Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dark was the night and weird the atmosphere...

Dark was the night and weird the atmosphere­­­­­. It rained from time to time; gusts of wind shook the trees. Between thunderclaps and the moaning of jackals could be heard the eerie laughter of spirits. Flashes of lightning revealed fearsome faces.

For those wondering where they have come across these lines, Chandamama it is, in the new tales of Vikram and Vetal that they featured for several decades and still continue. I loved the colorful delineation in paragraph mentioned above and had almost mugged it up! I have a collection that dates back from 1976 till around 1996 and I particularly looked forward to reading these stories in every issue that I had hoarded through subscriptions and old ‘raddiwalas’ (waste/old paper buyers and sellers). 

Vikram and Vetal (Vampire) has for long enamored generations of Indians with stories of wit, mystery and stimulation of those grey cells. The courageous King Vikramaditya sought to dislodge a vampire from his hideout in an eerie jungle replete with ghosts, jackals, and several monsters and deliver him to a tantric to fulfill a promise. The Vetal turned out to be loquacious, and he made a deal with Vikramaditya – If the King could answer his questions after listening to a story he narrated during the walk, then the Vetal would fly back to his original hideout. If he could not or did not, then he would stick around.

A page from Chandamama
The stories were particularly interesting revolving around kings, queens, commoners, princesses and a host of issues – ethics, morals, love, courage, dishonesty etc.  The conundrum at the end of each story was particularly thought provoking and the King usually had his quick correct answer ready which he blabbered out which had the Vetal laughing all the way back to the tree!
The original tales which are 24 in number are as old as older than the 11th century –incorporated in the Kathā-Sarit-Sāgara ("Ocean of the Streams of Story"), which is a work in Sanskrit compiled by Somadeva. Sir Richard Francis Burton adapted these stories in his translated English compilation of 11 tales in his largely fictitious work Vikram and the Vampire. I recently read this adaptation and found it to be highly intriguing and I almost thought I was reading the original stories. Next on my reading list would be the more original 22 Goblins by Arthur W Ryder.
The King did not continue his cycle of walking up and down with the Vetal for eternity like I once used to think seeing the Chandamama tales never ended! The last or the 24th story had him befuddled with this one tale.  In a kingdom ravaged by war, a man married a princess and his son married her mother, the queen and they had kids. The question to King Vikramaditya was – ‘What is the relationship between the children?’ The discombobulated relationship flummoxed the King and he was unable to answer this question resulting the end of his ordeal and delivering the vampire to the evil tantric.  The evil tantric had hatched a plan to slay the King but was finally outsmarted by clever King Vikramaditya. With this the tales of Vikram and Vetal concluded originally, but like most hallowed classics the legacy lives on with more tales being concocted around the same lines in books and on television.

PS - I was delighted recently to see all the old Chandamamas archived on their website http://www.chandamama.com/archive/storyArchive.htm Loved those enthralling folktales and stories then, loved them now again.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book Review - The Blogging Affair by Manu

I don’t read books such as the one I am reviewing now, but well, it is the author’s first attempt and he did get it published.  There must be something in it after all. So, with such low expectations did I take up reading ‘The Blogging Affair’ by ‘Manu’ and didn’t find it bad!

The author has attempted to write on a sleazy affair, made as sleazy as an Indian sensitivity would permit it to be and woven a tale of lust with the façade of a mystery.  I am not sure what was more important to the author, the sleaze around the story or the story around the sleaze.  If you are getting confused, this book well, is an Indian Irving Wallace or a Clive Cussler kinda tale.  Quite honestly, the mystery is decent and did keep me engrossed with a mysterious blogger being an insane murderer.  The blogs were engaging too and the investigation process well described.  Yet another book, where the I was sold on the concept but the execution somewhat questionable.

I am sure there is a sizeable audience that is interested in fiction of this genre. However it is my perception that this audience will probably venture towards known foreign writers rather than an Indian newcomer yet.  Now, had this same author woven this same tale, aka Chetan Bhagat, we might have had a wider audience.  Just give Indians the story, plain and simple without the sexual tones to it and it probably will be openly talked about.  
My verdict – This book is not meant to be a classic or intellectually stimulating which I give higher marks for, but I would give this one a rating of 2.5 to this book for the story and the effort.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review - 7 Secrets of Vishnu by Devdutt Pattanaik

I have always been big on following mythology and folklore around our thousands of Gods and Goddesses.  Along came this book ‘7 Secrets of Vishnu’ by Devdutt Pattanaik which promised to reveal all.  From Mohini to Krishna, this book wanders between folklore, stories as we know them and as we don’t, symbolism in various art forms across the country and tenets of Hindu philosophy.

The book starts off with a chapter titled Mohini. It starts off with explaining that Mohini is none other but Vishnu in female form, then the chapter goes on to various stories revolving around Brahma, Narada, Suka and Shiva with no apparent context with respect to Mohini and ends with a brief paragraph on Mohini’s liaison with Shiva. Now had the author not titled this chapter Mohini, the explanation behind Narada and Brahma falling into ‘Maya’ or the delusional ephemeral world, would have made far more sense.
That aside, I am glad, the author explained the structure of the book at the outset in the foreword since the names of the chapters are seemingly misnomers.  The rest of the book concentrates on the popular tales from the Dashaavtar covering all of them in the remaining six chapters.  Plenty of stories have been woven in around those tales with explanation using more tales!

The war between Deva’s and Asura’s, symbolism around the Goddesses of Lakshmi and Saraswati, stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana have been narrated quite well and heavily illustrated.  The book secures plenty of brownie points with the lovely illustrations of murals, sculptures and paintings from all parts of India.  

Unfortunately, here is the ‘but’ though with respect to the illustrations – But, the captions of the pictures were grossly inadequate, as were the labels.  Perhaps a listing of various temples/locations of the illustrations at the end in an appendix would have really helped curious readers to know where they could actually see the real thing.   Many of the labels seemed quite superfluous too – a spear pointed as a ‘weapon’ or a painting of Matsya avatar (half human half fish image) with a label on the human body part as ‘The human upper body is a reminder of human possibility’.  Sometimes the lotus indicated appreciation; sometimes it indicated affiliation with Kama, the God of Love, sometimes, just something that was held by Lakshmi. It seemed to me, pretty random, that holding a child by a Yakshin, indicated earth’s fertility.

What I also did not like was the stress on ‘domesticated’ consorts of Lakshmi, Sita, Saraswati. About Sita, the book claimed –‘Sita embodies culture which is domesticated nature’, Lakshmi who is not ‘chased’ by Vishnu but who ‘chases’ Vishnu, Lakshmi massaging Vishnu’s feet.  The author did sound pretty chauvinistic to me!

My Verdict - All in all, I would give a rating of 3.5 stars (out of 5) to the book.  I would take away a few points for illustrations not being aptly labeled, titles of the chapters not entirely living upto the content and some seemingly far-fetched answers. However, the positives still override the negatives with a good mix of stories interwoven with the guiding philosophy and apt illustrations. All in all, reading this book was like reading an interesting textbook with plenty of illustrations, stories and learning!

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