is to say, we develop and grow from absorption of basic elements. In time, we grow old and lose out earlier functionality, till we die.

Warrior is what we Indians call paisa vassol. It is pure entertainment and despite a story line vaguely similar to the Mahabharata, does not come with a goody-goody message. I do not want to disclose more and give away the ending and spoil it for other readers, but I strongly recommend this novel to everyone who wants his or her imagination to be taken for a soaring, topsy-turvy, stomach-churning and terrifying ride.

Warrior was shortlisted for the Tibor Jones South Asia prize.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Book Review: The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 3: Kurukshetra by Krishna Udayasankar

Kurukshetra is the third and final book in Krishna Udayasankar’s Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy. As was expected and as the book’s title suggests, the Great War takes centre stage and the book is almost entirely devoted to it.

As the war unfolded, I wondered what shape it would take. Would it be a violent ancient battle fought by sturdy men who lived and died violently, battle axes and bows in hand and no technology at play? Or would it involve advanced weaponry, arrows intercepting other arrows, warheads raining death and destruction, involving technology which would not be out of place in the modern day battlefield. As mentioned in my reviews of the first two books in this trilogy, namely Govinda and Kaurava, Udayasankar has mortalised all the characters in the Mahabharata, with the gentle suggestion that those brave and exceptional beings later became legends over the millennia. This approach led me to expect a battle without any shock and awe technology. On the other hand, I remembered that Udayasankar had retained a trump card in the form of Firewrights, the secret order of inventors and craftsmen who created technology which was out of the world, for that day and age. The Firstborns may have crushed the Firewrights, but their technology survives, as do many Firewrights in disguse. We are told that Drona and Ashvattama were Firewrights, as was Govinda Shauri, aka Krishna.

Ultimately Udayasankar treads a fine line on the battlefield, as she keeps her characters very much mortal, but reluctantly gives them occasional access to Firewright technology, which allows arrows to intercept arrows, missiles loaded with black nitre to be launched and poison gas to be deployed. Udayasankar’s approach works well and one is treated to a realistic narrative of an ancient battle involving modern day technology.

The Kurukshetra War has a number of sub-legends such as Abhimanyu’s attempt to enter the chakravyuh and his consequent death, Jayadrath’s death at the hands of Arjuna, Grand Sire Bhisma’s fall, the duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim etc. and Udayasankar deals with all of these with elan. I waited for Dharma to say Aswathama Hatha Kunjara, but those exact words were missing in Udayasankar’s realistic narrative, though Dharma does come close to saying those words.

I had never heard the story of Bhagadatta and his war elephant Supratika and I would say that Udayasankar’s execution of this particular sub-story is possibly one of the best sections of Book 3. I could feel the terrible fear experienced by the Pandava line as Bhagadatta’s war elephants charged towards them, but as the great Supratika fell, I couldn’t help, but feel extremely sad. The duel between Syoddhan (Dhuryodhan) and Bhim is almost equally good.

During the Second World War, as Nazi Germany baulked at the idea of mobilising its women, the Soviets went all out inducting women not only into factories, but even to the battlefield. The USA and UK followed suit, but to a lesser extent. Udayasankar takes a leaf from the Allied diary and tells that that the Pandavas did the same by enrolling commoners who were not Arya by birth. However, the Pandavas are still vastly outnumbered by the Kauravas and each day on the battlefield depletes their army, whilst the Kauravas take far fewer casualties. Consequently, the ratio of Kauravas to Pandavas is further skewed as the battle progresses.

Were Hidimba, Hidimbi, Ghatotkacha and other Rakshasas really non-humans, ogres or giants as the legends have made them out to be? Not according to Udayasanakar who offers a perfectly rational explanation for the gentle forest dwellers (she calls them Rishasas) who ended up fighting on the side of the Pandavas. Similarly, Udayasankar tells us that the brave warrior Shikhandin (Shikandi) was not a eunuch, but rather the victim of calumny by his ex-wife.

If Panchali walked away with the honours in Book 2: Kaurava, Uttara does the catwalk in Book 3: Kurukshetra. Just like Panchali, Uttara is showed to be a strong female, one who gets her husband Abhimanyu to treat her as an equal and grow to love her. However, Uttara gets on better with demure Subhadra than with strong-willed Panchali. I’ll not disclose any more here, but will leave it to you to read this fantastic book and find out for yourself why this should be so.

Just as in the first two books, almost all characters in Kurukshetra come in shades of grey. Yudhistir or Dharma, as Udayasankar calls him, continues to be an object of derision, though he too shows a few redeeming qualities.

Towards the end, Udayasankar discloses the identity of the Secret Keeper of the Firewrights, which is yet another reason to pick up book 3. Go on, do buy this fantastic book and read it and if you haven’t already read the first two books in this trilogy, do read them beforehand, even though it is perfectly possible to enjoy Kurukshetra without having read Govinda or Kaurava.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Book Review: Wisdom of the White Mountain by Kandathil Sebastian

A human being born at the bottom of the Indian caste ladder is almost certainly doomed for the rest of his or her life. So it seems to the case for Thomas, a fair-skinned dalit Christian boy whose real father is upper caste landlord Shivaraman Nair. Being a Christian is of little use since upper caste Christians shun him. His dark-skinned foster father hates him since it is obvious to everyone that he is not the real father. His biological father is ashamed of his existence and plots to wipe him off the face of the earth.

Those who succeed in life, those who become rich and famous, those who make a lot of money, are not necessarily those who have worked hard or are extremely intelligent. Providence or sheer luck, if you will, plays a big role. So it seems to be the case with Thomas, or Thoma as his fellow villagers call him. Escaping from the jaws of death, Thoma, along with his friend Balu, runs away from his native village and makes his way (inadvertently) to the big city (Kochi) where he falls in the lap of a gang of hit men, who like him and adopt him. Just as some people are lucky with games of chance, Thoma is lucky with adventure. From the gang of hit men, he ends up with a group of Islamic fundamentalists, who too decide to help him and use him for their own ends. Thoma sees a lot of violence and his journeys take him to Pakistan and Kashmir.

However, lady luck does not desert him. Towards the end of the novel, Thoma achieves material success, though his riches are on account of his becoming an ascetic. A pretty western woman is willing to satisfy him sexually, for her own ulterior motives. However, Thoma doesn’t care for wealth or comfort anymore.

Kandathil Sebastian’s novel Wisdom of the White Mountain, the second in his Mountain Trilogy, is not merely the story of Thoma and his escapades. Rather, it asks profound questions about the purpose behind human existence and examines the root cause of sorrow in the world. Sebastian’s first book, Dolmens in the Blue Mountain, was more about the severe damage caused to the western ghats by human intervention and exploitation.

Written in simple English, Wisdom of the White Mountain conveys to its readers the immateriality of wealth and riches and the importance of peace of mind, something Thoma looks for everywhere and achieves only towards the end.

Wisdom of the White Mountain runs to less than 200 pages and I finished it is a couple of two hour easy sittings.