Historical fiction

The Feast of Roses [Book Review]

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Rating: 5/5

Year: 2007

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I remember having history lessons on Mughal Empire when I was in school and I used to be so fascinated by the grandeur life of the Kings and Queens, the magnificent architecture and the stories behind their establishments. The Mughal Raj is always looked at as a time when India flourished in trade and economy. The same era was also very popular for its love stories- I mean Taj Mahal! Can any sign of love beat this beautiful monument? My point is- the Mughal era instigates a certain amount of interest in everyone’s mind. I am no different. Look at the amount of movies made based on the Mughal kings. It’s really difficult to read the essayed account of the Mughal period, it’s too theoretical. That’s when my friend suggested me The Twentieth Wife- the first book in the Taj Trilogy. I absolutely loved The Twentieth Wife. It amazingly blended facts and fiction to give a perfectly entertaining and engaging book. The Twentieth Wife follows the life of a young and ambitious girl, Mehrunissa- her aspirations and plights and how she eventually becomes Nur Jahan, Jahangir’s wife, Jahangir’s 20th wife.

The Feast of Roses continues Mehrunissa’s life, her life as a Queen, as Nur Jahan. Commonly, when talked about Mughal Queens, the first name to pop in our minds is Mumtaz Mahal- mainly because of Taj Mahal, right? It’s surprising to see how much Nur Jahan had contributed to the development of the empire. She wasn’t a puppet queen. She was more of a King; her decisions were Jahangir’s decisions. She was a headstrong, powerful and practical woman, who understood the nuances of politics to the tee. She was always ready with her next move, calculating the moves of her enemies perfectly. Reading Mehrunissa was a delight! She wasn’t hasty. She knew she had to move through the ladder slowly, without offending her husband, the King. Her biggest strength was her husband. Jahangir’s love and support for Mehrunissa is commendable. He never discriminated her. In spite of the fact that Mehrunissa couldn’t bear him a child, his love for her never decreased or ceased. One sad point was the meager amount of time Mehrunissa could spend with her daughter, Ladli, from her first husband. I loved reading the interactions between them.

Who will succeed Jahangir? That’s the basic plot of this book. With Mehrunissa unable to produce a child, Jahangir is forced to look at his other sons. Khusrau, his first, blinded as punishment for revolving against him before, is a weak contender. Parviz, a drunkard, is never in the competition. Shahryar is very young. That leaves with Khurram, young and dynamic man, who later wins the title Shah Jahan. Mehrunissa’s goal is to win Khurram’s support. It’s important because, at the death of her husband, she would be left alone and she would need the support of the next king for survival. Thus begin the battle of wits and valor. Mehrunissa, by marrying her niece Arjumand (Mumtaz Mahal) to Khurram, believed Khurram would be grateful to her for that. But she never expected Arjumand would silently turn Khurram away from her. There are many more instances like when Mehrunissa commands Khurram to marry Ladli, and he refuses. I felt really bad for Ladli. She was just a coin in the game, a game she never wanted to participate in.

I found little interest in the English-Portuguese-Mughal treaty part. Even though, that sowed a lot of discomfort in relationships within the family, somehow, it wasn’t engaging enough. I was surprised at the significant role Mehrunissa’s brother, Abul Hassan played in getting Khurram crowned as the next ruler. Hoshiyar Khan, Mehurnissa’s aid eunuch, stood out at the end as someone who didn’t betray his mistress till the end. I wonder how he did that? He worked for the previous queens too, but stayed true to Mehrunissa, supporting and guiding her at all times. On thinking, Khurram never won the throne on his own. He wasn’t nominated by the King or the Queen either. He just attained it because the rest were killed. Now that’s not a good start for a king, is it?

The narration was brilliantly paced. You never realise that you are running through years within a few pages. The description of the Mughal cities and their architecture was beautifully worded. I never wanted to skip any of the descriptions as it was so captivating. I wonder why Jahangir and Nur Jahan are never talked much as compared to Shah Jahan and Mumtaz. It seems like Jahangir did a lot more to the empire than Shah Jahan. Guess, it’s thanks to Taj Mahal!

I am eagerly waiting to read the next part of this series- The Shadow Princess. If you want to read and get transported to the Mughal age, this series is THE ONE!

Go for it!

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The Mahabharata Secret [Book Review]

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Author: Christopher C Doyle

Rating: 1/5

I wish this book had remained a secret and I never found about it!

It’s no news that anything related to the epic Mahabharata excites me. Mahabharata is one story (Yes, a story!) which can be perceived very differently when looking from the eyes of the various characters involved. And every perception seems justified from their end. For example, when the story is narrated from Draupadi’s point of view, her thoughts and decisions seem absolutely right. The same goes to Duryodhan’s view or Krishna’s. I have a habit of reading anything related to Mahabharata to just understand how every mind played through the war. It’s like reading human psychology. When I came across this book, “The Mahabharata Secret”, it didn’t take me much time to drop it on my TBR list. I understood that this was the second book in the series and from the look of the summary, it appeared to be a standalone book. Hence, I jumped directly into this book without reading The Alexander Secret. I don’t think I will be reading that any time for sure.

The Mahabharata Secret is based on the story of The Nine, a secret society, a brotherhood invested with a secret by King Asoka, a secret so dreadful, a secret so powerful, which can destroy the entire race of humanity. The responsibility of The Nine is to safeguard the secret with their life. We get glimpses of how the secret is transferred through the ages, get buried to be discovered centuries, but with ignorance the people who come across it shy it away as nothing. But what is the secret? The backstory definitely did prick my mind with interest.

Cut to the present. We have a group of people led by a dangerous hitman Farooq who is killing the members of The Nine and Vikram Singh, one of the Nine members is their last target. Vikram sends cryptic emails to his nephew in the United States before his murder. Vijay, after the death of his Uncle, along with his friend Colin, his family friend Shukla and his daughter Radha, set out to decrypt the emails and find out the Mahabharata Secret. One clue leads to the next and with each one’s input, clues pop according to convenience and the group gets closer to the truth. Running parallel, we have Farooq (with an unnecessary story of his own) and his team who are also in the same mission. There are loads of touch and go moments, kidnapping, car chases, guns and fist fights. To add to the drama, we have the involvement of Al Queda and LeT, Farooq being a part of it, who also wants the Mahabharata Secret, to use it to attack the key people of every country associated with the G20 convention. And more- using Sudarsana Chakra to kill people??!! Ok! That’s it. I had had enough.

This book would have been great if the author had left out the drama and stuck to history and Mahabharata how much ever fictitious it is. Every character is dramatic. Vijay and Colin’s so called friendly banter was irritating beyond point. I felt like reading Enid Blyton when the kids have conversations. Those conversations were much better. Add to it the sudden surge of love between Vijay and Radha. Really??! What was the need?!! What difference does this make to the story? There are lot of descriptions of artifacts and places which was very difficult to visualize. Now when you don’t really see what the characters are seeing, it becomes really tiring to journey along with them. I felt the author had this entire story like a movie in his mind, like Chetan Bhagat’s books, and wrote it like a script. Hence there was absolutely no depth or seriousness. Just including few excerpts from the Mahabharata- few verses of ancient languages, some symbols and diagrams aren’t just enough to make a book interesting. I am not degrading the hard work behind the book, but as a read I expect deeper analysis. To get the readers to understand them, to make the readers believe this could actually be the truth is where the victory of the author lies. Sadly, it’s no victory this time.

This book was a complete waste of time for me as a reader, as a mythological and historical fiction enthusiast, as someone who value reading time. It offered nothing on that front. Imran as the honest cop was good to read. The only part I loved what that the guy Greg White was an impersonation. I didn’t see that coming. So a mark for that.

Just forget it!

The Rise of Sivagami (Bahubali Book 1) [Review]

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Rating: 2.5/5

Who won’t be excited to read stories about Bahubali? When I found out that the creators are coming up with a book and it is written by Anand Neelakantan (Asura, Ajaya series), I was radiant. I was, am and will be a huge fan of the Ajaya series for its sheer courage and boldness to project a story from the alleged antagonist’s view. I highly respect the author for that. At the same time, I wouldn’t say I am huge fan of Bahubali- though I admit I was really impressed with the movie when I watched it. It was something new to Indian cinema. Yes. It’s a story about kingdom and fight for the throne, more like Mahabharat, but I felt this was for the first time, a concept like this was handled with so much professionalism and sincerity. Usually, the visuals are given prime importance and the story is out of bounds, but Bahubali made sure that it scored in all the departments. The movie meant serious business- and yes it made huge business. Honestly, more than the entire film, the ending stood out so much rising huge anticipation among the viewers- “Why did Katappa kill Bahubali?” That was more than enough to let the nation hover at the edge of the cliff for almost more than a year now. Enough said about the movie, let me jump to the book.

Book 1 of the Bahubali series- The Rise of Sivagami is a prequel to the movie. It narrates the story of the fierce and fearless little girl, Sivagami and how she became part of the Mahishmati kingdom. We do know from the movie what a strong and powerful hold she had over the running of Mahishmati, but how did she land up there in the first place? It also delves into the life of Katappa, the most loyal slave on earth. We have many other characters, who probably didn’t make it to the movie, who play a very important role sowing the foundation for Sivagami to attain power. But did she have an easy route then? What do you think? No way!

I wouldn’t go deep into the story- don’t want to spoil all the excitement. So will keep it short. Sivagami grows up under the care of Uncle Thimma after her father is labelled a traitor and is executed eventually by the King of Mahishmati. Raging with revenge, all Sivagami could think of is to kill the King of Mahishmati. For her own protection, Uncle Thimma puts her in a foster home where she has a hard, very hard time with her home mates and the warden. How does she get out of the foster home to avenge her father? That’s one of the main storylines. In parallel, Kattappa- a very sincere and loyal servant is put under huge dilemma when his brother raises questions about their future as slaves and why they succumb to all the insults and pains. Kattappa endures several tests throughout the book where he puts his life for his master. These two central characters are weaved into a political conspiracy of smuggling government secrets and plots to destroy their mother country.

Honestly, after having read so many books of foreign authors, this book hit me hard on my face for its Indianness. I am not sure how to express it but the book is absolutely Indian. The author has made sure that the book sticks to the roots of the movie on the basis of the place, characterization and the story elements. From description of the location, to the costumes, to the food and to the language used, Anand has made sure that we stay in Mahishmati and not get transported to our own fantasy world. I wonder if it was easy or difficult to depict Mahishmati in words since the world was already created and shown to us through the movie. Nevertheless, a very well done job on sticking to the flavor of Bahubali.

Now coming to book as a whole. To be truthful, I was more than a little disappointment with the amount of story covered in this book. I expected it the end to connect with the starting of Bahubali movie, but that still has a loooong way to go. Also- I felt the story didn’t really delve into what was put on the back cover? I thought that would be the main premise of the story- Sivagami and her father’s secret book. Apart from her landing her hand on the book, then losing it and then gaining it and then losing it back, there was nothing much on that front. Another thing- which is probably me- which I felt a little ughh was the amount of bloody moments involved. It was too violent for my taste. Yes. The story demands such moments. Those moments portray the courage and bravery of our heroes. BUT. I felt really difficult reading it. Somehow, instead of feeling the pain, I felt cringe.

A predominant section of the book involved Bijjala- the crown prince of Mahishmati, his arrogance, carelessness and weakness for woman. The conspirators uses this to their advantage to destroy the country during Mahamagam. As much as this played an important role to the main story, I felt a lot of time was spent on this. Same goes to the storyline of Jeemotha, the pirate. I wish we had more pages about Sivagami. Special mention to the character of Skandadasa, the Prime Minister. He is the white (not the race color but at heart) character in the story who throws all goodness and positivity at us. He is honest, sincere, hardworking, loyal and all the other good adjectives that can go with the above. The exchange between Sivagami and Skandadasa is very engaging.

To conclude, The Rise of Sivagami starts on a very interesting note. It tickles our Bahubali excitement a lot. We try to connect these happenings with what happened in the movie. But half way through, the plot takes a different route all together and somehow the story lands up being something else rather than what it actually started to be. Bahubali fans can either be entertained or disappointed but I fall into the latter. I am sure more books are on the way, and I still have hope that the story would fall back in place and focus on Sivagami and her path to queendom.

The Sialkot Saga

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Rating: 2/5

When Ashwin Sanghi’s next was up for pre-order on Flipkart and Amazon, my excitement knew no bounds. I have always enjoyed his work- a good mixture of history and contemporary lives interwined. Chanakya’s Chant made me sit in awe with the brilliant parallelism yarned between the yesteryear’s untouchable genius, Chanakya and someone with the same cunning intelligence in today’s time. With The Sialkot Saga, I expected the same. History connected to today’s times. Did the book click? Let’s find out.

The Sialkot Saga basically revolves around the two central characters, Arvind and Arbaaz and their lives from rags to riches. Where the former is business minded, the latter is a political genius. Their lives cross paths after decades of penpal battles. Who overcomes whom? Who wins the final battle? How are their lives connected to something that happened in 250 BC? That constitutes the width of the book.

When I first saw the book divided into several sections according to time periods, I knew the book was going to be similar to Chanakya’s Chant. But I didn’t want to draw any comparison. The book continuously has a witty edge to it. Majority of the sections end with a clever line. I was purely entertained by these lines that I started looking forward for such lines at the end of every section. The narrative is fast paced with numerous characters emerging at a very short span of time. The lives or Aravind and Arbaaz move forward strongly and steadily, breezing through the years with acquaintances being made and interesting events getting painted on both sides. While Aravind’s life comes across as far more comfortable, Arbaaz’s is a struggle. There are many determined moments like the ones where Arbaaz takes revenge on the people who troubled him. Aravind’s moments has a more strategic victorious edge.

The first two decades, or perhaps even three, run very smoothly with ups and downs, and failures and triumphs ticked on both the parallel stories. Families emerge so do the businesses. Aravind becomes a successful businessman while Arbaaz becomes a mafia don (not menacing!) cum cabinet minister later. Business in our country always has a political affiliation and that is strongly put across. Bribery and money laundering is very common and is the key behind every political action. Every deal signed, every time the stock market goes up or down- everything is mastered by someone hidden behind the curtain somewhere.  A support system is placed for both the characters playing very important roles. While Abdul dada is Arbaaz’s mentor and a second father, Aravind depends mainly on his friends. Arbaaz keeps his family and friends together while Aravind doesn’t shy away from throwing them out of his lives. The contrast in the characters is well projected. Arbaaz seems clearer in his mind than Aravind. The methods implemented by both the men aren’t legal or moral. Conclusion- no one is white in this saga.

It becomes evident at one point that the lives of Aravind and Arbaaz would meet but somewhere the much awaited union lacks the intensity needed. Everything seems so simple and common in the second half of the book- years of hatred, conning each other at every opportunity, struggle with wife and children, betrayal, etc. As the pages are eaten and the end approaches, excitement begins to build. The leads have grown old and it is time for some action and revelation. I was waiting to read how the history was going to be connected to the present. I was disappointed. The revelation is a fizzle at the end. It makes no connection with the decades of story written before. It stands alone as a separate story at the end. The historical reference and the subsequent connection are forced too quickly at the end that it lacked the needed knockout punch. In fact, the history gets connected and actually referred only near the end. It would have been better if the connection was made evident throughout the narrative. When the revelation is reached, we are left with wanting more. ‘Sialkot’ plays its part but not to the extent expected.

The story also includes nearly all the major events of our nation, all the political leaders and their growth, calamities, movies and other events from across the world like the attack on WTC. While certain events are structured to be part of the story and has a role to play, most of the others are just passing cloud. It seemed like a list of all the events were made and was injected into the story.

The book stays neutral to most part of the incidents that our nation had faced in the past 50 years.

The book comes across very complex when compared to the author’s previous outings. The business strategies are very complicated to understand at many instances. Perhaps, it was a way to project Aravind’s genius mind. In addition, at the later end, science overtakes economics.

All the supporting casts leave a mark. Abdul Dada as mentor, wife Paromita, Murali his friend are Arbaaz’s support system. Aravind, on the other hand, doesn’t embrace support system and doesn’t shy away from throwing away people close to him- be it Joydeep or Satyapal or his own son.

Downside- the book had lot of errors which was surprising. The golden print in the cover also faded away with few handles.

The Sialkot Saga is not a bad read but definitely falls short of expectations. The book succeeds in building the interest for the first three decades and becomes repetitive after that. The witty lines which are the highlights of the first half becomes a rarity in the second. Characters and instances are forced and the narrative becomes hasty to cover all the nation’s events. Somewhere, the author loses the grip which he tries to recover at the end. The book would be a best seller no doubt, but if the story had been crisper with impactful situations, especially in the second half, when the two leads were involved, the book would have reached the benchmark set by the author’s other works.